Society 2 (by )

Six years ago, I wrote up some opinions on how people complain about society, and how I'd like to improve matters. Since then, I've been thinking about the problem on and off, and two different models for human societies that, I hope, might be more fair, productive, and downright pleasant to live in than our own.

So what do we want out of a society? This is largely a matter of personal taste to many. Some want a worl d in which total human happiness is maximised; some want a world in which their own happiness is maximised (these are not nice people); some want a world in which people have the most freedom rather than happiness; and so on.

In designing a society, freedom is a crucial issue, and much revolves around how one defines it. The maximal-freedom folks generally want a world with few rules, and everyone competing for resources; the idea is that the people who are best at obtaining resources are rewarded by getting the most resources, and that this encourages the human race as a whole to get better at getting resources (and then are happier as a result; note that these resources need not just be money, but can be things like the respect of other people). This comes at the cost of "less efficient" people suffering and, presumably, being less likely to survive, breed, and pass their ideas on; also, people are motivated to work hard to obtain resources.

However, I personally feel that such a model does not actually optimise individual freedom. We gain some freedoms by sacrificing others, and need to carefully decide which freedoms to trade in order to obtain maximal freedom (which I feel is almost the same as maximal happiness). So I reject the short-sighted model of libertarianism that seems to revolve around replacing everything with a free market; I think that leads to power being accumulated by the ruthless in a vicious circle, and the rest of us enslaved. Remove governments, and instead we are slaves to the rich. A society that avoids this fate will require the sacrificing of some freedoms, in order to gain more important ones.


One tradeoff I am particularly keen on is that interactions between people and society should be governed by the rule of law. By which I mean: there should be a list of rules, which anybody can read and understand, explaining acceptable ways for people to behave, including what to do when people break those rules. I think this gives people clarity; by knowing and understanding the rules, they can choose how to attain their goals without breaking.

There is one tricky issue with the rule of law: interpretation. It's hard to write rules that will unambiguously cover every situation; the world is just too complex and large. The best we seem able to do to resolve this is to have the rules judged by some kind of court when there's a dispute, combined with a fallback of more general and higher-priority "meta-rules", such as basic human rights or principles, which the rules are understood as just being implementations of.

But having the rule of law implies that there needs to be some process for the list of rules to be maintained, and a process for it to be made available so people can find out what the rules are; and some way of enforcing the rules - that alleged violations of them are investigated, and judged, and that the appropriate sanctions enforced.

And that implies some kind of organised "government"; but it doesn't have to be a government like most countries have today. As long as we can find a way of maintaining and publishing a system of laws that doesn't allow any particular group of people to influence the development of the law in such a way as to give themselves extra powers they can abuse, and a way of ensuring that those rules describing society's obligations to people (investigation, courts, and enforcement of sanctions) are met as defined in the rules (in particular, fairly and evenly, judging cases based on the facts of the case alone), we're all set.

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  • By Faré, Fri 8th Jan 2016 @ 8:42 am

    The big mistake many engineers make is to believe they as philosophers are somehow outside and above society and government is a magical tool that can mold society whichever way they want, for free.

    The one thing libertarians understand is that, no, nobody is either outside or above society, that government is not the tool of philosophers above, and not the tool of people below, but is a natural phenomenon with laws of its own, derived from its principle of unaccountable violence; and before to dream of what it "could" or "should" do, realize that not only its action isn't free (as in, it has a dear price), its action isn't free either (as in, it's constrained in what it WILL do — if it doesn't propagate its own survival through domination, it doesn't survive and is replaced by a conqueror that will do what it takes).

    See e.g. "The Calculus of Consent" by Buchanan & Tulloch on how democracy does work in practice (though with very favorable hypotheses), or "The Myth of the Rational Voter" by Caplan on how these favorable hypotheses do not even hold.

    Once you understand what government is, a lot of things change as to how you approach social engineering (if at all).

  • By alaric, Fri 8th Jan 2016 @ 12:27 pm

    I'm approaching the design of a government as a collective body to handle collective issues; I do agree that governments which become entities in their own right, whose interests may not align with the interests of the populace, then You Have A Problem.

    I've yet to see a convincing blueprint for how humanity can manage collective issues (dealing with emergencies, managing shared resources, dealing with disputes about stuff, etc) without forming some kind of forum to discuss it and agreeing to go along with the outcome of those agreements even if you don't like them - and making those agreements useful even if some people refuse to go along with them. Perhaps I am being too broad in labeling that as a "government" of sorts, and damning the whole concept by association with stagnant Western democracies...

    No, I'm not convinced my "second society" wouldn't also fall foul to the attractor of a power-hungry government propagating its own existence at all costs; I have merely tried to discourage it from going down paths I can think of that lead to that. It is my best stab at a model for a government in the traditional-nation-state sense; I would really like a few of those to be competing for citizens with each other, along with an ocean full of seasteads evolving their own forms of little micro-nation and competing with each other for citizens, and we get to see what wins out... As long as there's enough overall consensus that people should be very free to move to a different society, it should be hard for any despots to do a North Korea and lock their populace up without anybody noticing and doing something about it...

  • By Faré, Sat 9th Jan 2016 @ 6:16 am

    But that's the thing: the notional "government" that you're talking about has nothing to do with the institution of territorial monopoly of violence usually known as "government". If you define it as whichever "kind of forum to discuss it and agreeing to go along with the outcome of those agreements even if you don't like them" — then the closest common notion is market, not government.

    And yes, competition between "governing" entities via free association is the one and only force capable of preventing the otherwise non-competed entity from turning into tyranny.

    In any case, a lot of criticism against libertarianism boils down to confusion between these opposite notions, whichever names you use to denote them (society, government, market, etc.)

  • By alaric, Mon 11th Jan 2016 @ 10:45 am

    I do worry about how to stop "governing entities" from (a) absorbing each other, not necessarily through traditional military expansionism but maybe even just through all signing treaties with each other that make them interchangeable in the name of "standardising for the benefit of free trade", or through simple cultural hegemony; and (b) going North Korea and inhibiting flight of disaffected citizens!

  • By Faré, Tue 12th Jan 2016 @ 5:04 am

    (a) Indeed the Habsburg gained power through alliances and weddings (and ended up highly inbred for it). As long as citizens and landowners have an "exit" option, it doesn't matter how much the entities merge. If they don't then it's indeed guaranteed eventual doom as empires merge together and/or collapse.

    (b) All governments have already reserved the right to inhibit the flight of disaffected citizens: that's what border controls and passports are for. It's the other bad aspects of North Korea that they happily haven't copied (yet). "Citizen" control is precisely what government monopoly consists in.

    The idea that "governing entities" should NOT have a monopoly on either territory or citizens is what libertarianism is about.

  • By alaric, Wed 11th Oct 2017 @ 7:43 am

    Here's some more interesting insights into the problem of government:

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