Sunday, November 02, 2014

A Modern Orwell

In a recent post I commented on a piece by a blogger who posts under the name of Scott Alexander. I have now read quite a lot of his posts and find both them and him fascinating. He is someone who identifies more nearly with the left than with the right but can be ferociously (and intelligently and entertainingly) critical of aspects of left wing culture. He is sufficiently open to ideas he does not agree with to offer a brilliant, even persuasive, summary of reactionary arguments. He is interested in a very wide range of subjects and says intelligent things about all of them

Start with the page of top posts. It includes a grim and persuasive description of why the worst place in the world to die is a hospital—he is a doctor. It includes evidence of how hard it is to do scientific research right and how frequently we do it wrong. Also a description and defense of Polyamory. And a great many other things.

All of them, so far, worth reading.


P.S. Reading more of Alexander's posts, I came across a paragraph in one of them that struck me as a nice example of his writing style:
Tables 10 and 11 turn out to be a gold mine – I worried the records of exactly who took the tests would be lost, but as you might expect of someone who basically invented statistics single-handedly and then beat Darwin in a debate about evolution as an encore, Galton was very good at keeping careful data.


Anonymous said...

The one on reactionary arguments is interesting and well written.

I've been thinking, lately, about a similar possible argument that could be made for a different position: That fascism has been unfairly maligned. Everyone holds that fascism is unspeakably horrible because of the megadeaths in Germany. But those megadeaths are in fact an outlier! The fascist regimes in Italy, in Spain, in Portugal, in Argentina, in Brazil, and perhaps in Japan (though I'm not convinced that Japan was ever properly described as "fascist") were harsh, authoritarian, and violent—but they didn't exterminate huge numbers of their own people. For that, you need to look at German, or at the USSR, China, or Kampuchea—three Marxist regimes. Germany is a fascist outlier that acted more like a Marxist totalitarian regime.

Not that fascism is a good or desirable system. But typical fascism is less bad than Marxism, if worse than democratic progressivism.

Anonymous said...

it's a little odd that as a doctor, he dismisses the biological me, it's the only relevant approach to many of the controversial becomes just facts.i guess a lot of his readership is not ready for that yet.a good writer though.thank you for the new bookmark!

David Friedman said...

With regard to his piece on the reactionary position, it occurred to me that there's another example of the evidence for culture over genetics as the driver of differences in group outcomes, and one I was already familiar with. In Ethnic America, Thomas Sowell points out that West Indian immigrants to the U.S. do much better than other African Americans, with incomes rising to the U.S. median in about one generation. They are blacker, both genetically and in appearance, so that result is inconsistent with both prejudice and genetics as the explanation for the black/white difference in outcomes.

Anonymous said...

with west indians, you mean the wiki deffinition, that is carribeen basin, or west as west india?as far as i know, west indians are part of the greater indo-european group.the skin color has to do with the proximity to the equator.i have not yet gotten to prof sowells works on race but i plan the meantime, could you provide some links to good reads?i understand prof sowell challenges the iq bell curve studies.i read a lot about that and would like to know more.

David Friedman said...

I mean West Indian in the usual U.S. sense, from the West Indies—islands in the Caribbean. Most of the population, like most of the African-American population, is descended from African slaves.

I don't know if Sowell has written any books specifically on race. Ethnic America is about the experience of various immigrants groups to the U.S., so touches on racial issues.

Alan said...

Excellent find.

I'm not sure how to contact him or post a comment (perhaps comments are closed on the articles I found), but I noticed this comment:

"I despair of any theory that will tell me why school choice is a rightist rather than a leftist issue" here:

and I suspect he might have the answer here:

though the answer is horrifying - that educated leftists might oppose school choice because they want to be able to maintain their ability to signal their social superiority by preventing the "lower" classes from getting a proper education.

As he notes in his comments on fashion and signaling, the highest class knows that it will never be confused for the lowest classes, so it fears no threat - but one level below (the educated idiots) would naturally fear that a proper education could raise many to the same level as themselves.

I don't know whether he noticed this particular dynamic, but if so he is certainly right to despair.

Alan said...

P.S. (responding to my own post)

The late Michael S. Hart (of Project Gutenberg fame) once told me that he got his greatest opposition from "gatekeepers" - academics who did not want the masses to have free and easy access to books. They claimed to be acting to preserve the quality of the scholarship, but he thought they were more interested in preserving their exalted positions in society.

At the time I was hesitant to believe him, but as I have grown older and wiser I have come to the same conclusion.

Power Child said...

Isn't it fairly obvious that the worst place to die is a hospital? Does anyone need a doctor to tell them that?

@David, regarding black West Indian immigrants:

What about their kids and grandkids? Does Sowell specify whether they tend to remain at the U.S. median income? And, I wonder, how different is the rate of those who remain in families with white vs. black non-immigrant intermarriage?

My off-hand guess would be that while black West Indian immigrants may themselves rise to the U.S. median income in one generation, 1) their kids tend to regress towards the American black median income at a fairly high rate, and 2) their grandkids and great-grandkids typically aren't much above that unless 3) there has been a lot of white intermarriage in the family (e.g. Eric Holder).

I think genes determine not the direct outcomes of a group, necessarily, but the quality of a group's culture, and thus also the socio-economic direction in which that group tends to drift without some other culture applying force in a different direction.

Sowell wrote "Black Rednecks, White Liberals" (which, @Anonymous, is largely about race). In that book, he makes the argument that one of the reasons black American culture is what it is today is that it was buffeted in that direction for the duration of slavery by the surrounding white redneck culture of the south (the basic tenets of which, he argues, those rednecks inherited from their rural European ancestors). He underlines this point by comparing southern black antebellum culture to northern free black culture of the same period, which tended to WASPy and educated (e.g. W.E.B. DuBois).

That seems a persuasive line of reasoning to me, and supports my thinking on genetics. This explains, for example, why black culture was shaping up so well until the 1950s when the Civil Rights movement basically mainstreamed the message that black people should overthrow the influence of white culture and do whatever made themselves feel happy and important. No coincidence that when young black icons today want to seem radical and dangerous, they just come up with further iterations of this message.

Phil Birnbaum said...

It is certain that "Scott Alexander" is a pseudonym?

David Friedman said...

Somewhere in one of the posts, Scott Alexander implies that the name he posts under is close to but not the same as his real name.

Simon said...

I take it it's an anagram - Slate Star Codex and Scott S. Alexander are near anagrams, so the real name is probably another permutation of the letters or close.

martin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tibor said...

I made the mistake to read the article about dying in a hospital just before going to bed :) It is really not very nice. But it is probably good to know these things. It is also a powerful argument for legalization of euthanasia...or for cryogenics.

Martin: I've only read the introduction to the Non-libertarian FAQ (it is very long) and it actually seems to me to be rather nice. I also don't like the kind of libertarians who say "here's a set of unquestionable principles from which everything is derived...and if you don't like that, you're a statist". I think one should be able to convincingly argue for why less state would be a good idea in any particular case from the consequentialist point of view - which is why I like Machinery of Freedom.

I have not gone past that yet, so I can not judge it as a whole.

Also, I am surprised that he links to Mike Huben's page (although he seems to also be reserved about that one), which in my opinion is by and large not much more than a lame effort to show that libertarians are all evil or stupid, sometimes twisting the truth in the middle of the process.

Tibor said...

Power Child:

Considering the West Indians: Judith Harris writes interestingly and convincingly about this in her Nurture Assumption. The parents from West Indies come to US and they are in no way affiliated with the US black culture which has some problematic aspects such as considering studying hard as "acting white" and so on. Now, their children grow up in the country already and they learn the accent and other social customs more from their peers than from their parents (the core argument of her book)...resulting, if they grow up in a school where there are enough black students for a black culture subgroup to appear, in them acquiring, at least partially, the local culture...and therefore on average also the local black culture results.

What is interesting about her argument is that it more or less gives a solution to these societal problems. Either a fascist centrally planned solution, or a "libertarian" solution, a guide to concerned black parents who want their kids to do well. The first is simply to set up quotas which will prevent black people from living close to each other and coming to the same schools...thus leaving the kids with no choice but assimilating the more successful majority cultural habits. The thought of setting up such quotas is however quite disgusting. The alternative is simply, if you are a concerned black parent, just to do that for yourself. The best thing you can do for your kids seems to get out the black cultural influence...i.e. send them to a mostly white school and live in a mostly white (or Asian for that matter) neighbourhood.

In the Czech republic, there are almost no blacks, and those who are, come from Africa, so with a different culture than the blacks in the US. But there is a gypsy minority here which fares possibly even worse than the blacks in the US, with high criminality and teen pregnancy rates, little to no education and extreme unemployment rate. Pretty much all of the gypsies that are doing well are those who left the ghettos - who cut the ties with the rest of the community and started anew...or adopted children who grew up in Czech families and spend their time with Czech friends. At the same time, most of the public money to fix these problems goes to various gypsy (or Rom, as they sometimes call themselves) rights organizations which don't seem to be very successful and perhaps even make the problem worse - by drawing yet stronger distinctions between "us and them".

Power Child said...


Right, that's basically what I was saying.

The libertarian solution is extremely unrealistic. While poor blacks do often try to get away from other poor blacks, this is considered shameful and they often develop a complex about it.

While I don't necessarily agree that a fascist solution is "disgusting", the one you (or, Harris) described seems rather arbitrary, and may even have been tried already. In the US we have something called Section 8 housing, in which poor families (usually unmarried mothers) are given vouchers for rent in neighborhoods they otherwise could not afford. These neighborhoods typically turn into ghettos after a while anyway, since middle-class people don't like putting up with the habits of their new Section 8 neighbors, or having their own property values diminished.

A smarter fascist solution would be to do stricter policing of black culture--and mainstream culture--and what is taught in schools, so that "acting white" is held up as a virtue rather than a shameful vice.

In fact, it doesn't require fascism to do this at all, just more of a public will to take control of a nation's culture for the better good.

Tibor said...

Power Child: It is true that what I gather from over the Ocean (is not that my bonnie lies there), is that in the US there is a tendency by some people to just advocate any bad aspect of black culture as "diversity" and those criticizing it are labeled by those people as bigots. Scott Alexander links to one particularly abhorrent case where black students were granted winning medals at a debate championship for basically not respecting the rules of the debate competition. This serves good to nobody and fuels actual racism...So perhaps, a lot of things would change for the better simply if people did not do that any more.

I think a lot of these people fear that people would be forced to abandon their roots and their history completely. That would not be something I would like either. But this is hardly necessary.

Anyway, I think Singapore is actually implementing something along those lines...and they can, given their non-standard government, get away with a bit more fascist style. It seems to work. But I think there has to be a better solution. If Irish or Italian immigrants were able to successfully assimilate (while keeping their culture, cuisine and so on at the same time) in the US without any forceful separation laws, it should work with others long as there are no laws that hinder the process.

The problem with state determining and promoting the "good culture" is that you might as well end up one that you would not a sense that is the case today, where there seems to be political pressure in the US (and to somewhat lesser extent in Europe) to accommodate to the "diversity" thinking. I think schooling vouchers could do wonders here, especially in the US where, as far as I understand it correctly, you are not very free to choose the school for your children now, at least not among publicly funded schools. In the Czech republic (I don't know about how this works in Germany, not having experienced any school level here below the university) you can choose a school, but since the funding and size of schools are not nearly as flexible as they would be with a voucher system, you still end up with inefficiencies. Recently, there has been a movement of parents who are starting their own schools where they teach their children together. Some of them also seem to be inspired by unschooling. This seems to me a like a good alternative to home unschooling, because most parents really don't have the time to stay at home with kids the whole day...but if the work is divided among many parents, this could be a nice arrangement. Also, this way, it is legal...homeschooling has recently been made illegal from the 6th grade on (it used to be legal for the first 9 grades), the minister of schooling advocated that decision by saying that "we cannot let the students fall behind that much"...which made me really annoyed.

Tibor said...

Power Child: In any case, it is quite visible when you visit Singapore (but maybe I was just seeing what I expected to see) that its government is trying to instill a sense of unity in the people (to feel Singaporean first, and Indian, Chinese or Malaysian second). It seems to be a smart move. On the contrary the US at present seems to do quite the opposite, by emphasizing the differences rather than the common ground. I had the same feeling with our disasterous "diversity competence training" here in Göttingen and one of the people who commented on that "course" (it was anonymous, so I don't know who it was) expressed exactly that opinion. Instead of trying to show that there is more common than there is different (and the differences are often interesting curiosities rather than serious obstacles), the "diversity" people often do the exact opposite.

brendan said...

Anyone who enjoys Scott Alexander should check out this other guy, also from the LessWrongosphere, who writes under the pseudonym Gwern Branyen.

Thankful to live in the internet age where eclectic geniuses like these can spread their ideas free of the usual institutional BS.

brendan said...

Sowell wrote Ethnic America in 1981. Since then the West Indian population within the US has tripled to 3.5m. If they kept up the success you'd think it'd be easier for me to find that out Googling around, but I can't.

But I reminded that Asian Indian immigrants earn $90k/year within the US.

Selection effects combined with affirmative action could easily explain Sowell's observation; it's a molecule of evidence opposed by a mountain.

Tibor said...

brendan: This could also be explained by what Power Child mentioned. The children of those immigrants assimilated within the local black community, including its customs, thus effectively becoming indistinguishable. Another explanation might be that people rarely search for the genealogy of people, so a successful black guy is just a successful black guy wherever he comes from (so you google won't help you here). It can also perhaps be politically dangerous to look for such differences and write about is hard to attack Sowell for being anti-black racist given that he himself is black. Easier to do so with non-black reserachers (although some women do get attacked by radical feminists and called "misogynist" for disagreeing with them, still it is probably safer for a woman to object to mainstream feminists than it is for a man).

Tibor said...

This is also very nice (a post about social psychology and some interesting results concerning violence and pornography in the media):

Anonymous said...

I think this guy is really smart. I mean, Bryan Caplan might be just as smart, or smarter, but he's less fun to read.

martin said...


I've only read the introduction to the Non-libertarian FAQ (it is very long) and it actually seems to me to be rather nice. I also don't like the kind of libertarians who say "here's a set of unquestionable principles from which everything is derived...and if you don't like that, you're a statist".

Calling a libertarian statist because his libertarianism is based on consequentionalism in stead of deontology is silly. (I think that's what your referring to here.)

But Siskind advocates solutions involving the state. That's statist. That's what "statist" means. His objection to being called a statist is like someone arguing for a monarchy and then object to being called a monarchist.

But anyway, I wasn't so much referring to the introduction as to section 1 about externalities. That the neighbors are allowed to stop the wasp farmer raising wasps is kind of libertarianism 101.

Further on in the FAQ his arguments get better. My remark that it starts lame was mostly meant to encourage people to read beyond section 1 (and maybe 2).

I think one should be able to convincingly argue for why less state would be a good idea in any particular case from the consequentialist point of view - which is why I like Machinery of Freedom.

I like MoF too, but too me the trouble with consequentialism is that I don't think it's up to me to choose for other people what are good consequences. It all sounds very reasonable, "instead of dogmatically clinging to the NAP, I advocate policies which have good consequences", but ultimately your going to force those policies onto people who probably don't agree with you on how good those consequences are. Of course this is less a problem with the consequentialism of MoF which broadly supports the NAP, but more to Siskinds consequentialism.

I still think consequentialist arguments are important, but I see them as supportive of deontological libertarianism.

Also, I am surprised that he links to Mike Huben's page (although he seems to also be reserved about that one), which in my opinion is by and large not much more than a lame effort to show that libertarians are all evil or stupid, sometimes twisting the truth in the middle of the process.

I thought it was just me. :-)
Sometimes I think Mike Huben has done more to convince me of libertarianism than any libertarian writer...

Power Child said...


That the neighbors are allowed to stop the wasp farmer raising wasps is kind of libertarianism 101.

Right, except libertarians typically miss the fact that most (damn near all) situations in reality are like wasp farming. Externalities are not these occasional phenomena that can be neatly anticipated, carefully pondered, and dealt with on an ad hoc basis; rather, they are the rule, they are ubiquitous, they are the unseen bulk of the iceberg.

Power Child said...


Sorry for the split post; I decided I also wanted to respond to this:

...the trouble with consequentialism is that I don't think it's up to me to choose for other people what are good consequences.

Maybe it isn't "up to you", but why feign ignorance about good and bad or right and wrong? Why this silly posture of blind tolerance? Even the most secular atheists insist that Quality is often objective. (For more no this, see Pirsig.)

You don't have to appoint yourself Chief Justice of the High Court of All Things to confidently assert "I know good consequences when I see them."

And even if you personally aren't sure, humans in aggregate seem to share a wide range of consensus about what is good and what is bad. The moral upheavals of the last generation or two are only a hiccup, perhaps largely a dizzy irrational response to unprecedented leaps in technology.

Tibor said...


Power Child mostly answered for me.

As for the atrocities of the various socialist ideologies of the 20th century, I don't think even that applies well. Because the people were in fact lead to believe by a group of skilled charismatic manipulators that this or that would lead to a better life for each one of them - more wealth, more freedom of personal choice. This applies even to Nazism. You had this dysfunctional country, poor and still feeling the defeat of the WW1 with very desperate and insecure people. And suddenly (well, gradually...) a bunch of guys come and start telling you how great you are and that this is all someone else's fault and if we just get rid of them, it will be all nice and dandy and everyone will live happily and freely ever after (contemporary Russia also works a bit like this, I think it is mostly the insecurity of Russians that generates the level of support of Putin...this and solid state control of media). So you maybe give those guys a try once...and then you better do it a second time or else you end up shot or in a concentration camp (by the way ). Same with communism.

I think that if these two ideologies demonstrate anything then it is that too much emotion in politics is a very bad thing which can easily lead to fanaticism. And then you have people who work in a concentration camp and are so brainwashed that they actually thing they are doing something good (while most Germans were lied by Goebbels' propaganda films about what concentration camps were really about). Or today, you have the ISIS crazies doing similarly horrible things (and again - some of them do it because otherwise they or their families would get killed). And deontological libertarianism is a lot more emotional (with Rothbard's "hate the state" and all) than consequentialism. If you are a consequentialist you can listen to people who advocate the state (classical liberals for example!) and evaluate their arguments based on their merit. If you hate the state, they are evil statists and you better not listen to them, because hey it is all evil statist propaganda! (I'm exaggerating and generalizing a little...but there are libertarians who actually are like this) Then you end up in a little bubble of yours with a bunch of similarly minded friends.

Incidentally, I read this funny comic strip recently. It is called a libertarian debate and there are two guys who shout at each other: "You're a statist!" "No, you are!" Some libertarian "debates" are actually like this and it is, quite frankly, pretty stupid.

Also, I doubt that if you convince a libertarian that his desired policies lead to extreme income disparities, global monopolistic corporations controlling everything, toxic waste in every river and so on (as a lot of people who are not libertarians actually believe) that he will keep being a libertarian just because he thinks it is "objectively" derived from some basic axioms. Conversely, convince a communist that libertarianism brings about the best welfare and freedom of choice for the masses he can realistically expect from a real world system and he is likely to become a libertarian.

Dain said...

These vaguely HBD-ish neo-recationary-rationalist-or-whatever writers seem to be disproportionately living in the bay area (like me).

I have to say I'd NEVER that Berkeley and its environs are where they're living, giving the political tenor of the area. I guess that's why they write under pseudonyms...

Dain said...

Relating to the title of this post, an interesting article on Orwell decrying his appropriation by those damned libertarians:

Unknown said...

Dain, Scott Alexander is not a neo-reactionary. In his post about reaction, he summarized reactionary arguments to the best of his ability, basically playing devil's advocate. He also wrote The Anti-Reactionary FAQ.

Dain said...


That's why I lumped him in under all those all those other labels, including "rationalist." There's heavy overlap among readers in all those categories. Slate Star Codex links to Less Wrong and Robin Hanson.

There's a handy map detailing all of this provided by the blogger HBD Chick:

The rationalist bloggers are the least explicitly conservative in the bunch, but their ability to suffer conservative fools gladly relative to the ascending online left (Upworthy, Salon, Slate…) - and tackle ANY dogma - makes them nominal allies of the Neoreactionaries.

David Friedman said...


A nice map. Should I feel badly about being left out? I admit to only discovering Scott Alexander recently, but I expect I've been interacting with both Robin Hanson and James Donald longer than most shown.

AnthonyD said...

Can people stop using his real name? The fellow intentionally uses an altenrate name. Even if he hasn't been especially secretitive its really dis-respectful to see people (including many praising him) blatantly ignoring his wishes.

If I was Prof. Friedman I would edit such comments.

Tibor said...

Haruko: I actually doubt the name cited is Scott Alexanders' real name. I base that belief on the fact that he states that his name can be reconstructed from Scott Alexander...except for a missing N (which is in the book in the logo "to restore cosmic balance" :) ) So I think those probably both pseudonyms. In any case, I want to believe that, because that makes Scott Alexander even more fun :)

martin said...

Power Child,

Right, except libertarians typically miss the fact that most (damn near all) situations in reality are like wasp farming.

How's that?

martin said...

Tibor, Powerchild,

I think it's obvious that people have different opinions on what are good or bad consequences. Take e.g. anti-sodomy laws as currently exist in several states in the USA. A consequence of repealing such a law would be that gays can have sex unhindered. That would be a bad consequence to proponents of the law and a good consequence to proponents of repealing it.

But even if people do agree on what consequences are good and what are bad, a policy has both costs (bad consequences) and benefits (good consequences). Different people will weigh cost and benefit differently. For some the benefit will outweigh the cost, for others it won't.

Suppose there's a village which would benefit greatly from a proposed road to connect to a state highway. Unfortunately there's a house that will need to be demolished to make way for the road. The owner of the house doesn't want to move out. One could weigh the consequences, and conclude the owner should move out. Obviously, the owner weighs the consequences differently.

martin said...

Haruko Haruhara,

I'm sorry, I didn't realize he was hiding his real name. (Since it's on the home page of the site with the non-libertarian FAQ.) I won't do it again.

martin said...

Haruko: I actually doubt the name cited is Scott Alexanders' real name. I base that belief on the fact that he states that his name can be reconstructed from Scott Alexander...except for a missing N (which is in the book in the logo "to restore cosmic balance"

No, he states "“Slate Star Codex” is almost an anagram of my name", by which he probably means "Scott S Alexander" not his real name, since "Slate Star Codex" is an anagram of "Scott Alexander" except for missing the "n".

Power Child said...


Nearly all situations are like wasp farming because of indirect and/or unintended influencers and consequences. Take anti-sodomy laws, for example. It isn't just that repealing them is good for sodomites and bad for those who oppose sodomy.

The existence or repeal of such a law is a statement that the society makes about itself, which impacts other characteristics of that society, especially over time. Consider 50 years later when people may say "We've gotten past those horrid anti-sodomy laws, but we still persecute and discriminate against [fill in the blank]." Today a common phrase used to criticize certain policies is that the people supporting them are "on the wrong side of history". It's only possible to use this specious phrase because of passages or repeals of other policies in the past. It's likely much truer that supporters of PC multiculturalism are on the wrong side of history, but they won't understand what you mean if you tell them that because for generations now the policies have all been in their favor.

But one needn't get abstract; the practice of sodomy itself impacts public health and standards of sexual conduct, to name just two other areas, and its effect on these will of course impact other areas as well, on and on. And, if you're a religious person, sodomy carries spiritual implications too--remember, even sodomites are not all secularists.

It would be wonderful if it was simply a matter of disagreeing upon which consequences are good and which are bad, because this implies that at least the existence of all the consequences are agreed upon..

But like how our eyes only detect a narrow spectrum of light, in reality, even most experts on an issue can name only a fraction of the consequences of it.

What may seem at first to be a private transaction between consenting parties is almost always in fact a result of a massive and complex interaction of public and private transactions, especially in aggregate.

For example, when you buy a cell phone, it seems like it's a simple matter of you giving money to a cell phone retailer in exchange for them giving you the product containing the bundle of benefits you want. But in fact your choice of cell phones is limited by market constraints (e.g. it's getting nearly impossible to find a phone with a QWERTY keyboard), and further influenced by what you've seen other people using, by advertising, and by your own past cell phone experience. And before any of that even comes into play, the retailer's stock of cell phones is itself constrained by their relationships with various manufacturers and distributors, each of these with its own array of outside influencers too.

Truly private goods are exceedingly rare.

martin said...

Power Child,

Thanks for your elaborate response, but what's your point?

Should wasp farmers be allowed to infest other people's property, like those other situations are allowed, or should those other situations be ended like the wasp farmer would (presumably) be stopped?

Power Child said...


My point is that the way we think about the world should reflect the way the world really is, rather than an idealized simplification of it in which the results of interactions neatly confine themselves to the parties directly involved.