Muck and Mystery
   Loitering With Intent
blog - at - crumbtrail.org
September 03, 2011
Moreover and However

The idiocy of collective action angst, and efforts to incite riots by activists, isn't just an ethical and aesthetic failure, it is first and foremost an intellectual failure. The outcome of such tantrums is unpredictable, and usually makes things worse. This isn't news, so one can then also criticize the ethics of knowingly fomenting probable disaster. When we look closely we usually find opportunists who have some chance of personal benefit from events that are harmful to the rest of society. They are, in that sense, social criminals.

This is a current issue, as noted in the previous post about social media and the way it is manipulated by unethical opportunist to create havoc, such as we see in the Middle East. It isn't that the status quo is good, it is that mindless rebellion makes things worse. Some maturity of mind and attention to probable outcomes is required rather the juvenile tantrums.

However, what has kept me thinking about the subject is a bit of indirect stimulus.

Iím quite partial to the idea that humanistic work disrupts, defers or messes up mechanistic or instrumental schemes of all kinds. Job one in my teaching and my writing is to confound and scramble attempts to render societies and individuals transparent, manageable, predictable, legible. I steer my boat by the star of James Scott.
This excerpt says little about the thrust of that post (read it), it just stimulated my thinking about Scott, someone that I've looked at in the past with mixed reaction. What he said was either commonplace, or illogical, in turns.
On one level, it is an extraordinary well-written and well-argued tour through the various forms of damage that have been done in the twentieth century by centrally-planned social-engineering projects--by what James Scott calls "high modernism" and the attempt to use high modernist principles and practices to build utopia. As such, every economist who reads it will see it as marking the final stage in the intellectual struggle that the Austrian tradition has long waged against apostles of central planning. ... within economics even liberal Keynesian social democrats acknowledge that the Austrians won victory in their intellectual debate with the central planners long ago.

This book marks the final stage because it shows the spread of what every economist would see as "Austrian ideas" into political science, sociology, and anthropology as well.

No one can finish reading Scott without believing--as Austrians have argued for three-quarters of a century--that centrally-planned social-engineering is not an appropriate mechanism for building a better society. ...

Yet even as he makes his central points, Scott appears unable to make contact with his intellectual roots--thus he is unable to draw on pieces of the Austrian argument as it has been developed over the past seventy years. Just as seeing like a state means that you cannot see the local details of what is going on, so seeing like James Scott seems to me that you cannot see your intellectual predecessors.

That the conclusion is so strong where the evidence is so weak is, I think, evidence of profound subconscious anxiety: subconscious fear that recognizing that one's book is in the tradition of the Austrian critique of the twentieth century state will commit one to becoming a right-wing inequality-loving Thatcher-worshiping libertarian (even though there are intermediate positions: you can endorse the Austrian critique of central planning without rejecting the mixed economy and the social insurance state).

And when the chips are down, this recognition is something James Scott cannot do. At some level he wishes--no matter what his reason tells him--to take his stand on the side of the barricades with the revolutionaries and their tools to build utopia. He ends the penultimate chapter of his book with what can only be called a political pledge-of-allegiance:

Revolutionaries have had every reason to despise the feudal, poverty-stricken, inegalitarian past that they hoped to banish forever, and sometimes they have also had a reason to suspect that immediate democracy would simply bring back the old order. Postindependence leaders in the nonindustrial world (occasionally revolutionary leaders themselves) could not be faulted for hating their past of colonial domination and economic stagnation, nor could they be faulted for wasting no time or democratic sentimentality on creating a people that they could be proud of (p. 341).
But then comes the chapter's final sentence: "Understanding the history and logic of their commitment to high-modernist goals, however, does not permit us to overlook the enormous damage that their convictions entailed when combined with authoritarian state power"
This is dead common, and baffles me. I see it often among more thoughtful academics who have - bit by bit, with reluctance - finally abandoned their cybernetic, technocratic, scientistic socio-economic engineering notions as defensible intellectually, and yet still voice support for attempts to implement such systems even though done in half-hearted and ultimately risible ways. They still wish to signal their affection for the old discredited ideas, apparently for solidarity with fellows travelers who are all, more or less, in mourning for their moribund cherished illusions.

I'd be happier if they moved on to more intellectually fertile efforts such as the IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity), under the ACE (Aggregative Contingent Estimation) program. There is a fruitful discussion going on about these issues. The lead essay is Overcoming Our Aversion to Acknowledging Our Ignorance by Dan Gardner and Philip E. Tetlock.

Natural science has discovered in the past half-century that the dream of ever-growing predictive mastery of a deterministic universe may well be just that, a dream. There increasingly appear to be fundamental limits to what we can ever hope to predict. ... Barring new insights that shatter existing paradigms, it will forever be impossible to make time-and-place predictions in such complex systems. The best we can hope to do is get a sense of the probabilities involved. And even that is a tall order.

Human systems like economies are complex systems, with all that entails. And bear in mind that human systems are not made of sand, rock, snowflakes, and the other stuff that behaves so unpredictably in natural systems. Theyíre made of people: self-aware beings who see, think, talk, and attempt to predict each otherís behavioróand who are continually adapting to each otherís efforts to predict each otherís behavior, adding layer after layer of new calculations and new complexity. All this adds new barriers to accurate prediction.

When governments the world over were surprised by this yearís events in the Middle East, accusing fingers were pointed at intelligence agencies. Why hadnít they seen it coming? ...

Remember that it was a single suicidal protest by a lone Tunisian fruit seller that set off the tumult, just as an infinitesimal shift can apparently precipitate an earthquake. But even after the unrest had begun, predicting what would follow and how it would conclude was a foolís errand because events were contingent on the choices of millions of people, and those choices were contingent on perceptions that could and did change constantly. Say youíre an Egyptian. Youíre in Cairo. You want to go to the protest but youíre afraid. If you go and others donít, the protest will fail. You may be arrested and tortured. But if everyone goes, you will have safety in numbers and be much likelier to win the day. Perhaps. Itís also possible that a massive turnout will make the government desperate enough to order soldiers to open fire. Which the soldiers may or may not do, depending in part on whether they perceive the government or the protestors to have the upper hand. In this atmosphere, rumors and emotions surge through the population like electric charges. Excitement gives way to terror in an instant. Despair to hope. And back again. What will people do? How will the government react? Nothing is certain until it happens. And then many pundits declare whatever happened was inevitable. Indeed, they saw it coming all along, or so they believe in hindsight.

The ignorance and arrogance of those who seek to foment collective action, "take his stand on the side of the barricades with the revolutionaries and their tools to build utopia", blinks reality. With hindsight bias some dolt will claim to have foreseen whatever outcome eventuates, and willing dupes will believe such claims, but there are not currently any known methods for reliable prediction. That, then, is a worthy subject to pursue.
Posted by back40 at 05:00 PM | cognition

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