Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Secret of Ankh-Morpork: A Tale of British Liberalism



In the Constitution of Liberty (I:4), F. A. Hayek distinguishes between what may be called the British evolutionary empiricist and French rationalist schools of liberty. The French tradition, as exemplified by thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau (yes, he was born in Geneva), sees liberty in terms of specific policies and political structures that can be known through reason. Its primary goal is the creation of a utopian ideal government with the right laws and the right people in charge. The British tradition, as exemplified by Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, sees liberty as emerging out of systems of human interaction that transcend the design of any particular person. These can be seen in economic markets and traditional social orders. As with biological evolution, these systems are rational in the sense that they follow clear rules and are not random even as they have no rational designer. The goal of such liberty is not any utopian ideal but to limit physical coercion in people's lives.

It strikes me that one of the finest modern examples of this British approach to liberty can be found in Terry Pratchett's comic fantasy series Discworld. In particular, I would like to focus on his use of the city of Ankh-Morpork, which relies less on any of its visible institutions than on a certain subconscious sensibility embedded within its citizens. On the surface, one would be hard-pressed to think of Ankh-Morpork as any kind of Utopia. The city is filthy, crime-ridden, corrupt and under the boot of the tyrannical Patrician Lord Vetinari. And yet there is something about the city that allows it to, if not necessarily function well, at least avoid collapsing on a day to day basis. Furthermore, there is something about Ankh-Morpork that draws people from all over Discworld, whether barbarian raiders, tourists or immigrants. As paradoxical as it might sound, if you find yourself alienated by the place you grew up in, Ankh-Morpork is precisely the place that you can count on to feel at home.

What is Ankh-Morpork's secret of success? It is not the place has some particularly brilliant form of government. There is not much of a government doing anything and the little government that there is seems totally outmatched by the challenges it faces. Is there something special about Ankh-Morporkians themselves? There is no race of Ankh-Morporkians. On the contrary, Ankh-Morpork is a collection of every race and species on Discworld. Furthermore, the people themselves are not particularly wise nor virtuous. What makes Ankh-Morpork special is something about the deep-seated institutions of the city itself that transcend its politics and its racial makeup. One might even think of it as magic, something that is not too far fetched considering how the wizards of Ankh-Morpork's Unseen University mess with the fabric of reality.

In this sense, Ankh-Morpork is the perfect British classical liberal counter-Utopia. The place is far from perfect but is still a place that real people might want to live in. This only makes sense in a world that rejects Utopias. In fact, constantly hanging over Ankh-Morpork is the prospect of a path to Utopia that is never taken in the form of the messianic Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson. He is the true heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork (the last king having been killed off centuries ago). He even has a sword and a birthmark to prove it. It has been foretold that he will bring truth and justice to Ankh-Morpork. (See Guards, Guards.) One of the running jokes of the series is that despite all the people who know of Carrot's heritage, there is no grand push to make him king because no one actually wants truth and justice. It is not that anyone actually likes Lord Vetinari, but his style of management, corruption and all, suits people just fine.  

Carrot does well as an honest watchman and as a human raised by dwarfs and whose love interest, Angua, is a werewolf, he is well positioned to negotiate between different races. That being said, it is obvious that Carrot would be a dreadful ruler if he ever got around to fulfilling his destiny. He has principles that he will not compromise on, while politics is the art of compromise. It is unfortunate that Pratchett never got around to completing Carrot's story arc. I imagine something along the lines of Vetinari being killed off, chaos threatens the city, and the people are demanding that Carrot agree to become their king. Carrot should then give some version of Life of Brian's "you can all think for yourselves" speech before riding off into the sunset. The city falls into chaos and it is exactly the kind of chaos that afflicted Ankh-Morpork every day under Vetinari. Perhaps Nobby Nobbs becomes patrician; regardless, it does not matter who officially rules as it is the city itself that actually is in charge.

Part of Discworld's use of an emerging order is its lack of clear ideological heroes. For example, Vetinari is not any kind of liberal. He is a dictator, who clearly does not believe in civil liberties. That being said, what great evil does Vetinari actually do? He seems to sit in his office, call people in and suggest that certain courses of action might be good for their continued health. For all that it is taken as a given that Vetinari is ruthless enough to have people tortured to death on a whim, he does not seem to do much of that. This does not mean that Vetinari is a good guy; his love of power precludes that. Nevertheless, there is something about the culture of Ankh-Morpork that resists blatant authoritarian force. Vetinari is smart enough to understand that the best way to hold on to power in Ankh-Morpork is to avoid directly giving orders. Instead, everything, including theft and murder, is legalized though regulated by guilds. These institutions gain their authority through the perpetual motion of tradition that transcends any attempt by individuals to control them. In essence, Vetinari allows the city to run itself while he devotes himself to politics, staying in power by positioning himself as the known quantity that people can live with.  

We see a similar thing with Sam Vimes, the head of the city watch. While Vimes is certainly more likable than Vetinari, his values are quite conservative. Unlike his ancestor who killed the last king of Ankh-Morpork, Vimes is not a revolutionary. What Vimes believes in is the law. It is not that Vimes believes that the law is perfect. On the contrary, he is quite aware of its limitations. That being said, it is precisely because Vimes sees how little good the law can do in the face of real problems in the world that he believes that the law, for whatever it is worth, should apply to everyone, rich and poor, humans and every other race. (See Night Watch and Snuff.) Vimes is the kind of common man just doing his job around whom heroic things seem to happen.

This sensibility seeps down into the rest of Ankh-Morpork. It is a cosmopolitan place in which even dwarfs and trolls learn to if not exactly tolerate each other than at least to not murder each other too often. (See Thud.) Ankh-Morpork has legal prostitution in the form of the Seamstress' Guild. It even allows for explorations of gender identity in the case of Cherry Littlebottom, who comes out as a female dwarf. For all of this tolerance, it is not as if there are many actual liberals in the city crusading for people's rights. (There are zombie activists promoting the rights of the undead.) Most of the residents are highly parochial, interested in their mothers or some other hobby. But it is precisely such narrow mindedness that makes Ankh-Morpork's type of tolerance possible. The residents are too focused on their own private business to mind anyone else's. When the occasional mob does form, they are usually dispersed not by appeals to any noble ideals but by reminding the mob that there are more important things in their lives that they should care about.  

In Discworld, the arc of history does bend toward justice. A running theme through the series is the expansion of personhood to include an ever wider circle of beings such as golems or goblins, who were previously seen as either lacking feelings or so depraved as to be outside of personhood. (See Feet of Clay and Snuff.) What makes this possible is not that particular individuals become "woke" to oppression. Rather, it is that the underlying social system evolves as to include new groups. Once that happens, no conscious tolerance is needed. You can hate the group, but even the very fact that you hate them serves to embed them within the fabric of society, making their elimination inconceivable. (This is an important theme in understanding anti-Semitism. Jews were never in danger from people who believed that Jews killed their Lord as long as Jews were considered part of the existing order of society. Mass violence against Jews only became possible when Jews came to be thought of as something other.) 

On the other side of this coin, minority groups themselves, such as the dwarfs, change as they move to Ankh-Morpork. They might not intend to assimilate and might not realize what is happening until they are raising the next generation but by then it is too late. It is the power of Ankh-Morpork that it is able to assimilate outsiders and turn them into Ankh-Morporkians who embody Ankh-Morpork values even as such people claim to hate Ankh-Morpork and desire to return to the "old country."

Much as Ankh-Morpork attracts outsiders, the city finds itself host to a wide variety of religions. Most Ankh-Morporkians seem indifferent to religion in their personal lives even as religious institutions seem to thrive. There is even a Temple of Small Gods devoted to cast off religions that services people who might not be particularly religious but who like religion as a general idea. The only people who seem interested in forcing their beliefs on others are the Omnians. Even they find themselves caught in the web of Ankh-Morpork sensibilities and are reduced to "aggressively" handing out pamphlets to unbelievers.  

This brings us to the question of markets. As Ankh-Morpork is not a Utopia, it should come as no surprise that Ankh-Morpork is not a free-market Utopia along the lines of Galt's Gulch populated by libertarian ideologues prepared to explain the evils of government planning. That being said, what is interesting about Ankh-Morpork is that it is precisely the kind of place in which innovation either happens or which innovators quickly make their way to in order to market their ideas. It is not that Vetinari loves innovation. On the contrary, he understands more than most people how innovations can make tidal waves in society and he knows that the entire basis of his power lies in his ability to offer people more of the same. It is not that Ankh-Morporkians themselves love innovation either, at least as a principle. That being said, Ankh-Morporkians can be seduced by the magic of a new invention. This allows for innovations to make a rapid jump from a prototype that someone is fooling around with to a part of the social fabric, moving through the stage of dangerous innovation too fast for an effective opposition to build up and stop it. 

Like Charles Dickens, Pratchett's depiction of businessmen was a mixed bag. I do love Harry King whose fortune literally is founded on human excrement. (See Raising Steam.) For a city in which so much is privatized, it is a mystery as to why Ankh-Morpork would need a government-run post-office or mint. (See Going Postal and Making Money.) Even in those cases, Vetinari takes a very hands-off approach and simply lets the conman Moist von Lipwig take charge. In both cases, it is the Ankh-Morpork spirit and not government planning that quickly takes over and cause these institutions to serve purposes beyond anyone's design. 

Ultimately, Pratchett also possessed Dickens' appreciation for the common unheroic virtues. People might be cowards and hypocrites (otherwise known as being self-interested), but they are redeemed by their petty loves and kindnesses. As with Dickens, this goes a long way to redeeming Pratchett. He is a defender of the common man with his bourgeois dreams of doing even the most humble job well and getting ahead as opposed to waging revolution. This is in contrast to the Marxist pretend support for the working class; no one despises the common man like a Marxist. 

The truth about Ankh-Morpork is that it is actually very well run; it is just that it is not being run by any person, not even Lord Vetinari. Ankh-Morpork is a liberal and even revolutionary city that is completely lacking in liberal revolutionaries. It is the deep-seated embed institutions of the city itself that transcend any politician, system of government or particular race that guard the city's liberty and allow it to thrive.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Ingenious: A Game of Scarce Resource Management


Over Shavuot, Kalman managed to beat me for the first time at a real board game, Ingenious. This is a great game to play with a five-year-old in that the rules are simple enough that Kalman can follow them while offering serious strategic thinking for the adult. (In my case, I got too smart for my own good.) In addition, the game offers Kalman numerous opportunities to advance pegs on a numbered board by different amounts to keep score, a useful visual for understanding addition.

The basic premise of the game is that you match tiles, each with two colored symbols, with tiles already on the board with one of the same colors. The longer the row of matching symbol you make, the more points you earn. The trick is that, at the end of the game, the only points that matter are the ones from your lowest scoring symbol. Because of this, you need to go after all the symbols and not just the ones in which you are strongest. (This is kind of like the electoral college where you cannot simply pile on votes from your strongest states.) 

It strikes me that Ingenious is very much an economics game. As with any meaningful discussion of economics, the strategic issue at the game's heart is one of resource management under conditions of scarcity. You are going to have to make trade-offs between high scoring moves and getting points where you actually need them. Barring extreme luck, you cannot expect to be able to make ideal moves. You do the best with the tiles you have, knowing that you will have to make tradeoffs.

The really interesting economics issue in this game is the extreme relativity of the value of different colored tiles. The higher you score on any color, the less each additional point is valuable. In essence, the game runs on marginal utility. Points do not have any objective value, beyond how little you have of them. Getting from zero to one is going to be more valuable than getting from one to two.

This question of the relative value of points is further complicated by the layout of the board as it develops in that the board will offer better opportunities for high score moves in certain colors. By contrast, certain colors will be cut off, making it difficult to develop them. This means that, not only do you have to pay attention to how you are scoring in all the colors, you also have to take into account which colors you will likely be able to play in the later part of the game. It may be perfectly acceptable to let yourself lag in a color or two as long as those colors are not likely to be cut off. If a color looks like it will be cut off, then you better get your matching pieces down immediately so you can monopolize that color before your opponents do the same. 

It should be acknowledged, though, that the "economics" of  Ingenious ultimately come across as rather mercantilist. Unlike even Settlers of Catan, there is no trading or opportunities to cooperate. On the contrary, you need to develop the tile resources on the board for yourself at the same time that you sabotage everyone else's attempts to benefit from that same source. In essence, you are the equivalent of an oilman who sets up a Baptist/Bootlegger coalition with environmentalists in order to stop further drilling and raise the value of the oil you already possess.

 

This can only be expected from a board game as they are fundamentally zero-sum exercises in which one person wins and everyone else loses. By contrast, economics (contrary to what Trump believes) is about how everyone can be a winner, particularly if we look after the "low scorers." And this may be Ingenious' most important lesson. You may have "rich" and "poor" colors as some level of inequality is inevitable. That being said, in the end, we will be judged on our ability to raise the standard of living for those who have least. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Where Do We Go From Here? Let's Make Government Equal Violence Again


Libertarians are a small minority in this country, without much particular influence. For all the complaints about the Koch brothers, we do not control academia. Our influence over Hollywood is so non-existent that we cannot even get a decent Atlas Shrugged filmed made. Assuming that this status quo is unlikely to change in our lifetime, our only chance of having some limited say over public policy is through an alliance with either liberals or conservatives (At this point, I am uncertain which is a better option so all can I do is urge libertarians to be charitable to whatever path other libertarians pursue, recognizing that there really are no good options.) Regardless of whether libertarians should be on the left or the right, I would hope that what unites us and what we should never lose track of is the desire to make it clear that government is a literal act of violence.

As we approach the one-hundredth anniversary of the Versailles Treaty, it is useful to note that the end of World War I marked a critical turning point in a moral revolution almost as important as the Enlightenment's turn to equality as a moral principle. World War I was made possible because people, as it was the norm throughout history, looked to war as something noble. Millions of men marched to war in 1914 on the logic that the worst that could happen was that they would die and be remembered as heroes. Most likely, the war would be over by Christmas and they would be able to go home to show off a minor injury that would mark them forever as "real men." It is important to keep in mind that women were fully culpable in pushing this logic on men by shaming them into fighting. Such a state of affairs was not something unique to 1914. It goes all the way back to at least the Iliad.

Perhaps, the finest summation of such war apologetics can be found in Shakespeare's Henry V.




Critical for understanding the play is the fact that Shakespeare does not ask us to care about medieval dynastic politics. It is irrelevant whether Henry V has a legitimate claim to the throne of France. There is no pretense that fighting for Henry will make the world safe for hereditary monarchy through the female line (the official issue at stake in the Hundred Years War). What Henry offers his men is the opportunity to be part of his "band of brothers," to be remembered as such heroes that someone would write a play about them nearly two centuries later. (This is a good example of the "post-modern" side to Shakespeare where he regularly gives his characters a certain awareness that they are actors in a play.)

This view of war as an opportunity to win personal glory died in the mud of the Western Trenches. World War II could still be fought for the ideologies of Fascism, Communism, and Democracy, but no more could intellectually series people think of war as a principled good in of itself. What is critical to understand here is not that 20th-century man abandoned war nor is it likely that peace will come to the world in the 21st-century (even as we continue to enjoy the long peace of no war between major powers since World War II). What can no longer be seriously contemplated, even as superhero action movies remain popular, is any discussion of war that omits the obvious fact that war involves murder and the fact that it might be carried out by men in uniform following orders from their superiors does nothing to change that. Wars may continue to be fought as inescapable tragedies, but there is no escaping their morally problematic nature.

In practice, this means that in debating war, opponents of war start with the moral high ground. For example, with the Iraq War, the Bush administration could not even simply argue that Saddam Husain was a bad guy and that the United States was legally justified in removing him, let alone that they were offering young Americans the opportunity to take part in a "glorious" adventure. They needed to argue that Saddam presented a clear and present danger to the world through his possession of weapons of mass destruction. The fact that these accusations turned out to be false fatally compromised the moral position of the United States in occupying Iraq.

The success of anti-war movements in making war morally problematic offers us a model for what libertarians might achieve in the 21st century. Even if we cannot stop the expansion of government let alone eliminate it, we can still make government morally problematic.

My model for this is the Road to Serfdom, in which Friedrich Hayek directly connected the romanticization of war as the county coming together for a single cause to the argument for continuing that same military logic in peacetime with a government-run economy. It stands to the credit of Hayek that conservatives developed a guilty conscious regarding government (distinct from actually cutting government spending). This was a valid justification for allying with conservatives in the past and it may continue to do so in the future. Clearly, this is not the case with the wider society. On the contrary, when people, particularly on the left, talk about government, there is a tendency to see it in terms of "everyone coming together for the common good." By contrast, markets are seen as manifestations of greed. This gives government action the moral high ground.

We can criticize government policies and we will win some major victories. Hardcore Marxism went down with the Cold War. Even the Chinese Communist Party accepts market control over much of the economy. Democratic Socialists like Bernie Sanders are not revolutionaries trying to nationalize everything. On the contrary, they largely accept the current status quo. That being said, such victories often seem hallow as we cannot escape the sense that our opponents are simply rearming, waiting for their chance to make their next big push. The reason for this is that the horrors of Communism did not discredit government in the same sense that the horrors of Nazism discredited racism. (Try claiming to be a "Democratic Nazi.") From this perspective, Communism stands as a "noble" experiment, its failures a lesson for future attempts to bring about the brotherhood of man. By contrast, those who oppose Communism on principle, stand convicted of being so selfish as to oppose human brotherhood.

My modest goal for libertarianism is to simply make it impossible, within mainstream society, to talk about government programs without acknowledging that violence is being advocated. Today, we can take it for granted that defenders of the military are not going to be able to ignore the fact that war inevitably leads to atrocities while denouncing their opponents as cowards who hate their country. Similarly, we can push the debate to a point in which defenders of government programs are not able to simply portray themselves as humanitarians and their opponents as greedy corporate shills. On the contrary, it is we who oppose government who are the true humanitarians. We are the ones who do not wish to use violence.

You wish to have public education and universal health care? Fine, just as long as you are willing to admit that you believe that it is right and laudable to murder children if that is the only way to get people to pay for these programs. We libertarians may still lose the debate if we cannot offer a better alternative, but if we lose we will still be able to hold our heads up high and claim the moral high ground as the humanitarians who dared to dream of a world without violence. If we can do that, who knows, maybe the next generation will be able to come up with a plan that really does make government services unnecessary.