Monday, January 21, 2013

Protolibertarians and Targeting Outreach

The Advocates for Self-Government use the World's Smallest Political Quiz to try to find persons who do not self-identify as libertarians, but who react to libertarian ideas without hostility. Their idea is, if you want to persuade people, start with those who are already fairly open to the idea. Save the hard cases for later.

This also offers us the opportunity to target outreach. Don't try to convince a serious liberal or conservative to adopt a libertarian view, but rather seek alliances on issues that have space for common cause.

Persuasion According to Haidt, and Seeking Truth vs. Partisanship

Haidt thinks that our friends, or people we admire or feel an affinity toward, can succeed in getting us to challenge our cherished beliefs, but that we rarely succeed in challenging or refining those beliefs on our own or on the basis of pure rational argument, evidence, and logic. (See his book, The Righteous Mind.)

He tells an evolutionary story to explain this conclusion. Our brains generate moral judgements instantly, using a part of our brains we share with other mammals, evolved long before the origin of humans. Animals use this mechanism to search for food, to find a mate, to avoid danger, and it remains the foundation of human motivation. The neocortex, the part of the brain humans use to think rationally, evolved more recently and serves to assist and refine our impulses. In this view, argument serves to justify our actions to our companions, to assure that we both get to do what we want and that our peers do not punish or reject us as a result. We decide, then we rationalize. When we do manage to change our minds, we must convince the intuitive parts of our brains.

Persuasion is not easy. While people do change their minds, new evidence does not always convince people. That leaves a lot of wiggle room for an explanation.

Haidt interprets this as meaning that successful persuasion tends to take a low pressure, friendly approach. So why do we see so much moralizing, shaming, and confrontation in arguments, especially on the Internet? If I imagine such arguments happening among a tribe of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, perhaps the objective of debate was to convince the audience rather than to persuade the opponent, with status within the tribe at stake.

Now that our Internet tribe encompasses nearly every person and every attitude, such debates just serve to stir up hostility on both sides, rarely getting anyone to seriously challenge their own ideas, much less change them. According to this notion, such Internet debates just separate people according to their existing preconceived notions, and some unknown process in your past determined whether you picked one side or the other the first time you really considered a particular argument.

So persuasion works well for refining a position or fine-tuning it, but not so much for scrapping it. Friendly discussion, one on one and probably face to face, has more chance of achieving serious results, but even then it will require time and effort.

And if we step back and try to look at this as truth seekers rather than partisans, what does it tell us? How do we try to find the capital T truth, challenging our most cherished beliefs, especially political beliefs that we cannot easily test?

Don't Touch Me There, Gumment!

Call 911. Pull over so the cop can ticket you. Fill out your income tax forms. Wait in line at the DMV. Ordinary persons rarely interact directly with the government in their personal lives.

At work, we may jump through bureaucratic hoops held by legislators and bureaucrats. But most of us don't get hassled by cops on our way home from work.

Old folks get social security checks and receive medical care paid for by Medicare. Low income families may get food stamps or other forms of assistance. We see cops or soldiers while driving down the road.

Tax dollars pay for many expenses in our society, including roads, bridges, airports, etc. They support the military.

Seems to me that we could make major changes to what services government provides and how we finance and produce them, without directly impacting an ordinary person's life much at all. That is, politics impacts our lives indirectly.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Why We Want Government, How We Can Do Without

People want cops to protect them from criminals. They want soldiers to protect them from hostile armies and terrorists. They want to make sure that the disadvantaged to get help. They fear that banks will cheat them, that manufacturers will pollute the environment, that pharma will poison them. People want children to learn. They crave technological and scientific progress. They want people to treat each other well.

In order to reduce the size of the state or eliminate it, we need to find credible alternative approaches that satisfy these desires and aspirations in a way that equals or surpasses what we're getting now. Fortunately for us, there's never been a better time. The Internet has given birth to a number of fads, organizations, communities, etc. that give me some hope that someone can find alternatives.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

DIYISP second PC revolution

The first PC revolution happened when ordinary people could afford a computer on their desks. The web, and especially web 2.0, has revived the mainframe era, in that software is outside our reach and our data reside on machines owned and operated by someone else.

I don't want my ISP, or the US government, or Google, or anybody to censor my Internet access or unplug it. I'm willing to let them see my data, but I don't want them confiscating it, and I sympathize with those, especially in other countries, who fear that their government will punish them for their political opinions. Even in the US, ISPs, cell phone providers, and web 2.0 style social networking services may reveal my email to government agents without proper authorization, or be "socially engineered" by crooks. Their logs reveal what I read, what I write, and when I am reading and writing it.

In a previous post, I briefly described my vision of a DIY ISP ( Ideally, my home computers would hide behind a home firewall, showing nothing but constant encrypted noise to my ISP. The firewall would generate some random packets to defeat traffic analysis. Outgoing connections would utilize the TOR network or some similar darknet to obscure the content and destination of my attention. I would use my ISP's email and web services only for innocuous tasks, or not at all.

What are the threats and responses? If a disaster disconnects my ISP, a mesh net should take its place. If a corporation deletes my data, I should restore from a backup. If a government seeks to track or censor my consumption or production of ideas, I should hide using steganography and cryptography. How to resist a web takedown?

In reality, I have taken the opposite approach, radical openness and radical laziness.

Would anyone buy a cable router that accomplished all this, or a home firewall? Would the government treat my odd behavior as a red flag and search for excuses to raid my house?
Could I protect my data from seizure? I could store it primarily offsite, encrypted, on a non-shared virtual server hosted in a different country.

How often will this break down? What will be the consequences of breakage?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Intellectual Ant Trail

The web does okay at helping you to find the answers to some questions, others maybe not. Can it show the evolution of my thinking, how answering one question leads to the next? Seems to me that I could greatly profit from being able to follow the ant-trail of net-thinking left behind by someone who beat me to my current question, and I'd very happily leave some net-pheromone to show that I was following the trail with enthusiasm.

Right now, after reading about something or searching for something, I sometimes can leave a comment or a thumbs up or a plus one. I can find blogs or web sites where a person has explicitly curated ideas and discussion threads by hand. I'm not sure whether or not Google learns from what we click on after we search for something. But I imagine weird and wonderful possibilities if the process could self-organize, like an ant trail. I want my response to mark the things that attract my attention.

This might make more sense if I could think of specific examples. Maybe it doesn't really make sense except as a nice metaphor.

I'm interested in skepticism, fanaticism, fringey politics, psychology, persuasion, cults, beliefs, logic, rhetoric, motivation. I could use google alerts or twitter to gather a massive haystack of links on any of these topics. I could write blog entries, allow comments, incorporate suggested links, but it just doesn't seem to scale. Is it like a college degree, or a single college course, or a boy scout merit badge, or an initiation rite, or a museum exhibit?

Say I want to satisfy my curiosity about how cults recruit new members. I want to create a trail that someone else can stumble onto, and add to. It should grow links to new items about cult recruitment. It should grow different sorts of links to items about cult membership retention, cult finance, recruiting for the military, advertising, group psychology. It should grow links to items that contain background info or basic knowledge that the items assumes the reader knows about, so it I don't understand it, I can go learn or review "the basics" in sociology, psychology. While I dredge the net for answers, I build a structure of knowledge in my head. I want to be able to externalize and track my progress, and allow others to view the result and add to it.

I would link to existing items on the web, but emphasize some connections, de-emphasize others, and make new ones without altering the contents of the pages.

I guess this relates to my arguepedia idea, especially the anti-trolling measures where you see a different web depending on how you rate contributors.

This idea is far from mature, but I want to publish this anyhow. Maybe someone wants to join my trail, or can point me at an existing one.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Limits of Radical Transparency

Where does radical transparency fail? Even an extreme proponent of openness needs a bank account, a social security number, a sex life. In most areas of my life, I think I would welcome radical transparency, if it applied to everyone, not just to me. I can see yours, you can see mine. But if I can see all your bank information, I could withdraw all your money. If I know your credit card numbers, I can use them to buy stuff. If I know all your personal information, I could borrow money in your name. And although my sex life would make the most boring porn ever, that doesn't mean I want it out there.

I'm not sure how David Brin answers this question. He wrote the book on this (The Transparent Society), in which he pointed to the basic problem. Cameras keep getting smaller, smarter, more mobile. People want to use them, and some people will use them even if this usage breaks the rules. Brin thinks privacy is done for, that our only choice is, does everyone get to do this, or shall we reserve it for the rich, powerful, and unscrupulous?

Assume Brin got it right. Where does that leave us?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Logical Bias

Here is the logic behind bias. If your argument disproves something I know, this disproves your argument. Proof by contradiction.

Actually, this means that I must choose between my prior belief and your argument, but any number of biases (confirmation bias, familiarity, etc.) will push me to reject your argument.

Sloppy: assume A (my previous belief) and B => -A

A => -B
A & (A => -B)

What that actually proves is (A & (B => -A)) => -B, which says nothing about the truth of A or B.

Better: assume A, B, and B => -A

A => -B
A & (A => -B)
B & -B
-A | -B | -(B => -A)
(B => -A) => (-A | -B)

So, if B undermines A, I have to choose one or the other. Even if you do the logic right, it's tempting to pick -B. Or going back in the sloppy direction, if I am really certain about A, nothing you can say about B, no evidence, no logic, matters. If I "know" A, and you want to convince me B & (B => -A), you're out of luck. In a more ideal world, I should be more curious, but it is what it is.

This is why skeptics try to not "know" anything. Of course, that may lead to other problems.

Mental Hygiene

We should teach our children how to detect psychos, scammers, cult recruiters, and other influencers, and deal with them appropriately. First, we need to know how. Do we?

I want to learn from teachers if they really know something worth learning. I want the help and companionship of other learners, if they genuinely seek the truth.

How will I know?

Adults want to learn, and us old fogies have some catching up to do. We can teach each other. I want to learn about communication and relationships (NVC, PET), parenting, persuasion, motivation, leadership, nonviolent social activism, skepticism, cults and how to resist recruiting and indoctrination, resisting authority, questioning experts, and entrepreneurship.

OTOH, I bookworm too much as it is. I want to spend more time actually doing something, less time trying to understand things. Not that understanding is bad, just that maybe getting something done will teach me more than reading about it would, and accomplishes something useful as a bonus.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

What is a Cult?

If you don't like a group, call them a cult. Some totally deserve it, such as People's Temple, Aum Shinrikyo, and Heaven's Gate. Was the Manson family religious enough to count as a cult?

Critics accuse cults of using mind control or brain washing. Isolation, sleep deprivation, etc. make persons more vulnerable to manipulation. Hard to resist the love bomb.

The stereotypical cult leader gathers followers through charisma and indulges in corrupt practices.

Deceptive recruitment hides the true doctrine of the cult from the recruits until after they have made an emotional commitment. Initiates may excuse this behavior because "The recruit is not ready for that knowledge." And it is true that you don't learn trigonometry before you learn geometry. But something is different... You can study trigonometry without understanding geometry first, but you will struggle and fail, or struggle and reinvent geometry and succeed with difficulty. Most importantly, there is no reason to hide the principles of trigonometry from people who studying geometry. So this obfuscation looks suspicious to me.

Cult members feel deep loyalty and motivation and willingly depart from social conventions. They often feel a profound sense of purpose and belonging. If their loyalty is born of the manipulative influence of the leader, and they embrace their beliefs uncritically, then their loyalty and motivation is misplaced, their belonging is a sham, their purpose is warped.

Normal, intelligent persons are vulnerable to recruitment by cults. One of the greatest strengths of advertising is that few people seriously consider the possibility of their vulnerability to manipulation.

I think everyone from a young age should study how to recognize and resist cult recruitment techniques and other forms of manipulation.

Can persons manipulate themselves using similar techniques, act as their own guru? Or will self-manipulation breed self-deception? Is it possible to form cohesive groups with intense loyalty and motivation that have no charismatic leader or stultifying dogma? Or is that the glue that holds a cult together, and ending the leader worshiping dogmatism will inevitably end the cult?

Group dynamics make people act strange. Haidt believes that our "groupishness" allows us to cooperate. This impulse gives fuel to civil society, the part of our lives that requires neither government coercion nor market incentives. In the age of the Internet, civil society can accomplish a lot.

Centralization Bias

Caplan lists 4 biases that he thinks explain bad government policies (anti-foreign bias, make work bias, pessimistic bias, and anti-market bias). I'd like to add a fifth, centralization bias. Or pehaps this is the flip side of anti-market bias?

Decentralized, voluntary solution solutions are hard to understand. Centralization and coercion seem deceptively simple and clear. Our imaginations eagerly overlook the true cost, our impatience, arrogance, and cowardice increase our willingness to skip the experiments and go straight to our favorite solution.

Centralization bias combines with anti-market bias while remaining distinct.

Criticizing Libertarian Rhetoric

Libertarians blame all problems on the government, including my hangnail, insomnia, the common cold, and halitosis. We tend to give credit to markets or civil society for any improvements in our lives. Some even expect human nature to change, a lot like the "New Soviet Man" that the Bolsheviks kept trying to create.

Libertarians propose radical solutions where other people hardly see a problem. Many of us love to dwell on doomy gloomy scenarios and conspiracy theories.

If we could convince everyone to embrace the nonaggression principle (NAP), would that really accomplish much? Statists do not believe they are initiating force with their mass incarceration and foreign policy adventures. They think they are defending society against serious threats. Even some libertarians think spanking children should be exempted from the NAP.

So, have I convinced myself I'm wrong, or that placing blame should come second to finding practical solutions to concrete everyday problems? I am willing to consider radical social change, so long as it is voluntary. I hope to focus on what we can gain, rather than moralizing or spreading doom and gloom. Is that just spin doctoring? What alternatives can I seriously consider? I have rejected violence, what remains? Standard politics, left, right and center? Apathy and indifference? Or getting involved where I can actually make a difference?

Can a Skeptic Test Their Own Political Beliefs?

Even full-time political scientists dropped this ball, how should an ordinary person proceed? How do I test libertarianism vs. liberalism or conservatism? Various countries have tried various policies and ideologies, with no clear result. Bryan Caplan explains the peculiarities of political ideologies by pointing out how one's political beliefs have no direct consequences to provide us with feedback.


Neurology and psychology have made impressive advances in recent years. I'd like to take these threads of skepticism, epistemology, sociology of knowledge, motivation, persuasion, and group psychology and synthesize a science of knowledge, belief, and understanding.

I've been reading "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt, which has something to say about persuasion. Other titles include "Influence" by Cialdini, "The Power of Persuasion" by Levine, and the old standard "How to win friends and influence people" by Dale Carnegie.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

property is theft?

People who make this claim are trying to make a subtle point with a simple statement, and it just causes confusion.  As long as you and I cannot use the same object at the same time for different purposes, we need some understanding or rule to determine who gets to use it now and who has to wait or find some other solution. I am perfectly happy calling that ownership or property.

Even if you don't buy deontology for individuals, you should want deontology for society en masse. Utilitarianism  is too arbitrary to suffice as a means of coordination.

People who use that slogan want to change the rules regarding property, rather than eliminating it. 

"Taxation is theft" - now that is pretty clear.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Comment on tokenlibertariangirl's video

The controversy surrounding Julie Borowski's video underlines how easy it is to push people's buttons. The basic issue Julie raised is important, interesting and difficult - why so many white males? Because obviously, gender is not the only demographic where libertarians are skewed. We're totally skewed!

Julie typically satirizes ideas she disagrees with, and rants a bit. This red meat looks delicious to us old libertarian hands, and might inspire an epiphany for a few newbies. So as "inreach" I think it works, but as outreach it misses the target.

In this case, I think Julie switched to prescription before she finished her diagnosis. She raised an issue I care about, but did not persuade me that she understood the causes and cures. When the video ended, I did not feel energized to help with a solution or pursue further investigation. (On the other hand, it did make me stop and think, and inspired me to make this comment.) And although I don't agree with the bleeding heart libertarians who got bent out of shape, I can understand their perspective. I'm not sure what motivated Julie to make the video, what she hoped to accomplish. I guess I'm asking her to aim higher, because I believe she has a lot of spark and so could accomplish more than this if she put her mind to it.

I want more outreach. If we want to increase the size and demographic diversity of the libertarian movement, we need to persuade people better. Rather than criticizing, we need to provide tempting alternatives. This has led me to want to learn more about persuasion, motivation, and communication. I invite you to join me.