Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Capitalist Pilgrim's Progress

(Heavens, I hadn't realized I had so much to say about this. This is a comment to a comment at: http://secondthoughts.typepad.com/second_thoughts/2008/04/two-religious-d.html . I'm posting it here as I wanted to be able to find it again.)
I'm glad you contributed that post, Croquet. I always marvel that people don't seem to broadly understand these truths. Why do you suppose that is?

I'm really not sure. Despite having made the gradual transition over my life from being a left socialist to a borderline anarcho-capitalist (NOT a Rand-droid) I can't give any definitive answer. Maybe if I write up my path to enlightenment it'll make some sense of the matter.

I started out, as most do, with the beliefs of my parents who are well meaning Canadian social democrats. They were both well educated, and had been born in the 30s. In contrast to this, the surrounding area was much further to the right of center (in Canadian terms) as it was a rural area with an Air Force interceptor airfield. As part of my rebellion phase I became more leftist, seeking to contrast with my environment. The ideals of Communism, particularly the projected end states (the state withering away, everybody living in prosperity) are very attractive.

During the late 70s in order to come to terms with the possibility of being vaporized in 30 minutes I started reading available materials on the USSR, military theory and practice, wargames, and history. Here I started really noticing the gaps between the claims of the collectivists and the various observations of life in a real Communist state. At the time I did accept the arguments claiming that capitalist propaganda and transition stages were the reasons for these differences, but the seeds were planted. A reading of "The First Circle" late in this period didn't help either. Meeting some Vietnamese boat people attending my high school also made me wonder about the claims of the Communists both local and remote.

But some of this got ignored away when I discovered computers in the late 70s and became deeply involved in learning about them. The most relevant aspect to this tale is I started learning about failure and correctness. The computer is the worlds greatest device for showing you how stupid you really are. It does not excuse you for having good intentions. If the program is written incorrectly, the program will not work. Writing a correct program can be difficult and in the process you learn about accepting failure, finding the bad assumptions, then fixing them. To be the best possible developer you can't afford face saving illusions. And for some of us that attitude transitions from computers into the rest of our lives.

After high school, in the mid-80s I was off to University. Here a got a massive exposure to many more viewpoints and I got to compare them in the wild. This would be where the real drift started. I was a computer science major and, as is traditional, the faculty in engineering and sciences was generally more right than the arts faculty. And I got to meet real north american communists, marxists, leninists, maoists, trots, and various others in various combinations. I got to watch their bickering and obscure politicking, looking for all the world like a bunch of religious sects. Then it hit me that that is what they were, with the Gospel of Saint Karl and various apocrypha for holy texts. Now, since at this point I has already become somewhat skeptical of religion, this made me look more closely at the core tenets and implications of Marxism.

I didn't like what I found. Particularly in light of what really happens in systems that claim to be Communist. A key concept in user interface design is that of _affordances_, the set of actions that the design of a system makes easy and logical to do. And the affordances of Marxism are corruption and domination by the strongest wills. For humans, at least, collective ownership doesn't work as if it's owned by everybody it's owned by nobody. Instant tragedy of the commons. Or it'll end up effectively owned by whoever has the strongest will (via preference maximization), but they can hide their actions behind claims of the will of the people. Essentially, Communist principles, when put into practice, lead to totalitarianism. Every time. I guess there is a statistical chance that it won't happen, but I imagine the probability of that to be very very small. It would be like balancing a short piece of wire on end at the tip of a long pole, possible but inherently unstable without a lot of supporting action. And the initial conditions in Russia guaranteed a faster slide than most.

At this point I started back into reading about the USSR, this time reading for consistency of claims, especially with respect to my new understandings. John Barron's books, while probably written as a CIA funded propaganda exercise, managed to be much better on consistency with other reliable sources than the odd emanations from behind the Iron Curtain. And I started seeing the heroism of the common people of the USSR trying to "build socialism", a doomed effort that could never succeed. I learned about the nomenklatura, the feudal masters of the USSR. I learned about the KGB and Iron Felix. I read the Gulag Archipelago. Further back in time there were the peasants under the Tsar, the Muscovy Princes, and Mongol tax practices and the court at Sarai. And I learned how Russia in many ways hasn't changed since the Mongols left. The leadership owns everything, the people own nothing, not even their lives. And somewhere in there I failed out of school.

And then the USSR fell over and we got to look at the records and archives and talk with the people. And lo, while both sides were guilty of spouting propaganda, it seems that the lies were strongly one sided.

Possibly the most interesting revelations were the ones on "active measures" or dezinformatsiya. And I'm thinking this is where our current problem starts. The "long march through the institutions" was very successful and has left massive ideological residue in western society to this day. Victim-ism, moral and cultural relativism, political correctness, and transnational progressivism all stem from or were amplified by the deliberate Gramscian subversion guided by Directorate A of the KGB. This occasionally backfired on them, for instance some of the various unilateral disarmament groups they started eventually went out of their control and became supportive of bilateral disarmament. On the whole though it was very effective as it gave the collectivists control of many institutions. And the people we argue against went to these institutions and received instruction from these collectivists.

The other interesting note to me was looking at the lists of agents of influence and realizing that, while his methods were disgusting and contrary to liberty, Joseph McCarthy was substantially correct about the identities of communist agents. Not something I expected to see.

In the mid 90s, I started working with a number of Russian immigrants. I asked them about the situation in Russia during the Communist era. And was only mildly surprised to find that in many cases the awfulness of the situation in the USSR was understated in the books I had read. Probably the most delightful discovery though was that Viktor Belenko's reaction to the north american supermarket wasn't unique or a propaganda lie. I also acquired a taste for Pertsovka and probably took a few years off my liver.

I think what finally clinched it for me was economics. In the late 90s I ran into Austrian school economics and their insistence on strict logical argument from a priori assertions and observed facts. The basic Austrian school praxeological arguments in favor of the subjective theory of value are as iron clad as I can imagine. And you really can't argue with their minimalist assertions on human behavior and action. If you did, you'd find yourself biting your own tail quite quickly. There are gaps in praxeology: there still is no theory of conflict and the excursions into game theory are quite limited. I think if I were to be suddenly 20 years younger I would go into those areas of research as there are lots of places open to make a name for yourself and it looks fascinating.

The other aspect of Austrian school economics that struck me was "the calculation problem". You can view the price system as a signaling device that lets us know how others value things. We then run our own calculations internally as to what things are worth trading according to our personal valuations. It is a distributed calculation, carried out in parallel by all of us and over time it converges towards efficient pricing and resource allocation. A socialist or communist government cannot do the same thing in a centralized fashion because 1) it would require too much computational capacity and 2) you can't determine the personal valuation calculations of all of the individuals involved (and these calculations vary over time). These two things taken together guarantee that the economy in a centralized system will constantly misallocate resources. The various shortages in the USSR were a beautiful illustration of this.

I can still think like a socialist when I have to and this has been invaluable in the various arguments I get into from time to time on the topic. If there were a real life permanent report card mine would read "Does not suffer fools gladly." I tend to get into these arguments more than most. This is also why I enjoy reading your arguments with the foolish. I often don't agree with your solutions but I usually agree with your statement of the problems.

So, looking at my life, I have to note some key attitudes of mine that don't always mesh with the rest of the world's:
* Don't assume that if a package says cigarettes on the label that it actually contains cigarettes. Because someone claims to be doing good things doesn't mean they are.
* Good intentions mean next to nothing. Action, and doing right action, is key.
* Facts are our only signposts into an uncertain future. Get the facts.
* Sometimes the extremes are correct. Most people assume that in some situation where two sides are contending on a social issue that the "truth lies somewhere in the middle". It is this assumption that makes the Big Lie technique work so well.
* Individual liberty is *important*. The ability to self own and self direct is what it's all about. If a society or government denies this then it's morally invalid.
* Don't assume that "when the revolution comes" that you will be on top. If more people believed this then transnational progressivism would be dead.
* Life owes you nothing. It may so happen that you live in a society wealthy enough to give you things, but that is merely an accident of history.
* The government big enough to give you all you want is also big enough to take away everything you have.
* Poverty and oppression do not make people noble and good. They may provide an opportunity for these characteristics to show if they are already present, but the also provide lots of opportunity to show the darker side of human nature. For every hero, there are a couple of stukachi waiting in the wings.

1 comment:

Bill Kerr said...

I think this is a valuable personal / political historical document. Your history parallels mine to some degree but with differences, of course, in the detail but also the trajectory. I think of it as the tortuous search for objectivity, which might exist but is always disappearing behind the next curve in a road which travels both forward and backward in time. (Metaphorical BS)

I agree with most of your key attitudes but didn't see the connection b/w "Sometimes the extremes are correct" and the body of your post(?)

I've forwarded your blog to some people I know who are more informed about Austrian school "calculation problem" than I am. It is discussed in the final section of David McMullen's book Bright Future