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How should society and government be organized?

The first thing is that we don't need a revolution. Whatever suggestions I make, I don't want a government 5-year plan to implement them all, or some big movement gaining millions of supporters overnight demanding big changes. When I say something would be better, what I want to see is individual people keeping an eye out in their lives for opportunities to do things a bit more like that. And to make changes one at a time. And if something goes wrong, they should backtrack a little, and then figure out what was going wrong and how to address it. A huge, fast revolution is a recipe for lots of errors. More gradual change intermixed with large doses of error correction is the only thing that works.

Gradual doesn't mean slow, exactly. And knowledge can spread a lot faster now than in the past. A book can sell millions of copies, and if you add in all the bloggers, radio shows, and TV shows talking about it, then a lot of people can become familiar with something quickly. The point of gradual, the way I mean it, is not to skip steps -- to progress by small degrees. It's possible (but hard and unusual) for every step to be done quickly. As long as they are all done properly then that's ok. But the focus needs to be on doing things right not on abrupt change. Not improving our society drastically by next week isn't a huge disaster that we must avoid at all costs. We are doing OK. Yes, the sooner we improve the better. But the most important steps in the spread of new ideas are error correction and creating understanding. It's no good to have a revolution for some idea if most of your supporters don't really understand it as well as they should. That isn't going to work out. You'd be much better off to have discussions and debates for longer until people know what they are supporting a lot more clearly. And error correction means we need a lot of criticism before we put some big change into effect. We need to know all the things that might go wrong and address them. One way to get that is to try things one at a time and get criticism of them that way, so a lot less harm can be done by mistakes. Another good source of criticism is the opposition: the people who disagree. Instead of trying to beat them and get your idea implemented, it's much better to welcome debates with them and to get their ideas on what might go wrong, and also to seriously consider whether their suggestions may have advantages.

F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, page 235 (my emphasis):
There is one aspect of the change in moral values brought about by the advance of collectivism which at the present time provides special food for thought. It is that the virtues of which are held less and less in esteem and which consequently become rarer are precisely those one which Anglo-Saxons justly prided themselves and in which they were generally recognized to excel. The virtues these people possessed--in a higher degree than most other people, excepting only a few of the smaller nations, like the Swiss and the Dutch--were independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility, the successful reliance on voluntary activity, noninterference with one's neighbor and tolerance of the different and queer, respect for custom and tradition, and a healthy suspicion of power and authority. Almost all the traditions and institutions in which democratic moral genius has found its most characteristic expression, and which in turn have molded the national character and the whole moral climate of England and America, are those which the progress of collectivism and its inherently centralistic tendencies are progressively destroying.
The virtues are all good, and they all go together. I highlight respect for custom and tradition in particular because some people don't realize it is part of the same set of ideas as the others. Here are some ways they go together. Independent minded people are better at taking initiative themselves. Self-reliant people are better at taking responsibility -- they have to be because they aren't relying on someone else to do it for them. People with suspicion of power prefer to do things voluntarily if they want them done, instead of having some power make them be done. Independent people generally want others to be independent as well and want non-interference to go both ways. Tolerating differences is easier in a culture where everyone takes responsibility for themselves -- if your different idea is a mistake, it's not my problem. Where does respecting tradition fit it? It's because...

Well, why respect tradition anyway? That is because knowledge evolves. There are successive stages with each being a little better (on average). Starting over means losing knowledge. And you don't instantly get something better. It would take a long time to get something better if you throw away what you have. What you have contains lots of subtle and important aspects that you probably don't understand and that you won't instantly replicate.

Consider some old software. If you want to add a new feature it's tempting to do a rewrite so you can do the whole thing in a modern style you like better. But this old software has had years of bug fixes. Those are important. If you start over you'll have to redo all that bug fixing. And there are no guarantees at all the new system will be better. Often rewrites turn out worse. I recently read about some text-and-keyboard based systems replaced with modern graphical interfaces that use the mouse a lot. The result? Takes longer to use the system now (and lots of stuff didn't work).

If you want to have lasting institutions that know more than individual people -- that can improve without limit over the generations -- then you need a culture of people who don't just throw away whatever they don't personally understand and don't always recklessly assume they could do better. Without people like that any good traditions will be destroyed.

What does this have to do with the rest? With individual initiative, voluntary action, and so on? Perhaps nothing directly. But the same sort of people like both, because they are both good things, and they both come from the same kind of thinking: how can we make the world better and seek the truth? Revolutions come from people who certain they are right; forcing your neighbors comes from conviction you know best; individual rights and respect for tradition both come from fallibilism.

And there does seem to be a connection historically. Think of movements, like communism, and the French Revolution, that are very hostile to the status quo, and want to sweep it away and implement their own grand vision. This grand vision is never "individual freedom for all" it has specific things they want for everyone which they believe are best -- it isn't individualistic; it's one single grand vision for everyone. And they'll use force against people who disagree and want something different, including people who want to be left alone.

So that's a glimpse of what society should be like: respect traditions and individual rights and freedom to be different.

Another major issue is the use of force. Force is bad because issues decided by force are not being decided by reason. Force doesn't find the truth. It doesn't make the best result happen. And even if people were being forced to do the best thing that's very inefficient. They don't understand what choices are good to make, so some authority is having to make their choices for them and do their thinking for them. So their minds are going to waste and the authority has a lot of work to do. (And, by the way, if the authority was so wise and amazing it could actually make better choices for everyone then it'd be even more effective making great inventions than just running our world a bit more efficiently than we do.) And if the authority doesn't notice some fact that people who actually have their own lives do notice? Well, the authority is using force not listening to arguments. It already decided this person is wrong. So it won't listen now. It will just make mistakes that could have easily been avoided.

Our society uses force. For many things it does not. But for some it still does. Taxes are forceful. If you don't pay them you do go to jail against your will. You cannot just say "leave me alone". Nor can you say "why should I owe you money when I trade freely with my business parter? What does that have to do with you?"

I don't want taxes to disappear over night. That'd be a disaster. The institutions of our society have knowledge in them about how to run the most peaceful society that ever existed. That's good. They still use some force because using less is *hard*. But I do want people to look towards using less force. We can make some improvements now, and eventually we can eliminate all force and have a purely voluntarist society.

What does our government really do, fundamentally? They run the post office badly, and ban competition. That's just dumb and should be stopped in the months (perhaps a few years) it takes for some private companies to set up mail services and to deal with the existing postal infrastructure (we don't want to just let it got to waste. we don't want to just pick one company and hand it to them for free, although that might turn out better than nothing.) more usefully they run the military. and also ban competition. banning competition there makes more sense. a new post office is no danger to anyone. a new military could be! but they should relax that restriction a little. don't ban all private armed forces no matter what. (actually that is a little relaxed already: private security companies are allowed). instead only dangerous ones should be banned. start with a conservative notion of which ones are dangerous. but until we have a notion of what dangerous is, even a very strict one, we can't start creating knowledge about where the line should be and improving it. (we can create a little knowledge in thought experiments. but that isn't good enough. we need to actually change our society in order to organize thought about real problems from many people and start using the full problem solving power of our society.)

by problem solving i don't mean we would have created a big problem and now we'll be desperate to find a solution. a problem is just something we don't know the answer to, like a question, or something we can make better. problems are good. they mean we've recognized things worth thinking about. they are opportunities for improvement. and problem solving is just creating knowledge to improve the situation we noticed.

What does our government really do, fundamentally? they run certain services like the post office, the military, and law making and police and fire departments and courts and midnight basketball. these vary from no justification to the reason is that it's hard to run without force. that's the fundamental justification. there's also practical reasons. our government has *legitimacy*. any replacement would need to create that too. for something important like police work that's hard. for courts that's very hard. people don't want arbitrary or unfair legal decisions. our government has long history of doing this work and doing ... it's hard to say how good a job is done. it's better than any other organization in the history of the Earth, but much worse than our imagination allows for, and we all know it could be improved in many ways.

why does the government use force to maintain a monopoly? it isn't b/c it has no competitors. while that is true for, say, law making, that isn't a reason for using force! that just means the monopoly would last a while even without force. sometimes people complain we need the government to do the most important stuff. but that's silly: if it's true the government should immediately take over the grocery stores. but our grocery stores function better than most government services. free market stuff usually does. the more important something is, the more reason we should want to make sure the government *does not* do it if at all possible. (like, medicine. letting government play a bigger role in medical treatment is a very bad idea.)

another reason is people want the government to make them safe and solve their problems (like hurricane relief). when a hurricane happens and the government responds about as well as it usually does, people complain about it being mishandled and blame the leaders currently in power. it's not their fault! governments just aren't very good at anything. too many compromises. too little accountability and responsibility (they are playing with tax payer money, not their own. their is no company owner who really cares how things turn out. and no stockholders.). no market forces to help it to improve either. government has also played around with, for example, flood insurance. they ended up rebuilding people's houses who decided to build on the beach. over and over. often rich people. there's a reason private companies didn't want to provide flood insurance in certain places: building houses there is really risky. but people want the government to bail them out even if they make stupid choices like building on the same beach for the 5th time.

there are practical reasons for our government. it's a big organization that can do a lot of stuff no one else can (yet). partly this is b/c it's got a way bigger budget and private companies would be able to do the same if they had the money. but this isn't a fundamental reason. it just means we can't eliminate certain services until some other companies step up. so those companies should start stepping up now. get bigger! we need you Walmart. maybe not Walmart, they have the wrong area of expertise. someone, though. big companies are good. useful. powerful.

what about law making? if not for our government who would decide? that's the wrong question: it is asking who should rule? the right idea isn't to find the best ruler and entrench him. it's to have a system where bad policies are gotten rid of. which we have! a private company could use just the same sort of system of voting and check and balances to make decisions that our government does. there is nothing connecting our democratic system to forceful tax collection and suppression of other organizations that would do the same functions. American Idol lets people vote; a law making company could too if people thought it was a good idea. (quite possibly it isn't good to let them vote on most laws directly because they won't understand the issues well. but it could work out OK if advocacy groups on each side offer explanations. and badly if they just offer propaganda.) at the heart of the issue our government is made up of people supported by some traditions. companies are made up of the same. so fundamentally companies can be just as wise and fair about choosing laws.

but what about having multiple law making companies? how does that work? what if they contradict each other? won't they fight? well, no they won't fight! that'd be insane. it'd cost a ton of money. it'd get people killed. it'd piss off all their customers. it'd cost them legitimacy in the eyes of the public about whether they are dangerous and or to be trusted -- maybe *one* side of the dispute could save face with a very good reason why they fought but at least one is screwed. there are huge incentives to settle things peacefully. to negotiate and form agreements. to find ways of proceeding that all the major parts of society can live with. which is great. that's just what we want to find. today if people disagree with the government they can talk about it but if no one listens they can't do a damn thing -- they will just be forced to go along with it. these companies would be trying their best subject to huge incentives not to force each other, so that's much better. our government tries not to force citizens subject to tiny incentives and tiny accountability. we could have a better attitude towards government force that would improve matters a bit, but as it is many people approve of using force on their queer neighbors.

a lot of legal issues it doesn't matter if different courts disagree. for all contracts you can just write in the contract which court to use (and maybe backups in case they go out of business. or maybe the company itself could specify the backup when it goes out of business). this is good. it means courts with laws people find fairest will get the most business. courts with the best history of enforcing their laws fairly, clearly, understandably, etc will get the most business. i'm mixing up courts and law makers here. one possibility is they would be the same groups. they choose what laws they think are good and provide judges to make rulings according to those laws. but certainly the two jobs could be separated. a group of judges could make rulings according to whichever set of laws they were asked to. that'd work fine. and some law makers could publish what they think the laws should be for anyone to use without ever doing anything to enforce them.

one thing that will happen is a lot of laws won't be enforceable. that's good. if someone smokes pot what will happen? maybe some people want to prosecute them, but they of course have hired the services of an armed force that thinks pot smoking is fine. so now these two police forces have a dispute. if the pro-pot-smoking people want they can say: screw you. we aren't hurting anyone. leave us alone. or we'll fight. and then the law is not enforceable unless you want to fight over it. that's kind of a good thing. laws should only be to prevent force and fraud -- big important things worth fighting over b/c the crime itself is a kind of fighting already. if other laws weren't enforceable that'd just mean we had more freedom. but as nice as that'd be, i don't think that is what would happen. no one wants to resort to saying they'll fight. they'd much rather agree. so they will need to negotiate an agreeable way of dealing with the issue. so in general groups with extreme positions might both agree to let a more moderate party decide. or, anything. figuring this stuff out takes creativity. it's not obvious what the answer should be. but this scenario is better for finding the truth than what we have now, which is one big unaccountable monopoly that doesn't have to find agreement with anyone b/c we think it's legitimate for our government to just use force on anyone who disagrees with a law, even as stupid a law as banning smoking pot.

another reason people say we need government is to solve public good problems. this is a worse reason than the ones about law making and who gets to use force i've been talking about. in those cases there is a real problem, and it's a hard one, and our government does it better than anything else that has ever existed. and our government traditions are wiser than any single person. so it's pretty understandable people that people are very skeptical about changing these things. they should be. we need to be careful not to mess it up. but, as i've been saying, we can do better, we can make institutions that use less force and find more truth.

so, public goods are things that are hard to get people to pay for because people who don't pay would still benefit from having them around, like a umm public bridge that anyone can use, or a dam that controls floods for a whole valley (so if you live in the valley you get flood control whether you paid or not). there's a lot of detail I could go into. it's kinda tedious. for now let's just try ridicule. this isn't an invalid argument. anything that can be made fun of for having massive, stupid flaws isn't very good!

so that bridge. the only reason it's being made a public good is they won't put a toll booth on it to control who goes over it to make sure only people who paid can go. toll booths are pretty cheap relative to the price of a bridge.

and that valley? you can sell the name of the dam, and the schedule of how much flooding you allow when, and you can sell vacations to the lake you created and sell the water you gather. you can sell tours. there's stuff to sell. just cause you can't force everyone you claim you are helping to pay you as much as you feel like asking for doesn't mean the system is broken and we need government force. use some creativity to figure out a business plan that doesn't involve guns. and how do you know it should be built if no one wants to pay for it? maybe they won't pay because you are wasting money.

and you know what? all goods are public goods. partly. and they are also all private goods, partly (by which i mean: you can sell parts of them and only the buyer gets the benefit). like with the dam you have effects on the world that some people might benefit from but not pay for (a "public good" even if some people don't like it so it's sometimes a public bad that you want them to be forced to pay for) and you also have the stuff you can sell exclusively like the tours and name and schedule of flooding. the policy of how to use the thing built is an important issue that can always be sold. but consider some other goods, like a book. writing and selling a book gives everyone a very useful and free public good: the *option* to buy that book. that's a great option to have. it's free. people who won't pay for it get it anyway. so books are a public good. there are also things about books you can sell. you could sell what the title will be. you could sell an advertisement on one of the pages. you could sell which brand of soft drink the character in the story loves. and you can sell physical copies of the book, or electronic ones, and only the people who pay get those things. mixed public and private. everything is. take the sandwich store down the street. very useful. if i want a sandwich on short notice i can get one. that is a service they provide every day. i never have to worry about whether there will be quick food for me. there will be. that's a public good. if you think it isn't, imagine living somewhere with no food stores! even if you haven't eaten out for a year it's good to have the option in case you want to some day. it's worth something to live near them even if you haven't ever used one if your whole life yet. stores also let you walk in and get out of the rain. many you can stay there a while. oh no, a public good! who cares? they like you to come in. they are happy to help. if they said: oh no! government! come help! people are getting free rain protection and refuse to pay! tax them and give us some money! then they'd just be stupid.

*   *   *

I watched The Wedding Date. Spoilers will be included, but don't worry you're better off skipping this movie. She has to go to her sister's wedding which she doesn't want to. But it's a wedding so she has no choice. (Already we can see how enjoyable weddings are.) At the wedding they drink a lot. And they have to take dance lessons. Why would you schedule activities for your party you don't know how to do and don't want to learn how to do? (Maybe the bride liked the lessons, but pretty much no one else.) She hires a male escort to come pretend to be her boyfriend for $6000 out of her retirement plan. That's so she can face her family and they won't insult her life as much. They already are mean to her because her boyfriend of many years dumped her. (Doesn't make sense to me either.) They want her to get married, so having a boyfriend makes them happier.

As usual there are cold feet over the wedding. first the bride "isn't sure she can go through with it" but then decides to get drunk instead of thinking about it. then the groom reconsiders when she finally tells him (days before the wedding) who she had been sleeping with when they first got together. it's his best friend. the same one who dumped the main character who has the escort now. he gets mad and physically assaults the friend who is now his best man. then he uses the male escort as his new best man (the guy has been making friends with everyone). the groom also reconsidered getting married at the last minute over this but then decided to do it anyway.

meanwhile she (the main character again who has to go to this damn wedding) falls in love with her escort, and he with her. her falling in love makes a tiny bit of sense. he was pretty umm mature/stable like he stayed calm and was friendly to everyone and didn't fight with anyone. but like she didn't know him at all. she even said she didn't know him and asked for information about himself. he said his college degree, that he hates anchovies, and something else so boring i forgot. she was satisfied. people like to fall in love with "mysterious" people anyway, even though all that really means is you have no way to tell if this person is any good for marriage or parenting or living with every day or solving problems with. so he did well socially i could understand if she wanted to get to know him more, but not falling in love already. and the other way 'round? no clue. there was nothing appealing about her. she had a bad family life, got drunk and stupid, was unpleasant, never said a single interesting thing, never displayed skill of any sort.

he told her that if he was going to charge for sex he'd tell her in advance. she said she would never do that. then she got drunk and got lots of money from ATM for sex with him. but he didn't charge her. and she was too drunk to remember it. and then he got offended she'd gotten the money. by the way, if she's that drunk, isn't that a bad time to start their sex life? she's not in her right mind making good judgments.

after the money thing their next fight was because he didn't tell her when he found out her ex-boyfriend was into her about-to-be-married sister. she "trusted him" and felt betrayed. he left. then he came back and said he'd rather fight with her than love someone else, or something like that. well, that's good, because if they had two fights in a few days already then what's it going to be like after the initial infatuation wears of? personally i prefer not to fight.

Elliot Temple on July 30, 2007


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