The Gooseberry Fallacy

Tolstoy’s 1886 parable, How Much Land Does a Man Need has been on my mind recently. In the tale, the debt-ridden peasant Pahom rises to the status of a small landowner but remains dissatisfied, unable to let go of the idea that if only he had more land, he would not even fear the devil.

The devil of course, takes him up on his challenge. Pahom is presented with an unusual land-grab opportunity by the apparently simple-minded Bashkir family. For a thousand rubles, he can have as much of their land as he can run around, between dawn to dusk. If he manages to return to the starting point, the land is his. If not, he forfeits the thousand rubles.

In the story, Pahom overestimates his stamina and attempts to claim too much land. As dusk nears, he realizes he has over-reached, and desperately races back to the starting point. He makes it back, but dies of exhaustion at the finish line. He is buried in a six-foot grave, providing both an answer to the question in the title and a moral for the story derived from Tolstoy’s late-life pacifist Christian-anarchist views.

By preaching a morality of modest, self-limiting aspirations, the good Count was trying to have his feudalism-cake and eat serf-emancipation too. It is a response to destabilizing patterns of opportunity that has become all too familiar in our own time.

I call it the gooseberry fallacy. Let me explain.

Acting Dead, Choosing Life

When you consider the state of the world and Russia in 1886, the tale reads less like a simple fable about greed, and more like conservative moral authoritarianism trying to backstop a failing political authoritarianism in post-emancipation Russia. Tolstoy was offering relief, in the form of simplistic morality, from the anxieties of uncertain times.

My reading of this story is unflattering to Tolstoy. As an idealistic and progressive member of a nobility in decline, he wanted to espouse the values represented by the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 (which, like Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation of 1863, remained more theory than fact for a century), without giving up the harmony of the social order he inhabited. An order based on an entirely different set of values. Faced with the idea that change and a harmony based on eternal values might be mutually exclusive, in stories like Pahom’s, he implicitly advocated retreating from real, painful change.

The motif of the six-foot grave suggests that Tolstoy’s implicit prescription is a case of what Bruce Sterling called acting deadDon’t over-reach. Navigate by time-tested values instead of experimental new ones. Keep your aspirations modest. Be content with what you can get without striving at the edge of your abilities. At all costs, do not attempt to exuberantly be all you can be.

Act dead in short.

The opposite of acting dead is to choose life of course, but it is not clear what that means. In Sterling’s critique of contemporary culture, choosing life means choosing creative expression (through design fiction for instance) to explore an expanding space of new possibilities.

For me, choosing life is simply about choosing uncertainty over certainty and carefully nurtured dissatisfaction over contentment. So viewed from this perspective, Pahom was not being greedy. He was simply choosing life and challenging the devil, instead of safely staying within the confines of a life based on unchanging values. That he died trying makes him a martyr for the cause of choosing life.

Sterling rediscovered this line of criticism for our time, but Tolstoy’s moral authoritarianism did not escape criticism in his own time. His contemporary Anton Chekov was perhaps his subtlest critic.

Chekov versus Tolstoy

In Chekov’s Gooseberries (1898), we find an alternative answer to Tolstoy’s question. It is a tale of two brothers, Nikolai and Ivan.

Nikolai spends his life as a petty bureaucrat, aspiring to retire to the life of a small landowner in the countryside, growing his own gooseberries. Ivan seeks a more restless life of constant aspiration and striving. The story begins with an explicit reference to Tolstoy’s question, when Ivan begins telling his brother’s tale:

“He was a good fellow and I loved him, but I never sympathized with the desire to shut oneself up on one’s own farm. It is a common saying that a man needs only six feet of land. But surely a corpse wants that, not a man. And I hear that our intellectuals have a longing for the land and want to acquire farms. But it all comes down to the six feet of land. To leave town, and the struggle and the swim of life, and go and hide yourself in a farmhouse is not life — it is egoism, laziness; it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without action. A man needs, not six feet of land, not a farm, but the whole earth, all Nature, where in full liberty he can display all the properties and qualities of the free spirit.”

Gooseberries contemplates the idea that perhaps it is the self-limiting philosophies of the sort that Tolstoy implicitly prescribed for Pahom that are the real cardinal sin. That perhaps the only arena fit for the human mind is the entire world. And perhaps, Bond villains that we are, even the world is not enough.

Nikolai gets exactly what he aspires to, within his limited ambition a Jeffersonian middle class life. He retires to the country and even appears to enjoy it. But to Ivan, his brother appears as a petty human being who has closed himself off to intellectual, moral and physical possibilities. A human being who has abdicated his responsibility to be as fully human as possible; to aspire to engage the “whole earth” with his life:

“He was no longer the poor, tired official, but a real landowner and a person of consequence. He had got used to the place and liked it, ate a great deal, took Russian baths, was growing fat, had already gone to law with the parish and the two factories, and was much offended if the peasants did not call him ‘Your Lordship.’ And, like a good landowner, he looked after his soul and did good works pompously, never simply. What good works? He cured the peasants of all kinds of diseases with soda and castor-oil, and on his birthday he would have a thanksgiving service held in the middle of the village, and would treat the peasants to half a bucket of vodka, which he thought the right thing to do…Nicholai Ivanich who, when he was in the Exchequer, was terrified to have an opinion of his own, now imagined that what he said was law. ‘Education is necessary for the masses, but they are not fit for it.’ ‘Corporal punishment is generally harmful, but in certain cases it is useful and indispensable.’…

“And all this, mark you, was said with a kindly smile of wisdom. He was constantly saying: ‘We noblemen,’ or ‘I, as a nobleman.’ Apparently he had forgotten that our grandfather was a peasant and our father a common soldier. Even our family name, Tchimacha-Himalaysky, which is really an absurd one, seemed to him full-sounding, distinguished, and very pleasing.

Ivan essentially argues that any self-limiting conception of the good life is a case of acting dead. The only way to be fully human is to embrace limitlessness and endless frontiers in some form. The story ends with Ivan urging a young man to never settle or give in to modest, self-limiting aspirations:

“Pavel Koustantinich,” he said in a voice of entreaty, “don’t be satisfied, don’t let yourself be lulled to sleep! While you are young, strong, wealthy, do not cease to do good! Happiness does not exist, nor should it, and if there is any meaning or purpose in life, they are not in our peddling little happiness, but in something reasonable and grand. Do good!”

This is a subtle leveling-up of the debate. Ivan isn’t arguing for an alternative conception of happiness as an embrace of limitlessness over limits. He is arguing for dissatisfaction and doubt as governing virtues, over contentment and certainty. What’s more, he is equating the former with life itself and the latter with acting dead.

In another Chekov tale, The Bet (1889), we find a different treatment of the choosing life/choosing death challenge with a much more ambiguous outcome; one that offers life-affirmation without offering redemption of the American variety.

In this tale, in a discussion of capital punishment, a young lawyer argues that any sort of life is better than death. He is challenged by a banker to prove his point by spending 15 years in solitary confinement. If he succeeds he wins 2 million rubles. The lawyer accepts.

The tale plays out with the banker’s fortunes waning over the fifteen years, and the lawyer reading voraciously and undergoing a complex spiritual transformation in confinement. As the final day nears, the banker realizes the lawyer is going to win and ruin him. On the last night, he sneaks into the lawyer’s cell to murder him in his sleep. But just as he is about to do the deed, he discovers a letter written by the lawyer, denouncing (and renouncing) the self-limiting world of the banker and announcing his intention to deliberately lose the bet by walking out early.

The banker withdraws in relief and the lawyer follows through, walking away from a two-million-ruble certain win towards more uncertainty.

Tolstoy’s Pahom wins and dies. Chekov’s Nikolai in Gooseberries wins and lives, but only in his own eyes. To his brother, the life-embracing Ivan, he is effectively dead. And finally, Chekov’s lawyer loses a battle but finds an affirmation of life.

Tolstoy’s story leaves you with a simplistic moral. Chekov’s stories leave you with moral ambiguity that can only be resolved, if at all, by choosing to live and learning how life will play out for you.

It is actually surprising to find Tolstoy, who at times can be extraordinarily subtle in his observations of the human condition, on the less compelling side of this debate. My suspicion is that Isaiah Berlin had it right: Tolstoy was a fox whose work was somewhat compromised, especially later in his life, by his belief that one ought to be a hedgehog. To choose Tolstoy is to accept that Pahom ought to have limited his ambitions and chosen to act dead rather than die trying to own the world.

Chekov is pure fox. He offers many conflicting, ambiguous and impressionistic takes on the human condition. But on one point he is unambiguous: in the acting dead/choosing life decision, Chekov is unwavering in his assertion that choosing life is the right thing to do, whatever that choice might entail.

Pahom chose right. The fact that his decision happened to kill him is irrelevant.

Russia chose wrong, and ended up with the Soviet Union, an entity more allied with Tolstoy’s moral authoritarianism than Chekov’s life-affirming embrace of uncertainty.

Manifestos versus Long Bets

Tolstoy and Chekov offer two conflicting models for engaging the uncertain future: manifestos versus long bets. Manifestos are self-limiting constructs built around assumed certainties. Long bets are constructs built around uncertainties.

I’ve been thinking about manifestos versus long bets for several months now, thanks to a discussion of manifestos with a friend, which led to a little debating session at foocamp earlier this year, where I argued in favor of long bets.

A manifesto is about moral authoritarianism: an absolutist statement of eternal values from which follows (typically) an absolutist ideal of the good life. If there is one thing that most defines a manifesto, it is what it lacks: a central place for uncertainty.

To make a long bet of the sort accepted by Chekov’s lawyer, on the other hand, is to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty in a fundamental way, and choose life over death, even when you don’t know what that life might hold for you. 

Choosing life is the most fundamental long bet. For Chekov, choosing the uncertainties of life is better than choosing the certainties of death.

This first bet leads to a systematic pattern of betting in the cascade of bets that is life: as a Chekovian, to the extent possible, you always choose the option that represents more of the possibilities and uncertainties of life. Given a choice between $100 offered outright, and 50-50 odds of winning $0 or $200, the Chekovian rationalist chooses the latter. The Tolstoyian rationalist chooses the former.

Yesterday, the topic of manifestos versus long bets came up again, in a discussion of Umair Haque’s recent post This Isn’t Capitalism — It’s Growthism and It’s Bad for Us with some friends.

Haque, I think, has fallen prey to the fox-hedgehog schizophrenia that plagued Tolstoy.

In past discussions with friends, I’ve made casual fun of Haque’s  fondness for sloganeering and manifestos of various sorts. But lately my dissatisfaction with manifesto-thinking in general has increased to the point where I find myself arguing sharply against value-based positions of any sort.

It isn’t that I am against values per se. As with Chekov’s Ivan, there is a half-assed moral dimension to what passes for a philosophy around here. Except that, instead of arguing that people should “do good” as Ivan does with Pavel Koustantinich, I argue that you should be slightly evil.

It isn’t values themselves that are the problem, whether transient or timeless, but values as a means for avoiding uncertainty. Values as a simplifying heuristic for anxiety-ridden and complex times.Values marking a direction of retreat to certainties rather than forward movement towards possibilities.

This, ultimately, is my problem with well-intentioned folks like Haque and what is effectively a sort of future scaremongering. Haque’s “Growthism” is a strawman in exactly the same sense that Tolstoy’s Pahom is a strawman. Take for instance, the following:

Yet something was wrong in CapitalismStan. That very society was foundering. Its middle class was collapsing. It had already had a lost decade; and was starting on another. Its young had become a lost generation, desperately seeking opportunity. Median incomes had stagnated for decades. The economy spun headlong into a great recession; and then it “recovered”; but during the “recovery”, the richest 1% captured 95% of the gains. Millions faced chronic unemployment and povertySocial mobility was low and decreasing. Life expectancy was dropping

Growthism is willing to sacrifice everything for more growth. Even the very rights which enlightened societies once held to be inalienable. Are you concerned about the rise in extrajudicial mass spying, drone strikes, private security guards, military contractors, or even just the analytics that provide detailed information on what you say, do, and search to both the government and private companies? Too bad! Those are our growth industries, and woe to whatever or whoever stands in their way. Who cares about freedom of speech and assembly or the right to privacy when what we really need is good, growth-creating jobs? Jobs like becoming butlers and maids (or coaches, consultants, and “service-providers”) to the super-rich, who can purchase the “right” not to be frisked, stopped, or surveiled. Heaven forbid people protest. Why, that might hurt growth!

I find myself agreeing and nodding along with every one of the specific criticisms, yet unwilling to agree with the thrust of the whole.

The Gooseberry Fallacy

To me, this is merely a list of important problems to be correctly framed and solved. Primarily through the development of functional new problem-solving institutions. In whatever fumbling and bumbling way we are able to. Informed by whatever experimental values we model with our behaviors, rather than espouse with our words.

In the process of solving those problems we may occasionally make mistakes. Even huge ones, like America’s prison system.

Yet, to bundle it all up and attribute it to a monstrously evil philosophy of “Growthism” is to fall into a conceptual trap.  And that is precisely where Haque ends up:

That is the great mistake growthism makes. But growth is not an end. It is a means. A means to, at best, expanding eudaimonia; the capacity to live meaningfully well. And a means, at least, to expanding human freedom.

To view eudaimonia as a state of well-being into which one arrives via some means is to fall prey to what I will call the gooseberry fallacy. It is a particularly pernicious form of the arrival fallacy: “When X happens, I will finally be happy and free.”

Capitalism of any sort is not a process with an “end.” It is defined not by arrivals but by departures; a willingness to abandon safe states for unknown adventures, not knowing for sure whether you can return.

Growth is not an ism, but a feature of certain ongoing problem solving processes in the presence of uncertainty. We may be able to find alternative processes that alter our understanding of what growth means (for instance, GDP growth may turn out to be a silly measure of growth in the future), but the opposite of growth, stasis, is not a problem-solving strategy at all.

To follow through with this line of reasoning you have to end up where Nikolai did: struggling through life, hoping to retire on your own changeless little farm from your childhood memories, to grow gooseberries and play at being a minor lord.

Like Tolstoy, Haque wants to have his cake and eat it too. His distinction between capitalism and growthism ultimately does not hold up to scrutiny, because his implicit suggestion for “fixing” a broken capitalism is to define a state of eudaimonia that offers risk and pain free “expanding human freedom” while holding cherished values (and therefore a social order predicated on them) constant.

No. Capitalism is not a means to any end, let alone eudaimonia for everybody. It is a process for exploring and engaging uncertainty with fluid expectations. Values can help us steer away from specific evils, like slavery or Social Darwinist eugenics programs, but not steer us towards specific predefined goods.

The problems Haque identifies cannot be solved with manifestos because they are problems, not karmic punishments for espousing false values that will go away through the embrace of the “right” values.

Embracing uncertain futures means temporarily giving up the comfort of shared values altogether while we fumble to figure out a new social order that works. New shared values follow from the discovery of functional new patterns of social organization that reflect new realities. They do not lead us there.

Solve problems first, identify the values latent in the solutions that work later. Enshrine those experimental new winning values as the basis for a temporary period of prosperity before we have to do it all over again.

Bet on what you think will work and feels right to you, not on what you hope is true.

Embracing Uncertainty

In 2013 as in 1886, we live in an era of land grabs. You, me, Jeff Bezos, all of us. I’ve tried to grab some waterfront Internet property here on ribbonfarm not because I wouldn’t like an Amazon-sized empire, but because it is the best idea I could come up with.

The crumbling political authority of old mechanisms is driving up lifestyle anxieties. And the same kind of moralistic preaching is taking root everywhere. It happened last time around in America too, not just in Russia.

Then as now, there were two colonizations proceeding in parallel: a colonization of a new continent of possibilities represented by a new technological revolution, and a recolonization of old wealth according to the logic of that technology.

Last time around, many costly and tragic mistakes were made along the way, and entire countries chose poorly. But homo sapiens as a whole chose life. Enough of us managed to resist the temptation to act dead.

The situation is similar today: we have an ongoing colonization of the continent of possibilities represented by the Internet, and a recolonization of industrial age wealth according to the logic of computing technology. On the one hand, we have Amazon and Facebook colonizing virgin new territories of economic opportunity. On the other hand, we have entirely new patterns of geographic organization of life. An old social order is crumbling, a new one is emerging.

Tolstoy preached pacifist values and a harmony-preserving ideal of change. It is a philosophy with a rich history, dating back to Jefferson’s agrarian idealism (as opposed to Hamilton’s model of development), Gandhi’s decidedly curious ideas of village-based industrial development for India (as opposed to the more practical industrialization pioneered by the Tatas) and Booker T. Washington’s gradualist approach to delivering on Lincoln’s promises (as opposed to W. E. B. DuBois’ more radical politics).

In every single case, the gradualist, value-preserving model lost out to a pattern of change in the form of jarring, social-order disrupting rapid transformations that gave birth to entirely new values. We broke eggs. We made omelets.

To strive for smooth, harmonious change in the face of all evidence that transient unpleasantness and risk are necessary features of change, is to deny change altogether. As Ivan Ivanich says in Gooseberries:

“That night I was able to understand how I, too, had been content and happy,” Ivan Ivanich went on, getting up. “I, too, at meals or out hunting, used to lay down the law about living, and religion, and governing the masses. I, too, used to say that teaching is light, that education is necessary, but that for simple folk reading and writing is enough for the present. Freedom is a boon, I used to say, as essential as the air we breathe, but we must wait. Yes — I used to say so, but now I ask: ‘Why do we wait?'” Ivan Ivanich glanced angrily at Bourkin. “Why do we wait, I ask you? What considerations keep us fast? I am told that we cannot have everything at once, and that every idea is realized in time. But who says so? Where is the proof that it is so? You refer me to the natural order of things, to the law of cause and effect, but is there order or natural law in that I, a living, thinking creature, should stand by a ditch until it fills up, or is narrowed, when I could jump it or throw a bridge over it? Tell me, I say, why should we wait? Wait, when we have no strength to live, and yet must live and are full of the desire to live!

We are in an era of painful transition. Some of us are trying to cross the chasm that separates us from the post-Internet future and get to the right side of history via whatever paths we can find that suit our talents. Others are waiting for the chasm to narrow or be filled up. That is never going to happen. It is only going to widen and deepen.

There is no easy leap from the wrong to the right side of history. The longer you wait, the harder it gets.

And yes, the leap might be fraught with existential risks for all of civilization. Choosing life does not mean you get to cheat death indefinitely.

So it’s going to be really rough for a while, and we may or may not make it. It does not mean we’re evil. It merely means we are alive. We haven’t retired en masse to eat gooseberrries on our farms.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I definitely agree with you that manifestos tend to not leave much room for flexible adaptation within an environment in flux. I also think you raise a good point that it is flawed to see eudaimonia as a specific destination that can be reached.

    Still, I would be interested to hear whether you think that the act, in itself, of advocating for ideals and truths that have been validated by experimentation is the equivalent of pushing for a universalist approach. Cannot there be a more nuanced view toward those who defend and/or advocate unpopular or old truths than casting them as reactionary, dead luddites?

  2. Patrick Vlaskovits (@Pv) says

    “Manifestos are self-limiting constructs built around assumed certainties.” is a very interesting definition.

  3. Damn good article, links alone filled up my Pocket app with a few hours of interesting reading. I especially enjoyed the initially linked Tolstoy piece as a opener, I hadn’t read that parable before.

  4. What I got from Sterling’s “stop acting dead” speech (Reboot 11) is that the options for retiring to metaphorical farms are disappearing. It’s getting harder for people to find places or belief systems that will allow them to camp out on the near side of the ditch.

    Instead, “Dark Euphoria” is a blind leap into the unknown. An exhilarating, thrilling, life-affirming leap into the darkness.

    Dark Euphoria is losing the job, the house, the cars, and then laughing about it. It’s seeing illusions drift away one after the other. It’s the unsustainable not being sustained.

    Nice post. Thanks.

    • Sterling mentions at one point the politics of transformation of Eastern European countries as a transformation to nowhere. This is dark euphoria. Eternal change which lacks the critical potency of becoming. Always depart and nowhere to go. He surely hasn’t discovered the poetical and metaphysical glamor of risk, change and testosterone in office buildings.

    • Kay is right. I think Sterling’s notion of Dark Euphoria (in favela chic and gothic high tech flavors) is a sense of exhilaration created by a sense of unavoidable, impending doom. It is the euphoria and sense of freedom from responsibility created by fatalism rather than an aliveness to opportunity.

      And Sterling meant it in a critical way, not as something to aspire to. I think you read the wrong message into the talk.

  5. There are two types of problems: technical problems, where there is a “solution” that can be enacted should everyone agree to do so. Engineers are very good at solving these types of problems.

    The second type is “adaptive” problems, when the crux of the issue is that people don’t agree on the nature of the problem, or that there even IS a problem, and even if they do, the correct solution is not clear and logically deducible in the way that the solution to a technical problem is.

    The #1 problem in society is people who have strong ideas on adaptive problems confusing them for technical problems. “If only I could make everyone see things my way, they would see clearly that the best solution is X!” Policy makers make this mistake all the time.

    The most telling segment from this wonderful post is this:

    “Solve problems first, identify the values latent in the solutions that work later. Enshrine those experimental new winning values as the basis for a temporary period of prosperity before we have to do it all over again.”

    That statement is impossible to do on a problem of this scale. It is a major adaptive problem (or a series of smaller ones). Action will never occur until it has been addressed as an adaptive problem and not a series of technical problems. Values are a major driver of adaptive problem solving.

    Often people share the same values but have different frames of reference to view the problems through. In this case the work is in getting people to view the adaptive problem through the same lens so that all can work towards a solution. At other times people do NOT share she same values and in that case solutions will first require an examination of values. Only once values are aligned can an adaptive problem begin to be addressed.

    None of this is to say that “head in the sand” manifesto-writing is the way to go. I agree completely with your statute about capitalism being a process of change not a means to an end. Life is dynamic. Always will be. That’s why capitalism and democracy, flawed as they currently may be, are the best tool we have to manage a dynamic society. However values discussions are absolutely needed before we can fix any of the inherent problems.

    • I like the adaptive/technical distinction.

      On the question of scale though, you don’t get to scaled value consensus first and then solutions. I strongly suspect (no proof yet) that people try small scale solutions using divergent values, and the ones that win manage to scale. The values war is one via small-scale solutions battling for the opportunity to scale. Scaling is the prize, not a design criterion.

      On any significant adaptive problem, convergence of values (let alone at scale) rarely happens before outcomes are clear. In fact the values may converge for the majority in one direction, and a minority may win on outcomes.

      Basically more Darwinist than Intelligent Design is my my mental model for values debates. Winning creates values. Values do not create wins.

      • I agree with your assessment, however I’m not sure we still have the ability to experiment with solutions at a small scale for many of our most pressing problems.

        Take, for instance, GMO labeling. Various states have passed various laws, others have failed, and it continues. However now a number of companies are lobbying for a federal law that precludes the ability of states to experiment with their own solutions, and unlike normal federal pre-emption laws, this one would give nothing in return; it would simply prevent state-level action.

        A similar effect is emerging from the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Multi-national companies are suing governments under the rules of NAFTA and other such partnerships when the government passes legislation that disfavors them or fails to allow them to do business as they wish. TPP will increase the scale of this exponentially, essentially trumping national laws and all laws at lower levels.

        There is an aggressive campaign by the largest multinational corporations to maintain the maximum scale on all issues and to pre-empt experimentation at the federal, state / province, and local level.

        What do you do when you’re trying to work against that? This is what perplexes me.

        • One of the advantages of the acceleration of everything by technology is that when such apparent “rigged game” situations happen, if the large scale solution is bad, it will fail faster and harder, clearing the way.

          It’s not an answer, but a general approach to such things. My general position is that bad solutions lead to people finding good workarounds, and when the bad solution fails, the workarounds gain traction. Of course, this may take longer than a human lifespan. It is really hard to stop people from solving real problems.

          Also, I am not against large scale per se. There are perhaps situations where some genius figures out the world-scale solution up front and marshals the resources to have his/her way. If it works, fine. If not, work around till failure.

          In your GMO example, if there is a real need and people demand solutions, then perhaps companies that unilaterally adopt such labeling practices will gain enough of a marketing edge to beat the competition, so the cartel effect is unstable… there is an incentive to defect, as with OPEC production caps.

          • Why would “beating the competition” make a difference for anyone but the concerned companies? I always thought this was an odd operator of semantic distinction. Encoding morality into the fabric of economy is just wrong headed. I never perceived be-slightly-evil as prescriptive so much as it articulates a moral indifference or ambiguity which is at work anyway. The prescription mostly allows to write books or articles in advice style while having essentially educational purpose and let people see the world somewhat clearer.

            Manifestos written badly easily fall apart and anyone can see the inherent problems of the involved ideas. Good manifestos become bibles and ideologies and only much later people see the problems which have been swept under the rug but the believers will hold that it is merely bad practice compromising a good idea. Culture as usual.

          • Well, competition IS one of the basic evolutionary mechanisms for the economy, so who’s winning/losing is of interest to all of society. It isn’t morality, it’s a basic dialectic. I am nt sure what you’re objecting to here Kay.

          • Technology has accelerated many of the large-scale problems that we face as a society, and poses the potential for faster technological solutions. However, I disagree with your assertion that it leads failed paradigms to fail faster and fail harder. If anything, technology and the structure of the post-80’s economy has concentrated various forms of power to the degree that failed paradigms hold on LONGER because bad solutions that would have been driven out by market forces under capitalism are maintained by rent-seekers in the “rigged game.”

            As technology accelerated the problems and market power decelerates market failure (and therefore solutions) the question is when are various failed systems beyond the threshold of allowing incremental change around them and instead fall into the continue/fail dualism.

            Our banks and political system may very well be able to hold off against reform long enough that the banking system fails and is not bailed out (because the political capital for that is spent already). Then we get a replay of the 1930s.

            Our general consumption and shareholder-value economic paradigm may hold out longer than the ability of the plant to absorb climate change prior to a system-level failure, where even stopping all economic activity and carbon emissions will not roll back the onslaught of weather catastrophes, droughts, famines, ocean die-off, etc. (Please note, this is not a diatribe against capitalism. Capitalism is THE best thing we have. We need to get back to it.)

            You said yourself that many problems may persist longer than a single human life span. But is there more urgency to some of the problems than that? The only reason I am even brining up these bigger-picture, macro-level systems is because these are the types of issues being discussed in the opening of your post above. On smaller issues I do tend to share your philosophy.

          • You are in a good position to target higher than the economy, Venkat. Economic competition, the mighty fetish of the last two decades of the 20th century, has already lost much of its power over the minds. So people start looking for a new game in town.

            With you, there is an engineer with math skills in the shell, a strategic thinker and a fine humanist writer of high autonomy, an extremely rare combination today, a bit like an enlightened 18th century aristocratic polymath. Since we have lost this tradition it is surprising that it just pops up from nowhere. It is not like anyone would even know what to demand for. As in politics where everyone can sense the decline of the state while it inflates itself like a burnt out sun but no one dares to demand for a new kind of subjectivity, one which is alien to our now common expectation of getting one 19-th century style plebs tribune after the next with some random business people in the background and mass media craze as a frontend.

            Of course I’m not against risk and change but I’d likely turn around the optic. Like most other engineers, programmers, mathematicians and such folks I like a good challenge that stretches the mind and keeps me busy. But this is not something which entirely happens at will. If something turns out to be shallow or deep is not up to me. In fact I strive to pick the low hanging fruit like all others but when it turns out to be deep than I stick to it because the game is already in my head. So at each point it looks like there is a small distance to go, some idea which needs to be examined for a resolution, but in retrospect it is mountains and abysses which I left behind. Coincidentally this is a grounded manner of doing things. The whole seems to be a drift into madness but it is also a long trail of tiny steps, each of them shall make sense.

  6. I find myself agreeing and nodding along with most of your specific criticisms, yet unwilling to agree with the thrust of the whole… (at least not without making explicit to myself in what senses I find it incomplete as it stands).

    A nit-pick to make is that a $100 sure thing _is_ usually better than a ($0, $200) equiprobable martingale, as in the latter case you’re accepting more risk for no increase in expected return — even a risk-taking portfolio manager will demand at least some increase in expected performance in exchange for taking the added risk… unless he’s not managing his own money, in which case the utility function is different anyway.

    That’s just a detail, and doesn’t invalidate the main of the argument, but it helped me frame my concerns in a sharper way. It goes like this: in the presence of shared infrastructure and common externalities (from government budgets to global climate to net protocols to…) ignoring shared values —whether to defend or to attack them— *is* playing dead, because they have a huge influence in your outcomes, via that shared environment and the actions of those common entities. It’s the equivalent of going to a casino and not planning to cheat or count cards: if the rules are stacked against you, you need to break and/or change the rules, and that is something that also happens at the level of values. Perhaps ironically, I consider your body of work as a whole a quite successful attack on certain shared, implicit values; it has practical, concrete applications in part because some of those implicit values have practical, concrete (negative) implications.

    Now, I don’t disagree with what I believe is the main point of the article: an imposed, common vision of the good life can be a trap, both for individuals and for societies. And I don’t disagree with the implied point that, by definition, the individual pursuit of individually self-defined good _lives_ is what describes a healthy society. And that has more to do with creation (in a generic sense) than manifestos, usually.

    But I do think it’s tactically problematic to ignore the fact that much of the current environmental givens are the residua of past manifestos, and that many creative, individual, novelty-seeking and risk-taking activities do require appeals or attacks to shared values. Manifestos can be used to restrict possibilities, but they can be also used to expand them. In fact, given that we do live in environments shaped by *past* manifestos of large accrued power, new manifestos are more likely to be relatively powerless and possibility-widening than absolutist and possibility-reducing. It’s when manifestos win and become implicit in the infrastructure (technical, political, economic, psychological, etc) that they become deadening.

    • It’s not a nitpick. It’s an opinion based on assumptions about a certain kind of calculative rationality!

      I am aware of your point. I took the opposite stance precisely to underline the point that naive utility maximization is NOT a good model for existential decision-making. I’d model the sorts of things you’re talking about using more complex subjective utilities that capture “narrative rationality” (see Tempo).

      For some people, just the uncertainty itself is worth something (for example, the idea of meeting the challenge of having no money or twice the money are both more interesting to them than the maximum expectation case). Some people might add a premium to risk instead of discounting for it. Like skydivers for example. In perfectly calm weather, you get a $100 payoff for a jump say. But in borderline unsafe weather, if you decide to head to the airport, your payoffs are $0 (planes grounded) or $200 (an exciting jump…). I suspect some thrill seekers would waste for edge-of-skill days.

      You can still model this with utilities (a >1 weight on the $200 and $0 cases and a <1 weight on the $100 case, creating a U-shaped "boringness" weighting function).

      The point is psychological motives come first in the model, not second.

      I agree with your other point about stacking the odds in your own favor (including being on the right side of infrastructure advantages for example). But this is actually an orthogonal point. If such choices open up even more fertile secondary choices, then in a sort of chained-expectations way, you can still choose between more/less excitement.

      For example, take the (0, 100, 200) case. Instead of an arbitrary U-shaped weighting function, let’s add two kinds of cascade decision. Path A leads on to consumption choices in a boring economy where only material needs matter. So 0, 100 and 200 represent (say) going hungry today, going hungry next week or going hungry 2 weeks from now. I’d say that’s a sharply discounted weighting curve, and you’d do well to pick the $100. But consider Path B in an opportunity economy. If your food needs are taken care of, and $100 just gets you extra candy, but $175 gets you admission to a life-changing weekend course on say Arduino hacking (and you have no other source of marginal dollars), then the weighting curve is zero until the $175 point, and very high from $175 on.

      This isn’t just quibbling over how you model the situation mathematically. The point here is that primitive variables like dollars give us a false sense of certainty about how people actually think, when in fact they almost don’t matter. Subjective utilities, intelligently modeled in the context of different scenarios, can radically change the conclusions.

      Most of the time, such narrative context modeling choices are made subconsciously in our own heads because they are to complex to make explicit. So people default to either cost functions containing no subjective utilities at all (dollar maximization) or naive utilities based on very limited life models (you’re dying and need 100k for the surgery, you have 5k… the only bets worth taking at that point are 20:1 bets… textbooks have this kind of extreme example, but my point is that this sort of thing happens all the time, with all decisions…).

      • Your point about non-linear and/or idiosyncratic utility functions is true and well taken, but I believe it also underscores the first-order importance of the particular infrastructural configuration. I believe risk-taking is currently less curtailed by the ideological impact of homogenizing manifestos (at least in society-at-large) than by the way infrastructure is configured.

        (I’m sure that I’m oversimplifying and misrepresenting the discussion, so I wouldn’t want the following to be taken as an opinion on the healthcare question in the US as opposed to a toy model circumscribed to the present topic.) Oversimplifying, for a person above a certain level of income, a purely private and lightly regulated healthcare system would offer the maximum scope of potential options. On the other hand, for a person below that level of income, a cheaper, common healthcare system would enhance _their_ scope of options by, for example, making it feasible to quit a steady job to launch a startup without it being also a bet on staying physically healthy enough to not need to worry about medical bills— a risk that a person with, say, richer parents is shielded from. (A data point is not data, but, say, J. K. Rowling’s launch of a multi-billion dollar IP empire would have been impossible otherwise.)

        To put it in starker, and also oversimplifying terms, the US currently subsidizes large-scale financial risk-taking while penalizing small-scale neurobiological risk-taking — a configuration that’s of course heavily defended by those benefited by it, a defense that takes place, to a large degree, in the realm of ideological discussion.

        As I said, this isn’t an argument specific to healthcare or finance. The gist of my argument is that while allowing and encouraging personal risk-taking and diversity is an important part of a healthy society, in _practice_, as you said, the implied second-order preferences about infrastructure are anything but clear, with different opportunity-seeking groups rooting for different opportunity-enhancing configurations of shared infrastructures, a conflict that at least partially takes place at the level of the discussion and criticism of shared values.

        • The US healthcare system is more regulated than it appears, it’s just guarded by the fox. The AMA have been lobbying for tighter regulations since their inception about 100 years ago with the goal of closing medical colleges; ostensibly about standards but really about rigging the supply-demand ratio. They opposed Medicare before realizing they could turn it into a source of endless rents; today the rich doctors are the ones who use their legal (i.e. regulated) status to “mass produce” services: pay other people to perform tons and tons of menial services at rate of $65/15 minutes (the rate for a standard evaluation-and-management visit, given because it is NOT the most efficient money-extracting service out there). Obamacare (like EMTALA, Medicare, etc.) is a massive intrusion of government — into a world where government had been uncritically enforcing the interests of private pressure groups before. The AHA and the other medical guilds also deserve some blame for the mess that the system has become — but the point of this rant isn’t to assign blame, only to describe the policy reality that Obamacare seeks (ineptly) to addresss and that the inane arguments surrounding “health care reform” are farted into.

          Modern health care in the US is the hundred dollar hammer of urban myth. Someone has to pay for it, yes, if someone has to buy it. Supporters of mandatory insurance love to point at the inelasticity of demand for medical services by individuals — the “everyone needs it someday” argument — but they miss the enormous amounts of money spent on unnecessary care in the meantime whether it’s an actual needless procedure (another volume-dealer specialty!) or money spent on a “higher standard” of care than is really warranted (e.g. a hospital bed for someone in a persistent vegetative state with no likelihood of recovery, brand-name antibiotics for people with allergic rhinitis. etc.).

          Catastrophic health insurance makes sense. Most people don’t have catastrophic health problems, even if many do. But the fact that insurance is considered necessary to pay for routine care proves only that routine care is becoming too expensive. It’s time either for the market to punish doctors by turning en masse to a cheaper alternative (an impulse which the medical guilds and their rentier clientele struggle through government social policy to contain) or for the government to pick some new winners and losers. The problem with the Heritage plan from the very beginning is that it’s politically safe. Instead of attacking the rentier complex at its stem (the supply-demand throttle, exemplified most recently in the AMA’s successful push to cap the growth of the federal residency program), it forces them to share more power with big insurance. It’s the crude first-thrust of a divide-and-conquer maneuver. Unfortunately, I doubt if future governments will be as interested in dividing them. Since their point of common interest is a field of government regulation that they can influence, it seems more likely to me that the government have only created an enormous new trust.

          • Marcelo — I understand that’s probably not what you’re referring to either. I got carried away and went somewhat off topic.

  7. @Venkat
    I’m curious about your categorizing of the Soviet Union with Tolstoy. I can see it in the 70s and 80s when stagnation really set in. However for much of it’s existence surely it’s an extreme example of betting on life; the Bolsheviks set themselves up in direct opposition to most of the rest of the world and went after an extremely difficult goal using highly disruptive (to say the least) methods. To me it seems more like Pahom on a massive scale.

    • Sorry, missed this comment earlier.

      Something to that idea of early Bolsheviks going for a difficult goal. I’d argue though, that it was only a few middle-class revolutionaries who were choosing for the entire country. Most kinda helplessly went along for the ride, like they did with Czarist models before.

  8. “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” –Helen Keller

    Great post, also thanks for moving russian soul dialectic past Tolstoy-Dostoyevski

  9. The Gooseberry option may be Death, but isn’t that where we’re all headed? Might as well get used i to it and practice for it, no?

  10. “Last time around, many costly and tragic mistakes were made along the way, and entire countries chose poorly. But homo sapiens as a whole chose life. Enough of us managed to resist the temptation to act dead.”

    I think this is a great point but there might be important details hidden in the phrase “Enough of us”. What about the rest that did not choose, what happened to them? My thinking is that, they became a means – for those that *did* choose life – for the life-choosers to explore and engage uncertainty. Surely the canonical example is the capitalist, willing to take risks with capital saved by not consuming, utilizing labor of people who are acting dead; the word ‘wage slaves’ comes to mind. In so far as hired help is willing to take risks *within the capitalist’s organization*, they are choosing life over acting dead.

    Thus, a better way to describe humanity is that some chose life, utilized people who chose to act dead, and in the process – on average – everyone prospered more and more. The more you act dead, the better you can be used as a ‘cog in the wheel’ of a living person’s method of exploring uncertainty. Directly by working in some organization ‘doing your job’. Indirectly by buying a farm, growing gooseberrys, and being a cog in the market economy’s wheel.

    • Good point. I think there’s two basic ways to define “survival of the species.” One is whether the grand narrative has continuity, even if only a small group takes it through specific bottlenecks. The other is whether everybody and their genes is along for the ride.