I've been enjoying this year's ACX book reviews a lot more than the previous round, with cool essays on the Icelandic Sagas and Jane Jacobs. I particularly liked last week's review of "Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism" by Paul Sabin. The book is about Ralph Nader's contribution to modern sclerosis in the American government, but the essay serves as an interesting history of the public interest movement in relation to the government in general. It's not long and definitely worth a read but a few sections I liked:
the New Deal relied heavily on a new model for delegating congressional powers: Congress would create a federal agency with broad latitude, then they, or the president, would staff that agency with outside experts. Freed from the grubby pressures of the political process, these agency men—and they were pretty much all men—would use their expertise to reshape the country...
In his 1952 book American Capitalism, John Kenneth Galbraith summed up this equilibrium via the concept of countervailing powers: big government, big business, and the big unions worked together to collaboratively manage the economy.
But by the 1960s, the cracks in this model were starting to show. A report prepared for President-elect Kennedy outlined the problem of regulatory capture, the process by which agencies intended to regulate private businesses got too close to their subjects and end up serving them instead. And a new class of liberal intellectuals rose to prominence by pointing out the ways in which the political establishment’s plans sometimes rode roughshod over the citizens they were supposed to serve.
The new intellectual class was deeply critical of government action, especially the ways it propped up big business, and they invested a ton of energy into criticizing, investigating, and suing the government. The non-profit wasn't really a thing before Nader, now it's some 10% of the private sector. Advocacy on behalf of Nader and associates dramatically expanded public comment periods on agency actions, "gave the agencies they created extremely detailed mandates, procedures, and timelines .... required judicial review of agency decisions, and explicitly empowered citizens to sue the agencies for not following the rules. (Previously, it wasn’t clear that a random individual American would have standing in such a case.)"
These ideas were intended to prevent bureaucrats from cravenly serving big business or from crushing the citizenry with their major projects, but of course they made it hard to implement major projects at all. Government slowed to a crawl, and of course money-flush big businesses found themselves better able to afford dealing with all the new regulations, and better able to make use of judicial review and comment periods. All this has led us to our kludgocracy where:
Across the country, NIMBYs and status-quo defenders exploit procedural rules to block new development, giving us a world where it takes longer to get approval for a single new building in San Francisco than it did to build the entire Empire State Building, where so-called “environmental review” is weaponized to block even obviously green initiatives like solar panels, and where new public works projects are completed years late and billions over budget—or, like California’s incredible shrinking high-speed rail, may never be completed at all.
There are strong shades of the kind of supply-side progressivism talked about by Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias, and Noah Smith, that holds we have overcorrected from the era of Robert Moses running highways through helpless neighborhoods to a world where its impossible to do anything big at all or for the government to effectively serve its people. The problem is broader now, the liberal desire not just for lengthy review but expanding government without holding it to clear standards; the conservative impulse to cut budgets regardless of efficacy or to saddle troublesome agencies with oversight bodies that save no money but slow activity down to a crawl; the seemingly bipartisan willingness to allow technical skill to corrode in the government and contract everything out to dubiously useful and vastly more expensive consultants. But it's interesting to hear one version of the story of where this general anti-government movement began and really took traction. Interested to hear what other people thought of it.
It's a book review submitted to Scott Alexander's blog for his book review contest(not by me, I just enjoyed reading it). It a summary of an Icelandic Saga that's half-fable, half-historical record of a series of legal proceedings in medieval Iceland, and how society that teeters between civilization and barbarism.
Scott has posted a discussion of the conversation about eugenics, framed as an actual conversation. I found it thought-provoking, as he made better arguments for both sides than I am used to seeing from either.
A: Given that mild, consensual forms of eugenics have historically led to extreme, horrifying versions, we have reason to believe the topic is a slippery slope which ought to be avoided outright.
B: This proves too much, as there are plenty of other ideas with similar history but much higher body counts. Thus eugenics ought to be carefully investigated rather than tabooed outright.
In the footnotes, he also presents C: Ehrlich did nothing wrong, and sometimes expected-value calculations don’t plan for the long tails. Democracy, as a form of distributed consent, is our best way to square this circle. This (correctly, IMO) leaves Scott uncomfortable. I appreciate that he included it.
I was not at all familiar with Ehrlich’s work, or with the quintessentially-McNamara history of Indian aid programs. Both add some valuable context for the argument. Oh, and I guess Scott talks about HBD a little bit; that’ll be catnip for this community, but it’s really secondary to the main thrust. Seriously, just read the article for a better version than anything I can write.
I made this a top level post because I think people here might want to discuss it but you can remove it if it doesn't meet your standards.
Edit: removed my opinion of Scott from the body
A brief argument that “moderation” is distinct from censorship mainly when it’s optional.
I read this as a corollary to Scott’s Archipelago and Atomic Communitarianism. It certainly raises similar issues—especially the existence of exit rights. Currently, even heavily free-speech platforms maintain the option of deleting content. This can be legal or practical. But doing so is incompatible with an “exit” right to opt back in to the deleted material.
Scott also suggests that if moderation becomes “too cheap to meter,” it’s likely to prevent the conflation with censorship. I’m not sure I see it. Assuming he means something like free, accurate AI tagging/filtering, how does that remove the incentive to call [objectionable thing X] worthy of proper censorship? I suppose it reduces the excuse of “X might offend people,” requiring more legible harms.
As a side note, I’m curious if anyone else browses the moderation log periodically. Perhaps I’m engaging with outrage fuel. But it also seems like an example of unchecking (some of) the moderation filters to keep calibrated.
Scott wades into the Culture War again with a delightfully dorky dialogue about Columbus Day. Contains lots of references to the other other Scott.