Sunday, February 22, 2009

Seeing Like a State

Seeing Like a State, by James C Scott

The book describes systematic partial or total failures of various "high modernist" government sponsored projects, including German "scientifically managed" forests, planned cities (especially Brasilia), collective farms in the Soviet Union, and agricultural "modernization" policy in Tanzania.

The faults of the central planners include an unwarranted love of grand scale for its own sake, a fondness for structures that look orderly (that is to say, show obvious regularity when seen from a distance), a tendency to consider a region as a producer of one particular product of uniform quality (and hence quantity produced being the sole criterion of success), planning based on abstract "average fields" that do not reflect actual local conditions, and contempt for the hard-won local knowledge of the people whose lives the planners presumed to direct.

The book is well worth reading for the details, but I think after consideration certain elements seem obvious. A central planner has to feel infinitely wiser than the people who will be subject to his decrees. If he felt only marginally superior, he would conclude that the advantage in perspective of actually being there on the ground would outweigh his slight edge in intelligence, and would have to get out of the central planing business. A central planner has to be willing to abstract away almost a huge amount of detail, otherwise planning becomes humanly impossible.

Certain plans seem particlarly boneheaded. For example, mandating separate residential districts, shopping districts, districts full of nothing but office buildings, etc obviously forces a lot of wasted extra travel over mixed use, and it's hard to see how it does anything else. Polycropping has numerous benefits over monocropping; the main advantage of monocropping is that it is better suited for mechanization. Forcing farmers to live in villages away from their fields wastes time in travel, and does little else.

The one area where I would fault Scott is that he seems to fully credit the intentions of the planners and of the regimes that forcibly impose their schemes as being fundamentally good, at least in cases where those regimes were democratically elected. I see no reason to believe this is true. If there was ever any good reason, theoretical or practical, to believe that the various policies described in his book (other than the tree farms) would actually lead to an improved quality of life for anyone, Scott does a poor job of showing what it might be. So far as I can tell, the only practical advantage for anyone of most of these schemes is that it simplifies the job of the tax collector. There is one intangible advantage: the implementers get to build massive monuments to themselves, using other people's bodies as bricks and mortar.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Meta-information Markets

It is a general characteristic of information that it is often impossible to know, or even to have a good estimate of, how useful a piece of information will be until one has it.

People do buy books, of course, but it is quite common to feel afterward that the purchase of a particular book was not really worth it, and conversely a great many worthwhile books go unread by people who have no way of knowing in advance how much they would appreciate those books. Similarly with other forms of information.

In this particular post I will discuss what might be called meta-information, by which I mean information which leads to other information which the reader will (hopefully) find useful or otherwise interesting. The information pointed to may be further meta-information, but somewhere at the end of the chain there must be something will value for its own sake.

The problem in its full generality is too complicated for me to discuss here. I will assume that there is some entity which I will call the "publisher" who will be able to obtain some payment from the reader, direct or indirect. I will assume for now that there are no coercive entities that need concern us; the publisher is operating openly and "legally". However, unscrupulous publishers potentially may employ "shills" to promote their goods, and their competitors or others who dislike their ideas for whatever reason may say untrue negative things about their works. My goal is to briefly sketch how some sort of useful "reviewer" system might work.

In my proposed system, the reviewer describes the work using with some sort of standardized system which allows the reader to quickly find works of interest to him. Semantic web type stuff. Either the reviewer is a relatively large organization, or many mutually independent reviewers have agreed to use the same system. The reviewer's primary function is to accurately describe the work and only secondarily to give a subjective assessment of its quality. The publisher pays the reviewer in hopes of receiving a wider readership. The reader has access to reviews for free.

The reason the publisher pays rather than the reader is that the reader is highly uncertain as to the value to himself of the service of the reviewer, whereas the publisher has the relatively simple task of assessing whether the additonal sales due to the review justify the reviewr's fee. Even though the reviewer is paid by the publisher, the reader can have more confidence in the review than he could in advertisements because the reviewer is not merely acting on behalf of the publisher but is using some sort of objective criteria, and the reviewer's value is solely based on his reputation for honesty and accuracy. Yes, reviewers would review each other.

Whatver the details of the reviewing system, provided that all reviews are specific and digitally signed, it seems to me that the system as a whole should be verifiably almost completely "honest". If Alice reviews Bob and says something "I agreed to read six books reviewed by Bob at random, here are the six books and his reviews, I found them completely accurate", this is not sufficient for a reader who trusts Alice to trust Bob 100%, but it's pretty good evidence that he's generally reliable. Provided that it can be kept unambiguous whether or not a review is "correct", one false review could be enough to destroy a reviewer's reputation. In order to establish themselves, reviewers might have to at first review a few books for free and pay to have themselves reviewed by established reviewers.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Problems with Choice

In general it is always better to have the opportunity of making a choice than not. However, being required to make a choice is often unpleasant. Making meaningless or irrelevant choices is a boring nuisance, and making choices without the necessary information to ensure one is making the "correct" choice can be frustrating or worse, particularly if the consequences for making the "wrong" choice could be severe.

This being the case, it's no surprise that in many situations people may prefer to rely heavily on the advice of some trusted authority, or even have the decision-making capabilty taken out od their hands entirely. But this solution, if undertaken voluntarily, may only push the problem back a level. One must still decide which authority to trust among many contenders, none of whom have perfect confidence, and all of whom may have motivations other than giving the recipient the best advice possible. Thus, the problem of deciding whom to trust may be scarcely easier than making the original decision oneself.

It is only by having the option to choose itself removed that the entire burden of an unpleasant choice is lifted, and so it should not come as a surprise that many people prefer to have the government mandate decisions for them, or at least do not object when the government does this. And often, it appears to be doing a reasonably good job. But the value of lost opportunities due to government mandates is usually invisible.

I remember a discussion on Usenet many years ago in which the libertarians were arguing that it was absurd that licenses were required to cut hair, and the antis dismissed the libertarian position as arguing for a "right to a bad haircut". Of course, governemnt certification is virtually worthless as a guarantee of quality, whereas the fact that a person has managed to stay in business for any length of time in an occumaption that relies heavily on repeat customers is actually a pretty strong assurance of competence, but this misses the primary practical effects of mandatory licensing policies. I don't want to pay the effective "haircut tax", but to me it's chump change anyway. But to lower income people, an extra expense of a couple bucks for a haircut or the loss of an opportunity to make a small amount of money cutting hair is nontrivial. In the greater scheme of things the losses to the world due to these kinds of restrictions are small taken one at at time, of course, but they add up.

It would be advantageous if there were such a thing as a knowledgeable and fully trustworthy party one could go always to for advice, but there are good reasons why this cannot be. Even an agent wholly dependent on his good reputation for acquiring an retaining customers can often get away with misleading them in subtle or even gross ways, and despite this may deceive others into thinking that it is the exemplar of honesty and wisdom and that those who dispute its pronouncements are quacks. But an entity with the power to compel will not only have at least equal opportunities for this type of corruption, it will tend to lose even the concept that it is some supposed to be an agent working on behalf of another, and will naturally progress from having the de facto power to make arbitrary decisions to feeling it has the right to make arbitrary decisions.

I have never understood the thought process which leads people to believe that something should be better because it came about as a result of a political process, democratic or otherwise, rather than a market process. I don't know of any theory that purports to explain why it should be true, I only know of theory that predicts the reverse, and indeed observation seems to bear this out. But the demonstration of this has not yet been made sufficiently clear.