The irony of faith in blind markets – by David Brin
Almost everything you say is true in a sense, and I align with much of it, and yet to me it still missed the point.
I am not in any way in favour of centralised control. I strongly favour decentralisation, and individual freedom. And I see evolution in a different light.
[ what follows is largely taken from previous post]
Darwin clearly demonstrated the role of competition in evolution, and that has quickly entered the popular consciousness – the whole “nature red in tooth and claw” thing. And it is only part of the picture, an odd caricature in a sense.
Evolution has always been about the roles of both competition and cooperation.
The more complex the entity, the more important the many roles of cooperation in its being, and competition in its getting there.
And raw cooperation is always vulnerable to exploitation by cheating strategies, so at every new level, cooperation requires attendant strategies to prevent invasion by cheats, and at every level there will continue to be a sort of “evolutionary arms race” within levels of cooperative systems between potential cheats finding new cheating strategies that evade detection, and the cooperative system finding new strategies that bring the cheat back to cooperation. From a systems perspective, there can be no end to that process, at every level, eternal vigilance is required by those within the cooperative, both to detect new cheating strategies, and to develop effective counter-strategies that make it in the self interest of the cheat to come back within the cooperative.
And within all of this complexity, there exists a vast array of common over simplifying assumptions at every level, that lead many to sub-optimal outcomes in terms of both understanding and incentive to action.
Within the highest levels of commitment to life and liberty, there is an extremely difficult exercise of creating boundaries that both respect life, and empower liberty. It is extremely difficult to empower liberty without posing significant risk to life. Nothing is simple.
One of the most profound problems that exist right now, is the dominance of market values in our society.
To a good first order approximation, money rules.
It seems that most of the intellectual justification for this comes from a mistaking of correlation with causation.
Throughout history, free markets have been associated with freedom and prosperity.
Many people have taken that association to mean that money (the market measure of value) must be at the root of this freedom and prosperity.
It now seems clear that such a causal association was a mistake.
It seems that the greatest prosperity coming from markets was from the distributed trust networks between traders, that allowed individuals to make reliable judgements.
It seems that high level cheating strategies within economic thought have exploited that mistake of correlation with causation, and have managed to put monetary systems at the top of our governance systems.
This appears to be a logical error.
What is needed is distributed trust networks within a cooperative context. It seems to be decentralisation of control (trust in a reliable context) that most reliably delivers liberty.
Freedom is the result of distributed trust networks within a cooperative context, not the freedom of capital.
Capital has many tendencies to be exploitive to the cooperative, as even Adam Smith noted.
Markets and capital were great tools in times of genuine scarcity, but they cannot work well in contexts of universal abundance.
The social utility of markets degrades rapidly as our ability to automate production increases.
Exchange based thinking tends to be intensely short term and self centred and tends to ignore the needs of the many levels of our cooperative existence.
And automation is not yet at the point it can entirely automate all goods and services, and it is rapidly approaching the point that production of all essential goods and services could be fully automated (water, food, housing, healthcare, transport, communication, education, sanitation, energy, recycling). Such automation should be able to be fully distributed.
So yeah – its complex, far more complex than most people have even the slightest inkling of.
One of the major issues with human brains is that we form habits, and under stress our brains revert to earliest habits.
In logic, we must all start from simple binaries.
Thus, under stress, we all have a strong tendency to revert to the simplest binary “truth” our brain associates most strongly with that particular context. That worked well when stress came from big cats or bears or invading hordes, but doesn’t work so well in times of abstract economic and social crises.
The evidence in logic is now clear, that provided that there is actually enough for everyone, then cooperation is always more powerful for everyone than competition.
And we are now at the stage in our development as a species that we need to go to a level of universal cooperation, and put significant effort into developing systems that can support everyone (no exceptions) in a high standard of living, with high standards of security. The only logical alternative is not really safe for anyone.
We all get far more by cooperating, than any can get by cheating, however unlikely that may look to most right now.
Exponential technological development does actually have the ability to deliver that, but not in a competitive market context. Markets must (in logic and in practice) value universal abundance of anything at zero. This is why automation must break markets, and that need not be a bad thing for individuals, if, and only if, we structure the systems to distribute that automation universally and use it to empower everyone.
Transition is going to be “interesting”.
Again David, I agree with all you wrote, and it still misses something essential.
Competition is only part of the package.
Cooperation is every bit as important, and the more complex the systems the more essential is cooperation.
The focus on competition, without even a mention of cooperation, is “out of whack” – unreal.
What you are calling “regulation of arenas” is far more accurately characterised as cooperation.
Just look at the levels of cooperation present in complex systems like human beings. RNAs to proteins, RNAs and proteins to give lipids, DNA, cells and organelles, cellular specialisation to give organs, nervous systems, etc. Then move into the social arena. So many cooperative levels within culture. We humans are born helpless, without the cooperation of parents and culture more widely we are dead. So many levels of cooperation within culture.
I spend much more than 80% of my time in cooperative activities that have no financial gain, and they are all directed in a sense towards what I see as my own long term best interests, on a 50-100 year time-scale.
We don’t all compete with each other.
Sure there is some competition.
Sure we all enjoy competition to a degree.
Sure there is a competitive aspect to markets.
And my particular company has established a reasonably stable niche, in which we supply a service at a cost that is hard for a competitor to match, given that it would take a couple of million investment to improve on our product, and it would take decades to recover that investment if you could convince our clients that your new product was better, and you could provide a better service (and that is doubtful). So most successful entities find stability in niche specialisation that largely avoids competition – one sees that at every level.
So yes – competition is a powerful thing, no argument, and cooperation is at least as powerful, and in higher order systems, much more powerful, provided it has sufficient attendant strategies to effectively mitigate the risks from cheating strategies. And clearly our modern financial systems do not have such attendant strategies, as they do in fact seem to be dominated by cheating strategies at several levels.
And you have not actually addressed the issue of how individuals are supposed to generate value in an age of exponential expansion of automation. No doubt you and I could hold out much longer than most, but what about the drivers, the cleaners, the waiters, the plumbers?
My son spent 2 years going to hundreds of job interviews before finally securing his first job, beating off 200 other applicants. He is now in reasonably high paid employment and enjoying what he does. The really scary thing is, that he is really bright, really motivated, and highly skilled, and he still had that reality.
The market system cannot deal with full automation.
Universal abundance drives markets to zero value.
That is a fact.
Oxygen in the air is the prime example.
Arguably the single most important thing for any human, yet of zero market value due to universal abundance.
Markets cannot deal with universal abundance.
Markets require scarcity.
Unemployment and poverty are necessary components of a market system.
Automation offers us the ability to ensure every individual has all they need to do whatever they responsibly choose.
The best three programmers I know have all stopped doing work that puts people out of work, but others are doing it, if more slowly and expensively.
There is another way out of this mess.
I love your work.
I hugely respect your intellect.
The issue is beyond competition in a sense.
With automation reaching the point that we can now develop systems that do not require anyone to do anything to maintain them, then the whole game changes.
Labour is no longer of value in an exponentially growing set of classes of goods and services.
That really is a game changer.
We have a choice here.
And that choice is really important.
Do we choose to value life and liberty, universally?
I say yes!
I say that requires the development and deployment (universally) of fully automated production systems, that deliver all the essentials of life and freedom to everyone. And that comes with a requirement to use those tools responsibly, with due regard for the life and liberty of everyone else. And that is going to take some education, at many levels.
I say that now that such a thing is realistically possible in a realistic time-frame, there is both a moral imperative and a personal self interest imperative to do it.
Sure we can use competition as part of the process, and at the highest level, it is a cooperative exercise.
What say thee?
To the degree that we have approximated flat open and fair competition, that has certainly been a part of how we have gotten to this point.
What I am saying is that automation has the ability to change everything, in such a way that the past is no longer a good predictor of the future.
The role of competition is reducing.
At each new level of cooperation, competition becomes less useful.
So much more can be achieved by cooperation – orders of magnitude more – for everyone – all levels.
We have the technical capacity to completely remove the need to compete for survival.
Guaranteeing survival allows for something that has never previously existed.
It is the game changer.
Market competition cannot get us there, for the simple logical fact that markets require scarcity to deliver value, and cannot assign a positive value to any universal abundance. They can (and have) taken us a long way – and the next step must be outside of the competitive market framework.
You have played eloquently with enough paradigms in your time – spend a few hours on this one, and tell me if I’m wrong!
I don’t see it that way.
Just consider oxygen in the air.
We don’t compete for that.
It is just there. Vitally important to both of us, yet radically abundant, and therefore no need of competition.
It is just so much a part of being we don’t even normally consider it.
And yet it is there, arguably the single most valuable thing for every human being, and of zero market value.
Now consider that we have the possibility of delivering all of the essentials of life for a human being (every human being) at a similar level of universal abundance to that of air.
We could design and implement fully automated systems to deliver:
1 clean water
2 nutritional vegan food
3 safe, comfortable shelter
4 freedom to travel where-ever you responsibly choose
5 recycling and sanitation systems
6 communication systems
7 medical care
to every person, yet there is no economic incentive to do so, because to do so would remove all economic activity related to those goods and services (and give people the option of engaging in employment or not).
Consider that as an undergrad (finished 3rd year) biochem student in 1974 it became clear to me in logic that we would at some point be able to extend life-spans indefinitely. So the next question became, what sort of social, technical and political institutions are required to give the sort of risk profiles to actually allow people to live a very long-time.
I have been 41 years in that enquiry, and have explored many strategic domains.
I am not in some simple binary mode here.
I am talking about extremely complex multidimensional strategy spaces.
I am not suggesting that there be no competition.
I enjoy competition as much as the next guy.
I used to love the Dr Dobbs programming contests back in the 80s – both the shortest code and least number of machine cycles.
I love playing golf.
I definitely have and appreciate my competitive side.
And, I have this side that wants to be able to live a very long time, and has spent a lot of time exploring the sorts of strategy spaces that allow that to happen.
It is not at all stable to force people into competitive strategies for survival. No-one can live a long time in a strategy space with that as the basis.
The basic survival space has to be strongly cooperative, and the easiest way to stabilise that (as per Axelrod) is to fully automate it.
I know you are capable of high levels of abstraction. This requires as many levels as you’re willing to throw at it.
I have (briefly) chased it out to twelve levels. It is almost impossible to effectively communicate even a third level abstraction.
What I am saying is, that if we want to live a long time, then we need to change the strategic base of the systemic environment in which we live. It must have a strong cooperative base.
What people choose to do from that starting point is entirely their choice.
Within the constraints of universal respect for life and liberty, they can do whatever they responsibly choose -as competitive or as cooperative as they choose.
And if one wishes to have a realistic chance of living a very long time, then the system has to have that strongly cooperative base (and full automation appears to be an effective attendant stabilising strategy).
Clearly our system today does not have such a base.
Clearly, no system based on exchange values (market values) can ever deliver such a system as a result of its native set of internal incentive structures. Getting there requires a higher level choice.
That is all I am saying.
You do earn your “grouch” handle!
I am not writing about the plans for a replicator directly, but rather of the systemic environments that will encourage or discourage the development of such a thing long term.
We are a long way from a full blown replicator capability at present, and we could potentially fully automate the production and distribution of a limited range of goods and services right now.
What I am trying to do is to get people to look at the systemic incentive structure produced by implicit assumptions that few ever consider.
My purpose is to enable choice by creating awareness.
It’s hard to choose what one cannot distinguish.
It’s kind of like Richard Dawkins described in the few pages from page 314 of “Brief Candle in the Dark”, of his debate with Steve Gould, except at the next level of abstraction.
I completely align with Richard, as far as he has gone, except I have gone to the next level of abstraction (and beyond), and that is almost impossible to communicate. Richard failed to communicate to Steve even at that level, how much more difficult my task.
And there is some truth in what you said – I see that, clearly. And what I am trying to point to is something two levels of abstraction removed. And at that level, there is a very clear distinction between cooperation and competition, as there is at all levels in a sense.
Darwinian selection is about survival.
It need not necessarily imply any sort of direct competition, and it often does.
Often survival can mean effectiveness at surviving some external factor that does not involve resource competition between individuals of a population.
And often there is direct competition between members of a population for survival.
These two different senses of the meaning of the term competition are very important, and sometimes they are not clearly distinguished.
In the realm of Games Theory, keeping the distinction is essential, because the systemic topologies that result are very different.
If survival is largely the result of overcoming outside of group threats, then there can be strong selective pressure for higher level in-group cooperation.
If survival is largely the result of overcoming in group competition for limited resources then there is strong pressure against higher level cooperation.
Being very clear about this distinction – the nature of the systemic environment and the nature of the incentives on the resulting topologies is critical.
It seems that the relatively low rate of reproduction in humans, and the relatively common occurrence (in geological/evolutionary time) of external factors that lead to very large reductions in populations, has meant that for most of human history we have lived largely in the first sort of environment, that has favoured high levels of cooperation.
When you look at the fact that our expansion of technological capabilities far exceeds our population growth rates, and then look at the systemic incentive structures imposed by the implicit assumptions of our major valuation paradigm in use (money and markets); then (at this second level of abstraction) the disjunct is clear.
Markets are now rapidly approaching (if they have not already past) the point at which they deliver greater threat to individual survival than they deliver in benefits (for all the benefits that they do most certainly deliver).
We have the technical ability to deliver a new paradigm – one with far greater security – an abundance based paradigm, of full automation of production.
And nothing is risk free.
It seems clear in logic that there will always be risk profiles associated with existence. Infinities are necessarily like that.
Absolute security is a myth – that much is clear and indisputable.
And one can push the probabilities a long way in one’s favour. And it seems clear that, provided that there are sufficient resources for all to survive and exercise reasonable freedom, that the most stable strategic set is one based in cooperation, and abundance of all the requirements of survival for all – rather than one that forces individuals to compete for survival within group.
Automation gives us the ability to deliver that strategic environment without requiring any significant ongoing labour (other than the eternal vigilance that has always, and will likely remain, the price of liberty).