Saturday, April 26, 2008


The opposite of "conservative" is not "liberal" but "radical". The essence of conservatism is not unthinking resistance to any form of change, but rather a respect for practices that have proven successful in the past, and a reluctance to replace them with new ones which have only theoretical support. A sensible person is conservative to an extent, but not excessively so. New practices should be tried in small experiments before widespread adoption unless the arguments that they will prove superior are overwhelming or continuing in the old practices is for some reason no longer an option. No matter how confident one is in the value of one's own ideas, one should understand that others will be justifiably less so.

The basis of conservative thought is not so much pessimism as intellectual humility. We are not necessarily more intelligent nor more moral than were our ancestors, although we are more technologically advanced. The radical, on the other hand, suffers from intellectual hubris. If can find no theoretical justification for a long established custom, he ascribes its persistence to mere habit and superstition. He does not consider the argument that the persistence of a custom is itself evidence that the custom has empirically proven itself to be adaptive to be a valid one.

It is certainly possible that practices can continue for centuries or even millenia no other reason than cultural inertia, but one should only conclude this is what is occurring after having spent a reasonable amount of effort searching for other possibilities. Somewhat more plausible is the possibility that traditions benefit a privileged few who are responsible for their persistence. But even this implies a level of stupidity on the part of the general populace that should not be too readily assumed. People often are stupid and ignorant, of course, but they tend to be most so in areas where it would not practically benefit them to be wise.

I think conservatism has largely failed to attract intellectuals in America for two main reasons: intellectual hubris is a lot more fun than intellectual humility, and it has become associated with revealed religion, in particular with a literal interpretation of scripture which requires a belief in facts which have been fairly conclusively proven to be empirically false. The religious association is largely spurious. Religious institutions have often been radical rather than conservative voices, and have often attempted to justify their radical positions on (novel interpretations of) scripture. But conservative social institutions really don't have much in the way of direct scriptural support.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Cypherpunk Dream

I'd like to describe briefly a concept I'll refer to as "the cypherpunk dream". People should be able to create persistent online identities (by which I mean it should be possible to prove that the same entity is using a specific identifier). It should be impossible to connect an online identity with a "meatspace" (physical) identity without the person's consent, nor to connect two online identities with each other if a person chooses to have more than one. These online entities should be able to communicate securely with each other, and by "securely" I mean not only can no third party intercept or interfere with their communication, but they should be unable to even discover that communication is taking place. Entities should be able to advertise, establish reputations, contract for and pay for goods and services, all without being linked to a physical entity.

It seems obvious that this dream in its purest form cannot and should not be practically realized. For example, having goods delivered to one's house gives a strong clue as to one's identity. The lack of any overseeing authority may make disputes likely and satisfactory resolution difficult. There are also nonconsensual services that could conceivably be offered, but ideally would not be.

Technology knows no morality. Either people can communicate privately, or there exists some entity which can eavesdrop on any conversation. There is no way to guarantee privacy for the "good guys" while allowing "government" to eavesdrop on "bad guys". Similarly, either goods and services can be exchanged discreetly and confidentially, or there exists some entity with the ability to arbitrarily forbid or tax transactions. Designers must accept that tools will be used in ways that they did not intend. My own opinion is that the danger from arbitrary authority is worse than that from excessive freedom.

Certain elements of the cypherpunk dream are already available. I think modern cryptography algorithms are sufficiently strong that properly implemented systems using them are in practice unbreakable. Using mixmaster remailers it is possible for people to communicate without outsiders being able to know who is communicating with whom, but so few people use mixmaster that using it says something about one in and of itself.

Reputation systems are by nature problematic in a pseudonymous world. People may create identities specifically for the purpose of inflating their own reputations or trashing those of their competitors. There is little incentive to participate in rating, and there can even be a disincentive as it could provoke unwanted attention. And rating is largely subjective in any case. But I don't think any of these hurdles are insurmountable. I'm disappointed in the progress made in this area, although I must admit I don't have any particularly innovative ideas.

There have been several software implementations of Chaum's ideas for anonymous payments, but I think their use has mostly been limited to toy systems. This I think is due to there being an almost all-or-nothing aspect to the concept. If a real practical system were implemented its operators would likely be subject to hostile action from the state almost immediately.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Representation Scheme

I had an idea once for vastly improving the quality of representation in a representative democracy. As far as I can recall I came up with it independently, although someone else must have suggested it first because it's so completely obvious. It's possible I read it somewhere and I'm just blanking out where.

The idea is this: instead of having any sort of election, you have people announce that they are willing to serve as representatives, and citizens choose one. A representative's vote in congress has a weight proportional to the number of constituents he represents. Perhaps a representative needs a minimum number of constituents (say, 5000 or so) to be seated. Representatives could be chosen from anywhere in the country, although it's likely that some of them would announce that they are particularly devoted to the interests of some particular area, and so citizens who live in that area who are particularly concerned with local issues would be likely to choose that representative. Perhaps changing representatives could be done at any time, or perhaps only once a year or so. Who represents whom would be a matter of public record, so if a representatives "constituents" were largely dead or fictitious persons this would quickly be discovered and he would be prosecuted.

It seems to me that something along those lines would enormously increase the degree to which a "representative" really did represents his constituents, would eliminate all concerns about districting/gerrymandering, and would substantially reduce voter fraud.

I mention the idea because the idea itself and its advantages (assuming one thinks accurate representation is a good thing) seem so obvious to me that I wonder why no nation as implemented it (although I think the German system of electing Bundestag members has some similarities). I can't recommend it as stated, because it would still seem to allow a majority to arbitrarily impose its will on a minority. But I think it may be useful as a mental stepping-stone.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


From the standpoint of individual benefit voting is almost certainly a waste of time. For example, if one estimates the chances of one's vote deciding a presidential election as being about 1 in 10 million and the personal benefit of having one president over another as valued about $10,000 then the expected return from voting is about a tenth of a cent. I think there's far less difference than that to most people in most elections, but we'll use those numbers.

Voting is the ultimate collective act, and one could argue that the same anticipated benefit would accrue to the entire citizenry of about 350,000,000 people. In that case, one could imagine one's vote as being a gift to the country of a tenth of a cent per person, or $350,000 total expected value. If one is at all civic minded, such a gift is certainly worth one's time.

There is an obvious flaw with this argument: it cannot possibly be true for the general voter. Approximately half the voters are voting "the wrong way". Those of us who are exceptionally intelligent and knowledgeable may feel that "we" are smart and "they" are stupid. But stupidity alone cannot explain the results, because nobody could be so stupid that he always makes the wrong choice given two alternatives. A maximally stupid ought to be able to guess right about half the time. One can assume that nearly everybody that votes "the wrong way" is stupid, but then one ought to also conclude that an approximately equal number of people that vote "the right way" are stupid, which leads to the conclusion that virtually everybody is maximally stupid. This clearly cannot be true.

If one strongly identifies with some subset of the population and that subset tends to all vote the same way these difficulties vanish. Although voting is a waste of time if only considering the gains to one's self, it becomes rational if one considers voting as primarily a gift to one's group, and a failure to vote as abrogating one's group responsibilities. Since voting as a whole must be a zero sum activity the benefits to one's own group must be assumed to be offset by costs to others, but there's an easy to remember song that expresses the proper attitude towards these others: "them, them, fuck them." How one chooses which group one is voting on behalf of varies with the individual, but some kind of identity based politics is the only grounds under which the act of voting makes sense.

So, dear reader, do not ask whether a person who votes the opposite way from you is evil or stupid. Most likely he is neither one. A democratic nation can be considered as a loose coalition of many tribes, and he is simply a member of a tribe different from, and hostile to, your own.

Personally, I don't vote.