Radimentary

"Everything can be made radically elementary." ~Steven Rudich

Category: Essays and Short Stories

An Apology

Brunoy smiled; they walked on a little way, and Itale broke out afresh, “I admire your patience so much, Egen, – I get cross with them – How do you stay patient?”

“I have nothing but patience to fill the gap between my own ideals and my actual achievement.”

— Urusula Le Guin, Malafrena.

Here’s another idea of Jordan Peterson’s. Why am I afraid of social interaction? I am afraid someone will say to me, out loud, what everyone is constantly broadcasting to everyone else. Listen carefully – they are among the cruelest words ever spoken.

“You are not what you could be.”

Genuine insecurity can and must always be framed this way. It is not merely that others are unfairly judgmental, although this may be. It is not merely that life has been unreasonably cruel, although this may also be. I am not one percent of what I could be, by my own standards, even accounting for all the hardships I have faced.

Speaking these words I finally understand the violent disgust I am frequently overcome with when speaking to strangers and close friends alike. My disgust is two-fold. First, that you are not who you could be – that you have so much potential and have so little to show for it. Second that having achieved just as little, I have no right to judge. It is frustration enough to make a man want to take a torch to the whole world.

This past year I have become accustomed – let’s say resigned – to the boundaries of my own willpower, and that at least is something to boast about! For those boundaries are such that they would induce debilitating claustrophobia in a lesser man. I have learned that I cannot force myself to work creatively for any length of time greater than five minutes, and resigned myself to outputting what could be an hour’s worth of mathematical work over several weeks. I have resigned myself to writing a slipshod 500 words every two months on a blog on which I’d hoped to publish a serialized novel.

And so of course, I hate everyone – myself for not being sufficiently clever, moral, brave, and most of all disciplined. Others – in every dimension I perceive they lack even more than myself. Only a wonderful few, whose lives are filled to the brim with divine struggle, who live in a day what I live in a year, perhaps only these happy few do not waste the very space they inhabit.

This is an apology to all the people I get cross with – that is to say everyone. My greatest hope is that if I finally chisel my way out of the prison of my own akrasia in the next twenty or fifty years perhaps I will have learned some measure of Brunoy’s patience.

The Origin of Hierarchies

I want to retell a central story that Jordan Peterson tells better, because it bears more telling.

Our story begins, as all stories must, in medias res. We were tribes of hunter-gatherers, we began to learn to speak and thereafter to think, but before we opened our mouths our words were already puppets to forces beyond our understanding, forces older than the trees, forces locked in eternal struggle for eons of evolutionary time. The wisest of men recognized these forces, and named them gods.

At first there were many gods for each tribe, and many tribes. As the tribes grew and men learned to master fire and earth, they settled and merged into agricultural towns and cities. As the peoples merged, so too did the forces that drove them, into pantheons of amalgamations of deities, each with many eyes on many heads. Each god represented simultaneously: a force of nature, a set of occupations or orientations, and perhaps most importantly a primordial human motivation or sub-personality. And can we blame them? Near impossible it was to distinguish between the bonfire at the center of town and the fire in their hearts.

But there were too many gods and too many languages and civilization could not survive in such chaos. So the gods set up a tournament, or a dominance hierarchy to bring order unto chaos – or rather these hierarchies were merely the next step in a long tradition of competitions. Lesser gods merged, or submitted, or were abandoned. Two percent of this work was done consciously by exceptional human minds interested in the streamlining of tradition. The rest – as it always had been: some battles played out in literal wars of conquest, some in articulated debate, some through the slow and arduous generational shift of the collective imagination.

When the dust settles, a stable hierarchy emerges among the gods. It is a hierarchy of forces of nature, but more appropriately a hierarchy of values and modes of being. It is not only a hierarchy, but the archetypal one: the one that stands the tests of time. We began in the middle of things but it is time to retrace our steps, to see the origins of this hierarchy and to figure out who the hierarch – the ideal at the top of the hierarchy – is.

The first test was millions of years of natural selection, where a fight between our primordial motivational systems played out in the most Hobbesian manner. At the beginning, when we were mere crustaceans: the strong rose from the weak. Two lobsters enter a dispute, and one emerges the victor, with a permanent(!) change in brain chemistry to show for it. Only in this era was the hierarchy genuinely one of dominance. The hierarch is the one best at winning the game.

The second test was social. Even the basest of mammals engage in play behavior, which is distinguished from mere dominance by the fact that the loser in a game has nonzero power. Two rats wrestle in a pen. The bigger rat can almost always win, but if he wins too often the little guy will stop playing altogether, so he loses the occasional bout on purpose. Already the hierarch begins to understand that “winning” the hierarchy is not a matter of winning every individual game. The most vicious of predators will sheathe their claws and severely handicap themselves to engage in dominance disputes. A cruel and antisocial chimpanzee leader is torn apart (usually literally) by teams of younger males. The hierarch must be good at winning the game, but only in a way that gets him invited back.

The third test was sexual. At some moment after diverging with chimpanzees, human females began to be picky mates. It is hard to overstate the effect this had on speeding up human evolution, and not hard to see why we personify nature as female. Each woman stands in as a embodiment of natural selection, and skims off – insofar as she is able – the top of the male dominance hierarchy. Human leaders were extraordinarily prolific – probably half of all Chinese surnames can be traced back to a handful of emperors. To those at the bottom of the hierarchy, rejection by women meant: “You’re all right as a friend, but I see no reason for your genes to stay in the gene pool.” The hierarch wins the game in a way that is attractive and admirable, and this is not up for interpretation because the capacity to recognize the hierarch is built into us viscerally.

And so here we are: a billion years later, the hierarch – the embodiment of virtue – has been built into our very bodies long before the first human spoke the first word. But with conscious thought we began to articulate, abstract, and manipulate these ideas into being. We told stories of our heroes, and extracted and analyzed until we knew the meta-story of the ultimate hierarch, but what we were really doing was to simply articulate the values we already understood subconsciously. Every superhero movie is the same, and we still pay good money to see the story play out over and over again. The hierarch is the individual who ventures into chaos to save the world.

When we write these stories we are merely articulating the rules of the game we already understood. But it is absolutely wrong to say merely: to articulate these rules is perhaps the most important thing that ever happened, and we know this too! The moment Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God is divine, because the moment of inspiration that leads to any new articulated knowledge is divine. The hierarch is the person who embodies our ideals and then speaks them into magic words – so that others may follow his example.

Another piece of the puzzle is an ancient symbol: the eye on the top of an Egyptian pyramid. The pyramid is the hierarchy, and the eye is at the top, and separates from the rest of the pyramid. The eye – that which can see clearly into the distance, and perhaps even farther into the future – is the element of the hierarchy which faces the ultimate challenge: the failure or corruption of the hierarchy itself. As long as the hierarch cannot see, the civilization is ultimately doomed because no rigid structure can last forever in an evolving landscape. So we have come to the transcendent idea: so long as we are not perfect, the highest value must be the value that transforms our values. The hierarch is the eye of Horus, the spirit which revitalizes a dead hierarchy with new ideas, and in doing so transcends the hierarchy itself.

And the final piece is this: the hierarch is not any given person, but lives in every individual. It brings forth the idea that every human being is created equal: an idea that is patently absurd in the usual sense. As long as there is a hierarchy, each member is unequal and plays a different role within the hierarchy according to their ability. But the top of the hierarchy is the force that changes the hierarchy itself – and it is the right and duty of every human being to play this role too. So long as we are not perfect, the hierarch must be the divine spark which improves the hierarchy itself, and it lies in the heart of every human being.

The hierarch is a triumphant call to being. Learn to win games. Play in such a way as to get invited to play better and bigger games. Test yourself against the admiration of others and the judgment of the opposite sex. Venture willingly into the unknown to save the world. Save the world by speaking the truth, even if your voice trembles. And never sacrifice what you could be, for what you are.

Progress and Divinity

From Yudkowsky on scientific progress:

In Orthodox Judaism there is a saying:  “The previous generation is to the next one as angels are to men; the next generation is to the previous one as donkeys are to men.”  This follows from the Orthodox Jewish belief that all Judaic law was given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai.  After all, it’s not as if you could do an experiment to gain new halachic knowledge; the only way you can know is if someone tells you (who heard it from someone else, who heard it from God).  Since there is no new source of information, it can only be degraded in transmission from generation to generation.

Thus, modern rabbis are not allowed to overrule ancient rabbis.  Crawly things are ordinarily unkosher, but it is permissible to eat a worm found in an apple—the ancient rabbis believed the worm was spontaneously generated inside the apple, and therefore was part of the apple.  A modern rabbi cannot say, “Yeah, well, the ancient rabbis knew diddly-squat about biology.  Overruled!”  A modern rabbi cannot possibly know a halachic principle the ancient rabbis did not, because how could the ancient rabbis have passed down the answer from Mount Sinai to him?  Knowledge derives from authority, and therefore is only ever lost, not gained, as time passes.

When I was first exposed to the angels-and-donkeys proverb in (religious) elementary school, I was not old enough to be a full-blown atheist, but I still thought to myself:  “Torah loses knowledge in every generation.  Science gains knowledge with every generation.  No matter where they started out, sooner or later science must surpass Torah.”

Divinity

Here are two models of divinity, which I will call – at great personal risk – the conservative model and the progressive model.

The conservative model is the one everyone knows. Divinity is that of the unreachable supreme being who instantiated everything. Past the moment of creation, everything is decay – after all, how can creation measure up to creator? This is the “Second Law of Thermodynamics” model of divinity: God is the entropy-less state at the beginning of time. This is also, as far as I know, the model used by all religions that ever existed.

The progressive model is much more uncommon. Divinity is the paradox of creating something greater than yourself. What glory can there be in a defective painting for a perfect artist? This is the “Hikaru no Go” model of divinity – each generation moving closer towards the Divine Move, the Hand of God. This is the Stephen Hawking model of divinity – each generation striving closer to a perfect understanding of the universe, closer to the Mind of God.

I pose three questions about these two models of divinity.

  1. Why are all human religions conservative?
  2. Could we design a viable progressive religion?
  3. Do these models map onto personality and/or political affiliation?

Conservatism

Chesterton’s Fence

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

  • Chesterton 1929 book The Thing

Let’s be clear: what do conservatives want to conserve? The wisdom of the ages embedded in the kludge that is our system of government. It is a mistake to go into the study of government, see a mess of unfairness and inefficiency, and immediately try to reform it without giving it a chance. Let me be clear: that is not to say that government always does things for good reasons. That’s pretty much opposite of what Libertarians believe. It simply means that almost always there are reasons for fences, and you should only tear it down if you figure out why it was built in the first place. Sometimes people build fences, or walls, for bad reasons.

Collective Action vs. Tyranny

Presumably you’re here because you are afraid of the current regime becoming tyrannical. If so, congratulations, you are a libertarian! At least as much as I am anyway. Libertarianism, at least the brand that I practice, is about constant vigilance: whenever the government does anything, it takes a little more power and we are that much closer to the George III who we fought a war to escape. Republicans like to say that America was founded on Christian principles – there is a grain of truth but it’s mostly nonsense. But what is clear is that America was founded on Libertarian principles – the government was set up to fight tyranny. Division of powers, checks and balances, what this means basically is that the Constitution sets up a government which is designed to be constantly in conflict with itself, so that no part can be too powerful.

Let’s start from first principles: if tyranny is so scary, why do we have government? The main reason we want government (which is not the same as how it arose) is to solve problems of collective action. There is a common good or value that everyone wants to protect, but no individual will step up because the cost to themselves is not worth the negligible impact they can have on the whole. Protecting the environment, defending the less fortunate, maintaining peace and liberty. These are absolutely necessary things that we need someone with big guns to step in and handle.

 

So government solves the problem of collective action: but it replaces it with the problem of tyranny. We can think of constructing the perfect government as solving a simple optimization problem. The more authoritarian you go, the higher the danger of tyranny and the lower that of collective action. The more libertarian you go, the higher the danger of collective action failures and the lower that of tyranny. Of course, there are many other orthogonal dimensions to government, but I would argue this is the most important.

Textualism

Gorsuch is a textualist, Scalia was a textualist, I will argue that textualism is the optimal judicial philosophy. We have a body of laws, and above it a Constitution. However, there is always ambiguity and inconsistency among such a complicated and old system – the function of the Supreme Court is  to reduce this ambiguity and inconsistency. The function of the Court is not to administer justice, except insofar as the Constitution is just.

Consistency and clarity are of utmost importance because we need to be able to figure out what is legal or not. Ideally, an interest in justice demands that we have a body of laws from which any individual can figure out exactly where they stand if they make any given action. This should be true even if the laws only tangentially apply to the situation at hand: this is why there needs to be a canonical interpretation to view every statute. Obviously this is a pipe dream but approaching this value is what the Court is for.

Here comes my argument for textualism or originalism: the only canonical interpretation of a piece of writing is the intent of the author. You read a statute, your friend in Florida reads a statute, how can you agree on what it means without communicating, except by each researching what the author would have meant? This is the only way of interpreting law where there is a concrete answer and the only problem is providing an algorithm for determining that answer. Any other interpretation requires an injection of one’s own values into the picture.

Say you’re like me and you have very little respect for the Constitution (it has after all been patched 17 times after release). Why would we want the Supreme Court to enforce unjust laws consistently instead of making their own decisions based on a better moral compass?


I have already mentioned why consistency is a useful value. Another reason, and probably the more relevant one for this class, is to defend against tyranny: whoever gives can take away. When the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade that became the lawful origin of the right to abortion. When the Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodge that became the lawful origin of the right to marry. Liberals were really happy about this right up until the moment Donald Trump was elected.

We need the Supreme Court to exercise restraint and not make definitive interpretations outside the scope of the laws. If abortion had been fought through state-by-state and/or by Constitutional Amendment, it would have been a much harder fight but we wouldn’t be as worried about Ginsburg kicking the bucket.

Let’s be clear: we ended slavery by Constitutional Amendment. Nobody is afraid Trump will bring back slavery. We gave women the right to vote by Constitutional Amendment. Nobody is afraid Trump will take away women’s suffrage. The Supreme Court decided that abortion and gay marriage are legal, and as soon as a contrarian president came in we got in trouble.

Small Countries, Good Expanders

Small Countries

Political scientists have known for a very long time a simple scaling law: smaller nations are better run. To my knowledge, Montesquieu was the first to publicize this matter:

It is natural for a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it cannot long subsist. In an extensive republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation; there are trusts too considerable to be placed in any single subject; he has interests of his own; he soon begins to think that he may be happy and glorious, by oppressing his fellow-citizens; and that he may raise himself to grandeur on the ruins of his country.

In an extensive republic the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have less extent, and, of course, are less protected.

The long duration of the republic of Sparta was owing to her having continued in the same extent of territory after all her wars. The sole aim of Sparta was liberty; and the sole advantage of her liberty, glory.

One can see positive evidence for this law today, most of the highest functioning – at least in the sense of bureaucratic efficiency – are barely visible on the map: here is an arbitrary list I found: Switzerland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands, Austria, New Zealand, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, Canada. The next set of highest: Belgium, Australia, Czech Republic, Singapore, United Kingdom, Slovenia, France, Spain, Japan, Slovakia, Taiwan, Italy, Mauritius, Portugal, Uruguay, Lithuania, South Korea, Latvia, Costa Rica, Romania.

There are a handful of exceptions, but is truly remarkable how many tiny countries there are on this list. I would mention that many of the dysfunctional countries at the bottom of the list are also tiny, but muh narrative…

In any case, it is reasonable to speculate that most of the highest performing nations are tiny, even if the converse is false.

Scaling Laws

I want to suggest that all scaling laws are the same: surface area grows quadratically, but volume grows cubically. In nature, this means that cells cannot be bigger than a certain size, that a elephant-sized ant would need elephant-sized legs to stand up, that there is a natural range of sizes where different types of biological organization exist, and pushing past these size constraints need real feats of ingenuity.

Whereas a single-celled organism can simply wait to absorb oxygen from its membrane, the human body has an entire organ system dedicated to expending energy to transport oxygen throughout its interior, essentially artificially increasing the “surface area” of the human body. A body with a thousand times the mass has only a hundred times the surface area naturally.

What kind of scaling law controls political efficiency? Montesquieu suggests that republics too large will altogether fail due to splintering, factionalism, and self-interest. History has already borne witness to the falsehood of this original idea, but it contains at least a grain of truth.

Good Expanders

I think bureaucratic efficiency is directly tied to the connectivity of the social network. In some sense, the relevant scaling law is: smaller countries are better connected. What does this mean? Is it just a corollary of the one true scaling law I described already?

You might define connectivity as average degree – then I think the scaling law must be false. People generally have some bounded number of friends and acquaintances, the number and strength of which doesn’t vary depending on the size of the nation they live in. There is no nation so small that this constrains significantly the size of a person’s contact list.

The sophisticated notion of connectivity is expansion, which is closely related to the notion of conductance. A graph is a good expander if every subset has a lot of neighbors outside itself – that is, there are no large, relatively isolated subcultures. Formally, we might define the conductance of a set of vertices as the ratio of edges leaving the set to edges staying inside the set. The conductance of the graph then is the worst conductance of all its subsets (other than the very big ones). A good expander is a graph with high conductance, so that every subset has lots of edges leaving it.

Why is this a useful notion of connectivity and how might it relate to politics or efficiency? The basic and important property of expanders is that they act like sparse random graphs – in particular, random walks on expanders converge rapidly to uniform. One corollary: information (or any other resource we’re trying to spread: values, amenities, culture) spreads quickly and uniformly across an expander. In contrast, with bad expanders information will get stuck in “bottlenecks” of low conductance for long periods of time.

Then I propose that the law of scaling for conductance is: conductance grows like perimeter/area, which will generally depend inversely on the size of the nation grows.

Double the area of a nation. The number of people multiplies roughly by four, and so too the number of edges in the social network multiplies by four. However, the length of the border of the nation only doubles, so in net the larger nation is relatively better isolated from its neighbors due to geography. The same argument applies to any geographically contiguous region inside the nation – as these get larger, they also get paradoxically more isolated from the other. As long as social networks are bounded degree and tied to geography in a serious way, this is a simple artifact of our original scaling law one dimension down: perimeter grows linearly and area grows quadratically. It is no wonder that bigger nations are more divided.

 

Whom

The boy on the right is strong but cruel. The boy on the left is weak but kind. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right is cruel but strong. The boy on the left is kind but weak. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right knows much but always lies. The boy on the left knows little but always tells the truth. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right loves you, but you hate him. The boy on the left hates you, but you love him. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right has three daughters. The boy on the left has a son. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right’s father hates you. The boy on the left’s mother hates you. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right says “Til death do us part.” The boy on the left says, “For all the days of our lives.” Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right says, “I will wait for you.” The boy on the left says, “Wait for me.” Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right is almost full. The boy on the left is still hungry. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right writes poignant, meandering poems. The boy on the left writes sharp, brusque prose. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right has gone places. The boy on the left has a map. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right points a gun to your head. The boy on the left points a gun to his own head. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right pushed the fat man onto the tracks. The boy on the left was the fat man. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right is a serial killer. The boy on the left is his lawyer. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right taught you everything. The boy on the left learned everything from you. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right believes in God. The boy on the left believes in you. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right is conservative. The boy on the left is liberal. Whom do you marry?

 

On Equality

“For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and
when one prevails the other dies.”

We are taught as first principle that equality is good and an end in itself. This post seeks to complicate that notion. I hope to establish: (a) overall, more socioeconomic equality in our society would be a good thing, (b) equality is not an end in itself, (c) there are situations in which fighting for equality may be actively counterproductive.

I will focus on socioeconomic equality and equality of access to education.

What Kind of Equality?

Let’s begin with two seemingly separate notions of equality: equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. If fighting for equality of opportunity, we want a “level playing field,” then what we want is for everyone to get from birth the same opportunities in life, fight for the same openings, and let the most meritorious make the most money, get the most attractive mate(s), etc. Most people can get behind equality of opportunity.

Equality of outcome is basically socialism: everyone does whatever and then the state redistributes equally. Most people think equality of outcome is dystopian and unfair. People respond to incentives – and by taking away the fruits of their labors they will have no incentive to try, to git gud, to innovate.

Here are two major issues with the idea that we can be for equality of opportunity but not equality of outcome.

The first objection is that outcomes are the only way we have of detecting equality. The constant refrain of progressivism is that if the outcomes of two groups are different, then they must have experienced a difference in availability of resources, social capital, stereotype threat, etc. As long as a field is dog-dominated there must be systemic anti-felinism – if cats and dogs are treated exactly the same how could it be that more dogs end helping blind people?

It is certainly possible to find glaring and systemic inequality of opportunity, but when all the Jim Crow laws are gone and most seeing-eye animals are dogs – what do we do? Do we believe that dogs are biologically or culturally better suited for the job than cats? Do we believe cats temperamentally don’t like the job even though they were given the same opportunities? Or has the source of inequality sunk deeper and less formally into the fabric of the entire pet industry? It seems impossible to tell until blind people really start using seeing-eye cats at proportional rates.

The second objection is that differences in outcomes mean differences in opportunities for the next generation. If my dogs choose freely to go to puppy school and your dogs didn’t, five years later I will have a middle class brood of puppies with upstanding, well-mannered parents and yours will barely be potty trained. If we want equality of opportunity for our kids, we must then want wealth (in as many senses of the word as possible) redistribution for the current generation. Unless we start taking puppies from their parents and let the state raise them all together equally in communal pounds, equality of opportunity is deeply tied to equality of outcome.

It follows that equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are essentially the same thing. Let’s just call it equality.

Why do we want Equality?

One of the great thought experiments from political philosophy is the Rawlsian veil of ignorance:

Parties to the original position know nothing about their particular abilities, tastes, and position within the social order of society. When such parties are selecting the principles for distribution of rights, positions, and resources in the society they will live in, the veil of ignorance prevents them from knowing about who they will be in that society. For example, for a proposed society in which 50% of the population is kept in slavery, it follows that on entering the new society there is a 50% likelihood that the participant would be a slave. The idea is that parties subject to the veil of ignorance will make choices based upon moral considerations, since they will not be able to make choices based on self- or class-interest.

As John Rawls put it, “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”The idea of the thought experiment is to render obsolete those personal considerations that are morally irrelevant to the justice or injustice of principles meant to allocate the benefits of social cooperation.

Rawls says if you didn’t know who you got to be before being born, then you would want a more equal society. Let us examine two examples. We pretend there is no such thing as income for simplicity: people simply start with a fixed amount of money that they slowly spend on stuff until they go bankrupt.

Here are two societies, each with a thousand people and a billion dollars. In society A,one of those people owns all billion dollars. In society B, everyone has a million to zir name.

Clearly society B is more equal and preferable in this situation. Even if you are completely risk neutral, a billion dollars is not worth a thousand times a million dollars in utilons. A billionaire is not a thousand times happier than a millionaire. Because of concavity of utility (i.e. diminishing returns) we definitely prefer society B.

Here are two more societies, each with a billion people and a billion dollars. In society A’, a thousand of those people have all of the wealth – each is worth a million dollars. In society B’, everyone has a dollar to zir name.

Clearly society B’ is more equal – but which would you prefer to be born into? Let’s make the reasonable assumption that owning a dollar will not stave off starvation or homelessness for very long. I would take the one in a million to live comfortably in A’ over the certainty of dehumanizing poverty.

Thus we come onto the following principle:

  1. Equality is only preferable in a world of plenty. Inequality is preferable in a world of scarcity.

For many games in real life, everything is fixed-sum. You cannot imagine the counterfactual to inequality to be “everyone has the same amount of money as the richest person.” That is not a fair or realistic comparison. Would you prefer a world in which you take from a thousand well-off people to make everyone a tiny bit less stupendously poor?

So now, the question is: do we live in a world of plenty?

If you’re just talking about money in the US, then the answer is yes. According to our principle, socioeconomic equality is a great goal in a country where the average wealth is $301,000 (for comparison the median wealth is $44,900).  Although that is by no measure a stupendous amount of money it allows one to live comfortably albeit frugally for something like a decade here.

If you’re talking about money in the world, the answer is not so clear. Entire countries of people would get shafted in the redistribution, and the amount you end up with (estimates within an order of magnitude of $10,000) is hardly exciting.

Of course, there are still many great arguments against redistribution in the US that the thought experiment fails to capture. People respond to incentives and redistribution is the worst incentive conceivable. Also, deciding that an equal world is preferable in a vacuum is very different from saying we prefer to make a currently unequal world more equal by taking people’s property by force.

I hope the point is clear that equality is not always preferable.

Do we want equality in education?

Education is precisely the kind of situation where equality is probably not a productive goal.

First: in terms of educational opportunity, the US is a world of scarcity. Most of our schools and teachers are bad, and there are only a handful of private schools, charter schools, and pricey school districts where one can get what I would consider a passable education. I would prefer today’s US to one in which everyone had to go to a slightly less bad average public school.

Second: the value of education is not concave like the value of money. I would prefer for 1/12 of the population to graduate high school over everyone getting a first grade education. The best educated people are disproportionately valuable to society – not two or three times, but 10^2 or 10^3 times – for the amount of money spent on their educations (I believe – citation or correction needed).

I think this point deserves more attention, especially attention to the goals of the education system. If the goal is to give the populace decent educations so that they can live somewhat better, then some level of equality is a reasonable concern. If, on the other hand, the goal is to create value for the world, and to solve the challenging problems of the day – fix the economy, cure cancer, delay death, combat climate change, automate everything – then we cannot afford to give everyone a small amount of resources and fund each of 300 million people to work on these problems equally. Focusing resources on those who are most keen to learn and solve and already have the (any kind of) capital to make things happen is the way to go.

Third and finally: there are people who learn differently, but also there are people who learn better, and this difference is rarely fixable by any kind of intervention. I think most kinds of education reform that leads to improved average outcomes – say test scores – will also cause more, not less, inequality in education. If you replace a bad teacher with a good teacher, the stupid kids will learn better, but the smart kids will improve more. I predict that most of the countries with higher test scores than the US have just as much inequality, if not more, just shifted up (citation or correction needed).

I don’t think the picture is all that abysmal – certainly educational outcomes do suffer from diminishing returns eventually. There is only so much we can do for any given person to essentially max out their learning, and once this happens it is natural and right to move on to the next person. One day, when the US becomes a world of plenty, it will be time to fight for educational equality. But this is not that day.