Would the Real Economy Please Stand Up

More-or-less an exegesis of The Manual Economy. Warning: I am not an economist; this is speculative.

I.

What does “the economy” mean to you? What do those words point to in the world? If I say instead “the banana”, that’s a pretty well-defined concrete object. If I say “the marriage”, that’s way less concrete but still has pretty well-defined boundaries in a lot of ways. But when I say “the economy”… well. Isn’t everything kinda part of the economy? It starts to involve a lot of hand-waving and ambiguity.

Just as the idea of “marriage” is made up of roughly three distinct pieces in reality (a legal piece, a social piece, and a now-optional religious piece), I like to think of the “economy” as really made up of a few fairly distinct pieces. Like two kids in a trench-coat, every economy is really two economies trying to sneak into a movie theatre together: a concrete economy made of goods and services, and a virtual economic coordination mechanism. These two economies usually stay approximately isomorphic to each other; when I buy a banana there are two parallel exchanges, one in money and one in bananas. Think of it like double-entry bookkeeping.

To draw out this distinction, imagine two alternative worlds. Imagine first the world vaguely hinted at in The Manual Economy, the world where money and all other coordination mechanisms have completely disappeared, but life carries on completely normally. In this world people still work, and receive goods. There are still “rich” and “poor” lifestyles, and poverty traps, and all the rest. It’s just that there’s no terrestrial coordination mechanism anymore; the economy stays coordinated because some twisted god wills it to be so. In this world you don’t go buy a banana. You go take a banana from the store without giving anything in return. The twisted god controlling us all merely wills it so that poor people don’t go take all the bananas.

For our second imaginary world, take the mirror image of the first. In this world money, and banks, and mortgages and all the rest still exist. People get paycheques, and try to make their rent each month, and get punished when they’re late paying their bills. But also it’s basically The Matrix; everybody eats and sleeps and lives in a permanent tube with no actual goods or services being exchanged. In our first imaginary world, we had a concrete economy running somehow with no coordination. In our second, we have a coordination mechanism running somehow with no concrete economy to coordinate.

Neither of these imaginary worlds are intended to be realistic or “stable” realities in any sense. They’re designed to provide a sense of what these two economies look like when completely isolated from each other. In reality, they depend on each other to stay standing, just as both kids depend on each other to successfully purchase that movie ticket.

II.

I said before that these two economies, the concrete and the coordination, are generally isomorphic. But they aren’t always isomorphic to each other, and unsurprisingly, all the interesting stuff (bubbles, crashes, government stimulus, most white-collar crime, etc.) happens in the gaps where they diverge.

Let’s start with the dual-economy view of an economic crash. In fact, like “the economy” itself, the dual-economy view implies that there are actually two main types of economic crash, depending on which piece of the economy has actually crashed. The easy one to talk about is a concrete economic crash, which can happen when there’s a shock to actual production somewhere. Say that a new disease destroys all of the food crops in North America in the span of a few weeks; this is a real economic crash because all of a sudden the real economic capacity of the continent has drastically shrunk. The problem isn’t one of coordination; even if you coordinate everything perfectly, there just isn’t enough food.

This sounds bad, but the other kind of crash is in some ways worse. When the coordination mechanism crashes instead, there’s generally still enough real economic capacity for everybody to get what they want, it’s just wildly misallocated. This is what happens when for example speculation drives up the price of a particular good until the bubble finally bursts. That can happen even though production and consumption of the good in question stayed perfectly even throughout the entire run. There were no shifts in real supply or demand to justify the bubble. The bubble wasn’t created by a shortage, and didn’t burst because of a surplus in the market. The coordination mechanism simply failed. This kind of crash is what we’ve seen the most of recently: entire neighbourhoods evicted from their subprime mortgages while the homeless crowd the streets; people going hungry while food rots in a warehouse a few blocks away.

The virtual economy can crash because of a bug in the “software” of the coordination mechanism, without affecting the fundamentals of there being enough real capacity to produce all the food, shelter, goods, services, etc. that people actually want. Conversely, the concrete economy can crash (say because of a global pandemic that forces most real economic activity to grind to a halt) but as long as the software is resilient the coordinating mechanism will keep chugging along, coordinating whatever economic activity is left. It’s arguable whether this is a bug or a feature.

III.

Another interesting place where this dual-economy view comes in handy is getting a possible sense of why national debts are so weird. As far as I can tell, the consensus among professional economists is something along the lines of “you don’t want it to get too high relative to GDP, but an increasing absolute national debt isn’t a problem the way it would be for an individual”. This has always struck me as counter-intuitive, and I think a dual-economy model makes it a little clearer.

Debt is an abstract concept, which puts it firmly into the coordination side of the economy. It’s a promise of real economic activity in the future, which allows economic coordination across time. Importantly, there is no real economic “lack” behind debt; you can’t have a physically negative number of bananas. Debt is always just a number on a balance sheet. Just like personal debt can be a useful tool in the form of a credit card – assuming you hold up “both sides” of the temporal bargain by paying it off promptly in the future – so too can national debt. But whereas a personal debt is tied to your personal ability to pay it off, which is finite and limited, national debt is tied to the theoretically-infinite national future.

Now obviously we don’t expect any country to last forever. There’s the heat death of the universe to worry about after all. But the timescales are so wildly different that it’s hard to reason about. It seems plausibly reasonable to sell a twenty-year mortgage to a thirty-year-old human, even if they’re already in debt, but rather less reasonable to sell it to somebody already pushing one hundred. The earnings potential and lifespan just don’t seem to be there to support the future end of the bargain. But it’s entirely reasonable to believe that major economic powers might continue to exist in some form for hundreds more years, and even continue to grow economically through that time. Today’s national debt is an attempt to coordinate real economic activity across time with our future, much larger, national economic future.

Interestingly, a similar kind of analysis can be applied to fractional-reserve banking (with deposits viewed as individual loans to the bank).

IV.

I am not very confident in the above analysis, but even if it’s mostly garbage I think that treating the virtual and the concrete economies as separate entities has helped me. “The economy” has always seemed like a big ball of spaghetti with a bunch of arbitrary rules, and I feel like this is a good step towards drawing out a gears-level understanding, even if a lot of the details are wrong.

Hopefully it helps you, too.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Previously: Frankenstein Delenda Est | Roll for Sanity | The Great Project
Or perhaps: Brexit, Trump, and Capital in the 21st Century | An Exercise in Pessimism and Paranoia

I.

Well.

Joe Biden will in all likelihood be the next American President come January. You can practically feel left-leaning elites the world over unclench their weary paranoia. Much remains to be dealt with as the last few votes are counted and legal challenges get addressed by the courts, but the climax is past. The denouement, of course, will last decades. It always does.

Well.

The pandemic rages on. More than a million people are dead, and thousands more are dying every day. Imagine a medium-sized city, slowly crumbling as every last inhabitant dies over the course of a single year. Only the bones remain. And yet we adapt: deaths per thousand cases continues to fall. The world’s most populous country, more than a billion people, has reported only a single COVID-19 death since April. The rest of the world is slowly learning, through trial and terrible error, which parts of the economy can be reopened or adapted, and which cannot.

Well.

Technology rushes on, heedless of the rest of the world. Competitive satellite internet. Virtual reality. Self-driving cars. Newer, faster, stronger, better. The pope is praying for friendly AI.

I just finished re-reading A Canticle for Liebowitz. [spoilers follow] A monastic order tries to preserve human knowledge for hundreds of years after a nuclear apocalypse. They succeed, civilization is reborn, and their reward is a second nuclear apocalypse, far worse. Humanity is not to be trusted with great power, nor great responsibility.

Well.

II.

America is increasingly divided. Biden may have won, but those hoping for a repudiation of Trump must be bitterly disappointed. The long future is violently uncertain. Healing? Secession? Civil war?

Beliefs are not isolated things. The human brain is remarkably adept at ignoring inconsistencies, but doesn’t necessarily resolve them correctly, even when forced to. Whichever side you take in this battle, your enemies believe in gravity. They believe in food, and air, and airplanes which fly. Their epistemology is intact.

Where people on both sides go wrong is that their priors create a self-reinforcing web of false beliefs that are too far removed from immediate empirical evidence to be emotionally falsified. The media could report that hotdogs cause COVID-19. Whether you believe that hotdogs cause COVID-19 has nothing to do with your beliefs about hotdogs, or COVID-19. The only way those beliefs could actually be related in your mind is if you see someone eat a hotdog, and then become deathly ill moments later. Instead, whether you believe in hotdogs-causing-COVID-19 has everything to do with whether you think the media lies. Fake news?

The next time the media reports something, you remember. Didn’t they run that hotdogs-cause-COVID-19 story? Your priors have shifted. The gyre widens.

Rationalists believe that demanding consistency from your beliefs raises the sanity waterline. I believe that consistency, on balance, would give us more false beliefs, not fewer. Too much of the world we believe in is disconnected from direct observation. Science, democracy, journalism… all merely webs of hearsay becoming webs of heresy.

III.

The ocean depths are a horrible place with little light, few resources, and various horrible organisms dedicated to eating or parasitizing one another. But every so often, a whale carcass falls to the bottom of the sea. More food than the organisms that find it could ever possibly want. There’s a brief period of miraculous plenty, while the couple of creatures that first encounter the whale feed like kings. Eventually more animals discover the carcass, the faster-breeding animals in the carcass multiply, the whale is gradually consumed, and everyone sighs and goes back to living in a Malthusian death-trap.

Scott Alexander, Meditations on Moloch

The printing press. The New World. Machines. Electricity. Computers. Internet. We feast on these whales, and for a time, we flourish. But whales are finite beings, and their corpses must eventually return to the dust.

Some Republicans view Donald Trump as a sign of the apocalypse, and long for the return of Mitt Romney. I view Mitt Romney as the unwitting sign of a far worse apocalypse; not because he is a Republican, but because he is a Mormon. Low first-world birth rates in the last fifty years are a blip, a memetic aberration. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has, by all indications, a decisive first-mover advantage among the next wave of Malthusian population-promoting memeplexes. The birth rate will recover when America is mostly Mormon. Evolution requires it.

We can hunt new whales, new technologies, new vistas, and prolong our civilization one flickering light at a time. This is a worthy goal. But we are Ahab, and the whales we hunt will surely destroy us in time.

We can coordinate, cooperate, and create a world where consuming the whale does not consume the world. This is also a worthy goal. It is, in fact, part of the goal; step two of The Great Project.

But we cannot compromise with our enemies, and so our enemies must become our friends.

IV.

And yet? And yet nothing. There is no one else. If civilization is to flourish, it must survive, and it must grow so mighty that even Moloch trembles before it.

So go, live your life, dream your dreams, hunt your whales. But to save civilization we must unite it, and to unite it we need a shared belief that unity is important.

Spread the good word.

Imperfect Perfectionism

[Introspection, and a bit of unoriginal psychology.]

Like many people, I tend to think of myself as having a perfectionist streak, and I think that’s reasonably justified. Upon entering my school’s french immersion program in grade 7, I had a fairly major meltdown due to the sudden increase in difficulty and workload, and the concomitant reduction in my grades. I used to think of myself as having “gotten over” the worst of my perfectionism in working through that incident, but that’s giving myself too much credit. Perfectionism is in my blood.

My belief that I’d “gotten over it” was surely bolstered in part by the oft-repeated descriptions of perfectionism coming from other people I talked to, the media, etc. as a little voice saying “you’re not good enough”, or “you’re not talented enough”. After all, these are phrases that I basically never say to myself, or believe of myself in most aspects of my life. If anything my ego is flawed in the other direction; I have a deep-seated confidence that I have the capacity to do just about anything if I put in the necessary time and effort. Obviously there are physical limitations – I’ll never play in the NBA at my height – but I sincerely believe that I could become a successful doctor, lawyer, actor, pro curler… standing in my way of these goals is time and effort, not talent.

But as I learned recently, perfectionism comes in many guises. For a lot of people, it seems to come in the way I described, to question their talent. This certainly seems to be the predominant form talked about. But for me and surely for others, perfectionism never doubts my talent. Instead, it doubts my effort.

When something I do doesn’t measure up to my impossible standards, I don’t hear a little voice saying “you’re not good enough”, I hear one saying “you didn’t try hard enough”. When I got a question wrong in school, it was never “you’re not smart enough”, it was always “you didn’t study hard enough”. And when I somehow end the workday further behind on my to-do list than when I started, I don’t hear “you’re not good enough for this job”, I hear “work harder”.

This makes it really difficult to disconnect at the end of the day.

Oh, it’s easy enough now to close the laptop and physically walk away from my desk; I built that habit through sheer force of necessity. Dinner won’t make itself. But it’s really hard to get that stress out of my head. It seems wrong to spend my evening on something frivolous like TV or a book when there’s something imperfect at work, and I can fix it by working harder. After all, anything that goes wrong is my fault because I just didn’t try hard enough.

I guess the stress is better than the alternative, which seems to be workaholic tendencies. At least when I distract myself with something sufficiently engaging I can usually forget about it until it actually goes away. But I think perhaps I would do better to acknowledge that perfectionism is still a major force in my life, and try to deal with the problem at its root.

Maybe then I’ll be perfect.

The Axiological Treadmill

The obvious reason that Moloch is the enemy is that it destroys everything we value in the name of competition and survival. But this is missing the bigger picture. We value what we value because, in our ancestral environment, those tended to be the things that helped us with competition and survival. If the things that help us compete and survive end up changing, then evolution will ensure that the things we value change as well.

To borrow a metaphor: Elua cheats. The hedonic treadmill has nothing on the axiological treadmill.

Consider a thought experiment. In Meditations on Moloch, Scott Alexander dreams up a dictatorless dystopia:

Imagine a country with two rules: first, every person must spend eight hours a day giving themselves strong electric shocks. Second, if anyone fails to follow a rule (including this one), or speaks out against it, or fails to enforce it, all citizens must unite to kill that person. Suppose these rules were well-enough established by tradition that everyone expected them to be enforced.

So you shock yourself for eight hours a day, because you know if you don’t everyone else will kill you, because if they don’t, everyone else will kill them, and so on. Every single citizen hates the system, but for lack of a good coordination mechanism it endures. From a god’s-eye-view, we can optimize the system to “everyone agrees to stop doing this at once”, but no one within the system is able to effect the transition without great risk to themselves.

Even if this system came into being ex nihilo it probably wouldn’t be stable in reality; a population that spends eight hours a day receiving strong shocks isn’t going to be able to feed itself, or reproduce. But assume for a moment that this system starts out economically and biologically stable (that is, people can still eat, and reproduce at the rate of replacement, despite the electric shocks, and that there are no outside countries ready to invade). What do we expect to happen over the long run?

Well, obviously there’s a strong evolutionary pressure to be tolerant to electric shocks. People who can tolerate those shocks better will do better on average than those who can’t. However, there’s another more subtle pressure at play: the pressure to ensure you shock yourself. After all, if you forget to shock yourself, or choose not to, then you are immediately killed. So the people in this country will slowly evolve reward and motivational systems such that, from the inside, it feels like they want to shock themselves, in the same way (though maybe not to the same degree) that they want to eat. Shocking themselves every day becomes an intrinsic value to them. Eventually, it’s no longer a dystopia at all.

They would be aghast at a society like ours, where Moloch has destroyed the value of receiving electrical shocks, all in the name of more perfect competition.

The Great Project

The great project of humanity, and in fact the great project of any group of self-aware creatures which value their own existence, is in three parts:

While survival is a fragile thing, and we invent new existential risks every day (e.g. global nuclear war), humanity is now the dominant living species in our sphere of existence. We are surviving.

Now, we must tackle Moloch.

A Brief Chat on World Government

[This is the transcript of a chat conversation I had with another member of my local rationalist meet-up, on the topics of Moloch, world government, and colonization. Lightly edited for clarity, spelling, etc. and shared with their permission.]

Me: Here are some thoughts on Moloch. Moloch basically guarantees that anybody who can figure out how to successfully convert other values into economic value will out-compete the rest. So in the end, we are the paperclip maximizers, except our paperclips are dollar bills.

Scott proposes that to defeat Moloch we install a gardener, specifically a super-intelligent AI. But if you don’t think that’s going to happen, a world government seems like the next best thing. However if we escape earth before that happens, speed of light limitations will forever fragment us into competing factions impossible to garden. Therefore we should forbid any attempts to colonize Mars or other planets until we have world government and the technology to effectively manage such colonies under that government.

Them: The superorganisms in his parable only function because of… external competitive pressures. If cells didn’t need to band together to survive, they wouldn’t. If governments don’t have to fend off foreign governments they will accumulate corruption and dysfunctions.

Sort of related, I’m not persuaded by the conclusion to his parable. Won’t superintelligent AIs be subject to the same natural selective pressures as any other entity? What happens when our benevolent gardener encounters the expanding sphere of computronium from five galaxies over?

Me: Cells were surviving just fine without banding together. It was just that cells which banded together reproduced and consumed resources more effectively than those which didn’t. Similarly, I think a well constructed world government could survive just fine without competitive pressure. We haven’t necessarily found the form of that government yet, but liberal democracy seems like a decent first step.

Regarding competitive pressure on AI, he deals with that off hand by assuming that accelerating self-improvement gives an unbreakable first mover advantage. I don’t think that’s actually true, but then I’m much less bullish on super-intelligent AI in general.

Them: It would “survive,” but we don’t want a surviving government, we want a competent, benevolent one. My read on large organizations in general is that they naturally tend towards dysfunction, and it’s only competitive pressures that keep them functional.

Me: That produces a dismal view of the universe. We are given a Sophie’s Choice of either tiling the universe in economicium in order to compete and survive, or instantiating a global gardener which inherently tends towards dystopic dysfunction.

My read on large organizations in general is that they naturally tend towards dysfunction, and it’s only competitive pressures that keep them functional.

This is certainly mostly true, but I’m not yet convinced it’s necessarily true.

competitive pressures

I think this in particular is too narrow. Hunter-gatherer bands were organizations that stayed relatively “functional”, often not due to competitive pressures with other bands, but due to pure environmental survival pressures. We probably don’t want a government that stays functional due to environmental survival pressures either, but I’m generalizing to an intuition that there are other kinds of pressure.

Them: There are other kinds of pressure, but you better be damn sure you’ve got them figured out before you quash all rivals.

Me: 💯

Them: And to be precise, yeah, there’s a second thing keeping organizations intact, and that’s the floor imposed by “so incompetent they self-destruct.” But I think they degrade to the level of the floor, at which point they are no longer robust enough to survive two crises taking place at once, so they collapse anyway.

Me: Hmm, so it becomes impossible to instantiate a long-term stable gardener of any kind, and we’re stuck tiling the universe in economicium regardless.

Them: Well I think it might be possible (in the short term at least), but you have to be cognizant of the risks before you assume removing competition will make things better. So when I imagine a one-world-government, it’s more like a coordinating body above a collection of smaller states locked in fierce competition (hopefully just economic, cultural & athletic).

Me: At the risk of clarifying something which is already clear: I was never arguing that we are ready for world government now, or should work towards that soon; I was just saying there are some things we shouldn’t do until we have a good world government. We should make sure we can garden what we have before we go buying more land.

Them: Hmm, okay, I think that’s some important nuance I was overlooking.

Me: Though perhaps that is an inherently useless suggestion, since the coordination required to not buy more land is… a global gardener. Otherwise there’s competitive advantage in getting to more land first.

Them: So its a fair point. I assume that any pan-global body will not be well-designed, since it won’t be subject to competitive pressures. But its true that you might want to solve that problem before you start propagating your social structures through the universe.

Me: I’m now imagining the parallel argument playing out in Europe just post-Columbus. “We shouldn’t colonize North America until we have a well-gardened Europe”. That highlights the absurdity of it rather well.

Changes in Reality

[Some short thoughts I just wanted to get out of my brain; bullet-points instead of well-structured prose. This is entirely random speculation.]

  • Social systems (laws, customs, memes) are subject to evolutionary pressure from the dynamics of reality; when reality changes, existing social systems are typically no longer in equilibrium and have to evolve, or collapse and be rebuilt. Consider for example the invention of the birth control pill and the resulting impact on family structure, gender relations, etc. Pre-pill social customs around marriage and family were no longer in equilibrium in a world with reliable female birth control, and so society shifted to a new set of customs.
  • “Change in reality” largely means economic and technological change. New wealth and new capabilities.
  • “Change in reality” has been accelerating for a long time as new technologies and discoveries unlock new economic prosperity which enables more discoveries, in an explosive feedback loop. Some argue that technology/science have slowed down a lot recently, but I think that’s mostly because our best and brightest are too busy extracting economic value from our recent innovations (computers and, separately, the internet). Once that bounty has been consumed, more general technological progress will resume its previous course.
  • There is a natural limit on how fast social systems can evolve. Humans can adapt to living under radically different memeplexes, but not instantly, and somebody has to invent those memes first. When reality changes slowly this is fine, as it leaves plenty of time for a multiplicity of experimental memetic shifts in different groups, letting the best adaption dominate with high probability.
  • At some point in the future (possibly soon?) reality will start changing faster than our social systems can adapt. Our existing laws, customs, memes, and government will be out of equilibrium, but we will not have enough time to converge on a new social system before reality changes again. Society will fragment and human culture will undergo an intense period of adaptive radiation.
  • The countervailing force is technology’s ability to connect us (the “global village”) and equivalently the law of cultural proximity.

An Exercise in Pessimism and Paranoia

When I consider the world at large, there are three interrelated futures which terrify me.

Fear #1 is the culture war. Per the law of cultural proximity and musical outgroups, I expect this conflict to get worse in the near future as battle lines are more firmly drawn, and neutrality becomes increasingly impossible (I gave a few possibilities at the end of Musical Outgroups, but I’m now leaning more firmly towards “the smaller tribes being squeezed out of existence between dominant Blue and Red cultural forces”). We can already see this happening in recent events like protesters threatening passersby they assume are neutral.

Fear #2 is The Second American Civil War. David Shor makes a compelling case that post-Biden, the Republican party will end up with a multi-term lock on the presidency and the senate. A government consistently elected by a violently-hated minority (see fear #1) seems like a recipe for disaster. We’ve only had one term of Trump so far, and already witness renewed talk of Californian secession, and protester-led self-governing zones springing up and then fading away.

Fear #3 is World War 3. (Huh; fear #2 is the second civil war and fear #3 is the third world war. That’s numerically convenient). With America in turmoil, and civil war as a possible future, the age of Pax Americana (general world peace through American military dominance) has started to draw to a close. China and Russia are already starting to flex their muscles by snipping off bits of territory. They’re currently relying more on American being distracted than on an actual power shift, but that could change very rapidly if America descends into a genuine constitutional crisis or civil war.

I sincerely hope this is just my imagination running away with me, and none of this comes true.

Postel’s Principle as Moral Aphorism

[All the usual disclaimers. Wanders dangerously close to moral relativism.]

I.

Postel’s Principle (also known as the Robustness Principle) is an obscure little guideline somewhat popular among computer programmers, in particularly those working on network protocols. The original goes like this:

Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.

My parents were both computer programmers, as am I, and my first job as a programmer was working on network protocols, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I ran across this principle a long, long time ago. I suspect I heard it while still a teenager, before finishing high school, but I honestly don’t remember. Suffice to say that it’s been kicking around my brain for a long time.

As a rule of thumb in computer programming, Postel’s Principle has some basic advantages. You should be conservative in what you do because producing output that isn’t strictly compliant with the specification risks other programs being unable to read your data. Conversely, you should be liberal in what you accept because other programs might occasionally produce non-compliant data, and ideally your program should be robust and keep working in the face of data that isn’t quite 100% right.

While in recent years the long-term effects of Postel’s Principle on software ecosystems have led to some pushback, I’m more interested in the fact that Postel’s Principle seems to apply as well just as well as a moral aphorism as it does in programming. Context matters a lot when reading, so here’s a list of other aphorisms and popular moral phrases to get your brain in the right frame:

  • What would Jesus do?
  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
  • Be conservative in what you do, and liberal in what you expect from others.

II.

I am, by nature, a fairly conservative person. I’m also, whether by nature or past experience, somewhat socially subordinate; I’m usually much happier in a secondary position than in any role of real authority, and my self-image tends to be fairly fragile. The manosphere would happily write me off as a “beta male”, and I’m sure Jordan Peterson would have something weird to say about lobsters and serotonin.

This combination of personality traits makes Postel’s Principle a natural fit for defining my own behaviour. Rather than trying to seriously enforce my own worldview or argue aggressively for my own preferences, I endeavour not to make waves. The more people who like me, the more secure my situation, and the surest way to get people to like me is to follow Postel’s Principle: be conservative in my own actions (or else I might do something they disapprove of or dislike), and be liberal in what I accept from others (being judgemental is a sure way to lose friends).

[People who know me IRL will point out that in fact I am pretty judgemental a lot of the time. But I try and restrict my judginess (judgmentality? judgementalism?) to matters of objective efficiency, where empirical reality will back me up, and avoid any kind of value-based judgement. E.g. I will judge you for being an ineffective, inconsistent feminist, but never for holding or not holding feminist values.]

Unfortunately, of course, the world is a mind-boggling huge place with an annoyingly large number of people, each of whom has their own slightly different set of moral intuitions. There is clearly no set of behaviours I could perform that will satisfy all of them, so I focus on applying Postel’s Principle to the much smaller set of people who are in my “social bubble” (in the pre-COVID sense). If I’m not likely to interact with you soon, or on a regular basis, then I’m relatively free to ignore your opinion.

Talking about the “set” of people on whom to apply Postel’s Principle provides a nice segue into the formal definitions that are implicit in the English aphorism. For my own behaviour, it makes sense to think of it like the intersection operation in set theory, or the universal quantifier in predicate logic: something is only morally permissible for me if it is permissible for all of the people I am likely to interact with regularly. Conversely, of course, the values I must accept without judgment are the union of the values of the people I know; it is morally permissible if it is permissible for any of the people I am likely to interact with regularly.

III.

Since the set of actions that are considered morally permissible for me are defined effectively by my social circle, it becomes of some importance to intentionally manage my social circle. It would be untenable to make such different friends and colleagues that the intersection of their acceptable actions shrinks to nothing. In that situation I would be forced to make a choice (since inaction is of course its own kind of action) and jettison one group of friends in order to open up behavioural manoeuvring space again.

Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that people change their moral stances, especially when under pressure from other people who I may not be interacting with directly. Even if I have a stable social circle and behavioural manoeuvring space today, tomorrow one of my friends could decide they’re suddenly a radical Islamist and force me with a choice. While in some sense “difficult”, many of these choices end up being rather easy; I have no interest in radical Islam, and so ultimately how close I was to this friend relative to the rest of my social circle matters only in the very extreme case where they were literally my only acquaintance worth speaking of.

Again unfortunately, it sometimes happens that large groups of people change their moral stances all at once. Memes spread incredibly fast, and a small undercurrent of change can rapidly become a torrent when one person in a position of power or status chooses a side. This sort of situation also forces me with a choice, and often a much more difficult one. Apart from the necessity of weighing and balancing friend groups against each other, there’s also a predictive aspect. If I expect a given moral meme to become dominant over the next decade, it seems prudent to be “on the right side of history” regardless of the present impact on my social circle.

Being forced to choose between two social groups with incompatible moral stances is, unsurprisingly, stressful. Social alienation is a painful process, as can attest any Amish person who has been shunned. However what may be worse than any clean break is the moment just before, trying to walk the knife edge of barely-overlapping morals in the desperate hope that the centre can hold.

IV. (PostScript)

I wrote this focused mostly on myself. Having finished, I cannot help but wonder how much an approximation of Postel’s Principle guides the moral principles of most people, whether they would acknowledge it or not. Even people who claim to derive their morality from first principles often end up with something surprisingly close to their local social consensus.