Category Archives: Quick Start Guide

The Problem with Pragmatism (and “It’s Time to Build”)

I was once an ally of Marc Andreessen, author of the recent much-descussed essay It’s Time to Build.

Back in 1996, there was an Epic Battle for the Future of the World between Netscape (founded by Andreesen) and Microsoft (founded by Bill Gates), for who was going to dominate the Internet. That battle is largely forgotten now, because it turned out that neither company ended up dominating the Internet. But at the time it was the Biggest Thing Ever. Or maybe it just seemed like the Biggest Thing Ever to me because I ended up in the middle of it.

At the beginning of 1996, I was a software engineer working for a business-to-business PC reseller called Dataflex, when it got bought out by a larger B2B PC reseller called Vanstar. Bill Gates owned something like 8% of Vanstar, if I recall correctly.

Back then, Gates was viewed as the Greedy Monopolist. More recently, because of his philanthropy focused on global disease reduction, Gates has flipped that image to become The Good Billionaire. But here’s a thing that hasn’t changed about Bill Gates: when he sees something as an existential threat, he will fight that threat in a thoroughly focused, organized, systematic, comprehensive, and relentless manner. Back then, Netscape was the existential threat. Netscape got crushed. The coronavirus has no idea what it’s in for.

Back in 1996, Netscape wanted to sell its software to businesses, because that’s where the big money is. But in order to do that, it needed resellers like Vanstar to leverage their relationships with businesses to sell them Netscape products. But there weren’t any resellers who would touch Netscape with a 10-foot pole. Either they were, like Vanstar, partially owned by Microsoft or Bill Gates, or they knew how much they were entirely dependent on Microsoft for their existence, and didn’t want to cross them. Netscape couldn’t get its foot in the door to businesses anywhere.

So a handful of we Dataflex/Vanstar veterans got wind of this, and decided to launch a B2B reselling business called Intraware to sell the software like Netscape that Microsoft didn’t want sold. That worked pretty well for a while, until the dot-com crash dealt a big blow to the idea. Then the fact that the Internet basically destroyed the concept of middlemen finished it off.

Still, we had a good run for a while there, and much of the material comforts I enjoy now are thanks to that titanic Netscape-Microsoft clash of the late 1990s. That fact that I can sit at home during this pandemic and not have to worry about where my next meal is coming from is in large part thanks to Marc Andreessen. So believe me, after all that, it does not give me much joy here to kind of bite the hand that fed me.

* * *

In my essay, “Quick Start Guide to Human Society™, I ran through some various approaches to political philosophies, and the problems with each of them. I claimed that each political philosophy has at its foundation a particular model of human nature.

I made one exception to that, which was Pragmatism:

Pragmatic models make no claim whatsoever about human nature. Instead, pragmatic strategies simply aim to function through trial and error to see what works and what doesn’t. They keep what works and throw out what doesn’t. Why something works or doesn’t isn’t considered an important question.

The problem with pragmatic models is that without a theory of human nature behind them, they lack a moral foundation. Without a good moral story to tell, it is difficult for pragmatists to establish and maintain trust within their Human Society™.

Andreessen in his essay is not promoting any particular political model. He goes out of his way to avoid doing so, pointing out the weaknesses and strengths of both sides of the two-party system. Instead, he advocates for tossing all that aside and just start focusing on getting stuff built, doing what works.

That’s basically Pragmatism.

* * *

America is a two-party system, so you don’t ever get a Pragmatist Party promoting Pragmatist ideas as a viable party. But even in multi-party parliamentary systems, there aren’t any Pragmatist parties that win elections anywhere. Why is that?

There’s an aphorism goes, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” Pragmatists don’t want to take sides on questions of human nature, they just want to Get Things Built. They prefer to remain neutral in the questions of morality that pervade political discourse. They prefer a skeptical distance from the moral certainty that emanates from each side of the political divide.

You know that phrase “if you can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided for you”? Pragmatism is like that. If you don’t have a view of human nature of your own, you’ll get one assigned to you.

Pragmatists want to stay amoral. But by not choosing, moral decisions get taken out of their hands, and they thereby abdicate their political power. The practical result is that pragmatism gets co-opted by other philosophies.

Sometimes those other philosophies that pragmatism gets attached to are immoral. Which is exactly what happened to them throughout a large portion of American history.

* * *

Two party systems are inherently unstable. The average two-party presidential system lasts about 20 years before falling apart because the two parties drift so far apart that they can’t agree on anything long enough to Get Things Built. (Parliamentary systems last about 4x longer, on average.) America’s two-party system is no exception to that instability. The Civil War was basically that instability coming home to roost. The only thing that kept it from breaking up again after the Civil War was that for the next 100 years, America wasn’t really a two-party system as much as it was a three-party system: the Republicans, the Democrats, and the Southern Democrats.

Nobody wanted another Civil War. That gave Southern Democrats the leverage to make a deal: they would be a source of pragmatism and compromise to Get Things Built, as long as they got to keep their racist institutions intact.

So American Pragmatists, lacking a view of human nature of their own, found themselves assigned one: that white human beings were superior to other races of human beings, and should therefore rule over them.

Racism is America’s great sin. It is also American Pragmatism’s great sin. America used to Get Things Built, but it wasn’t because it Wanted To Build more than it does today. It did so because America, and in particular American Pragmatists, in their unwillingness to commit to a model of human nature, were also unwilling to commit to saying that the model of human nature promoted by white supremacists, and the political philosophy that follows from it, is wrong. It was willing to trade the welfare of African Americans in order bridge the necessary gaps between left and right in order to Get Things Built.

This is how Pragmatists, time and time again, in their efforts to remain amoral, let immoral things happen.

* * *

The Civil Rights Act blew up the deal with the Southern Democrats. And for the next 30 years or so, the pragmatists and the racists drifted around without a clear home. Both left and right tried to attract the racists to their side in indirect and subtle ways, by being “tough on crime” or launching a “war on drugs”. Both sides tried to appeal to pragmatists by trying to solve social problems with market mechanisms.

A funny thing happened in the 1990s. The pragmatists and the racists began to realize they held the leverage in this power struggle. The Pragmatists, under the Clintons, took over the Democrats. And increasingly, as the pragmatists shifted towards the Democrats, the racists began to co-opt the Republicans, leading in the end to Donald Trump’s victory.

In the election of 2016, Americans were given a choice between an amoral philosophy and and immoral one. Because Pragmatists have trouble morally justifying their positions, people could and did ascribe all sorts of immoral motivations to those choices, whether true or not. It’s not hard to make a Pragmatist look immoral. The choice between amorality and immorality often doesn’t look like a choice at all.

* * *

In the end of his essay, Marc Andreessen asks, “What do you think we should build?”

My answer to that is: a moral center.

It’s a pipe dream, I know. But you’re asking, so I’m answering.

America’s great flaw is that its political center has always been occupied by amoral and immoral philosophies. So in order to Get Things Built, America has always had to do things that are morally reprehensible.

In the long run, that leads to distrust, which leads to roadblocks.

It doesn’t need to be that way. I believe that America can Get Things Built again, if it had a good moral story for the center of American politics.

A primary reason I wrote my essay “Quick Start Guide to Human Society is to provide an example of such a moral center.

It’s a morality that differs from the right, which is focused on liberty, and from the left, which is focused on equality. This centrist philosophy that I’m advocating is focused on trust. It is not a branch of either the left or the right, but philosophically distinct from either one. It can tell a story about why being in the center, as opposed to either the left or the right, is the morally correct place to be. And as such, it can provide a bridge where the distrust of the left for the right, and vice versa, leads each party to spend most of its energy and resources on stopping the other side.

With a third clear morality to choose from, there is no excuse for people who want to Get Things Built to take the Pragmatic path and avoid moral choices. Make a choice, and then get to work.

America’s potential is still there, waiting to be unlocked. The key we need to unlock it is a morally sound mechanism for compromise. If we build that, then our country’s true potential can be fulfilled. America can finally Get Things Built the way we all believe it can.

The Right to Be an Asshole

I wouldn’t say I never swear, but I don’t swear much, in real life, or in writing. I’ve been blogging for almost two decades now, and I just checked the stats, I average about one swear word every two years. I’ve only used three of George Carlin’s seven dirty words. I’ve used the word “shit” five times, four of which are in the form of the word “bullshit”. I’ve used the word “piss” twice, both times in the form of “pissed off”. And I’ve used the word “fuck” three times, but each time I was quoting someone else. My Twitter rate stats are similar.

The word “asshole” is not one of Carlin’s seven words, but up until now, I’ve only used it while blogging once. I have used it on Twitter a bit more, but still, only in five different conversations over the years.

All of which is to say, I don’t take swearing lightly. When I use one of these words, I usually use it because it’s the precisely the word that needs to be used.

* * *

I’ve read a lot of essays trying to explain Trumpism. They talk about economic displacement, demographic shifts, the perverse incentives of our political structure–you know, explanations using all the usual sorts of social science academic jargon. But sometimes, you just gotta go, fuck the academic jargon, here’s the best model that explains things:

The Democrats have become the “You’re Not Allowed To Be An Asshole” Party.

The Republicans have become the “I Have The Right To Be An Asshole” Party.

This is one of the major questions of our times. Should people be allowed to be assholes?

* * *

For the academic jargony types out there, let’s define what we mean by an asshole. An asshole is a selfish person, but not just any kind of selfish person. It’s a particular kind of selfishness that defines an asshole.

An asshole is a selfish person whose selfishness causes foreseeable indirect collateral damage to the people around them.

So an asshole isn’t someone who, for example, goes into a gas station and robs it. The robbery causes direct damage. A robber is a bad person, but not necessarily an asshole, at least not in this case.

And an asshole isn’t someone who, for example, takes a job just for the money. They don’t like the job, they don’t enjoy the job, they’re just doing it for the selfish reward of the money. That’s selfish, but it causes no real damage to anyone else. So that’s not an asshole, either.

Nor is an asshole someone who causes collateral damage but wasn’t behaving selfishly. An asshole isn’t someone who slips on some unseen ice and then knocks over and injures someone else while falling. That was just an unforeseeable accident.

An asshole is someone who is late for work and therefore drives fast and weaves in and out of the various lanes, cutting people off, and causing them to brake suddenly, which causes a cascade of braking behind them, which triggers a traffic jam. The asshole didn’t get into an accident, they didn’t directly harm anyone, but they left a wake of collateral indirect harm in their wake. And they should have known, if they had any kind of common sense, that that’s a likely consequence of that behavior.

Assholes take risks that provide upside to themselves, but transfer the downsides of those risks to other people.

* * *

When academic jargony types talk about the limits of freedom, they usually talk about the robbers. Obviously, you can’t let people just rob and kill and rape each other, so obviously you have to have some limits on freedom.

But the true test case for the limits of freedom is the asshole. Philosophically speaking, assholes walk the line between intentions and consequences. Assholes form the boundary between freedom and control.

Assholes don’t intend to do direct harm. They just don’t think about, and/or care about, and/or believe, and/or comprehend, that their actions can or will have negative consequences for other people beyond their direct intentions.

Patient 31 in South Korea, who went to church despite knowing that she was sick with coronavirus, didn’t intend to pass on her illness. She just wanted to go to church. It wasn’t her intention to trigger a cascade of illness that, traced directly back to her, killed several hundred people and made several thousand more sick. But any reasonable non-asshole could have told her that was a risk of her going to church. She was an asshole.

How do you judge an asshole like Patient 31? On her intentions, or on her consequences?

If you judge her only on her intentions, she’s completely innocent. If you judge her only on her consequences, she’s a mass murderer.

The consequences of being an asshole are usually not so catastrophic. Usually, societies can tolerate a certain amount of assholes and be fine. But this pandemic has changed that calculation. One asshole doing the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time could kill millions.

This is a very serious question that free societies have to answer. What the fuck do you do about assholes?

* * *

Assholes have a very clever trick that allows them to keep being assholes.

If you try to stop them from being an asshole, they will declare you to be an asshole who, although perhaps intending to prevent some bad thing from happening, causes harm by denying some very fine people, who have no intention of harming anyone, their freedom. So who’s the real asshole here, anyway?

See, I told you it was a very clever trick.

That very clever trick works because the boundaries on the map of freedom and control are formed and defined by assholes. Some things clearly need to be controlled, and some things clearly should be free to do. But assholes do things that are both and neither at the same time. They can step onto either side of their line to suit their selfish needs whenever and however they want.

This is why assholes are such a dilemma for free societies. If you value freedom as a right, assholes will test you to find out exactly how much you hold that value. Obviously no one should be free to intentionally kill someone. But should an asshole be free to do something that unintentionally but foreseeably kills one person? Ten? A hundred? A thousand? A million? A billion?

But what if it’s not killing, but causing economic harm? What if an asshole unintentionally but foreseeably causes $100 in economic harm? $100,000? $100,000,000? $100,000,000,000?

Where do you draw the line to stop the asshole? Draw that line anywhere, and now you’re an asshole, too.

* * *

This is why in my essay The Quick Start Guide to Human Society, I argued that freedom isn’t an absolute. The key to a prosperous society is to “give people freedom in an environment of trust.” You want to give people as much freedom as possible while preserving trust. Therefore, freedom is an optimization problem, always and everywhere.

When people don’t trust each other, they aren’t willing to give each other freedom. When people are given freedom, but do untrustworthy things with that freedom, that freedom will inevitably be curtailed. The more trustworthy the people in a society are, the less temptation there is to put limits on their freedom.

This gives us an angle to approach issues that differ from the “not allowed to be an asshole” view. America needs to break out of this binary mode of thought that dominates our political discussions. From this third point of view, when you’re limiting the freedom of assholes, you’re not doing it to prevent harm, you’re doing it to preserve trust and optimize freedom.

You may think that preventing harm and preserving trust are the same thing, but they’re not. 38,000 people die every year in traffic accidents in the US. That’s harm. But those statistics haven’t destroyed our trust in driving, so we let people drive. Now maybe, those numbers should destroy our trust in driving, but that’s a different issue. The point here is that while preventing harm and increasing trust may be correlated, they are not the same thing.

Looking at it through the lens of trust, we can talk coherently about the difference between the physical harm of the coronavirus pandemic, and the economic harm. Our tolerance for physical harm is much lower than our tolerance for economic harm. If people are dying, we’re going to lose trust much faster than if people are losing money.

So you judge people not on their intentions, or their consequences, but rather on the effect they have on the environment of trust. That effect contains intentions and consequences as part of the function we’re calculating, but they’re not the same thing.

When we talk about “reopening our economy” after we’ve turned the growth curve of the pandemic downward, if you talk about it from the angle of avoiding harm, you’re not going to open it at all until there’s a cure or a vaccine. If you talk about it from the angle of preserving the freedom of assholes to keep being assholes, you’re going to open things up too fast and far more people are going to die than necessary.

But if you look at it from the angle of optimizing trust, you’re going to start thinking about how and when you can open things up in a slow and controlled and limited way. You ask, how can we interact with each other in a trustworthy way, given the current rates of infection? You’ll come up with different ideas that perhaps aren’t risk-free or harm-free, but manageable. You’ll move towards that optimal balance of freedom and trust, where our low tolerance for physical harm comes in balance with our higher tolerance for economic harm.

* * *

Assholes exploit their freedom in a way that reduces trust. Assholes think they are promoting freedom by exercising their right to be an asshole, but actually, by reducing trust, they ruin freedom for everyone else. You don’t need rules to stop assholes if people are kind and thoughtful instead of assholes. If you really love freedom, and want to preserve it and grow it and spread it, be trustworthy. Don’t be an asshole.

Sponge Dip for the American Soul

Up until now, I have avoided writing too much about politics on Twitter and on my blog. This isn’t because I don’t have political views. It’s because (1) I believe that if you don’t have anything original to say, you shouldn’t add to all the noise, and (2) I hadn’t organized my original thoughts into a coherent philosophy I could effectively defend.

That has changed, now that I have written the Quick Start Guide to Human Society™. That document lays out my views on human nature, and hints at what those views on human nature imply about politics.

Now, I’m just a dude, not some tenured professor, nor some celebrity performer, nor some big-shot billionaire who launches cars into orbit around the sun. I don’t have the credentials to get anyone to take my ideas seriously. I understand that. All this is probably just shouting into the wind. At this point, I don’t care. I think I have something to say that is original and better than anything you hear in the echo chambers of modern politics, so I’m going to say it anyway, even if it’s pointless and futile. This is my sponge dip for the American soul.

* * *

Even before this coronavirus pandemic happened, I felt that global politics was in desperate need of a new paradigm. The political ideas of the 1980s (Reagan/Thatcherism) and 1990s (Clinton/Blairism) had both run their course, but no new real ideas had emerged to replace them. Without any new ideas, people seemed to be trying to reinvent some old ideas (like Fascism or Socialism, only this time it’s better in this shiny new box somehow!).

Computerization and globalism are new phenomena, that have caused huge fundamental changes to human societies. The old ideas, primarily formed out of the industrial revolution, are not designed to handle this new 21st century landscape.

Now that’s an argument that I just pulled out of my ass, and without proper credentials, you’re not just going to take my word for it. So here are some credentials to support my argument:

A tenured history professor named Yuval Noah Harari was once interviewed by another tenured professor and Nobel Prize winner named Daniel Kahneman on Edge.org, where Harari said this:

When the Industrial Revolution begins, you see the emergence of new classes of people. You see the emergence of a new class of the urban proletariat, which is a new social and political phenomenon. Nobody knows what to do with it. There are immense problems. And it took a century and more of revolutions and wars for people to even start coming up with ideas what to do with the new classes of people.

What is certain is that the old answers were irrelevant.

[…]

And looking from the perspective of 2015, I don’t think we now have the knowledge to solve the social problems of 2050, or the problems that will emerge as a result of all these new developments. We should be looking for new knowledge and new solutions, and starting with the realization that in all probability, nothing that exists at present offers a solution to these problems.

Harari goes on to say that he thinks that looking to the Bible or the Quran for answers to these issues is a mistake. The new religion should come out of Silicon Valley, instead of the Middle East. That’s where I’m going to disagree with him, in part.

The ancient religious texts provide, in part, a set of rules to follow to make your human society run smoothly. I agree with Harari to the extent that those rules don’t really apply to the new situation. The Ten Commandments won’t tell you anything useful for, say, managing the economics of infinite digital supply. Where I disagree is that those religious texts are also our most reliable source for information about human nature, if you know how to look at it properly.

So I’d say what you want to do is to first get a solid understanding of human nature, from both the ancient texts and from modern science. Then look at the new phenomena that are emerging out of Silicon Valley, and apply both the ancient and modern wisdom to build a new paradigm for the modern world.

* * *

This pandemic has made the need for a new paradigm even more acute. The old paradigms are being exposed as woefully inadequate every day.

I don’t have all the answers, nor do I pretend to. A new paradigm isn’t a new set of rules that provide a new set of solutions. A new paradigm is a new model, that opens up a new way of thinking, which produce new types of ideas, from which a new set of rules with a new set of solutions can emerge.

So I hope now, using the Best Practice Model from the Quick Start Guide to Human Society™, to start using this new model to think a little differently, to come up with new 21st century ideas that can address the problems of the 21st century. I invite everyone to join along with me in this exercise. But if no one wants to, that’s fine. I intend to be here anyway, shouting into the wind, until the Grim Coronareaper comes to take me away.

A girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth

It is hard to know what to do in times like these, when the world depends on most of us doing nothing. I have little to offer beyond nothing itself.

But little is not nothing. So as a small gift to anyone who happens to stumble upon this place, lest it disappear when the Grim Coronavirus comes knocking at my door, I have written down what limited wisdom I have come to possess in my brief span upon this earth, in the form of a thing called the Quick Start Guide to Human Society™.