Radimentary

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

Category: Essays and Short Stories

The Fruits of Introspection

I engaged in a therapeutic exercise with a friend this Wednesday and discovered a level of introspection I’ve never had access to. This post is about what my mind feels like and a handful of unreasonable and laughable bugs that really hamper my decision-making.

Inside Out

Thinking feels like speaking to me. Whenever I am thinking, it feels like I am speaking to someone in my head. At the back of my throat I feel like I am pushing air through my voicebox in the same pattern as if I were saying those words out loud. If I am in a particularly animated mental conversation, my tongue and lips will move silently, or not so silently. I gesture at the air in front of me as if to better convey the direction, or more precisely, the shape of my thoughts. When something doesn’t come out right I repeat it several times in different ways until it does – this feels like what I imagine stuttering feels like and engenders a bit of embarrassment in me, even when nobody is in the room.

I am always speaking to an audience in my head. The closest thing I can think of is the Greek idea of a muse. Often that muse resolves mentally into the shape of a specific individual, and usually that person is someone with whom I disagree, or someone I am trying to impress or teach something to. In high school, my internal muse was usually my mother, or a teacher, or a girl I was interested in. Nowadays, it is usually my wife or the last person I had a conversation with, or someone I’m preparing to speak with. Usually, but not always, it is a woman. When I have a talk or class to prepare, the audience resolves into a group of people. Much of the time, especially when I’m walking and rambling, the audience is the generic point, the face of humanity at large.

The silent muse never responds. They are silently and condescendingly judging my words from metaphysical high ground. On occasion, when I feel as if I’ve finally seized on the correct line of reasoning or persuasion, I feel as if they have been convinced or defeated. They never admit to as much.

Sometimes I try to predict what other people are thinking or saying. This is difficult. In my head this prediction process feels like I am vocally imitating them right to their face and then asking them if it was a good impression. They never answer that either.

Thinking sharing mental room with speaking has real implications. I think better in absolute silence. When people are talking to me and I’m thinking to myself, it feels like I’m interrupting them – this might explain why I’m willing to interrupt people in real life, because I’m used to the feeling. When music or videos are playing, I often allow it to take over my internal monologue, in which case I’m usually trying to sing along or mouth the words in the subtitles. As a result I watch YouTube videos (except music) almost exclusively at 2x speed, because I speak much faster internally than out loud. Otherwise, I have to think extra emphatically in short bursts, like shouting over a concert.

The process of writing also blurs together with thinking and speaking. I have a weakness for stream-of-consciousness writing – one of the best examples is Anna’s internal monologue on the train in Anna Karenina – and because writing feels like speaking I dislike the backspace key and often prefer to correct myself – or perhaps elaborate – midway through a sentence – even if I might be better served to simply delete or revise. There are kinds of writing that don’t work so well when spoken out loud – I don’t do so well with those. Also, I find it impossible to write believable dialogue that differentiates itself from the surrounding text, because it seems as if everything I write is already dialogue.

I am usually tripping over words in my head, thinking faster than I can put words on the page, my writing style tends towards the frantic, my favorite literary device is asyndeton. Conversely, the way I speak has tended towards stodgy and pretentious because writing is bleeding back in the other direction.

Having described what it feels like in my head 90% of the time, let me turn to two mental “bugs” – roughly speaking – or aversions, which gives me a lot of clarity and optimism about fixing my bad habits.

Aversion to Collapsing Superpositions

When I make a decision like “I will write this paper tonight,” let’s say a decision between two exclusive options for simplicity, in my mind it feels as if I am collapsing the superposition of “I will write this paper” and “I will play Starcraft all evening.” As long as I don’t make such a decision, or don’t really believe myself when I make it, I retain the illusion that I can have the best of both worlds, i.e. have my paper written by midnight while also playing Starcraft the whole time.

Loosely speaking this is closely related to the notion of perfectionism and the idea that it can be paralyzing. The positive side of perfectionism is something like the old adage “shoot for the moon…”, and something like the heady old Eliezer quote (paraphrased): “I know I’m not perfect, but I’ll be damned if I act so imperfect that someone could tell.”

The negative side of perfectionism is that every time you do anything and the result doesn’t meet your expectation – which it never does – reality itself is telling you, “You aren’t what you could be.” That’s the kind of message that makes one dig a tunnel right back into Plato’s cave.

When it comes to decision-making, this perfectionism feels like “if only I were smart enough, I could come up with a way to have my cake and eat it.” I think about that, and I decide to put off deciding until later in case a better third option comes along. Instead what I should do is: make and stick to a provisional decision for now, think about better third options as long as you want later. The right way to fix the superposition overvaluing bug seems to be to value indecision as the average, and not the sum, of the values of the individual choices. Even attaching the emotional weight of the word “average” – ugh! – to indecision is enough to push me in direction of decisiveness.

Aversion to Silence

I’ve been thinking a lot about my inner monologue and its unintended consequences. In turn I realized exactly what it feels like to waste time and why I do it so frequently. I’m thinking about something difficult – a technical calculation or a sentence I’m crafting or human contact – and my inner monologue hits a wall. I’m stuck there and nothing is happening in my head. Instantly, there is a tightening in my chest – my muse is still watching and I’m just standing there silently like an idiot.

The tightening in my chest is followed by the instinct to fill the void with something – small talk, so to speak. This is what I have a dozen time-wasters lined up for at any given time, everything from reddit to Hearthstone videos to shitty fanfics to music. It’s a strange thing to admit, but my mechanism of wasting time seems to be internal stage fright from an imaginary audience, even though I’ve entirely conquered the same anxiety in real life in front of real people.

I frequently catch myself falling back on other people’s voices, and it recalls again a quote of Grothendieck that never stops meaning:

In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still from the perspective or thirty or thirty five years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They’ve done all things, often beautiful things in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they’ve remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birthright, as it was mine: The capacity to be alone.

It was the easiest thing in the world for me to learn to be alone, even in the presence of other people. What I didn’t realize I needed to learn, or rediscover, was to become comfortable being alone and silent in my own head.

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The Proper Unit of Consciousness

One of the core ideas of the West is that the proper unit of consciousness is the individual, but people have forgotten what this even means, let alone how to defend it. This is an essay primarily about why this deeply-ingrained concept is a historically novel idea. The counterpoint, which feels foreign even to formulate, is the idea that human beings are built to be part of something larger than themselves, and insofar as they agree to such a compact to live as a part of a whole they deserve to be treated as such.

A Bit of Perspective

As time goes on, the proper unit of consciousness shrinks. In the beginning, people lived Hobbesian lives filled with drudgery and nothing could be accomplished by an individual. Work was done collectively by the tribe, the civilization, at very least the entire family unit. Identity was shared collectively by family or class or race. Things went slow and people died fast, so to consider human beings as proper individuals was properly preposterous. I think this is a genuinely important perspective that partially answers questions like “why was slavery OK back then but not OK now?” and “why was capital punishment more common and accepted back then?” with answers that are not simple-minded moral relativism.

The construction of the Orvieto Cathedral in Italy began in 1290 and lasted until 1607. Although the time frame was long, it was not unheard of. Notre Dame in Paris took nearly two hundred years to finish. Meanwhile, a European born in the 1200 might expect to live to 40, at best. That means that someone planned the Orvieto Cathedral, then people worked on it for 300 years, and finally ten generations later those plans came to fruition. Meanwhile, even the largest and worst-planned architectural nightmares today take maybe a decade or two to finish, something like a fifth of a human lifespan. We live to see our work completed, and are still young enough to enjoy its fruits.

In 1200, you don’t live to see your cathedral completed, and yet you start working on it anyway. In what sense are you a unit of consciousness? The community lives to see its work completed. The community lives long enough to enjoy the fruits of its labor. Is it not more reasonable then to compare a human engineer today with a whole community of people in 1200?

The essential difference between a human being today and a human being in 1200 is the massive difference in effective lifespan. That we live more than twice as long only scratches the surface of this gap. The invention of comfortable electric lighting doubles the amount of time we can be productively awake. Improvements in health and medicine mean most of that time is not spent in a permanent invalid state of half-life. There is a sense in which wider access to literature and media allow us to live entire gut-wrenching virtual lives in the span of hours. Most importantly, massive technological advances have probably increased the average available leisure time of the homo sapiens by at least an order of magnitude. These same technological advances have multiplied the effective power of individuals a thousandfold, whenever they deign to get out of bed to do something. Of course, it’s quite a big problem that most people have absolutely no idea what to do with this amount of leisure, a symptom of the biological incompatibility of the human being with individual personhood. Nevertheless, among the rare leaders with a combination of personality traits and luck we see what the rest of us could be: a single human being who can do the work required of an entire civilization a few centuries ago.

In Orwell’s A Road to Wigan Pier, he describes the harsh reality of life in the coal mines of industrial England, at least for all but the upper class. Every day, a coal miner’s commute consists of scurrying hunched over in dark, waist-height tunnels for several miles just to get to their posts. The work consisted of an entire day of back-breaking shoveling on their knees, because again there isn’t enough space to stand in those tunnels. The whole time they were covered from head to toe in a thick layer of coal ash that probably contributed to their untimely deaths. The staunchest libertarian today would be singing Lenin’s praises if they lived in Orwell’s England.

So this is the frame of mind: that at one point in time human beings functioned like organs or cogs – and usually willingly to the extent that organs and cogs can be willing – in families or clans or tribes or social classes, and that a great disintegration or break in history occurred when it was finally noticed that human beings had reached a point in our development where a single individual could have by herself all the rights, knowledge, and power of a collective and should therefore be immediately weaned off that overbearing teat. It is closely related to the centuries-old struggle between collectivism and individualism but supersedes, or at least clarifies, it. To flesh out this idea we tackle it from a number of open-ended directions in no particular order.

Culture Clashes

The culture clash I am privy to is the one between the Chinese way of thought and the American. The primary unit of consciousness, I would say, in the traditional Chinese way of thought is the family.

The family has a head and functions as a unit. Children are usually expected to follow in their parents’ footsteps or plans, and usually do. Men and women have fixed roles in the household that are usually followed and celebrated by all parties. The Chinese character 娶 for “marriage” combines the characters 女 for “woman” and 取 for “take”- even the sight of this character still bothers me.

Parents have the right to derive pride from the success of their children, and humble-brag of their achievements as if they were their own. In turn, Chinese children can expect much more to be done for them throughout life – everything from tuition to houses and cars to be bought for them, and to shamelessly be waited on hand and foot by their parents as long as they are healthy enough to do so. Decisions from spouses to purchases to career paths are made communally in traditional families. The family can have loves and needs and personality traits that do not derive from any individual within.

To ask a traditional Chinese family what necessitates all these duties and traditions is akin to asking someone what necessitates the tendons and ligaments that connect his bones – why not let your arms and legs walk away of their own accord? If people live together, and share everything, and depend completely on each other, are they not the same being? If the halves of your brain wanted a divorce via corpus callosotomy because the left brain was too anal-retentive, and the right brain too artsy-fartsy, would you allow it?

Waiving Personhood

I am reminded of an article from the Atlantic, about a slave Lola that an immigrant family brought with them in secret from the Philippines and kept with them all her life. It was impossible for the younger generation, brought up with Western values, to forgive their parents for keeping Lola, and simultaneously to understand her when she decided past all obligations to continue to serve, and that she would grow physically ill when she was forced away from her self-imposed drudgery.

Slavery was the default at one point in time – the word itself derives from an entire ethnic group that was summarily enslaved – and however many unwilling victims there were surely the case of Lola is unlikely to be pathological.

I have always felt that if one believes in human rights, above them all must first be the right to waive your rights. That is to say if you have the right to live then you must have the right to suicide, if you have the right to speak you must have the right to be silent, if you have the right to publicly protest atrocity you must also have the right to silently condone it. And perhaps in the very beginning one must have the right to waive one’s personhood entirely, if one wishes as is commonly the case to less an individual and more a part of something greater than oneself. It is akin to the Chinese idea of 出家, cutting all ties to one’s family to live an ascetic life as a Buddhist or Taoist monk.

All around the world and all throughout time there are people who choose to identify primarily not as individuals but as part of a whole, as slave to a family or master or religion or ideology, and this seems to me to be an exercise in the right to waive your rights. And what is to be done about such people? If someone asked you respectfully to treat them without basic human decency would that be required of you, out of basic human decency?

Mirror Neurons

What is a human being? A modern sophisticate might say that a human being is a certain pattern of neural activity, and that the brain is merely the substrate for the software. But we also know that human beings are capable of empathy and their brains have specially designed mirror neurons to model the behaviors and internal cognition of others.

A man is giving a speech to a crowd of a thousand. Every brain in that crowd has a little piece running a simulation of the man. If the person is the pattern of neural activity, and there is more of that pattern of neural activity being simulated among the crowd of thousands than within the body of the “original” – what is the man? Does he still reside in “his” body? Or is he now a disembodied spirit that possesses a bit of each person in that auditorium?

I hope these are not merely word games. It has been a long and difficult journey for the West, after many false starts and mistimed revolutions, to settle on the idea that the individual human being is the proper locus of consciousness. That when even a single individual’s freedom is sacrificed for the rights of the family or the state or the collective, something sacred is irrevocably lost. But the fight is not over, and it is certainly no rout: there are plenty of other models of consciousness that have held sway over people over thousands of years and require more than an up-turned nose to properly refute.

 

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.