Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Test for Truth

I have been reading an interesting account of how conscription was ended in the U.S., focusing on my father's role. Near the end of the process, President Nixon established a commission headed by Thomas Gates, a former secretary of defense. Martin Anderson recounts the following exchange between Nixon and Gates: 
But Mr. President, I’m opposed to the whole idea of a volunteer force. You don’t want me as the chairmen.”
“Yes, I do Tom,” the president replied, “that’s exactly why I want you as the chairman. You have experience and integrity. If you change your mind and think we should end the draft, then I’ll know it’s a good idea.”
It struck me as an ingenious solution to the problem faced by someone who needs to make decisions on a variety of questions and does not have the time and energy to research all of them for himself. Instead of trying to appoint a neutral agent to give an unbiased opinion, appoint someone whose honesty and competence you trust who is on what you suspect is probably the wrong side of the question. If you are right, about both him and the question, he will change his mind. If he does not, you may well be wrong.

Assuming that Nixon's explanation of his choice is true, the incident is to his credit.

The commission, set up with people on both sides of the issue, ended by unanimously recommending the abolition of the draft.


Power Child said...


Suppose you trust the honesty and competence of your supercomputer, and that your supercomputer has an AI that, while nowhere near "the singularity", is still good enough to make qualified judgments about some complex issue given enough information.

Do you put your supercomputer in charge of a panel of people (and maybe a few other supercomputers as well) tasked with deciding whether there should be mandatory safety guidelines around future AI development?

(I was really digging Scott Alexander's last couple posts.)

Gordon said...

David, the issue of conscription is only in the background of your post, but I wonder if you have thought about it in relation to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. (Perhaps you have written on this and I missed it.) My support for ending conscription was unqualified, but I now wonder if the current volunteer approach doesn't empower too much foreign intervention. Elbridge Gerry's wit was directed at the idea of a standing army, whether conscript or volunteer.

bruce said...

Gordon- Bad as the extended interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have gone, sending a half-million conscripts like Vietnam would have gone worse. A big conscript army would empower bigger, stupider interventions. Replacing a standing army with one, many, a thousand smaller militias and security forces would change our luck only if we had a competent, loyal governing class to cherry-pick the best force for the job- the hypothesis is a remote one.

Anonymous said...

Milton Friedman identified the military draft as a kind of slavery. To be more specific, the military draft is involuntary servitude. Currently, with our volunteer army, we are using a voluntary servitude approach. You volunteer to be a slave for a specific period of time, in exchange for benefits. Once you're out in the field, you can't just leave anytime you like; that is called desertion and is punished as a crime.

Walter Block, in commenting on involuntary and voluntary servitude, has caught hell from some people for saying that the voluntary kind is "not so bad" -- at least comparatively speaking. But since the U.S. government itself uses the stuff in big doses, I think Block has gotten a bad rap on this issue. (U.S. governments go even farther and rely on INVOLUNTARY servitude quite a bit. The former military draft, filling out your tax forms, and jury duty are examples.) There's terrific symbolism in the fact that the White House itself was actually constructed by slaves.

Gordon said...

bruce - conscription generated large-scale protest to the Vietnam War. This protest may not have ended the war, but I think it exerted considerable influence, and continued to do so for several decades. With social media, such protest today would be even more effective.

In contrast, protests of the War on Terror have been much subdued, and, while the election of Obama may be viewed as the public's rejection of Bush's foreign policy, election without serious protest seems to have only brought a sort of Bush-lite.

bruce said...

Gordon- 'In contrast (to the Vietnam War), protests of the War on Terror have been much subdued'
Yes. It's a much smaller fiasco than it would be with conscription, and protest has so far saves us from Bush Heavy- McCain or worse. I voted for Obama against McCain and would again- though for Romney against Obama ... Romney is not a proven nincompoop. Note various fools and traitors in power who keep suggesting we restart conscription. Neither of us, indeed no sensible and loyal citizen, wants that. 'The worse the fiasco, the better the reforms against it' is not sensible or loyal to our country.