On the limits of political experimentation

(Previous part : Stupid delegations of intelligence)

But what if nobody knows ? There is a well-known process that, seemingly, nobody designed, and that turned out to be intelligent enough to produce intelligent results : that is the process of natural selection, by which practically intelligent genetic codes could be selected and emerge to produce the sophisticated life we know. It looks like what Rick Searle was considering in his essay

The Cartography of the Future: Recovering Utopia for the 21st Century

"We don't know what solutions will work and what they will look like in the real world, or if the cure will end up being worse than the disease. Indeed, the very non-deterministic, non-linear nature of human affairs ensures that we cannot know the answers to these questions beforehand.
What we need is ways to test our ideas and examples of solutions that people can actually see then applying what has been shown to work to their own society. Almost all of these experiments will fail. Yet their failure is almost the point. Small scale utopian experiments can take the risks of radically innovating while the larger society can use these innovations to engage in what Popper called "piecemeal social engineering" a much less risky endeavor"
The problem is, while it may be theoretically possible for a process of trials and errors to finally lead to a kind of well-designed solution that nobody was able to theoretically imagine or ensure it will succeed before experiment, this process is much too long and wasteful for what we can afford here. Remember the time it took for natural evolution to produce our intelligent DNA heritage. And not only the time but also the massively parallel form of experiments, split every time for each specie into thousands or millions of individual organisms which can then spread and combine their successful innovations with those of their peers. Replacing the experiment of an individual organism by the experiment of a larger community that requires many thousands of people to really mean something (if we are lucky; unless the most crucial problems and conditions of real tests of needed solutions may require the scale of a community to reach the millions of members), the number of possible parallel tries sharply decreases, which multiplies the time needed to operate a given number of experiments; meanwhile, the massive parallelism used by natural evolution for separate pieces of solutions to be combined, letting former partial solutions to be remembered and reintegrated with new pieces, may be lost.

Can we really afford to treat human life as that sort of fuel for countless social experiments, most of which are expected to fail ?
It can look like a very seducing idea indeed, for lots of stupid people in fanatical need to feel proud of their stupidity and allergic to what they would perceive as the aggressive ego of others (implied by the perspective of the possibility for someone else to have a really usefully better intelligence than theirs about how to better organize society), to assume that the experiments they can naturally imagine themselves to make, no matter how stupid, are still the most intelligent kind of enterprise that can be thought of for the progress of mankind. Such people might find, for a while, quite a deal of enthusiasm for experimenting their own flawed ideas of social systems on themselves and going through a number of failures and bankruptcies. However in the long term, with the multiplication of failures they encounter and still not finding the end of the tunnel, they may come to become fed up with their failures and will come down to for passively follow the least bad solution already known.

And... we have only one Earth to experiment in parallel, and we don't have just that game to play, since the problems of the planet happen to be urgent. If after one century for now, much of the climate stability and half of the biodiversity happen to be destroyed, it will be too late to make another try of how we can save them instead. We need a fast intelligently well-designed solution because there is no decent alternative.

One of the problems with experiment-based research neglecting theory, is that facts cannot speak by themselves : there is a theoretical minimum we need to interpret them correctly, as any effect may have multiple causes, so a theoretical side is necessary to do a part of the work of sorting out that mess, to discern which of the many observed things may be causally related.

Let us take an example. There was a big economic crisis in the 1930's, that most previous economists did not properly foresee, and that they did not clearly see how to resolve. Then came Keynes with new ideas and his recommendations of economic stimulus, that was a big practical success as the crisis ended as a result. Then after decades of amazing growth, a new economic crisis came in the 1970's. It was considered "paradoxical" because it was marked with unemployment, like in the 1930's, but without the "overproduction" aspect (drops in levels of prices). Still, and despite the presence of another approach (Monetarism) that would warn against it, the memory of success of policies of economic stimulus (together with their seducing aspect of "looking generous") led leaders to try this policy again for this new crisis, but it turned out that time to be a complete failure. Was it really necessary to try that economic stimulus policy to discover that it would not work ? I think not. I consider that those who "could not know" in advance are those with deficient theoretical abilities, while a serious theoretical debate with serious thinkers would have sufficed to reliably find this out. The arguments were already there but many people failed to grasp them, and unfortunately, the majority of the public and politicians chose the wrong side. And this is what is finally getting us into an even worse crisis, that of the excessive public debts that will be so hard to overcome.

And what made economic stimulus policies look more seducing in people's eyes ? To simplify this as a choice on the scale of the individual (which it is mainly equivalent to), we can explain it as a choice between saving and spending one's income. Spending one's income looks much sexier than saving it. If you alternate periods of spending (holidays) with periods of saving (work), you will feel as if periods of spending were "the right choice" because they feel so much better than periods of saving. Meanwhile, the crucial abstract parameter (how much money is on your account) is ignored. It takes quite a deal of disgusting theoretical, mathematical abstraction to figure out that any spending you decide for now commits you to lose the chance of a higher amount of spending some time later, a loss which becomes worse and worse as you postpone it longer. That is not a lesson that any amount of experiment has any reasonable chance to teach you if your brain doesn't like to understand it. As for the fact that saving more results in reducing social inequalities, while saving less (spending more, increasing deficits) results in worsening them, well, since the mechanism that does this is the change of prices on the capitals market (real interest rate) and that this is a necessarily global change (worldwide), there cannot be, by principle, any such thing as a "local test" to verify it, unless, of course, you crazily isolate a community from the rest of the world, which would go against any kind of economic rationality.

So this is what happens when replacing individual debts by state debts. It feels so much better to make policies that spend more money than there is, thus borrowing and letting a debt for the next government to handle or pass on again with an increased amount to the next generation, until, sooner or later, the interests of the debts become a major burden in the budget even if we keep trying to postpone the problem as much as we can. And then what ? Sooner or later, the country has to wake up from its nice dreams and face the necessity to pay back - or at least pay the interests, which became so big that they may be untenable. This is the necessity of "austerity". But then people come down to the streets and try to "fight against austerity". What ? Austerity is bad ? Well, of course it is. Everyone knows it, and knew it since long ago. So people chose to "reject austerity" in the past. What they fail to understand, however, is that what condemns them to austerity now, is precisely the fact they refused it earlier. I am against austerity too, however I am aware that the true fight against austerity consists in saving future generations from its burden by accepting to suffer it now. Like, people failing to predict when they decide to borrow money, that they are going to face the duty to pay it back some time later. As I'm writing this, I just saw the French far-left rejoicing for the victory of the Greek far-left who is going to let Greece reject austerity and simply refuse to pay back their debt towards the creditors who kindly helped them face their debts earlier. The mains creditors being ultimately the European states including France. Thus the "rejection of austerity in Greece" that makes the French far-left so happy, is going to worsen the public deficit and thus necessity of austerity in France some time later - a logical consequence that would be too dirtily abstract and not sexy enough to think about.
One day I had a conversation with someone who considered the weight of interests in the public budget as a sort of capitalist conspiracy. As I tried to say : "well it was the predictable effect of previous spendings policies, which the Left supported !". He said "Nobody told us that deficits in the public budget would cause that problem !". As if it was another capitalist conspiracy of hiding the truth from the public's eyes. Well, the problem is not any conspiracy of capitalists trying to hide from public eyes the fact that overspending would later be a problem to the budget. But it is that a majority of people deliberately chose to ignore this and only listen to the voices who told them what they wanted to hear, i.e. that public overspending is good for the economy and that austerity is bad, and rejected as "capitalist lies" the voices that were telling the sane warnings.

Like many others, John C Hodge wrote in his essay Steering humanity's growth, "Humans lack sufficient knowledge to predict outcomes of their actions. Therefore, a trial-and-error method must be adopted".
It may be true indeed that the diverse Greek or Enlightenment philosophers who developed the theoretical foundations of modern democracy, lacked sufficient knowledge (despite Plato's famous skeptical insights on the issue) to predict the outcomes of such a system in the country, full of "well-educated people", which was the very cradle of science and democracy. However, expectations for the initial gaps of human knowledge to be redeemed by a working sense of experimental discoveries with respect to the adventures produced by these gaps, remains dubious. So it may seem cool to discuss the theoretical limits of intelligence, however the most effectively daunting limits of intelligence are so far from any naive expectations that any thinker (no matter how good theoretician he may be) can imagine as long as he only wonders about it in the abstract disconnected from any lucid observation of how things go in practice.

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