Monday, March 19, 2012

The Changing Wind of Socionomics and Justifying Controls on Emigration

One theme that the team over at the Socionomics Institute has followed on a regular basis is the trend towards increasing authoritarianism in an era of negative mood bias.  The expression of that net negative mood may change depending on the time and place.  Just as you need "seed"particles to generate a good rain - or massive thunderstorm - so do you need "seed" ideas or memes to generate the horrible events that can unfold in times of intensely negative mood.

These ideas are out in the wilds of academia all the time.  Which ones get seized and energized by the mass mood looking for an outlet can, I theorize, be shaped to a degree by advertising or propaganda, but the beast itself must have ideas to express through.  That is why, at the end of the day, philosophy is so important.  As Lord Keynes his ownself once said:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.

Which is why I read with interest an article at interfluidity (h/t Yves) with the dull sounding title "Partial equilibrium intuitions about choice."  Here Messr. Waldman discusses (with a reasoned and, in my opinion, honest attempt at tugging at a thorny issue - all the while implicitly accepting the role of entities such as the Federal Reserve or governments to actively mold policies and peoples' lives to a "good" end - as defined by the political elites) discusses how it might be better to restrict emigration out of a country:

...It is not incoherent to argue that a country might benefit from retaining talented people, and it is not even incoherent to argue that individuals who would choose to emigrate might in fact be better off themselves if they as well as all their compatriots could be persuaded to stay and contribute to development at home. Most of us view freedom as a per se good, and for myself, I’d have a very hard time arguing for emigration restrictions anywhere. Model risk is a bitch. That you can tell a story doesn’t mean the story is true, and when the cost of error is uselessly confining people, we should subject our fairy tales to pretty strict scrutiny. Fortunately, the existence of choice is not binary. We can think of “no choice” as a choice where one alternative is accompanied by either an infinite cost or infinite payoff. (That is, I have “no choice” but to stay in-country if the cost of migration or the benefit of staying is infinite.) A state that forbids emigration at pain of jail or death attaches a large negative payoff to trying to leave. But a country might attach a modest cost to emigration, or perhaps subsidize the retention of talented people. This sort of “nudge” does much less damage to norms of personal freedom, and may well contribute to the welfare of both the people affected and the polity as a whole. Indeed, in the US, the same sort of people (like me!) who support open borders are enthusiastic about interventions intended to retain foreign-born entrepreneurs and graduate students by offering them valuable immigrant visas. Whether you want to call this proposal a subsidy or elimination of a cost, it amounts to using the instruments of the state to reshape people’s choice space in ways that are arguably good for them and good for the polity. And ultimately, that is something a state ought to strive to do.

Does this sort of policy translate to “more” freedom or “less”? You can’t say. Freedom is not a scalar quantity. Sometimes actions of the state render one alternative overwhelmingly preferable to any other, and so clearly restrict choice. But the opposite tactic — having the state reshape people’s choice space so that alternatives that become evenly matched and force people to make agonizing tradeoffs, hardly serves the cause of freedom. And in a world of prisoner’s dilemmas, laissez faire policy, leaving the “natural” choice space undisturbed, just turns notional freedom into a figleaf for predictably bad choices and outcomes. People often can and do develop means of cooperating and coordinating to avoid prisoner’s dilemmas without the assistance of states at all, or with forms of assistance that libertarians find unobjectionable, like enforcement of contract. That’s awesome. But the world is full of hard problems with very serious consequences not all of which resolve themselves. It is reasonable that ones enthusiasm for state intervention into the choice space of individuals is conditioned by how prone to corruption and error one thinks the state to be. But it is either simpleminded or cynical to rule out such intervention based on economistic arguments about how choice always improves welfare. That’s simply untrue...

I'll leave the debate aside for the moment.  Having watched the U.S. political and economic elites behavior since 2008, I have my own thoughts on how "ones enthusiasm for state intervention into the choice space of individuals is conditioned by how prone to corruption and error one thinks the state to be" but that is not the point today.

What I want to draw your attention to is how the philosophical framework of tyranny gets constructed.  Messr. Waldman sounds like someone who strongly values liberty and freedom, but that would not stop someone from taking the above general concept and turning it into a pernicious set of laws that would be continually ratched up, preventing freedom of movement to citizens in a Diocletianesque maneuver to keep people "in line" with the goals of Goldman Sachs local governments.  Imagine telling a kid from an inner city background, or someone who has had a very bad experience growing up in a small town that they must pay a stiff tax to move - because it would be better for them and for their peers if they were kept in their place of birth, locked in and expected to work hard to lift others up or because it is for the Greater Good, according to a white guy with an Ivy League education and a tax-funded job?

Keep an eye on the intellectual whirlwinds that will pick up when we reverse this rally.  A few short years from now, you may not recognize your country.


David said...

Our current ROT seems due to the near-universal adoption of normalizing theft via politics. When citizens in society embrace an ethic of universal robbery, spontaneous organizing principles appear to produce bads, not goods.

On a deeper note, the concept of creating beneficent ends using compulsion & coercion (which in our interpersonal lives we innately recognize as evil) seems foundational to me. The learned professor whom you quote feeds this beast, as you suggest, and informs us that even without the socionomic hypothesis, the trend is down with no nadir in sight.

Flagg707 said...


Regarding the fact that we there is "no nadir in sight," that is part of why this extreme rally is so disheartening. The longer it goes on, the more violent the reaction will be (in my opinion). And at the bottom, we may lock some very perverse things into law just as mood begins to turn around. The Germans found out the hard way how ugly that can get about 80 years ago...

David said...


Disheartening? For those who can't shake the notion that rationality should underlie something, somewhere in our experience, that's an understatement. It remains astonishing to watch the headless chicken fly higher without pause. Even as we know it lacks the means to achieve actual flight, by all appearances such a fear creeps into our bones and undermines our sanity, sanity that rests on the belief that our world is described by limits and rules.

This is exactly what happened to me in Jan-Feb-Mar of 2000 while shorting the NDX via RYDEX. Either those around us are insane or we are.... Mr. Market took an interest in ME, personally, and would not roll over until after I capitulated and swore off the whole sorry charade.

Watching the folly now should clearly terrify us as we employ our imaginations to invert the process and conjure the monstrousity of its mirror image. This is my obsession; maintain the means for my family to have choices (like getting out of Dodge) should things take a true "elect Hitler, install Robespierre, follow Napoleon" track.

I believe the USA is far more prepared to follow a Leninist, Pol Pot kind of track than anyone can imagine. Our society is stuffed with hubristic, narcisistic, and phenomenally anti-life and pro-war zealots. These toxic ingredients promise fire and brimstone in our future.