The Tyranny of Optimization

Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other other dies […] To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way. Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity.

–Will & Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History

When I was younger, I used to believe strongly in what I’ll call “technocratic optimization.” In my view, the Big Problems confronting civilization could be tackled through the decisive application of computational power and human intellect. The idea was that if you got all the smartest people working on all the hardest problems eventually you could solve them. You would discover Truth with a capital T. The rest would take care of itself.

I was a fool to believe this.

Human societies don’t run like giant mean-variance portfolio optimizations, where each individual can be reduced to a personal utility function, then aggregated and mapped to a kind of efficient frontier based on the available resources. Human societies are dynamic systems. These systems are constantly evolving in the face of environmental and social pressures. Whenever we attempt to optimize social and economic systems, our models inevitably end up either overfit or underfit. Hence the abundance of “unintended consequences” that accompany major policy changes.

But here’s the biggest problem with technocratic optimization: even in the best of circumstances, where it’s reasonably self-evident, the mere existence of Truth with a capital T is insufficient motivation for people to change their behavior. As Upton Sinclair famously wrote: “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.”

So what’s a frustrated optimizer to do?

Well, you can force people to buy into your optimization. Or, you can convince them to buy into your optimization. Or, you can convince them to buy into your optimization by leveraging technology and their behavioral biases (a much better bet than simply relying on the merits of your argument).

If you’re an optimizer, your intellectual journey ends in tyranny.

Russland-Nord, Erschießung von Partisanen

Now, there’s certainly the concentration camp and NKVD firing squad kind of tyranny we’re acquainted with from 20th century history. All very messy. Fortunately, we now have kinder, gentler forms of coercion available to us.

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The social credit system kind of tyranny, and the fiat news kind of tyranny, for example. Here you’re not staring down the barrel of a gun but rather at a smartphone screen. Here, the trick is not only convincing people to buy into your optimization, but that buying in was their idea in the first place. This is tyranny updated for the 21st century. Much cleaner than putting people up against a wall. Once you start looking for it, you see it everywhere.

So, what’s a reformed optimizer to do?

Personally, I’ve gone back to the Lessons of History, and the collective experience of human civilization. I’ve abandoned the view we should try to engineer “optimal” outcomes for individuals or society. I’ve come to believe that rather than engineer Answers, we should focus on the maintaining and improving the integrity of our Processes: the approximate equality of justice and educational opportunity.

I’ve also abandoned the idea that human civilization progresses on a linear trajectory, or, more precisely, that human civilization can progress along a linear upward trajectory. In reality, things move in cycles and mini-cycles. These cycles are driven not only by changes in the natural world, but also the constant friction generated by individuals and states in competition for power and resources.

Put another way: we oscillate between freedom and tyranny, and between varying levels of equality and inequality over time. This is natural and inevitable (which is not to say it’s “pleasant” or “ideal”). We’ve been fortunate that the general trend over time has been upward. That doesn’t mean we’ll never experience another period of dramatic upheaval and regression a la the Dark Ages.

I believe we should be much more concerned with managing the risks inherent in sudden paradigm shifts such as the French Revolution, Russian Revolution, and the spike in aggressive, authoritarian nationalism that occurred in the 1930s.

In finance nerd terms: mind the tails.

We’re not doing a very good job minding the tails right now. In optimizing for short-term economic growth, our default fiscal policy of every-increasing borrowing and default monetary policy of “plunge protection” (a.k.a The Greenspan/Bernanke/Yellen/Powell/Draghi/Kuroda Put) have provided economic and financial market stability at the expense of political and social stability. One of the most powerful voices in our political discourse today is a freshman rep who is an avowed democratic socialist (whatever that’s supposed to mean). If you can’t see how this relates to the legacy of the financial crisis; the legacy of quantitative easing; the deflationary impact of globalization and technological innovation–well, if you can’t see how all this interrelates, I’m not quite sure what to tell you.

You can’t destroy risk. You can only transform it.

That insight is in short supply among technocratic optimizers.

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