Robert Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where each week we have an unusually in-depth conversation about one of the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve it. I’m Rob Wiblin, Director of Research at 80,000 Hours.
Today’s guest is about to explain why the blockchain is fundamentally flawed, how we could all vote much better, and why increasing returns to scale break traditional economic models.
First though I wanted to make sure you all know about our job board. It’s a short, curated list of the most promising publicly advertised vacancies we know about right now, kept up-to-date by my wonderful colleague Maria Gutierrez.
She actually gave it an update just a few days ago, and it now lists 199 positions you could apply for, including 76 added in the last month.
It covers a wide range of problem areas, including but not limited to AI research, preventing war, promoting effective altruism, ending factory farming and improving global health.
The kinds of roles are also all over the place as well, including engineers, managers, operations, outreach, researchers and more.
And while most roles are in the UK or US, some are remote, and others are in Canada, China, India, Kenya and a bunch of other countries besides.
If you like this show and want to do more good with your life, you should definitely check it out and see if there’s anything that’s the right next step for you. The address is 80000hours dot org slash job hyphen board .
Ideally I’d suggest checking it each two weeks, or subscribing to our newsletter, which will let you know each time there’s a new batch of positions to consider. That way you won’t find out too late to apply by a deadline.
I’ll stick up a link to the job board as well as the newsletter sign-up in the show notes.
I’ll also just point out that today’s guest would love to have listeners join a conference in Detroit on the weekend of the 22nd to 24th of March. It’s called RadicalxChange, with the letter x, and the tagline is ‘market mechanisms for equality and cooperation’. We’ll stick up links to find out more about about the event in the show notes.
And just finally, we changed the host for our podcast this week, which has allowed us to at last get listed on Spotify. It looks like everything went smoothly, but if you encounter any technical problems with the show, email podcast at 80000hours dot org right away, and we’ll do our best to fix it up.
Alright, here’s Glen.
Robert Wiblin: Today I’m speaking with Dr Glen Weyl.
Glen was born and raised in the SF Bay Area, where he was first a socialist activist, and then a Republican and devotee of Ayn Rand. Much of his life since has been about reconciling these apparently contradictory ideologies. He completed a PhD in economics at Princeton, then 3 years as a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, and 3 years as an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago, before joining Microsoft as a Principal Researcher.
He has written a wide range of papers on how we might use technology to build new and better social institutions.
Most recently he has become active in trying to create social change by giving talks to activist groups, working with governments, and advising start-ups, especially blockchain startups.
His most recent book, co-authored with Eric Posner, is Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society, which includes some of the ideas we hope to talk about today.
So, thanks for coming on the podcast, Glen.
Glen Weyl: Thrilled to be here.
Robert Wiblin: I hope to getting to talk about your critique of effective altruism, and the various ideas in the book Radical Markets, but first, what are you doing at the moment, and why do you think it’s really important work?
Glen Weyl: What I’m spending my time on is coordinating a social movement that’s trying to provide a coherent alternative to neoliberalism that’s not either sort of statist nor sort of nationalist, and that’s based on a bunch of ideas derived from economic theory, but integrating thoughts from philosophy, sociology, etc., and has really been built up not just through elite academic discourse, but through months of interactions that I and others have been having with a whole range of social actors. It’s been a really interesting and dynamic process.
Robert Wiblin: Is that this RadicalxChange organization that you’ve been founding?
Glen Weyl: Yeah, and the associated movements that are not literally part of the organization, but that are self-organizing, decentralized, etc.
What is RadicalxChange?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, so what is RadicalxChange? Is it a nonprofit, or a conference, or a community, or …
Glen Weyl: All of the above. RadicalxChange Foundation is a nonprofit, which is running a RadicalxChange conference, but then there’s also startups and activist groups and so forth that are independent.
Robert Wiblin: What kind of work is it pursuing? Has it taken on any particular kind of policies that it’s excited about, or is it just kind of a discussion of like different institutional reforms that might be interesting at this point?
Glen Weyl: Well, so it has four different aspects. Ideas and research, entrepreneurship and technology, activism and government, and arts and communications. In each one of those areas, there’s a whole bunch of different activities, but ideas and research is sort of helping to generate these ideas and discussion around them. Arts and communications is sort of educating people and helping people imagine this world, and imagine issues with it. Entrepreneurship and technology is experimenting with these institutions in a variety of ways, and activism and government is both doing grassroots organizing around this sort of stuff, but also working with technocratic policymakers and political parties and things like that. That full range of activities is what we think is necessary in loose coordination with each other to make fundamental social change happen in the medium term.
Robert Wiblin: It seems like so far in your career, you’ve spent kind of more time in academia or writing papers and books. I guess, is this an attempt to kind of get into the real world, and get your hands dirty, and trying to make things happen?
Glen Weyl: Yeah, I mean, until four years ago, I was just straight up an academic, and then until about six or seven months ago, I was mostly an academic, and my life has completely changed since then.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Are you enjoying it more?
Glen Weyl: Oh, this is way more what I was made to do than what I was doing before, for sure.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Tell me more. It seems like you have been pretty successful at writing all these papers and being academic, but you love being more active than that?
Glen Weyl: I feel like I’m constantly far more challenged in this role than I was before. I felt like before, there was all these ideas coming out, and I wasn’t even really able to express them, because I had to spend so much time doing stuff that I thought was basically a waste of time, like filling in details to get academic papers to be in exactly the format that was not optimal for society, but was optimal for a narrow set of reviewing processes and so forth. Now I feel like I’m being dramatically more intellectually productive, but also doing it in a democratic conversation with a wide range of people who have become my colleagues. That’s just tremendously rewarding, but at the same time, I’m incompetent at 90% of the things I’m now doing, which means that I’m constantly having to grow. That, I really appreciate.
Robert Wiblin: You think this is likely to be kind of a permanent shift out of academia into, I guess, what’s it, the think tank and policy world, or the-
Glen Weyl: I’m not sure-
Robert Wiblin: … social movement world?
Glen Weyl: … I’d describe this as … I’m not sure I’d describe this as think tank and policy world. I actually don’t really like the term “policy” very much, and we’ll turn to that-
Robert Wiblin: I think we’ll get to that, yeah.
Glen Weyl: … when we talk about effective altruism.
Robert Wiblin: I thought that might rub you the wrong-
Glen Weyl: Because-
Robert Wiblin: … way. I’m not sure-
Glen Weyl: Because-
Robert Wiblin: … what to call it.
Glen Weyl: “Policy” has a very elitist, technocratic, statist feeling to it that I’m not very comfortable with. I would call myself “in the social imagination world,” or something like that, or “the democratic world” would be okay with me.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Cool. All right. Engaged in-
Glen Weyl: [inaudible 00:04:46].
Robert Wiblin: … grassroots organizing. Community organizer.
Glen Weyl: Something like that. Yeah, and that’s certainly an element of it, but yeah, I don’t think I can move backwards in my life, if that’s what you mean, but I find it very hard to predict precisely what I’ll be doing in six or eight months. I think I would be violating the law of iterated expectations if I thought I could predict what I’ll be doing in eight or 10 months, because-
Robert Wiblin: You’d already be doing it.
Glen Weyl: … I’ve been surprised so much that I should be expecting to be surprised again, so …
Initial blockchain discussion
Robert Wiblin: Okay, so we’ll come back to those policy issues later on. Not policy issues, community imagination issues. Yeah. Let’s talk about blockchain and cryptocurrency for a second, which hasn’t really come up on the show yet, but a lot of people have an interest in. I guess for any listeners who still somehow have no idea what the blockchain is or how it works, we’ll stick up a link to another podcast you can listen to about that on another show, or I guess you can just skip this section.
Glen Weyl: I should listen to that, I guess.
Robert Wiblin: I think EconTalk had some good episodes on this, but yeah, we’re going to avoid rehashing all of it, but yeah, a couple of months ago on Twitter, I noticed that you wrote, “It seems to me that the most serious, organized, and broad-based movement for a positive, forward-looking, liberal vision of the future is the blockchain movement. Especially Ethereum. So when people ask me, ‘What is blockchain good for?’ I respond, ‘What was the Temple of Jerusalem good for? For making it rain? Or for helping create and preserve a people who eventually led to Jesus Christ, Benjamin Disraeli, and Karl Marx?’ It seems to me that in the same way, the ‘use case’ of Ethereum is less any particular technical question and more offering a vision of the future that can save us from returning to the 1930s next time we hit a recession.” Yeah, very optimistic there about Ethereum and the blockchain community. Can you expand on that? What is it about that vision of the future that you’re particularly excited by?
Glen Weyl: I think first of all, there’s very few spaces in our society for talking about fundamental notions of legitimacy and political organization. In particular, our society has gone increasingly, and I’m talking especially about the U.S. I think it’s less severe in Europe, but in the U.S., there is an attitude that technology’s going to be disruptive, we can have all sorts of technological change, but that changes in our social institutions are just sort of dismissed. I think blockchain, by casting the problem of social organization as a technology problem, which is not really what the blockchain’s about, it’s primarily a question of social organization, but by casting it in that way, it’s opened up a space for the exploration of these fundamental questions of social legitimacy, which I think are the critical questions facing our society right now, our societies right now.
Glen Weyl: I think that, to a large extent, those questions are only being answered by sort of nationalists and statists of various sorts, and I don’t think there’s been a lot of progress by broad liberals in answering those types of questions. I don’t think all of the blockchain world is liberal, but a large chunk of it is, and so I think there’s been a really interesting space for genuinely liberal thoughts to be aired and explored there.
Robert Wiblin: What do you mean by “liberal”? That’s a word that has a lot of different uses.
Glen Weyl: Yeah, so I have my particular meaning of liberal, which is broader than most of the standard uses, I would say. I would describe liberalism as the opposition to hierarchical, historically derived, arbitrary centralized authority, and in favor of dynamic, emergent social organization.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, yeah. Why is that a better way of organizing things?
Glen Weyl: Well, it offers the possibility of progress. I think other forms of organizations are rigid, and non-adaptive to changing circumstances, and/or are what you might call totalitarian or unitarian. They don’t allow for complexity, and richness, and diversity.
Robert Wiblin: We recently had an interview with Martin Gurri that it’s going to come out before this interview. Have you read his book, The Revolt of the Public?
Glen Weyl: No.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Yeah. You should check it out. It deals with some similar themes of, I guess, like hierarchical organizations versus grassroots ones, and I guess the tension between them and kind of where each of them has its strengths and weaknesses and, yeah, where the balance should lie. Yeah, so how do you think that this more, I guess, [inaudible 00:09:10] a greater willingness to rethink how society ought to be organized could save us from a Great Depression?
Glen Weyl: One thing on this issue of hierarchical versus grassroots organizations, I think it’s important to distinguish liberalism as I described it from any particular set of institutions which may or may not manage to achieve those liberal goals. One major problem with grassroots organizations at present is that they are often quite inefficient in various ways, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily a necessary property of non-hierarchical or non-historically-derived institutions. It happens to be a property of many such things that we’ve observed. I think that’s important to keep in mind. Fundamentally, I don’t think it’ll save us from the Depression, but it will save us from the reactions that came to that.
Glen Weyl: In the 1930s, the Great Depression let loose two totalitarian regimes that nearly wiped out human life or what was worth living for, and we were saved from that, I think, ultimately, by a redemption of liberalism by things like the New Deal and other social reforms in Europe, and those offering a coherent liberal vision of where things could go instead. I think without those visions, we would have gone somewhere very dark, and so I think right now, that’s what we need to discover. We need to discover a vision for today that offers people a plausible alternative to nationalism and statism as ways of addressing the current crisis in legitimacy in wealthy countries.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, so I guess some people might look at the ’30s and think that what we needed was less radical rethinking of how society ought to be organized, because that kind of gave us fascism and communism, which you weren’t optimistic about, but I guess you think it’s okay to do radical rethinking as long as it’s within the liberal tradition or as long as it’s not kind of of a statist form?
Glen Weyl: Well, first of all, radical rethinking, I think, is called for by the conditions of society. I don’t think there was an alternative. Whether one would have liked to have preserved a world where a few people are incredibly wealthy and everybody else is starving in Depression-like conditions, and you could have thought, “Oh, that’s not such a bad world. At least we avoided fascism or communism,” I just don’t think that that was tenable. Even if you’re inclined to think that that’s fine, I think you would just, you would not do well, and John Maynard Keynes very much made that case that in order to survive, liberalism had to adapt. I also think just there are fundamental intellectual incoherencies in liberalism back then and liberalism now that are going to come home to roost at some point, regardless, so I actually also agree with the intellectual critiques of the nationalists and the statists today.
Glen Weyl: I think that they’re right to say that neoliberalism and capitalism are just fundamentally intellectually bankrupt, but even if you don’t agree with that, I think that most people think that now, and so unless you have a plan to exterminate them or eliminate their political voice, you’re unlikely to be able to survive in democratic societies without addressing the concerns that they have.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. In what way are they intellectually bankrupt? I guess I’m fairly in favor of this new wave of neoliberalism, which is like more, perhaps more of a economically rationalist center-left politics, but it seems to me like kind of the current system has given us the best of times, setting aside risks from new technologies which, of course, I’m worried about, or perhaps the risk of war between the U.S. and China. It’s like poverty is declining very quickly. It’s like globally, equality is increasing very rapidly. It seems like there’s the glass is pretty half-full.
Glen Weyl: I think the fundamental problem is that what makes civilization possible is the fact that we can all do more together than we can each do on our own. That’s a idea that is called increasing returns in economics, and the problem is that basic economic theory will tell you that capitalism does not lead to good outcomes in the presence of increasing returns. I think most of the problems that we are seeing in the world today can be traced to that. Global warming is an increasing returns phenomenon. It affects everyone on the planet. Most of the network industries that have so much concentration of power that we’re worried about them are increasing returns phenomena. Most of the issues around insurance has to do with the fact that insurance has increasing returns properties to it. That’s why people think about things like single-payer systems and so forth.
Glen Weyl: Most of the major social issues that we’re dealing with, community, and the feelings of destruction of community that people have, come from the inability of the, quote, “magic,” unquote, of capitalism to deal with increasing returns, when in fact, increasing returns are literally what’s responsible for everything good that you were talking about since the Great Depression. Yet you go to literally any economics textbook, you read any of that stuff, one of the first things it will tell you is, “All this works under the assumption of decreasing returns. If there’s increasing returns, we don’t really have anything to say about that. Go talk to someone other than an economist,” more or less. What that amounts to is basically saying, “Everything that’s responsible for all the wealth that we have, we don’t really have much to say about that.”
Robert Wiblin: It’s happened by accident.
Glen Weyl: Then this little edge case of like decreasing returns, which we know cannot possibly be most of what’s going on, or we wouldn’t have all the wealth that we have, well, that, that we can account for. Then we’re going to say, “Oh, all the wealth we have is attributable to this thing which we know only works in the edge case which we know can’t have anything to do with all the wealth we have.” That’s just like … I’m not saying that that immediately means any particular alternative system, but to think like, “Things are pretty good,” intellectually, when that’s the state of affairs, I think takes sort of really bizarre intellectual gymnastics.
Increasing returns to scale
Robert Wiblin: Okay, so let’s go a little bit slower. Can you explain why the framing of the increasing returns to scale is the best way of looking at this problem and maybe what do the models say is going to be the inefficiency when you have increasing returns to scale? Like what is happening, and how are we getting things wrong?
Glen Weyl: Let me start with the example of public goods, which will probably be more familiar to people, and then a lot of people will probably object, “Well, there aren’t really that many pure public goods,” and whatever, and we can get into that, but the point is that the basic logic of public goods is the logic behind why increasing returns doesn’t work under capitalism. The logic of public goods are, imagine there is some thing that we can all pour money into, which will generate benefits for all of us rather than just for one of us. Now, each of us has an incentive to contribute to that thing until our personal marginal utility equals the cost of contributing further to that thing, but the actual optimality condition is that the sum of all the benefits that we receive is equal to the cost of one of us contributing one additional dollar. What you then get is, if people are individualistically contributing to that, a factor one over n, roughly, underfunding of the resource. Right?
Glen Weyl: That is not a small inefficiency. That’s not like, “Oh, the marginal tax rate is 70%, and therefore people only have 30% of the incentive.” This is like orders of magnitude underfunding of the relevant thing. Then you might say, “Well, how common are public goods?” If you want to say 100% pure public goods, maybe not that common, but there’s like no 100% pure private goods either. Then the question is, where on that spectrum do most things lie? My claim is, what makes something like a public good is that it has increasing returns to scale, that we can achieve more together than we could each achieve on our own. Then you have to ask yourself, “Do you think that as an overall description of human civilization, the notion that we would be all basically equally well off if we were, or even better off, in the case of decreasing returns, if we were isolated in individual huts, interacting with no other human beings?” I think most people think probably not. Probably, that would not lead to as high flourishing of human civilization in whatever sense you take that to mean.
Robert Wiblin: Kind of a public good, like, say, creating a piece of information, then, everyone can use for free, is that the kind of thing we’re thinking there is increasing returns to scale, because you have more-
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: … people who then-
Glen Weyl: Yeah, so-
Robert Wiblin: … can produce that?
Glen Weyl: Let me give you an example just very concretely from everyday life of where I think … It’s pretty obvious that capitalism is sort of orders of magnitude off of leading to anything like efficiency. Imagine that The New York Times, tomorrow, discovers incontrovertible proof that Donald Trump is literally receiving a daily batch of orders from Vladimir Putin. Right? How much money do you think that The New York Times will make as a result of having discovered that relative to the amount of money they’d make from having a really good cat video? Possibly more? Probably not, but certainly not many times more. The reason is that that information that they discovered, nobody needs to read The New York Times piece, and certainly not for like years and watch tons of ads in order to figure that out, whereas the cat video holds your attention for a while. Right?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Glen Weyl: The value of the information they create just bears no relationship whatsoever to the reward that they’re getting, or at least the ratio of noise to signal is like 99.9 or something like that.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I went on a rant about how there’s no reason to think that capitalism makes information economics work well, I think, back with, back in an episode with Brian Christian, on Algorithms to Live By. I’m curious to know, are there other common examples outside of kind of information economics where things are much more inefficient than what people realize that’s not commonly recognized?
Glen Weyl: Well, I mean, first of all, all monopolies are basically just examples of this. Every distortion that you consider to be a monopoly distortion is effectively an example of this, because, like why do monopolies exist? Because a bunch of people split up can’t do the thing as well as one person who does it all together, but then if you turn that into private property, the person’s going to use that to extract as much rent as they can rather than providing as much value as they’re able to. All of the oppression of corporate power, all of the stuff about monopolies, and most of the environmental crap that we are dealing with, like climate change. Again, you fix the climate, we all benefit from that, and you can’t really exclude people from that. I mean, that’s actually maybe about as close to a pure public good as you get, and then you’ve got all these different countries that all want their selfish things, and we just don’t have institutions for actually dealing with that.
Glen Weyl: Now, maybe to some limited extent, some democracies in some cases try to deal with that, but democracy is just like a profoundly messed up and not relevant mechanism, at least as it’s currently practiced and adapted to the actual challenges of public goods that we’re facing as a world.
Back to crypto
Robert Wiblin: Okay. All right. I want to take a step back for a minute back to crypto, because we’re going to come to these mechanisms for public good funding later on, and it might be worth talking about the book first. What do you think are the biggest downsides of the crypto community? I guess I only have vague exposure to it, and it seems to me like whoever came up, or whatever group of people came up with Bitcoin are clearly geniuses, and Vitalik is, Vitalik Buterin, creator of Ethereum, is otherworldly, I think, in his insightfulness, but I guess it also seems to have kind of attracted a lot of overconfident people, and people who are drawn in by ideology more than anything else. I guess at the worst end is kind of a lot of scammers and bullshit artists who’ve seen a chance to make a quick buck. Do you see them damaging the community, or you think it’s still overall, it’s like a very good group?
Glen Weyl: Oh, so first of all, I would say that the technology that is currently called blockchain, which has a bunch of different elements to it, I think is a dead end, and I think it has very, very few applications, if any, where I think that that’s going to be the right type of a data structure to use. I also think it has very problematic social implications. I actually think the ideology instantiated by the actual technical protocols right now is dark and deeply problematic, and I think that, like there is a spectrum from really intelligent person who has a good understanding of what’s going on, through deeply naïve and somewhat self-deluding deliberately because of potential greed and so forth issues, through to outright scammers.
Glen Weyl: Like if you ask for the center of gravity of that within the typical thing in the community, it’s definitely towards that latter end of the spectrum, so there are huge problems. However, like capitalism has enormous problems, as I’ve been trying to say, and there is very little space in our society for seriously reconsidering that and for people to think boldly about these things. I think that this is offering a space for that, and that’s extremely important.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, you’re completely confounding my plan for this interview here, because I thought you were going to be like, explain how the blockchain’s going to be very useful, and I was going to have to explain why I’m kind of skeptical that its applications are terribly useful. Yeah. Okay, talk to me about the technical side. Why do you think that the blockchain is overrated or that it’s like … It sounds like you even think it might be harmful overall.
Glen Weyl: Yeah, so first of all, I think that the data structure instantiates a view of how data, like where data originates and how it should be stored, that is pretty inimical to what’s the right way of thinking about where data is and how it should be stored. In particular, I’m a big fan of decentralization, but the blockchain is not really based on that concept. It’s really based on the notion that a large chunk of all data should be completely public, and then a bunch of stuff should be utterly private. That is ultimately, and maybe we’ll turn to this more later, sort of the anathema of the way I think about things.
Glen Weyl: I actually think that everything has some sphere of intimacy where it should be shared, and some other sphere of intimacy, or of society, into which its leaking would be problematic, and that it’s almost never the case that you want things stored completely globally. On the other hand, it’s almost always the case that you don’t want them to be overly cloistered, and so data structures that instantiate the appropriate level of decentralization and that actually store data in relationship to the communities to which it pertains, have to be a much closer to optimal way of thinking about data structures. That’s at the very core of how it’s conceived, I think, a fundamental problem with the blockchain.
Robert Wiblin: Can you cash that out in an example, where the current approach would, I guess, lead to things being too public in a way that’s harmful, and how it might be organized better?
Glen Weyl: Well, I mean, basically, the blockchain says you are anonymous online, and then everything you do online is totally public and completely transparent, but think about your reputation. Your reputation is not something you need to share with everybody in every context, but on the other hand, it’s incredibly important that you not be anonymous, because if you’re anonymous, then you’re unaccountable. Instead, the appropriate thing to do, like if I was looking into you, Rob, and saying, “Is this a guy I should be doing a podcast with,” probably what I wouldn’t want to do is go to some global repository where every action that you’ve ever taken is either listed or completely detached from you. Instead, I would go to some people, I would get, in confidence, some references about you. You see what I’m saying? Like-
Robert Wiblin: Right.
Glen Weyl: That’s the way that human societies are and should work. Things should not be either global or utterly individualistic and private. They should always be shared with some communities and not with other communities, and the blockchain just doesn’t have the affordances, naturally, to allow for that sort of a structure at a technical level.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, so are there any applications that you are excited about? I guess, what’s your view on the kind of use case side of things, or is that not your area?
Glen Weyl: The problem is that I don’t have a lot of examples of things for which I really think blockchain is necessary and sufficient as it’s currently instantiated. There’s lots of things that people in the blockchain community are trying to think about that I think are really important problems to think about, but the technology, as it currently stands, I’m not sure there’s anything I think is really a desirable application.
Robert Wiblin: Is there a vision going forward on the technical side for how we could produce a data structure that doesn’t have to have this dichotomy-
Glen Weyl: Oh, I mean, I’m-
Robert Wiblin: … between super public and super private?
Glen Weyl: I’m working on that stuff a lot, and I think the notion that mechanisms, rather than discretionary centralized authorities, should be the basis for us interacting in information structures, I’m a huge supporter of that, and I think that, honestly, that’s really what has gotten many of the people excited about blockchains, but I don’t think the actual technical structure of the current setup, I have a clear vision for an area where I really think of it as the right, right application. I mean, maybe there’s some notion of central reserve deposits, or other things that really should be global public records of some sort, where something like this is not terrible, but even there, I would say the proof of work consensus is really a bad way to do it.
Robert Wiblin: Explain that.
Glen Weyl: It’s basically the stuff that means you have to mine things, and there’s all this waste of energy and so forth, so that’s not a very good way to structure it. Yeah, and there are other problems as well. Like even in those narrower things where I don’t think the problem is the data structure per se, there are many ways, issues with how it’s implemented at present that I think are fundamentally flawed and need to be replaced.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, all right. Let’s move on from the blockchain and talk about your book, Radical Markets. I’ve read it twice now, and I can honestly say that, the first time, at least, I was just incredibly excited. I felt like a young economist again, back when I was an undergrad, because it’s, back then, all the time, there’s all of these big new ideas that you’re encountering that hope to explain the world and show you a path forward for making it better, and now I’m like, become old and jaded, and it’s hard to find any really exciting new ideas anymore, but you had, at least four of them that I really hadn’t heard before, which I thought was very impressive.
Glen Weyl: Well, and the thing I would say for myself is that when I came up with those ideas, I experienced that sort of joy as well, but even more so, in the six months since the book came out, I’d say I’ve made more intellectual progress than in the whole 10 years before that. It’s been just one unending sort of trip through a candy store for me working on this book project, so-
Robert Wiblin: I need to start reading all of your new papers, evidently, but yeah, so, unfortunately, we’re not going to have that long to talk about the proposals in the book. I think there’s only one that I really want to dive into, because we’ve got so many other issues to discuss, and I guess people can read the book if they’re interested, and I can stick up links to reviews, both positive and critical, but yeah. Maybe just quickly, can you try to summarize this as fast as possible, like what are the five proposals that you put forward in the book, and what’s the case for them?
Glen Weyl: We propose an alternative to private property that’s based on the idea of auctions where everyone, every corporation or person with significant private property would self-assess the value of the asset and pay a tax on that self-assessed value but have to sell the asset at that price if someone else came along to buy it, and this would both fund enough to dramatically reduce inequality, would basically make two-thirds of private wealth common property, and at the same time, it would make a much more efficient and dynamic economy, because no assets would be subject to the current monopolization, and they could be much more easily transferred to new uses.
Robert Wiblin: Rob here chiming in after the recording. I just wanted to offer some more information on this first proposal in the book, because I think it will come in quite handy later in the episode. The proposal is called the Common Ownership Self-Assessed Tax, or COST.
Imagine that you owned a piece of commercial real estate with offices on it. Under the COST you would have to pay an annual tax of, say, 10% on the value of that property.
Now a classic problem with such property taxes is that it’s hard to know the value of any particular piece of real estate.
The COST solves this in a clever way. You get to say what you think the property is worth to you at any point in time, and pay the tax on that amount. But there’s a catch – your valuation would be listed publicly, and you have to be willing to sell it to anyone at that self-assessed price.
This obviously gives you a reason to report a high value, to avoid being forced to suddenly sell it for a price that’s less than how much you actually value it.
But on the other hand, you’d like to suggest a lower value if you could get away with it, to reduce your tax bill.
The point at which these considerations balance out is if the tax rate is the same as the rate at which that kind of property naturally changes hands. So if it’s efficient for a piece of commercial real estate to get a new owner each twenty years, then with a 5% tax rate, your best bet is just to write down how much you actually value the piece of property. Neat huh!
Now, taxes like this would obviously also discourage you from investment in creating valuable things, because as that thing became more valuable your taxes would go up, extracting some of the value. This is a good reason to keep tax rates lower than they otherwise would be, but Glen thinks that suitably low rates would have an acceptable effect on investment rates. Keep in mind other taxes could be reduced as the COST increased.
For Glen a big benefit of having public prices on significant pieces of property, and allowing folks to quickly buy them at that price, is that it will improve allocative efficiency, by reducing search costs and the amount of time-consuming kind-of competitive or strategic bidding behaviour among buyers and sellers of unique pieces of property.
Glen speculates that we could end up funding much of government using the COST, and that it could ultimately end up being applied not only to things like commercial real estate, but all forms of wealth.
In a way this would mean we fund government by renting all of our significant property from it.
There are obviously pretty serious practical issues here, but the book does a decent job of making them seem surmountable, at least for some kinds of property.
Anyway, now you know about the Common Ownership Self-Assessed Tax. Back to the second proposal in the book.
Glen Weyl: The second idea is called quadratic voting. It’s an alternative way of voting that protects minorities rather than them needing to be protected by new rights and things like that, separate rights. The notion is that everyone would have a budget of voice credits they could spend on different issues where the cost of the number of votes that they get is the square of the votes that they get on that issue. That allows for truly representative decision making where everyone can weigh in in proportion to how much they care, which we think would resolve a lot of the current tensions around democracies.
Glen Weyl: Third, we propose a new system of migration where, rather than nation-states having the primary responsibility for migrants coming in, and therefore most of the benefits of migration accruing to wealthy employers or the migrants themselves, we would allow individuals in communities to sponsor migrants and to benefit from them coming so that you would have far broader support for migration as well as potentially much higher levels thereof.
Glen Weyl: Fourth, we argue that almost all of the market power that exists is not as actually ignored by competition policy at present and that most of that comes from two sources. One is institutional investors who own most of the corporate economy and have no interest in seeing people compete. That’s like Vanguard, BlackRock, State Street, and from the power that companies have over their workers rather than over their consumers, and that there are simple, very simple, antitrust policy changes that would address these issues, and these should be implemented, and that they would have macro-level effects on inequality and growth.
Glen Weyl: Finally, we argue that all the data that all of us are every day feeding to Google and Facebook is what trains all of their artificial intelligence and machine learning systems that everyone is saying are going to replace us as workers, and that if we just recognized that data as the labor that it is, we would be able to provide people a sustainable living rather than telling them that they’re useless.
Glen Weyl: To provide people with sustainable living rather than telling them that they’re useless.
Robert Wiblin: That sounds like you’ve had various changes of opinion, and you’ve learned lots of new things since the book came out, I guess, about eight months ago. Which of these do you now think is the worst? Are there any that you’ve gone cold on?
Glen Weyl: I think my interpretation of them has changed quite a bit, but I don’t think that there’s anything we said in the book that I don’t think would be an improvement of the status quo as described in the book. I think probably the one that I think is most misconceived in terms of how it’s described is the Immigration one. I think the Data is Labor one was also described poorly in the book.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, how do you think you miscommunication them?
Glen Weyl: I think fundamentally the whole book, but especially those, are too individualistic and don’t think enough about supporting social institutions or even … they just conceive of the relevant actors as too much being isolated individuals rather than being various groups or public good providing entities or however you wanted to describe that. I think that that was confused and confusing.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, is there any of these that you think is just kind of a no-brainer, that should just be turned into policy? I guess you hate that word, but should be done sooner rather than later?
Glen Weyl: I think the things that are closest to “policy” are the things in the Data is Labor chapter and the Antitrust chapter. I think those are rapidly happening in both Europe and increasingly even in the US. I think that that stuff is policy-ish and is being treated is such. I think it’s making great progress.
Robert Wiblin: The Antitrust one there is the idea that kind of an index fund that owns all of the companies in America. It would have to choose … if it gets efficiently big, it would have to choose just one airline and say that it’s going to invest in so that it can’t own a large fraction of all of them and then just encourage them not to compete with one another, which is just an obvious kind of … yeah, [inaudible 00:33:59] of trust.
Glen Weyl: Yesterday we had the great tragedy of having lost Jack Vogle, who is the Founder of Vanguard, and not just a hero but a personal mentor of mine and my wife’s. A truly great man. When I first told him about my views of this, it was a subject of some contention. One thing I greatly admire about him is that over the course of several years since then, he really came around. He was one of the most important voices warning of too much power being in too few hands in that industry. That’s something I think definitely needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Robert Wiblin: Great, all right. Let’s dive into one of these ideas in greater detail. One that I haven’t heard discussed on other podcasts as much, which is quadratic voting. You gave a very quick description of quadratic voting earlier, but kind of what is it and what’s some more detail, what’s the case for it being better than just a one person/one vote system that we have today?
Glen Weyl: The idea is that every citizen will be allocated an equal budget of voice credits, which they can use to vote on different issues or candidates in favor of or against. They have to pay out of their voice credits the square of the number of votes that they buy. The reason that the square is the right formula, is that you want people to buy votes in proportion to how much they care about an issue. In order for that to be the case, people have to buy votes just up until the point where the next vote is worth it to them. In the quadratic formula, and only in that formula, the cost of the next vote is proportional to how many votes you’ve already bought.
Glen Weyl: That gives everyone an incentive to weigh in precisely in proportion to how much they care. That’s how to think about it from a utilitarian perspective. But more broadly, what I would say that is quadratic voting gives an opportunity for people to express their commitments and their engagement with different aspects of social life in a fluid and open way that is not allowed under standard voting protocols. Albert [Hirschman 00:36:11] once said that, “Authoritarianism actually gives people a great ability to speak sometimes, than does democracy, because it’s too cheap to speak under democracy.” So there is no way for people to actually show that something’s really important to them.
Glen Weyl: Whereas, under authoritarianism, if you go out and protest in the street, you know that’s really an important thing to someone. In some ways, what quadratic voting does is without the violations of freedom, gives people an opportunity to truly show what’s important to them.
Robert Wiblin: So it’s the idea that each year each voter would get 100 voice credits that they can then spread out over various issues that they want to vote on? Or, is it that people could buy these voice credits? Or is it kind of both ideas are there?
Glen Weyl: It’s complicated because it depends whether you’re talking about a proposal that I’m making over what time horizon and where, but I think if you asked my ultimate vision of the world, probably I have a vision where this sort of expression of voice replaces income. So there’s not even a clear notion of money. Then even asking the question becomes difficult. In the short term, I would say you should give voice credits in relatively egalitarian and legitimately accepted ways that are easy for people to grasp and be happy with.
Glen Weyl: Is there some realm in between those two where you might use something more like money? Possibly, but it’s probably not that much.
Robert Wiblin: All right, so when was this idea first proposed? Was it you and your colleagues who originated it?
Glen Weyl: The truth is that there is nothing truly new under the sun. There are precedents in some form for pretty much everything. You can, in some ways, trace this back to Roger Penrose in the 1940s. You can, in some ways, trace it back to the 1970s and 1980s. But in terms of something that is recognizably decodable as quadratic voting, and intelligible even to most economists as such, it originates in a paper in 2012 that I wrote. I came up with it in 2009.
Robert Wiblin: Has it been applied anywhere? Where do you think it might have the greatest contribution?
Glen Weyl: It’s been used a lot in polling right now.
Robert Wiblin: Okay.
Glen Weyl: But it’s also been used in export/import regulatory compliance, block chain stuff. It’s been used inside lots of organizations. It’s been used among students. But in the long term, I think the most important ways to deal with global public goods like climate change or something like that. But that’s obviously going to take longer than some of these other applications get. There’s a whole range of things.
Robert Wiblin: Can you explain how would this help with climate change? For that matter, how is being used in this import/export regulation?
Glen Weyl: They’re using it elect block makers, who then verify compliance with various regulations, and the participants who have to elect them come from the governments or other organizations that are involved in regulatory compliance for import/export. In terms of climate change, the idea would be that you have to come to an agreement on international rules that have very disparate impacts on many different people. You need to have a clear understanding of the trade offs that people have between different aspects of that agreement because some aspects have huge effects on one country, others have huge effects on others, and you need a way to make that credible. In that process of bargaining, quadratic voting is a natural tool to use to express those views.
Robert Wiblin: I see. So we’re imagining at the Paris Climate Conference, where they’re trying to come up with [crosstalk 00:42:18]-
Glen Weyl: Well I don’t know what city they’re moving onto now, now that Paris is over, but yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, the next question of that. I guess-
Glen Weyl: Nairobi.
Robert Wiblin: I guess we’re going to do the voice credits, and I suppose in order to make this appealing to countries it would have to be, to some extent, in proportion to their power or their influence, or their size or something.
Glen Weyl: Probably, yeah.
Robert Wiblin: So more powerful countries get more voice credits, otherwise they’re just not going to be interested in participating.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: But then this will kind of streamline the negotiations and the trade offs that have to be made between different countries because they will be easier for countries to communicate sincerely how much to care about different issues.
Glen Weyl: Which is kind of the polling application that I was telling you about, right?
Robert Wiblin: Right. Do you want to explain how it works in polling?
Glen Weyl: We ran a survey for about 5000 people, where there were 10 hot button US issues like repeal Obamacare, deport a bunch of illegals, et cetera. People had 100 voice credits to allocate in favor of or against these different issues. According to this, sum of the squares is equal to your total budget rule, so that’s the idea.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Maybe explain in that concrete case. I imagine people have probably seen polls before. It’s like you’ve got 100 points that you get to divvy up between different issues that you care about. In that case, it’s linear rather than quadratic so you can give like 10 different issues, 10 points.
Glen Weyl: Here, what happens is you keep pressing plus or go up on something. It’s like a thumbs up or a thumbs down. As you do, the scale down to an increasing rate so you can visually see the fact that it’s got this quadratic structure to it.
Robert Wiblin: But it’s getting more expensive to vote, and harder and harder.
Glen Weyl: Exactly.
Robert Wiblin: Again, so the reason is that casting extra votes is like imposing a greater and greater imposition on other people? Is that the idea?
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: But why is my second vote a greater imposition on someone else than my first vote? From their point of view, they don’t care whether I voted twice, or two other people have each voted once.
Glen Weyl: Basically, if the system is working optimally, then suppose you don’t participate. The system should be doing what is best for everyone other than you. Now, if I start voting, I’m moving away from the optimal point for everyone else. But the loss from moving away from an optimal point is always second order. There’s no first order loss, because otherwise you would have moved where we were before to somewhere else.
Robert Wiblin: This makes it a bit more intuitive. So you’ve got some kind equilibrant point, that’s like [inaudible 00:44:46] what everyone else wants. Then as you move away, the size of the imposition of other people’s preferences is like a triangle or a square, or-
Glen Weyl: Exactly.
Robert Wiblin: Something like that.
Glen Weyl: Right, yeah.
Robert Wiblin: And so then it’s growing to the square because the area of a square or a triangle is to the square. Okay. That’s makes it a bit more intuitive. Did you want to paint a vision for how this would work in kind of state or national elections?
Glen Weyl: Yeah, I mean I think eventually we would like to have a system where there is some pool of voice credits that you have to spread across many different elections, including state, local, national, referenda, elections for high office, elections for parliament, et cetera. And you can spread your votes across all of these so you can weigh in on the things that are most important to you, and weigh less in on things that less important to you. You could save it across to weight on the elections that are most important to you and less on the ones that are less important to you.
Robert Wiblin: One concern that people would have with anyone being able to vote more than once it that it would lead to some people dominating a decision, although they’re worried about the inequality that this would create. Is the quadratic formula of using a square root a sufficient dampener, that you think it would have an acceptable [crosstalk 00:45:57]-
Glen Weyl: Certainly that’s true, but the other important thing to recognize is that there exists no system that is truly equal because in the end we elect representatives. Those representatives weigh in much more than the rest of us do. There’s always going to be a system by which we reveal that some people decide to have more influence than other people do. That is in the nature of politics. The question is, can we do that in a way that’s as optimal and as free, and as equal in an aggregate sense as possible? I think that quadratic voting does that in a way that no other system that’s yet been proposed does.
Robert Wiblin: So that raises the point that presumably some people would anticipate, that if we had opted quadratic voting that they would influence because they get more power in a less observable way. They have more discretion in a less observable way here, where was quadratic voting would [inaudible 00:46:49] someone, and they might oppose this. Do you have any sense of who those people might be, and how they might be appeased so that they don’t mind it so much?
Glen Weyl: I think one important thing to recognize is that quadratic voting actually can give you efficiency gains. It doesn’t have to be the case that things come at one person’s expense and benefit someone else. You can actually get better outcomes overall. In addition to that, I think that there are going to be people who will be disadvantaged by this. I actually think it’s a bit hard to tell precisely who those people will be. They may not even be within some particular, identifiable, externally visible group. I’m not sure in the case quadratic voting I could even very clearly tell you who the people are going to be who will benefit or be harmed. It’s not even clear that they could predict it.
Glen Weyl: My guess is that there are some groups that have really disproportionate and political power because of quirks in any given electoral system, like farmers in the United States, who are going to be disadvantaged by moving to any sort of reasonably coherent electoral system, or people who are benefiting from gerrymanders. I don’t think that’s a specific quadratic voting feature. It’s more a general feature of any plausible electoral reform.
Robert Wiblin: I guess in as much as people can’t tell ahead of time who’s going to win and who’s going to lose, that’s good because there’s not going to be an identifiable lobby group that knows that they’re getting [crosstalk 00:48:15]-
Glen Weyl: That’s James Buchanan’s idea of a Constitution. A Constitution is meant to made in such a fashion that it’s hard for people to clearly identify where they’ll end up standing, so they were put in a quasi behind the veil of ignorance position.
Rob’s quadratic voting concerns
Robert Wiblin: I’ve got some possible concerns about this to bring up. First, I was going to ask what do you think are the biggest downsides of quadratic voting, and if it’s used very much, or if it does get used it turns out badly. Why would that be?
Glen Weyl: I think that the biggest issues with quadratic voting have to do with the fact that it assumes a fixed [inaudible 00:48:50]. This other idea of liberal radicalism tries to address that. The other biggest issue is that it kinds of solves the collective action problem almost too well in the sense that if people are acting purely self interestedly, it should lead to optimal outcomes.
Glen Weyl: Actually people are altruistic towards other people to some extent, and we’ve evolved mechanisms that sort of address our selfishness. Because this is such a powerful solution for that, it almost maybe goes too far. We need to find other ways of sort of figuring out what those other social structures are, and sort of compensating for them somehow if we’re going to have an optimal system.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I think we’ll come back to that with a liberal radicalism case, because I think the problem of altruism is most striking there. [inaudible 00:49:39] Cohen wrote about quadratic voting. My reservation about this and other voting schemes, such as demand revelation mechanisms, is that our notions to formal efficiency are too narrow to make judgments about political processes through social choice theory.
Robert Wiblin: The actual goal is not to take counter preferences and translate them into the right outcomes in [inaudible 00:49:55] sense. Rather, the goal is to encourage better and more reasonable preferences, and also to shape a durable consensus for future belief in the policy. Did you have any reaction to that?
Glen Weyl: I think that it’s not a very coherent argument to criticize a technology derived from loosely optimizing Condition X to say there’s Condition Y, and it was not designed to optimize Condition Y. You have to actually argue that it will do worse in achieving Condition Y, which is something … As far as I could tell when I read Tyler’s post, he never actually does. I think there’s many good reasons to think quadratic voting would do a better job of achieving a lasting consensus and overall social engagement better than one person/one vote does.
Glen Weyl: In particular, it allows people to specialize and to have diverse social commitments rather than to be forced into a single coherent notion of the nation, and have everyone be equal with regards to that. Which, I don’t think is a good basis for a rich society. I actually think it leads to sort of a Russoian coherent nation that is not meaningful concept whereas quadratic voting allow for more expression within this collective context of people’s rich and diverse social commitments.
Glen Weyl: I think there is other important points here, which is that Tyler says that about this collective setting, but when he turns to private goods he’s obsessed with the market. He’s all into everyone expressing whatever they want. But if what he said was correct, then why should we have market mechanisms to allocate private goods? Because those are even more subject that sort of a problem, in my view. In fact, I think in quadratic voting setting, those issues are much less present because actually we’re engaged in some sort of a collective thing, and we’re weighing on our different collective commitments.
Glen Weyl: Whereas in a private market, why should we allocate goods to whatever it is that people happen to demand, when all those demands are ultimately just the outgrowth of collective conditions?
Robert Wiblin: I think much of this will be Tyler’s view, but a lot of people might think that people have more well-considered preferences about a private goods that they’re going to consume, like what kind of car to buy or what house to live in, than they do about matters of public policy because if they buy a bad car, they suffer personally. The burden is on them for that bad decision, whereas if they vote for a bad public policy then overwhelmingly the burden of that, past their ignorance or their bad foresight, is on other people.
Glen Weyl: Yeah, but that’s all the more reason why you’d want to move to a system like quadratic voting rather than to one person/one vote, because one person/one vote absolutely maximizes the problem you just described. It literally takes that to the furthest extreme that it could possibly take it by literally taking the men over every one of their ignorant … like the max over their ignorance, and assigning as much weight as possible to the person who’s maximally ignorant in that way.
Glen Weyl: Whereas quadratic voting actually allows for the revelation of how important and knowledgeable things are to people. There’s a huge amount of evidence that people would vote if they have the chance to flex more on things that they’re more knowledgeable about. I think precisely if you’re concerned about that problem, is precisely why you should value quadratic voting.
Robert Wiblin: That sounds right. Some people might have the intuition that … Let’s you’ve got this pre-existing problem of a population that just does not know a ton about public policy issues, that have chosen rationally to be ignorant about those issues because they can’t have much effect on them. Even after the application of quadratic voting, each individual in a large population still can’t have that much influence, even if they spend a lot of voice credits on an issue. They’re only a small fraction of the total poll.
Robert Wiblin: This is another issue that’s come up from some critics, that they’re concerned that minority interest groups that really have a hobby horse that perhaps they haven’t thought about very well, would then have perhaps too much influence in the system collectively. Did you have any thoughts on that?
Glen Weyl: The evidence that we have from political science is that on almost every issue in almost every social class, there is what Martin [Gillands 00:54:12] calls a “issue public”, which is some subset of those people who really care about, are informed about, and have preferences on that issue that treks a reasonable model of what would be in their interest. But the problem is, in many social classes, that’s a very small fraction of the population. Whereas among the wealthy, it tends to be most people.
Glen Weyl: So I actually think allowing self revelation of things actually allows you to clear out the noise that’s supplied to the preferences of many classes, and to get the signal from those people. I actually think our current system, by swamping things so much noise and so much things that are easily influenced by wealth and advertising and stuff like that, basically makes it impossible for the signal for much of society to be heard.
Robert Wiblin: We’re talking very abstractly here. Is it possible to kind of cash out that intuition like in a specific case where you think quadratic voting might make things go better?
Glen Weyl: For example, if you look at economic issues, there is a relatively small part of the working class that really understands economic issues. Their preferences tend to far better track what an economist would predict would be the incidents on those people of various policies. They tend to be people maybe who have some experience with that particular policy issue, or they work in a tax office or something like that. They usually don’t know about the rest of other economic policy issues, but on some issue they really know that issue really, really well.
Glen Weyl: The problem is most of their neighbors don’t know crap. They vote for some, let’s say, republican or whatever, who’s going to really work against their interests because they just don’t think about the economic side of stuff at all and they get advertised to a lot. That person, if instead their neighbors voted more on local issues, or social issues, or whatever it was that they actually were more knowledgeable about, the relative magnification of the voice of working class people would actually be far greater than the magnification of the voice of say wealthy people who are going to be knowledgeable about everything and not be able to spend their votes on everything.
Robert Wiblin: This requires people to be more willing to spend their voice credits on issues that they’re more informed about, rather than perhaps passionate, but ignorant about.
Glen Weyl: The evidence we have also suggests that when us ask people to prioritize, or you ask people intensity that it does a good job with tracking those things that people are most knowledgeable about in surveys.
Robert Wiblin: Okay.
Glen Weyl: So there’s good reason to think that that would actually be the case.
Robert Wiblin: You can imagine that it could go the other way, that the more informed people become, the more uncertain they are. Whereas, the more-
Glen Weyl: That’s not the evidence we have.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, interesting. So just empirically that’s not how it works.
Glen Weyl: No.
Robert Wiblin: Do you have any concerns about minority groups in society, kind of the tail wagging the dog if there’s small groups that can save up all of their voice credits to do something that the rest of the population isn’t into?i suppose that’s compensated for, for everyone else, by the fact they again get a [crosstalk 00:57:06] of other decisions.
Glen Weyl: They pay for those externalities, and they actually pay disproportionally. So that minority group actually is less overall influenced, but just gets an influence on the one issue they care about. I think that from my perspective, that’s how trade works. It’s like saying suppose some group saves up all of their income in order to buy the best cars in the society, and then starves to death otherwise. Is that really skin off of their nose? Or off someone else’s?
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Yeah, I think I’m reasonably convinced. Do you think that we could use this to make other organizations that currently don’t really have voting apply voting? For example, within projects with incorporations, or like most organizations, we don’t use voting. I think part of the reason is that one person/one vote has major flaws that it doesn’t consider the strength of preferences, or indeed like the extent of people’s knowledge. Would more sophisticated voting systems make it more appealing to use voting in a wider range of context?
Glen Weyl: I think that’s likely, and I think that’s likely to be one important application coming in years. Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: I guess that’s place where you could try it out on a smaller scale, and it’s like, “Well that’s dangerous,” if doesn’t work as [inaudible 00:58:15] says.
Glen Weyl: As a general matter, I think all of the ideas we’ll be talking about today are things that I want to become part of every day practices before they’re ever blessed by a state as some official and extremely important part of the social fabric.
Robert Wiblin: One thing that occurred to me, was how do you stop people … Let’s say there’s a minority group that really cares about X. So it’s got gay people who are very passionate about gay marriage. There’s other groups in society that will have difference preferences from that group, but they know that this minority group is going to have use up lots of their voice credits in order to vote banning gay marriage from getting up. How do you stop them from putting this vote up again, and again, and again, to kind of exhaust the voice credits about people who they generally disagree with so that then they can up other things because they’d run down a little bit.
Glen Weyl: You can have an endogenous agenda setting mechanism, where the agenda is … you only get something up for a vote if there is a certain number of sort of signatures. That’s the way that petitions for referenda usually work. Those signatures could be based on voice credits. Therefore, in order for a troll to do that, they would have to commit a lot of credits, which would wipe them out more quickly than the people they’re trying to wipe out would be wiped out by it.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, so the idea is this kind of a fixed cost for putting something up to a vote that would rarely make it appealing to try to up other things just-
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. I guess depending on where that amount is set, it could either be too discouraging, or not discouraging enough, right?
Glen Weyl: Ultimately, that thing should be set equal to whatever the social cost of changing the underlying policy is, or something like that. Some of the things around liberal radicalism that we’re going to be talking about should help reveal that. That set of issues was part of the inspiration for thinking about that.
Robert Wiblin: It seems like it doesn’t have … does it have to be set in proportion to the social cost of putting up the policy? Because you kind of know that it’s not going to get up. The point is that you just know that in order to avoid from getting up, some other group has to spend a lot of voice credits.
Glen Weyl: The thing is, the other group doesn’t need to send a lot of voice credits in order to stop it unless there’s already been a bunch committed to it. Otherwise, it’s basically free to stop it from getting up. It’s not actually the case that like, in equilibrium, what you were saying is going to happen. You can’t really get some group to spend down to avoid something unless there’s a credible threat that it actually passes. The only way to get a credible threat that it actually passes is for someone who’s part of this conspiratorial group to put stuff up.
Glen Weyl: Then unless the conspiratorial group is like the majority of the population, but then it’s not really conspiratorial … Anyways, [inaudible 01:01:02] don’t actually happen. The only way that something like what you’re saying can happen is if people have some false beliefs, or if there’s some friction in the system or something like that.
Robert Wiblin: I guess you could have risk aversion on the part of the minority group, if they really don’t want this thing to get up. So they always overspend ahead of time.
Glen Weyl: There are many frictions in any system that one has to work out experimentally, and put in reasonable safeguards against. So I’m not saying that there would be none like that in quadratic voting. I just think a lot of these elaborate discussions are at very least, very premature and probably wrong, and probably missing other things that will come up. It sort of has to be discovered.
Robert Wiblin: How high do you think it would be for people to come to accept quadratic voting as legitimate?
Glen Weyl: People who try it out have a really good time with it, and say that it generally makes sense to them. I actually think that a harder thing honestly for people to come to believe it’s legitimate is democracy. The truth is, we don’t actually use democracy that much. Quadratic voting and the lot of the organizations that you’re describing, the harder thing is to get them to even think about any form of voting at all, much less quadratic voting.
Glen Weyl: But look, any major social change is going to take a long time. I think that this one is one that whose benefits manifest themselves relatively quickly. It should have the ability to spread relatively quickly, but it will spread still in an organic way through different social groups. It won’t come to be seen legitimate until many people have had experience with it. I think that will gradually happen over the course of five or 10 years, or 15 years or something like that.
Robert Wiblin: In a world where people can kind of trade voice credits sometime in the future, do you think that it would actually end up being more cost effective for a wealthy advocate for an issue to buy those voice credits than just to own The New York Times, or to try to engage in advocacy in some other form.
Glen Weyl: I don’t think people should be allowed to just trade voice credits across people. That has to be [inaudible 01:02:53] in the system.
Robert Wiblin: I see, that has to be prevented.
Glen Weyl: Absolutely, yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, you still have the quadratic function that dampens people’s-
Glen Weyl: Yeah, but if you buy voice credits from somebody else, then that turns it into a monetized system.
Robert Wiblin: But it sounded like you’re open to a monetized system where you might be able to pay taxes to get votes or something.
Glen Weyl: Potentially. Potentially, but I wouldn’t want that-
Robert Wiblin: That’s very far down the road.
Glen Weyl: Yeah, well some amount down the road. Then there are things that are further down the road than that, which eliminate most private income and we can talk about those. So yeah.
For listeners excited about quadratic voting
Robert Wiblin: Okay, just before we get to eliminating income, if there’s any listeners out there who are very excited about this idea of quadratic voting and any of this, definitely [inaudible 01:03:33] who are very into voting reform as general, what needs to be done and what organizations or people can they get involved with to push this forward?
Glen Weyl: There’s all sorts of start ups that are experimenting with things like this. Start ups like Democracy Earth, you can come to the Radical Exchange Conference. I have lots of people who come to the Radical Exchange Conference. You can find at www.radicalxchange.org, and you’ll get exposed to all those there. We would love to explore applications to local democracy-
Glen Weyl: We would love to explore applications to local democracy, to citizens’ petitions. We’d love to find someone in Taiwan. The Taiwanese government wants to experiment with this, but we need someone who’s sort of technically inclined in Taiwan who wants to work with the Taiwanese government on this. So that would be a great avenue, if anyone wants to do that.
Glen Weyl: So yeah, we have many avenues like that. Yeah. Get involved with radical exchange. The whole goal of it is to, you know, do the stuff … We have local groups all over the world that are, in a collaborative way, trying to experiment with these things. So, you know, join a local chapter, start a local chapter if there doesn’t happen to be one in the area that you’re living in.
Robert Wiblin: What kinds of skills do you think are most needed? Like what’s the ideal kinds of people to move this forward? Or does it take all kinds?
Glen Weyl: Well, it absolutely takes all kinds. But, you know, the types that I want the most are artists.
Robert Wiblin: I did not expect that. Explain that one.
Glen Weyl: Artists of all types. Yeah. Filmmakers or video game designers … Because what’s going to make this really compelling for people ultimately is the user experience and the way in which people are able to imagine how a world based on this would be different. And we need people to help with that sort of thing even more than we need experiments, because there’s lots of experiments that are going on.
Robert Wiblin: This makes me think, could this be first applied … or could a lot of people get kind of first exposure with this on Wikipedia or on YouTube or on like a [crosstalk 00:01:27].
Glen Weyl: Or on a video game.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Or in a video game. Yeah.
Glen Weyl: Yes. So I think probably the best commercial application of this, and this is something, because I know a lot of your listeners are probably in tech companies, I think the best commercial application of this is to replace reputation systems online.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. That seems like a no brainer, really.
Glen Weyl: Because like right now you think about like … Right now you have like a private tip on Uber, right? But that’s much more credible because it’s actually your money. Or you have this review thing which has like almost no informational content. So why not have something that’s in between those where you get voice credits and you can spend them to vote up or down someone’s reputation.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. No, it makes total sense.
Glen Weyl: So that just seems like a no brainer to me. So I think that that’s one of the most interesting applications.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that’s interesting. I guess like dating sites, I guess, have tried to create more credible signal by giving you these things. So it’s like you have one vote a day or something for the person who you’re most interested in. And then try to recreate this. But you could all do it in this more fluid, quadratic mechanism that you could then apply to all kinds of different online services.
Robert Wiblin: All right. with that throat clearing of quadratic voting out of the way, let’s talk about a more recent idea that you’re even even more excited about, which is liberal radicalism. Or … You put this into a paper, “Liberal Radicalism: A flexible design for philanthropic matching funds.” A paper that you wrote with Vitalik Buterin, the credit theorem theory, and Zoe Hitz …
Glen Weyl: Zoë Hitzig, yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Zoë Hitzig. So, yeah, you think you’re particularly excited about it? And you’re not the only one. Economist Alex Tabarrok called it, “Quite amazing and a quantum leap in public goods mechanism design.” So take it away. What’s the proposal of liberal radicalism?
Glen Weyl: Well, so right now the way that we organize most of these increasing returns things I was talking about before, all these things we do together in big groups, is either we have like corporate monopolies of various sorts, charities that are totally underfunded because of the free rider problem, or democratic states that are like extremely rigid and have very little relationship to anything like optimal connection to the relevant goods. So I would submit that like most public goods problems are just like really poorly served at the moment. And what liberal radicalism tries to do is use ideas that sort of came out of quadratic voting. Rather than to vote for a fixed organization, to allow a new principal for the formation of organizations of people. And the notion is based kind of on the idea of matching funds. So in the state of New York, or in New York City in particular, if you contribute to a political campaign less than $100, you get matched six for one, as long as there’s enough other contributors and there’s some threshold.
Glen Weyl: But you might ask … “Well that makes sense.” It’s sort of like, “Well, no one really wants to contribute to political campaigns because they’re not going to make a difference, so it would be good if we match them because then maybe they’ll contribute more.” So that makes some sense. And also like, “We’ve got all this money, we want to give it. Who should we give it to you? Should we just give it to the guy who has the best polling ratings?” Well, that doesn’t sound right. You want someone who actually people are into and willing to contribute to. Right?
Glen Weyl: So it all sort of makes sense, but then you ask, “Okay, why only up to $100? Why some particular threshold? It’s all totally arbitrary.” So then you could ask what’s actually the optimal system for doing something like that. And it turns out that it’s this particular formula which is the square of the sum of the square roots contributed being the amount that’s received by the organization. And that’s the liberal radicalism formula. And the idea of liberal radicalism is that we would have a new type of organization that maybe it would eventually replace states and corporations, that would be based on this principle.
Robert Wiblin: So this formula is that you take everyone’s personal contributions, how much personal sacrifice they’d be willing to make, then you square root it, you square root each of them and you add them all up and then you square the sum of that.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Is there any way of making intuitive why that is the optimal formula? I guess I don’t want to get too bogged down on that. People can read the paper [crosstalk 01:09:27].
Glen Weyl: I think the closest way that I think of to explain it is from Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative. So Immanuel Kant had this idea that probably your philosophically inclined readers are familiar with, that you should act as if by your action everybody else would act the same way. Now, selfish people won’t generally do that. So the question is, could you come up with a mathematical formula that will cause it to be the case that you perceive it as if everybody else does that. And you can think of matching as being a version of that. It’s like, “Oh, I contribute $1. Well, if everybody else contributed $1 when I contributed $1, then I wouldn’t have any incentive to free ride because it would just be like I was choosing the tax rate for the whole society.” Right? And so it turns out that if you just write down the general version of what I just described as a differential equation, you can then integrate that up and you get the liberal radicalism formula.
Robert Wiblin: So, yeah, a question I had about this, and I guess both … and quadratic voting as well, is it sounds like the mathematical derivation is not that complicated, although it might not be immediately obvious just from listening to this conversation. Why did it take so long for people to come up with these formulas? Are they just not … Have people just not been investigating this kind of line of research in general?
Glen Weyl: Well, what I would say is, have you ever read Einstein’s Principle of Special Relativity?
Robert Wiblin: I have not.
Glen Weyl: It doesn’t use anything beyond, basically, trigonometry.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. And yet …
Glen Weyl: Why did it take so long for people to come up with that?
Robert Wiblin: It’s kind of everything obvious in retrospect issue or …
Glen Weyl: Yeah, I mean sort of. I mean like … And, in fact, the deepest insights are usually mathematically the simplest. The slightly longer and more convoluted answer is that there was this … You know, Vickrey had these ideas. And the problem is people took them to serious … William Vickry was the guy who came up with the Vickrey Auction, which was the original seed that ends up leading to something like quadratic voting. But the problem is he had this very general solution, but which doesn’t really make any sense like in any practical case. And he pointed out that that was true. But everybody was so enamored of the fact that his was generally correct, that they didn’t try to find like versions of it that might actually make sense. They basically just said, “Oh, that’s correct in general,” and then either you were like Tyler and you’re like … just dismiss that whole thing and you’re like, “Ah, too abstract.” Or you were like, you know, Robin Hanson and you just said, “Let’s just do it! Let’s just do it!” You know? And like neither of those was really convincing.
Glen Weyl: So if you get something like quadratic voting or like what I … like liberal radicalism, you have to take, instead, the attitude that, “Yes, that’s the right goal. How do we find something that gets 99 percent of the answer in a way that might be practical and philosophically satisfying?” And so forth. And that requires a little bit less of just sort of the like optimizing mathematicians like, you know, obsession with just getting the perfect answer to things and a little bit more of some appreciation for that perspective, but also a broader way of thinking about things. And that does not seem to be in high supply among people who describe themselves as economists.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So backing up to liberal radicalism, specifically, it seems like with public goods there’s kind of two classic problems. One is that people are inclined to free ride on the contributions of other people. I mean humans in reality, but more psychologically complicated than that. But in the models, they don’t want to contribute to public goods basically at all because it’s all going to benefiting other people.
Robert Wiblin: And then you’ve got this other problem that, in fact, we don’t even know how much of the public good would be optimal to supply because it’s very hard to elicit people’s honest preferences about how much they would value it … a public good existing, more or less.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: So. Which one of these is liberal radicalism targeted at? Or is it both?
Glen Weyl: Yeah, I mean, Alex Tabarrok says that these things are different, but I don’t agree with that. I basically think they’re the same problem. But I think the fundamental problem is that the system of private property is just not the right system when you have situations like this. I think that’s the fundamental issue. And like the system of private property just doesn’t make sense when you have increasing returns things because it treats something whose value is really created by this sort of collective process as something that belongs to individuals. And then individuals are going to try to get as much of that collective thing as they can to take it away. And that’s basically the free rider problem, but it’s not really like an abstract problem. It’s a problem that comes out of the system of private property.
Robert Wiblin: If you had a public good that had declining rather than increasing returns, I guess … Or is it the nature of public goods that –
Glen Weyl: Then it wouldn’t be a public good. Because public good has the property right that if you supply it to n people, on a per person basis, it’s cheaper than supplying it to n over two people. Right. So that’s what makes it increasing returns.
Robert Wiblin: On a per person. I see. I see. So it becomes more and more efficient, the larger the population.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So I guess then you’re saying that it deals with both of these issues. It both gets people to reveal their honest preferences for how much they value public good and it then gives them a reason to personally contribute.
Glen Weyl: Well, yeah, I mean, another way of putting it is that eliminating private property is the source of the contributions. So the issue of people not contributing [crosstalk 01:14:54].
Robert Wiblin: But people might be a bit alarmed by this eradicating of private property. What do you mean by that?
Glen Weyl: Well, so liberal radicalism reveals the right amount of the public good that should be supplied, but it doesn’t actually supply most of the funds that are necessary.
Robert Wiblin: I see.
Glen Weyl: Those funds have to come from elsewhere.
Robert Wiblin: Taxes or something.
Glen Weyl: And so the question is … Well, yeah, you could call them taxes. I don’t really like even that term. I mean the point is like things shouldn’t be private property. Like most things shouldn’t be private property because most of the value associated with them doesn’t actually come from things that one individual did. It came from a social process that created that value. Like you think about what do you value? You value an apartment. But do you value an apartment anywhere? If I put it in the middle of like a desert, would you value the apartment? No. You value the apartment in a community. So most of that value actually belongs to the community, not to you, the apartment owner. Right? And so it’s just not logical. It just doesn’t cohere to like think of most of stuff as being private property. Unless … You know, like in the middle of the desert, maybe that could be private property. That’s fine. But, you know, in a civilization that doesn’t really make any sense.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So, unfortunately, we skipped over the first chapter of the book, which might make that a little bit clearer.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Maybe we’ll get to talk about that more. Maybe we’ll have time. Otherwise I’ll stick up links to other people who can explain your view on private property a bit more.
Robert Wiblin: But, yeah, we’ve been being quite abstract here. Yeah, maybe could we go through kind of a worked example of how this in practice would like allow us to provide a specific public good. And like imagine one person kind of contributed more or less in this framework and what their incentives are.
Glen Weyl: Yeah. So the idea is, you know, suppose we’re all giving money, again, to a political candidate to campaign for elective office. If I give one more dollar … imagine we’re all homogeneous. There’s like 100 people that are contributing to this person. Under this mechanism, what happens is if I contribute $1, the mechanism matches $99. Now, that shows you why you need money from the outside in order to do that matching. Right?
Robert Wiblin: I love [crosstalk 01:16:55].
Glen Weyl: The notion is then that we will all choose a level such that if we could each choose to like tax each other for it, we would choose that level rather than a level which is just derived from like what I individually want to contribute.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So it seems like kind of the larger the population of people who are affected by this or who are contributing some amount, the more of other people’s kind of resources that I can then command by giving a little bit more of my own money to this thing. And, indeed, the amount could be like vast, right?
Glen Weyl: Right. Because then it’s less and less your private … Well, the thing is it’s less and less your private project then, and it belongs more and more to other people. So you shouldn’t be able to command other people’s resources for something that’s just selfish. But for something that’s a collective product, and that doesn’t just belong to you, you should be able to draw on resources to fund something like that.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, so let’s say that we were … all Americans are using this to figure out how much to supply the public good of the military that defends the US. So you’ve got like, I guess, 200 million or something, adults who might be participating in this and they’re all deciding how much to privately give. If I give an extra dollar, like how much more then do other people have to pay through some like matching amount or some like taxing amount? It could be huge, right?
Glen Weyl: If everyone is giving $1, then the answer is, yeah, some huge amount. And if you’re really, really tiny in the whole population, like so you’re actually giving a tiny amount, you’re increasing your contribution by a small amount really increases everyone’s by a large amount. So this is one thing I said before, which is that this sort of mechanism could like over-solve public good problems. Because the thing is like right now we have all these things of like making you nationalistic and making you have to like have all these loyalties to imagine communities that we get to get people to like not free ride. But one way to think about this is like you wouldn’t want to immediately do this in its full force for, you know, the whole world because like there already are solidarities like that. But those become less necessary. These fictions, these imagined communities, become less necessary under this mechanism because even just like a rational thinking through of the issues would lead you to the right decision.
Glen Weyl: So I actually view that as in the longterm an advantage, though, in the short term it requires you to apply caution in, you know, doing these things. Because, I mean, it’s sort of like saying if you’re wearing a bunch of heavy coats because it’s really cold outside and you come into … Like you don’t want to immediately have someone put you into a sauna, but it still might be nice to have a sauna available to you, you know what I mean? And so that’s like how I think about these things, you know. It’s like they could solve the problem too much because we have other adaptations to deal with the problem. But it seems like what you can do if someone has coats is like have them in a relatively cool room first and then they started taking off their coats, and then they step into the sauna. You know what I mean? And so I think we can do that with these types of mechanisms as well. And how to get that exactly right? It’s going to take a lot of experimentation and learning. But it seems to me like a huge advance that we now have a solution to the actual problem we were trying to solve rather than this fake solution that capitalism was to a problem that we weren’t trying to solve, which was this issue of dealing with decreasing returns.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So just walk people through this a little bit more slowly. Let’s say that we’re all trying to decide, yeah, how large the US military be, and everyone has to contribute their private funding and then we’re going to like match it out of, I guess some other source of funding, tax revenues like the one that we do now, but you’re imagining a different future where money is raised differently.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Now, the case in which the amount that I personally contribute then … and then if everyone does the same then it like leads to the optimal total amount is if I think purely selfishly, if I give an extra dollar, if I contribute an extra dollar to this, does the benefit that I get from the extra dollar that I’m giving, and then all the matched funding, I exceed the cost to me personally. So I have to be like perfectly selfishly just trading off only the benefits and costs to myself.
Glen Weyl: Right.
Robert Wiblin: So the normal thing is like I give a dollar to mandatory … I derived practically no benefit. I derive like one three hundred millionth out of the benefit of the extra protection that the military provides. But in this, because everyone else, or because like there’s so much extra match funding coming from elsewhere, I’m incentivized to give the correct amount because I give $1 and, in fact, like one two hundred millionths, roughly, of the benefit then.
Glen Weyl: Right.
Robert Wiblin: So it all cancels out. The problem is that like someone who’s slightly ideologically driven or someone altruistic will then like over give and then it will end up oversupplying all these things. And, of course, you’re saying we’ve developed all these mechanisms like altruism and like giving people other like non-selfish reasons to contribute to these things in order to solve this coordination problem. But now that we’ve got that, it’s going to end up over … People end up over contributing in this mechanism and kind of break it. Yeah, are there any applications where you think because we don’t have like non-selfish reasons to contribute that this would work straight out of the box?
Glen Weyl: I think that the more that you’re dealing with cases where currently public goods are really under provided, this would work the best. Like I think one good example of that is just like anything where the people who you’re benefiting are very distant from you socially. So maybe like global public goods of various sorts or various environmental goods that don’t line up neatly with state boundaries like rivers that cut across countries or things like this.
Robert Wiblin: I guess you might worry that, yeah, like people who are ideologically globalist could end up exploiting this and then other people wouldn’t want to participate. Because, you know, I’ll be like, “Oh, well, I care about foreigners equally and this mechanism is designed on the assumption that I don’t care about them practically at all.” So then I get a whole lot of money and then command a whole lot of resources. I suppose that’s … Yeah, I suppose you could try to put the brakes on that even more by limiting people’s contributions or something.
Glen Weyl: The other thing is that this mechanism, actually, you can put a parameter on there that like tamps down its effects and that makes it cheaper as well, which in practice you’re going to have to do anyways in the near term. And that may not perfectly address this issue because like the extent to which people are altruistic may be heterogeneous, but on average it might do a pretty good job.
Robert Wiblin: So, presumably, there’s going to be like some kind of matching factor, some kind of … So that the funding that goes with the thing, it’s kind of proportional to this output of this … square of the sums of the roots. Does it matter? Does it matter what that factor is? Because it seems like if it’s very high, I want to contribute more. If it’s low, I don’t want to contribute so much, and so it’s quite sensitive.
Glen Weyl: Well, the optimal thing if everyone is perfectly selfish is one. It should be the full amount. But if people aren’t perfectly selfish, then you might want to tamp that down. But also just to make the … Like if you only have a certain amount of matching funds, you’re going to have to set that less than one anyway. And the guarantee is that if people are perfectly selfish and you set that number, let’s say to one tenth, then the underfunding factor, if people were perfectly selfish, is one tenth. But remember that the underfunding fact under just normal contributions with private property or whatever is one over n. So this is still like a dramatic improvement even if you don’t set it equal to one.
Robert Wiblin: So I guess we’ve got these other mechanisms for providing public goods now, like just tax revenue and then like the government funds research or something like that. I mean, so that’s good obvious problems with it.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: I suppose this does as well. Like do you think that it would actually work better than these other [clodgy 01:24:21] solutions that we’ve come up with?
Glen Weyl: Well, I mean look, everything needs to be learned by experimentation, but my general view is it’s sort of like … If you kind of invent the right solution for a problem, it’s got to help you make progress towards solving that problem at some level. You know what I mean? I think. It’s sorta like, you know, if someone invents fusion, like that doesn’t immediately mean that you like replace all power on earth with fusion. In fact, it may take 100 years to get it working, but it certainly seems like a good thing to focus a lot of attention on.
Robert Wiblin: Like I said, it gives you like a Lodestar or something that’s theoretically optimal that you can then like approximate with more practical approaches.
Glen Weyl: Well, I mean, and the other thing is I don’t even think it’s just … Like I actually think this is really practical. I think the question is really just like, is it too powerful? And I think it’s very analogous to fusion. It’s like, “Yes, fusion could generate a lot of energy. The problem is it can also explode. So the question is can we contain that energy? But like it seems like it would be really dumb not to try to use that in some way. Now, maybe it turns out after a long time it really can’t be contained and we’re just stuck. But, you know, if you have a huge source of energy, it seems like it’s a pretty promising direction to work on, you know?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So can you just weaken it a whole lot? Like I guess reducing the scale factor as a way of weakening it, right?
Glen Weyl: That’s the way to weaken it. Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: I see. Okay. That’s interesting. So I guess your hope would be that then like people’s altruism and the fact that like there’s this discount applied to it where it’s not one for one, that you’d hope that they would cancel out.
Glen Weyl: Well, I don’t think that’s a perfect solution because some people might be more altruistic than others and you might not get this rescaling right and whatever.
Glen Weyl: But again, as I said, it seems like I’d want to do a lot of work on like being confident that there’s no way to get that thing working before I would give up on it, given that it is actually the solution to the core problem of political economy. So like it’s like if you have one thing that’s like actually the solution to the core problem of political economy and then you’ve got like another system which is like a solution to something that we know is like an edge case and you’re like, “Okay, well we’re not sure how to get this other thing working perfectly. We haven’t even really tried it at all. And we’ve got this other thing that’s been working really poorly for years and it’s obvious theoretically why it should be working very poorly. And we’re going to focus all our attention on just maintaining that system rather than experimenting with this other one,” that just doesn’t seem like a very good allocation of social attention and resources, you know.
Robert Wiblin: So both quadratic voting and liberal radicalism have this problem of collusion where like one person kind of pays someone else to contribute for them.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: And so in the same way that you have, say, issues with political contributions where someone might try to donate, get around like spending limits by giving someone to else. So you’ve got this … So you have to police that, I suppose, but that seems possible. Are there other like gaming’s that you would worry about where people try to split one project into two and get more money that way?
Glen Weyl: That can’t work. That actually makes things worse in quad … in liberal radicalism. I think the key aspect is this thing about collusion over altruism, pretending to be multiple people. I think that that’s the central issue.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Are there any other practical weaknesses that you think need to be figured out before it can be applied at any big scale?
Glen Weyl: Look, nothing should be applied at a big scale until you experiment with it because you can never know what the practical weaknesses are until you see it. But those are the main ones that we foresee.
Robert Wiblin: So another possible kink that I foresaw with this is that there’s kind of a fixed cost to like noticing the existence of like a public goods project and deciding how much to give and then bothering to make a payment. And that, in as much as people are making small payments, these kind of micro payments to contribute, that could end up being quite significant and end up, I guess, causing people to give larger amounts to fewer projects or something like that. Could be a bit distortionary. Have you thought about that?
Glen Weyl: It’s interesting. I mean, I’m not totally sure whether that shows up here because a tiny contribution can make a huge impact. Like especially … like if you’re literally contributing zero to something and you start contributing a positive amount, that’s the area where you have a huge marginal impact. So I’d have to model it out to figure out if that’s actually a problem. I’m not totally sure it is.
Robert Wiblin: I guess I’m imagining … Let’s say you’re planning to give $10 to this project, and so that’s your like personal sacrifice, imagining that someone’s being like, again, completely selfish in the model, but like the time that it takes to make the payment is like … costs $10 worth of your time. And in a sense there’s like this distortion where you might like not give to as many different projects.
Glen Weyl: Oh, but the thing is that if you’re going to give $10, the actual amount the project’s gonna receive is going to be way more than that.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. But in this case it sounds like you’re relying on people’s altruistic preferences to like … which, I mean, admittedly, they would have. So it seems –
Glen Weyl: Yeah, I mean, to the extent that there are fixed costs, that will censor some of the smaller contributions, for sure. My guess is that that’s pretty small relative to the other problems involved, but yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess it’s like … That’s a problem that I guess wood shop in the maths where you imagine these totally sociopathic selfish individuals, but then in reality, probably this is actually one of the issues that doesn’t arise because of the altruism that people have.
Glen Weyl: Yeah, that’s probably right. Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Is there anything else you want to talk about on this one before we move on?
Glen Weyl: Well, I mean, one thing I’d just say is beyond the mechanism and the ways it’s practical in the near term, to the extent that you’re thinking about the longterm. This, I think, leads to a very different vision of what the world would look like. Like it leads to a vision of the world that one of my friends yesterday described as an Anarcho-Syndicalist or something like that, where rather than having corporations or states, there’s just these emergent and constantly morphing public good providing organizations, and maybe hierarchies of them. And it would, I think, be quite a different world. So I think one of the most interesting aspects of this is actually just flushing out all the philosophy and philosophical implications and what it means for things like intergenerational public goods, for example. So I think, you know, even just as an idea, it has a lot still to be developed.
Socialists and libertarians
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So, as I said in the intro is kind of you have a background both as a socialist and as a [randy 01:30:21] and libertarian.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: And I guess this is an attempt to synthesize those ideas into having some self-organizing way that uses people’s selfishness to provide public goods in a novel form. Do you think that the libertarians or the socialists would love this idea or would they be kind of horrified? I think especially when you talking about eliminating private property, there’s one group that you’re alienating, at least.
Glen Weyl: Well, maybe. Maybe, I don’t know. I mean, I think that people have been attracted to the movement pretty uniformly across the political spectrum, and there are ways of talking about it that are very libertarian, and Alex Tabarrok was obviously interested, and there are ways of thinking about it that are very socialist. And you could call it Anarcho-Syndicalist. And precisely what I like about it is that it offers a perspective that’s genuinely syncretic, that if we actually take the ideals of every side even more seriously, maybe they actually they end up in the same place.
Robert Wiblin: How do the socialists feel about this kind of … I mean, well, I guess to some extent you’re rejecting neoliberal economics, but at the same time you’re kind of applying neoliberal thinking tools to like come up with these mechanism designs which like rely on people kind of like being like home economists and like trying to like maximize their welfare. How do people on the left react to that? Do they reject this whole framework or do they kind of embrace the way that you’re coming up with ways of providing public goods?
Glen Weyl: So I’ve sort of assumed in talking to you that I’m basically talking to a bunch of neoliberal, libertarian, like rationalist type people on average.
Robert Wiblin: I think it’s a bit more mixed than that, but yeah. Yeah.
Glen Weyl: Yeah, but that’s how I’ve been talking about it. But I speak about these things in a different way when I speak to different folks, and I hope folks will learn to translate across different ways of thinking about these things. But I think there are ways of talking about this which basically say that it’s just formalizing Anarcho-Syndicalism in a way that was always the big impediment to that.
Robert Wiblin: Have you been surprised by like who’s more or less enthusiastic about these ideas?
Glen Weyl: Well, one aspect I’ve been surprised by is like how much enthusiasm there is from the African-American community. I wasn’t expecting that. And I wasn’t expecting how much came from the Blockchain community either, initially, actually. So, yeah, there’ve been a number of surprises in the core constituencies we’ve ended up having. Another thing that really surprised me is, especially given how male dominated the tech world is, I would say the majority of the people involved are women. And so like the sort of people that these things speak to has been just much broader than the sorts of things that I’m used to attracting as audiences prior to going down this route.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that’s super interesting. I want to talk about like maybe … Are there any particular applications that African-American or women seem to be drawn to that makes them excited about this?
Glen Weyl: Well, I think it’s more the way that you talk about things and the things that this invites. I mean the notion of moving beyond systematic past systems of oppression, the notion of focusing on the social impact and the change that this can bring about rather than just the technicality of it all, I think is inviting to a much wider range of people.
Robert Wiblin: All right. So, yeah, again, if listener is kinda excited by this idea, their eyes are lighting up, who can they get involved with? Who should they call, and what should they donate to even?
Glen Weyl: Look, the whole notion of radical exchange foundation is to try to coordinate activities around this. And, you know, getting involved in that community is just opening a whole world of stuff around this. And we’d love people to donate to the Radical Exchange Foundation, but if there are particular projects that interest you that you find through that community, I’m sure some of them need donations and others of them are more commercial and need investments. Because all this stuff should improve efficiency. So we do think it can grow within a capitalist society even though it’s principles are quite different.
Robert Wiblin: So you were having a conference recently, if I’ve been reading your Twitter feed correctly. Is there another event that people can –
Glen Weyl: The big event is coming in March, March 22nd to 24th in Detroit. It’s called Radical Exchange and, yeah, tickets just went on sale. So I definitely encourage people to attend. And if people are interested in sponsoring, that would be great. If people are interested in donating to the organization, it would be great. We’re doing all sorts of things on the experimentation front, on the education and communication front, on the further development of ideas like this front, all that sort of stuff.
How we ought to be thinking about changing society
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So I wanted to move on to more specific ideas to think about. It seems like you have a specific view about like how are you going to change the world and how we ought to be thinking about changing society.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Do you want to just, yeah, lay that out, anything that you haven’t said already?
Glen Weyl: Yeah. Well, so I just read a book by Hannah Arendt called “On Revolution” that I really love, and that it accords a lot with my perspective. So she compares the French and American Revolutions. And she argues that really what made the American Revolution work was that basically under the tutelage of King George, all these people came and they organized themselves into these local democratic communities. And that came to be the way that they lived and what made sense of their lives long before they ever even considered throwing off the yoke of the king. And so the king provided the authority, but the power actually lay in democracy, and then all the revolution had to do is just change authority to be more consistent with the nature of power that had already come to exist. Whereas in the French Revolution, the power structure was all centered around the king and everything below that was very disorganized. And so …
Glen Weyl: And everything below that was very disorganized. What ended up rebelling against the king was something very disorganized. Therefore, these disorganized people couldn’t really demand that you put that disorganized structure in charge of everything. Instead, all they demanded was just some concrete goal that they wanted. That left a power vacuum into which a very centralized things enter.
Glen Weyl: I think my view of social change is that we actually need to build the society. We have to build the legitimacy that we then eventually want to be christened by the state or replace the state, rather than to, from the top down, impose that sort of thing.
Robert Wiblin: Interesting. So. It’s kind of a radical incrementalist view, where we’re like, well, in the long term we want to dramatically change social institutions. But we want to do that by building smaller scale organizations initially and then figuring out how to organize them in even better ways, and then building up from there. Is that the idea.
Glen Weyl: Right. But that has to be done in conversation with the ideals of a different society, because without being in conversation with the ideals of a different society, there’s no motive force for all those experiments. One analogy I often give is, Jeff Bezos wanted to build The Everything Store, but he built Amazon Books as the first step towards that. But without the vision of The Everything Store, Amazon Books wouldn’t have worked.
Glen Weyl: So, all of the interesting things in life happen in the interstitial space between abstract goals and concrete manifestations of those goals. And if you miss either part of that, you miss out on everything that’s interesting.
Robert Wiblin: Do you have any other historical example, where you’re like, “yes, this is the way that social change should be done, and the way that you’re having to do it yourself”?
Glen Weyl: I think Scandinavian countries were very similar. They very much built up all these rich, diverse civil society things, so that when they then had a “Socialist State”, the socialist state never thought, oh, I’m just going to centralize all the power. Instead, it empowered the social institutions that had already come to exist to support the flourishing of society. Whereas socialist societies that tried to start from very disorganized things and just impose them from the top down ended up with very bad outcomes.
Robert Wiblin: How do you feel about the history of Britain? Went from having a monarchy to parliamentary, constitutional democracy without having a revolution.
Glen Weyl: Well, Britain is a very good example of this, because … so the origins of British parliamentary democracy were something called the Witton. Do you know what that is?
Robert Wiblin: It rings a bell, but yeah I don’t.
Glen Weyl: Yeah, so it was this set of knights that went out and surveyed the countryside. They were sent out by the King. They would come back and they would talk to the King about what they had seen so he could make better decisions. And then things started to get too complicated for the King to listen to all the discussions. So they would then have one of them who would give a report to the King, of their discussions. And then the King would make a decision based on that. That person eventually evolved into the Prime Minister.
Glen Weyl: The discussions started being summarized ever more tightly into a series of recommendations for the King, which the King would generally just approve. Then, of course, the French invaded and it gets … starts saying, “Well what is this thing?” Well it’s a place where they speak, the parliament. You know what I mean?
Glen Weyl: So, you see how, basically, an institution grows up. And then it’s legitimacy is confirmed by things like The Glorious Revolution, right? But the institution already pre-exists its formalization.
Robert Wiblin: So you want, kind of, yeah, organic change before things are formalized.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: People have particular goals and then they find a way to do it that works, and then it’s formalized.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Do you feel like social institutions are more static than they used to be? I guess, like, one concern that one might have about this being the most effective thing to work on, could be that it’s just going to be very hard to get these things applied, because social institutions now are too formalized or too sporadic. And so even if you have great ideas for reform, you’re not going to be able to get them applied very widely.
Glen Weyl: I would say actually the opposite. I don’t view the impetus for these things as being so much that just we need this change, as the fact that if we don’t supply these sorts of alternative ways to solve the problems that we’re currently facing, much worse solutions are rapidly being proposed and could be highly destabilizing.
Glen Weyl: So, I actually think the impetus for providing these solutions, even beyond the fact that we’ll eventually need this change, is that if we aren’t starting to supply this in an organic way, someone else will impose from the top down something that’s far worse.
Robert Wiblin: Why do you think there is so much political discontent at the moment? I guess, Martin [Gurry 01:41:00], who I mentioned on the show recently, explains it in terms of information technology changing such that it’s easier for people to find out ways in which their leaders are unsatisfying or not performing as well as they used to claim. It’s easy for them also to organize amongst themselves, movements to oppose whoever is the ruling class or whoever has power a pick what point in time. Do you think that’s the reason or is it some other thing going on?
Glen Weyl: That might be part of it, but I think it’s pretty unlikely that, that is the majority of what’s going on, because if you actually look at the timing in relationship to these developments, the move toward the far right was way before the emergence of the internet. It started in the early ’90s, and a large part of it was accomplished before social media came about. And then the last bit of it came about in the social media era. And of course, we notice the last bit of it, because that’s what actually causes people to start winning elections. But the thing is, that’s not actually most of the phenomenon.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I wouldn’t have thought that the move for the far right started in the early ’90s. What [crosstalk 01:42:02].
Glen Weyl: Yeah, you should recast [Muddy’s 01:42:04] work, and actually just look at the historical rise of the vote share of the far right. The national front, for example in France, made it into the second round of the presidential election in the contest between [Sherock 01:42:16] and Le Pen [Pair 01:42:19]. So, this stuff is really not … and if you look at polarization in the United States, most of that occurred basically starting with Newt Gingrich and was accomplished by the mid 2000s.
Glen Weyl: And then of course you throw a match onto that kindling with the great recession and so forth, but I don’t think that, that’s the main phenomenon.
Robert Wiblin: So, yeah. What do you think is causing that then?
Glen Weyl: I think dramatic increases in inequality, dramatic falls in growth rates, and a general sense of people that the promises that liberalism made them are failing. And technology is part of that, but not just in terms of the way it enables things, but in terms of the way in which it’s caused people to feel increasingly lonely, isolated, and a reduced sense of agency.
Robert Wiblin: So, it’s interesting. In Gurri’s book he points to a whole bunch of data showing that the people who are the most insurgent, the people who are most likely to take to the streets and vote for candidates that, in the past, would have been not as successful, tend to be doing well economically and tend also to be quite socially connected. That is not the people who are struggling in society or most depressed who are most politically connected?
Glen Weyl: I’d have to see his particular information, but I’m very skeptical of that being the overall weight of what the social scientific community would say about this. The single biggest predictor of swings to Donald Trump that people have found versus Mitt Romney was basically the aggregate connections of people on the Facebook graph being very local and not externally connected. So, I don’t … but there are definitely Republicans who voted for Trump, right? But most of the trump enthusiasts were those who were won over by Trump relative to other Republicans were not people who are well connected or high income.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Yeah. This is super complicated. So I’ll probably have to get someone who studies this specifically on the show to talk about it at some point. Do you worry that politics as it stands today is too anti-intellectual to be interested these reform that are justified in a very abstract, economic sort of way?
Glen Weyl: Well, I don’t think that, that’s what’s going to persuade people. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t build a praxis of a relationship that helps people appreciate these things through their experiences and through art, which is why I put so much emphasis on art earlier. I think we can build that. I think that we need to build that. But what I definitely am against, and maybe we’ll turn to this later, is something which builds a politics that only wants to speak or only respects nerdy and mathematically inclined ways of approaching issues. I think that’s a huge mistake.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, okay. Go into that as a nerd whose fixed that way, what are your reservations?
Glen Weyl: I think that the rationalist community, for example, which I assume many of your listeners are sympathic towards that community-
Robert Wiblin: Some, certainly.
Glen Weyl: Has built itself a politics and a practice of obsessive focus on communicating primarily with and relating socially primarily to people who also agree that whatever set of practices they think defined rationality are the way to think about everything. And I think that, that is extremely dangerous as a tendency within a broader society, because I think A, it’s not actually true that most useful knowledge that we have comes from those methods. There’s lots of useful knowledge that comes in other ways. And if you cut yourself off from that other useful knowledge, you’re actually missing most of the relevant information.
Glen Weyl: And B, it’s fundamentally anti-democratic as an attitude. And the problem with anti-democratic attitudes is, they often start to mutate very quickly into anti-democratic politics, because if you think that the only people who have access to the truth are philosopher kings, it becomes hard to escape the conclusion that philosopher kings should rule. Because you’re just going to be enormously frustrated by the fact that you can’t get other people to understand your arguments.
Glen Weyl: So, Robin Hanson has this book, Elephant In The Brain, which has some interesting things in it, but I think ultimately is a long complaint that people aren’t interested in talking about politics in the way that I am interested in talking about politics. And that really annoys me. I would submit that, to someone that has that attitude, you should say, “Perhaps consider talking about politics in a different way. You might find that other people might find it easier to speak to you that way.”
Glen Weyl: It’s like, if you have a club of Esperanto speakers, and they send most of the time that they are spending talking in Esperanto, speaking about how annoying it is that no one else speak Esperanto, you might consider suggesting to them to speak a language other than Esperanto, if that’s their primary frustration. You know what I mean? Unless there’s some enormous gain that they can demonstrate clearly that they’re getting from speaking Esperanto.
Robert Wiblin: I don’t normally participate in the politics discussions in the rationality community. Are there any examples of, when you think of people are going wrong and how you think they ought to do things differently?
Glen Weyl: As a general matter … there’s something called neo-reaction, which is a very obscure, and a lot of people aren’t aware of it. But it’s actually had a lot of influence on a number of quite wealthy people and filtered into politics in various ways. It’s basically a politics that is built around the notion that basically there should be a small elite of people who own property and control power through that property, because the masses aren’t capable of understanding or solving or whatever various types of questions.
Glen Weyl: I think that, that politics, even though most people in this rationalist community would reject that kind of politics, I think there’s a natural tendency, if you have that set of social attitudes, to have your politics drift in that direction, because that sort of social practice of only associating with people who have that way of approaching knowledge tends to lead you to be frustrated with everybody else’s politics. And therefore to want to … if you’re socially anti-democratic, the chances that you’re going to become politically anti-democratic seem to me to be much higher.
Robert Wiblin: That’s interesting, because I think of myself as having the view that there’s some people who are much more informed about politics and have much more sensible views about what legislation ought to be passed. I guess in some sense I’m like part of an elite that unusually educated about these issues. But when it comes to … nothing is more appalling to me than neoreactionary politics. I have particularly no sympathy with it. What’s going on there? Am I just part of a different, somewhat-
Glen Weyl: Well, I mean, I’m not saying everyone or like no social tendency is absolute or constant or whatever. But I think that as an empirical matter, we have seen a very large number of people enter into the rationalist community with politics similar to what you’re saying, and gradually drift in the direction of neoreactionary politics. And there’s a pretty simple theory of why that might happen, and it seems to empirically happen quite a bit.
Glen Weyl: So, it seems to me that the combination of that empirical evidence and the theory explaining it would tend to lead me to suggest that people who don’t want their politics to drift in that direction, or who find that reprehensible, might consider changing their practices and not just resisting that political inclination.
Robert Wiblin: So to play devil’s advocate here for a second … I obviously have no sympathy with it, with a neoreactionary view. But it seems like it is just true that if you start looking at public opinion survey, it’s the case that many voters are misinformed about many empirical issues. And then they support policies that seems, I don’t know, to most people who have studied the topic to be bad ideas. And so there is this kind of kernel of truth that at least, democracy as it functions now is quite a strange way of making decisions in a sense. There are other reasons why we organize it this way, to prevent oppression and to distribute power more broadly. That’s very valuable. But do you want to kind of take on that attitude-
Glen Weyl: Well, Rob, where do you live?
Robert Wiblin: I live in California.
Glen Weyl: How long have you been living where you are currently living?
Robert Wiblin: Two years.
Glen Weyl: How much do you know about the candidates for local office?
Robert Wiblin: I know that the Republican was a practical Nazi. My congressional seat, that was particularly that. I mean I can’t vote-
Glen Weyl: You know, I mean really local office. Like the teacher’s board or whatever.
Robert Wiblin: Oh, I mean nothing. I can’t vote, so otherwise I might know it, but I know nothing about them.
Glen Weyl: I know nothing about my local candidates either. So the notion that there are a class of people who are just epistemically crap, I think, is just wrong. I think the answer is that people focus on different things, because they are adapted to different areas. And yes, I absolutely believe that there should be division of labor, and that people should be allowed to opt in to things that they care more about and opt into things that they care less about. But I think that the notion that some people are epistemically great and other people are epistemically crap is just really wrong and deeply problematic.
Glen Weyl: And I think that what we need is a system that allows people to elect into the things that they have something to add to, which is what quadratic voting allows, and elect out of things that are less. But establishing some sort of clear or elite driven hierarchy, that rather than people electing in to certain things and electing out, that some group of people decide they know, and they are going to have the power and hold it, I think is deeply mislead and doesn’t correspond to my empirical experience or reality, which is that on most things relevant to the world, I’m an idiot. It’s just that there are some issues that I’ve devoted my life to, on which I think I know better than others do. And I hope that they’ll value my perspective and that I’ll learn something from their perspective as well.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, so I think that, that goes quite a long way. The main reason … the key driver of people having bad ideas in politics is that, they’ve spent, they’ve dedicated very little time to it, to informing themselves most of the time. And that makes total sense that people should specialize, yeah, that there should be some people who focus on … because we can’t all be informed about everything. That’s impossible. And people have got their lives to live, too. So some people specialize in learning about this, some people specialize in learning about that topic. But it does, too, seem that there this issue that some people are just less intelligent or they’re never going to make the effort to inform themselves, and yet they will still be very keen on voting. That could add some noise to the system.
Glen Weyl: Well, I mean, my guess is, most of the time when you have people like that, you actually find that there’s a lot of really interesting and intelligent things that they’re bringing to the conversation that your perspective didn’t include. That’s usually what I find. In fact, I learned way more personally from interacting with my colleagues, who are the people of this country and in Europe who I’ve been talking to about this book, than I have interacting with the intellectual leads I usually interact with. I made way more intellectual progress.
Glen Weyl: The intellectual leads, who are so great at all this stuff, didn’t think Donald Trump was going to win. They thought neoliberalism was just fine. They were missing a lot of shit. And you want to even say it off the intellectual level? All this talk about community that’s been out there in the world, and people’s complaint for years, I think it’s a really good way of putting the stuff that I was saying about increasing returns.
Glen Weyl: And what have economists been doing? They’ve been focusing on the 5%. So, where is the manifest stupidity of the population? Is it among the economists who are the experts, or is it among … I mean, I just think that it’s precisely this attitude of persistent epistemic superiority that leads people into actually going down intellectual cul-de-sacs and not making progress in the most important problems. And I think of people actually had more of a democratic spirit in their conversations, they would actually be making a lot more intellectual progress than they would in the current self-imagination.
Robert Wiblin: So, there’s two different reasons that you could like having this kind of democratic spirit in wanting to distribute power. One would be on principle. You just think it’s bad to concentrate power or elitism or hierarchy is unappealing in principle. The other is that, as an empirical matter, information is very widely distributed. In fact, even people who don’t have a great education or whatever are in fact, bring a lot of knowledge to the table when they are able to contribute.
Glen Weyl: Yes.
Robert Wiblin: I thought that you were going to justify on the first principle. But it sounds like you just think-
Glen Weyl: No, I’m justifying it on the second ground.
Robert Wiblin: Just in practice, like ordinary voters actually have a lot of value to contribute to the system.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Glen Weyl: There’s a wonderful book called Seeing Like A State that I recommend to you and to all of your listeners.
Robert Wiblin: I’ve read it.
Glen Weyl: You’ve read it? James C. Scott.
Robert Wiblin: I’m a huge fan. You should read his new book.
Glen Weyl: Yeah. I’m about to finish it, actually.
Robert Wiblin: Against the Grain. I think it was my favorite book of last year.
Glen Weyl: Ninety percent of the way through it right now.
Robert Wiblin: It’s amazing, yeah.
Glen Weyl: Yeah, it’s very good. What I think he points out … it’s very similar to Hayek’s point, that there’s a lot of knowledge out there. And people a lot of libertarians are in to that when they hear it in Hayek. When they hear about politics, suddenly they think that there’s no knowledge out there. And I think that… that’s nuts. I think that politics is just like all these other things. There is lots of local information out there. And in fact, I don’t even think there’s much of a distinction between politics and economics. I think it’s the same basic problem, that when high modernists, which is what he calls people who are just obsessed with science and rationality and whatever, try to impose they derived visions on the complex realities that people are adapted to without thinking about leaving space for information gathering from those complex realities, they end up creating monstrosities often. And I think that is a big danger.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, do you want to flesh that out a little bit more. Explain the hierarchy in knowledge problem and how this relates to markets and politics and why you think there’s a tension between people thinking that the market is great, but democratic politics is like a-
Glen Weyl: One of the examples that Scott gives is Jane Jacobs in New York City. So, there was all this stuff of people being like, “The city has to be rational. We have to have a grid. We have to build spaces that are zoned one way here and zoned another way there.” And Jane Jacobs points out, “Well actually what makes a city fun is that people have lots of coffee shops to go to near where they live. Or that there are interesting things going on it the street. And that actually makes people look at the street. And that makes the street safe.” All these ground level things about what it is to live in a city are often ignored by people who only think about it from a rational scientific perspective, right?
Glen Weyl: That doesn’t mean that science can’t incorporate those things, but usually, science is going to leave out some of that stuff. It’s lonely through a dialogue with what’s going on, on the ground, that you figure those things out. And the problem with saying, “Oh, well that’s true of markets, but that doesn’t need to be true of democracy” is that as I pointed out earlier, almost everything is some sort of collective action. Very little can be done by an individual isolated on their own. So, you have to allow to filter into collective actions and collective decision making, those on the ground perspectives.
Glen Weyl: Now that doesn’t mean that everything should just 100% bubble up. That’s doesn’t work either. But there has to be more of a dialogue and more of an attempt in institutions to make room for that emergence, rather than for everything to just come from what a scientist wants to impose.
Robert Wiblin: So, I’m inclined to think that high modernism is underrated. That suddenly it didn’t turn out super great in city design, although I now think that you could have just rational planner who read the papers and decide, well we’re going to rationally, as a high modernist, plan it out in this organic fashion. But the high modernist approach of just trying to schematize everything and standardize it has given us lots of really wonderful things, like modern agriculture, which makes a lot more food and at much cheaper prices than over before. We managed to eradicate lots of diseases with very high modernist vaccination programs. The census is a high modernist program that delivers really valuable information to us.
Robert Wiblin: I think to some extent, Scott isn’t quite … he picks up the cases where the high modernist mindset didn’t work out very well or didn’t work out well initially. For example, in agriculture where it creates all the problems, but then in the long terms seemed to have worked out a lot better. And then talks about that to condemn the whole thing, whereas I think to some extent now, that idea is underrated, because everyone wants to be grassroots, bottom up. That’s the better way to do things.
Glen Weyl: Well, look. I think that the right answer is, things need to emerge from an appropriate level of organization. And if you make it too disaggregated, you lose the potential economies of scale that are called scientific knowledge. But on the other hand, if you just assume that capital T, capital S, The State, or The Platform knows what’s going on, you end up with really bad things happening.
Glen Weyl: So, one example of this is Facebook, which I think someone should write a book called Seeing Like A Platform, decides oh here’s the metrics that we need to maximize. And then they send their reinforcement learning system to go maximize those metrics. And now, most of them live in the US, so if their kids are getting incredibly addicted to something and it’s destroying their lives, they at least have some sensitivity to that. But they have nobody in Myanmar. And when it turns out that maximizing their metrics ends up leading to people getting hacked to pieces in Myanmar, it’s pretty hard from them to see that or to get the feedback on that.
Glen Weyl: And they employ … they spend about 10% of their value add on labor. They don’t hire people, because they think oh no our algorithms will do it all, right? So that sort of arrogance, that sort of unwillingness to be looking and think that there are maybe things that are missed in their models all over the place can lead to really bad outcomes. So, that’s not to say that there isn’t value to technology. Technology has a huge amount of value. But for a direct … to realize its value it also requires human input. And that human input is being increasingly lost by abstract ideas that artificial intelligence, which is really just collective human intelligence. And the question is just which types of collective human intelligence are most relevant? Some of them are just “The data that we provide” but some of them are a little bit more engaged than that.
Glen Weyl: Then there are programmers. But it’s not just the programmer and the lemmings. There’s all sort os levels of human intelligence in between that. And if you obscure that, and you strip it away, you’re going to lead yourself into lots to errors that can be catastrophic, but that can also just not be as successful as things that engage people.
Robert Wiblin: I think I have … I think I agree with you in the case of Facebook. Or I’m very worried that social media companies that have, say, very little profit and only a handful of employees can have very dramatic cultural effects when basically they have no model for that and indeed few incentives to even care about that, other than perhaps as human beings they might worry if they see that they are destroying the country to make a hundred-million dollars in profit. It’s seem that there’s such strong network effects with social media that whoever ends up harnessing those networks effects is then going to have a lot of discretion about how they run their network, because they’re going to be quite hard to displace.
Glen Weyl: That’s the problem with private property. That is precisely the problem with private property.
Robert Wiblin: Alright, let’s-
Glen Weyl: I mean, private property in the context of increasing returns makes no sense. Why on Earth should we have a system where we randomly choose some person to have been whoever was there at the right moment, and then put them in charge of the future of humanity. That’s just such an incredibly stupid algorithm.
Robert Wiblin: That’s another framing of this problem of natural monopolies, like Jesus giving people arbitrary power and it’s not clear why they deserve it. Maybe let’s emphasize two things now, because on the one hand you don’t like this top down design of society. I think there’s a lot of information that gets lost when you have elite doing that kind of thing. On the other hand, it seems like a lot of your schemes to some people at least … I know Arnold Cling had this reaction, the economist. He looks at this and he’s like, “Good grief this is just another social designer who’s trying to figure out how to change politics and then change the market.” And it has this slightly socialist vibe or at least somewhat a designer’s feel to it, that I think gives some people the heebie-jeebies, that they’re worried that this could end very badly. How would you react to that?
Glen Weyl: Well, I think that the first thing to recognize is that the notion that there is some undesigned system that is called private property and that we’re going to have all this technological innovation on top of that and not to anything to respond to that at all, and that’s going to lead to some undesigned world is just totally counterfactual. And every time someone pretends like that’s true, they end up with a Facebook or with a General Motors or with a Rockefeller who then dominates the whole things and designs it however they want with no attention to everybody else, right?
Glen Weyl: So, it’s actually hard work to have an emergent undesigned system. And it requires careful thinking about the system in order to make that the case. That’s not to say that I think you should impose from the top down, as I said, some new alternative without experimental growth and learning and so forth. But I think that if one wants as, say Arnold Cling wants, to have a society that is genuinely decentralized and emergent, you need to avoid concentrations of power, which requires new innovations in how the system works, just as emerge from that system technological innovations.
Glen Weyl: I think the fundamental problem with libertarians, and I think it’s incredibly frustrating and incoherent, is that they’re all like, “Oh no, no, no. We need to stick with the things that work when it comes to social institutions.” But then the social institutions they want to stick to, a lot of technologists do whatever they want. You go to someone like Tyler Cowen and he’s like, “Oh, these awful Americans. They don’t care enough about economic growth. They don’t care enough about moving around and adapting to all these new technologies.” And then I say, “Oh, well, what about trying a new voting method.” And he’s like, “No, we couldn’t possibly do that. That would mess with the incredibly delicate system of voting that we’ve established over all these generations.” I mean, it’s just literally, it’s just completely inconsistent and incoherent.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It’s another way of you remain consistency that to be so worried about changing political legal institutions, but to be totally blind about companies just company being totally overturned. The market is constantly changing in its organization. In a sense, if you were worried that any change is dangerous, then you probably want to be like, press pause, slow down the market as well.
Glen Weyl: Right. Exactly.
Robert Wiblin: But that’s changing society in people’s lives dramatically. But I guess also you’re saying here that they want to disempower social engineers on the legal side, but then they don’t mind Zuckerberg being able to have massive influence over how Facebook is and how people spend their time.
Glen Weyl: Exactly.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, interesting. Okay, alright. So to somewhat play devil’s advocate here, I think you could imagine someone who’s an incrementalist, pro-market-ish person who hears you start talking about, we’re going to abolish private properties to some extent, or start having people … they always have to rent their private properties is more the way that it actually goes in the book. Unfortunately, we haven’t got time to go into that idea in detail. And then good grief, this is just craving another government agency. The bureaucrats or politicians who now have this horrifying power over people’s lives to take away the things that they care about by raising these taxes or organizing the taxes a different way. Even if in principle, the kind of system that you’re describing would all be very nice, in fact it’s creating a new center of power that can then be exploited quite a lot. And this gives … this is what’s driving their fear.
Glen Weyl: None of the things I’m describing create new power centers. A big property of them is that they can just be basically run on the block chain, more or less. The tax system that you were describing … or let’s focus on the voting, because the other people haven’t heard the tax thing. It’s not like the quadratic voting opens up some huge amount of discretion. All the discretion belongs to the individuals. And in fact, I think it reduces discretion, because right now what ends up happening is that, because the system of one person one vote is so incoherent, everything depends-
Glen Weyl: Because the system of one person, one vote is so incoherent, everything depends on how you gerrymander things, or how you slice things up. The system is not maximizing some coherent objective function. It’s just some total [inaudible 02:08:15] thing. Everything then depends on precise details of how you frame it, and those are always done by some discretionary authority. The current system is actually incredibly, incredibly sensitive to initial conditions and precise micro-specifications of things whereas the systems that I’m describing, it seems much more robust, those types of things.
Glen Weyl: The reality is just because something is familiar does not meant that it’s simple and not tweakable by someone who has power. In fact, the Facebook thing shows that. The current state of people’s resentment against elites show that. It’s actually an intellectual question whether a system is that way or is not that way. You can’t just avoid that by just appealing to saying that “Oh, it’s been around for a while” because all the conditions that have been around for … Another thing that’s been around for a while is the fact that since the beginning of industrialism we’ve had dramatic changes to social policy every 30 years except for in the recent period. If you really want to say, “What was going on during that period?” it was a consistency of social and technological innovation happening relatively and parallel with each other. If you want to conserve something, let’s conserve that.
Robert Wiblin: Why do you think the social reforms that you think are desirable slowed down in the last generation?
Glen Weyl: Because of the ideology of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism itself brought some really good innovations. It brought free trade, which opened us up to poor countries, which led to a huge amount of reduction in inequality across countries, which I’m a huge fan of. It actually, I think, was very important, honestly, to allowing women into the workforce because it broke down some of the rigid structures of unions, and so forth. There were a lot of good things that it did, but to then be like, “Oh, and now any continuing innovation along that dimension is anathema, but we need to dramatically accelerate technological progress” just seems to me to be crazy, and incredibly dangerous, and likely to destabilize the world.
Robert Wiblin: It might be worth clarifying what you mean by neoliberalism because I think of the people who identify as neoliberals as being quite unusually enthusiastic about the kind of reforms that you’re in favor of. It seems like you’re thinking of them as people who are skeptical.
Glen Weyl: What I really mean is capitalists.
Robert Wiblin: I see, so you mean more libertarian perhaps than …
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: I see. Isn’t it the case that people who identify as capitalists or libertarians, probably again are more like, at least there have been a representation of people who are very enthusiastic about these dramatic reforms because often people who are like strongly libertarian are people who are drawn to a strong, clear, systematic framework, and a strong ideology, so they [crosstalk 02:11:07].
Glen Weyl: Some people who used to identify themselves as libertarian, at least, are very sympathetic to these ideas. There’s a class of people out there who are, I don’t know if you want to call it conservative, or what you want to call it exactly, but conservative libertarians, or something, who just want to preserve this.
Robert Wiblin: All of the past change was good, all of the future change is bad.
Glen Weyl: Yeah, exactly. Right.
Critiques of effective altruism
Robert Wiblin: Okay, that’s interesting. A couple of months ago you also got into an exchange talking about effective altruism and, I guess, especially the effective philanthropy movement, and some reservations you have about that mindset, which I guess is a natural outgrowth of what you’ve been saying before. Do you want to talk about that, where you think people like me might be going wrong?
Glen Weyl: I think it is a natural outgrowth of what I was saying before, but basically, look, as an intellectual set of investigations, I think it’s an interesting place to go, but there’s a certain set of cultural practices which I’m going to now caricature, but which I think are very dangerous. Those are we’re really rational. Most other people aren’t rational. Most people just follow their emotions. We’re going to deduce exactly what reason tells us is the right thing to do. Then we’re going to either talk to people who have a lot of money or get a bunch of money ourselves somehow, and who knows exactly how that works? Maybe in a way that’s not so great in some ways. Then we’re going to use this money and power to make the world the right way that it should be. That is going to be largely based on science and reason, and we’re going to impose it. We’re not going to pay that much attention to getting feedback from the people whose lives that affects or being in conversation with them. We’re just going to use this money and power that we got somehow to do that.
Glen Weyl: That set of attitudes, which you could call high modernism or another word that is vaguely related that Jaron Lanier, one of my collaborators came up with was weenie supremacism. That set of attitudes, I think, is very dangerous, and very erosive of democracy, and is something, I think, we need to resist. I’m not trying to lump all effective altruism into that, but I think there is a tendency of certain people in the community especially those that are very inclined towards field experiments, or everything, and who don’t see the effective altruism movement itself has dramatically changed its mind about things a huge number of times in the recent years, and that maybe actually they might have learned something from all the people out there who could have told them that maybe social stability was important, and maybe legitimacy was important. That’s ended up becoming a lot of what Ben Todd, these days, talks about being important after many iterations of thinking about this.
Glen Weyl: I’m not saying that there’s no value in that stuff. I’m not saying that it isn’t an interesting dimension of research, and whatever, but I think the notion that there is a small group of people who has exclusive access to the truth, who doesn’t really need to talk to other people, and that wherever their reason leads them should guide huge amounts of wealth and power without a lot of constant feedback from others, I think that’s a practice and a way of being that we should resist.
Robert Wiblin: I guess I’m mostly focused on preventing global catastrophes, so preventing nuclear war, preventing pandemics, that kind of thing. I guess I’m not sure how much this applies to that, or whether you’re thinking that, or whether you’re thinking more of the kind of anti-poverty work where perhaps you end up having too much influence over people in the developing world, and being too paternalistic.
Glen Weyl: Yeah. I think that the preventing catastrophes stuff tends to be a little bit better precisely because it has the character that there probably isn’t that much local knowledge about it. It’s these low probability events that you’re not going to figure out unless you spend a lot of time in a dedicated way thinking about that. As I said, that has been more common among the somewhat later iterations of the effective altruism movement, but I think also more generally, people have gone to long-termism, and then they realize it’s not all about growth. Instead, it’s a little bit more about making sure the system doesn’t go off the rails, which makes you then think about legitimacy. You see what I mean? That’s leading in a good direction, but I think people may have actually gotten there a little bit faster if rather than just reflecting on it and following the line of the logic, they’d been in conversation with a wider range of social actors and thinkers, and taken what those people said seriously, and reflected on it. They might have more quickly converged to where they’re getting.
Glen Weyl: Furthermore, there may be further iterations that people have to go through. Maybe some of those conversations approached with a little bit more openness could be useful in helping them iterate through some of these things rather than cloistering themselves into a room being sure that they know what’s right, and then finding out a few years later that actually what they thought was wrong. You know what I mean?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I think having seen it up close that the history seems very different to me because I think actually, people were in favor of the institutions and not in favor of just growth even in the early 2000s, like very early. In fact, all of this stuff about actually, we should think about economic growth, was coming more from actually talking to other people and finding that they’re not convinced by the weirdo, like long-term stuff. Instead, we should make some concessions to common sense and to what other people think. It’s like more as people have become more confident about their weird rationalist, high modernist approach that people are like, “No. Actually, we should just be thinking long-termist. We should be preventing disasters, we should be doing this unusual stuff. That would be a lot less, I think, visible from outside, but yeah. Do you want to point to any things that you think people might be funding or getting involved without spending too little time talking to recipients, or collecting enough local knowledge, and how they might do things differently?
Glen Weyl: Yeah. I’ll give you a couple examples of things that came out of the community that I thought were a little bit mislead. There was at one point within the 80,000 Hours community, an attitude that it doesn’t really matter that much whether your career is directly a good thing or not. What really matters is making a lot of money and giving it to charity. I thought that was really mislead, and that that sort of way of talking about things was even beyond its direct, being, I think, factually wrong, was also just insensitive and sending a really bad message about the value system of people involved in the movement because I think as a practical matter of human psychology, most people’s reaction to that is once you get into that sort of a career, you end up just going down that bad trajectory. I knew lots of people who were influenced by that type of thing, and did that, and ended up in a bad place. I thought that that was a really mislead set of ways of thinking about things. That’s one thing.
Glen Weyl: A second thing is I think a lot of the overly field experiment driven, effective ways of charitable giving that didn’t think about broader social structures and effects of that sort of stuff, was I think people started to move away from that. I don’t think that was a very good trajectory to go down, and I don’t want to identify that with any particular set of people within the effective altruism movement or not, but there certainly was something like that that I identified with the effective altruism movement that I thought was mislead and a bad direction.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess we haven’t thought that earning to give just to make the most amount of money and disregarding everything else was a good idea in a long time. We’ve spent years making sure that people are aware that we don’t think that. We have this article, is it okay to take a harmful career in order to make more money, or do more good in some other way that describes our views on that in some detail. I suppose I’m inclined to say that that’s a bad advice just on factual grounds, like in fact that’s not the way to do the most good even within our framework.
Glen Weyl: I think I would agree with that, but look, I saw several things coming out of it that read that way to me, but maybe I was wrong.
Robert Wiblin: I think we were initially too enthusiastic about earning to give and too blind about some of these other considerations. That’s certainly the case. You’re thinking several people have gotten into, say, earning to give careers where they didn’t have a supportive, altruistic-minded group of friends, and then they fell off the wagon, so to speak.
Glen Weyl: Yes.
Robert Wiblin: That’s interesting. We were actually quite worried about that internally early on. Then I think I’ve become less worried about that because I’ve seen so few examples of it, and so many examples of people staying in the corporate world, and remaining extremely altruistic and continuing to give, like more than I would have guessed. I guess if it’s possible that it’s just the people who know us personally who remain committed whereas people who don’t.
Glen Weyl: Remain connected to you.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Glen Weyl: The thing is the people that I am talking about to a large extent, I’m not sure how much they were influenced by the effective altruism movement, or how much they just used that as a ruse because they were always intending to do something else. Maybe that’s the broader point that I want to make. You have to think of the things you’re doing as speech acts and not purely intellectual acts. You know what I mean? They condition a certain sort of a society. There’s a lot of people in that society who are doing very exploitative things, and they may use what you’re saying to further those exploited events.
Robert Wiblin: As a cover.
Glen Weyl: Yeah. Other people who feel like they’re being exploited by those people will then use you as a target for that. You know what I mean? You have to think a little bit about that social context when you talk about these types of things.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Talking about the randomized controlled trials, experimental theme of effective altruism, which has always been one of the threads, and still is today, I guess I’m maybe lean a bit lukewarm on that. One thing is I’m not focused on problems where SRTs are terribly informative. As much as you try to prevent nuclear war, it’s not clear what SRT you would run. I suppose the people who are very into that would say, “Maybe it’s odd that there’s all this distributed information, but nonetheless we can run studies that pick it up and allow us as experts to suggest where money could have the largest impact.” In fact, that does just seem to be the case that these studies are fairly informative, and that this allows us to do better than cash transfers potentially. It gives us more information to figure out how we ought to act.
Glen Weyl: Look, I’m not against RCTs. Not only do I like RCTs, I’m involved in lots.
Robert Wiblin: Some of my best friends run the RCTs.
Glen Weyl: Exactly, yeah. I have 10 friends who are RCT runners, but I do think, and I don’t actually think this is too much of an issue any more. I think there was a period during which there was much more focus on that than there was on stuff that had to do with trying to find more effective ways to build democratic institutions of various sorts, or things like that. I think that can be very condescending. Again, in terms of the way it comes off as a speech act, you’ve probably had Rob [inaudible 02:22:47] on this program, or something like that.
Robert Wiblin: Not yet, but probably we will sometimes.
Glen Weyl: Yeah, or [inaudible 02:22:52]. I think there’s a lot of truth to what they’re saying. Again, like the Gates Foundation, how do I feel about that? I think there’s a little bit of a centralizing tendency there that is worrying, and that is erosive of very valuable institutions. I’m not saying that the research isn’t useful, or shouldn’t be done, or whatever. I would prefer if there was more back and forth between different power centers on that.
Robert Wiblin: It sounds like you think that people should have been more interested in institutional reform, that that would have been better because often the people who are concerned about paternalism on the part of rich people in California, they’re more enthusiastic about just providing either cash or basic health care than they are about people going and meddling in how social institutions in the developing world are functioning. They’re worried that that’s more colonialist or is more an exploitation of power than just, say, preventing people from getting malaria, and then letting them figure out the politics on their own.
Glen Weyl: Yeah. I think that that’s a very capitalistic way of thinking about it. I don’t think that that’s what Rob [inaudible 02:23:55] would say. I don’t think that’s what a [inaudible 02:23:58] would say. I think he would say that development is social institutions.
Robert Wiblin: I suppose there might be a question of how you go about it, whether you come in and say, “Yes, we’ve figured out that this is how your democracy ought to function versus going in there and working with people directly on it.”
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: In terms of decentralizing power, I guess, about 60% of GDP is spent by individuals roughly. You’ve got 2% or 3% on philanthropy, and the rest is government. In a sense, spending power is already quite decentralized although, I guess, because income distribution is so unequal, in fact, a lot of it in a sense is quite concentrated with particular individuals. I think some economists or some people who have a more of a capitalist leaning think that that’s where the decentralization comes from, is people having their own private property that’s available, that they have their house, and they have their stuff. They have their private sphere where they don’t really have to care what other people think, and that that is something that protects us from tyranny and concentration of power. Then they look at this thing where you would have to rent your land. You can never buy it outright. You always have to rent it. They’re like, “This is destroying this private sphere that allows decentralization of power and gives people a place where they can always do what they want, come what may.”
Glen Weyl: I think that the fundamental flaw in that logic can be easily seen on the internet. Do you really think decentralization of power online comes from every individual’s ability to read, and consent, or not consent to the terms and conditions that they’re so easily able to negotiate with the tech giants? You just think about it, and it’s like as a logical matter, the actual power that people derive in a decentralized way almost always comes from their ability to act collectively. It’s almost never possible on your own to exercise much power. The only people who think that power comes from your private property are people who have a huge amount of wealth. They’re able to use that wealth because they have monopolized the collective wealth of a large number of people. Then yeah, sure. Then private property is the source of your power.
Robert Wiblin: The standard thing that libertarians, or neoliberals, or I guess even social democrats might say is that the way to solve that is just with government redistribution, that they collect taxes, and then send people a check. That provides them with the positive freedom because they always know that they’re going to have this money. [inaudible 02:26:19] you get this enthusiasm for a minimum basic income, and so on.
Glen Weyl: I think that that would take away all of the freedom at some level because if you truly flattened everything out, then no one would have an ability to act collectively. Everyone would be on the flat. Right now there’s the people who have a lot of wealth. They can actually feel some sense of agency. The people who don’t have much feel no sense of agency. Now if you flatten it all out, like maybe you double people’s income, do those people really feel a sense of agency? They still would feel a sense of agency when they’re able to act collectively. See, I actually think inequality is the fundamentally wrong thing to be going after even though I believe in equality. I think the fundamentally wrong thing is that there are all these collective processes where we’ve randomly chosen someone to be in charge of that collective process because that collective process is the actual source of agency. Then whoever is in charge of it feels agency, and everybody else feels none. What you really need to spread is that sense of collective agency, not the sense of this completely itemized individual agency because ultimately, that doesn’t allow you to do very much to actually feel like you’re in control of any process.
Robert Wiblin: I feel like I haven’t understood that. If you partially redistribute some income, so that people whose incomes previously were low, and now are more medium, then they can still coordinate with people through the forming of corporations, or co-operatives, or nonprofits, or just friendship groups.
Glen Weyl: Right. I’m not saying that the redistribution is bad. I’m just saying it’s not sufficient because if you’ve taken and privatized all of the forms of collective agency, which are like corporations, which actually control the major coordination in our society or states, if you’ve put those in a very narrow hands, then you’ve already basically centralized agency. Just then giving people a little bit more income doesn’t actually accomplish very much in redecentralizing that. Only by allowing that collective agency to be emergency, and flowing, and have people have a chance to participate in that do I think you give people a real sense of agency.
Robert Wiblin: This is things like the liberal radicalism where you’re coming up with new ways of people to coordinate, to do things that previously were there were no institutions available. I guess all of us have a deep worldview that informs how we approach these problems. I guess it seems like a deep part of your worldview is that, decentralization is good, that concentrations of power, you’re very nervous about, and that everyone has something really useful to contribute. I guess, what things could you see that would make you wonder whether that was actually right? Could you imagine reading some papers, and you’re like, “Actually, no, we need a technocratic elite to be running everything?” In fact, I’m more nervous now about decentralization of power than I used to be. Of course, there’s many threads of political philosophy that are quite concerned about majoritarian rule, which I guess you’re trying to deal with these concerns.
Glen Weyl: I am concerned about that too. Look, if I believed in some of the culturalist erasist stuff, and I really thought, or honestly, if biotechnology progresses to the point where some people are able to turn themselves into X-Men, and everybody else is left behind, my first solution to that would be let’s try to equalize that, but if I couldn’t, and there was some persistent reason why … Her, think about Her. Imagine that there were a few people in the world who had the capacities of the Her people, like Her. Everybody else was just like an ordinary human. Then there would be real questions of is really the richness and complexity of organization living at that level and not at the level or ordinary people? My guess is in that sort of world, the sorts of questions I’m talking about aren’t even going to be an issue any more. Those beings are just going to separate themselves, and there will be nothing anyone can do about it.
Robert Wiblin: I guess in that case it seems like Futarchy, like Robin Hanson’s idea where people vote for what they want, but then bet on what the outcomes will be, might work quite well because you would avoid exploitation by having distributed voting power, but then you would have these superhuman minds would predict what the outcomes of different policies or different actions would be. Then they would be able to achieve whatever outcome was specified by a broad population. We’re [inaudible 02:30:44] in science fiction now.
Glen Weyl: I have issues with Futarchy, but I think what I really object to, it’s less even the worldview I’m talking about. I think really, the problem I have is that there is a rhetoric out there of trying to convince people that they’re insufficient and that everything should be the private property of a small number of people for this reason when in fact, if it was really the case that those few people were so important, and great, and powerful, they wouldn’t need to have all this rhetoric to convince other people of it. People would just see it, they would get it. If there were really a few X-Men floating around, it would be manifest to everyone. In fact, those X-Men wouldn’t even need everyone else. They would do the Atlas Shrugged thing like go off, [inaudible 02:31:30], do whatever you want, and have no connection to the outside world. If you’re really that great, just do it, and stop bitching, and trying to convince everybody else that they’re inadequate, and stupid, and useless, and that you’re the elite. You know what I mean? That’s the thing that I think is so ridiculous.
Robert Wiblin: I think [crosstalk 02:31:49].
Glen Weyl: Fine. That doesn’t bother anyone if you want to go do that, but don’t take as private property all the stuff that was produced in this society that we created. Go off on your own with nothing into the forest and build this great Atlantis that you’re capable of doing, and that no one else can do. Great. Honestly, if there were a bunch of X-Men, they would do that. They wouldn’t bother with everyone else. They’d just go off into outer space and do their own thing. That’s not what’s actually going on. What’s actually going on is that there’s this elite of people who’s trying to use rhetoric to dominate others, and to take the collective work that others have done, and expropriate it to themselves. I think that’s nonsense.
Robert Wiblin: To speak up for the poor elite of the world, [crosstalk 02:32:35] the last few decades. Again, to repeat, I guess I look at global statistics. I’m like, “Health is improving so quickly.” Education is rising. Globally, GDP growth is really good. We’ve had no major wars. I think setting aside, again, these risks from technologies, the world just seems to be going really well to me, much better than it has at any other point in history. It’s true that there’s this middle class group in developed countries who have had a bad few decades where their incomes have stagnated for reasons that people will try to debate, but we’re talking about 5% to 10% of the global population. Most other people have been doing really fantastically. Do we really want that kind of tail wag the whole dog and say, “Let’s radically change things that seem to be going super well just because there’s this very vocal minority of people in the world who are upset?”
Glen Weyl: I think throughout history there have been these moments when big inequalities of some sort arose, and then they got resolved in some way. I think to a large extent, the whole neoliberal thing that we’re in right now was a result of women, minorities, people in poor countries being fed up with the way that they’ve been marginalized. Neoliberal progressivism, which is our current ideology is to a large extent like an outgrowth of dealing with those inequalities, but in the process other inequalities flared up. If you want people in the poor world to do well, if you want women and minorities to do well, you better find a way to address the concerns of the people who are feeling really alienated right now because there’s a lot of them, and they’re in strategic positions. We, according to my theories, can address their concerns in ways that actually will make things better for the rest of the world that you’re worried about. Just ignoring them and saying, “Let’s just keep on the trajectory” is, I think, a recipe for a huge reaction that’s going to bring down all the benefits that you had before and possibly destabilize the whole global community. I think it’s a really stupid and arrogant approach to ignore those issues just because the things that you’ve done have accomplished something.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I do feel it seems to be women and minorities who vote most consistently for the institutionalist candidate. Hillary Clinton, obviously, that’s the case. Maybe I’ll look more broadly whether it’s the case that people who come from more marginalized groups are more likely to vote … They seem more dissatisfied and more likely to vote for radical changes.
Glen Weyl: The current system has been helping them converge.
Robert Wiblin: Right, exactly. They’ve been doing a lot better.
Glen Weyl: That’s great. That’s a huge advance in human welfare. It’s a huge accomplishment, and it’s the reason why for my all critiques of neoliberal capitalism, I still think it was a major improvement on what came even immediately before in the 1950s, but that doesn’t mean it’s enough, or that it’s stable, or that we don’t need to do things to keep it from going off the rails.
How to change society for the better
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, this has been super stimulating. We’re almost out of time. I want to give you maybe five minutes to talk about what you’d like listeners to do if they want to get on board with this agenda, what they should be reading, you pitch for changing society for the better, and how to do it.
Glen Weyl: Absolutely. We’re trying to build a movement that connects really a broad range of people. We have arts and communications, entrepreneurship and technology, ideas and research, and activism and government. We need people in all of those areas who want to get involved and work with people from all the other areas. We need people to start local groups. We need people to develop public policies. We need technocrats who want to work within existing power structures to create experiments. We need entrepreneurs who want to build new platforms, and tools, and whatever, and have those things grow. We need artists who want to help communicate these ideas and imagine them. We need researchers who want to develop the ideas further and want to get beyond just talking to technocrats or talking in this narrow language, but actually want to start engaging in a democratic spirit, and being in touch with all these other people.
Glen Weyl: There are now about 100 groups around the world, and we need many more of them. Anyone who’s interested in getting involved can reach out to me on Twitter. Reach out to @radexchange on Twitter. Go to www.radicalexchange.org and don’t just follow my writings. This isn’t about me. We’re going to create a intellectual partial commons where it’s going to be basically somewhere between Wikipedia and authorship where there’s going to be a list of signatures. Submit things to that. Sign articles on there. Look at the ideas, and they’re going to belong to the community, or partially belong to the community in this blurred out way. There are all sorts of ways to get engaged with this. This thing has just been exploding. I genuinely believe that there isn’t out there right now a coherent attempt to create a school of thought that represents an embrace of markets, and technology, and diversity that can actually address the current sources of our crisis.
Glen Weyl: If you believe in all those things, if you want to embrace them, help us build this thing. You’ll find the most amazing community, the most diverse community of people with all these different skillsets, from all these different backgrounds, from all around the world who are interested in engaging in that project with you. Let me tell you, it’s such a rewarding thing not to be alone and in a narrow community, and not to claim things as your private property, but to feel the zeitgeist flow through you. That’s what the last few months have been with me. I think everyone who has been involved in the movement, intimately, so many of them just volunteering. We have 50 people giving 10 or more hours of their time a week as volunteers to Radical Exchange. Every one of the, I think, has found that this is the most exciting thing that they’ve done because they’re with such a diversity of people with all these different skillsets all coming together to create that vision of a liberal future that’s actually sustainable, and believable, and that can save us from these real dangers that we’re facing. Check out all those resources that I talked about. I have a syllabus online, if you want to read more and just get involved in the community.
Robert Wiblin: We’ll stick up links to all of those things. I knew this was going to be an exciting conversation, but it’s been even more so and unexpected in a lot of ways.
Glen Weyl: Awesome.
Robert Wiblin: The book is Radical Markets, and my guest today has been Glen Weyl. Thanks for coming on the podcast, Glen.
Glen Weyl: Thanks so much. Yeah, take care.
Robert Wiblin: I hope you enjoyed that spirited conversation as much as I did.
If you’d like to go to the RadicalxChange event in Detroit check out the event at radicalxchange dot org. That’s the letter x. They have a list of which speakers are coming, including Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin, and tickets are available now though they’re likely to sell out fairly soon.
Also, just a reminder to check out our job board at 80000hours dot org slash job hyphen board.
There are a lot of great positions there that can help many listeners find a fulfilling job in which they can greatly improve the world.
The podcast and the job board are going to be a pretty killer combination, one helping people to deepen their understanding of how to do more good, and the other connecting people with concrete opportunities to make a bigger contribution. Or at least that’s our hope!
The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.
Thanks for joining – talk to you in a week or two.