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Don't be a Warrior

Okay. I'm back. It looks like I can't stop blogging. But I'm cross-posting everything at my personal blog in case Jonathan gets tired of paying the hosting fees.


Do not think of yourself as a warrior or imagine that the world is filled with enemies. It is too easy for the young soldier to declare war on the wrong target - it is surprisingly difficult to choose the right ones. Many intelligent and honest people find themselves on opposite sides of pitched battles. Frequently they even switch sides as they grow older, fighting ferociously for the position which their younger selves abhored.

Even if you win your war, you may find that the evils caused by the excess of some thing give way to new problems caused by its deficit.

Furthermore, the warrior is not an effective agent of change. The very nature of war is to divide people into allies and foes. An attack generates its own enemies, polarizing neutral bystanders into opposing camps.

Rather than be a warrior, be a builder. Tell a story that appeals to the universal values cherished by human hearts. Synthesize opposing viewpoints into a new worldview that unites former enemies. A fresh story has no enemies and it spreads without resistance, like a fire through dry grass.

In all the teachings of Jesus, he spared hardly a word for the pagan religion of Rome that his religion would replace. He was not on a mission to tear down the old world, but to build a new one. His story of hope, love, and deliverance appealed to Romans surrounded by a brutal and capricious reality. As a builder, he was far more effective than any warrior. The humane, egalitarian ethic introduced by Jesus is still a potent force in the world 2,000 years later.

That is why my I no longer think of my political activity in martial terms like a "warrior for liberty" or a "patriot". I grow tired of the eternal war between libertarian, socialist, progressive, and conservative. As I mature, I recognized the good motives and valid points of my former enemies. Instead of fighting old wars I'm focusing on building new viewpoints which can help people from all political ideologies create a better world.

My current attempt is Structuralism. I used to call it "Structural Libertarianism", but I realized that the structuralist ideas are useful for everyone, not just libertarians. By using the term "libertarian" I imported the old conflicts as if I'm so used to fighting that I forgot how to live in peacetime.

The Conservative Temperament

Here's one final post before I migrate permanently over to my new blog. I urge you to subscribe to it by rss if you've enjoyed my brief time here. I am happy to entertain invitations to write on other group blogs that would like to have me.

I've been a fan of Catallarchy for almost it's entire lifespan. I was honored to write here amongst my betters. Farewell.


The conservative temperament means accepting the constraints imposed by the current state of the world. Social change is possible, but activists need to acknowledge human nature if they are going to succeed. A plan that involves dissolving the nuclear family or eliminating humanity's selfish instincts fights against millions of years of evolution. It's bound to fail.

Conservative philosophers understand the path-dependency of human culture and the cost of working against it. You will never find a conservative activist calling for a 10 day week or eliminating religion, even among the atheists! Rather, conservatives push for the development of social institutions that work harmoniously with human nature to increase our well-being, including market economies and property rights.

This is why conservatives are not social liberals. All human societies with some amount of social equality have settled on the traditional nuclear or extended family as its smallest unit of organization. Logic does not prevent an enterprising young person from doing a little erotic theorizing to invent novel romantic arrangements, like polyamory. But the conservative's private life isn't some puzzle to be optimized. He knows that people are happiest in long-term monogamous relationships. He knows that being married is the best way to live longer, to stay out of poverty and prison, and to provide a healthy home for his children.

The conservative temperament holds some influence over me. It makes me careful to design my policy recommendations to sell to real human beings, with all their limitations and biases, and not logical robots. But I am too much a libertarian to use the law to support social arrangements that I think are good for people, as conservatives often do. I believe in the primacy of individual liberty as the basis of human dignity. But conservative thought makes me less eager to support or recommend novel social arrangements than many libertarians. It leads me to question the libertarian orthodoxy that says we can be happy by living however we want.

Subtlety - The Unknown Virtue

In a comment thread on an article about anti-consumerism on Hacker News, I got into an exchange about subtlety.


reminds me of a Carl Sagan monologue from Cosmos:

"Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours and every one of them is a succession of incidents, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet at this moment, here we face a critical branch point in history, what we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants, it is well within our power to destroy our civilization and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate to superstition or greed or stupidity we could plunge our world into a time of darkness deeper than the time between the collapse of classical civilisation and the Italian Renaissance. But we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet."

so intelligent, inspirational and full of hope, but listening to it 30 years later I can't help feeling bummed out, as it seems as though our civilization has chosen its path. also, Idiocracy.


That's an inspiring quote. But it is flawed. It is designed to instill passion and motivation in the listener's heart. But it is missing a virtue which is a strictly necessary ingredient for making an actual positive impact on the world: subtlety.

If you are motivated by addressing humanity's long-term challenges, please do not attempt to bludgeon others into being more thoughtful or compassionate. Instead, learn first how human society works. Learn how to motivate social change in the least destructive way (all change is costly to someone). Learn why people oppose you, and what their interests are, and try to come to a common ground. Don't go off half-cocked. Learn subtlety.

Nobody talks about subtlety. It is an under-appreciated virtue, and one of the most important.

Subtlety is scarce among revolutionaries of all stripes, libertarians included. One reason why I am such a big fan of Meg Mcardle is that she gets subtlety.

The Truth About Money and Politics

Top US political donors from the 20 years

How many people would guess this breakdown of donors and recipients? It is certainly not popular knowledge among my own peer group.

Iraq Counterfactual

With popular uprisings sweeping dictators out of power across the Arab world, I wonder what Iraq would be like today if the US government hadn't invaded. It would certainly be a richer place without its infrastructure, businesses, and homes bombed into powder. It would have a stronger civil society. And we just might see a movement of Iraqis working on their own freedom as citizens of other Arab states demand release from their brutal political masters.

Best. Decade. Ever.

In a provocative Foreign Policy article, economist Charles Kenny cuts through the gloom:

...[I]n 1990, roughly half the global population lived on less than $1 a day; by 2007, the proportion had shrunk to 28 percent -- and it will be lower still by the close of 2010.

Global capitalism is awesome.

Structuralism Around the Web

Arnold Kling recommends putting together credential free zones within existing cities where governments could experiment with relaxing credential laws that currently exist in professions like education, medicine, hair dressing, teaching, interior design, taxi services, and etc.

This reminds me of China's special economic zones or Paul Romer's Charter Cities.

Administrative note

I just fixed the user registration system. Have you noticed any other technical bugs in the site? Let me know in a comment.

George Selgin against the Fed

The case against the Federal Reserve from a mainstream economist's perspective

Thanks to International Liberty for the tip. Selgin has a new white paper up at Cato about the Fed's history of failure and an interview on EconTalk.


Another Structuralist proposal that I rather like is a state constitutional amendment that forbids legislators from running for reelection if there is a budget deficit in an election year. Legislators govern too much with their self-interest in mind. Let's use that fact to further the public benefit.

They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Here at the Distributed Republic we don't care for overused cliches. We serve our insanity fresh from the oven and resent the implication that we would copy another's tired recipe. Each strange flavor is crafted from seldom mixed ingredients. Repetition happens only on rarest accident.

California politics have no such pretense to originality. The land of cookie cutter pop stars and Hollywood sequels has a hard time improvising off script. Democrats have ruled both houses of the state legislature for 38 of the last 40 years and the public employee unions have ruled the Democratic Party for roughly as long. The state budget hasn't seen black ink in the better part of a decade; union benefit costs are soaring. Facing yet another $25 billion shortfall California teeters on the brink of bankruptcy.

In the midst of all of this an election happened, just one short month ago. Naturally California voters ginned up all their anger at their leaders' profligate behavior, marched straight to the polls, and did nothing at all.

I exaggerate only a little bit. Every single incumbent Democrat running for reelection to the state legislature won his race, including a dead guy. In this election cycle politically active Californians were most concerned that Republicans would screw up the state. It is true that the Republican Party of California is a sad lot, but outside of a Governator or two they haven't wielded serious power in longer than I have been alive. It takes a strange sort of mass delusion to worry about the drunks in the back seat more than the drunks driving the bus. And then reelect all the drunks driving the bus.

Which is why I propose that we cut the state in half. Not literally, mind you. No highways would be harmed in this operation. It is time we used the infamous California ballot proposition process to do some good besides almost-legalizing marijuana.

We'll draw a line straight across the middle of the state. San Diego will be the new southern capital, suiting its popular nickname as "The Sacramento of the South". The two halves can fight over who has to take Fresno.

Now I know some readers may have doubts that this will do any good. Won't two insane states be twice as bad as one? They will get two more senators. And those senators will screw up national policies for everybody else.

But California governance will improve for two reasons. One argument comes from the standard case for federalism. Large, remote bureaucracies are harder for citizens to monitor than small, close ones. They are also inherently less efficient. The overhead needed to provide public services scales super-linearly with the number of people served. At some scale the overhead generates its own overhead and bureaucracy becomes a self-replicating grey goo.

In other words, Sacramento is dysfunctional because it is a smaller version of Washington, DC.

A second argument for splitting California in two comes from the late economist Mancur Olson. Olson argued that governments built up cruft over time, like an artery gradually hardening under the assault of fast food dinners. This crust is formed by special interest groups convincing politicians to stick narrow laws onto the books for their own benefit. Eventually the law is all crust and no substance, its thousands of pages loses any rational basis it once had and becomes an anchor on economic growth.

But sometimes a disaster, crisis, or revolution happens and society gets a chance to start over. A Sherman burns down your city or a Truman bombs your harbor and suddenly all the bums are missing from city hall. The cruft is gone.

Olson attempted to show through historical research that these shakeups result in a period of more prosperity and higher economic growth before the cruft grows again. Breaking California in two, then, is an Olsonian proposition. We have the rare chance to push the reset button without suffering nuclear fallout or guillotines on the street corners.

California is too awesome a place for one group of assholes to be able to ruin it. It should take two. And that is what in systems design we call "robustness".

Happy Thanksgiving

As something of a nomad, I have been shown much kindness over the years. The more I have needed the more I have been given. There is a generous instinct in the human spirit that is one of its most beautiful features. And for this I am thankful.

Cartoons take on the Fed

This xtranormal video going around makes the right-wing populist case against the Fed's quantitative easing campaign with a good dose of humor.

It's interesting to read how this is received on left-leaning outlets like The Huffington Post. Leftists fear the concentrated power of large private corporations and trust the concentrated power of large government bureaucracies. The accusation of corporate corruption in Federal Reserve policy making results in some dissonance. Some commenters participate in the outrage, others are quick to lecture their peers on the "proper" way of thinking.

Strange Times for Tech

In the programming world the compensation we receive for our jobs is becoming more exposed to the market. This results in higher mean compensation and higher variance.

Startups, established companies, and Venture Capitalists are hungry for competent developers that can produce results. The three groups are relentlessly bidding against each other for engineers.

This change is most strikingly illustrated by Google. It is widely perceived to be in a bidding war with Facebook over elite engineers, goading the company into instituting an across-the-board 10% salary increase and paying rumored retention bonuses of up to $500,000 for top employees. But commentators overlook an important second source of competition: the burgeoning startup universe. More startups are getting funded than ever before, though with smaller amounts of capital than during the 90s boom times. Hiring the right person into a small company can drastically alter its chances of success and the cash and equity terms of their compensation packages reflect this.

One more level of competition comes from Apple's iTunes app store which makes it easier than ever for a programmer to take his wares directly to consumers through their phones and iPods.

At the same time engineers who hope to work an easy job nestled in the comfortable embrace of a large organization and never really be responsible for shipping product are getting left behind in compensation. They are still plagued by the spectres of outsourcing and the commoditization of software development that grabbed headlines not so long ago.

Never before has a software engineer’s compensation so closely mirrored the market value of the software he ultimately produces. There has never been a better time or a worse time to be an engineer.

Wal-Mart Hatred is a luxury good

I just saved $100 by getting my eye exam done at Wal-Mart instead of the neighborhood optometrist. Wal-Mart hatred is for rich people.