Ambivalence on Technocracy

I really have a knack for clickbait titles, don’t I?

Hello hello! The weather is emphatically swinging into spring here in the SF Bay Area. Cheery sunshine = I feel cheery too. One of my friends delivered a lamb for the first time today, which is amazing 🐑

My last email to you was about livestreaming. In retrospect, that post was vapid and undershot my standards for Sonya Notes. Editorial quality will hopefully improve as I continue to iterate, and I appreciate your patience so far!

Granted, I originally pitched Sonya Notes as an experimental newsletter. Experiments often yield dumb results, so I don’t feel too guilty.

I’ve been sitting on the following post for a while, trying to get it where I want it.

“I marveled at how the flow of people through security screening looked like a time-lapse factory film.” Photo by Melissa Gutierrez.
“I marveled at how the flow of people through security screening looked like a time-lapse factory film.” Photo by Melissa Gutierrez.

Two of my favorite heuristics conflict with each other:

  1. Competitive markets solve most problems on their own. (The largest exceptions are externalities and physical monopolies.) Market participants should be free to express their preferences and create an emergent equilibrium, instead being subject to an authority that tries to engineer specific results.
  2. Any given member of the general public is a moron with no proper idea of what is good for them or anyone else. (See also: Cipolla’s laws of stupidity and Hanlon’s razor.)

#1 is a libertarian idea and #2 is a progressive idea (at least according to early American progressivism or perhaps High Modernism). #1 is bottom-up improvement of society and #2 is top-down improvement of society.

It’s worth noting that I phrased #1 as optimistic and #2 as cynical. (I used to go around defining myself as a “cynical optimist” like Bryan Caplan. Still pretty accurate: I’m cynical about human nature and optimistic about technology.)

The conflict between the heuristics is okay, as long as I’m aware of it. Heuristics need to be useful cognitive shortcuts more than they need to be completely accurate in all scenarios.

Despite my politics being laissez-faire overall, I have a soft spot for paternalistic technocracy. I think mixing the two yields a basically functional government. The current American system is too hands-off in some ways, but mostly far too interventionist (in the lives of its citizens, but also in the affairs of foreign countries).

I like how Redditor darwin2500 put it, with flipped rhetoric:

[P]ersonal responsibility is often a great idea for giving an individual one-on-one advice to improve their life, and is usually a terrible credo for public policy debates and political activism.

A society without both personal-level and systems-based vigilance and improvements will ultimately fail. You can’t only focus on one and not the other.

I tend to say that “anything gov’t touches is so routinely dysfunctional that we should only delegate issues that can’t be handled any other way” — in other words, minimum viable government. I would be a minarchist if minarchism accounted for social safety nets.

The soul of libertarianism is “everyone gets to do whatever they want unless they’re directly harming someone else,” for a pretty narrow definition of direct harm. (Yes, it has failure modes.) I find that very appealing, as a person who chafes under authority.

The soul of progressivism is “we need to take care of everyone and here’s how,” with a very strong desire for rules and behavior-shaping.


I don’t have a neat conclusion, so I’ll end with this quote about populism, which I recoil from, excerpted from an essay called “The Ignoble Lie”:

The uprising among the working classes across the developed West arises from a perception of illegitimacy — of a gap between claims of the ruling class and reality as experienced by those who are ruled. It is no coincidence that these rebellions come from the socialist left and authoritarian right, two positions that now share opposition to state capitalism, a managerial ruling class, the financialization of the economy, and globalization.

See also: “The Twin Insurgency” by Nils Gilman.


Originally posted on Substack.

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Apathy As Far As the Eye Can See

“To the extent that voters care about government, they mostly just want it to act to benefit people like themselves. People do care about politics — but current politics is mostly not about government. It is about tribal identity and personal status.” — David Chapman

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Futile Decisions

“Citizens who vote for third-party candidates, write-in candidates, or nobody aren’t voting their conscience, they are voting their ego, unable to accept that a system they find personally disheartening actually applies to them. [¶] The people advocating protest votes believe they deserve a choice that aligns closely with their political preferences.” — Clay Shirky

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A Perfect Storm of Free Speech

Photo by Viktor Nagornyy.
Photo by Viktor Nagornyy.
Photo by Viktor Nagornyy.
Photo by Viktor Nagornyy.

Here I am, reproducing a Hacker News thread:

“Pedophilia and necrophilia in writing is protected as freedom of speech. […] I thought we’d finally (already) won this fight in the US with Howl/Naked Lunch, but maybe not?” — forgotpwtomain [italics and Amazon links added]

“Freedom of speech protects you from Government prosecution for expressing your opinions. Google is a private company.” — eng_monkey

“This line is getting way over-used. Please notice the last sentence in grandparent’s comment: ‘This is not a Google issue; this is a law enforcement issue'” — jordanlev

“Today, Google controls more public discourse than the US government, if they are censoring freedom of speech – it IS a big deal.” — forgotpwtomain

“I wholeheartedly agree with this. First Amendment was written at the time when government was almost the only organization powerful enough to silence dissenters. Nowadays corporations like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc have more effective control of the venue of speech, and they should be subject to the same scrutiny then, not be given leeway as ‘private entities’.” — netheril96

“The government still is the only entity that can silence dissenters. All the entities you listed are limited to merely kicking you off their platform. Facebook can’t 404 your posts on Reddit, and none of them and none of them can stop you from standing on the sidewalk with a sandwich board. [¶] Saying that social media platforms should be subject to ‘scrutiny’ (which is pretty vague and non-actionable), or are somehow beholden to public opinion, is nonsense. They’re beholden to users, at most.” — throwaway160303

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“a democracy of the elites”

“If you move from a democracy of the elites to a pure democracy of the will of the people, you will pay a very, very heavy price. Governing is a complicated and difficult job — it’s not something which can helpfully be outsourced to the masses, especially when the people often base their opinions on outright lies. […] If you really believe in democracy, you don’t just kick out the elites. You take it upon yourself to put together a coherent alternative platform — one which will spread prosperity more evenly. All democracies need effective leadership, and plan beats no plan every time.” — Felix Salmon in response to Brexit

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