Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #26

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Visions of a post-liberal world

Threats to liberal democracy have been a common theme in TiB. I've commented more than once that, despite liberalism's trials, it's hard to find compelling visions of an alternative. This week I came across Patrick Deneen's book Why Liberalism Failed (or, if you don't want the whole book, an excellent long interview with the author on TiB favourite EconTalk), which, while ultimately unpersuasive, is an important challenge to lots of cosy assumptions.

Writing from a Catholic social conservative perspective, Deneen argues that the idea of individual freedom on which liberalism is built is rotten. For Deneen, individualism is a red herring; it is religion, community and family that bring meaning and fulfilment and on which a good society is founded.

There are many critical reviews out there, but for me the single biggest problem is that Deneen has no good refutation of liberalism's obvious successes - above all in health and life expectancy - compared to what came before it (Russ Roberts asks him about this an hour into the EconTalk interview). I listened to the podcast just after reading Sam Bowman's excellent essay on why liberals shouldn't call themselves centrists. I remain of the view that liberalism, like democracy, isn't perfect, but it's better than everything else we've tried.

What's the optimal level of fraud?

Chris Dillow has a good review of Dan Davies' new book, Lying for Money. The book looks at (in)famous frauds and tries to explain what makes fraudsters do it - and what makes their victims fall for it.

Davies makes the argument that people are more likely to fall victim to fraud in high-trust societies (he calls it the "Canadian paradox"...), because high levels of trust make people more willing to do business with strangers. In low-trust societies, by contrast, people are much less likely to collaborate with people they don't know, which protects them from a lot of fraud, but in turn reduces the overall level of economic activity.

This leads to the interesting observation that the optimal level of fraud is not zero. You can reduce fraud to close to zero by ramping up the level of social paranoia, but the trade off isn't worth it (It reminds me of the Peter Thiel comment I quoted a few weeks ago that you can have too little corruption in a country). More broadly, there's a wonderful genre of ideas in this vein, first introduced to me by my friend and colleague Alex, called Umeshisms. The canonical example is "If you’ve never missed a flight, you’re spending too much time in airports", but perhaps it's as true to say, "If you've never been the victim of fraud, you're not taking enough risks with strangers".

What's the most important thing that ever happened?

Kevin Simler asks a typically interesting question: What is the most important thing that ever happened?

You should read the whole thing, which is a short thread, but the spoiler is that, for Simler, the most important thing that ever happened was the emergence of life in the universe. Why? Because once you have life you have learning, which enables much, much faster cumulative change. Simler links to an excellent post by the always-interesting Eliezer Yudkowsky, which tells a brief history of the universe through the lens of the universe "searching" for its first self-replicating collection of matter (say, something like RNA). As Yudkowsky points out, one of the fascinating things is that "no extrapolation of previous trends" could have identified this moment; it was the ultimate Black Swan.

Simler argues that the next major acceleration of learning after the emergence of life was the emergence of humans... and the one after that may be artificial intelligence. It reminds me a little of some of Yuval Harari's ideas - and is certainly worth grappling with:

The big thing to watch for, then, are AI systems capable of self-sustaining knowledge accumulation. An open-ended machine culture. It's a ways off — but it's coming, and it's very important.

Quick links

  1. Entrepreneurs are not like other people. Founders are statistically more likely to have mental health conditions
  2. Killing me softly. Impressive advances in robot dexterity.
  3. America is not full. How does the United States use its land? Superb graphics by Bloomberg.
  4. Define "exciting". Which countries' populations report the best sex lives? Safe-for-work chart.
  5. Which country has the richest "politicians"? It's not even close.

Your feedback

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Until next week,