Topics on my mind: March 2018

This month, I've compiled a list of issues that I've been wrong about.

International development. I'm pretty libertarian on domestic issues, and so I automatically assumed the same mindset regarding the international economy: thinking that the "Washington consensus" was a broadly good idea, and that encouraging free trade is the biggest priority. However, I was wrong on that: I underestimated the extent to which Asian growth relied on strong and stable governments, and the extent to which deregulation eroded aspects of African governments necessary for private enterprise. I want to put up a few political blog posts in the next month which explore these ideas further.

Moral realism. As a good reductionist, I used to think that moral realism was entirely incoherent. Then I read Parfit on personal identity, and had conversations with a few friends (notably Paul F-R), and realised that insofar as we can identify what is "rational" and "irrational" without reference to any facts about the physical world, we might be able to extend this to morality. Note that I still think moral realism is misguided and incorrect - but I was wrong to think that there is no defensible version of it.

Atheism. I used to think that atheism was a slam-dunk case, and that arguments like Pascal's wager were stupid. I ignored a nagging feeling of doubt about my attempted rebuttals to the wager (although my recollection of that doubt may well just be hindsight bias). Eventually I found that there are a lot of problems with infinite ethics in general, of which Pascal's wager (and Pascal's mugging) are just specific examples. I also realised that the fine-tuning argument for God is pretty strong. I think it can be addressed by appealing to a multiverse, which is why I'm still an an atheist, but that's a pretty unusual argument which it wouldn't be unreasonable to doubt. Of course, even if you did believe that "There is an entity which deliberately created a universe suitable for humans", going from there to "That entity wrote the Bible and wants me to follow specific commandments" is still a bit of a leap.

Progress. I used to think that the scientific and technological progress of the last few decades has improve people's lives in many ways; I'm now skeptical about most of them. I think that my first mistake was being emotionally tied to an overall judgement of modernity as good, and therefore thinking that the most modern period must be the best, instead of explicitly acknowledging that there have been many trends over different timescales, some positive and some negative. But even on the specific question of how useful recent technological progress has been, I implicitly conflated "the last few decades were shaped by many great advances" with "in the last few decades, we've made many great advances". I think the tipping point was reading Tyler Cowan, who argues that America has been undergoing a 'great stagnation' compared with most of the 20th century. Peter Thiel's dismay about software innovation replacing hardware innovation was also an influence. It's true that many people have moved out of extreme poverty over the last few decades, but that's mostly been due to political changes and older advances like the Green revolution,

The value of university. I've swung back and forth on this a few times. After reading arguments like Bryan Caplan's on how degrees are mostly about signalling, I became convinced that the spike in university attendance over the last few decades was a bad thing. My friend Mahmoud tipped me back a bit, with his idea that optimising for happiness over economic growth is plausibly a good thing, and also something which favours higher university attendance. When finishing my undergrad, I became disillusioned about how many interesting jobs require graduate qualifications. But I've actually learned a huge amount during my masters, and several people I've talked to (notably people trying hard to advance AI safety research) are convinced that PhDs are valuable preparation for doing good research. Again, I guess I need to stifle my instinct to generate binary good/bad classifications.


  1. What materials changed your mind on international development?

    My impression is that a lot of the arguments for "domestic libertarianism" are even stronger in the developing world, due to greater institutional dysfunction.

    Caplan is in favor of vocational training. PhDs are basically vocational training for doing research.

    1. I agree that institutions in the developing world are often dysfunctional. But you still need someone to create roads, consistent electricity and water supplies, the rule of law, and other things which are crucial for development. In Asia, this was easy, because there were strong governments; I hadn't previously realised how large a role they played, before reading about the Asian miracle in more detail. In almost all African states, though, almost all of those things are still pretty dismal; and it's not clear to me that they'd be able to convince multinationals to install such infrastructure at prices they could afford even if they did become significantly more libertarian.

      I also hadn't realised that most African states in the 60s and 70s had actually been doing pretty well. I'm not sure that their subsequent slump was due to Washington consensus policies, but the correlation does seem pretty suggestive.

      One other slightly vaguer concern is that I think that most standard arguments for domestic libertarianism implicitly rely on the existence of a very powerful justice system and/or strong moral norms which, between them, ensure laws aren't egregiously violated. I worry that veering towards libertarianism before a certain level of economic development undermines the formation of a functional society.

      That's a useful way of thinking about PhDs, which I hadn't considered before. I wonder whether people who've done several years of good research without doing a PhD can get into positions that are usually for PhDs only? If so, that'd help convince me that the vocational training aspect is actually what matters.


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