Monday, January 19, 2015

SETI and Libertarianism

What better launching point for this topic than my previous posting about science fiction Grand Master Robert A. Heinlein, who both lifted our gaze skyward and exemplified what I deem to be an older and far saner form of "libertarianism" than today's culti-like version of the movement.  

Was that a provocative-enough opening?  Well gird yourselves, because it's all about life and destiny and the Galaxy.  There's a whole lot more at stake than just you and me and Earth.  Indeed, it boils down to - forgive me - the nature of Existence

What can the absence of SETI extraterrestrials tell us about human history and politics?

Routinely, I am called a “liberal” or even “leftist” or “commie,” because I denounce the treason-drenched insanity that spreads outward from today's Fox’d American right. 

Anyone who follows me at all chuckles at that knee-jerk response. No science fiction author, for example, speaks at a wider variety of gatherings and political groups, sometimes indeed poking at left-wing shibboleths.  

Indeed, I talk regularly at libertarian gatherings, like Freedom Fest, and once keynoted an LP convention. True, I speak as a heretic, speaking up for Smithian flat-fair-open competition, as opposed to loony-randian solipsism and propertarian worship of oligarchy - the 6000 year sickness that historically ruined markets and freedom.

Still, grant this much even to Rand-Rothbard cultists: unlike conservatives... and many leftists… they still love to argue!  They are probably better than you, in that one respect. They welcome a challenge and keep inviting me back to disturb their incantations.


My article in the latest issue of Cato Unbound discusses "Libertarian aspects of the search for Extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)." 

How's that for a juxtaposition?  In fact, the essay gets to the libertarian aspects only in part 4. Till then, you get a digested version of my JBIS treatise about the current state of SETI -- and recent foolish attempts to "beam messages" to ET.  Come get perspective on our place in the Cosmos!

As for the other aspect in part 4? SETI and... libertarianism???

Well. In the Cato article, I lay out today's SETI/METI debates and the Fermi Paradox... the mystery of why we (so-far) see no sign of advanced alien civilizations.  

I then show how the struggle within libertarianism could be about issues far wider and deeper than most ever bother to realize. Like our galactic destiny.

Just one of many aspects... what if feudalism turns out to be just as compelling a social driver in other species, out there, as it has been in 99% of human cultures that achieved metals and agriculture? Given how repressive almost all feudal-oligarchic cultures have been, and how anti-science, could it be that most fail to spread to the stars because of such a simple -- but darwinistically compelling -- flaw?

In fact, this hypothesis -- that alien races might also be trapped by a cultural attractor state of feudal stagnation -- is only one of many hypotheses for the Fermi Paradox. Others loom just as high... and are discussed elsewhere....

I have catalogued a hundred "fermi" theories.  Frankly, I deem this one to be in the top ten! There are a few others that I rank higher. Go ahead and give the Cato article a look... then comment here. 

Only know this... you are a member of a rare civilization that loves argument, that fosters it.

That may be our trick.  Our Secret Sauce.

We are only likely to make it if we exhibit -- constantly -- the agility and willingness to re-evaluate that are hallmarks of our band of clever, gregarious apes. That is, when we are at our best. Only if we deal with complexity will we gain access to those baubles overhead that we've started to relish, with rising eagerness and ambitious greed.... the stars.

== Following though == 

See also: Models, Maps and Visions of Tomorrow.

PS... this shows that you folks who call me "just another liberal" are dopes.  As are those who try to label me on the other side. 

I can turn my political head. Can you?

It's not my fault that most of you have bought into Political Fused - Spine Disease and can only look in one direction.  When Big Brother can and will try to launch himself from any direction. Any part of the "spectrum" where angry people convince themselves that ends justify means.

Moreover, while I consider today's right to be the sicker and more dangerous treason-to-reason at this moment... that does not make me forget there is a ditzy-far-far-left. They control nothing, certainly not the Democratic Party. But I am old enough to remember the USSR.

Snap out of your dogmas! Our descendants... and possibly the fate of the galaxy... depend on it.
 ==   ==

See more on:


Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dr. Brin,
Who is the physicist you mentioned in your paper on political models? The one who said that you don't really understand an idea if you can't explain it to a nine year-old? I would love to have this quote to show to my students, as I often ask them to redefine science terms in their own word.

Are you familiar with the idea of unconscious transference? It sounds like that is what you were thinking of at the beginning of that paper. If you have seen National Geographic's show "Brain Games" it comes up in the final episode of the first season, explaining why most of the witnesses to a crime identify the wrong perpetrator. Unconscious transference isn't exactly laziness, it is more a result of our flawed memory storage system, though you can get around it to a certain extent by greater vigilance and deliberate attention to details. Still, I'm sure you can have some fun with this one.

Douglas Kral said...

Dr. Brin,

There was an interesting article on climate change and how it may relate to the Fermi Paradox in the January 18 NY Times Sunday Review.

Here's the url:

Duncan Cairncross said...

"But I am old enough to remember the USSR."

What has that to do with the "Left"?

The Russians said they were "communist"
But I could claim to be an elephant with about the same degree of accuracy

Not sure if anybody has tried "communism" but a combination of an elite class lording it over the rest and trying to "plan" everything sounds more like a heavy handed oligarchy than anything else

David Brin said...

DC I agree that the Leninist state hardly resembled any classic Marxist dreams. In many ways, it recreated Czarist era noble castes in a pyramid of (often inherited) power. Nevertheless, there were MANY such states and not one of them failed to tumble into this pattern.

Cuba should have been the best experiment. Castro could have let go and allowed the people to enjoy freedom with their socialism. A pleasant, warm tropical paradise, he had few adverse conditions. And he was popular. Would have won elections... though with the irritation of a strongly critical opposition.

He chose not to give us the experiment and I am ticked off, because a stronger man might have let us see/ Tito tried, under far worse conditions, in Yugoslavia, and managed to keep the pressure cooker of ancient grudges lidded... till he died.

Sorry, but a burden of proof falls upon anyone claiming "socialism's never been tried."

Treebeard said...

Dr. Brin, have you ever thought that maybe this whole idea that human beings – those wonderfully violent and rapacious apes from the Olduvai Gorge, who are intricately and probably inextricably evolved for this planet alone – have a galactic destiny among the stars was a meme implanted so powerfully in your mind at a formative age by priests with names like Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Roddenberry, Sagan, etc., that is effectively your religion?
It’s a nice religion, I like it too, but I try to maintain enough self-awareness to realize when I am becoming as delusional as other believers – such as when I start believing in “galactic destiny” and my role in it, the cosmic implications of the political debate du jour, or making grandiose conclusions based upon something with exactly zero evidence (i.e. SETI).
Anyway, if you ask me, if you really want to conquer space, a “galactic jihad” might be more effective, because it seems to get people a lot more passionate than your typical educated, rational product of the Enlightenment, who quite frankly, could use a shot of passion right about now if they aren’t going to be overrun by the next wave of jihad. Maybe the Enlightenment has done its job, by giving us the scientific method, and now we need to revive or invent new priesthoods so they can do what they do best: inspire and motivate human beings to undertake irrational but great things, like building pyramids or conquering the stars. Carl Sagan was very good in his galactic Judeo-Buddhist-Vulcan way, but maybe what we need now is a galactic Muhammad, or a Muad’Dib?

locumranch said...

Reflexively, I intended to attack this post as illogical pastiche but, after reviewing the attached blue-linked references, I find I can't do that because these arguments appear fairly well-reasoned when taken as a whole.

What I can do, though, is point out the illogical nature of moral assumption, especially those preconceived "good/bad/plus/minus" notions of value that limit us because (first) we fail to question them and (second) we take them to extremes.

Civilisation is one such assumption, considered to be an unqualified moral 'good' by many, as are altruism, selflessness, collectivism, cooperation, democracy and interdependency. Other forms (like feudalism, oligarchy and self-interest) are judged less 'good'; and still others (like the anarchy of tooth & claw) are judged 'not-good' or 'bad'.

Yet, these kinds of value judgments are utter rubbish. Neither good, bad, better or worse, all of the above forms of social interaction are merely OPTIONS like instruments on Swiss Army Knife, each possessing a different purpose, strength or weakness.

In other words, 'Appropriateness' is not a moral absolute. Anarchy has its place. As does Autocracy, Feudalism, Corporatism, Collectivism and Democracy. It would therefore be insane, analogous to trying to drive a nail with a corkscrew, to limit humanity to a single socio-political option.

Morality limits. It does not liberate or facilitate. It is the Faustian propensity for AMORALITY, rather, that will take humanity to the Stars, not 'The Better Angels of Our Nature'.


reason said...

Dr Brin.
Have you ever seen Doctor Who? Because it really is very relevant to this topic.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Sorry, but a burden of proof falls upon anyone claiming "socialism's never been tried."

But it has been tried!
And it works splendidly in the Scandinavian countries

Pure socialism?
Maybe not
But then "pure capitalism" has not been tried either

A mix of the two seems to work best
Capitalism for "Tactics"
(short term reactive "planning" as markets select the fittest)
Socialism for "Strategy"
(Long term pro-active planning/preparation like education and basic research)

As far as the "Communism has been
tried in several countries"

Karl thought that communism was a post capitalistic development
So he expected it in one of the most advanced economies
Britain or Germany (at the time)

Instead we have had effectively Pre-Capitalistic societies becoming "Communist"

Russia, China, Vietnam....

I can't think of anywhere that was an advanced capitalistic society becoming communist

A.F. Rey said...

Cool article. Computer scientists have solved (in CS terms) heads-up limit hold 'em poker.

Robert said...

@Treebeard: Many religious sorts love to claim that science is religion, and things associated with science are religion. Sadly, this psychological construct is flawed. Religion is adverse to change and outside of violent revolution/secessionism it took widespread growth of the Internet to force evolutionary growth of religion.

Science is in a constant state of flux. It has been for a long time. And while it may resist such policies as plate tectonics and the like, when the burden of proof is sufficient to show a viewpoint is correct, most scientists will accept it. This was true before the Internet, and continues to be true with it.

Science is not about faith. It is not about blind adherence. If a scientist says something is true, he or she doesn't say "you need to believe me" and instead shows you through mathematics and reason why something is true. And if he is wrong and is proven wrong with a sufficient body of proof, he will most likely change his or her views.

If someone says something is wrong in religion, you will be patted on the head by the priest or minister and told "you just need to have faith."

tl;dr - science is not religion because science is based on verifiable facts while religion is based on blind acceptance.

Rob H.

Anonymous said...

Science is not a religion. Neither is fast food. Not until stupid people worship and idolize it.

David Brin said...

Duncan the socialism of Scandinavia is Heinleinian. Socialistic for basic needs, but raving competitive for creative endeavors. Marx was brainy. But his just-so story had a hundred minor flaws, maybe twenty big ones and three real howlers. One of those was the notion that “capital” is ever finished “forming”… when we can dispense with Capitalists. Instead, capital must be competitively re-formed at ever faster rates.

Locom is more cogent today. Still;, he relentlessly fails to grasp positive sum. The justifications for maintaining a flat-open-fair social order are NOT wholly based on “goodness” or even the inarguably greater fairness and happiness they produce. The ultimate justification is pragmatic. Feudal societies PERFORM very very very badly. They cater to delusions of individual egotistical leaders who can kill anyone who points out their errors.

In contrast, flat-open-fair-transparent societies with maximum opportunity have outproduced ALL of those feudal societies — combined — and enabled us to foresee a far greater set of future problems to solve in advance, rather than letting them hit us through a wall of delusion. That is precisely why feudalism must not be allowed to return.

Treebeard is more courteous, this time. But jiminy. Star Trek has explored the responsibilities and tradeoffs of a powerful, expanding civilization that does not repeat the predatory mistakes of the Spanish Empire. Herbert’s DUNE series was a WARNING about how awful it would be if we on’t work out our behavior parameters before setting forth.

SteveO said...

I do think Dune was a warning, but boy does it show the *power* of religion! Science requires much of people - we have to think, to grow, and to question on an ongoing basis. Religion (be honest) only requires obedience.

(Ugh am I saying this...?) Locum is on to something when he posits that one solution to staying focused long enough to settle the galaxy might very well be some odious religion/jihad meme. Exactly what Herbert showed - and implicitly an abrogation of our curiosity that, after all, is not present in 100% of adult humans.

Now, having identified the Beast, the way to fight it is to make a society that does question everything and, back to the Secret Sauce, perhaps that is a huge accomplishment of the Enlightenment's experiment in the US and elsewhere - an alternate path to staying focused on a long-term goal. To wit a fractious and irritating constant questioning of everything, including the long-term goal.

It remains to be seen if this is going to work. But I have to tell you, for all its warts and failings, I am really proud of how fast and how far the US has come, and in general its role in bringing others along with it. Horrific mistakes along the way, but mostly helping to make things better for people.

Alex Tolley said...

Completely OT, but I found this v. Interesting.
Reading the Mind in the Eyes or Reading between the Lines? Theory of Mind Predicts Collective Intelligence Equally Well Online and Face-To-Face

Alex Tolley said...

@ Paul Shen-Brown
“If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.” Einstein

Alex Tolley said...

It isn't clear to me that pyramid structures will in any way preclude galactic expansion ( or signaling). The diamond structure is very much a post WW1-WW2 phenomenon and has at least a relationship to economic growth (cf Piketty). I can easily imagine a pyramid structure being in place as we expand into space ( or at least our robots do ).

So while libertarianism might impact the speed and type of expansion, I don't see it as a requirement or even necessarily optimal given the choices we have tried.

The Great Silence probably is explained by the simplest explanation - we are alone as a technological civilization at this time within the observable universe.

David Brin said...

Alex, most (not all) pyramidal systems repressed science. Many banned their subjects from foreign travel since that was destabilizing. Extrapolate.

Alex Tolley said...

@DB true, but the Victorian Age is a counter factual - primarily pyramidal in wealth and income with just the start of support for the very poor. Wealth distribution peaked at the end of that age just about at the onset of WW1. It was still very inheritance based (esp. European countries, less so in the US). However despite its nature (and still chafing when I emigrated from England in the mid 1980's) it was very supportive of the merchant class and the development of scitech. The icon of that age in this sense was the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. The belief in the enlightenment future being better than the past was exemplified by the science fiction of Verne.

You may feel this was an anomaly, or that this era was not like earlier, more rigid hierarchies, even that it was more Libertarian (although few would agree with that characterization of Victorian Britain), but I think that this era shows that hierarchies based on wealth and inheritance could achieve take-off development that could possibly take us to the stars.

Laurent Weppe said...

"Tito tried, under far worse conditions, in Yugoslavia, and managed to keep the pressure cooker of ancient grudges lidded"

Tito deliberately created a system where no one could openly challenge him: as a result, when he died, the only people who had a shot at conquering power were former sycophants with regal envy like Milosevic and technocrats like Markovic who were ill-equipped to face the demagogic onslaughts made possible by the economic crisis.
Après-moi: le déluge is hardly what I'd call a benevolent party line.

Frederic Janssens said...

Dr. Brin,

you wrote :
"We are, after all, barely above cavemen, feeling our way out of a chasm of ignorance."

That offers another way to ponder the Fermi paradox.

Not that there are no advanced civilizations. But that we do not know how to recognize the presence of advanced civilizations. What we do is look for traces of what we now think we could do, or want to do, with our present understanding of what is possible.

There are many symptoms that indicate that our present understanding of what is possible is in a transient, unstable, unsustainable state. So it is not such a big surprise that we do not see what would be the result of a civilization staying for a long time in such a transient state.

The critical aspect of that state is that our abilities to transform our environment, and ourselves, outpaces our abilities to manage the consequences.

So it can lead to one of the many self-destruct modes you catalogued.

Or it can lead to a change in the way we consider our abilities and the way we manage them.

I think that the general direction you indicate in 'Existence', generalized inclusiveness of perspectives, is the way to go. But I think you are not inclusive enough.

I cannot yet formulate a complete argument, but can give some points.

What started 5000 years ago in Uruk is indeed the pyramidal power structure. But it did not appear in isolation, it was part of a set that also included specialization of skills, writing and mathematics. These eventually evolved, amongst others, into science, and an unprecedented expansion of knowledge, and ability to transform. We don't want to loose that. But it is now time to examine what aspect science still inherits from it's common ancestry with pyramidal power structure 5000 years ago. I propose that it is the predominance of abstraction over immediate relationship.
Or, to take the Korzybski formulation, the predominance of the map over the territory. What that permitted in social structure is to think of people not as individuals, but as instances of a function. And in that way to think of, and manage, social structures at a bigger scale than before. But at the expense of 'instrumentalizing' individuals.

The way science inherits from that perspective is still seen as a defining quality : objectivity. Subjectivity must be excluded in order to have a type of knowledge that can be used, with calculable results, on categories of objects. It has been a very successful program, for objects with a low level of subjectivity. But when used for entities with a higher level of subjectivity, such as animals and humans, it gets very near to building tools for 'instrumentalizing' individuals, which is precisely what pyramidal power structures need to keep their preeminence.

So, can science evolve in a way that does not empower 'instrumentalization' ? I think there is. The most 'objective' sciences,
mathematics and physics, have both, around 1930, discovered their own limits of calculability, or ability to 'instrumentalize' . But the scientific, philosophical and social consequences have still not been understood or accepted.
Most physicists still have the goal of a "Theory of everything" that would
keep calculability as central. I think that is illusory. Theories are maps.
Calculable theories are a subset of maps. If we restrict what we are ready to deal with to what is mappable to that subset of maps, we are not dealing with reality, but a subset of reality.

So, consider 'objective' science as a subset of science; and open a new variety of science, 'relational' science, which would no longer try to transform what it studies into objects that we can manipulate with predictable results, but instead try to see how it can establish a relationship with what it studies.

My conjecture is that if there are sustainable civilizations in the universe, they have taken that road; and that if we take that road we will find a way to have a relationship with them.

locumranch said...

Frederic's Fermi Paradox explanation is reminiscent of 'Mimsy were the Borogroves' (Kuttner & Moore). It also suggests that we may surrounded by alien civilisations which we are just to intellectually stupid to recognise.

As for the repressive (and/or 'anti-science') nature of feudal pyramidal systems, who the heck cares??

We already possess sufficient technology to colonise our solar system -- maybe even the stars -- and the only thing necessary to do this that we now lack is typical autocratic will, feudal focus and a disregard for our fellow man.

We could start simple, build a giant Rail Gun, and shoot involuntary volunteers (criminals, the unemployed or unemployable) up to Mars.

Pow. Pow. And our politically incorrect overlords have conquered space with a glorified pop gun.

Render on to Treebeard what is Treebeard's as it was he who invoked Frank Herbert, Dune and Paul Muad'Dib, not I.

Love Logical Positivism & Korzybski, btw

Tony Fisk said...

Obama: "We are fifteen years into this century... it has been and still is a hard time for many. But tonight, we turn the page."

Sound familiar?

David Brin said...

Frederic... very interesting. Though I do not think it can explain the Fermi Paradox. An advanced alien race may differe from us philosophically or psychologically. But if it contains the traits of curiosity and gregariousness, then it will want to talk to others and explore their unique traits. Indeed, the more unlike them we are, the more interesting we ought to be.

Especially if ETs are numerous and varied. Are you telling me that they have squelched diversity within their own culture so severely that there will be no variants who might find us interesting and even our "calculable" fixations?

You seem not to be aware that you have painted a picture of aliens that are "difference" from us... but also monolithic, narrow and selfishly incurious.

If there are many types of ETICs ... and many types of individuals within each advanced race... then you have real problems.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Alex, thanks for the source. I should have known it would be Uncle Albert!

Duncan, please correct me if I am wrong, but it looked to me like you were essentially reiterating George Orwell's contention in "Animal Farm" that communism never really happened. The countries that claimed to be communist were really dictatorships and/or oligarchies that used the idea of communism as propaganda. This is not at all the same thing as socialism, in either the Heinleinian or any other sense. I'm not sure this merits IHTD, it just seems to be a misunderstanding between you and Dr.Brin.

Frederick, your idea about a 'relational' science sounds like it might have something in common with Bronoslaw Malinowski's idea of participant observation. Maybe reading Malinowski might help you formulate your thoughts. I haven't read him in years, so my memories are a little vague.

On Herbert's idea of dealing with our behavior parameters before heading out ad astra, look at the idea that early, more oppressive social systems are merely options in this light. You might argue that any system that allows the species to survive is equally good, but this argument can only really apply under the most dire of circumstances (and even then, it's pretty ify. Many citizens of the Weimar Republic thought they were in the most dire of emergencies, and will be reviled for a very long time for turning their republic over to a petty dictator). People who like the strong man/ruthless dictator approach often think their notions are supported by Darwinian logic, but this is only true if you think Darwin was what Herbert Spencer wanted him to be - a propagandist for robber barons. If you read "The Descent of Man" you get a very different idea than Spencer's 'survival of the fittest.'

“Important as the struggle for existence has been and even still is, yet as far as the highest part of our nature is concerned there are other agencies more important. For the moral qualities are advanced either directly or indirectly much more through the efforts of habit, by our reasoning powers, by instruction, by religion, etc., than through natural selection.”

In other words, our social nature trumps the troglodyte approach. The option of having a powerful dictatorship launch us into space is an option that is only really desired by those who foolishly think that they, personally, will be the dictators (or their cronies) and blithely ignore the ephemeral nature of individual dictatorial regimes. It is an option that oppresses so many of its citizens that conquering the stars in the name of the latest sociopath to bite and stab his way to the top is pretty uninspiring.

Duncan Cairncross said...

"Duncan the socialism of Scandinavia is Heinleinian. Socialistic for basic needs, but raving competitive for creative endeavors."

I would agree with the Heinlein of "Beyond this Horizon"
But not at all like the Heinlein of
"The Moon is a Harsh Mistress"

But I don't think it's actually the case
"creative endeavors" - yes on a small scale
Which PC or which car

On the larger scale most real advances have come from state funded research
And most big changes have also come from state activities
Interstate highways,
Clean water,
Sewage treatment,

As I said
Tactics - short term immediate effect

Strategy - long term planning and investment
State (socialism)

This is not belittling the capitalist contribution - with the best strategy in the world poor tactics will kill you every time

Paul SB - yep that is what I was trying to say
Communism has not been tried
IMHO it does not have a prayer of actually working!
But it has not actually been tried
(unlike supply-side voodoonomics which has been thoroughly tested and comprehensively failed)

reason said...

I'm disappointed that Dr Brin didn't comment on whether he was familiar with Dr. Who, but Doctor Who is basically about repeated SETI experiments, some of which are benign and many of which are potentially totally destructive (well if Dr. Who wasn't around to save the mostly oblivious humans.)

Dr. Who's politics are leftish, but also a bit libertarian, but he always seems to fight an instinct for violent destructiveness and opressiveness that arises when humans are confronted with danger. It really should be quite interesting from your point of view.

Treebeard said...

Alex Tolley and locumranch make interesting points. I’ve also thought that the Victorian-era British Empire, if their civilization had lasted a little longer and not been eclipsed by the World Wars, could have achieved spectacular things in space. The British of that era were nothing if not confident, ambitious, practical and pro-science. Would they have hesitated to build Orion-style spaceships and head out into the solar system to claim everything for Queen and Empire, knowing that each launch might kill a few people due to radiation? Not a chance.

Unfortunately, that era is long gone, and I’m afraid American democracy is a poor substitute for British imperialism when it comes to doing things on a grand scale. Maybe China will bring back that potent combination of imperial ambition and scientific and industrial might. If so, my money is on them to conquer the high frontier. I certainly don’t have much faith in America, which is mired in so many divisions and distractions, and has such weak leadership, that it seems to have little appetite for greatness of any kind.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Agreed that communism was such a flawed idea it never had a chance, if it were actually tried anywhere. Marx's more useful contribution to the discourse was not the blind alley of communism but his relentless focus on the material, turning us away from the sort of naive superstructural determinism that dominated thought and deflected it away from the concrete realities of who owned what.

It seems to me that the 20th Century propaganda war between capitalism and communism has left too many people thinking in simplistic us vs. them ways, which mask the true complexity of our nature. Because communists countries so often claimed to be working for the greater good of all, while in reality were nothing but old-fashioned dictators, people outside the old Soviet Bloc have tended to be so mistrustful of any claim that something is being done for the "common good" that they swing to the opposite extreme, assuming that all human actions have ugly ulterior motives. That nasty, brutish view of human nature is just as wrong as the opposite, airy fairy view. One side insists that human goodness is fake, while constantly benefitting from the products of what in Darwin's day was called "mutual aid" while the other side is constantly being robbed by our darker elements while insisting on the goodness in our nature.

The problem of the pendulum is our perception. A pendulum spends exactly as much time on one side as the other, and exactly as much time at every point in between. Our oversimplifying human minds, however, think that it is either at one end or the other.

Daniel Duffy said...

The Occam Razor response to the Fermi Paradox is simply: "Alien species do not exist, we are the only intelligent species in our galaxy". And it is looking more and more like we are all alone:

Lack of metals:

Indeed, life is dependent on the presence of five critical elements, or metals in the parlance of astronomers: sulfur, phosphorus, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon (or SPONC for short). These heavier elements were cooked in nuclear reactions inside stars and became part of the interstellar medium only when stars reached the end of their energy-producing life. So, as time went by, the concentration of metals in the universe gradually increased.

But here's the thing — these heavier elements only recently became sufficiently concentrated in the interstellar medium to allow life to form. Planets around older stars, therefore, are likely to be low in SPONC. Only around relatively young stars, like ours, can life emerge. So humanity would thus be among the first civilizations — perhaps the first — to arise.

Gamma Ray Extinctions:

According to new work conducted by astronomers Tsvi Piran and Raul Jimenez, the odds that a planet could be hit by a GRB depends on its place in space and time. The closer that a planet is to the galactic core, where the density of stars is much greater, the odds increase. Their models show that a planet near to the core has a 95% chance of being hit by a catastrophic GRB at least once every billion years. Pulling back a bit, about half of the solar systems in the Milky Way are close enough such that there's an 80% chance of a GRB per billion years.

But here's where it gets interesting: The frequency of GRBs were greater in the past owing to lower levels of metallicity in the galaxy. Metal-rich galaxies (i.e. those with significant accumulations of elements other than hydrogen and helium) feature less gamma-ray bursts. Thus, as our galaxy becomes richer in metals, the frequency of GRBs decreases. What this means is that prior to recent times (and by recent we're talking the past 5 billion years or so), GRB extinction events were quite common. And in fact, some scientists suspect that the Earth was struck by a GRB many billions of years ago. Piran and Jimenez figure that these events were frequent and disbursed enough across the Milky Way to serve as constant evolutionary reset buttons, sending habitable planets back to the microbial dark ages before complex life and intelligence had a chance to develop further. Fascinatingly, before about 5 billion years ago, GRBs were so common that life would have struggled to maintain a presence anywhere in the cosmos (yes, the entire cosmos).

The Rare Earth Hypothesis:

One of these resolutions is the so-called Rare Earth Hypothesis — the suggestion that the parameters required to spawn a space-faring species is excruciatingly narrow. It's an idea that was put forth in 1999 by paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee. By synthesizing the latest findings in astronomy, biology, and paleontology, the two put together a list of variables that, in their opinion, make our planet exceedingly rare in the cosmos. So rare, in fact, that it may explain why we may be the only ones out there.

Rarer Civilizations

It's also possible that life is exceedingly prolific in the universe, it's just that civilizations are what's rare. As Webb points out, it's not a given that tool making species are common, or that technological progress, the advent of complex language, and the adoption of the scientific method are inevitable.

Alex Tolley said...

If we get to the stars and our prime directive allows it, we may become the prime "up lifters"

Alfred Differ said...

I’ve never thought much of the ‘socialism hasn’t been tried’ argument. I see it all around me on a smaller scale in the way family groups plan their use of resources and coordinate actions among their members. I usually argue that the socialism of Marx is an attempt to scale up what we humans have done for thousands of generations within our families and tribes, so we’ve had plenty of time to run countless experiments with it at the small end of its range. It works too.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work at the large end of the scale. Even if we ignore the history of attempts to make it work and the misery this caused for 100M people, there are two fundamental, theoretical flaws with it. Von Mises demonstrated a calculation problem that leads to inefficiencies with respect to resource assignments. Open markets might not be pretty, but they offer the only known way to calculate value and assign resources among people who do not share objectives. The folks on the side Von Mises took argue that makes the ideal impossible, but there is a more modern version of the argument that softens the conclusion slightly and argues that it is simply worse than other options we have. If taken in context with how we do economic planning on the small scale, it suggests there is an upper limit on a community size that wishes to use socialism. The cut-off isn’t sharp and is probably best measured by the level of agreement on a community’s objectives for the actions they wish to coordinate. In a purely mathematical sense, resource assignment is probably a linear programming problem, but when one can’t agree on the cost functions against which to optimize, the inherent difficulties presented by the bazillion dimensional matricies that we are forced to simplify don’t even have to be considered.

The other flaw was demonstrated by Hayek and it’s related to the amount and location of the knowledge needed to calculate. The knowledge can’t be centralized in time for a central planner to perform the calculation. Much of the knowledge doesn’t even exist without a market and with a market it only exists at the last moment right before a trade occurs. Science fiction fans who read Hayek’s description of this problem realize the central planners would have to possess FTL and backward time travel to pull off their tasks. Physicists who read it realize the planners need something like a Laplacian Demon. Anyone who argues against Hayek’s view has a serious entropy argument to defeat. They need some magical thinking involving parallel universes where the calculations can take place. Since 20th century central planners of socialists states had no such help, they didn’t stand a chance.

Alfred Differ said...

Locumranch argues other forms of social organization have their place, thus we shouldn’t be assigning moral value to them and that such an effort limits us.

I say nonsense. Our recent changes have liberated us in ways than enable us to keep our children alive. History demonstrates a much higher child mortality rate in the distant past that slowly shrank as our wealth improved. Each cultural experiment produced different results, but recently we’ve tripped across one that VASTLY reduces child death. If I can’t assign moral value to our recent methods based on this fact, I don’t think we agree on what morality is.

Yes, they do have their place. They belong in the dustbin of history. Some of them belong in a hangman’s noose to be dangled before us all as a lesson in what not to do again.

Alfred Differ said...

Locumranch also tosses off the idea that we already possess sufficient technology to colonize the solar system.

Again, nonsense. We possess a vision for how it could be done, but we don’t possess the engineering and biological knowledge to do it yet. We won’t until we get out there and place ourselves in peril too.

It’s easy enough to get stuff out there, but much harder to make it a going concern than people realize. The folks who figure it out will be filthy rich and probably dominate the human gene pool in future millennia.

Alex Tolley said...

Just because communist and socialist systems used command and control economies doesn't mean they must use them. They could used a market mechanism while retaining state ownership, just as mixed economies do with state assets. Giving people incentives to act in their own interests while maintaining principle state control of assets is not antithetical to socialism, even if it distorts the purity.

BTW, even in a command and control world, you can maintain tractability by pushing down decisions to lower levels. This was the idea behind Stafford Beer's design for the Chilean Allende government before it was overthrown by a coup supporting Peron. He wrote several books on the ideas of using cybernetics to make it workable by limiting the decision making at each level to ensure no information overload ( Ashby's Law of requisite

Alex Tolley said...

For a wonderful depiction of an imperial post WW2 Britain dominating space, I recommend Warren Ellis' "Ministry of Space" very Dan Dare, but without the world involvement via the UN. Stephen Baxter used to write some delightful alternative history short stories about British space exploration. Also the novel "anti- ice" about the use of a very energetic material that secures Britain's global dominance, even in space.

Tim H. said...

Been watching the Windows 10 intro at windows , OGH may wish to pay attention to the last 1/4 where holographic are discussed, looks like they have a workable take on "Truview" glasses.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alfred

You are overstating the problems with "planning"

You don't need to "plan" every detail
You just need to have a target to work towards

The free market/capitalism is like evolution it does not have a "plan"
And in the long term it can produce some amazing things

But that is the "long term"

In practice we have people and societies with plans
(Elon Musk and Mars)

This produces "directed" evolution which makes changes happen orders of magnitude faster

So what we have is
Short term optimization

Medium term optimization
(individuals like Elon)

Longer term optimization
Governments, things like
clean water

If we had forever then the market evolution model would work
In actual practice in almost all situations we have some form of "directed evolution"
With the market seeking "local optimums"

Alex Tolley said...

@Duncan - agree with your characterization, although governments don't optimize if they choose incorrect goals/technologies. We have to be very careful of industrial policy that "picks winners". Japan's 5th Generation computing project s a good example of this failure.

LarryHart said...

@Dr Brin,

Are you familiar with the ideas put forth in George Bernard Shaw's "Man and Superman", and if so, do you venture an opinion?

On the one hand, Shaw is quite the 20th century progressive (for one who writes while the 19th century still looks smaller than it is in the rear view mirror), advocating that humanity be allowed to evolve through natural selection without artificial boundaries to reproductive choice such as class membership, religion, race, nationality. His arguments are similar to yours about disputation arenas.

On the other hand, his end goal seems to be that humanity evolves "the superman", which is something along the lines of the perfect oligarch--someone who is more than human, enough to tell us all what to do.

From a modern perspective, it seemed like a strange combination of arguments.

Jumper said...

I agree we need to be careful with the use of the term "planning" when used in political discussions. It's too freighted with suggestive baggage. Alex's term "command and control" economy is way better and crystal clear.

Alfred Differ said...

Alex Tolley:

Socialist systems ARE command controlled by definition. In practice, people retreated from this rigidity toward a softer socialism after WWII because the hard-core socialists lost the economic debate by the 30’s. The softer form was kept in a number of western nations for various reasons, but it is a retreat toward Capitalism and more importantly toward old school Liberalism.

The more you push decisions down to lower levels the more you are accepting Hayek’s Limits to the Use of Knowledge argument. They only thing I can really say is ‘Keep Going. Don’t Stop There.’

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alex
Re-picking winners

If you are goosing the system by helping some companies then you SHOULD have a number of losers

If you are only betting on "sure things" then you are almost certainly missing the big winners

Companies will always be conservative
State funding should be for the stuff that is tooooo risky
If anything state funding has also been too conservative
We have not had anything like as many failures as we should have

Alfred Differ said...

Duncan Cairncross:

If there is no private ownership of property, you MUST plan everything. If you avoid doing that at the high level, people will do it at the low level and invent trade and markets to resolve prioritization problems. If the law says they may not, they will do it anyway.

Don’t confuse the planning a market participant engages in with the planning a central manager does. The central authorities are planning for others and rarely have skin the game. Market participants are using personal knowledge for personal gain and often have much to lose when they commit errors.

I get what you are saying about directed evolution, but I’ll be fair to you and admit that I’d be tempted to shoot someone who thought they were smart enough to do such a thing on a large scale in order to save millions of people from the misery that would ensue. Not only are they not smart enough to do it, they need magical technology to pull it off. They are guilty of a hubris that can kill on a large scale and demolish this wonderful improvement we’ve managed to create.

Evolution produces emergent order in ways that can be easily predicted at the gross level while being entirely unpredictable in detail. It isn’t randomness, but it isn’t deterministic either. It is what humans know how to do without knowing how we do it. Competence without Comprehension.

Frederic Janssens said...

Dr. Brin,

as I did not present a complete argument, your interpretaion is understandable. But it is not the way I see it. I think there is a multitude of 'aliens', and that some of them are interested in what happens on earth. What I suggest is that the mode of communication is 'alien' to us, and as a result very erratic, and when at all conscious, very deformed.
We only perceive what we are more or less familiar with, extended by metaphors. But when what is to be perceived is not perceivable by our 'senses' we tend to suffer from 'metaphoric deformation' : being unable to differentiate the part of the metaphor that is isomorphic from the part that is not.
In my view objective science is, or can be, a stepping stone to resolve that problem. By starting with what is perceivable by our 'senses', make accurate maps (theories) instead of metaphors, extend those maps by internal consistency and experimental validation. Then populate our environment with technical gadgets that incorporate that extended world, such that it now is part of our sensory experience. For instance, we still don't feel most of the electromagnetic spectrum directly, but they are now part of our everyday life. So they can, and do, now serve as bases of metaphors.
The next step would be to understand the implications of QM and GR. For me that means 'relational science'.

Paul Shen-Brown,

yes, it has something in common with participant observation. But it goes somewhat beyond. Even if I don't agree with everything, I have been inspired by what is called 'Symmetrical Anthropology', and more specifically by Bruno Latour.

whom I know through

A recent text from Bruno Latour :
Anthropology at the Time of the Anthropocene -
a personal view of what is to be studied

David Brin said...

Wow Paul… someone who’s heard of Herbert Spencer! Ah, pity Wells and Orwell (Blair) who were “men of the left” who saw only lunatics trying to implement it. How interesting we can have phrases like — “Heinleinian libertarianism” in the same missive with “Heinleinian socialism.” And have it NOT be contradictory! But only for those who can see positive sums.

“reason” I get your “Dr. Who” point and nodded, without need to comment.

Alas, even when he is calm and cogent, Treebeard is 100% wrong. . The British and Spanish Pax imperiums did explore. But they were still repressive in ways and zero match for the American spirit that conquered the freaking SKY, as well as the seas and took us into space.

. And the Chinese imperium - the greatest and most stable, actively repressed outward-looking except under one quirky, idiosyncratic emperor who funded Cheng He… and whose son promptly burned the ships.

DD said: “heavier elements only recently became sufficiently concentrated in the interstellar medium to allow life to form.”

Um… “recently” as in several billion years before Earth was formed.

Yes I know the metalicity vs gamma ray burst tradeoff… likewise Ward and Brownless. Each of these might reduce the number of life sites LINEARLY… but not in a way that explains fermi by itself. I have half a dozen I rank higher.

e.g. the high likelihood that most water worlds are WETTER than Earth and hence unable to make hands-and-fire sapients like us.

David Brin said...

Alfred, Hayek’s point about the number of deciders, ironically, works AGAINST the would be oligarchs who cite him most. There is no way that 5000 conniving, self-dealing and conspiratorial CEO-caste golf buddies are better “allocators” than 100,000 competitive and openly accountable civil servants. Neither is Hayekian. But the golf buddies are un transparent and lie about believing in competition.

See this “classic” laying it all bare:

Alex, Lenin briefly tried to use capitalists to do their Marxian job, under his NEP plan. But he swiftly tired of their noise and had them all shot.

“a coup supporting Peron.” You mean Pinochet.

But the S American hero who used BOTH socialism AND libertarian propertarianism to achieve real miracles has been Hernando de Soto. Look him up!

Duncan it is fitting for a society to have priorities and goals. To lean a thumb on the scales so that markets lean toward some needs and less to others. A carbon tax for example.

LarryHart Shaw was influenced by Nietzche, even if weirded out by him.

David Brin said...

Alfred, Liberal interventions get a double bonus when they have a major Hayekian outcome of increasing the net number of savvy, confident, skilled and empowered 25 year olds who are ready and eager to compete. Programs that enhance this outcome should get support from BOTH goody-goody “liberals” (in the newer meaning) and libertarian-AdamSmithian “liberals” in the older sense of the word.

They may part company over goody endeavors that cannot prove themselves by that standard (or protecting the commons or protecting our descendants.) But that leaves a lot of things like education and health that both (should) agree make opponents purely evil beings, with just one motive, feudalism.

Again see:

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alfred

You misinterpret
Socialism does NOT eliminate private property
(But democracy MUST limit private property - You can have democracy or massive wealth concentration - not both)

Directed evolution is NOT some sort of "master plan" with everything laid out
It's much more what Dr Bin refers to as "leaning a thumb on the scales"

So we have several tasks for society (the keeper of the rules)

(1) Increase competitiveness by ensuring that all possible players are fed and educated

(2) Pull back on those moving too far ahead
(positive feedback system need a governor)

(3) Basic research

(4) Push things that will be to the benefit of all but are currently too weak to swim in the market

(5) Develop and build the infrastructure

Alfred Differ said...


I remember your GAR and FIBM argument from a number of years ago. It had quite an impact on me at the time. Your version of it was the first I read that gave voice to the concerns I had with the modern liberals of the US. I couldn’t yet distinguish the liberals from the leftists, but I knew something bothered me. A couple years later a friend of mine elsewhere heard me paraphrase your argument and pointed out that is sounded a bit like the little he knew of Hayek. The snowball grew from there as it rolled down the hill.

Hayek actually said he didn’t want there to be any Hayekians. He pointed to the difference between Keynes and the Keynesians and how badly those followers understood the one they professed to know. He looked at how badly they were screwing up the world and didn’t want his name attached to a similar movement. From that, I’ve learned to be very suspicious of anyone who thinks they can understand his points and explain them in a paragraph to anyone else. You are right to cite the issue about the number of deciders, but if you dig further into Hayek’s later work you’ll see he argued that the Congress needs to be greatly increased in size for much the same reason. A larger legislature dilutes the power that any one person can wield and makes the purchasing decision difficult for the caste of golf-buddies. The dilution can be undone, of course, with biased operational rules. That just means we have to do what you already know we have to do, though. Pay attention, slap down the cheaters, and then tweak the rules as we learn.

I don’t have a fundamental issue with your inclination to put your thumb on the scale and direct the market a bit, but I’ll admit I’m very wary of giving that power to any group and very skeptical we are smart enough to bias the picking of winners in a way that doesn’t hurt us. There is a big exception, though. Obvious negative externalities should lead to rules that prevent them and market bias that avoids the reward domain for them. I baulk at the hubris people have when they contemplate bias, but have no issue with acting upon the evidence a market produces.

Hayek argued that the best way to use the knowledge people have is for the people who know it to use it directly. By the time it is centralized, much has been lost in an unavoidable reduction of data quality and relevance. He also argued that people who were free to use their knowledge were actually free in the liberal sense. Whether someone could use what they know effectively is a different matter, but when no force opposing them can coerce them into NOT using that knowledge, they are as free as we can be. Only with that freedom do our markets perform as best they can.

You know most of this, though. I’ve hung around here for a few years now even if I don’t say much. Thank you for keeping at this topic and reaching out to people. I wouldn’t be where I am now without that help.

Alfred Differ said...


I’m more of a liberal than I am a democrat. Don’t be too shocked if I have a low opinion of involving everyone in the voting process for determining the actions of our governments. I’m supportive of it at the moment mostly because I can’t think of a better way right now. Democracy and Liberty are not 100% compatible, and when push comes to shove, I choose Liberty.

Soft socialism doesn’t eliminate private property completely, but it highly limits the uses one may choose for one’s property which is much the same to me. If I’m not mostly free to choose, my ownership of property is illusory. Since I consider my own body my property, I get ‘touchy’ about rules that construct those illusions. I’ll accept some limits when the advocates supporting them number more than 90% of the community, but short of that I’d rather my government didn’t have the authority to constrain me.

I understood that you didn’t mean directed evolution as a dictatorial master plan. I’m still inclined to buy a gun when people talk about this though. Most who would support directing things give little thought as to the consequences of failure and the opportunity costs associated with solutions that never get attempted because of their direction. See my issues with Democracy? I don’t care much how popular a particular market bias is if the people backing it aren’t thinking deep and considering options. Very few people do that, so that means the rest of us are guilty of a hubris that can be quite harmful.

Regarding your ordered list of acceptable biases, I have qualms. First off is that I’m inherently distrustful of any ‘keeper of the rules’. Make a plan to rotate them out of office quickly so they face the market pressures created by the rules than kept earlier. They MUST feel the later pain of their earlier stupidity as a controlling feedback.

1) What do you do with the cheaters and leeches? They exist, but who gets to decide who they are?

2) Pull back how? Markets have wonderful correction systems if they are allowed to operate. They are usually black swan events making it hard for all to predict them. This encourages all participants to plan for robustness in their portfolios and anti-fragility wherever they can. If you plan to have people in charge of pulling back, then how do they decide and how to we make sure THEY feel the later pain of their earlier stupidity?

3) Basic Research? Sure. No problem. Adding to the knowledge base of humanity is a no-brainer.

4) Uh oh. No way. Absolutely not. Anyone who thinks they know this is guilty of a dangerous hubris.

5) Ok. No problem. This is social investment, but watch out for corruption and cheaters who would benefit from your good intentions.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alfred

"Markets have wonderful correction systems if they are allowed to operate."
The problem is - they don't
In a free market any tiny variation will end up with a small number of individuals owning nearly everything
For me as an engineer it is obvious that the market has positive feedback the better off you the easier it is to get more

Economists used to think that there was some mechanism that reversed this
One of the things that Piketty did was to show that this was NOT so

The only "wonderful correction system" is government or the guillotine

(4) Push things that will be to the benefit of all but are currently too weak to swim in the market

Just about everything we take for granted now has gone through this process
Commercial flight
Sewage treatment
Clean water

In fact I can't think of anything at all that we have that was not "hatched" by this process

I would be interested if you could think of something that did not have it's initial development paid for by a government

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dr. Brin, I wish a lot more people were aware of Herbert Spencer. Most people think that Spencer's version of Darwin is the real thing, and there are many who reject evolutionary logic based on (mis)perceived amorality. Then you get those who think that evolution necessarily favors brutality and that suits them just fine. Old Charlie D was a much more subtle thinker than that, as are many of today's big-picture biologists. (I'll be teaching this in the next couple months, so it's on my mind.)

What you said about Shaw weirded out by Nietzche reminded me of what I thought when I read locum's latest - that it sounded influenced by Nietzche, or at least, Kevin Kleine's version.

Frederic, thanks for the links to La Tour & Stengers. I don't have time to look at them closely now, but you have piqued my curiosity. My reading list grows!

"reason" I have been a Who fan since I was 14. I love the moral dilemmas it often poses - but then you also get a whole lot of episodes that are nothing but monsters chasing people around, so it is a bit of a mixed bag.

Paul451 said...

As a Dr Who fan, I'm puzzled by Reason's insistence on its relevance to Brin's main post (or specifically to SETI). How is it more relevant than any random sci-fi (not SF) with aliens?

Paul451 said...


Random thought: Proponents of FIBM speak of "creative destruction". But I wonder if we need to switch between them every few decades in order to really get enough creative destruction to receive the benefits of either model?

Not necessarily all at once, in any FIBM cycle there'll be GAR-heavy areas, and vice-versa. But switch the FIBM parts to GAR and the GAR parts to FIBM. The transition process destroys the old order, releases suppressed creativity; then leveraging kicks in and them with power/wealth get more power/wealth and the system bogs down again; so you switch systems to throw everything up in the air again.

A softer form of Madam Guillotine.

Alex Tolley said...

Companies will always be conservative
State funding should be for the stuff that is tooooo risky
If anything state funding has also been too conservative
We have not had anything like as many failures as we should have

I agree governments are often too conservative in their funded projects. US science funding is a good example. We really need more blue sky stuff like NIAC that David is involved with.

Public funding should definitely be for public goods, like knowledge. However the failures occur when governments pick particular technologies that prove poor choices, as they effectively remove competition. We can think of energy infrastructure, choices of nuclear reactor designs, etc. Britain was very prone to this after WW2.

Britain also led the world in exploring the SKY until the mid 1950's. Then some appalling decisions effectively killed Britain's ambitions in both air and space by the end of the 1960's.

To reiterate my earlier point about Socialism. It is about the removal of private property. How you organize this is another issue. The attractor may be command and control, but that isn't a requirement. Decisions can be made at the appropriate level. Bee hives are "socialist" as the bees do not own any assets I the hive, yet the "decisions" about execution are made by the individual. Socialism fails for various reasons, but let us not use straw man arguments to decry it vs capitalism.

As for my error on Peron/Pinochet - mea culpa. My excuse is that I am laying in a hospital bed partly dosed on narcotic painkillers. They tend to cloud the mind somewhat.

Alex Tolley said...

(4) Push things that will be to the benefit of all but are currently too weak to swim in the market

This is problematic. I want to push solar vs fossil fuels, but it is an act of technocratic faith that this is the correct choice. Certainly I don't want to eliminate carbon fuels, although I would prefer they be manufactured to be carbon neutral rather than fossil.
But as we saw with MITI's decision to support prolog as the 5th generation language, it was a huge mistake. I would argue that the US use of the PWR nuclear design was made I good faith, but what a mistake. Similarly, was the space shuttle a technological mistake, or just poor execution?

Markets however do not optimize either. Technology choices are dependent on lots of factors including first mover advantage, network effects etc., all anti-competitive factors. And that is before we get to actual market failures.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Alex, no worries. I managed to tap out Kevin Kline as the German word for little, and I have only run-of-the-mill sleep deprivation to slow my brain down. Hopefully the hospital stay will be brief and infection-free!

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alex

I agree - sometimes the wrong decisions are made

But that is so much better than standing around with our thumbs up our buts!

One of the "Sayings" in industry is that
"The perfect is the enemy of the good"

In other words - just get on and fix it already
Don't wait for the perfect solution!

The PWR was not the best possible (Britain's AGR was better)
But it worked!

"it is an act of technocratic faith that this is the correct choice"

Most of the time any choice is better than nothing

If occasional mistakes are not made it means that we are being too conservative

David Brin said...

Alfred - much wisdom. My “thumb on the scale” should only apply to generalities about which there is strong consensus. Right now there OUGHT to be strong consensus to limit corporations exporting externalities onto the commons and onto our childrens’ future and onto a fragile planet. The re ought to be clear consensus to gradually ramp up a carbon tax so that capitalism gets used to incorporating the tax and those externalities into its calculations. There would be such a consensus in the US — as there is now in Europe — but for the Murdoch-Saudi spin machine.

That said, I think such consensus positions for ‘thumb-pressing” should bear a burden of proof, lest meddling in markets happen to capriciously.

If one bears in mind externalities — owning a home does not mean you can set fire to it, pouring out pollution and reducing society’s capital base — there is one major constraint on private property… stopping it from concentrating so thickly it becomes toxic… as can happen to any good thing — oxygen, water, food.

Above all, inheritance should be taxed steeply at the high ends, to prevent feudalism. Ironically, that is one tax that need never be paid! If you set up a cool foundation whose project will echo your name down the corridors of time. A rich person getting to CHOOSE THAT PROJECT should be the ultimate capitalist reward.

Alex! Feel better soon!

Tacitus2 said...


Regards inheritance tax. As near contemporaries and parents of The Next Generation I suppose we have both pondered having our paperwork "in order" should we be, er, given an unexpected opportunity to understand all the mysteries of the Cosmos.

I respect your privacy and would never ask for details, but have you found the process of designating your financial legacy - and long may it increase! - between family and societal benefit to be an easy or difficult assignment?

Neither of us are in the much maligned "1%" but presumably the goods and chattel we might leave behind have some substance to them.

What would a hypothetical Brin Foundation encompass?

A respectfully asked hypothetical, you deserve your privacy in this and many other matters.


locumranch said...

Making moral judgments is one thing, but assuming (and/or pretending) that morality 'should' or 'ought to' trump objective reality is quite another, and this is what Alfred attempts to do when he dismisses real & present socioeconomic patterns to the 'dustbin of history'.

Furthermore, many of you seem to be confused about the 'fair & balanced' playing field idea which, although a prerequisite for fair competition, does not and cannot represent de facto 'competition' in & of itself because ...

Competition is inherently UNFAIR (as is evolution) as different ideas, societies & individuals 'Duke It Out' in order to identify the superior, winner or survivor.

The very idea of ongoing & persistent fairness within an ongoing competition is patently absurd as is the football match that demands a do-over every time one scores a goal (an 'unfair' advantage point)in order to disadvantage the other.

And, if we assume that our current democratic socioeconomic system does represent the 'Most Fair' in history, then let competition commence, choose the winners, also rans & losers, and may god have mercy on our souls.


Alfred Differ said...

Heh. I suspect a Brin Foundation would continue the work he does here and in other social environments to agitate and advocate. I can imagine little online Brin-bots poking peoples assumptions in a contrarian way. I’d probably offer to help write them too. 8)

Regarding the inheritance tax, though, I’m a little leery. I get Adam Smith’s argument. However, I’m inclined to alter the rules of the markets in such a way as to make the more dangerous purchases unwise. There would be no point buying a government if there was little value returned for doing so. At a fundamental level, I see taxation as a form of sanctioned theft, so I’d rather explore other options as much as possible. When the sanction for it reaches above the 90% support mark, I’ll back down and compromise, but many of our taxes aren’t even close to that. The inheritance tax doesn’t have that much backing, so I think it benefits us to explore the solution space.

Regarding thumb pressing and the burden of proof, I think it is instructive to remember that a legislated rule-change in a market tends to disturb the state of the system and invalidate the objectivity of proofs. They also tend to obscure other possible solutions that come from different rule changes. Thumb pressing can easily lead to poor solutions that work in a limited domain while a number of people can imagine far better options they can’t enact. If those people can imagine and are prevented from acting, they are not free. A good liberal must ask themselves if it is worth it.

Alfred Differ said...


I get your existentialist complaint about ‘should’ and ‘ought to’, but I’m always skeptical of statements about objective reality. My science training taught me it is extremely difficult to know the difference between objective and subjective knowledge. In the end, the distinction is rather arbitrary and related to whether the people involved are following agreed upon customs. Follow them well and we will agree to the objectivity of your evidence.

I’m recognizing the truth of the existence of the other systems and their past usefulness. They would not still exist if they did not successfully propagate (mimetically) down the generations. The moral judgment I pass on them is that they aren’t good enough anymore. We can do better and the evidence is all around us. Obviously, I’m not referring to objective evidence, but I’m still on solid ground because every human can pass these judgments in a manner others can understand. If you can imagine yourself briefly as me, you can probably see why my use of child mortality as a measure works for me.

I am definitely and advocate of the Enlightenment as described by the Scots. I’m less enamored with the French version and sniff derisively at the German version. The failure of the liberal revolutions of 1848-9 can be tied back to non-Scots attitudes among the liberal proponents. Unfortunately, many intellectuals turned away from liberalism all together and invented expansions on the work of Marx. They surrendered their liberal credentials which were obviously week and returned to feudalism. We’ve suffered from their stupidity ever since.

matthew said...

The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has a new(ish) article that may interest this group. "The Psychological Advantage of Unfalsifiability: The Appeal of Untestable Religious and Political Ideologies" sounds like interesting reading from the abstract. Too bad the main article is beyond a paywall.

I'll quote the abstract "We propose that people may gain certain “offensive” and “defensive” advantages for their cherished belief systems (e.g., religious and political views) by including aspects of unfalsifiability in those belief systems, such that some aspects of the beliefs cannot be tested empirically and conclusively refuted. This may seem peculiar, irrational, or at least undesirable to many people because it is assumed that the primary purpose of a belief is to know objective truth. However, past research suggests that accuracy is only one psychological motivation among many, and falsifiability or testability may be less important when the purpose of a belief serves other psychological motives (e.g., to maintain one’s worldviews, serve an identity). In Experiments 1 and 2 we demonstrate the “offensive” function of unfalsifiability: that it allows religious adherents to hold their beliefs with more conviction and political partisans to polarize and criticize their opponents more extremely. Next we demonstrate unfalsifiability’s “defensive” function: When facts threaten their worldviews, religious participants frame specific reasons for their beliefs in more unfalsifiable terms (Experiment 3) and political partisans construe political issues as more unfalsifiable (“moral opinion”) instead of falsifiable (“a matter of facts”; Experiment 4). We conclude by discussing how in a world where beliefs and ideas are becoming more easily testable by data, unfalsifiability might be an attractive aspect to include in one’s belief systems, and how unfalsifiability may contribute to polarization, intractability, and the marginalization of science in public discourse. "

The proof is in the pudding (or experimental construction), of course, but this interests me a great deal.

Also, Fox had on a doctor as a medical expert that railed about anti-vaxxers “You celebrities did not go to medical school!” What?! Fox using an appeal to authority (other than police / military)? Golly, what is next? Listening to a scientist?

A.F. Rey said...

The good news is that the Senate actually passed an amendment, 98-1, that states, "It is the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax.” :)

The bad news is that Senator James Inhofe decided to co-sponsor the amendment. As he said:

“Climate is changing, and climate has always changed, and it always will,” Inhofe said. But then he noted that because the amendment didn’t purport to claim what is causing climate change, it was a harmless “yes” vote for Republicans.

“The hoax is that there are some people who are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful they can change climate. Man can’t change climate,” he said. “I ask my colleagues to vote for the Whitehouse/Inhofe amendment.”

So according to Inhofe, all he did was acknowledge that climate changes. So nothing has really changed. :(

But the good news is that the Senate also voted on an amendment that states, "It is the sense of Congress that 1) climate change is real, and 2) human activity significantly contributes to climate change." It got 50 votes, including those of Republicans Lamar Alexander, Kelly Ayotte, Lindsey Graham, and Mark Kirk.

So while a watered-down, there-is-such-a-thing-as-changing-climate admendment got passed (the Senate decided admendments needed 60 votes to pass), a majority of the Senate still acknowledges that AGW is happening. :)

Although not the majority of Republicans. :(

Alex Tolley said...

Regarding the inheritance tax, though, I’m a little leery. (...).However, I’m inclined to alter the rules of the markets in such a way as to make the more dangerous purchases unwise. There would be no point buying a government if there was little value returned for doing so.

Even without buying governments, concentrated wealth is not a good idea, and may even be poor for economic growth. Taxation is one viable way to prevent it, especially across generations. If Piketty is correct, reducing returns or increasing economic growth above retire returns will reduce concentration. Now if if turns out that wealth concentration reduces growth, then it becomes a potential stable attractor that must be actively counteracted.

David Brin said...

Tacitus. I am in the position to ensure my kids "never starve", but in the literal sense. not the way a rich man would mean that phrase. I have made allowances for pro-bono and pay-forward use of some resources. But if anything is named after me it won't be because of the size of any bequest!

David Brin said...

Locum keeps unintentionally saying things that scream his disability to understand even remotely or in theory the notion of positive sum. For example: “Competition is inherently UNFAIR (as is evolution)…”

Yes, competition is “unfair” in the sense that losing tends to incur consequences that are disproportionate to skill or other fair metrics… in nature and in 99% of human societies… in which the winners would then stomp the losers flat, disembowel them and make damn sure the losers’ kids would never rise up to challenge the winners’ kids. Zero sum – even some negative sum – is the rule in nature and in feudalism…

… but NOT in enlightenment competitive-creative arenas. Which have been invented and relentlessly fine tuned to maximize positive sum outputs and minimize waste and “blood on the floor.” “Fairness” is not just s goody desideratum in such systems, it is a necessity in order to maximize output and waste as little input – especially talent – as possible.

Hence, in markets there are many second chances… and huge pools of economic power are supposed to get broken up (anti-trust)…

…but most of you know all this and explaining it to locum is like explaining Beethoven to a lifelong deaf-mute.

David Brin said...

Alfred, moderate thumb pressing is often the LEAST-meddling way a society can achieve a goal. Once you have altered the ecosystem with something like a gas tax or carbon tax (that is predictably consistent) then capitalism and markets can then innovate and compete based on that constraint and competitive creativity generates good stuff.

Think. This happens to markets ALL the time! As new discoveries make some commodities cheaper and over-use makes others more scarce. If we as a society can look ahead and see such a scarcity coming a generation away, why should we not plan for it by taxing today’s unreasonable cheapness which will simultaneously conserve and incentivize investment in alternatives?

The only other way govt (we, the people) can meddle as effectively is with R&D. All other meddlings are MORE invasive and non-Hayekian.

The notion that markets should be utterly blind to the horizon is loony and Adam Smith said otherwise.


Alfred: indeed, the French and German branches of the Enlightenment show how unlikely our evolution truly was. They participated in the west’s unique rebellion against feudalism… and STILL they fell prey to incantatory Platonism and self-hypnosis and scholastic-idealized elitism. It was just one radically impudent wing of this one unlikely rebellion that glommed onto contingency, falsifiability and pragmatism that created a true breakout…

… in the manner described by Pericles in his Funeral Oration.

Matthew “Psychological Advantage of Unfalsifiability: The Appeal of Untestable Religious and Political Ideologies" -- um… and these people claim they have DISCOVERED this is how people think?

What planet have they been living on, till now?

Alfred Differ said...


I can accept that moderate thumb pressing is the least-worst solution we’ve found so far, but I’m skeptical of calcifying the results as market rules because we are learning so many things so fast lately that I half expect a black swan to waddle into view if we go looking for it. If the thumb pressers can accept sunset clauses on their solutions and not whine too badly when that date arrives, I’d consider it. I’d still want to exclude those who benefit financially from the re-vote for keeping the thumb in place, though.

Regarding the use of foresight, I get your point, but then I run smack into an ethical issue that flattens my nose and gives me black eyes when I imagine myself doing what you propose. If we can look ahead and imagine a particular resource becoming scarce, so can the market participants. They will price the resource accordingly. We’d have to imagine they were very stupid not to do so. If they don’t, we need to seriously consider the possibility that they are correct and we are wrong. Absent subsidies (more thumb pressing) the markets are the best known way to generate that foresight. They are literally predicting the future in futures markets, so we are guilty of hubris if we think we can do better. The markets aren’t blind. Imagining that they are means you might be missing some of the incentives that are driving behaviors.

The worst part, though, is that there is an ethical code that works well with the Scottish variant of the Enlightenment and we are violating one of the rules here. Taxation IS a form of theft, so taxation designed to bias the market runs a serious risk of running afoul of ‘The Ends Justify The Means.’ Our positive sum markets rely upon a level of trust between us all that absolutely depends on participants doing the right thing even when no one is watching or when they might profit doing something else. Do you stop at a four-way stop for an intersection out in the middle of the desert during the day when you can see there is no other traffic coming? If you do, you exhibit the optimal ethics that supports our Enlightenment. If you don’t, no harm done, but you are not as trustable as someone who does… and it matters. I stop.

Regarding our break-out, I get a good chuckle at the analogy I make between inflation models in physics and what happens socially with philosophies. Everything changes at speeds far exceeding the equivalent of the speed of light when a new idea catches fire among us. I don’t understand how we do it, but with the high (and accelerating) participation rate of people on this new-fangled internet thing, I suspect we will see more inflationary pops and zings and are in the midst of the biggest Bang of all.

Alfred Differ said...

I had a 'what planet have they been on' reaction to the unfalsifiability study too. After looking a little, though, I decided they weren't actually claiming to have discovered it. What they are claiming is a way to measure it... which is kinda useful.

This retreat is easy to observe, but at the anecdotal level there is a large risk of polluting the conclusion with the viewers biases. Then you are left with a doubly unfalsifiable observation. 8)

matthew said...

Simply repeating "Taxation IS a form of theft" does not magically make it true. You do not get value from theft, other than maybe a little wisdom. You do get value for taxes. You may not like the value you gain, but in our society, at least, you are more or less free to try and change that value.

sociotard said...

So, King Abdullah is dead. Here's hoping for a peaceful transition. The last thing we need is more power struggles in the region.

Duncan Cairncross said...

"The markets aren’t blind. Imagining that they are means you might be missing some of the incentives that are driving behaviors."

But if you look historically they ARE
or at least they behave as of they are
NONE of the advances we enjoy nowadays were developed by "the markets"

Markets are good at short term optimization but basic science AND EARLY DEVELOPMENT and often initial implementation have historically been done by societies not companies

Just about everything we take for granted now has gone through this process
Commercial flight
Sewage treatment
Clean water

I repeat my challenge

I can't think of anything at all that we have that was not "hatched" by this process

Can you think of something that did not have it's initial development paid for by a government??

Alex Tolley said...

Commercial flight. - private but with govt backing ( military dev & airmail) in US

Sewage treatment
Clean water
Electricity. - private. Discovery, engineering. Edison vs Tesla for standards.

Telephone - pvte alexander graham bell. Previously telegraph also pvte.
Computers - pvte Babbage? ( govt backed) Lots ov pvte dev later before the government got interested. Transistors and integrated circuits - pvte.

Donald Gisselbeck said...

One thing that has been overlooked in this discussion are the things the great and holy free market cannot deal with; e.g. over fishing, antibiotic resistance and exotic species invasion. The only way to deal with problems like these is to have imposed out comes enforced by a world government. (Otherwise we would have lost the great whales: we still could if the predator class gets its way - over fishing krill would do it.)

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dr.Brin, wouldn't mutation be a case of possible positive-sum in nature? Most mutations are harmless, many are deadly, but some create unanticipated benefits (though no matter how many times a radioactive spider bites you, spider powers just aren't going to happen).

Duncan Cairncross said...

Commercial flight. - private but with govt backing ( military dev & airmail) in US
Government developed - private later

Sewage treatment
Clean water
Paid for by government contracts
- private. Discovery, engineering. Edison vs Tesla for standards.

Telephone - pvte alexander graham bell. Previously telegraph also pvte.
This one may be private!!
But it got a lot of government funding to develop

Computers - pvte Babbage? ( govt backed) Lots ov pvte dev later before the government got interested.
Developed for the war - by GOVERNMENTS!
Almost NO private development until after WW2

Transistors and integrated circuits - pvte.
Paid for by government development contracts!!!

David Brin said...

Alfred & Donald etc. Adam Smith himself avowed that society had a right to bias the market in favor of some things that foresight demanded be given priority. The commons of England's forests was devastated and she could no longer build any ships for herself. If ever cut off from the colonies, she would starve without even being able to build small boats.

The "market" tends to have a five year horizon on ROI. Are you saying that the market is all wise on a ten year or twenty year timeline? There are visionaries like Elon Musk. But please show us multiple examples.

Market wisdom is a powerful thing and a great discovery that helped propel our revolution in human affairs. But to treat it like some kind of all-wise super-AI god is just silly. We have a right to peer ahead with ALL our tools, including scientific consensus and long-ROI investments by government in endeavors that extend beyond the 5 year horizon.

These will be wrong sometimes! So are markets. You want sunset clauses? Fine negotiate those. I don't mind. I am libertarian in many ways.

Alex Tolley said...

I think we need to distinguish between these cases:

1. Invention is pvte, govt buys invention as large buyer.
2. Invention is pvte, govt funds development
3. Govt specifies invention, pvte industry develops via contract
4. Govt institution invents, pvte development
5. Govt institution invents, govt develops

I see 3-5 as cases where government is the source of the development. 2 is more marginal. 1 is just the government as buyer.

As technologies don't appear out of a vacuum, one can often pick and choose the point where government is or is not involved.

AFAICS electrification was pretty much all pvte, at least at the local generation level. National grids were government sponsored. Some projects were govt sponsored, eg Tennessee Valley electrification. This makes sense as electricity wasn't a public good and competitors could exist. In contrast, sewage removal is more a public good so that sewer systems were developed as govt projects.

Computer development is more tricky. The early, pre- computers were pvte. The British computer to break Enigma was govt funded. Post war in Britain work moved to the universities, eg Manchester, still govt funded.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

I think I may be seeing some confirmation bias in this discussion - a tendency to cherry-pick facts to support our preconceived notions. There are at least 3 major power structures in civilizations (if I am missing some, please let me know). They are government, religion and business (before the last century, business as a major power broker was mainly in the form of agricultural landholders, but the Industrial Revolution changed that). In terms of the left-right axis, the left distrusts the power of business, the right distrusts the power of government, and both sides have a more mixed relationship with religion.

Reality, of course, is that atrocities have been committed by all of these. Rather than relegate anything to histories dustbin, I would greatly prefer that those atrocities be exposed and put on broad display, so it is harder for people to justify one extreme position or another. Everyone should be shown - in graphic detail - what the Inquisition did to tens of thousands of people accused of witchcraft or Jewery, or how some Native Americans were converted to Christianity by Serra's monks throwing their children off a cliff, one at a time, until the parents swore an oath to obey the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Likewise people should be shown events like the Ludlow Incident, where a steel company had the wives and children of striking workers mowed down with machine guns. We can find plenty of examples of government atrocities in the 20th Century. When we strip the halos from all institutions we keep up our skeptical radar, making it less likely we will fall into the kids of extremes that lead to atrocities in the first place.

To paraphrase a shot fired from Ferney, anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

Alfred Differ said...


There is no magical thinking involved with the understanding that taxation is a type of theft. We rely upon empirical observations of the fact that many people feel that way and then engage in behaviors that can become negative sum. No matter what one thinks of the morality of theft, there is the unescapable fact that in communities that suffer too much of it the markets shrink as people use strategies to protect their wealth and income at the expense of growth opportunities.

A small percentage of people will voice the opinion that taxation is theft, but a larger percentage acts as if it is. Consider how you would feel giving 10% more than what you are required to pay when taxes are due. Would you do it? Many people who unintentionally overpay and then discover the fact later feel like dupes. If there is a twinge feeling within you that you were stupid to overpay, you might have a buried understanding of the harm caused by this form of theft.

David Brin said...

Paul, those three power centers were combined and united in oppressing all other castes, for most of human history.

Alfred, you are being refreshingly libertarian (if moderate and Smithian and sane) here and it is appreciated!

Still... the "taxation is theft" thing is just a mantra. For 10,000 years every society known would use varied methods to pool resources and pursue social goals. We are descended from gregarious apes who would oscillate between individual and group efforts and it is in our natures.

It is ironic that "taxation is theft" should be a mantra in an era in which tax rates and their subsequent allocation to projects are all held more accountable to Representative government and deliberative negotiation than ever before. The "representation" thing... remember?

In most societies, elites exempted themselves from taxation and pushed the burden onto the poor, till the poor would rebel. That has been the trend under the Bush-Koch cult. But that cult pushes resentment of shared, representative government, to distract from resentment toward Louis the XVI levels of unfairness.

locumranch said...

I seem to understand some things about Positive Sum and Competition that others do not:

Positive 'Summiness' is determined on the (mostly retrospective) basis of outcome preference, whereas genuine competition determines prospective outcome in a preference-independent fashion.

In this sense, we see that evolutionary outcome can only be thought of as 'positive sum' from the perspective of the victor (as the dodo & mammoth are strangely silent on this topic).

We also see that US expansionism, Smithian Economics, US democracy & (to a lesser extent) the Scientific Enlightenment is 'zero sum' rather than positive, also evidenced by the unexplained (?) silence of indigenous North American peoples, the reckless consumption of non-renewable resources, the Blue state oppression of the Reds, and the wide spread industrial degradation of our environment.

Outcomes that are predetermined to be 'win-win' (aka 'positive sum') are NOT competitions by definition because competitions (also by definition) produce outcomes that cannot be determined in advance.

It seems that the modern 'positive sum' mentality exists solely to justify the existence of the Status Quo.

Positive Sum: Thy name is Rationalization.


Robert said...

Taxation is not theft. Taxation is payment of services rendered, some of which you may not approve of but are still important.

Take for instance your telephone bill. Say you dislike the fact the CEO of the telephone company makes a huge amount of money. You are paying for the service of using a telephone and thus while you may dislike the fact you are paying the CEO's salary, you cannot opt out of it and still have that telephone.

If you honestly want to avoid taxes, there is a way: go to Alaska, dress warmly, and disappear into the wilderness. When you are off the grid, no longer using water or electricity, no longer earning a living, and are living entirely off the land itself, you will be tax free. Mind you, I don't recommend it. I like the trappings of civilization. And if you rely on ANYTHING of civilization, you will need to pay the externalities for that.

So. You don't like the fact your tax money goes to the military, or goes to provide support for poor people, or pays for older people to not work, or pays for politicians you didn't vote for. That doesn't matter. You are living in your country and you are provided services including protection and the like. Taxation is a service charge for this. And much like the telephone company you cannot pick and choose what elements you pay for.

(Mind you, I'd love to see a reform to the tax system - perhaps allow someone to forgo some tax deductions and in return that person can dictate where a percentage of his or her taxes goes to - for instance, I could choose not to accept the personalized deduction and instead have 25% of my taxes sent to NASA. Someone else might have their money sent to the military, or to pay off the national debt. This sort of "reform" would likely prove quite popular... and you may very well see organizations such as NASA with a greater level of funding than otherwise would be the case.)

Rob H.

Alfred Differ said...


Your challenge is easy enough to accept, it just takes a while to write it all up. I’ll be mentioning things you might be inclined to dismiss as too trivial to count, but I’ll point you to James Burke’s Connections series and The Day the Universe Changed series when you do to challenge your understanding of what counts as trivial.

What I’m about to do is demonstrate your blindness to the true scope a magnitude of the skill set that fuels our planetary civilization. There is no doubt you can see the foam on the waves that lap ashore, but the ocean driving those waves is so vast it cannot possibly have its initial development funded by government.

Example 1: When I was young, the fast food places used to keep the soda fountains behind the counter and charged you for refills. They usually had three different sized cups and lids that were not compatible between them, so next to the soda spigots there were shelves for three cup types and three lid types. The staff would restock each type during the day and reorder as needed. Occasionally they would run out of one type of cup or lid and have difficulty selling soda at that size. In later years, someone got the bright idea of making the tops of all the cups the same size so there would be three cups and one type of lid. This reduced the danger of having sales limited by an ordering error or unpredictable demand. Nowadays, many places have reduced to two cup types and encourage customers to buy re-usable plastic cups they can bring back. This further reduces the risk of sales constraints caused by stocking errors and improves their bottom line. No government funding backed this small improvement in their business processes and their profitability for their shareholders. Moving the soda fountains out from behind the counter also helped many of them because they could price for the refills whether the customer took them or not AND there was a reduction in the need for labor.

Who cares, though? Well… anyone who makes money from this does and then the people who become service providers to them care too. There is a linked chain of people who benefited from this tiny improvement, but the vast majority of them do not know the source of their benefit. They are immersed in the vast ocean and know not the source of the waves.

Example 2: Where did sporks come from? Why? Was someone trying to save a bit of money in a packaged product? Did they ask for government support of their initial business? Did they try to sell to government and would we interpret that as government support?

Example 3: There are a number of people who can now, using their own money, put cameras and other sensors high up in the atmosphere (around 30km) and recover them for re-use later. Some do it for fun while others pursue business ideas. What can you do with this skill set? Hmm. Would anyone pay you to watch a company suspected of dumping a pollutant into a river passing through their fenced property? Hmm. There might be difficulty getting government money to support this since the surveillance target is probably wealthy enough to buy their local politicians and law enforcement agencies.

I know this particular example personally, though we pursued different business objectives. No government money is needed if one is creative enough to shave costs at every opportunity. There ARE paying customers for these services too.

Alfred Differ said...


There are millions of examples like this, but it takes great effort to know them and write them down. They are the vast ocean of innovation that drives the waves ashore that you recognize as commercial flight, sewage treatment, clean water, and so on. James Burke gets this. So did Milton Friedman. Have you ever seen the ‘I Pencil’ material from Leonard Read? You can choose just about anything around you and try to research how it is made all the way back to scratching the resources out of the ground and you’ll find a truly vast skill set was needed to produce it. Planetary civilizations are truly astonishing in what they can do if you take the time to look. Some SF authors have even written about it when they explain why it’s unlikely a colony ship is going to set up successfully without bringing the vast treasure trove with it.

The primary reason I kibitz with the folks who defend thumb pressing and the taxation required to do it is they don’t see the real treasure they put at risk. How many skills are needed to make the drink cups used at a fast food restaurant? It’s at least a million if you start listing the indirect skills needed by those who support the folks who do it. How many (in the World Three sense Popper used) skills are there all together? Bazillions and growing very, very fast. Thinking that government is responsible for initiating all this is incredibly blind. They don’t even know of most of it and can’t. There aren’t enough people in government to comprehend it, let alone smart people to offer useful guidance on a large scale. To make matters worse, there isn’t even an ‘initial’ phase to step into and offer guidance. Pay attention to what James Burke pointed out about the information web. Where do you start if you want to offer useful guidance to support the next whiz bang that will divert us from the impending catastrophe when resource P becomes rarer, thus expensive? Hmpf. There are no beginnings and ends to any of this.

I’m not suggesting we can’t guide markets at all, though. David’s participation through NIAC is both well-intentioned and probably useful. I recall sending a proposal to them many years ago and I still respect social investment when done well. What I AM suggesting is it is easy to get caught up in a dangerous hubris and harm the treasure trove we’ve built with each generation. We must always consider the possibility that we are in error and blind to what goes on around us. When markets do something strange, we should ALWAYS be ready to consider the possibility that it isn’t strange if we could but see the actual incentives.

Alfred Differ said...


I admit there is a danger to me when I use that phrase. Saying Taxation is a Form of Theft can easily turn into one of those incantations that protect me from thinking any other way. I can’t quite dismiss it, though. I look at people around me and they do more than grumble. They engage in negative sum behaviors much like they do when there is a risk of regular theft in the neighborhoods in which they live. That’s a problem we really should contemplate. If there is a solution to it that ends the negative sum behavior, we all benefit. I don’t have to tell you that, though.

Arguing that we’ve done this for 300 Gsecs (I finally sat down and read Vinge’s Deepness in the Sky book… oof) isn’t good enough. We used feudal systems for even longer and look at the magic that happens when we abandon that idiocy. It turns out we didn’t need the Kings and Nobles. I strongly appreciate the fact that our system here in the US isn’t all that bad and I can live with it fairly well. I pay my taxes and don’t even grumble. That just means we aren’t losing as much to theft, though. Can we do better? We will never try if we do not call it what it is.

Alfred Differ said...


Regarding market wisdom, I’m not deluded into thinking it (the market we call our economy) looks more than a few years out. However, the market we call science does. When I refer to markets, I refer to them all. In fact, I’m mostly using your own ideas for justice, democracy, commerce, and science markets. I’ve embellished a bit here and paraphrased a bit there.

When society biases a market, I’m very supportive if they are defending themselves against a negative externality. Since we have a hard time seeing those with short time horizons, I encourage you to recognize that the climate scientists are doing in their market as an intrusion of science into commerce as an attempt to force the recognition of the externality. I think of it as a type of war. If the climate folks are successful, they will force commerce changes that require long range thinking, right? Know of any past examples of this kind of war between other markets? Heh. They aren’t hard to see once you recognize the forces involved. For example, the justice market was greatly expanded as the commercial ones grew. Why? What incentives drove people to invent elites to smack down traders? Well… fraud and theft tempt the victims to engage in personal violence, right? Revenge cycles come to life and those are definitely negative sum behaviors. They must be solved.

Alfred Differ said...


They can't be payments for services rendered unless I voluntarily request those services. If they are forced upon me, a theft occurs that is then justified by the services.

I'll freely admit that I benefit from many of those "services", but that doesn't make the taking of the money voluntary. I'm doing the best I can within the system as it exists. By definition, I am not free.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alfred
You make my point
The big ideas are all government/state/society driven
Then the market does the thousands of little things that collectively make things a lot better.

The point is in all (5)
The change would NOT occur without the government
in (1) without government as a customer the idea would languish - nobody would spend the money to set up the manufacturing to drop the price to the level that it could take off

The difference in cost between a one off device and the same thing mass produced is staggering

To give an example from my own experience
Diesel engines
The 6 liter Cummins diesel used in the Dodge Ram cost less than $2000 per unit
The manufacturing plant to make them at that cost was over half a Billion dollars
(and that was just for the "Cummins" bits)
If you wanted to make a small number of such engines they would cost over 100 times as much

The market is good (very good) at the small things
One something is established then the market can develop bigger things (like diesel engines)
But that initial step has historically been taken with government help

Tax is what you pay to be a part of society
A human in nature on his/her own is simply cat food

The single change that would make taxes more palatable would be if a person could select which society he/she was a member of but in today's world immigration limits mean that that is not possible

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred all your examples are for private goods and services. It doesn't work for public goods - ie where non-payers can free ride on payers. Public health like pollution control, policing, modern military defense, etc all require non-voluntary payments to prevent free-riding. Space exploration is another, until companies can find way so commercialize it, e.g combats, asteroid mining. I would argue fundamental scientific research is a public good, and contrary to a lot of people, so is education, even higher ed.

Yes the market is very good at finding profitable ideas and fulfilling them, even rapidly evolving solutions. But it will fail in many instances and is not appropriate for public goods.

Where we need to be careful is to assume technocracies are better than markets at making choices. The high speed rail project in California is such an example. A somewhat more difficult example was California's choice to raise bonds for stem cell research. Was this a good idea, or not. I don't know, and it was in direct response to Bush jr's opposition to supporting this research at the federal level.

The irony today is that the oligarchs want to reduce taxes that not only benefits them, but also opens up those services to be replaced by private ones.

Alex Tolley said...

@Duncan - so Tesla is building a big battery factory for cars - yet he isn't asking the govt to buy the batteries or the cars. He is building to drive down costs directly. Ford sold cars directly without relying on the govt to buy the cars. I don't know about Diesel engines, but I suspect you are cherry picking.

Government as a big buyer is no different from Wallmart as a big buyer. When they are the only buyer,and worse their buying constrains competition, that is where the danger lays.

Alex Tolley said...

@Duncan - what was the consequence of the government funding Cummins Diesel engines? Obviously Cummins benefitted. Did the govt fund other manufacturers? Did their choice impact -vely on other manufacturers as they were not preferred suppliers? Did the technology choice impact non- diesel manufacturers. Did the govt - Cummins relationship have other ramifications, as happened with the aerospace industry? If the govt hadn't funded Cummins, then what might have happened?

Robert said...

First, a brief tangent into science! Life is stranger than we ever imagined. There are bacteria that can survive on electrons alone, without carbon or other materials. And these bacteria have uses in fields including sewage purification... and could very likely exist in adverse landscapes such as Mars. Or even Europa.


Next, "theft through taxes" - if you do not request a service but it is provided anyway and you have to pay for it, it is not theft. Again, consider the telephone. Say you do not want to use the voice mail system, and do not set up a voice mail account. Guess what: you will not get a reduced bill because you didn't use it. It will in all likelihood be included on your user charges anyway.

Likewise with public goods. You can't pick and choose what you get for services from the government. For instance, let's say you actually live in a community where you pay separately for fire department service. You don't pay, you don't have your home protected when it burns down. But there is still a cost involved because the fire department still had to go down to your home and make sure while it was burning down, it didn't set any other homes or property on fire. (This is a real-life story, btw.) And if you could choose not to pay for police protection... there is a danger to public safety if people target you for a crime, be it the criminal discharging a firearm or you doing so... and those bullets could go through the house (or yard or whatever) and hit someone else.

You want to drive on a road? There are massive externalities involved. You choose not to drive but are a passenger? You are still utilizing that road. You decide to walk? You ARE STILL USING THAT ROAD.

(continued below)

Robert said...

Now let's take this one step further. Why should you pay the same amount to repair and upkeep a road as a business that uses a heavy vehicle that creates extra stresses to the road and causes it to break down more rapidly and need more frequent maintenance? And if that business uses more electricity, that forces electric utilities to produce added energy which causes a greater amount of pollution and causes greater stresses on the electric grid.

Now let's say you're the owner of that company. You have a greater utilization of services and infrastructure than the normal person as a result of your company. This is why the rich should be taxed at a greater rate than the poor - because they got rich by using public goods to a greater extent than a poor person would. Seeing your property is worth more, you also increase the need for more police protection. Your business or property may have volatile materials on it, and thus require a greater fire department presence.

Do you see where I'm going here?

Taxation is a series of user charges provided by a central organization that in theory does not utilize its monopoly to maximize profits. Let's for a moment assume a libertarian society where everything is on a pay basis.

You're rich. You own a business. The for-pay fire department tells you that they want you to pay a higher amount in order to provide their services. If you don't pay, then you have no fire protection and they'll sit back and laugh as your property burns to the ground. The private police tell you "you need to pay us extra for our protection because we're a monopoly and the only group in town who offers protection. If you don't pay, something may happen and we won't do a thing to help."

Ah, but you're rich. You can hire your own people for fire and police protection, right? Except you end up either paying more to have comparable protection or you have an inferior protection that ends up harming you when an incident inevitably happens.

You might consider competing with the private police and fire department. And then they start poaching your employees with better wages and benefits because they have developed infrastructure for their employees and you are building from the ground up.

A fire then happens. It's arson. Your business burns to the ground. The fire and police department don't do a thing because you didn't pay their fees and your private security was poached by them so they weren't available to stop this. You end up destitute, having lost the business that made your money, because of the monopoly of private industry.

Tell me again how taxation is theft?

Rob H.

Duncan Cairncross said...

The government didn't fund Cummins - that was a simple market system
An example of the market working
I used it as an example of the "step" that has to overcome

The Cummins engine, like Tesla is an example of an increase/change in an established market

The problem is at the start when there is no market
Diesel engines were developed over years with the development being at least partially funded by the military (in several countries)
Once developed THEN the private uses continue to improve

It's the initial steps that need the government boosting
And infrastructure improvement

Jumper said...

In a pure libertarian society there are no commons. You can't leave your property without trespassing. Where'd the freedom go?

Alex Tolley said...

@duncan. - thanks for the clarification on Cummins. But consider transistors. No market either, companies were formed with VC money to fund development, markets were developed via niches, then expanded until we are today. Some govt purchase, but not until after transistors were developed.

If funding is needed for development it used to be industrialists, now VCs. They will fund projects as long as there is a clear market to sell into. But when this is absent, then government funding is needed, especially if this is for public goods. Rocketry is a prime example as there has been almost no market need for rockets. Communication satellites changed this to some extent, it is the main use of rockets, but there is still no proven market for anything else yet.

The problem I see with any government involvement is that one could claim an SBA loan was government funding, even a government originated education loan. This seems to be overreach, but where does one draw the line?

I still see government as neutral source of funding is very different than government as active participant in developing particular technologies and even being a buyer. When the DoE invested in various energy technologies there was a blurred line drawn between neutrally funding a range of TWODA technologies (still picking winners from a wider slate of options) and being a technocracy. I would characterize fusion funding for the 2 main approaches as being fairly technocratic as the assumption is that success would result in picking fusion as the main energy generation technology. ( I wonder what pushback a success would create?)

David Brin said...

Wow, at least locum tries to argue, this time. And actually tried (!!!) to paraphrase what he thinks we mean by “positive sum.” Of course as we have seen the very concept terrifies him, so he gloms onto the last recourse of intellectual cowardice… proclaiming that everything is subjective!

Yep, I guess at some level it is “subjective” to think things are “better” when most children grow up free of hunger, when most women get control over their own lives, when all human needs are met better than ever before, when science advances prodigiously, and when human beings have a wider variety of physical and intellectual choices than ever before. Yes, some might claim that such things are “just as arbitrary” as sacrificing babies to Baal…

…but we can easily tell that these are sophist yammerings. Indeed, there is a modern trait that is PHILOSOPHICALLY superior to all previous societies, and that is the concept of diversity and fair argument. All other tribes squelched these things, we enhance them. But can I actually contend that our approach is better in a FUNDAMENTAL way?

I can. Because of the basic human trait of self-delusion. And of enforcing uniformity of memes. These traits are directly associated with obstinatge stupidity of statecraft and parenting and every other human failing… and these failings span EVERY known human civilization, no matter what the memic details. All of them failed by their OWN standards, as well as by our standards. And they all failed for roughly the same reason…

…and it is a failure mode that only eases via our methodology — appreciation and enhancement of diversity and fair argument. Only that method empowers a society to swiftly change its mind about a delusion that might otherwise wreak terrible harm. Hence, it is “better” by standards that transcend surficial choices of memic quality or details of “moral” value.

The ability to BACK OUT of a mistake is fundamental and I would wager most philosophers would agree, even if they deem every other thing to be subjective and arbitrary.

Still, while his overall point was dismally dullard, locum did point out one of the basic ironies. That our positive sum system can only survive if the old ways of negative or zero sum lose sway. The fight BETWEEN these systems is definitely zero sum… as I explain here in an essay about Four Great Ironies.

David Brin said...

Well-said, Robert.

And now.... onward