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Alan_Crowe comments on Lost Purposes - Less Wrong

68 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 November 2007 09:01AM

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Comment author: Alan_Crowe 25 November 2007 04:39:08PM 12 points [-]

There is an interesting bias in the way that we approach these issues. We see ourselves as the prisoners of the system not the jailors. Or maybe I should say that we don't like to admit that we are lords as well as serfs.

One political response to the problem of lost purposes is to focus on government coercion which leads to libertarianism. I don't think that we should rush so quickly to a conclusion. First we should examine the origins of the problem more closely.

The key concept is contestability: is there an alternative BA course you can take that does not require mastery of 12 century knitting patterns. This not lead automatically to free-marketry. One can image contestible socialism.

Think about driving licences. Why does there have to be a single agency that issues them. The government could fund two, splitting the money in proportion to the number of licences issued. If queues are too long at one office, drivers will go to the over. It gets rather interesting if the competing offices get to set different driving tests. Do you go for the easy one or the hard one. Perhaps drivers who have passed the hard one get cheaper insurance rates. Perhaps that also tells you something important about the extra preparation being personally worth while, not just a money saving measure.

My favourite example is prison regimes. What do we expect from prison? We could set up a Prison Audit Agency that follows up prisoners 5 years after release to see how they are earning their money. There are many possibilities: professional criminal, dead, junkie, wino, deadbeat, honest employee, honest sole-trader, honest employer.

Imagine that the rehabilitation figures got the same kind of political attention as the crime figures. It would open the door to randomised assignment to different regimes. The hangers and floggers could run one prison, the hugs and therapy crowd another.

My guess is that neither really knows much about rehabilitation, a point that would become very clear a decade on as the figures are disappointing for both regimes. Both groups would be humbled and forced to think harder about what they were doing least their rivals responded more wisely and eventually built up a commanding lead in the results.

School vouchers are another example. Most state supported school systems are designed as pay-twice systems. If you pull your child out, you continue to pay taxes as before, but do not get the money back. You must find a second tranche of funds to pay your child's school fees. So schooling is only weakly constestible.

The curious point is that state power is weakly contestible, leading to poor delivery of services to the voter, who wearies of his political leaders and votes them out of office. Why do politicians favour a system that costs them office?

As we follow politics we see that reforms that make public services contestible, even when they remain in the state sector, are bitterly contested by civil servants. And not just public services. Trade barriers are about stopping the consumer from buying Toyota instead of General Motors, because the auto workers don't want their claim to be building wonderful cars to be contestible.

The 90% of us who are above average will do anything to keep the sunshine of contestibility from illuminating our particular patch line of work and causing our illusion to crumble to dust.

I don't see any hope for a direct attack on our tendency to lose our purposes. We like it that way and will fight to keep it like that. More insidiously we will always see ourselves as serfs not lords. Is there a name for this bias, the one that stops us admitting to ourselves that we are doing it to ourselves?