Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Thoughts in Between 87: Zuckerberg on free speech; Communism in history; the best essays; and more

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Zuckerberg's big free speech moment

Mark Zuckerberg gave a big speech about his and Facebook’s commitment to free speech - or as he liked to call it throughout, “voice”. There’s lot of commentary, but it’s worth reading the whole thing. This was Zuckerberg very much in world leader mode and, as Rowland Manthorpe says, the real audience was policy makers and regulators in Washington (and perhaps Brussels).

Zuckerberg’s two most interesting arguments are, first, that “voice” is more or less synonymous with progress (one of the most powerful people in the world is a Whig!) and, two, that Facebook represents a bulwark against a Chinese internet that (as he’s been saying for a while) is an attack vector for the export of authoritarianism. Both arguments contain important truths, though I’m a little more skeptical than Zuckerberg that step changes in voice “empower the powerless” so much as shaking up intra-elite competition.

It’s a common tech-utopian blindspot to assume that anything that is good at the unit scale will remain straightforwardly good when multiplied billions of times over. Even apparently fundamental political concepts change at scale, as my friend Jamie Susskind shows in his excellent book Future Politics (which Zuck should read). I certainly don’t believe we should scrap free expression, but I agree with the argument that we lack the infrastructure to make it work in the internet age. There’s lots of work to do. 

What is Communism good for? (Spoiler: not growth)

A major Thoughts in Between theme is the causes of economic growth. Branko Milanovich has an interesting new book, Capitalism Alone, in which (among other things) he argues that Marx got the role of Communism upside down. Pointing to the post-Communist success of China, Vietnam and others, Milanovich argues that Communism turned out not to be the inevitable successor to capitalism, but in fact its precursor - the transition state between feudalism and the market economy.

The basic idea is that Communism, for all its horrors, swept away the extractive, growth-slowing institutions of feudalism and left a countries “ready” for capitalism and, in fact, able to achieve higher rates of growth after the transition. 

It’s an important argument - but economic historian Pseudoerasmus thinks it’s mistaken, as he explains in this long, excellent twitter thread. He points to a long list of countries that don’t fit the China/Vietnam mould - and also notes that when you control for the initial level of income, non-communist countries have done better than post-communist ones. What does explain post-war economic performance? Pseudoerasmus says being an East Asian country seems to be the most important thing. That seems like a big and important puzzle. 

Which essays can you not stop thinking about?

Kevin Simler has a great thread of what he calls "Lindy Links" (named after the Lindy effect) - i.e. "posts I find myself still thinking about at least a year after reading them". He points to some great essays, all of which are worth a look (I particularly like Venkatesh Rao on legibility and Luke Muelhauser on the industrial revolution).

I really like this framing so I thought I'd have a go at compiling five posts I find myself returning re-reading often:

  1. Scott Alexander, I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup - one of the most insightful essays I've read in explaining contemporary politics
  2. CS Lewis, The Inner Ring - beautiful piece on what we might today call status anxiety and why it's the root of so much unhappiness (and bad behaviour)
  3. Gwern, Death Note: L, Anonymity & Eluding Entropy - not only thoroughly entertaining (especially if you like the show), but the best introduction to information theory I've come across
  4. Tyler Cowen, The Libertarian Vice - this post is 13 years old, but I think about it most weeks - less the specific content and more the framework of always questioning what is fixed and what is variable in any argument
  5. Justin Murphy, Turning Left Into Darkness - provocative and fascinating essay from someone on the left on the tension between epistemic closure and actually changing the world

I could have listed many more, but these were top of mind. If there are essays you return to again and again, I'd love to read them - just hit reply.

Quick Links

  1. "Continent cut off". Good thread on why other countries are unlikely to join Britain in leaving the EU.
  2. The millennia-long bull market in efficient killing. New paper in Nature showing evidence for mechanical projectile weapons 40,000 years ago.
  3. Quality not quantity, employment edition. Employment's at an all-time high, but the quality of jobs is hollowing out.
  4. What's hot right now? Celibacy. For some reason, young people are having less and less sex.
  5. Everyone has technical debt. Incredible story about how the UK's phone number infrastructure is reliant on Yahoo Groups (which is about to close)
  6. Bonus: The weirdest thing to happen to me in the time we’ve been running Entrepreneur First

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Until next week,