Sunday, June 18, 2006

"Allocation vs Markets" - an ancient struggle with strange modern implications

The ancient mythology of "economic allocation" takes on strange modern camouflage... as a defense of "free market wisdom"

Warning! This is a long ‘un! (Perhaps making up for the long hiatus to follow, while I go hermit for a while... Though I am sure you'll all keep things lively in comments!) So fetch a snack. Settle down. Gird yourself for a very long and very intricate exercise in re-appraising everything that you ever believed about economics and politics! (Is Brin arrogant, or what? ;-)

As most of you know, I have long inveighed against the hoary and almost-meaningless so-called "left-right political axis," a metaphor to which (absurdly) countless millions of people still cling, 250 years after the French (of all people) thought it up -- a "spectrum" that mindlessly narrows and channels all political debate. A tidy model that halves every political IQ, forcing sophisticated, 21st Century minds into enmity with folk who may share many values, and compels you into alliance with others who want a world very different than you do.

(See a Questionaire that pokes away and explores underlying assumptions of ideology, at:

I have made tidy sums, over the years, wagering that no two (unwarned) individuals in a group (of almost any size) will write down definitions of "left" or "right" that much resemble each other, let alone offer cogent description of the complex quandaries that we face in modern times. In frustration, I have occasionally tried to serve up alternative metaphorsthat might better reflect real, contemporary problems, issues and divisions -- or at least divide up the political landscape more sensibly. (The word "arrogant" isn't strong enough!)

To view a few examples of these audacious re-appraisals, see:

* The earliest, from a talk given in 1987; this model, based on a meme-psychology metaphor, predicted the fall of the USSR and an era of conflict with “macho” cultures. Spot on forecasts. In fact, just about the ONLY spot-on forecast.

* This one attempted to trace underlying motives of some of today’s players in a viciously artificial "culture war."

* An alternative political “map” breaks away from standard cliches and especially the flaw of tendentiousness. Some insights about the dangers of aristocratism. Aimed at a specialized audience, I'm afraid. But it does expose the pitfalls of all political "mapmaking."

* "Horizon Theory" sorts people out according to how readily they allow themselves to notice when improved safety and prosperity call for an expansion of horizons. This natural trend seems to occur everywhere that humans have established societies -- allowing lower fear levels to translate into farther perspectives in worry, time, and inclusion. But some people and cultures are better at this than others. (Far better at explaining "red-blue differences" than cliches of left or right.)

In every case, the effort was not so much to be right -- proposing some Grand New All-Encompassing Theory -- as much as to try on new ways of viewing familiar things. Groping at the elephant from different angles (to put it allegorically.)

The essential truth is that metaphors can only illustrate and offer insights! The map is NOT the territory. If we should have learned anything from the calamities of Marx and Freud -- from communism to every other kind of 'ism -- the lesson is that human beings are far too complex to describe in pat words, even as individuals, let alone in vast societies.

That doesn't mean we should stop creating models. We are the model making animal.

It does mean that we should learn the maturity to view each model as... well... a model.


Now I am provoked to do it yet again. Because this damnfool left-right thing has yet another aspect that I haven't addressed before. Yet another part of a dismal dichotomy that badly needs debunking, at long last.

I am talking about the struggle between those preaching “prudent sustainability” and those who claim that market forces will solve all looming crises of poverty, pollution, energy depletion and so on.

We’ve all grown familiar with these apparently rigid “sides”, and so let me avow something from the start. If I am forced to choose between them, you can bet that I will side with the New Puritans of the sustainability crowd! They, at least, want somemodernist attention paid to assertive problem-solving, instead of preaching an indolent, pollyanna faith that some grand and superior external force will come to our rescue, averting calamity in the nick of time.

(Did it, ever, in the past? I repeat that challenge. Did such a thing happen? Ever?)

But that’s the point. I will not choose sides between the extreme poles of yet another absurd "devil's dichotomy." As I say in my review of Jared Diamond's Collapse and my comments on the War on Science...we don’t have to pick between two perfectly opposite positions! In fact, that kind of inflexibility is the surest way to guarantee our failure as a civilization.

So let’s pull back from our immediate troubles, once again, and ponder how these two viewpoints may reflect assumptions that are far older and more similar than any of the adversaries think, reflecting habits of thought going back thousands of years.

In fact, there are certain ways in which doctrinaire leftists are taking up old-time feudalist positions while today’s neo-feudalists of the right seem, at first, to be standing up for the Enlightenment... only to show their truer, reactionary colors when we dig a little deeper.

It all begins by re-examining the sunny optimism of those who think that everything is gonna be just hunky dory. That we’re all certain to come out of these times in and great shape, simply by trusting to the blind hand of commerce.

Warning: do not read on unless you feel prepared to curb normal political reflexes. Every single time that you react to a statement by diagnosing it (or me) in terms of left or right, YOU WILL BE WRONG. Sometimes diametrically! It will be a wild ride. Now enjoy.


Let's start by looking at a book that was touted recently by the legendary economics/investment guru, John Mauldin -- "The Bottomless Well" by Peter Huber and Mark P. Mills, provocatively sub-titled "The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy."

Sayeth Mauldin: “Huber and Mills take a hard look at the way we normally think about energy and turn conventional thinking on its head, offering what they call seven great energy heresies.

1. The cost of energy has less to do with the cost of fuel.... (than) the hardware we use to refine, process and use the fuel.

2. "Waste" is virtuous. We use up most of our energy refining energy itself. Waste lets us do more life-affirming things better, more cleanly, and safely.

3. The more efficient our technology, the more energy we consume. More efficient technology lets more people do more, and faster - and more/more/faster invariably swamps all the efficiency gains.

4. The competitive advantage in manufacturing is swinging back to the U.S.. Steam engines launched the first industrial revolution; internal combustion engines and electric generators kicked off the 2nd. The 3rd, desktop computing, is now propelling American labor productivity far ahead.

5. Human demand for energy is insatiable in the tireless battle against dispersion and decay.

6. Energy supplies are infinite, even if petroleum is not.

7. If energy policies similar to ours can be implemented worldwide, our grandchildren will inhabit a planet with less pollution, a more stable biosphere, and better-balanced carbon books than at any time since the rise of agriculture some five thousand years ago."

Wow! Heretical? Yes. Deliberately provocative? You bet...

...and at the top layer, Huber and Mills are also jibbering what amounts to stark, raving lunacy! None of these statements follow, even from their stated or implicit premises! Nor do they represent the way that prudent people have ever behaved in the past. Ever.

CollapseDon't you find it stunning how few bright fools compare their prescriptions to 4,000 years of actual human experience? I could cite dozens of historical examples of eras when imprudent waste, inefiiciency, resource depletion and heedless lack of planning resulted in civilization-wide calamity (see Jared Diamond’s book: Collapse), whereas there is not a single example, in all of the human past, when proposals such as Huber & Mills offer actually resulted in a society’s success.

Not one. Yet, people with high IQs are actually able to speak such absurd nostrums and convince themselves that they are not only true, but self-evident. Moreover, with a straight face they call themselves "conservative."

(A side question: How did “spendthrift liberals” ever become the ones pushing puritan values of thrift on the grand scale -- from budget-balancing to smaller government to international restraint to "waste-not" efficiency -- while “conservatives” preach against saving anything for a rainy day? More to the point, are we really too obstinate in our cliches to comment or even notice?)

==AND YET...==

And yet, if you read these deliberately provocative proposals (by Huber & Mills and others like them) only with reflexive disdain or automatic, dismissive loathing, then you are missing the point at many levels.

First - guys like this thrive on provoking apoplexy. I know. I recognize fellow contrarians... though rigid ones.

Second - bright fools are not only fools. They are also... bright!
. . Hence, even when they are clearly acting as shills for Exxon/Murdoch, is that any reason not to read and listen carefully, seeking value?
. . Dig this. Recent scientific studies have shown that we are at our most distrustworthy and addictively delusional while in the act of dismissing evidence presented by our foes! Our brains secrete reward chemicals every time we skim and shrug and sneer at opponents.
. . In contrast, isn't it a sign of true wisdom to instead sift through your adversary's meanings, in order to separate wheat from chaff?

Consider. Such people are often very clever at lining up both facts and trends that exploit the weakest parts of the argument for prudent efficiency and sustainability. . . . Nu? Don't we want those weakest portions exposed? So that the argument for sustainability can be improved? Again, the principle is CITOKATE. (Criticism is the only known antidote to error.)

Third - and most important - these authors absolutely miss the point of what we are all arguing about. Indeed, I think their opponents miss the key point, as well.

In fact, everybody does.


Unfortunately, the surface issues that Huber and Wills and their fellow cornucopians raise -- (e.g. whether certain technological advances may or may not rescue sustainable growth) -- distract from a layer that is much more meaningful... and far less explored. This is one more case where the underlying psychology and personal agenda are vastly more interesting than specific details of argument.

UOwUel4XxNMy0VSlzhenNzl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVaiQDB_Rd1H6kmuBWtceBJSee my article on "Singularities and Nightmares,"
There I try to put in perspective the psychological phenomenon called “techno transcendentalism.” Here's an excerpt:

Depending on whatever decade you happen to live in, techno-transcendentalism has shifted from one fad to another, pinning fervent hopes upon the scientific flavor of the week. For example, a hundred years ago, Marxists and Freudians wove compelling models of human society — or mind — predicting that rational application of these models and rules would result in far higher levels of general happiness. Subsequently, with popular news about advances in agriculture and evolutionary biology, some groups grew captivated by eugenics — the allure of improving the human animal. On occasion, misguided and even horrendous undertakings prompted widespread revulsion. Yet, this recurring dream has lately revived in new forms, with the promise of genetic engineering and neurotechnology.

Enthusiasts for nuclear power in the 1950's promised energy too cheap to meter. Some of the same passion was seen in a widespread enthusiasm for space colonies, in the 1970' s and 80's, and in today's ongoing cyber-transcendentalism, which promises ultimate freedom and privacy for everyone, if only we just start encrypting every Internet message, using anonymity online to perfectly mask the frail beings who are typing at a real keyboard. Over the long run, some hold out hope that human minds will be able to download into computers or the vast new frontier of mid-21st Century cyberspace, freeing individuals of any remaining slavery to our crude and fallible organic bodies.

This long tradition — of bright people pouring faith and enthusiasm into transcendental dreams — eerily resembling the way previous generations clasped salvation tales that were more religious or magical. This recurring theme tells us a lot about one aspect of our nature, a trait that crosses all cultures and all centuries. Are techno-transcendentalists really all that different, deep-down, than Saint Francis or Buddha - or kabbalist rabbis - vesting what amounts to sacred devotion upon unproved assumptions, almost as articles of trascendant faith?

Let’s be clear. I am not saying that any... or even all... of these fields of social or physical science did not contribute to our growing edifice of understanding, or, ultimately, to future great expansions of human power and maturation. No, what I want to point to is the psychological qualities of quasi-religious EXCLUSIVITY and PURITY true believers would routinely invest in one area, calling their chosen path central. That “this is it.”

Reiterating; might all of this be less a matter of technology than of personality?


Returning closer to the topic at hand, how does any of this apply to the cornucopian mythology of Huber and Mills? Of Julian Symon and Bjorn Lomberg? The supreme rationalization of those in the elite who do not want governments, legislatures, universities or other publicly accountable institutions to deliberate or plan strategies for dealing with onrushing change.

Let’s step back. Consider what these authors (and their benefactor/patrons) are preaching. The deliberately provocative title “Bottomless Well” forecasts a coming feast of both energy and human empowerment -- a predicted perfect storm of human problem-solving creativity -- arising from a combination of mass education, freedom and fecund market forces. It is, deep down, yet another expression of what’s recently been called the Copenhagen Doctrine or, more generally, the precept of Faith in Blind Markets (FIBM)

Now first let me put aside any notion that I’m an adherent of the opposite principle -- the general notion called Guided Allocation of Resources (GAR). As you will see below, I most definitely am not!

What I will show is that this dispute goes back a long way. It is an ancient dichotomy... and one that’s deeply misunderstood.


Before we appraise the modern fetishism called Faith in Blind Markets (FIBM), it is essential that we cover the older fallacy of GAR, or guided allocation. This notion contends that society’s best, brightest and wisest should decide how capital will be invested, which goods will be produced, and who will work at what tasks.

To those who were raised in the 20th Century, this description surely sounds like socialism. But that is a narrow and parochial view of GAR. A glaring logical and historical fallacy. An absurdity, in fact. (As a test of your own flexibility and sagacity, stop here and ponder for a moment why I call this reflex association preposterous. Why do I say that socialism is NOT the foremost or exclusive exemplar of guided allocation? Think "history" and stretch your assumptions a bit, before reading on.)

In fact, GAR has been the fundamental principle of governance and economics in nearly all human societies -- not just socialistic ones -- ever since the discovery of agriculture! Take the cabals of kings, nobles, and clerics that ruled over most of them. Those oligarchs felt just as sure of their superior ability to manage and allocate resources -- including human labor -- as the Soviet nomenklatura commissars were. Perhaps more so!

(In fact, the parallels between these two groups -- between commissars and feudalists -- are far greater than their differences! This should come as no surprise, since both groups were power-grabbers and both groups were human. Duh.)

Think. Isn’t this the obvious way that most human societies will tend to become organized? Whichever sub-group is already powerful, that group will USE their power to get MORE power! It’s simple Darwinism, borne out by the fact that this process of collusive authority-grabbing normally led to greater reproductive success. Success for the rulers, that is. (Recent evidence shows that fully 8% of modern Chinese are descended from the harem of Ghengiz Khan! Ponder that a bit. And he was just one among thousands of kings. Face it. We are ALL descended from guys like that.)

DeficitFiscalCliffSeriously, can anybody plausibly argue that this was not the recurring pattern from continent to continent, in nearly all complex human societies? Of course, organized religion often played a vital role. Clerics all-too often strove to justify this power-gathering, to chant and rationalize and convince peasants that allocation by the mighty was best for all. (Do not take this as an anti-religious rant. Justification of hierarchy was a priestly role quite independent of the more honorable, pastoral and religious tasks performed by sincere holy men and women. Alas, lamentably, these separate roles tended to get bunched together in many cultures.)

Hence, GAR (guided allocation of resources) was not unique to socialism -- not a matter of "left versus right." Rather, it appears to be the principal pattern of historical economies around the world. A pattern that spanned at least 40 centuries, during which real markets seldom lasted very long without profound and relentless interference, favoritism and meddling “from above.”

(This, indeed, was the greatest complaint of Adam Smith and the biggest reason why the patron saint of capitalism was a "liberal.")

Tragically, one effect seemed nearly always to result from this pattern. That which benefits the leadership class seldom correlates with good statecraft. When given a choice between progress for everybody and enrichment of the oligarchy, which policy do you think was implemented in ancient Egypt, Babylon, Mycennae, Chin, Kamakura, Rome, Zimbabwe, Tahiti, Russia, Great Britain...?

Again, I do not have to prove any of this. All I have to do is put forward a challenge. Find exceptions! Across twenty years of making this one point, in public and in print far and wide, I have only heard mentioned THREE potential exceptions -- brief and minor ones -- to this relentless pattern, across the entire human historical record. And a sad story it is.


I should point out that collusive cheating is only the first of several flaws, inherent in the notion of guided allocation.

The second flaw was almost as great -- imperfect human knowledge of complex systems. Even when ruling elites tried to govern judiciously, for the the good of all, generation after generation of wise guys fell for the same alluring trap... the same delusion... believing that they understood society, morality, physical law, and economics well enough to allocate effectively.

But history shows they were all mistaken. Every last one of them. Complexity and imperfect knowledge are the gremlins that haunted kings, even when societies were far simpler than they are now.

imagesOf course, I am not the first to point this out. Nobel-winning economist F.A. Hayek dealt decisively with the problem of imperfect knowledge, offering a convincing line of explanation for why reliable command over any economy always wriggles and slips out of our grasp.

This lesson applies not only to ancient Greece and China... or to the calamities of Soviet-style state planning... but even to sophisticated modern managers. Take the recent history of “Japan Inc.” Back in their heyday, the Lords of MITI pursued that ancient dream of top-down allocation with a vengeance. Moreover, it sure seemed successful for a while! Using techniques far more sophisticated than the Politburo and incorporating many capitalist tools, they assumed that their economic models, and especially thoughtful allocation of bottomless lines of credit to favored industries, would succeed far better than “random” open markets. Indeed, those sophisticated models and plans worked... for a while.

Till complexity and imperfect knowledge wreaked inevitable vengeance. (I was among the few, in the 1980s, to predict this.)

Here is a sad sermon taught by the ages:
GAR may be a natural way for societies to organize. But GAR does not deal well with surprise.

Still, the ancient dream of guided allocation will not die. The neo-confucian leaders of China are following it today, attempting to rise above the mistakes made earlier by feudal, communist and MITI allocating castes. Indeed, let us all admit that they are achieving respectable wonders, so far. Impressive stuff.

Still, are they human?

Then it seems all-but certain that complexity and surprise will play their old tricks at some point,
yanking the rug out from under even the cleverest allocators, once again.


In contrast to guided allocation, genuinely liberated markets have a very short history.

Yes, great Pericles spoke in their favor, and not only of economic markets, but also markets of knowledge, ideas, policy and law (e.g. democracy.) Alas, the notion was new and difficult to implement in lasting ways. It was also deeply unpopular among tyrants and oligarchs, who unleashed every weapon against that fragile, early experiment. Moreover, once the pericleans were quashed, aristocrats in every subsequent culture relentlessly subsidized and promulgated Plato and his followers, who made it their business to defend top-down hierarchy with utter tenacity, for close to 2500 years.

Guided allocation remained king - literally - during all that time. A long and daunting epoch of failure and pain.

That is, until Adam Smith and John Locke began drawing our eyes once again toward the Periclean dream. Toward what we moderns might call the “wisdom of empowered crowds.”

Their core notion? That human beings -- all of us -- are inherently delusional self-deceivers, rationalizers and cheaters. (Duh!) Hence, no elite group can be trusted to allocate resources fairly, or to rule wisely with unbalanced or unaccountable monopolies of power. No, not even the elites YOU happen to admire. Not even them. Not even you. Not even me.

Rather, Smith, Locke, Franklin and their enlightenment peers offered a radical notion. If you empower the masses to act individually, as fully knowledgeable citizens, each person transacting on his or her own behalf, then their differences may add up to strength. The strength and creative power of reciprocal accountability (RA) -- applied en masse -- to detect and counter a great many foolish errors. Unwise and immature individuals can be be much wiser in aggregate, especially when a dollop of mutual suspicion lets them cancel out each others' worst tendencies -- the malignant, predatory devils of human nature -- leaving the angels of fair competition and cooperation to thrive. The guiding concept? To escape the era of kingly delusion, replacing it with an open give-and-take. Above all, letting no one escape criticism.

(Pause: Which is more "naive"... the idealization I just described? Or an obstinate refusal to recognize that this plan worked? Not perfectly. But far, far better than every other kingly, priestly or ritual-laden prescription since humanity lived in trees?)

Not only is this innovation the wellspring of “suspicion of authority” -- a central foundation of the US Constitution. (And a lot of mass media!) It is also the the basic wisdom underlying modern markets. Instead of a single, coherent economic plan, declared top-down by fallible leaders, a market deals with the problems of complexity by unleashing a tool that is... well... complex! A whole society of sovereign individuals.

DisputationArenasArrowCover(For a rather intense look at how "truth" is determined in science, democracy, courts and markets, see the lead article in the American Bar Association's Journal Aug. 2000, "Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit."

This is the core premise underpinning our pragmatic or "liberal" wing of the Enlightenment. A suspicion toward hierarchy and belief in dispersed authority that has proved its effectiveness during a narrow, 200 year window when -- coincidentally? -- humanity has managed to multiply its knowledge, wealth, health, prosperity and happiness by orders of magnitude beyond what had been achieved by all the kings and priests and command allocators of old.

Putting aside deluded romantic-nostalgia about the "wisdom of ancient tribes," there can be no rational doubt that the notions of Pericles and Smith and Locke and Hayek are proved.

Well? Are you confused yet? One moment I seem to be veering left, then right! I may seem fickle and inconsistent...

...but that is an illusion. There is a very consistent story here. Hang in there... and shrug off the cliches.

So Brin rejects the "guided allocation" practiced by kings and commissars. Does that mean we should all pray instead to the inherent wisdom of blind markets? Have I picked sides in the furious modern debate between FIBM and GAR, choosing Huber and Mills and Simon and Lomberg?

Gah! Fie upon dichotomies!

I refuse to be pigeonholed. Especially when the dichotomy is a trick. When it is a trap


All right, then. Let's take a closer look at this great dichotomy. One that (we're told) maps neatly upon the hoary old “left-right political axis”. A dichotomy between the standard human modus operandi - guided allocation - and the newcomer - faith in blind markets.

My claim? That we have been distracted, far too long, by a failure to parse this great debate properly. So let me try to offer a set of encsapsulated key points. And then I’ll kick over the chessboard, pointing out that it was never a dichotomy at all!

==Point #1. Reiterating: the approach called Guided Allocation of Resources (GAR) is not specifically socialistic. Rather, it is essentially oligarchic. In principle, communist commissars were no better - or worse - than any other narrow conspiratorial elite of power grabbing cheaters.

==Point #2. The fallacy is just as severe in the opposite direction! Any true historian of both economics and politics will tell you that open markets and liberated citizen accountability are the greatest liberal inventions. They were radical, revolutionary, anti-monarchy, anti-oligarchic and reformist. In other words, we are all better off dropping the "left-right" nonsense, when comparing guided allocation to faith in markets. It is simply a poison to clear thinking.

==Point #3. Thus, when "market promoters" rightly point out the great flaws of GAR, aren't they hypocrites to wag their fingers in just one direction? They should shine that critical light on all economy-controlling cabals. Are collusive, price-fixing monopolists more inherently wise and trustworthy than commissars, or feudal lords, or other narrow groups of would-be “allocators”? Aren’t all types more similar to each other than radicals of left or right would ever choose to admit?

==Point #4. Even more generally, are not large corporations, in themselves, examples of top-down allocation hierarchies, replicating in-miniature, the rigidity, poor modeling and frequent self-interested cheating that were displayed by kings and commisars? Picture an imperious CEO as royalty! Isn't the parallel creepy and also... well... rather banal? Even unsurprising?

Yes, competition between major corporations should keep these allocation-centers lean, mean and efficient, while markets supply the essential element of wisdom via supply and demand. (Historians believe that competition between fractious and divided European nations had the same effect during and after the Renaissance, leading to their rapid technological innovation and subsequent conquest of the world. Still, that did not make them internally open. Or intrinsically wise.)

Anyway, note the word “should.” No matter how well-motivated a company is, driven by external competition, a dilemma remains: if corporations utilize command hierarchies similar to kingdoms, won’t they -- don't they -- emulate some of the same faults? From leader-egomania and leader conflict-of-interest to relying on a single mind (or small group of minds) to deal with ineffable complexity?

==Point #5. Those who (correctly) see the flaws and faults of guided allocation can easily fall into a logical trap -- positing that the wise opposite of GAR is Faith in Blind Markets (FIBM).

Indeed, some take the notion of market "blindness" quite seriously, propounding that societies should never meddle in the free interaction of market players (corporations and individuals). Any attempt at "guidance" -- by (for example) government regulation -- must automatically be rejected, as a matter of basic principle.

In other words, because we have learned that GAR (all capital letters) stinks as a general system, that means we must flee as far as we can, to extremes in the diametric direction! We should reject any use of "gar" (lower case) tools to help markets work better. In extremum, this teaching calls upon us to reject the entire suite of problem-solving methodologies that involve political deliberation, prioritizing and allocating a certain fraction of social resources toward the accomplishment of thoroughly considered and democratically-chosen consensus goals.

Not only is blindness good -- (goes this hyper-libertarian concept) -- but any attempt by society to "see" -- and to act upon that foresight -- is automatically dismissed as bad.

Um, has anyone else pondered the unbelievable reductio meaning of this cult incantation? That an ideal human society should make little or no use of our great facility for planing and foresight?

Wealth-of-NationsIndividuals may peer ahead. Corporations are allowed to do so. Aristocrats may do so in small collusive groups and in secret. But en-masse we must spurn our hard-won propensity for gedankenexperiment and precautionary action!

Astonishingly, those who seek a fetishistic opposite to GAR seem to be declaring faith and fealty to a new godhead. A non-promethean deity who demands quiet from humanity's collective prefrontal lobes. In blithe and devout expectation of externally-delivered salvation, they pray to an idol of mass-social unsapience.

==Point #6. True, what I just described is an extreme version of FIBM. Even Huber and Mills would call for some government-led allocation, I presume. Space telescopes and medical research. Certainly public assumption of countless liabilities so that profits can be privatized.

Still, the devil is not in the details. He lurks in the passion and extreme attitudes of these partisans... and in their cryptic loyalties. As I alluded earlier, when I spoke of techno-transcendentalists who pledge faith in simplistic models, there is clearly something going on here at the level of personality. A desperate need for some all-encompassing magical and simplistic formula.

Take the popular libertarian slogan: “market laws are natural laws.” Alas, like most slogans, it is poorly supported in the light of history or human nature. When challenged, supporters can cite few examples of thriving markets that existed in the past, free of oligarchic GAR. Market laws are natural laws? One might imagine that something so natural would have actually happened at least once, during those long dark ages before the Enlightenment.

==Point #7. Yes, fecund markets have happened since the Enlightenment. Not only markets of commerce, but other “accountability arenas” of science, democracy and law have all successfully diverted the incessant human penchant for competition, channeling it away from cheating and predation, instead harnessing it toward the pursuit of factual truth, justice and unprecedented creativity in the delivery of goods and services.

Rather than manifestations of natural law, these four creative arenas far more closely resemble finely tuned machines that have been hand-built by countless sincere men and women, across several centuries. These machines are not "unguided." Rather, they are guided with a new goal in mind -- the empowerment of individual competitive and cooperative opportunity.

A myriad rules and procedures have been enacted, in much the same way that automotive engineers invented valves and cams and pulleys and gears... that are now being replaced in our cars by computer-controlled injectors and actuators. A similar process of fine-tuning and replacement takes place in a modern society as outdated laws and regulations get replaced. Some of these arena rules were (and are) overly-ornate. Some are even deeply stupid. Others are pragmatic, having arisen out of hard experience, with the aim of helping to harness human competitive-cooperative energy better than before.

Oh, it isn't pretty. An excessive plethora of parts. Feedback loops that struggle and shove against each other. Filthy, corruption-ridden contradictions. Parasites abound and oh, the steering mechanism! Don't get me started on the steering mechanism. Anyone who has a sense of style must be regularly shocked and offended by our messy civilization.

Ah, but anybody with awareness of human history or human nature, has to be amazed that the machinery works at all.

No wonder extreme ideologues of both GAR and FIBM have no patience for all this gritty complexity. The former want the engine put under total conscious control. The latter cling to a magical notion that we got our motors of commerce, science and law without any vision or planning at all.

The core point that must emerge -- that the rest of us must deal with, in coming years -- is just how deeply unhelpful both of these extreme world views really are. How fixated, inflexible... and borderline insane.

==Point #8. And profoundly, prodigiously dishonest!

Not only do radical preachers of FIBM try desperately to divert attention from history's great fact -- that guided allocation of resources (GAR) is just as relentlessly a fault of aristocratism and capitalism, as it is of socialism. Far worse, Huber and Mills -- along with others like Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg -- appear to be either willingly complicit or pathetically unaware that FIBM has become a mantra in service of those who want state authority removed... so that decisions about resource and production allocation can be taken over by other oligarchies.

By other groups that are inherently even less accountable than elected governments. Groups bent on re-creating patterns of hierarchy that are as old as human civilization.

Indeed, it is precisely in the area that most interests Huber and Mills -- energy policy -- that we have lately seen narrow groups of powerful and well-connected men seizing secretive and collusive allocation-authority, free of almost any kind of accountability. Men who decry governmental allocators... then apply every trick of bribery and influence to use government as a tool for power and wealth accumulation. Men who call themselves geniuses, yet have proved themselves to be little better than Louis XVI at guiding civilization on the path of foresight, innovation, error-correction and success.

Men who would read the previous paragraph and instantly hurl cries of "socialist!" in my direction, in order to distract from the paragraph's blatant, obvious - and essentially apolitical - truth. (But you know I'm no socialist.)

This is the central hypocrisy of today's pulpit-thumpers and preachers of Faith in Blind Markets. If they were sincere, they would not only want to lessen government's hand on the economy. They would also be fervent devotees of anti-trust action to disperse every bloated, conspiratorial accumulation of power, knowing that GAR is an enemy of market wisdom, even (especially!) when the hands wielding it are corporate and aristocratic, instead of do-gooder liberal regulators.

Alas, the myopia of FIBM has gone so far that the Cato Institute, supposedly a bastion of pro-market libertarian thought, has turned into the central locus of jesuitical rationalization for a return to feudal aristocratism. There is no market distortion too obscene to support, so long as the beneficiaries are oligarchs, rather than liberal paternalists.

==Point #9. And yet, lest I seem unbalanced, let me turn the other way and make clear that the FIBM rightwing has no monopoly on desperately self-serving myopia and oversimplification!

If FIBM is a betrayal of Smith and Locke, what can we say about the would-be world-savers who would ignore every lesson that we have learned about the fallacy of GAR? Many on the left truly are far-socialistic in their inclinations. They see the abuses and feral power-grubbing of aristocratic cheaters and conclude that capitalism itself is at fault... when those cheaters are the very worst enemies of true free enterprise!

Why are many reformers unable to make this distinction?

Again, I believe it is a matter of personality, far more than fact or evidence. They see a world that is filled with folly and pain. They sincerely believe that this folly and pain can be solved simply by allocating resources, tasks, capital, labor and endeavor in the right ways. I mean, what could be more obvious? Wasn't this obvious to the rulers of every other civilization?

It would take wit, insight and incredible perspective for many of them to pull back and admit: "Wait... I am prescribing the very thing I should hate. What I really ought to want are genuinely liberal markets, in which the state ensures that all players get to know and negotiate and play the great creative game from a level playing field. Yes, that will mean some "allocating" to raise up poor children to be ABLE to compete well. And yes we must allocate to take into account the needs of generations yet to come. But the thing I am devoted to is not allocation, per se! The thing I am dedicated to is giving all people (including those yet to come) a fair chance to play."

==point 10. What can we conclude?

It is a pretty rough and devastating denunciation.

=====     ======     ========

If you are confused, don't be daunted. We have been trying hard to look at familiar cliches afresh, from unusual points of view. And what we have seen is perplexing, complicated, maybe even a bit scary.

Please. I am not saying that all enterprise capitalists are hypocrites. Nor are all liberal reformers deep-down socialist meddlers. Indeed, a vast majority on both sides are not!

Most of us are trying hard to keep faith with the Enlightenment goal of pragmatic problem solving, using an eclectic mix of "right and left-handed tools" from competitive market innovation to reasonable social cooperation. From the quasi-random, supply-demand stimulation of goods and services to the kind of government regulations that tune markets, so that all reasonable costs are paid by the same generation that reaps the immediate benefits. (Instead of passing those costs on to our descendants.)

Indeed, it is that quiet and earnest majority who I am addressing in this article. Because the radicals of FIBM and GAR will not have lasted up to this point. Because they will have already dismissed this as a rant that evades accepted terminology. This essay proves me to be a "socialist"... or else a libertarian "tool of plutocrats." Or a wishy-washy oscillator, rudderless and without principles.

But, again, you know better.


Huber and Mills are probably right that the creativity of millions of unleashed human minds will be applied to problem-solving in the years ahead, to an extent that we’ll find unprecedented and dazzling. Perhaps even enough to bring the positive singularity.

On the other hand, history shows that we have absolutely no basis for blindly trusting that creative cornucopia explosion to happen all by itself! The engendering of those creative millions is too serious and important a task to leave to such a simple dogma! Especially to a blithe nostrum, that has no support in the long history of nations.

True, hierarchical guided allocation proved dangerous and stupid countless times in the past. But not when it has been applied toward well-focused tasks that enhance the capability of millions of human beings to become sagacious individual citizens and market participants! Our universities and internets and democracies and civil rights and commercial codes and free education and subsidized roads and nutrition programs and countless other measures that mitigated the tendency of society to slump into a pyramidal hierarchy of inherited privilege. By helping each generation of kids to believe - in some confidence - that they are able to innovate and cooperate and joyfully compete, we created the world's first diamond-shaped society.

And we did it using judicious dollops of carefully considered gar... (lower case)... not GAR.

If the left is never satisfied in pushing for such things, sometimes forgetting what they are for, the right has no claim to be smug. They take all of these things (like civil rights) for granted, glad to accept the benefits, forgetting that conservatives fought against every last one of them, and now resist every new fine-tuning that might help the great cornucopian machine to work better.

TransparentSocietyIndeed, while I am a passionate believer in the reciprocal accountability principle of Pericles and Smith and Locke - (as evidenced by my book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?) - I cannot turn this pragmatic appreciation into cult belief in a quasi religious version, a caricature of what they taught.

Faith in Blind Markets (FIBM) is neither scientific nor steadfast to the essentially pragmatic mindset of the Lockean Enlightenment.

Nor is the recurring notion of socialist allocation a suitable replacement for a dismally predictable oligarchic conspiracy.

All of these are just slightly re-clothed versions of GAR.

They are crutches for weak thinkers... or else manipulative tools exploited by those who want to be our masters.

They are dismal tales that grab and clutch at us out of the past, unsuitable for sophisticated citizens of an agile and complex and fast-moving Third Millennium.


See more: The Economy Past, Present and Future

David Brin
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Anonymous said...

A slightly different perspective, reaching a similar conclusion (I think)...

I have felt for some time that there are only two general purpose problem solving techniques: Divide-and-Conquer and Darwinism.

DaC is classic logical problem solving:
1/ Break problem into pieces
2/ Can we solve the pieces by analogy?
3/ If not, break into smaller pieces
4/ Repeat on the pieces

Darwinism is:
1/ Take some proposed solutions
2/ Evaluate their 'fitness'
3/ Duplicate the fitter ones imperfectly
4/ Repeat

I do not believe any other methods have been discovered. Most problems are solved using a combination.

GAR seems most like DaC. It requires memory and detailed knowledge, as you point out. Liberty and efficiency demand that we not bind ourselves to DaC entirely.

FIBM seems like purely naturalistic Darwinism. It is stateless and works for species (mostly), but is utterly indifferent to individuals. Humanity requires that we soften Darwinism's impact on those it finds less fit.

Thus we must find an intelligent mix.

Glen said...

Did such a thing happen? Ever?

Market forces solved the looming crisis of running out of firewood, the looming crisis of feeding the world despite population growth, the 1970s "energy crisis", and will undoubtedly solve the upcoming "running out of oil" crisis.

The "market forces" argument isn't that nobody should work on this but merely that "assertive problem-solving" works best in a private context that makes use of the distributed knowledge of the market rather than a government context which doesn't. With multiple competing institutions looking at each problem rather than a single monopoly with poor incentives.

I'm in the "let the market handle it" camp not because I expect the market to perfectly solve every potential problem so much as because I have great confidence in government's ability to make problems worse. Government will suck up resources on highly visible problems in a highly visible way thereby taking resources away from more subtle problems and more subtle solutions that may be more important. Government programs that fail tend to expand and bad funding drives out good. Leaving the economy more flexible and unburdened doesn't guarantee every problem will get solved in time but does increase the likelihood that the most important problems might.

Why do you call it faith in blind markets? Markets aren't blind. Through prices, markets "see" quite a lot of useful information that can't be obtained in any other way.

Why does rejecting a government role mean society can't intelligently plan?

Anonymous said...

Glen, please read again. The entry was not about putting government in the place of markets, but to make sure the markets can function in the future.

Anonymous said...

People interested in this stuff might wish to check out Participatory Economics (Parecon), a bottom-up system of allocation. (I've personally found this instructional useful.)

I consider it an interesting direction, though of course any real-world economy requires experimentation. It emphasizes "participatory self-management"; many of us don't like working under workplace hierarchies, nor the extreme secrecy and lack of free speech many workplaces have. At the same time, planned economies may have the problem that planners can accumulate power. Parecon is one approach in solving these problems.

Incidentally, I'm guessing many here might appreciate Albert Einstein's "Why Socialism," which touches upon many of these issues.

Anonymous said...


I've read your entry from several weeks ago about the plan to elect the president by popular vote. You wrote you don't like the Anderson-Bayh plan (as you called it) because it would allow a candidate to win even if he didn't get a majority of votes.

I must disagree: the point you criticise is what is not changed by that plan. And when you say it would be better with preferential voting you find yourself in agreement with Mr Anderson (and me); on you could see that Mr Anderson and his organisation in fact support preferential voting.

Unfortunately, for a reform to get through, politicians must vote for it, and including preferential voting would mean that votes for independent candidates would no longer be wasted, which would mean they would get more votes from people who usually vote for the big two.

And here it is why the popular vote plan is successful while yours can't get forward:

Under the popular vote plan, there are only two possible scenarios: either not enough states have put it into law to sent 270 electors - then the president gets elected the current way - or there are enough - then those electors, elected all for the same candidate, can make him president without help from the other states.

Since there is no clear advantage for either side, this means that the red and blue states, which send the vast majority of electors, are back in play so the candidates have to campaign there and not just in the swing states.

Your proposal for proportional allocation of electors on the other hand is not inferior, but it will never get through, since you need all the states to cooperate. While in the popular vote scenario cheating doesn't affect the result, it pays off for states in your proposal to switch back to winner-takes-all since it immediately influences the result in that winner's direction.

Maybe as soon as the popular vote plan gets through, there will be an opening to change the constitution, to include both proposals: that a candidate would become president if he gets more than 50% of the vote (with or without preferential voting), and otherwise electors are chosen like under your proposal, and they would vote for the new president in multiple rounds(then, the election shouldn't be thrown into congress since the House is so extremely gerrymandered nowadays).

What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Interesting piece, Dr. Brin.

I wonder if it is out of date, though.

It's possible that we now live in unique times where there is not a scarcity of capital, but an excess of capital.

Ghengiz Khan may have had a huge harem, but Bill Gates seems happy with one wife. In fact, he's got so much money he's decided to stop making it and spend the rest of his life figuring out how to give away his money.

Charitable giving hit a record high last year...and someone just spent $135 million for a painting...America's companies returned record amounts of profits to their shareholders...they got no idea what to do with all that money.

America's biggest export is now debt...which may be the future's most valuable resource in a time of excess capital.

Mitchell J. Freedman said...


In your analysis, which I find much to agree with, the following off hand comment jarred me from my nodding agreement:

"Before we appraise the modern fetishism called Faith in Blind Markets (FIBM), it is essential that we cover the older fallacy of GAR, or guided allocation. This notion contends that society’s best, brightest and wisest should decide how capital will be invested, which goods will be produced, and who will work at what tasks.

"To those who were raised in the 20th Century, this description surely sounds like socialism..."

Best and brightest making the choice, rather than through democratic or republican systems of open government? That description, as you later state, is commissar communism, not socialism--at least not the socialism of Michael Harrington and Eugene Debs, for example. Best and brightest is technocrat talk, which is quite close, aesthetically, to the blind market faith pushers--as Chomsky noted in some of his first political essays of the 1960s.

reason said...


you are a bit off topic. And I think you are confusing financial capital with real capital (hence it is not surprising that vast amounts of it occur at the same time as vast amounts of debt).

reason said...


your comment is never-the-less interesting because I think the history shows in fact that market forces + government actually solved the problems you mentioned. Running out of firewood was solved by mining coal which created massive pollution problems that in turn were solved by .... government regulation. Running out of food was solved by a combination of new agricultural methods, improved crops and lower birth rates, and by agricultural subsidies in Western countries and largely NGO run programs of information dissemination in poor countries. Market forces played some role but it is not clear that it was a major role (or all the socialist countries would have starved). The seventies energy crisis was a political crisis and the solution was also partly political, partly market response (increased supply, reduced demand).

As you say market prices are a great information source - but the value of the information is dependent on the rules that govern the market. Good regulation (e.g. cap and trade pollution controls), working WITH the market can internalise costs that would otherwise be external to markets. Good regulation (e.g. anti-trust, accounting rules) can help prevent market price manipulation. The market is also amoral, society needs to choose the aims, the market should be seen as a (very good) means.

Rob Perkins said...

Dang, David,

You and Orson Scott Card are in just about precisely the same place when it comes to economic policy.

Anonymous said...

I don't see what the buzz is about parecon, and I don't see what makes it anything other than socialism with a Groucho mustache.

The reason that distributed market intelligence works is that the individual decision-makers are, as Dr. Brin points out, sovereign. If your economic decisions are made in a blocked, top-down fashion, you're not a sovereign economic decision-maker. This is true whether the block is the Greater Soviet Union or your city district.

Anonymous said...

"Blind Markets" do involved a significant amount of government. Corporations and patents require government to exist to any degree. Reasons for not fearing a Jared Diamon scenario are that we have patents and futures markets.

We are not running out of energy. Alternatives are plentiful. However, we do have externalities associated with the existing cheapest sources. I think it is reasonable for government to crack down on mountain top mining; we could use a carbon tax to get the market to take into account the global warming impact of existing fuels. Sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and mercury emissions taxes are long overdue for coal fired electrical plants.

Much of what Huber and Mills say is accurate. Especially point 3. Efficiency does not by itself reduce consumption. Just look at the energy being used to power computers these days. We used less overall when computers were made with vacuum tubes.

If you want people to burn less carbon fuels, RAISE THE PRICE. It's that simple. Tax carbon fuels and you can scrap most of the government research, subsidies, etc. You might want to keep part of Energy Star and the EPA fuel economy standard for the same reasons we have official units of measurement.

I realize this is really boring to people with high IQs, but that's all that is necessary. The market will do all the rest. The market hasn't because polluters were able to get away with generating externalities without paying the costs.

Alternative energy is OLD technology. We never would have lost it were it not for the subsidies given to the power companies. The power companies were given eminent domain rights to run their lines. Rural areas were given federal grants to run power lines to areas where local energy production was the more economical solution.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to population and sustainability it seems to me that the last 700 years, and especially the last 150 have been a series of events which exemplify "some grand and superior external force com[ing] to our rescue, averting calamity in the nick of time." The first of these was the Bubonic Plague, which moved a large and technologically advanced but decentralized and robust civilization out of the Malthusian equilibrium for almost the first time by killing 30-50% of its inhabitants. By the time populations recovered it was the discovery of American crops, then guano based fertilizers, then ships fast enough to export excess population and import food, then railroads for utilizing the American Bread-basket, then refrigeration preservatives and other techniques for reducing food spoilage, then WWI and synthetic fertilizer, then the Green Revolution, and finally the demographic transition. Each of these solutions until the last was unsustainable in the face of the underlying problem of Malthusianism, but each came unplanned and unpredictible ahead of time, and each bought enough time for the unsustainable course to be continued until the next solution was found until a solution was finally found that solved the underlying problem.

Anonymous said...

It's not that 8% of Chinese are decended from Ghenghiz Khan, but that 8% of Chinese are Male Line Heirs of Ghenghiz Khan. Through the wonders of exponential series we are probably almost all decended from almost all of the prominant individuals who lived 800 years ago in our continent or sub-continent. After all, we each have, barring inbreeding, 1,000,000 Great^18 grandparents.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure my post is off topic, reason.

The total market cap of public U.S. corporations is "only" about $14 trillion.

They are already owned, and they are earning far more in profits than they need to just replace worn out capital equipment and expand.

Chinese workers save 40% of their income. The Chinese government is struggling to find places to invest all this money.

The U.S. government provides a home for hundreds of billions each year, and U.S. consumers are spending more money than they earn for the first time since the Great Depression.

That's still not enough to soak up all the capital the world is generating, so we are seeing bubbles in anything scarce, like oil, real estate and works of art...

When the needs of the poor are easily handled by modest amounts of capital, and the rich have so much money that they can't spend it all...debt and need become the most important commodities.

Anonymous said...

"In principle, communist commissars were no better - or worse - than any other narrow conspiratorial elite of power grabbing cheaters."
but in fact, as opposed to in principle, some communists, say Pol Pot and Kim Il Sung, were FAR worse than the typical conspiratorial elite, while others, such as Castro, were FAR better. Guided allocation was always the theory, the principle, but in practice pre-modern technology didn't support extremes of centralization so the actual character of the leaders wasn't as important as it is today. Rome lasted for centuries under a series of psychopaths broken by the occasional autocrat or religious nut. Modern nations can't do that.

Also, in practice, in theory, and in principle, the nominally free guided allocation of mercantilism, empire, and crony capitalism consistantly worked much better than all but the best of feudal or communist systems, where free trade was openly and overtly suppressed.

The past really wasn't uniform. Merchant Princes and Princes weren't exactly the same. Likewise, despite the similarities you need only look at Japan and at the USSR to see that collusive price fixing monopolists with political influence are not exactly like commissars or feudal lords. They have similarities, one might even build a useful theory which models them as if they were the same, but life expectancy in Japan is 40% longer than in Russia for a reason

It is good to point out basic principles though, and I appreciate that this is what you are doing.
The complicit unawareness of most Libertarians that "FIBM has become a mantra in service of those who want state authority removed... so that decisions about resource and production allocation can be taken over by other oligarchies. " is a serious problem. I appreciate your efforts to fight it. You seem to be one of the few people doing so in an effective manner.

Unfortunately, I doubt the historical accuracy of your claim

"But not when it has been applied toward well-focused tasks that enhance the capability of millions of human beings to become sagacious individual citizens and market participants! Our universities and internets and democracies and civil rights and commercial codes and free education and subsidized roads and nutrition programs and countless other measures that mitigated the tendency of society to slump into a pyramidal hierarchy of inherited privilege. By helping each generation of kids to believe - in some confidence - that they are able to innovate and cooperate and joyfully compete, we created the world's first diamond-shaped society. "
Conveying my disagreement with the above would require too nuanced and feedback filled a conversation for a blog comments list and we will simply have to discuss it by voice at some point, if you are interested in doing so. My main assertion, which you seem to find unlikely, is that New England and generally the Northern US was Much Much more diamond-shaped before the inventions of those innovations than it is today, not because markets thrive in the absence of designed institutions but because the processes that America has used to refine its institutions have been flawed. My conclusion is that the prospects for large institutional improvement are very small compared to the prospects for the creation de-novo of new societies.

Anonymous said...

"Rome lasted for centuries under a series of psychopaths broken by the occasional autocrat or religious nut. Modern nations can't do that."

You've obviously ignored the last five decades worth of American Presidents. ;)

Anonymous said...


The more obvious response would be that barring Lincoln, American presidents have not been autocrats.

David Brin said...

Grendelkahn, thanks for pointing out that GAR promoters are often offering us socialism in a groucho mask. The whole thing about markets is that they are the best generators of creativity!

Where they fail is in areas of justice and foresight, especially the foresight to evade their own failure modes. The very same modes that prevented ANY real markets from lasting for more than a generation in any society that had both metallurgy and agriculture... till the Enlightenment. ONLY when the market INTERVENTIONS recommended by Adam Smith were actually tried, did the failure mode of oligarchy come under sufficient control that the true burst of creativity could begin.

That is why govt must stay out of doing well-meaning market meddling for its own sake, and yet should keep regulating in ways that actually BENEFIT fecund competitivity. Yes, this includes intergenerational justice! Preventing the ever-present drive to conspiratorially pass costs on to our grandchildren, while privatizing all profits. (The ability of some people to actually DENY that this happens, is mind-boggling.)

But above all, it is a proper role of government to help prevent the OLD ENEMIES of markets from ruining them. No so-called “advocate of markets” is really defending them when he obsesses on govt alone... and ignores 6000 years of history.

I’d like to thank Glen for so-very-well illustrating the approach of market fetishists, which is to recite incantation-mantras about “government failure” that are trivially refutable, yet held with ferocious conviction as tightly as any true-believers.

The absolute FACT that unregulated markets were always (and that’s ALWAYS) subjected to predation and elimination by conspiring oligarchies, is the ghost at the banquet that they always, always ignore.

“Government” (ew!) is the hated thing, even though for 99% of human history, markets were destroyed by oligarchies, not by bureaucrats. THAT is an amazing feat of mental legerdemain! I congratulate Glen for illustrating it so well...

...especially since TODAY AT LAST we have markets that are creative and effective... and this happened because the people and the Enlightenment have used government to rein in the oppressive tendencies of oligarchies! It has also happened because government was used as a tool to lift up the permanent underclass with schools and public health and universities, allowing them to COMPETE!

What I guarantee is that FIBM fanatics will read (nay skim!) the preceding paragraphs and perceive them as socialist ranting...

...yet most of you know, from
and elsewhere, that I am one of today’s heirs of F. Hayek and a principal promoter of markets! My “accountability arenas” discussion emphasizes (much to the IRRITATION of socialists!) the fecund creativity and importance of human competition.

What bothers FIBMers most is that I am not attacking them by dissing markets. Rather, I am attacking them by calling them today’s prime ENEMIES of markets! (Especially since communism - that weird oligarchy - fell into well-deserved ruin and disrepute.) Indeed, FIUBMers re among the world’s worst hypocrites, working with all their might to destroy the thing they claim to love.

Take note that the FIBM response of responding with incantatory mantras TALKS COMPLETELY PAST EVERY ONE OF MY POINTS. Especially my challenge that they refute this: that markets have had far deadlier enemies for thousands of years than mere bureaucrats. Enemies that FIBM fanatics will not let themselves see. Enemies who are acting out of simple human nature. In other words, the temptation of all playground bullies to CHEAT.

Exactly as a bunch of playground bullies are cheating us blind, and ruining free markets, today. (Oh, but FIBMers claim that markets are healthy, because EXXON repas record profits. Some parameter! Me? I choose small business startups as a parameter. And I think that make me much more pro-market.)

*Key point: In fact, my claim is that the synergies of markets - especially quasi-random competitive problem-solving creativity - depend upon LARGE NUMBERS OF EMPOWERED DECISION MAKERS KNOWLEDGEABLY AND OPENLY NEGOTIATING.

On the other hand, FIBM fanatics claim that the necessary attribute is that decision-making (allocating) power should be in “private hands”.

Yes, these two traits are correlates WHEN THE OPPONENT IS SOCIALISM.

But when the opponent is aristocratic OLIGARCHY... they are opposites!

Ambi, thanks for thoughts about electoral matters. But you are wrong on one point. The Supreme Court could, on a simple basis of one-person one vote, require that states allocate E-C votes proportionately... if it were argued well and if we had a real court. Pragmatically speaking, you may be right.

Certainly I am the only person publicly calling gerrymandering a CASTE issue... a self-serving conspiracy BY the Political Caste to deny the vote to the Plebeian Caste.

Monkyboy... I’d call economics out of date when we are not under immediate attack by a subset of the aristocracy that wants to hammer the Enlightenment Diamond back into a pyramid of aristocratic privilege. So these oligarchs sublimate their harem drives with decadent parties with r-oil princes? Big deal. We are still human. There is no limit to the amount of capital that they want (insatiably) to accumulate. There cannot be.

Our hope? That the Bill Gates wing of the aristocracy joins the rest of us in battle, fighting to save the Enlightenment that’s been so good to them.

reason, yes it’s true that discovery of coal -- and vast supplies of wood in the New World, helped solve the deforestation problem in Europe. But what Glen fails to note is that those serendipities were not market effects... they did not happen in all the OTHER places where deforestation wrought havoc (see the book COLLAPSE). Indeed, despite Glen’s eurocentrism, they did not solve earlier EUROPEAN deforestation crises.

Indeed, anyone who has not read COLLAPSE... and answered Diamond’s indictment with an explanation for why market forces did not work in all those cases, is simply a religious fanatic, spouting incantations that have nothing whatsoever to do with actual human history, human nature or human economics.

Again that challenge. show me how putting all GAR into “private (oligarchic) hands” somehow makes it NOT GAR! I’d love to see how that has ever worked.

Rob, I have long noticed that Card agrees with me (what a copycat) on many important issues (except supporting demigods and republicans). I even invited him to join me as co-prosecutor vs Lucas in STAR WARS ON TRIAL. He had very good stuff to say. But wanted both mucho bucks and top billing. How amusing that we share so many fans... and I enjoy that fact while he openly hates it! As I have said many times, surface opinions matter less than personality.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

Perhaps "old fashioned" was a poor term to use.

Many scientific equations only work over a certain range of values.

I was suggesting we are beyond the range where most economic equations work now.

The U.S. government owes $8.5 trillion and American households owe almost $12 trillion...

I'm not sure if America as a whole is worth $20 trillion...we may be bankrupt and not even know it.

In that case, markets being "blind" may actually work in our favor...we couldn't handle the truth.

reason said...

the US may be practically bankrupt but not technically, you owe US$ and can just print them. That of course says nothing about individual Americans.

But you missed my point before. The reason for high savings rates is large amounts of debt - the two go together. Real capital is something again - there is no excess of that. If Asians were not lending the money to the US then the US would have to stop spending - hence the excess savings would disappear. I think you are confusing a financial situation (liquidity flood) with a real situation.

Try this mental excercise can you think of real investments (anywhere in the world) that would improve people's lives and are not being made? I don't think that is difficult. Then the problem is not an excess of real capital.

The problem lies in a disfunctional world financial system. To put it at its simplest the exchange rates of western countries are relatively overvalued and it is a serious problem for everybody. The West should be spending more of its efforts producing capital to develop the poor world than it is. And poorer nations should be consuming more with their increased purchasing power.

Rob Perkins said...

David, you and I are not seeing the same things in Card's writings. The man is a centrist Democrat with a less technical touch to his polemics than you, as a pragmatic libertarian.

Even so, you and he have precisely the same things to say about markets. Copycat? I dunno; he shows no evidence of paying attention to what you write, either...

Anonymous said...

Are we talking about the same (Orson Scott) Card? I thought I saw several articles by him that showed him as religious conservative who said Bush is not just a moderate, but the only moderate both major parties have... Is that someone else?

I think you should contact Anderson or the other members of the Center for Voting and Democracy at so you can influence their discussion at this point before everything gets decided without you.

It's one thing to think your idea is better than theirs, but a wholly different one not discussing both ideas and their pros and contras with them.

gg said...

That is long. It took about thirty seconds just to scroll through it.

David Brin said...

Ed you were WARNED that it's long. This is the qyandary faced by people trying to explain that "both simplistic sides are wrong.". It takes REAL explaining.

Damon UR right that the layered effect of emergent Properties EP that I describe in EARTH is the real deal. If competition at one level is FAIR and operates under some kind of rule set to maximize best outcomes, then competition EMERGES as apparent COOPERATION at the next-higher level or structure.

In Earth I show that thie even happens INSIDE OUR OWN DEVELOPING BRAINS! Though the most famed examples are nature's "circle of life" and capitalist economics.

Problem, ecologies AND economies can lose this emergent property when super predators run amock. And in human societies ALL elites are tempted to cheat and become super predators...

So how to SAVE markets FROM those who yell the loudest that they want to protect them? (By taking control from bureaucrats and putting it into the hands od a few dozen elite, secretive, colluding "private" oligarchs?

Oooooooh, that worked REAL well in the past!

Anonymous said...

Hey David! It's Damien, from SPECTRE/HyperForum/Polymath. Nice essay; I still like your ideas, if not always your presentation. :)

I read the Huber book a while back; yeah, some crazy stuff in parts. I did think they made a good point about energy refining, though, that we've been using (making) lower and lower entropy power sources, and that this is part of our real wealth. (Low entropy: a laser powered by a reliable electrical grid. High entropy: solar heat subject to the whims of the weather.) Some waste from that refining will be thermodynamically inevitable... which doesn't excuse waste from inefficient cars or lack of insulation, of course; they probably conflated sources of waste.

BTW, the polymath list archives are back on the web, if you care. I wasn't able to e-mail you at the time.

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jomama said...

Every single time that you react to a statement by diagnosing it (or me) in terms of left or right, YOU WILL BE WRONG.


Aren't there only ideas, good or bad, irrespective of whatever "school" or "wing" they come from?

Isn't all discussion, colored political, just a detriment to advancement and progress?

Can't we just drop all the politics and discussions of what system suits us best, including "conservative" or "liberal"?

Isn't the "system" coming systemless?

Anyway, that's what I see.

Then we can get back to dealing with each other without ideology, as humans.

reason said...

that WOULD be nice, but unfortunately we only see reality by WAY of ideology. The real error is to see ideologies as reality and not just a model. To the see the map as being the territory. Ideas have relationships to each other and so do not necessarily make sense in isolation.

Anonymous said...


Been pondering your answer to my post on capital.

When looking into seemingly obvious problems, I look up my favorite George Orwell quote first:

We have now sunk to a depth at which re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.

I agree that the world as a whole would benefit by spending capital to improve the lives of the poor.

The problem is, the people who invest in the poor parts of the world have no guarantee they will be the ones who benefit from their investment.

I also agree that the obvious solution to America's massive debt is a massive devaluation of the dollar.

The problem with that solution (the one most economists are counting on) is that it might bring the world's economy down with it.

I think there is something more going on with the huge capital imbalances we are seeing that isn't obvious yet.

It may be that we rely on human capital these days instead of machinery. Slavery is capital has nothing to buy anymore.

While looking up the Orwell quote, I came across this one from Aldous Huxley:

The course of every intellectual, is he pursues his journey long and unflinchingly enough, ends in the obvious, from which the nonintellectuals have never stirred

Maybe we are seeing the end of invention that is becoming obsolete?

Rob Perkins said...

Ambi, I was talking about Orson Scott Card, who also writes political polemic, but he does it less frequently and for a newspaper.

He affiliates as a centrist Democrat. (In contrast, I affiliate as a centrist independent, but I might join the Democrat party just to affect it, a la Brin's strategy for gerrymandered districts)

He confesses a religion, most of whose adherents are not in the United States, but those in the United States generally affiliate either as religious-conservative or as outright libertarians, none of which have any love for Democrats.

He's a social conservative, arguing generally along the lines against things like gay marriage in the same way as Santorum did on the Senate floor a couple of weeks ago. But it would be a fantastic mistake to suppose that family-oriented, trad-marriage-oriented people are also "rightist", part of the insipid nature of the left-right political dichotomy which David rightly points out is failing us, with the best recent example being your boggle that I'd compare Brin and Card and call their economics opinions identical.

And, yes, he did claim that Bush *behaves* as though he's a moderate, in a technical sense, since no "conservative" would choose to add benefits to Medicare, take the immigration positions he has, run up the federal debt, etc.

He did not say Bush was "centrist", he said "moderate". I don't think in Card's estimation that the two are synonymous.

I also don't think that claim is the opposite of David's, who is using his own rubric, after all.

reason said...

I never said the transition from massive imbalance to stability would be easy. Solve that one and a nobel prise is coming your way.

You still think though there is a world glut of savings, I tell you there isn't. The problem is too much debt, creating a financial imbalance! Real capital, real savings and financial capital and financial savings are not the same things. Real savings ALWAYS equals real capital investment (world wide that is), because they are the same thing (deferred consumption). Short term imbalances will result in savings and investment will result in changes in income (since as Keynes pointed out one persons expense is anothers income). If there really was a glut of savings then the world economy would be contracting not rapidly expanding. Basically Asians are saving because their purchasing power is too low and Americans are overspending because their purchasing power is too high (relative to their output). I don't think the problem is difficult to understand it is just difficult to fix.

Glen said...


In some sense, your essay wasn't long enough. I felt like it needed more context, or perhaps just a recommended reading list at the end. For instance, given the claim:

"for 99% of human history, markets were destroyed by oligarchies, not by bureaucrats."

Is that a real dichotomy? My impression is that when markets get destroyed by oligarchs and plutocrats, it tends to be through the mechanism of government. Whether one then blames the result on "government" or on "oligarchies" is somewhat arbitrary. To primarily blame government is to focus more on the institutional incentives; to primarily blame oligarchs is to focus more on personalities and class distinctions. But I'm not sure it's a serious disagreement about the facts on the ground. Is it?

To make that less abstract: Who put Spooner's American Letter Mail Company out of business, destroying the nascent market in first-class mail? Who prohibited local competitive supply of power, telephone service, cable television, and private jitney transport in most towns? Oligarchs alone? No bureaucrats or cops in sight?

Past reviews of Collapse made me disinclined to put it at the top of my reading list, but I'll bump it up a place or two on your recommendation.

Anonymous said...

Side note on the meme war.

My article about Six Sigma mentions CITOKATE and Dr. Brin. The article goes out to 80,000 subscribers (professionals in the quality sciences) a large portion of whom are probably not in this idea-space. (If you don't know what Six Sigma is, you probably won't be interested in the article.)

Let the contagion begin!

Anonymous said...

in support of davids argument - im based in hong kong - heritage foundation annual winner of worlds most free economy.

no competition laws etc.

Result the city is run by an oligarchy of big property developers. who own everything power, supermarkets, cement manufacture etc.

as an example when carrefour tried to enter the supermarket business here it was widley reported that the duopoly of established players didnt compete on price/service (benefiting consumers through the market) but rather threatened thair suppliers they would loose their business if they supplied the new entrant (classic conspiracy against the public)

But its a free economy.....

Anders Brink said...

David Brin's argument would be called arguing against strawmen, except that these BFIM and GAR actually exist, and they hold exactly that opinion. How could these people make themselves into such simpleton caricatures?

Anonymous said...

This is just a plea for shifting the social competition at the level of individual capabilities instead of the level of more organised groups.
Quite understandable from someone like David Brin.
But is it really what it appears to be?
(what is the, possibly unconscious, agenda of David Brin)
Could it work?
(will not the marching morons engulf everything in the end)
Does it really matter?
(will it have any actual effect on the course of events)

reason said...

Rik ... "Socialists (and liberals are socialists-lite) are simply secularized christians."

.... and I'm not in to generalising and putting diverse groups into some large dehumanizing abstract bucket either....

Anonymous said...

Anders Brink said "How could these people make themselves into such simpleton caricatures?"

I think the answer is actually a fairly simple note about general human nature. Simply that us humans seem to like to find the simplest answer to everything. The simpler the philosophy the more elegant it appears to be to its proponents and therfore the greater the need to try and shove the exceptions to fit right back into the model. Overly simplistic philosphies lead to fairly simplistic caricatures, IMHO. ;)

Anonymous said...

The way I see it Guided alocation of resoures survived for so long becouse it was usefull for warfare. But a mostly a failure when used to run a peacful economy, with some aceptions like public works progects. We should admit that the soviets used it quite effectivly in the 1920-1960 producing weapons at 30% of the cost of blind market economys. Until we started making dual use microprosessors and puting them into our weapons they had the cost advantage. In fact the USA won WWII by mixing in a guided alocation aproch with blind markets. I think Brin is right in his diagnois. I am also amused at the twisted logic used to defend either camp. Wake up! they both have ligitamate uses. I think the only way the Blind markets will work in the way Ann Rand libertarians postulate is to completly elimitate war and simutaniusly elimate all state power to start war. Not too likely to hapen in my liftime. I dont have the solution, we all need to work together to come up with it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with pretty much everything in this article but I can't help wondering how any politician is supposed to sell these ideas to the voters. I mean, usually it *is* easier to portray yourself as the anti-evil option (which could mean anti-democrat, anti-republican, anti-communist, anti-big business etc.) for the sake of clarity(?), rather than paint a complex, diffuse picture (and be accused of not standing for anything). Nationally, a two party system just makes this worse because it's so binary. Zero or one, right or wrong, win or lose, life or death, that's the picture that parties/candidates like to paint. No one wants to admit they don't have all the answers.

Bother Doug: "I think the only way the Blind markets will work in the way Ann Rand libertarians postulate is to completly elimitate war and simutaniusly elimate all state power to start war."

You honestly believe corporations won't build private little armies to start wars with?

Anonymous said...

I think more and more transactions are falling outside the old definitions of "markets" and government control.

Money seems like a wholly inadequate means of exchange these days...can't you future guys think up something new?

Well, not these future guys:

Hehe, say it ain't so, Dr. Brin:


David Brin, Ph.D.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand what you are implying monkeyboy, but are you actually expressing respect for the anti-modernists at "sadly-no"?

Anonymous said...

michael vassar:"I'm not sure I understand what you are implying monkeyboy, but are you actually expressing respect for the anti-modernists at "sadly-no"? "

Where do you get the idea from that they are anti-modernists ? Have you read any of the other articles the site features ? Granted, The article monkyboy linked to is of a very poor quality with mostly ad hominem remarks, but it is not modernism that it critizes (and if it did, so what? Even modernism needs it's critics). The writer of the article has some problems believing transhumanism will be all it's cracked up to be.

He's not the only one.

Anonymous said...


I read Sadly, No! because it makes me laugh. I didn't realize it was the clearinghouse of the modern Luddite movement.

I didn't know Dr. Brin was associated with that group before I read the post...and it came as a surprise.

It was like finding out a prominent vegetarian has a seat on the board of McDonald's...

Anonymous said...


Sure, the board at lifeboat is a bit of a "mixed bag", but it does appear that a range of different opinions are expressed by the people there. I just don't get the intolerance of other opinions at "Sadly, No"... that post and the responses are the sort of thing I'd expect over at Little Green Footballs or DailyKos- which is why I don't read that kind of blog. The ad hominems against Kurzweil were a bit uncalled for (if he goes a little far at times, he's still a genius, and I have a hard time calling anyone endorsed by Bill Gates too much of a flake)... and being from a scandinavian region of the country, I don't see what's so weird about a guy with the last name of "Borg" (if a bit amusing for the Trekkies among us). It just seemed like the knee-jerk anti-capitalist, anti-tech reactions I see from many young, middle class liberals who spend their lives benefitting and working in fields transformed by emerging tech (and I say this as a young, middle-class liberal executive who sits at a computer all day). It's like the silly distinctions between "natural" and "artificial" that I abhor... or the way my friends react to different forms of body modification (they think the ugly tattoos that they cover themselves in are beautiful, while breast implants are hideous... I think just the opposite, which somehow makes me an evil pig... sigh...)

mosta said...

I played an SSI game on an Apple II called Cartels and Cutthroats. Much like GAR and Free Marketism. Either way hope we can all get UPLIFTED =)

Anonymous said...


If your idea of "a range of different opinions" includes people who openly advocate the extermination of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims to achieve "a better tomorrow," I think you are taking your tolerance a little too far...

Sadly, No! is, imho, one of the funniest blogs out there...and this guy is even funnier:

Tony Fisk said...

Anders Brink said:
How could these people (supporters of FIBM or GAR) make themselves into such simpleton caricatures?

I think it stems from mental laziness. You may have a theory, but how to present it to the general audience in a way that will get their attention/patronage?
You refine and condense your beliefs into simple catch phrases. The mental laziness bit comes when you start thinking in terms of your own rhetoric, and end up just spouting said catch phrases without recalling just how they came about.

In short, the media becomes the message...

It's a common effect: we all fall prey to it from time to time (especially when trying to score a point in an argument conducted via a blog's terse comments!)

To give a left of field example (although it makes a nice counterpoint to Huber and Mills and their 'waste is good' credo): the conservation movement have set great store in the mantra:

'Reduce, reuse, recycle'

Catchy, alliterative stuff. Yet there's been a bit of angst recently in talk about
'Light' vs 'Bright' green. Yes, lots of people are recycling, but they aren't doing the really constructive thing, and reducing the total amount of waste they need to recycle.

It occurs to me that part of the problem lies in the mantra itself: probably lifted from a set of prioritised points, it was adopted without thinking through a bit of simple psychology: you tend to recall the last thing you hear, so 're.., re.., recycle' becomes the catch cry, rather than:

'Recycle, reuse, reduce'

The take away sound bite to all this:

'beware of your conclusions!'

OK I'll leave it up to you as to whether this makes sense in the current discussion.

Over to...

Anonymous said...

My former landlord (who was also in charge of maintenance at a university campus) used this approach to market forces:

He planted grass everywhere and waited for footpaths to appear. Then he paved the footpaths.

This is bottom-up design. Rather than imposing a structure from above, he allowed the pedestrians to show where they needed to walk.

Some grass seed may have been wasted in the process, but it would have been wasted anyway when the grass was trampled by the students. This method also saves on some paving, which may never have been used. The reasons for nonuse could be that students take shortcuts rather than walking the long way around. It could be that obstructions -- mudslides, fallen leaves, wastewater, lack of shade on hot days, poor lighting -- make a certain walkway dangerous or uncomfortable. Paving footpaths through the lawn guarantees that the pavement will be used.

In this case, the allocator himself used the market's desires -- expressed through action and not focus groups -- to decide what to allocate where.

Anonymous said...

"If your idea of 'a range of different opinions' includes people who openly advocate the extermination of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims to achieve "a better tomorrow," I think you are taking your tolerance a little too far..."

You've gotta admit that there are days when exterminating the muslims temporarily (post-singularity we'll resurrect them all anyway, ala Tipler) for a better tomorrow doesn't sound like too bad an idea.

Anonymous said...


TO: Nicq MacDonald



exterminating the muslims temporarily



Woozle said...

An interesting take on the Predictions Registry idea:


Basically, a betting pool for world events. I haven't looked at it really thoroughly, but it seemed too intriguing an idea not to give it a mention here... ^_^

reason said...

I know Jane Jacobs recommended exactly that approach, so perhaps he got it from her. It is not however a market approach. In the market, you have someone own the grass and get them to put a toll on a particular piece of turf. The paths taken by the rich count for more. It is simply a bottom-up (democratic) approach as against a top down (authoritarian) approach.

Anonymous said...

Frank said...

Bother Doug: "I think the only way the Blind markets will work in the way Ann Rand libertarians postulate is to completly elimitate war and simutaniusly elimate all state power to start war."

You honestly believe corporations won't build private little armies to start wars with?

Oh I think that is exactly what they would do but if history is any guide they would probably fail. Pinkerton guards are expensive and unreliable. They tryed that in the 1880-1930 but were disabled by labor stikes and unrest. They always ended up calling in the government in some way.

But as I implied the point is moot as governments will not willingly give up their militarys. I was trying to point out the idiocy of thinking we will ever achive pure "Blind markets" or pure "Guided Alocation" and how the idea has become our modern form of idolity blinding us to the compromise and expermentation that is nessiary.

Tony Fisk said...

Thanks for the input. I've been re-reading the novel and gradually augmenting the Earth wiki site.
The Terai wildlife arc bears no resemblance to the crisis habitat arks described in 'Earth'. These were intended to isolate endangered species from an environment that was growing increasingly pathological (especially wrt the effects of increased UV from ozone thinning). This is, thankfully, one prediction which doesn't appear to be coming true (Brin actually does acknowledge in the Afterword that the effects of this and global warming were exaggerated for dramatic effect. Ironically, he may not have exaggerated the greenhouse warming enough!).

However, I do find the Terai experiment relevant to the current discussion. It is proceeding, not by active policing of the park (prohibitive in the current political climate), but by encouraging the local villagers to see the park as an asset to them in its current state.

Relevance? Elsewhere, I have read of Semco's experience in the early nineties, when the Brazilian economy was in free fall and they had to take a hard look at themselves. The CEO, Ricardo Semler is a strong advocate of workplace democracy and put the question to his employees:
'This factory is not performing' was their response. 'Shut it down!'.
'But we'll be sacking hundreds of people!' protested management.
'Ah! But you'll be able to afford to give them severance packages if you do it now rather than wait.'
A tough call, but in retrospect it proved to be the right decision.

To which I add the apocryphal fable of the footpaths that doris has pointed out, where the students/residents were permitted to choose their own courses.

Relevance? These examples serve to suggest that it is better to have faith in 'many eyed' markets where everyone gets to wander into the control room and see for themself what's going on! (and occasionally suggest which direction to steer)

The only people who have faith in blind markets are those who want to guide it from behind the scenes, where the blind don't get to see what's really going on.

(Hopefully that's a fair potted paraphrase of what David has been talking about)

Anonymous said...


It's not an apocryphal fable. It happened. I was there.

Sidewalks immediately next to the buildings were poured at the same time the buildings were finished. However, paths between buildings were determined by students walking.

Tony Fisk said...

Sorry! Loose talk. I didn't mean to belittle your example. I have heard of it before from somewhere and thought it had disseminated to the point that it had achieved 'urban myth' status. Clearly, you have direct experience. Which campus was it?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Brin,

Hello. New today, but I've gotten through several articles. I largely agree, but you are even more long winded than I!

What you call "“techno transcendentalism" I have for several years been calling "Scientism," because so many proponents claim "Science" as their god (even in arenas like economics: "Science"? really??), when in fact not only are their beliefs not based on actual science, these people are completely opposed to any honest analysis of their objectively self-serving faith systems. Since I can't in good conscience call them "Scientists," though, I've had to use awkward phrases like "Practicioners of Scientism" Or "Sciententians"... I'm trying to decide if "Techno Transcendendalists" is easier ... your alliteration might win out ;).

I have been hashing out the "free-market"/Libertarian vs GAR "dichotomy" on another blog thid week. I, like you, refuse to see them as opposites, but I have taken a slightly different tack. I am attacking the concept of "blind markets," or any "markets," as operating somehow on their own, with laws that are immutable and necessarily lead to such "goods" as maximum efficiency. Since our markets simply do not exist without our involvement, it is logically ridiculous to claim that they can correct things (or run things, or destroy things). WE do all those things, whether through GAR or FIBM or moderation.

People who speak of "market forces" as if they were laws of physics worship an idol in the purest sense: a human-created cipher whose only power is that granted it by the humans who believe in it. The only true "market forces" are people.

This makes it less easy for FIBM-ers to claim moral or philosophical superiority, since I am not allowing them to remove themselves from the equation. Not that any of them are listening to me ;).

I agree fully that most people who espouse FIBM are in it for the oligarchy.

Anonymous said...

oh, and I wanted to add:
when I was in high school, we were introduced to the concept that invention was exponential (not using the strict, measurable, mathematical sense of the term, just a metaphorical one): the more people (idea carriers) bounce into each other, and the more that new inventions and new resources become available, the faster "invention" will necessarily happen. It might be argued that our current ever-increasing inventive velocity is less the result of democratic choices than the natural result of population development (population growth + iterated technological advances).

Myself, I think the natural trends and the philosophically chosen/imposed aspects are fundamentally interrelated ... perhaps inevitable/inseparable ... but the potential natural development of creative results should also be acknowledged.

Anonymous said...

@Tony Fisk: "Which campus was it?"

In the book "Critical Mass, How one thing leads to another" by Philip Ball another(?) example is given from the campus of Stuttgart University.

Anonymous said...

"You honestly believe corporations won't build private little armies to start wars with?"

For a historical example of this (better than the Pinkertons!) look into the British East India Company, who did build thier own army and fought several wars with it...

Anonymous said...

Well, I've been out on the road for a couple weeks and wandering around cities and marvelling at the many kinds of interconnected things that work together to keep civilization working, so I missed most of the discussions here. But one thing I've noticed catching up on news is how some of the same things Dr. Brin has been saying have been creeping at least into the liberal blogs.

For example, here's Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings on Libretarian and Democrats
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Of course, all the abstract theorizing about markets and freedom and stuff really doesn't do much when Rove's out there bashing anybody as traitorous cowards until Bush withdraws a bunch of troops right before November.

Anonymous said...

kr says:

People who speak of "market forces" as if they were laws of physics worship an idol in the purest sense: a human-created cipher whose only power is that granted it by the humans who believe in it. The only true "market forces" are people.

Oh! Yeah?
And then how do you change the rules of the market?
Changing people's beliefs?
The "forces" are not so much forces than obstacles and impediments to any significant changes of the basic drives which shape up the market: self-interest and greed.
Not as unassailable as "laws of physics" but close.
These are not going away any time soon and will cripple any idealistic (lunatic) whims.
Deal with it!
(not the way of the commies...)

Anonymous said...

Well, anonymous, that was antagonistic without actually arguing against anything I said.

And yes, changing the way people think is more or less the way a couple of markets have changed in my lifetime (rise of organic food, potential rise of Socially Responsible Investing), and I think it is more long-term effective than regulation. But I wouldn't hold back regualtion as a useful tool either (perhaps we should, for instance, be subsidizing clean(er) energy technology development so we can catch the probably inevitable global wave of money, rather than subsidizing petroleum and its reliant machines).

I do think change to market forces (people) is possible. If you don't, I am surprised you put yourself through the pain of reading Brin's stuff.

Anonymous said...

kr says:

"changing the way people think is more or less the way a couple of markets have changed in my lifetime (rise of organic food, potential rise of Socially Responsible Investing)"

Yes, but what was the reason of such changes?
Rationality or just emotional fads?
It is far from obvious than even "friendly looking" ideas are truly good in the long run.
Here I don't pretend to set universal norms by myself, I mean only: will the ultimate results be good to their own beholders.
I DO NOT believe in the "wisdom of crowds":
Crowds are not wise

kr says:

"I am surprised you put yourself through the pain of reading Brin's stuff"
Wow! Pain?
No, and since I (partly) disagree I find it usefull to be kept informed of the "crowd's fantasies"

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: 'I DO NOT believe in the "wisdom of crowds" '

Neither do I. I also don't believe in the "wisdom of the individual". It's not wisdom that you should put your faith in but accountability.

Anonymous said...

Frank: yes. (But wouldn't it be nice if more of the crowd tried for wisdom sometimes ;) ?)

Anonymous: we are all individually and societally in a constant state of experiment. The experiment we call the United States of America has hardly been 100% positive.

Both organics and SRI can be arrived at rationally, although certainly lots of people do them for emotional fulfillment. I don't see that that is necessarily less valid of a reason for action. Rationality can lead one down false paths as easily as emotionalism, because both are only as good as the evidence we perceive and accept.

Since I was a supporter of both organics and SRI long before they became popular, your Wisdom of the Crowd objection doesn't apply to me. If it applies to others, that is something they need to own. But again, an impetus unsavory to you does not necessarily make the actions less potentially good.

Accountability is what will make or break these movements--as it should be. Not whether or not a movement's mental gymnastics were done on the pommelhorse or on the mat.

Tony Fisk said...

Off topic: Sad news.

Jim Baen passed away on June 28.

David Drake's obituary can be found at Universe Magazine.

Messages and discussion can be directed to either Baen's bar, or to the Universe Forums and will be passed along to the family.

Tony Fisk said...

Back on topic:
- I don't have faith in blind markets (interesting emergent properties, but no long term reliability).

- I have more faith in guided allocation, but no trust (may have vision and planning, but too prone to self-interest and hubris.)

- I have more faith and trust in many-eyed markets (whence cometh our help...and accountability)

- Crowds are wiser than mobs. (the latter taking its cue from a leader or cabal of leaders => GAR, which appears to be what happened with Diggett)

Anonymous said...

Tony Fisk says:

Accountability requires power to enforce it.
Where does the power come from...

"Crowds are wiser than mobs."
Did you read the link ?
Crowds are not wise
Crowds are great at guessing the outcomes of any kind of bet.
Crowds are very poor at making decisions, they always favor the most "obvious" option which is CRAP in 99.99% of the cases.
This is why they are called "mobs" whenever they decide to act on their own :-P

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: "Accountability requires power to enforce it.
Where does the power come from..."

There's no clear source of power in a liberal democracy. There's the voting behavior of the population, the spending behavior of consumers and investors, the political powers of the government, the media's powers to expose and criticise,the judicial powers of the courts, the investigative powers of scientists, the power of employers to fire employees, the power parents have to raise their children etc...

In the end it's all about peoples' (or a crowd's) ability and freedom to criticise.

"Crowds are very poor at making decisions, they always favor the most "obvious" option which is CRAP in 99.99% of the cases."

The average or "obvious" option is not likely to be ideal, but usually it doesn't have to be since there are many feedback systems in society with an error correction function. It is rarely one crowd that rules them all.

Anonymous said...

Frank is right. I can think of multiple examples not only in politics but also in my personal life where a group has clearer thinking than an individual. It’s not always the case, but if you stay away from bars and sports events it happens all the time.

Tony Fisk said...

As a matter of fact, I did read the article. It was attacking the Diggett voting system and the underlying 'wisdom of crowds' model it uses. It claimed that crowds were good at quantitative things, but poor at assessing subjective merit. It concluded this from the observed hit rates received on the same article published under two titles of different (subjective) levels of sensationalism.

First of all, the article refers to the specific implementation of a model, *not* necessarily how people en masse actually behave.

Second, it simply describes a crowd's initial responses to two different stimuli (the titles) without describing what happened next. So what? Of course a sensational title will grab the attention of more people than run of the mill stuff. How else do we filter information? The piece might have had more impact if it then went on to compare the 'diggett' ratings of the two (otherwise identical) articles, but it didn't, as far as I can see.

As it is, there is a question of impartiality (does the author have an axe to grind with Diggett because it apparently censored an article?)

In short, I don't the article has anything useful to say about wisdom in crowds or its lack.

However, since we're discussing crowds, I'd like to suggest that there is a distinction between 'crowds' and 'mobs'.

A mob can be easily identified by its chanting:
'What do we want? *brains!*
'When do we want it? *brains!*
The actual chant doesn't really matter, all it signifies is a commonality of purpose: a surrender of the individual's will to that of the collective... which is defined by a few ringleaders.
Hobbes defined life under mob rule to be nasty, brutish, and short. Zombies are expendable.

A crowd doesn't do this. It's quieter. Everyone acts on their own volition, but adjusts their actions to cater for what their fellows are doing.

To repeat an excerpt I gave from 'A Force More Powerful' on the Pope's visit to Krakow in 1979:
"In the days before the Pope came, there were chilling rumours about what would supposedly happen: Millions of peasants would swamp the city, sleeping anywhere, leaving behind 'disease, excrement and corpses'. Thousands would be crushed in the huge crowds. But when one writer ventured onto the streets, he found 'a different way of walking, a change in style and rhythm...the crowd undulated slowly, people moved without bumping into each other, made way for each other.... Civilians kept order;there was not a policeman in sight' A crowd had beheld itself and been strengthened by feeling its own presence."

One crowd that did not behave like a mob.

More mundanely, I see, daily, on the station escalators, people routinely standing on the left while others stride past them on the right. No rules or instructions about how to use the escalators. Yet, every day, thousands of people just... do it!

(Sorry if I offend any 'Flashmobbers' but, what's in a name? ;-)

Anonymous said...


Your quote from The Leviathan, Hobbes was talking about a state of war, "where every man is enemy to every man."

The exact opposite of mobs or crowds.

The actual quote is:

"...and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

He was arguing for a strong government that held people in "awe" so they'd obey the law.

Tony Fisk said...

Fair pick. I think my basic assertion still stands, though.

Anonymous said...

Tony -
"First of all, the article refers to the specific implementation of a model, *not* necessarily how people en masse actually behave."

This is a bit restrictive.
Beyond this specific Digg model the article DO argue about about the general lack of qualitative wisdom of crowds.
And they keep expanding the argument: (older, but see the comments)

Tony Fisk said...

Not ignoring your reply. Just a bit busy at the moment.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't disagreeing with you, Tony. I'm just a big fan of Hobbes.

On your escalator story...I've noticed that people in my American bubble of prosperity are much less likely to obey all the little rules that allow for harmonious transit lately.

From the roads to store aisles, they act as if they are the only one around and feel free to run red lights or stop anywhere to chat on their cell phones...

A subtle sign America is moving from crowd to mob?

Tony Fisk said...

MonkyBoy: Don't worry, I can tell the difference between constructive criticism and jeering.

Do you really feel that manners have been deteriorating in your area, or is it that you're noticing a few jerks (who will always be with us, and who tend to stick out) after reading my comment recently?

Anon: I read the links you gave (or, at least, the 'up to date' one). I don't necessarily agree that the web can be equated to a hunter gatherer society as opposed to an agricultural society. Even if it is, I don't necessarily believe it is therefore inferior.

More seriously, I am unmoved by the assumption that a 'non-dispersed' crowd (ie one whose members' judgment is influenced by that of others) is necessarily going to tend to the lowest common denominator because, well, it *is* an assumption, and no justification for that assumption is given.

NB: I'm not saying it's wrong, just that I don't find the argument compelling.

Anonymous said...

Tony -
"well, it *is* an assumption, and no justification for that assumption is given"

I could argue directly to prove this "assumption" but it will be lengthy and require some knowledge (and common agreement) about systems dynamic.
There is a simpler and more compelling reason that the CROWD will always be wrong.
The crowd "ideas" are in essence emotional reactions based on neolithic life conditions:
If only gay sex caused global warming

Tony Fisk said...

...Well, until you do, the point will remain moot.
And presenting one example as proof is illustrative and convenient (hey, I do it myself!) but not definitive.

*sigh* the firefront moves on, and I'm left talking into the void...

Anonymous said...

Michael -

May be we don't read the same underlying "model" from the same text.

Because, as you say:

"... but all it shows is that concerns follow a "foolish" pattern.
Which may well be true, but doesn't mean 'knowledge' or 'solutions' have to."

HOW could reasonable 'knowledge' or 'solutions' emerge from foolish concerns?

Especially in a "democratic" setting where the majority borders psychosis?
(or "the most vocal near majority", this is enough for the damage to happen)

I am on the pessimistic side in that I assign a near 100% probability to a disaster scenario like Easter Island.
I have not much hope either in "benevolent dictatorship", not because the "dictator" may be self-serving (popular wrath ultimately deal with those) but because he is subject too to antiquated emotional drives which will make him have the same foolish concerns or "at best" have to follow the foolish concerns of the CROWD to stay in power (demagoguery).
The whole debate democracy v/s authoritarianism seems to me as irrelevant as the left/right debate.
The proper solution is likely to be found with some "orthogonal" view.
Any suggestion?

Anonymous said...

Michael -

"not all of whom are foolish at any given moment."

Fortunately, however it takes chance for the good ideas to emerge.
The "filtering process" is awfull a lot is lost and a enormous amount of crap dilutes the good stuff.
May be it is idealism but I would expect that some (yet unspecified, alas...) other form of social control would give better results.

"Society works. Otherwise we wouldn't be able to have this discussion right now."

A variant of the Anthropic principle which DOES NOT prove that society will work tomorrow, that is, given the current state of the world.
Lots of clues that it will NOT.
Generals prepare to fight the last war rather than the next one...
This is what happens on this blog.
It would have been GREAT to sort out all this stuff at the beginning of the 20th century.
For the 21th century it is totally off mark.

Anonymous said...

Michael -

"I agree that it's probably possible to find a better social model and maybe even implement it."

Only if you are really looking for, not playing with "base instincts" as they are glorified in works of fiction.
And I don't mean sex or greed but social base instincts like "defending the tribe" and "chasing the deviants".
Get a clue, read Konrad Lorenz.

"Democracy is the worst form of government possible, except for all those other ones."

That is from Winston Churchill but he also said:

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.


"Things work. They could work better, it'd be nice, but we need to keep in mind that they could also work a lot worse"

Indeed, so we better hurry up before we ALL get screwed.

" - changes should be approached with an appropriate degree of caution."

Total agreement.
However the point is that the context IS changing at an unsustainable pace for our poor adaptation capabilities.
We are likely doomed, that does not mean we should not try.
But try SERIOUSLY, not mucking around with old saws in antiquated ethics and politics.
These did not worked too well since Plato, Confucius and the like, did they?
I know, I know, YOU are satisfied with this, not everybody is, not me at least.
We should use the whole wealth of knowledge in social sciences which is fortunately available today, not keep stirring emotional flicks like any PR guy.
Emotions v/s rationality IS the problem and it may even be that rationality is NOT attainable.
We are not rational creatures, we are not "in control" and even when we try to this brings so serious drawbacks that one has to wonder which option is worse.

See A Selectionist Model of the Ego: Implications of Self-Control [PDF]
also Emotion as a Motivated Behavior [PDF]
The problematic aspects of "rational control" are explained in Breakdown of Will from George Ainslie.
This is just one piece of knowledge among MANY that are likely to be needed.
Forget about Superman...

Anonymous said...

Hello Michael, Tony, Anonymous (if any of you are still looking back) ...

Social change method of proven functionality: discuss around/with kids your best-guess social find them transformative but are more likely to see them as simply interesting (if they are accepted at all), children who have not developed the ability to critically consider your propositions are more likely to acept them as "reasonable until proven otherwise."

Yes this is--or at least can be--pretty evil. It produces, one generation later, a set of world actors who assumes the ideals the parents may have only toyed with.


One has to teach children something, at least as a parent (which I am) ... I try to keep concious awareness of both the "opportunity"(?) and the potential pitfalls.

My social ideal? I use the concept of "careful":

Be full of care, both in your thinking (develop your critical capacity and knowledge) and in your emotional life (again, develop your critical capacity and knowledge!).

Be full in your caring: care for the fullest system you can conceptualize: you, your family, your political group, humans, sentient beings, semi-sentient beings, non-sentient beings, the physical world, the spritual/energetic world, God ... consider ramifications for your actions across the entire world system you perceive.

Every person is fully responsible to, and should expect to be held so by, themself, other people, and every other part of your system. Everything resonates.

(Yes, I hold my children "responsible" at developmentally appropriate levels. Even as adults, we are learning beings.)

Hank Roberts said...

Bit rot: the link in the main post to the alternate political map is broken and the site is for sale;

oh, and spam above and, if it's not cleaned up, probably spam below.

Anonymous said...

Excellent on FIBM.

Too bad the typically mistaken use of the term,"Darwinism," in the first comment says more about culture (this one) and its memes than about Darwin. Darwin is about co-evolution, speciation, diversity, and change on the geologic timescale. That's a book in itself. One would have to try "Spencerianism," or something else,
to suit the comment's purpose. But it's not Darwinism. Darwin is not a Darwinist. Darwin, himself, does not fit the meme that has been constructed around him and projected. FIBM is a disembodied platonic notion, a fond invention of human minds. The scope of Darwin is correctly perceived in Dobzhansky's essay, "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution." In biology-- till now--structure is history, and history is utterly interactive. That's Darwin's key insight. Co-evolution is the only meme that belongs around Darwin.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin, if you can substantiate some of these claims with hard evidence and statistical tests, you will go down in history as contributing more to social science than all those you mention, combined. This sounds more like arm-chair historianism, especially since you stay at the level of high abstraction and give no concrete examples or evidence. The condescending tone doesn't help. I haven't read Huber and Mills, but I am surprised you think Simon or Lomborg would disagree that there is a role for the state. Have events that took place since you posted this (massive bailouts of oligarchs) encouraged you or discouraged you? You advise us to transcend this dichotomy, but it's heavy on griping and light on suggestions for effective action. Harrumph!

Hugh Greentree said...

David, regarding your statement:

"The Supreme Court could, on a simple basis of one-person one vote, require that states allocate E-C votes proportionately... if it were argued well and if we had a real court."

Do you support the idea that the Constitution means anything that 5 justices on the Supreme Court agree on? I believe that would be a very bad principle. Article II of the Constitution reads, in relevant part:

"Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress. . . ."

If the Court were to mandate "one person, one vote" contrary to this specific language, then there would be no constraints on what the Court could rule. That type of decision would possibly destroy the Court's legitimacy and allow a demagogue the President and/or Congress to start a wAR of words with the Court that the Court would probably lose.