Tag Archives: politics

Signaling for a cause

Suppose you have come to agree with an outlandish seeming cause, and wish to promote it. Should you:

a) Join the cause with gusto, affiliating with its other members, wearing its T-shirts, working on its projects, speaking its lingo, taking up the culture and other causes of its followers

b) Be as ordinary as you can in every way, apart from speaking and acting in favour of the cause in a modest fashion

c) Don’t even mention that you support the cause. Engage its supporters in serious debate.

If you saw that a cause had another radical follower, another ordinary person with sympathies for it, or another skeptic who thought it worth engaging, which of these would make you more likely to look into their claims?

What do people usually do when they come to accept a radical cause?

Might law save us from uncaring AI?

Robin has claimed a few times that law is humans’ best bet for protecting ourselves from super-intelligent robots. This seemed unlikely to me, and he didn’t offer much explanation. I figured laws would protect us while AI was about as intellectually weak as us, but not if when it was far more powerful. I’ve changed my mind somewhat though, so let me explain.

When is it efficient to kill humans?

At first glance, it looks like creatures with the power to take humans’ property would do so if the value of the property minus the cost of stealing it was greater than the value of anything the human might produce with it. When AI is so cheap and efficient that the human will be replaced immediately, and the replacement will use resources enough better to make up for the costs of stealing and replacement, the human is better dead. This might be soon after humans are overtaken. However such reasoning is really imagining one powerful AI’s dealings with one person, then assuming that generalizes to many of each. Does it?

What does law do?

In a group of agents where none is more powerful than the rest combined, and there is no law, basically the strongest coalition of agents gets to do what they want, including stealing others’ property. There is an ongoing cost of conflict, so overall the group would do better if they could avoid this situation, but those with power at a given time benefits from stealing, so it goes on. Law  basically lets everyone escape the dynamic of groups dominating one another (or some of it) by everyone in a very large group pre-committing to take the side of whoever is being dominated in smaller conflicts. Now wherever the strong try to dominate the weak, the super-strong awaits to crush the strong. Continue reading

Externalizing between conformers

or Why I could conceivably support banning smoking, part 1

Suppose that people are rational and their goals are consistent, and they are free to choose whatever activities they like, as long as they don’t harm others. Suppose we don’t care about equality or whether lifestyles are nihisistic, or anything else Wikipedia claims might be wrong with libertarianism. Should we expect people to approximately end up with the best sets of behaviour? If they smoke, should we infer that they like smoking more than they dislike having lung cancer far in the future? If they watch intellectual documentaries rather than porn should we assume that they have wisely established that they like looking smart more than raunchy fantasy? Many think so, and support libertarianism for this reason.

This makes sense if humans are independently choosing activities. But the all time favorite activity of nearly everyone is doing what other people are doing. This makes such an argument more complicated.

Imagine everyone is doing A. Everyone likes doing B more than doing A, but not as much as they like conformity. There would be a huge gain to a coordinated shift to B, but nobody moves there alone. In some such situations those involved arrange coordination, but often it is impossible. If there are many equilibria like this, and no means to move to better ones, intervention by someone with the power to force a coordinated move could be a great thing.

A good example of this I saw was during first year at college. Everyone used to go to Southpac to drink. I was baffled, as it was probably not just the worst night club around, but actually the least pleasant place I had ever been, possibly but not definitely excluding ankle deep in poo and mud with rotten meat juice running up my arms and dogs clawing at me. When I asked, everyone said they hated it, but it was overall the best place to go, because that’s where everyone else went. It seemed that there were too many people for any student to easily coordinate everyone going somewhere else, so the original equilibrium remained until Southpac was closed down for using (cheap, poisonous) methylated spirits in the drinks. The student council got sponsorship somewhere else, and everyone else went there instead.

Southpac Elsewhere
Everyone else Southpac 2 1
Elsewhere 0 3

Payoffs for Roger in choosing  a nightclub

In the above table, assume ‘everyone else’ is made up of people in the same situation as Roger. Roger doesn’t want to dance alone, so he gets 2 happiness from going to the same club as everyone else. He also doesn’t like being attached to the floor by stickiness and vomit, but it’s less of an issue, so he gets 1 happiness from going anywhere but Southpac. Everyone going to Southpac and everyone going elsewhere are both Nash equilibria, but the going elsewhere equilibria is half as good again.

Why wouldn’t people be able to coordinate to change? One reason is group size or ungainliness. The other is that liking the current activity sends a signal. Suggesting everyone choose a different activity to signal group loyalty for instance marks you as disloyal as fast as refusing to participate alone does.

This doesn’t necessarily mean government intervention is necessary. That might still be worse than freedom, because if the government were to legislate culture it would be hard to verify that they were doing it in only the justified instances. It does seem to mean that free choice will not lead to the best outcomes however, undermining some justification for libertarianism.

Whether we should be concerned about externalities that others choose to bear is a matter of contention. If you should be encouraged against an activity because others want to do the same as you and they don’t like that activity, you should probably also be encouraged not to demonstrate homosexuality where it is unpopular or be ugly for instance. These also harm others, because they choose to disapprove. I think most would disagree that externalities caused by others choosing to care what you are doing should be regulated. I suspect such a sentiment is just a heuristic for allowing those who have the greatest interests in something having control over it, so people should usually be allowed to do unpopular things visibly, but in this case forced change may be a good thing.

Obvious identity fail

Paul Graham points out something important: religion and politics are generally unfruitful topics of discussion because people have identities tied to them.

An implication:

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it’s right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

This seems obvious. For one thing, if you are loyal to anything that incorporates a particular view of the world rather than to truth per se, you have to tend away from believing true things. 
Ramana Kumar says this is not obvious, and (after discussion of this and other topics) that I shouldn’t care if things seem obvious, and should just point them out anyway, as they’re often not, to him at least (so probably to most). This seems a good idea, except that a microsecond’s introspection reveals that I really don’t want to say obvious things. Why? Because my identity fondly includes a bit about saying not-obvious things. Bother. 
Is it dangerous here? A tiny bit, but I don’t seem very compelled to change it. And nor, I doubt, would be many others with more important things. If you identify with being Left or Right more than being correct to begin with, what would make you want to give it up? 
Ramana suggests that if having an identity is inescapable but the specifics are flexible, then the best plan is perhaps to identify with some small set of things that impels you to kick a large set of other things out of your identity. 
What makes people identify with some things and use/believe/be associated with/consider probable/experience others without getting all funny about it anyway?
As a side note, I don’t fully get the concept. I just notice it happens, including in my head sometimes, and that it seems pretty pertinent to people insisting on being wrong. If you can explain how it works or what it means, I’m curious.