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Is That Your True Rejection? by Eliezer Yudkowsky @ Cato Unbound

30 Post author: XiXiDu 07 September 2011 06:27PM

A response essay written by Eliezer Yudkowsky posted at Cato Unbound for the issue Brain, Belief, and Politics:

Is That Your True Rejection? by Eliezer Yudkowsky

Eliezer Yudkowsky suggests that the partial mutability of human traits is an auxiliary reason at best for Michael Shermer’s libertarianism. Take that fact away, and Shermer’s politics probably wouldn’t go with it. Yudkowsky says that his own small-l libertarian tendencies come from the long history of government incompetence, indifference, and outright malevolence. These, and not brain science, are the best reasons for libertarians to believe what they do.

Moreover, we make a logical error when we infer shares of causality from shares of observed variance; the relationship between nature and nurture is cooperative, not zero-sum. One thing, however, is clear: Human genetic variance is tiny, as indeed it must be for human beings all to constitute a single species. Environmental manipulation can only achieve so much in part because of this universal human inheritance.

The lead essay has been written by Michael Shermer:

Liberty and Science by Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer discusses scientific findings about belief formation. Beliefs, including political beliefs, are usually the result of automatic or intuitive moral judgments, not rational calculations. One cluster of those intuitions presumes that human nature is malleable; these usually produce a liberal politics. Another group of intuitions presumes that human nature is static; these tend to produce conservatism. But Shermer argues that humans really fall somewhere in between — malleable, within some important limits. He argues that this set of findings should produce a libertarian politics.

Comments (83)

Comment author: Dallas 07 September 2011 08:20:57PM 5 points [-]

I am impressed that a political dialogue occurred without the throwing of epithets about the motives of the parties involved. I think I might have even... actually learned something. This feels very weird. :)

Comment author: jsalvatier 07 September 2011 08:28:45PM 6 points [-]

Cato Unbound is often quite good.

Comment author: Vaniver 07 September 2011 11:33:49PM 4 points [-]

Really, any discussion where people agree on basic premises can be quite good, and any discussion where people don't has a very difficult time being good. (Though I agree that Cato puts out quality work in general.)

Comment author: Kevin 12 September 2011 05:40:33AM 3 points [-]

This was popular on Hacker News: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2983884

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 07 September 2011 09:11:23PM *  18 points [-]

From the beginning of Eliezer's piece

I think my libertarianism rests chiefly on the empirical proposition—a factual belief which is either false or true, depending on how the universe actually works—that 90% of the time you have a bright idea like “offer government mortgage guarantees so that more people can own houses,” someone will somehow manage to screw it up, or there’ll be side effects you didn’t think about, and most of the time you’ll end up doing more harm than good, and the next time won’t be much different from the last time.

I think there's an interesting congitive phenomenon going on here. If you tell the average Joe that you propose to deregulate some industry or activity, they easily call to mind the potential negative consequences - "they'll just pollute as much as they want now" or "only the biggest companies will buy up the fishing quotas" etc. What the average Joe doesn't think about are the potential negative effects of regulation - unintended consequences and regulatory capture for example. Regulatory capture is a sort of funny case because though the concept was invented by a Marxist (if memory serves), only economists and libertarians seem to think about it. When the average Joe does recognize these shortcomings, they virtually always get to designing a "better" law, agency, and/or policy. For evidence, I offer r/politics, though there's an admittedly liberal slant there (relative to the population).

I'm not sure what is causing this bias or even how to categorize it, but it seems related to how most people respond to the broken window fallacy. Some effects are "seen" and others "unseen", or rather more easily seen and less easily seen (which correspond to something like direct effects and indirect effects), and the average person is much better at anticipating "seen" effects. Something like this is going on in the political case - at least in terms of unintended consequences, but that's not all of it. Regulatory capture occurs, in part, because people in the government are no more or less corrupt than people outside of the government. Most people are quick to suspect private companies of being corrupt, but never a new regulatory agency to reign in that private company. The solution to a government failure is always government. Rarely does the average Joe even ask the question "is the government even good at doing this sort of thing?" At least at the surface level, this looks nothing like "seen" and "unseen." I'm not entirely sure what's going on here, but I suspect figuring it out will help explain political preferences.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 07 September 2011 11:52:44PM *  2 points [-]

The impulse to regulate derives from the human tendency to live in hierarchical societies, such as monarchies. It's been a long time since we developed governments other than monarchies, that work by assuming people are corrupt and constructing a system that makes it unlikely for anyone to be especially oppressed. But our instinct is always to forget that is how our government works, and think our problems can be solved by getting the right person as president, CEO, or whatever.

(Why has no one developed a democratic corporation?)

Exactly the same tendency makes us instinctively think that problems should be solved by having a (problem domain) king who solves them.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 08 September 2011 03:25:11PM 2 points [-]

Yes, but you've merely labeled the tendency. You haven't explained it. I can spin some plausible sounding evolutionary explanations, but what I'm really interested in is the level of cognitive science.

Comment author: Yvain 09 September 2011 12:23:02PM 6 points [-]

If I had to come up with a cognitive science explanation for pro-regulation, regardless of political considerations around whether regulation was good or bad, it would be that failures from too little regulation are obvious, direct, and heartrending (child dies of toxic unproven medicine) and failures from too much regulation are distributed and invisible (child dies of cancer, with no one knowing that a cure sits in a lab somewhere but it's too expensive to license it).

This is because regulation, as a specific action taken to stop a problem, gets to optimize for fighting the most obvious, scary problems in the most direct way - whereas nonregulation, as a null action, doesn't get to optimize for that at all.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 10 September 2011 08:34:34PM 1 point [-]

This is the "seen and unseen" reasoning from my original comment, but something more seems to be going on with regulation. Why are people more quick to point out corruption in a corporation than in a government? Or am I just wrong about this fact? Maybe the seen and unseen reasoning explains the difference in this particular context and in other contexts there is no difference.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 15 September 2011 10:28:29PM *  -2 points [-]

Right now, Virginia is regulating abortion clinics, making them meet hospital standards, in order to protect womens' safety. Yet I don't think there are any known cases of failures from too little regulation in Virginia abortion clinics. At least, I haven't heard any brought up.

Comment author: Unnamed 16 September 2011 04:44:22PM 5 points [-]

Abortion is not a good example to use here since it is often overregulated intentionally by politicians who oppose abortion and want to make abortions harder to get. There is no bias to explain because the policy fits their goal of restricting abortion.

Comment author: Yvain 16 September 2011 08:19:56AM 1 point [-]

Do you mean no cases of failure from too little regulation that couldn't have been solved more cleverly by nonregulatory means, no cases of failure where the "solving" regulation didn't have problems of its own, or just that you literally can't think of any any cases ever of failures from too little regulation?

If you really mean the last, then avoiding modern-day issues so we don't get into a fight, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, thalidomide babies, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill seem like go-to historical examples.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 September 2011 03:33:41PM *  1 point [-]

I mean that I haven't heard anybody in the debate say, "Person X went to an abortion clinic in Virginia, and something bad happened that would have been prevented by these rules." So the impulse to regulate isn't due just to the easy availability of instances of under-regulation over instances of over-regulation.

Comment author: Sewing-Machine 16 September 2011 04:43:08PM 3 points [-]

Presumably "Person X went to an abortion clinic in Virginia, and an abortion happened" fits the bill for a lot of participants in that debate.

Comment author: [deleted] 15 September 2011 11:04:52PM 1 point [-]

There was a pretty notorious case of a bad abortion clinic in Philadelphia: http://healthland.time.com/2011/01/21/philly-abortion-horrors-what-matters-is-how-and-not-when-an-abortion-is-done-says-expert/

Whether the proposed regulation could help prevent similar cases in VA, I have no idea, but if it means more oversight, you know, it seems plausible.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 08 September 2011 01:52:58AM 11 points [-]

(Why has no one developed a democratic corporation?)

They're called cooperatives.

Comment author: michael61 08 September 2011 04:40:14AM *  2 points [-]

other examples, Mondragon Corporation and many private companies have democratic decision policies

Comment author: Yvain 08 September 2011 08:53:49PM *  20 points [-]

At the obvious risk of making this too political (in my defense, everyone else started it), I'm not sure "no one except us ever realizes how bad regulation is" is the real problem here.

In my metacontrarianism post I talked about how when someone discovers a counterintuitive idea that only smart people can understand, they can become very excited and use it as a membership test for the Secret Society Of Smart People, to the point where they enter a Happy Death Spiral and blow it out of all proportion.

(for example, it's easy to think of ways modern Western civilization is better than primitive tribal civilization - more wealth, less prejudice, fewer tapeworms. There are also a few counterintuitive hard-to-understand ways primitive tribal civilizations are better than us - closer family bonds, more attuned to the natural world. And so many intellectuals focus on these to the exclusion of everything else and talk about how Western society is hopelessly corrupt and evil. Where they should be saying "Western civ is great, but not quite as great as the average person might think," we instead get "Western civ is awful." This passes unchallenged because the good things about Western civ like absence of tapeworms have become background noise to which everyone has adjusted. One interesting marker for this kind of behavior is that people still feel contrarian when they say it even though everyone who hears it agrees with them.)

I feel that some aspects of opposition to regulation might be this kind of behavior. There's a large background of successful regulation (like banning lead and fluorinating water and not dumping trash on the streets and so on) that no one ever notices (unless they've just come back from a country that doesn't have it!) There's also some highly available examples of regulation that goes wrong. People feel like these must be hard to catch and so can start a death spiral around how intelligent they are to notice.

So my explanation for why so many people don't understand that regulation is bad would be that this lack of understanding is not an actual phenomenon that exists in the real world. The US House of Representatives is currently dominated by a movement entirely based on eliminating as many regulations as possible as loudly as possible, and even their opponents pay lip service to the same ideas. This is another one of those cases where people say something everyone agrees with but still consider themselves "contrarian", which as I mentioned above makes me suspicious of a signaling effort.

I think the problem is less that no one understands regulation can be bad, than that talking about how no one understands regulation can be bad is a powerful signal.

...which still leaves the question of why most people who assert that they hate regulation support most actual regulation (eg Ron Paul will never get elected). I can think of a few explanations. Most cynically, they back away from their signaling when it has consequences, the same way the anti-Western-civ people would never actually move to a primitive tribe. Less cynically, there may be a status quo bias in which they process "new" regulation differently from existing regulation (though that wouldn't explain why people tend to support a lot of new regulation too). I think most plausibly it's a difference between Near and Far mode reasoning - regulation in the abstract is Far, any specific law is Near - and neither mode is necessarily "better" than the other.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 08 September 2011 09:51:32PM *  2 points [-]

(I was carefully trying to not sound like "us vs. them." Did that not come through?)

The only reason I think I partially disagree is that the reason many of the people who are against regulation are actually, well, against regulation, isn't because they've thought about the potential negative consequences. They'll cite things like freedom or a disdain communism, etc. And on the opposite political issues (e.g. military interventionism) they are more likely to be in favor of government heavy solutions.

With that being said, your point is duly noted. There are probably more people who are against regulation because they see potential negative consequences than my comment acknowledged.

Comment author: michael61 09 September 2011 02:58:10AM *  0 points [-]

In my view signalling a strong view for or against regulation suggests the need to properly think through the idea of contexts. The situation in which a regulation is applied is essential to determining its usefulness. For example; in my business we have had serious and expensive problems with substandard copper pipe imported from under-regulated manufacturers. Short term cost advantages turned into long term cost disadvantages. The difference at the initial construction end was less than $500.00. A re-pipe, in a condominium development costs between $50,000 and $100,000 per unit. In this case deregulation didn’t work. There are many counterexamples, the point I’m trying to make is that unless you are prepared to delve into the specifics the general case for/against regulation is not all that useful.

"most of the time you’ll end up doing more harm than good",

its the most of the time assumption that I have the most difficulty with, what's your base rate?

"and the next time won’t be much different from the last time." seems like an arbitrary application of the planning fallacy, why is it any different if you do or you don't?

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 10 September 2011 08:27:26PM 2 points [-]

"most of the time you’ll end up doing more harm than good",

its the most of the time assumption that I have the most difficulty with, what's your base rate?

"and the next time won’t be much different from the last time." seems like an arbitrary application of the planning fallacy, why is it any different if you do or you don't?

These statements from Eliezer's piece are empirically based (he says so in the piece). So the short answer is, that's where the base rate comes from and that's why this isn't the planning fallacy. (You could challenge the empirics of course).

Comment author: michael61 14 September 2011 07:06:06PM 0 points [-]

I'm not sure, I could do that. I work in a highly regulated business. Urban housing has a range of zoning and technical regulations 90% of which work 100% of the time. The other 10% seen like normal considerations, changes in fashion and legacy issues that are always being resolved. For me a general case for or against regulation wouldn't map on to my experience of the world.

Comment author: Oligopsony 10 September 2011 04:22:59PM 3 points [-]

Regulatory capture is a sort of funny case because though the concept was invented by a Marxist (if memory serves), only economists and libertarians seem to think about it.

There's nothing really funny here: regulatory capture is a theory of how the social democratic mixed economy etc is prone to certain sorts of institutional failure in accomplishing its goals, so of course the various sorts of people who don't believe in that will find it appealing. Likewise, you'll see both Marxists and libertarians readily endorse the idea that the purpose of most welfare provisions is to control and manage the destitute population, and so on. If only economists and libertarians seem to think about it, that's probably because you know a lot more libertarians.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 10 September 2011 08:24:05PM 1 point [-]

Yeah, you're right. I was mainly getting at the fact that marxists are generally associated with the left and the left does seem to be in the group of people that don't think about regulatory capture, but my language didn't really convey that.

Comment author: Raemon 08 September 2011 12:35:25AM 5 points [-]

Regulatory capture is a sort of funny case because though the concept was invented by a Marxist (if memory serves), only economists and libertarians seem to think about it.

I haven't actually heard the term "regulatory capture" before, but the concept of big businesses owning regulators is a pretty universal rallying cry of the left.

Comment author: Logos01 08 September 2011 05:19:20AM 3 points [-]

but the concept of big businesses owning regulators is a pretty universal rallying cry of the left.

And yet I very rarely see progressives or socialists offer up any solution to that other than expanding the power of the regulators.

Comment author: Manfred 08 September 2011 08:46:52AM *  2 points [-]

Well, there's the obvious (though obvious != effective, of course) solution of making it even harder to get hired by a company that does work or the government after leaving a government job, and imposing stricter hiring rules on regulators. This is the idea behind rhetoric about "getting rid of the revolving door."

Comment author: Logos01 08 September 2011 11:55:41AM 1 point [-]

The problem of regulatory capture has very little to do with regulatory-body agents and more to do with the governing body's rules being set by the groups with the greatest interest in them: the groups governed.

Comment author: Manfred 08 September 2011 12:58:44PM *  0 points [-]

"Regulatory capture" describes a state of affairs. If it just meant the basic incentives common to all regulation ever, it would be a useless term. And it causes harm not based on the basic incentives just sitting there, but based on a specific state of affairs existing. To prevent the harm, therefore, anything will do as long as it stops a harmful state of affairs from happening.

Comment author: Logos01 08 September 2011 01:25:34PM 0 points [-]

The thing is, there are methods of establishing regulatory bodies that do not create a governing body beholden to the entities regulated. Consider the Sierra Club, for example; they regulate environmental impact but don't answer to the corporate interests they oversee/certify, but instead to their shareholders/members directly.

Comment author: Vaniver 09 September 2011 01:10:48AM 4 points [-]

Consider the Sierra Club, for example; they regulate environmental impact but don't answer to the corporate interests they oversee/certify, but instead to their shareholders/members directly.

Remember that time someone gave the Sierra Club a bunch of money, explicitly so they would drop opposition to immigration from their platform, and they did?

Comment author: Randaly 11 September 2011 05:54:36PM 1 point [-]

Nope, they didn't. The Sierra Club never, ever supported immigration restriction; the one time it came up on the ballot, it was voted down by a ratio of 3:2. (By, yes, the Club members in an election, not the Board of Directors.) Election results here.

Comment author: Vaniver 11 September 2011 09:04:22PM 1 point [-]

From 1989 to 1996 the position was that immigration should be "stabilized"- i.e. reduced to the level where the entire US's population does not grow. In 1996 the position was changed to neutrality; from 1998 to the present the club has been split on whether or not to oppose immigration (with the majority favoring neutrality).

Comment author: lessdazed 12 September 2011 12:24:21AM 0 points [-]

I assume that any result that close was probably susceptible to being determined by who controlled the wording of the ballot question and the use of official resources in campaigning.

Apparently A was put on the ballot by gathering signatures, and then B was put on with wording designed to counter to it. Apparently the organization's leadership largely supported B. Those are great advantages for B, and it didn't even get more than 3/5 of the popular vote.

Who could vote for A instead of B, when B is a vote for "the empowerment and equity of women" and "...address[ing] the root causes of migration by encouraging sustainability, economic security, health and nutrition, human rights and environmentally responsible consumption"?

Applause, applause.

Comment author: lessdazed 09 September 2011 01:31:41AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: Manfred 08 September 2011 01:57:50PM 4 points [-]

If the Sierra Club had the same impact as a national government's environmental agency, there would probably be lobbyists for the Sierra Club too, and cushy jobs for ex-administrators.

Comment author: Logos01 08 September 2011 02:34:56PM 0 points [-]

Unlike a centralized agency if the Sierra Club fell to that sort of behavior its membership base would move on to other groups.

Comment author: Manfred 08 September 2011 08:19:56PM 3 points [-]

The same argument applies to political leadership under representative democracy - people could just vote for someone better, or, say, vote for someone who will reform the regulators. Political leaders take advantage of things like group identification, imperfect information, monopoly power, and advertising budgets to keep the status quo intact under pretty much all normal circumstances. These options are also available for business leaders.

Comment author: taelor 24 October 2011 06:26:48AM 0 points [-]

Well, there's the obvious (though obvious != effective, of course) solution of making it even harder to get hired by a company that does work or the government after leaving a government job, and imposing stricter hiring rules on regulators. This is the idea behind rhetoric about "getting rid of the revolving door."

Such a policy would require regulators to enforce, who would themselves be subject to regulatory capture.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 08 September 2011 03:09:00PM *  2 points [-]

Yes, but the left (and the much of the right) doesn't usually have much foresight about this happening. They can think through the negative consequences of deregulation, but typically not regulation or re-regulation. If I wasn't clear, that's what I was talking about. They always seem to propose another regulatory solution to regulatory capture without thinking about how this solution will keep from being captured.

(Also, I'm talking about the general public, not the political intellectuals who are typically much more sophisticated.)

Comment author: fubarobfusco 08 September 2011 05:43:07AM *  10 points [-]

"Regulatory capture" does not mean "the concept of big businesses owning regulators". It is, rather, a specific proposed explanation for why this takes place, and why it is likely to take place: namely, people working for and invested in a regulated industry have a greater interest in the outcome of regulation than other citizens do, and therefore are likely to expend more effort to influence the regulators.

Notably, regulatory capture does not explain "big business owning regulators" in terms of the members of either big business or regulatory agencies being unusually selfish, evil, or corrupt individuals. It predicts that you can't fix regulation by installing more honest or virtuous regulators, because the problem is structural rather than personal.

Here's an example:

I, as a human citizen who likes breathing air without radioactive soot in it, have an interest in shutting down coal-fired power plants. However, the magnitude of my interest in shutting them down is much less than the magnitude of a coal plant employee (especially a well-paid one who is also a shareholder!) in keeping that plant running. Coal soot slightly increases my chance of lung cancer ... but shutting down coal plants puts those people out of a job, which is much worse for them than the delta in lung cancer probability is for me. Therefore, any given "coal person" can be expected to spend much more effort on influencing regulators than I will. And if influence is proportional to effort, this means the EPA will tend to favor the views of the coal people and not my views.

However, that said, regulatory capture is part of a broader theory in political economy called public choice theory. And public choice theory has been criticized as not being very predictive; of not having very much in the way of empirical success. Beware the mind-killers, especially when they agree with you!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulatory_capture
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_choice_theory#Criticism

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 08 September 2011 03:30:51PM 2 points [-]

"Regulatory capture" does not mean "the concept of big businesses owning regulators". It is, rather, a specific proposed explanation for why this takes place, and why it is likely to take place: namely, people working for and invested in a regulated industry have a greater interest in the outcome of regulation than other citizens do, and therefore are likely to expend more effort to influence the regulators.

That's not how I was using the term. I was using it as a label for a fact - that over time, the industry being regulated by an agency tends to eventually take over that agency. Public choice economics, whatever it's limitations, is trying to explain this fact. Note that my usage is consistent with wikipedia (link in parent and grandparent):

In economics, regulatory capture occurs when a state regulatory agency created to act in the public interest instead advances the commercial or special interests that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating. For public choice theorists, regulatory capture occurs because groups or individuals with a high-stakes interest in the outcome of policy or regulatory decisions can be expected to focus their resources and energies in attempting to gain the policy outcomes they prefer, while members of the public, each with only a tiny individual stake in the outcome, will ignore it altogether.

(emphasis mine)

Comment author: randallsquared 08 September 2011 12:45:13PM 2 points [-]

It usually goes without saying, but we assume for such examples that the aggregate harm done over all parties is higher than the aggregate good.

The problem here is that the expected utility of acting against coal plants is too small to be worth doing at all. That is, once we solve microtransactions (in practice, rather than in theory), this problem may be much more tractable.

Comment author: scientism 08 September 2011 02:51:22PM 0 points [-]

The problem here is that the only institution that does have an interest in the long-term health of the entire population and does have the ability to overrule the interests of the coal plant owners - the state - is crippled under a liberal democracy because its members only have an interest in being re-elected.

Comment author: Konkvistador 09 September 2011 12:50:19AM *  2 points [-]

Actually I think the state's interest in the long-term health of the population isn't really an enduring feature, its more of a plausibly useful strategy.

A state can reasonably defined as a local monopolist of violence, generally speaking its long term interest is basically to maintain that monopoly. There are imaginable scenarios where this involves hurting the long-term health of its entire population if say the result makes the population more docile or if they improve rent extraction that the state needs to maintain its monopoly ect.

Its even possible to imagine stable states that hurt the long-term health of their citizens so much that they die too fast for fertility to compensate, or rather infertility rates rise until they are sub replacement. Since its easy to import new workers (who may or may not be citizens). The obvious example of this seems to be places where the state relied on the slave owning class and the nature of the work produced by the slaves was so demanding it required constant new imports to maintain populations. A hypothetical (or so I hope) example would be a state using dietary and industrial regulations to ensure that the population as a whole was more docile than average due to hormonal and developmental changes while suffering greater infertility. The slow bleeding of citizens seem easy to replace with hard working first generation immigrants who might not be motivated to cause a fuss over any faults in the system because the system is overall much better than the one they came from.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 08 September 2011 05:08:57PM 2 points [-]

I'm pretty sure public choice theory does not adopt the intentional stance with regards to institutions, and so does not assume that they have interests.