Conflict of interest and an Economic Separation of Powers

Last post I explored the central problem of conflict of interest in both right and left wing economics, through a story about a group of shipwrecked people trying to establish a new economy and democracy on an island. This post draws on that previous post, so you may wish to take a look if you haven’t already. In summary, the island failed because neither left nor right wing solutions fully faced up to the problem of structural conflicts of interest. Perhaps the fate of the island is not so unlike our own, even here in the midst of civilisation. After all, the problems of power, and in particular conflicts of interest, remain central in any human culture.

Though they’ve both done much for democracy, both the Left and Right of politics have made only minor contributions to the separation of power in the economic sphere. The Right’s contribution has been to point to the flaws of command economies and central planning. They explain that by “socialising” economic activity into government enterprises, we actually concentrate power in the hands of a largely unaccountable government bureaucracy. The solution, says the Right of politics, is to establish a free-market economy, where many commercial players compete with one another, ensuring that if one company performs poorly, another has the power to offer an alternative. This, the Right claims, is the efficient and safe approach to economics.

The Left points out that in a free-market economy, companies often wield immense power and, in practice, are not directly accountable to anyone other than their major shareholders. There is a strong tendency, the Left says, for market economies to shift from pluralistic competition to the domination of a handful of monopolies and cartels. These giants abuse their position, not just by buying up or locking out small players that might serve to decentralise power, but also by dominating and hood-winking both consumers and citizens through marketing and public relations. They ignore or gloss over the problems creating in public health, the environment, and the community. The Left call for a response that forcibly breaks up monopolies, sometimes by structurally separating them, sometimes by legislating top-down procedural improvement, and sometimes by placing enterprise in the hands of government that the Left hopes can be managed and kept accountable through democracy.

Yet proponents for both sides generally spend most of their time selling their message by pointing to the flaws of those opposite. In a way, both the Left and the Right are in business together, using each-other as an excuse to sell their flawed and half-baked solutions. Neither addresses the fundamental problem – conflict of interest. Both approaches lack an economic separation of powers or a serious attempt to deal with conflict of interest. For example, in both cases citizens receive information about economic products and processes from the powerful organisations that produces them, whether that be the marketing department of a company trying to push their wares, or government propaganda telling people that their government-issue goods are good for them. In both cases, the citizen is getting their information from someone with a fundamental conflict of interest. These organisations don’t want to give you an impartial, accurate, well-rounded report of the product and it’s externalities. They want you to just like the product and ignore its flaws, including whatever social, environmental, efficiency and power-related problems that the production and its apparatus bring.

Many people, realising the fundamental failure of both central planning and laissez-faire markets, make modest attempts to limit the damage. One response is to call for a mixed economy with a moderate combination of market and government involvement. This centrist, moderate solution is probably better than the more extreme alternatives, because although we still suffer the failures of not one but two flawed systems, we receive vastly moderated versions of the failures. These are somewhat manageable and in rare cases can offset or balance each-other. Still its an inadequate response and a failure to fully confront the challenge.

Other reach for less sensible answers of anarchy, or primitivism, or succession from society. This is a fundamental failure to even engage with the problem, because in the modern world, with modern technology we have unleashed, we will have institutions and industry regardless of whether we aim to or not. Even if it was possible for such entities to be removed, the loss of production would result in countless deaths. This chaos is less like a solution, and more like fixing your house’s structural problems by setting it on fire.

Still others throw themselves into advocacy for the Left or the Right, claiming that while their proposed solution may be flawed, but at least its better than its opposite.


Democracy has a significant separation of powers

Humanity’s failure to address this problem needs to end. We have the solution. It’s a separation of powers that we use to address conflict of interest. We’ve already been using it through the rule of law, the independence of our democratic institutions, that, when we choose to uphold them, have successfully served to abolish the violent conflict and crushing oppression that trouble all undemocratic social groups of any signficant size. All we need is to have the vision and determination to let go of our conflicts of interest, so poorly addressed by the Left and Right, and apply the separation of powers to the realm of economics. If the model is clear before us, there’s no need for upheaval and chaos, simply sensible and determined reform.


The Standard Economy


The standard economy – both market economies and command economies have a poor structural separation of powers

The Advanced Economy – An Economic Separation of Powers


Economics needs a sophisticated separation of powers in order to navigate the twenty first century


If our goal is to apply a separation of powers to the field of economics, we should begin by noting the essential functional components of economic activity. There are six central functions that then can serve as the foundation of our separation:

  • Entrepreneurship
  • Labour
  • Labour assessment
  • Economic information
  • Contract
  • Investment

Combining these functions together creates conflicts of interest. This is the case in both the corporations of market economies and government controlled industry in command economies. This is undesirable. So, rather than surrendering to the blunt instrument of a debate about public versus private, we should strive to establish six new entities that correspond with the functions we have identified. According to our earlier principles, these should not just be divided, but also have limited well-defined powers, and be independent from each-other’s official or unofficial control. This helps us avoid at least nine fundamental, institutional conflicts of interest that could potentially arise without a separation.

  • Entrepreneurs/investors wish to maximise profit, labour wishes to maximise salary (industrial disputes – pay)
  • Labour wishes to work less, entreprenueurs wish labour to work more (industrial disputes – conditions)
  • Labour wishes to have a secure job, investors and consumers want unproductive busineses wound up (anti-protectionism vs job stability)
  • Entrepreneurs/investors psychologically or socially minimise/rationalise the harms their business does, the public wants accurate assessment of externalities and punishment of negatives (public relations deceptions, government capture, central-planning and authoritarianism)
  • Entrepreneurs/investors wish to overstate product quality to improve sales, consumers require accurate and unbiased information about products for market forces to work correctly (marketing vs production goals in industry) (flashy vs quality, product bias)
  • Training/education providers and labour wish to overstate the skill and qualifications of job applicants, businesses require accurate information about worker skill to hire the best personel (education and assessment need to be structurally separated)
  • Ideas may be seductively unrealistic, but implementation requires realism (entrepreneurs vs investors – central planning failures)
  • Contracts between unequal parties not honoured (contractees, legal representation and enforcement need structural separation)
  • Insurers wishes to understate coverage after an incident, while the policy holder (or investor/entrepreneur) wishes to overstate it. The opposite is true of risk before an incident. (eg. insurance fraud, insurance company cop-out on technicality)

Many of these kinds of problems are usually presented as zero-sum conflicts between people. If we understand them as conflicts of interest, we understand them as problems of efficiency and organisation, and so the solutions become positive-sum. Many are also subject to moral argumentation by the Left or Right, yet rarely is a significant structural solution proposed.

So how would these six institutions, based upon the six functions, work? To begin with, our aim should be for participants in these organisations to be immersed in a cultural and financial reward structure that aligns their self-interest, or rewards their altruism, in a way that matches the role of the organisation. For example, the entrepreneurial function should involve creative people with bold business ideas being given a financial reward based on the financial success of their business. We want this reward to always increase with improved performance of the individual, but we may wish it increase by gradually smaller increments to preserve a socially beneficial limit on the rich-poor gap (functioning the same way as a progressive taxation system). Thus we may wish to utilise a logarithmic formula or similar algorithm to calculate the appropriate financial reward, funnelling the difference into capital availability, community projects, start-up business assistance, or humanitarian resources as desired.

Where needed the institutions could have sub-institutions carrying out roles, but provided they do not have conflicts of interest with each-other, these sub-institutions can be under the direction of the main six institutions. We should be careful to apply rigorous criteria when considering institutional conflict of interest.

We also want to preserve the power of the free-market and price signals to harmonise and optimise our economy. This means several of the institutions or functions are optimally organised as marketplaces, such as marketplaces for investment or marketplaces for labour, though we would require participants to subscribe to the overall separation of powers to engage in any marketplace. We should also retain a generally free consumer marketplace (limited in extreme cases of safety), provided we can correct for errors in the price signal arising from poor handling of externalities, or misleading product information damaging the consumer ability to make informed choices on the demand side of the market.

Now, to describe each of the functions briefly:

Marketplace of entrepreneurship:

  • Marketplace of ideas – Creative individuals or groups with great ideas for business post their business ideas in the marketplace. This could be anything from a local paper delivery route to a billion dollar mining venture.
  • Marketplace of business development – Professional Business Developers (teams or individuals) with abilities to statistically assess and plan a successful business bid for the right to take an idea from the marketplace of ideas and develop it. They are responsible for projecting business revenue and costs and ensuring the venture will be profitable, as well as planning the business structure, its human resources, and equipment.

Marketplace of labour:

  • Marketplace of leadership – Charismatic leaders able to inspire workers, motivate teams and resolve conflict offer their labour as the everyday leaders for fully developed business plans from the marketplce of business development.
  • Marketplace of work – Workers offer their labour to the business, and are hired and paid based on merit. Position pay is set by an assessor from labour assessment (basically acting as HR department in the unseparated version), priced to attract an appropriate number of applicants in the current market conditions. Labour performance is also assessed by labour assessment, and the final financial reward adjusted from the base pay for each individual based on performance.

Institute of labour assessment:

  • Performance assessment – Professional assessors acting without bias assess the performance of each worker or leader and apply a adjustment rating accordingly.
  • Skill assessment department – Rather than workers misrepresenting their own skills, making the hiring process fraught with difficulty, the skill assessment department attempts to assess worker skill.

Institute of economic information:

  • Product assessment – Acting as a neutral party with no financial interest, product assessment rates all products and services on KPIs that reflect consumer demand, providing comparisons between products that allow the “perfect information” requirement for effective market forces to come to bear on product pricing.
  • Risk assessment – In order to inform insurance decisions and risk flattening mechanisms, this independent assessor. They also determine the validity of insurance claims in a way that is structurally separate from the insurers. Insurers are forbidden from interacting with risk assessors in any unofficial capacity.
  • Externality assessment – Professionals with the appropriate scientific backgrounds assess business impacts on external entities and prices them as accurately as possible, with the result being factored into the effective bottom line of the business. This includes things such as environmental and social externalities. Revenue raised this way does not go into “government coffers”, which may perversely incentivise regulation, but instead is applied as a revenue neutral redistributive “negative tax rate” to all business profits, rewarding those who are neutral or doing the right thing.

Investment consortium

  • Fund and asset management – Independent fund managers offer loans of financial capital to businesses being developed by Business Developers. Fund managers attempt to maximise their return on investment just as normal investors do. The fund managers receive a financial reward/incentive based on the return of the business. They exercise no control over the specifics of the business, and are forbidden from issuing instructions beyond the interest rates of the loans. The investment capital is allocated by the Business Developers, but is legally owned by the community, nation, member-controlled fund, or other citizen-orientated entity. All participants in the system qualify as equal shareholders.
  • Insurance / Risk management – While this is not necessarily structurally separate from regular asset management, the investment consortium may also have funds specialising in taking on risk for a fee.

Department of contracts

  • Contract negotiation and enforcement – Acts as a neutral judge and enforcer in contract negotiations and disputes.


Provided we can protect the separation of powers from being undermined through unofficial channels, we can receive the immense benefits of removing conflict of interest by implementing this economic structure.

Let’s take a brief example of the benefit. Normally companies waste significant amounts of resources on marketing. This is a individually necessary, zero-sum activity that produces nothing and does not boost the national economy. However with a good economic separation of powers, the business entity under the management of the Business Developer does not have the power to engage in marketing. Instead, the only function able to provide product information is the Institute of Economic Information. This does not mean it has to be a monolithic organisation. We can also organise this as a marketplace if necessary, with consumers selecting a source of information that addresses their needs or niche.

Or, as a second example, a separation of powers makes regulation is simpler, less burdensome, more efficient and less prone to perverse outcomes that undermine democracy. On the one side, the independent nature of the externality assessment means that an accurate figure that reflects benefits or costs not captured by the basic consumer price mechanism is made by an independent organisation that’s difficult to bribe or influence because it’s revenue source is independent of its pricing decisions. In other words, in cannot increase its budget by overpricing externalities, nor can it increase its budget by accepting compromising payments from businesses.

There are other benefits you may wish to consider by examining our earlier list of institutional conflicts of interest.

However, in each case we need to vigilantly protect the independence of this function, because if either business or government departments with a conflict of interest are able exercise control over it, then all the benefits of the system will be lost. This is particularly the case if the function is compromised secretly. For this reason we must require a significant level of transparency, particularly in the leadership and administrative roles of these institutions. No system can work without vigilance.

So, in summary, by separating out the six fundamental functions of the economy, ensuring they are both officially and unofficially independent, and then articulating discrete, well-defined roles to each, we can create an economic separation of powers with numerous benefits. In this unique way, we allow ourselves to gain the best of both worlds. We gain the market efficiency of market economics, but at the same time make the economy a little more human, and a little more driven by morally acceptable goals. Yet at the same time it’s a system that doesn’t require an unrealistic extreme conception of human behaviour. We can accept widespread pursuit of self-interest by turning into a force for good, and at the same time we can reward, instead of punish, altruism in a way that prevents our aspirations becoming perverted into something oppressive.

Of course at the heart of economics lies capital (in our model, the investment role in the separation). On this both the Left and the Right agree. So where could reformers concerned with an authentic separation of economic powers hope to find the capital to achieve such a separation? A community or nation utilising funds under this model have the possibility of making excellent returns, because this style of economic activity can adopt the power of prices signals and market forces without its usual drawbacks. There is also a powerful argument in this being an efficient but far more ethical alternative to existing methods. But there must be an agreement of minds, given that by contributing to this system, one preserves the capital but is swearing off meddling that compromises the separation.

There are several possible places where this is a serious possibility. The first is as a use for a nation’s sovereign wealth fund, such as those that exist in Singapore and Norway. These funds generally seek to maximise not only profits, but also to achieve social and environmental outcomes that influence the long term well-being of their nation. The second is the enlightened philanthropy of those entrepreneurs and captains of industry who see the flaws of central planning, but also understand the problems that pure self-interest is causing humanity. The third is member-controlled superannuation and ethical investment funds, who have a duty not only to their bottom line, but to the moral principles that guide both their management and their members. Finally there is crowd-sourcing, harnessing the power of the everyday citizen to achieve the remarkable.

Why would an economic separation be so remarkable? Why is it so vital to achieve? It’s the simple fact the where economics fails, so does humanity. It’s simply too vital to public health, to living standards, to our species future, for us to keep getting it wrong. It’s our duty, to ourselves, and to every person on this planet, to do everything we can to get it right.

The Island – The failures of both Left and Right in economics

Credit - Wikipedia - SS America (1939)It just wasn’t your week. It had started out alright – your work, finally recognising your years of service, decides to send you on an international trip on a luxurious ocean liner. You spent a couple of pleasant days basking in the sunshine on a deck with thousands of other lucky travellers. It’s hard not to feel like you deserved this pleasant break from the grind of daily life. But your luck doesn’t hold, because a few days later, your ship finds itself in the grip of a once-in-a-century storm. In the mighty winds and waves, the ship’s navigation and communication systems are destroyed. Lots for days in a wild ocean, it finally runs aground off a large yet uninhabited tropical island. You and around five hundred passengers manage to scramble ashore with a handful of supplies. After catching your breath on the sandy beach, you gather to contemplate to discuss the prospect and strategies for survival.

The situation is dire – you are so far off course that it could be months before anyone discovers where the ship is, and the island, while large enough to support a beautiful rainforest, is totally untouched by human development. While there is fresh water available and enough salvaged food to last for a week or so, it’s the human challenges that seem to be presenting the most immediate problem. While the first few people to arrive attempt to discuss the situation calmly, as the group grows things become difficult. People struggle to have their opinions heard, and it becomes apparent that this large, diverse gathering of people is going to put decisions by simple consensus beyond reach. You only read Lord of the Flies a few months back, so despite the difficulties you resolve to put yourself in the thick of discussions, so that you can do what you can to help prevent a slide into anarchy.

After a day or two of chaos, some more sophisticated ideas start to emerge amongst those taking an interest in the sociological situation. Aside from more esoteric questions of morale and mental well-being, two central themes emerge in the discussions. The first is determining what rules, if any, there ought to be, and more importantly, who and how they should be decided. In a way, it’s about power. “So basically,” you think to yourself, “we’re trying to re-establish a democracy”. The second topic for discussion, given rescue could be a long way off, is how the group can produce enough resources to provide the basics of life, and where possible, a few comforts to make everybody’s time on the island bearable. Or, as one of the other survivors points out, it’s about determining who will do what and who will get what. “In other words,”, you think, “we’ve got to think about economics”.

A tropical islandIn both cases, everyone gathered on the beach will have to deal with hundreds of strangers of unknown moral character. Chances are there are at least a few good people gathered here, willing to do what it takes to make sure everybody is safe and provided for. But there’s probably also some people that are basically out for themselves. They’d be willing to throw everyone else on the island to the sharks if it meant a ticket out of here and back to civilisation. The problem is, looking around the faces in the group, there isn’t a reliable way to tell one from the other. In a group this size, there’s bound to be a sociopath or two, plus a few people with personal hatreds or axes to grind. Of course there will be warm hearts and great altruists too. Plus a whole array of people somewhere in between. But who is who? It’s anybody’s guess.

For your part, you’re fairly certain trying to run the island on a naive honour system that assumes pure hearts all-around. If people just go for the charmer to volunteer themselves as leader, or if people a left to take from the salvaged supplies as they saw fit, things are going to get ugly very quickly. These people are not so altruistic that they will all do the right thing. You know, when it comes to power, even in a democracy, people will sometimes bully, lie and cheat to rise to the top. And when it comes to economics, without a degree of law and order, some people will gladly steal and kill to get the resources they need, or want. Wishing people were good and trusting that their morality is pure will not make it so.

At the same time, if people start assuming the worst in everyone else, and the island descends into an attitude of “every man for himself”, the group won’t survive a month. Such a culture will kill off any altruism instantly. Even basic cooperation would be near impossible, because in a world without morality, you are always better off attacking first, becoming stronger, slaughtering others before they become a threat and before they can take resources that might be useful. This is the race to the bottom, from which there will be no return for the group or any of its members.

So elections and democracy start to get a mention. Maybe the group should try to identify the most morally trustworthy individual, and assign leadership and power to them. This proposal still worries you. This supposedly great leader is ideally meant to pursue the group’s interest above their own. You have serious doubts that will work as intended – and luckily there are enough educated people in the group, ones who have a sense of the lessons of history, pointing out that power corrupts. Even if there are pure hearts that can resist the temptations of their position, an absolute leader is the ultimate magnet for those who have a fetish for power. You know such people can often muster a lot of charisma to get what they want, enough to fool most people anyway, and if they succeed the slavery and violence of a tyrant could follow.

So you try to push a new theme – structure a democracy but prevent power from being concentrated in the hands of a single individual or small group amongst the surviviors. Like the more successful democracies back in civilization. But instead of a population of millions, this democracy has hundreds. Directly importing the institutions would be bizarre and impractical. Instead, you explain to those who will listen, the group ought to consider the principles that the institutions of democracy are built on, and import them.

So, they ask, what sort of principles would apply?

Democracy and the Separation of Powers

Credit -

Well with some creative use of voting tokens, at least election fraud should be more difficult on the island…

Assuming we can establish a system of voting (for example a representative parliament, or in the island’s case a simple council election), one of the most important ingredients for a healthy democracy will be a functional separation of powers. A well-designed division of powers is essential because whatever our aspirations, humanity is ultimately imperfect. If we could guarantee a leader was totally selfless, in possession of all relevant knowledge, and able to apply perfect reasons without bias or fallacy, there would be no need for a division. But alas, this is no such guarantee, and so history is replete with countless abuses of undivided power, where a person may appear good as they rise through the ranks, but then proceeds to indulge the worst in human nature once they have others under their control. Even the noblest amongst us, should we have the good fortune to see them prevail over more ruthless competitors, may find their resolve and pure intentions eaten away. Obtaining power, after all, requires sacrifices, and there are constant temptations and pressure to defend their position once it’s obtained. Only a rare few in history have proven immune to this corruption, and the greatest historical lesson of all is that there is precious few ways to tell who will fail the test until well after they have fallen into darkness. This is particularly true in the casual glance of a frenetic election campaign.

So, if we are wise we divide power, to limit the damage it may do, but also so that each powerful individual or group can watch over the power of others, preventing the worst abuses. But a division of power isn’t a simple task. Not only do you have be cautious that your division of power doesn’t render your society unable to defend itself from internal or external problems, you also have to ensure that power, which has a habit of drawing more power to itself, doesn’t just re-concentrate over time. So your separation will have to incorporate three principles to achieve this:

The principle of division – Power in a community or nation ought to be divided, so that the reigns of power are never held just by one master.

We must divide power. But we must also ensure that the division is resistant to incremental re-concentration. If the power is divided, but one party has the means to co-opt, steal or control the power of another, our divisions will be destroyed in the long run. This is the problem of overt concentration of power, where power exists in plain sight and even acts legitimately, but begins to concentrate in a way that is easily overlooked until it is too late. In a country with an overt concentration of power, if you find yourself in conflict with a minister or other well-placed person, you are not just in conflict with them, you are in conflict with the government as a whole, because it is effectively one single entity of power.

The principle of independence – The vital functions or roles must be independent and beholden to no other power except the citizens.

In some cases, power exists openly, but in other cases, while there is no official ties that violates the principle of division, there is still an unofficial web of power that spans the institutions of a nation or community. For example, in a country where the web is the way things happen, it might well be the case that the police have no official ties with, say, the Minister for the Arts, regardless of his seniority. However, because the Minister for the Arts and the Chief of Police are cousins, or perhaps close friends, or just well-connected with other leaders, your accusation of corruption against the Minister for Arts still result in the authorities coming for a friendly “visit” to your house late one quiet night.

The web of power is woven from modest favours that powerful people like the Minister and the Chief do for each-other. As its strands strengthen, the web becomes the best way to “get things done”, even amongst honest leaders with good intentions. In most cases the web tends towards control of fewer and fewer individuals, who emerge by virtue of skill, the influence of their position, or both. But even if no individual has the power to act unilaterally, the division of power has been steadily breached, because the web ultimately ensnares the basic functions of democracy in its own agendas. Acting of its own accord, it is now the web that determines the country’s decisions, not its leaders, and not its citizens. Now the country has lost much of the ability to respond to a crisis or address its most difficult problems.

A web is not the exception. It’s almost a rule. Every country or community suffers from a web to some degree, but the more the web usurps official channels, the more the engine of prosperity and success is hollowed out. As the true functions wither and become hollow facades, the country or community begins to stumble into a long-term decline. If democracies don’t keep their vital functions free from this web, they will suffer on many fronts.

The principle of limitation – Each division of power should have a limited, discrete, well-defined role. Each of these roles checks the power of other roles, but does so within the bounds of their own.

All organisations are full of people with mixed moral standards. There will usually be a few who will dedicate themselves to the organisation’s mission out of sincere dedication to the cause, but this few is rarely enough. Humans, while they have evolved some altruism, are still significantly influenced by self-interest. The organisation’s success, as well as its responsible use of power, hinges on its ability to unite the altruism and self-interest. Take the altruists for granted, and you will have no role models to lead the way. Ignore the harsh reality of self-interest, and altruism drowns in a sea of laziness, or is crushed in a stampede for power. To solve this, you must use incentives in such a way that the morally optimal path is also personally advantageous, in terms of simple self-interest. There are two ways to do this. The first is to offer financial incentives, such as performance-pay or meritorious promotions. The second is to offer social incentives, by developing a culture that respects, admires and rewards the personal qualities and actions that align with the mission of the organisation. This is superior to relying on unrealistic moral expectations to win the day.

Of course, the incentive structure of an organisation, including its culture and its performance-based rewards, has to be a finely tuned machine. It requires a significant time to establish. It doesn’t change easily. It’s complex. Aligning it with organisational goals, even where those goals are very simple, is a phenomenally difficult. But it’s necessary. Corporations and governments alike spend billions of dollars trying to get it right. And it only needs a small spanner to be thrown into the works to break down that alignment of mission and self-interest. In most cases, that spanner is conflict of interest. This is where the principle of limitations becomes key.

So why is limitiation important? Where an organisation’s incentives try to align with more than one core task, the system begins to break down. Imagine, for example, if instead of an independent judiciary, the party elected to government was also tasked with sitting in judgement over court cases. We can suppose that it is unlikely that an opposition party member would be ever likely to get a fair hearing. We can also assume that governing party members would be able to get away with all kinds of criminal activity. This wouldn’t hinge on the politicians being corrupt or morally bankrupt. It’s simply the case that the different organisational incentives can not be reasonably reconciled. A political party’s central task is to out-compete the opposing parties so that it can form government, which usually results in both direct financial reward for the politicians, as well a chance to implement its agenda on a national scale. Even if an individual sitting as judge wanted to be even-handed, they would fear retribution from a party culture and internal power structure that is geared for conflict with the other party. If the party isn’t geared that way, it wouldn’t be a successful party.

The components of democracy

Democracy isn’t just voting – it requires a complex separation of powers each with a clear division, limitations and independence

Even better, we can imagine politicians tasked to act as police officers during their days-off. That would make for an interesting society.

All organisations have internal cultures and reward systems. These systems are usually a strength in achieving their mission, but they’re almost always inappropriate in any other context (though humans naturally always feel the world would benefit if our own culture was applied to others). The media has a culture of uncovering the most sensational truths, but it’s culture is poorly suited to matters of privacy, and is poorly incentivised to deal with “dry” topics of no real public interest. Academic culture is well-suited to examining such complex issues with intelligence and intellectual rigour, but wouldn’t provide us with the determination, bravery and decisiveness a military needs to protect the country. Likewise, where military power is wielded in the political arena, we can be almost certain that disaster will result. Moral character isn’t the issue, though it is valuable for other reasons – the problem of conflict of interest arises in the limits of human sociology.

And so, we need the three principles for a separation of powers. An effective separation of powers, whether starting from scratch on an island, or when we’re trying to instil it in our nation or community, requires us to consider a model that is more that just a simple division of roles. We must also ensure the independence of those roles, and we must define clear boundaries to establish accountability and prevent mission creep, empire building and responsibility-avoidance. Above all, its about fighting a fundamental problem that plagues all human societies – conflict of interest.

If we didn’t seek to apply a separation of powers and address conflict of interest, democracy could never have worked outside of the small city-states of Ancient Greece. And if the leaders of the island want to see it thrive and prosper, they’ll need to build their own pillars and not just resort to a shaky façade of democracy.

The island – democracy and economy

Stirred by your talk of democracy, power and Ancient Greece, the most influential voices on the island agree to apply the principles you outline. All of the vital institutions of democracy can be effectively replicated in miniature. While there’s no real need for multiple levels of government, it will be easy enough for people to elect 5 councillors to decide the rules of the island. It will also be possible to elect a head-councillor with a special but limited authority to act decisively in emergencies. Several people will be tasked with running a verbal news service that covers council matters and public concerns. Another small group will record information about the island, its people, and its resources and be given a chance to describe their findings uninterrupted at council meetings. Others will organise elections, and others will make sure there’s no bullying at the elections, and so forth.

It turns out to be very lucky that the principles took root. Weeks on the island drag into months and then a year. It appears the world has forgotten the lost ship. And yet a thriving democracy has been established, and most on the island agree that its been an astounding success.

However, the island’s economy has been a much more difficult challenge. At first a marketplace is established, and the island is a thriving community of production. People establish small claims of land and salvaged equipment, which they use in tiny enterprises that meet market demand. Yet, after a while, the first difficulties begin to emerge. Not long after the crash, one opportunistic individual salvaged the main medical supplies on board the ship. Claiming the find of morphine as their own, they are able to demand extremely high prices. This is despite the fact there is many times more morphine than required by small flow of injuries and medical emergencies. Soon the morphine dealer has traded their way into control over many of the island’s small businesses. Around the same time, a number of people originally treated for minor illnesses start showing symptoms consistent with morphine addiction. When councillors start discussing a new rule that assigns all morphine ownership to the island’s only doctor, the morphine dealer goes on a campaign of charm, backed up by a little coercion and bribery. When a few people outside the council start to campaign against the morphine use, the dealer hires his own campaigners, promoting the use of morphine as essential for many different ailments, and casting doubt on the “unfounded” rumours of morphine addiction. Several of the anti-morphine campaigners are found severely bashed, though they are unable to identify their attackers or offer proof of a connection with the morphine-dealer. There is loud protestation when one of the morphine addicts is found face down in the ocean, but nothing seems to come of it.

You can feel it. It might not be Lord of the Flies yet, but something is going wrong on the island. At night you lay awake wondering if perhaps the group should have applied the principles of a separation of power to economics too.

However, before your musings can progress into something practical, a new trouble stirs. Sharing the feeling that something on the island is amiss, but unable to effect any real action against the problem, a growing group of people are whispering rebellion. The new trend brings together not just the friends and family of several people who suffered morphine-related deaths, but some warm-hearted idealists saddened by the corruption, some sidelined people who’s skills didn’t translate to success in the island’s new economy, and a group of rebellious teenagers who spend a lot of time looking like boredom will kill them long before anything else on the island. At first, the group’s talk of change is shouted down in council meetings, and make little progress in their demands. But the desire for change is there, just beneath the surface.

Then one day one of the unsuccessful council candidates steps up to speak at a council meeting. He’s a man with a taste for confrontation, and its obvious his ambitions are bigger than his standing. Too late, you begin to grasp the dark opportunity that has been laid at his feet. In the past you’ve heard him whisper complaints that he’s too good for this island rabble, but suddenly now he’s all about the “power of the people” and the corrupt system that’s taken hold of the island. He has several firm supporters, and his angry speech seems to solidify the simmering alliance of unrest. He’s eventually silenced by a councillor, but not before he declares that reform is impossible due to the corruption gripping the island. The council meeting moves on, the disruption apparently passed, but that night there is a violent armed uprising, followed by an emotional gathering in which he appears to slide into the role of an interim leader.

The morphine dealer and several of his worst cronies are rounded up, and while the ambitious new leader is vague about their fate, it obvious to you they’ve been executed and buried in a now off-limits part of the island. Over the next few days, part of you is relieved to see the end of the poisonous morphine trade. Yet the apparent executions and the new rhetoric of profiteering seems to instil a new kind of fear, especially in the business people of the island. And perhaps most concerning of all, several of the councillors disappear. To your mind, they had nothing to do with the morphine problem, and were generally honest and well-intentioned, if at times a little too charismatic for their own good. Publicly, at least, the remaining councillors are all praise for the new leader, and opposition to the new order of things is minimal.

Soon after, the marketplace is reorganised. Good and supplies will be assigned on a basis of need, not wealth. Jobs will also be based on a combination of “skill-based appointments” of the new leader and a popular vote. The broad range of supporters for the movement fare well in the new organisation, with the leader’s reforms managing to please most people by awarding many jobs to altruists and the family of the dead morphine victim. You do notice that several position go to some former morphine addicts that also have a rough demeanour and no obvious qualifications for their new jobs. It’s also apparent the council will now be a less open affair, with economic planning being done in a private council, and some periodic announcements to keep the citizens up to date.

While you’re concerned by the way economic changes have impacted on democracy, you’re hopeful that the significant number of good people left in power can reinstitute a more public and open democracy, especially now that the morphine problem is past. But when you talk to them privately, they tell you there is a rumour of a plot by many former business people looking to bring back the morphine trade. You suppose that’s possible, given how much they lost in the transition, but when you ask various officials what evidence of the plot exists, you think you catch a look of fear in their eyes before they look away nervously and make excuses why they have to get back to work. As you go from place to place you also notice that a lot of supplies are being to moved to the off-limits part of the island. The marketplace now only has the barest essentials, if that, though you hear its because some of the morphine-dealers former cronies are raiding the supplies from a secret base on a remote corner of the large island. That night, you climb a tree to look for signs of distant camp-fires, but all you see is blackness.

Something is very wrong on the island. Trying to figure out where things went wrong, you realise from the start, even where the democracy functioned, the economy lacked a proper separation of powers. Central planning hasn’t improved anything. It’s just made it worse but concentrating power in the hands of a select few, who now have their hands in every pie.

You suppose things might have been different without the morphine dealer or the new leader, but you can count plenty of shady characters that might have just as easily taken their place. Worse, they were supported by many, many people who you feel certain were motivated by good, pure intentions. You’re not even sure if you wouldn’t have acted the same if you were in their place, especially if like them you were a little more naive about human nature. The problem was that people gained power across a range of domains. When that happens, you venture to yourself, its always the case that either compromised by the temptation of power, or, if their heart is pure, they are compromised by a conflict of interest.


Towards a solution… see part two.

The Labyrinth

maze-2264_640Last night I had a disturbing dream. I found myself lost in a great maze, trapped amid giant stone walls twice the height of any person. Coming to a small courtyard and sipping from the small fountain within, I suddenly became aware that I had two companions standing nearby. One was a man with a great beard and deep German accent, introduced himself as Mark. The other, an astute looking man with glasses, intelligent smile and the loud, confident voice of an American. He told me his name was Milten. Like myself they were trapped, but in their gaze I found both sympathy and the confidence that hinted they knew the way out.

“I know the secret of the maze”, said Mark, “Let us simply proceed along this wall before us, turning always to our left. We shall soon find our freedom.” Milten didn’t seem happy about that, but Mark was already striding towards the nearest archway exiting the courtyard. So we twisted and turned through the maze, Mark leading the way, followed Milten wearing a frown of deep concern, and then myself, wondering if we would ever find our way out. A pale sun edged across the sky above us, casting afternoon shadows on the walls and stone path.

Finally Milten lept forward to block Mark’s path. Somehow, Milten now had a sword in his hand. “No more! This is not the way” he said. “You’ve turned us constantly to the left, and it’s been a disaster. We must turn right. Only by turning to the right will we ever find our way out.” Mark’s face was red with fury, but not wishing to suffer the sword’s kiss, he stayed silent. We continued on, this time turning always to the right. Milten led us forward as the shadows lengthened and the sun crept towards the top of the walls.

After a time we emerged again into the courtyard in which we had begun. Mark was laughing darkly. Milten hesitated only a moment before pointing his sword to another archway leading away. “Onwards, to the right”. Now Mark stepped forward, this time with his own sword in hand. “No, if we had kept going to the left, my plan would have worked.” Milten was resolute. “Your plan is a fools plan, paved with disaster and our ultimate demise. To the right we must go”. Facing off, neither flinching, I realised only I could break the tension. Their eyes turned slowly to me, “you must choose” they said in unison. They did not look patient.

I began to hear strange distant sounds echoing through the maze, clearly getting closer. With the darkness deepening, I looked around desperately. I sensed this maze wasn’t about to yield to a simple rule of right or left. Perhaps we could try to wander sometimes left and sometimes right, trying to please both Mark and Milton, but unless our path was based on new knowledge, it might only get us lost deeper in the stone labyrinth. Instead, looking upwards, I realised the wall’s top was not so far out of reach. “Together,” as I pointed, “we can surely reach the top, seeking knowledge before choosing our path. Lift me up, quickly.” But when I looked down again, Milten and Mark were standing at two different archways, unconcerned, even as the eerie sounds and darkness grew. “To the right”. “To the left”. As they disappeared into the gloom, I began clawing at the wall. The darkness kept closing in, enveloping the courtyard like a cloud of ink in clear water. I could sense the things grew closer with the darkness. As my vision began to dim and my body was gripped with increasing paralysis, I felt something cold and unyielding, yet alive, begin to take hold of me in the black.

I awoke in a cold sweat, relieved it was all a dream.

But are we really awake from this, you and I? I think in a way, we’re still lost in a maze. You, I and everyone else – humanity’s labyrinth, a labyrinth of broken ideas, crazed voices more concerned with Left or Right than finding our way in the gloom. And there’s something dark lurking in here with us, something that neither Left nor Right will save us from. Our only hope is to rise above it, out of the darkness and out of the maze. Our only hope is up, together, over the wall.

The Decline of the Republic and the Division of Democracy

The birthplace of Western philosophy - Credit to any serious historian or sociologist and they’ll tell you the ancient world has much to teach us, about society, about power, about the rise and fall of civilizations. Let them go on, and at some point they’ll almost certainly draw a parallel between the modern West and Ancient Rome. As much of a cliché as it seems, I don’t think they’re wrong to do so. After all, many of our institutional and legal principles come direct from our Greco-Roman cultural ancestry. Like the West, Rome was not just one of the world’s greatest economic and military powers, it had a complex and sophisticated society and government. And like the West, Rome was influenced by the unique philosophy of Ancient Greece. These ideas have shaped our laws and our public institutions. They also shaped Rome’s system of democracy, which though flawed and quite exclusive by modern standards, was an indescribably rare achievement in the Ancient World. But Rome’s Republic, including its Senate and People’s Assembly, was destined to fall, replaced by the Roman Empire between 29BC and 49BC. Whatever we might make of the Empire, its hard not to lament the loss of the Republic and the ideals it held aloft.

Now while its fashionable to talk about the later decline of the Empire due to decadence or economics or barbarians or the simple march of time (“what goes up must come down”), I feel there is actually much more to be learned from the earlier fall of Republic. The Empire was an impressive power, but sociologically no more interesting than many other hierarchical civilizations. No, it is the Republic with whom we share our philosophy and system of government. The Republic is our ancestor. And so, it is the fall of the Republic that gives us the stories whose voices ring true for us even today.

So why did the Republic fall? I imagine if we were flies upon the wall of the Roman Senate, we might be more than a little tempted to point the finger at politic failure. Political factionalism in the years leading up to the Fall have a curious similarity to the dismal bickering of our own left and right wings. However, most explanations I’ve seen don’t regard this as a central cause. Unproductive political tribalism might be on the increase today, but it isn’t new in the West, and it was no stranger in Rome. In fact, the plebeians and the patricians had been in periodic conflict for centuries, ever since the kings of Rome had first been overthrown. While it didn’t help the cause, politics weren’t the heart of the Republic’s decline.

Politics is just one of many factors that probably facilitated the fall. If we were flies in the Roman forum or markets, we might have just as easily blamed decadence. But most historians generally agree there was a key event preceding the fall that simply cannot be overlooked – the professionalization of the Roman Legions, known as the Marian Reforms. This decision to fundamentally restructure Rome’s legions is an event worth knowing about, because its probably close to the most pivotal turning points in Roman history.

But before we get to story of Marius and how the Republic was set on a doomed path, let’s go back just a little further.

Greek Hoplite - Credit was heavily influenced by the sophisticated civilization of Ancient Greece that dominated the region in the centuries before Rome’s rise. Unlike the single powerful state of Rome, the Greek world consisted of a myriad of city-states, sometimes vying for power, sometimes engaged in trade, sometimes forming great alliances. In between it all they managed to develop the basics ideas of Western philosophy that are still reverberating through the ages today. The unique feature of the Greek city state, or “polis”, was the direct democracy in which citizens (well some, usually males holding property) had a right to vote on the collective decisions, laws and policies of the polis. However the Ancient Greek citizens weren’t just voters. When the polis became involved in military conflict, the same citizens would become warriors, each holding to their duty for their polis, defending it with force where necessary. Ancient Greek citizens had a special dual status, as warriors, but also as farmers and labourers and craftspeople and traders.

Armed with shield and spear, these citizen-warriors had things to fight for – a community, status, wealth, settled families. On the other hand, they also had good reason to make sure the society they defended was worth living in. A military dictatorship might be quite effective at defending the borders and bludgeoning enemies into submission, but for most of the Greeks, it wasn’t the kind of place you’d want to live or raise a family in. The citizen-warriors of Ancient Greece had a stake in both community and military, and so they had a vested interest in making sure everyone both contributed and received their fair share in both spheres. They also had an interest in making sure one sphere of affairs didn’t dominate or undermine the other.

The early Roman warrior not only inherited the Greek fighting equipment and style, they emulated the Greek citizen-warrior in spirit too. This early Roman military was levied from duty-bound citizens called to answer the call in times of need. Like the Greeks hoplites before them, the Republic fielded warriors drawn from their own population, armed with what weapons their social class could afford, and ready to defend and advance the interests of their home – Rome. The Romans, through alliances and well-organised ferocity, managed to advance themselves within the Italian peninsula, rising to be the dominant force amongst the many tribes and cities.

Rome's expansion - Credit

Rome’s territories over time – Consider that the Marian Reforms occured in 107BC.

Yet sometimes success brings problems almost as bad a failure – or so it was for the Republic. From around 200BC onwards the Roman territory of control began to exceed the borders of Italian peninsula and extend to far-away lands such as Iberia and Northern Africa. The further the Romans went from Rome, the more alien the cultures and the more difficult the task of political integration became. Instead of defeat bringing tribute and pledges of military and economic cooperation, it increasingly brought resentment, resistance and rebellion requiring the ongoing maintenance of force. When new powers threatened Rome’s distant territories, Rome couldn’t rely on these resentful foreign cultures to simply field an army of citizen-warriors on Rome’s behalf. The only other option was Roman muscle. Now further and further away from home, Roman warriors were no longer required to just spend the summer in brief raids. Instead they needed to spend years on campaign and in occupation, away from their families and homes, defending far-flung frontier lands. The citizen-warrior was no longer enough. To maintain and spread its influence, Rome needed something new.

The apparent solution came in the form of Gaius Marius. Marius was a cunning general and politician with enough military and political clout to drive real structural change in Rome’s armies. In essence, Marius responded to the deep problem by professionalising the Roman military. He loosened the entry requirements for the heavy infantry core of the Roman legions, which had previously been limited to the middle and upper Roman classes. Now both the poorest citizens and people from allied Italian nations could join. Instead of requiring them to provide their own equipment, he provided standardized equipment designed around the needs of large-scale warfare and paid for by the state. In return the soldier would have to serve for an extended period of many years, after which they were promised land, some basic wealth, and if they weren’t yet Roman, citizenship. For the first time, being a soldier was no longer just a citizen’s duty, it was a career.

Given that Rome’s unemployment was increasing thanks to a plentiful supply of foreign slave labour, Marius’ solution was a certain kind of genius. He was killing two birds with one stone. He solved the issue of the increasingly unruly lower classes and the supply of military muscle in a single swift act.

Rome's legoins - Credit this reform would have profound consequences, sowing the seeds for the Republic’s downfall. Now there was a class of soldiers apart from the populus, more loyal to the ever-present general than to a homeland they hadn’t seen in years. In time, they developed independent interests and a culture all of their own. For someone seeking personal power, they were also a brilliant political tool just waiting to be leveraged. Meanwhile, in Rome, the poor were falling into dependence, while the rich were falling to corruption, and the greater good of the polis began to drown in decadence and apathy. Rome wasn’t the homeland any more, it was simply a stage on which one made their bid for fame or fortune, no matter the cost.

Now the civilians and the soldiers stood apart from each-other. Rome’s democracy, society and civilization was effectively cleaved in two.

Rome didn’t need to wait long for the inevitable conclusion to this festering conflict. One of Marius’ subordinates, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, became disgusted with the ineffectual political machinations in Rome in response to King Mithridates VI of Pontus, who was threatening parts of Rome’s eastern territories (in modern day Turkey). So Sulla marched his troops on Rome itself, forcing the reversal of the policies of the Senate (and ironically his old boss Marius, whose schemes appear to have been thwarting what Sulla felt was a decisive defence). For the first time the Roman military became political leverage over the civilian apparatus of government. Whereas the military and the people were previously one-in-the-same, now the military held its own separate interests and leaders, for whom an increasingly alien (for them) civilian system of government would be seen as a barrier to the effective defence of the nation.

Ironically, Sulla was a conservative member of the upper classes, and almost certainly wasn’t out to destroy Rome’s democracy, which was most dearly loved by its old, wealthy and powerful families. He attempted to put in place his own reforms to stabilise democratic rule and limit the possibility of others using similar tactics for less (in his eyes) noble purposes. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of his methods turned a lot more heads than the nobility of his intentions. Only a generation later Julius Caesar marched his own disgruntled legions into Rome, fatally undermining the Senate. And when Caesar was assassinated by alarmed conservatives, his great-nephew Octavian used the chaos that followed to eventually install himself as Emperor. Only decades after Marius’ reforms, the centuries-old Republic, including both the Senate and the People’s Assembly, was effectively dead.

I want to really avoid putting the blame for the Fall on individuals. Marius was apparently quite a shady character, but his reforms were strategically sensible given the problems of the time. Sulla appears to have honestly been attempting to address a serious threat to Rome and the poison of an ineffectual political system. And if we’re generous, perhaps even Caeser and Octavian could be seen as trying to save Rome from its own disfunction. What really matters here is that the structural changes and forces would have probably pushed Rome in the same direction even if these larger-than-life characters had never existed. The fact is that the obvious response to the logistic reality split the republic in two, not physically, but culturally. By becoming ends-in-themselves, the two halves had lost what gave their worth and legitimacy. From that point onwards, it was unavoidable that Rome would declare war upon itself. The Empire still had the momentum of Rome’s economic and military power, but try as the Emperors might, they couldn’t address the decadence and corruption that would now eat away at the civilization from within. Most of all, the civilians of Rome lost their democracy, and the soldiers, to some minds at least, lost something worth defending and coming home to.

The modern West isn’t Rome, and history doesn’t literally repeat itself, but I think there’s enough curious similarities to make the Republic’s fall worth paying attention to.

Emperor Augustus - Credit Rome, we certainly have a disfunctional divide between left and right wings of politics. There’s always been differences of opinion of this kind, in Rome or the modern West, but our current divide seems to have widened far enough to have facilitate a deep descent into manipulative rhetoric, tribalism and opportunism – a mirror to the problems of the late Republic. While we’re singing a cynical song, we might also note Rome’s economy became increasingly intertwined with military overreach, importation of slave labour, and unjustifiably centralised estates in the hands of the wealthy (who were interestingly on the “left” of politics when it came to war in the late Republic, and who fared poorly in the chaotic downfall of Roman democracy). Rome also had the enormous challenge of integrating a massive number of new citizens and culturally diverse populations under its control. When integration fails, coercive rule becomes far more tempting as a way to deal with the hostile population in your midst. Today, we have a whole political spectrum of intellectual failures to choose from – neither cultural relativism, political correctness, economic opportunism and malignant racism will save us if we can’t achieve intelligent cultural integration.

But all this is a sideshow compared to the central threat to the democratic ideal, of meritocracy, freedom of thought, of the rule of law – the cleaving of democracy. Where the military resents civil ideals and freedoms, or where civilians neglect threats to the nation and the seriousness of the world, our fundamental values are undermined. When these two failures become conflicting cultural forces, the resolution will ultimately be internal despotism or external destruction.

I don’t know what the solution is. But I do think that the ancient world has some quiet advice for us. This is the advice I hear as I read through the stories of history: the Republic fell because citizenship became split between civilian decadence and military belligerence. So, it is our duty to learn from this and try to avoid the same fate. We must try to prevent the emergence of the two divided, broken cultures that beset the Roman Republic in its last days. We cannot reasonably expect part-time soldiers to be as effective as a nation’s needs demands, and civilians ridiculously carrying around spears certainly doesn’t address the problem. We must address the problems in our hearts and minds instead.

So, let the soldier and civilian alike elevate the ideal of citizenship. Whatever role we take in life, let us try to assume the citizen’s mantle of responsibility. Like the citizens of a polis in Ancient Greece, let us try to bring the temperance of the civilian and the strength of the warrior to our work, our views, our contributions, to the economy, to the environment, and to our way of life. If our work demands more of one, let our mind focus more on the other. In vigilance we understand the fundamentally serious and dangerous nature of the world, but in compassion we uphold the duty to make that world worth living in. In citizenship we throw off the childish demands that it is others who must set the world right, or the expectation that our fellows ought to bend to our will because we hold ourselves to be mighty. The citizen, free of such things, forges a better future not with the fires of coercion or shame or outrage, but by the virtuous hands of knowledge, hard work, study and leadership by example. It is the citizen that stands at the heart of all civilization, and it is the citizen who must awaken for a worthy Republic to rise again in our future.

-Note: I’ve done my best to be very accurate, but I’m not a historian, so please feel free to correct me on any minor errors I may have made.

Visualisation of Social Modulation and Social Replacement

Social Modulation and Social Replacement

I’ve taken my concepts of Social Modulation and Social Replacement (click for article) and visualised them as a simple diagram/infographic. I hope you find them useful when thinking about how the social and technological worlds interact and how we can optimise our technological direction to maximise the benefit to humans.

Cooperative vs Dominance Based Status

Social-status is an extremely powerful part of human social life. High status individuals are usually protected and/or privileged by the group and its rules, and often receive extra resources. High status also tends to increase sexual desirability (though not universally so and only in combination with other factors). However, status is largely in the minds of the group members. There is little, if anything, that we could call status that is independent of the perception of other group members. So what kind of things work to establish social status in the mind of group members?

One way to approach this question is to identify two basic categories of status. They are Dominance-Status and Cooperative-Status.

Dog barkingDominance-status arises out of a group member’s ability to present a threat of some kind to other group members. In simple terms, it is about the “pecking-order”. It is about the strongest wolf in a pack. The dominant member of the group is not necessarily nice or fair to other members, because they can ultimately resort to some form of force to maintain their superiority. It should be noted, however, that by “force” we mean any legitimate method of presenting a threat. This could be physical force, or it could be the means to influence others to exert physical force, by sexual influence, charisma, official mandate, or any other means.

It should be noted, however, that this is also a distinct concept from power, because in dominance status the methods of force must be accepted by the group as a whole. Only certain legitimate methods are accepted by the group – a murderer, for example, may be feared, and may be powerful, but they do not usually have any social status. Ultimately the dominance still occurs “within the rules”, though these rules are generally a much looser version in comparison to the commonly held moral standards of the group.

Examples of high dominance-status

  • Leader of a warlike tribe
  • Charming life-of-the-party (though perhaps they are viewed as providing entertainment)
  • Sexually manipulative person

Cooperative-status arises from the ability to offer the group or members of the group something as part of membership. For example, this might be a strong warrior that fights for the group, or it might be a doctor that heals members of the group. They perform some role in the group for which they are respected and elevated in the group’s eyes. They win acceptance and a place in the group by contributing in a positive way. Others are able to recognise the role they play. Their contribution is admired.

Examples of high cooperative-status:

  • Brave warrior
  • Intellectual/wise elder
  • Inventor or successful trader
  • Healer

Both types of status are usually zero-sum – there is only so much status to go around. There is only so much respect available in each group member’s mind. There is still some room for positive (or negative sum movement) – people can have overall less or more regard and respect for others in the group. However, there is probably an upwards limit.

So, how should we feel about these two forms of status, normatively speaking? Well, in a group where most status opportunties are dominance based, group members are going to try to become very good a presenting a threat to others. This skillset is not neccessarily useless to the group (eg. ferocity in warfare with opposing group), most of the time the harm to group members is going to be greater than the benefits. Groups who are too focused on dominance will lose out to cooperative groups who spend less resources fighting themselves.

In contrast, cooperative status requires someone to adopt behaviours that (appear to) increase group welfare. While the status equation is zero-sum, group welfare is not. As group members optimise to gain status, the group benefits more and more. The main risk is then that group members are less habituated to fierce competition, and so are less prepared for intergroup conflict. Now if you artificially train the same combative skills in a contained, efficient and less harmful way, you’re group is looking good…

Filtering the filters

Scott over at SSC has made an interesting post on how people are beginning to create lists (and potentially more sophisticated heuristics) of people with views who they find offensive and using tools to block those views from their feeds on social media. That might be innocent enough in isolation, and I can totally understand the desire to block trolls and disingenuous interlocutors, but taken as part of a broader internet trend, it is a little disturbing. Taken to its logical conclusion, the direction of this trend seems to be towards walled gardens and echo chambers, where we are exposed only to the opinions with which we are in comforting agreement with. So our views (or the views the filter allow) are always reinforced, magnified, and never truly challenged.

While I admit that on occasion a sheltered garden can grow something beautiful, the potential for filters to fragment our society into a series of warring echo chambers is quite horrifying. Filters have always existed, but this systematisation of them is certainly unprecedented. I’m not sure it’s automatically going to favour the powerful (a Scott suggests), because historically they’ve already had filters that regular people don’t have access to. This might just give everyone access to the same kind of sheltered stupid. It depends if the filters are open or not, how they work, and who controls their content. But no matter who controls them, I think they have the potentially to be incredibly harmful to us all, because the truth is complex, and if a filter hides that complexity, then it’s hiding the truth from you, even if its doing so with a voice of comforting agreement.

I think there’s a significant group of people (including quite a few over at SSC) that don’t buy into the infallibility of any particular political camp. We don’t want to be limited to the narrow mantras of this echo-chamber or that one. We want access to the most eloquent versions of all reasonable arguments, so we can assess and synthesise them all. We want to see all relevant evidence, not just the evidence that suits this agenda or that one. For us it’s an effort to generate a true understanding of the world and to use logic and reason to decide what political “recipes” actually result in beneficial outcomes. In a world that increasingly favours convincing over learning, and rhetoric over logic. we’re going to have to fight to keep that project alive.

We don’t want to filter opinions, we want to filter quality. We don’t want to wade through an endless swap of fallacious reasoning, rhetorical tricks and irrational rubbish. We want reasons, arguments, and evidence. We want intellectual pluralism, because the truth need not fear lies if the fight is fair.

If filters are creating echo-chambers, then let’s filter the echo chambers. People that deviate from the tribe’s rhetoric aren’t suspect, it’s the people that don’t. If someone wants to critique a view, a good sign of authenticity is the ability to eloquently and comprehensively describe what they oppose. So for intellectual pluralism, an acceptable filter eliminates not the plurality of views, but the distorted straw men, the gross misrepresentations, and above all dogma that lives only in the absense of alternative views. A stream of information that contains the language of only one school of thought is less reliable than one that contains several, because if someone is smart enough to propose an idea, they should be smart enough to describe competing arguments in an eloquent manner. This is the kind of heuristic that we should use to create the anti-filter.

The truth is larger than all of us, and if we are to see it in all its majesty, then we must cooperate to create the biggest, clearest lens we can.