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Transhumanist/Singularitian Political Food Fight

Transhumanist/Singularitian Political Food FightIt starts, apparently, with an essay by Peter Thiel — PayPal founder and generous fund provider to many transhumanist projects including the Singularity Institute for Advanced Intelligence (SIAI) — published in CATO Unbound, the periodical of the powerful Washington D.C.-based libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute.

In the essay, "The Education of a Libertarian," Thiel wrote some things that Mike Treder, Managing Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology (IEET) (and former h+ Nano columnist,) found disturbing and reprehensible.

Among them, this:
"The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women—two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians—have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron."

and this:
“I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”

and this:
"In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms—from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called “social democracy.”

Transhumanist/Singularitian Political Food Fight Treder responded in his IEET journal with a piece titled "No More Libertarians." Responding to Thiel’s favorable attitude towards the 1920s, he wrote, "By this reasoning, then, rolling back the clock a hundred years or more is the best prescription for what ails us. If only we could go back to that glorious Gilded Age in American history, when capitalism stood unquestioned as a force for good, when millionaires openly wielded their political power without compunction, when white males occupied all the positions of power and influence, then maybe all our other problems would go away."

After ReadWriteWeb ran an item on Thiel’s association with Facebook… and incidentally, with SIAI (sans any mention of his political thinking), Michael Anissimov — Media Director of SIAI and h+ contributor — was moved to write on his Accelerating Future blog that he is a liberal democrat who lives in San Francisco (emphasis his) and — calling Thiel "our friend" — he commented further that "SIAI is catching some flak from others in the transhumanist community from a perceived connection between our organization and political libertarianism," and protested that "SIAI is non-political… SIAI gets donations from Thiel because of what we’re about, trying to engineer AI that helps humans rather than hurts them… Politics is not the central issue. Helping people is. Surviving the future is."

Treder then commented on Anissimov’s post, quoting Dante Aligheiri, :The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality" and then adding, "Professing neutrality when faced with the moral repugnance of views like Peter Thiel’s is a sure ticket to a warmer climate."

Phil Browermaster, who blogs at The Speculist and hosts the FastForward Radio podcast, then responded in the same discussion to Treder’s comment, writing:

Transhumanist/Singularitian Political Food Fight "Sheesh, if I wanted to see people get condemned to a lake of fire for all eternity for honestly trying to work out their position on complex issues, I wouldn’t typically come to this site. Maybe I’d go back to the Southern Baptist church camp in Alabama that I attended as a teenager."

He also wrote: "One area where transhumanists consistently disappointment me is politics. We can talk about accelerating change and singularities and human enhancement and the possibilities are endless, but when the subject comes to politics, everyone seems to revert to one of a very small number of philosophical templates, most of them created in the 19th century or earlier. And for some reason those are inviolate."

Anissimov appreciated his comments enough to make  them the center of another blog post on the issue.

My suggestion? Kegger at the White House!



  1. All Mr. Thiel appears to have said was that women appeared to be an anti-libertarian polity, and that he felt that welfare supporting votes added to a “womens vote” boded ill for libertarianism.
    This is no more a call for denying women the franchise than abjuring the openly unthinking voting of many young voters is to call for their removal from the voter’s rolls. Mr. Thiel appears to have tripped the hair trigger on Mr. Treder’s taboo reflex.
    The specific taboo must be something more broad than women voting, as Mr. Thiel implied criticism of womens’ voting trend in relation to libertarianism; he once again didn’t argue that they should be denied the vote. So the taboo may be the common one today broadly labeled “womens issues.” Mr. Thiel would then be an apostate because he didn’t speak respectfully enough for Mr. Treder.
    Please, Mr. Treder, if you achieve a dominant status in a posthuman singularity-like world, consider using a more rational analysis of those you judge. I, if I survive the transition, may be one of your “happy subjects.” Given sense of justice indicated by your sentence to hell of the notorious taboo violator Thiel, I’m sure that I and my fellow subjects will be most appreciative of your inspired opinions.
    Regarding women and libertarianism, I disagree with the idea of abandoning the marketplace of politics because the market isn’t “fair.”
    Many more women than men, in my experience, have a more communitarian than individual centered political view. But not all women are like this, and very many men join the communitarian position.
    The communication that we have due to modern technology and the strength of the ideas of Adam Smith, John Locke, Hayek and so many others will sway more women as well as men as time passes-if those of us who believe in these ideas engage and do battle in the political marketplace.

  2. While I may not go so far as Thiel as to say that freedom and democracy are not compatible, I certainly share his pessimism about the likelihood of democracy ever leading to freedom.

    Freedom and democracy may not be incompatible, given an educated and worthy electorate, but they sure as hell don’t go hand in hand. The United States of America was, fortunately, founded by men who valued Liberty and feared Democracy – that is why is was established as a Republic. It was, of course, a deeply flawed institution at the time, but it was the best available and it led to a meteoric rise in wealth and quality of life for more than a century. The democratization of America has led to some changes, to be sure – more freedom for some people, less freedom for others – but it has certainly erected many obstacles to the freedom and betterment of humankind.

    It is an unfortunate fact of history that Freedom has few friends. Sure, everyone wants freedom for themself, but most stop short of granting the same freedom to others. I am reminded of a passage by the socialist author R. B. Cunninghame Graham about events in Asuncion in 1543:

    “On April 8, 1543, the Governor returned to Asuncion, worn out and ill with ague. There he found all confusion. Domingo de Irala, a clever, ambitious Biscayan soldier who had been interim Governor before Nuñez had arrived, had worked upon the people, saying that Nuñez wished to take away their property. As their chief property was in Indians whom they had enslaved, this rendered Nuñez most unpopular, and the same kind of allegations were laid against him as were laid against the Jesuits when in their turn they denounced slavery in Paraguay. All the complaints were in the name of liberty, as generally is the case when tyranny or villainy of any sort is to be done.

    “So Alvar Nuñez tells us in his Commentaries that at the hour of the Ave Maria ten or twelve of the `factious’ entered his house where he lay ill in bed, all shouting `Liberty!’ and to prove they were all good patriots one Jaime Resquin put a bent crossbow to his side, and forced him to get out of bed, and took him off to prison amid a crowd all shouting `Liberty!’ … The friends of Alvar Nuñez, in the usual Spanish fashion (long sanctified by use and wont), declared themselves in opposition — that is, they roamed about the land, proving by theft and murder that their love of liberty was just as strong as that of those in power.”

    Democracy, thus, becomes merely a question of two foxes and a hen deciding on what to have for dinner. The choice of fare – the unfortunates to be harnessed for the amusement and greed of the strongest party – may change, but the principle remains the same, and the world has not yet seen a free society.

    In America today, a coalition of the rich and the poor have decreed that every responsible, hard-working subject shall be their slave. “Welfare” monies are taken from the producers and divided among the elites, the bureaucrats who administer the system, and the indigent – thus providing a majority that can quash any protests. Occasionally the situation shifts, and a different coalition sets themselves up as masters of the slaves, but that is the only change that ever happens.

  3. Why do people always talk about politics like it was inherently different from everything else that happens in the world?

    A political system is just a scaled up version of the interaction that occurs between all living things, with the addition of absurdly ugly neckties. Throughout the animal kingdom you will find animals that tend to be so “hard working” that they produce extra which is siphoned off by parasites, or scavengers, or children, or whatever. Because it would cost the “producing” animal more to prevent the scavengers from taking than it would to simply let them take, the scavengers and parasites are allowed to continue.

    The equation is complicated by the fact that very few parasites are actually independently and unequivocally evil. Most of them form a symbiosis, if not with the object of their actions then with the rest of the ecosystem as a whole. For example, mosquitoes are a rich source of food for man insect-eating animals BECAUSE they are full of blood. They take a little from a large animal and distribute it around, forming the basis of the food chain that ultimately supports the things that animal depends on to live and produce more blood for the mosquito.

    Perhaps the reason the political system in the US has been so successful is that it balances the competing interests of the producers and the parasites (to reference Rand). What is humanity’s history but a long cycle of something being built, and then that something being destroyed by a powerful elite or a powerful mob? The US system placates both the elite and the mob enough that they don’t actively destroy the system, and keeps them in competition enough that they can’t quite destroy it accidentally.

    Anywho, arguing over what we should do is good. Pretending that someone has all the answers and the argument is therefore only perpetuated by idiots is bad.

  4. I don’t make a habit of listening to (small l) libertarians. For a group of people supposedly about “freedom,” they’re awfully quick to decide that one group or another should be disenfranchised. One thinks women don’t deserve to vote, another wants to keep the poor and/or welfare recipients away from the polls.

    These “libertarians” are NOT about freedom for everyone. They are wealthy, white men who can’t stand the fact that the United States has CHANGED over the last 230 years. They might claim to be about capitalism over socialism, meritocracy over seniority, or logic over emotion. They are really about rich WASPs über alles.

  5. The problem with the “America-was-founded-as-a-republic” meme is that it leaves half the story out. The founders WERE republicans and WERE worried about democracy, but the republic they founded was stillborn. It did not lead to a “meteoric rise in wealth and quality of life for more than a century” because it didn’t last that long. If it led to anything, it was the Constitution, which was an attempt by elites to reign in the wreckless democratic impulses that independence had unleashed. Perhaps those impulses needed to be reigned in, but even this attempt failed. Democracy continued to trump republicanism in such developments as the rise of the Democratic-Republican clubs of the 1790s, the Whiskey Rebellion, and the later emergence of the Locofocos. By Andrew Jackson’s time, democracy had completely taken over and republicanism was but a dim memory of a long-dead dream. (Of course, republicanism’s RHETORIC lives on to this day, but that’s just advertising.) John Quincy Adams, arguably the last president who even knew what republicanism was, languished in popularity in no small measure because he was so far past his due date.

  6. … despite their surfeit of toys. The cartoon of the same name got it right: “After the Singularity, being white and rich will be even _more_ awesome.” Or after Mr. Thiel and his acolytes take over the government/financial system… oh, wait!

    To use a stock phrase from another franchise: “Beam me up, Scotty!” When is the next starship to Tau Ceti?

  7. I have never before heard of libertarians who would oppose womens right to vote. Some question democracy, but they do not want to give men (or white) more rights than to women (or black), as such discrimination would be illiberal, i.e., contradictory with libertarianism.

    A typical libertarian stand is that democracy is the least evil, but the constitution should make it difficult for any majority to overrule freedom.

    This Peter Thiel is really a strange exception among (semi-)libertarians.

  8. Thiel’s follow-up comments to criticism about his essay:

    “I had hoped my essay on the limits of politics would provoke reactions, and I was not disappointed. But the most intense response has been aimed not at cyberspace, seasteading, or libertarian politics, but at a commonplace statistical observation about voting patterns that is often called the gender gap.

    It would be absurd to suggest that women’s votes will be taken away or that this would solve the political problems that vex us. While I don’t think any class of people should be disenfranchised, I have little hope that voting will make things better.

    Voting is not under siege in America, but many other rights are. In America, people are imprisoned for using even very mild drugs, tortured by our own government, and forced to bail out reckless financial companies.

    I believe that politics is way too intense. That’s why I’m a libertarian. Politics gets people angry, destroys relationships, and polarizes peoples’ vision: the world is us versus them; good people versus the other. Politics is about interfering with other people’s lives without their consent. That’s probably why, in the past, libertarians have made little progress in the political sphere. Thus, I advocate focusing energy elsewhere, onto peaceful projects that some consider utopian.”

  9. “…a very small number of philosophical templates, most of them created in the 19th century or earlier. And for some reason those are inviolate.”

    Actually, they were created during the Putney debates of 1647 during the English Civil War. Every possible variation of “who tells people what to do with their lives and their stuff and what they tell them” was proposed. It’s not that the templates are inviolate–it’s just that those templates are the only ones.

    Historical thesis: The debates came about then and there because of Gutenberg’s printing press, the fall of Constantinople, and Henry VIII’s break with Rome. Those events occurred over a hundred year span starting about two hundred years before. They provoked modern political philosophy.

  10. I wrote Justinian when I meant Constantine. My bad.

  11. Technology has enhanced the debate’s answers, slightly. Increased bandwidth for communication and massive computing power may allow direct democracy to replace representative democracy, a la Alastair Reynolds’ The Prefect. The limits, no limits distinction still applies.

    My own preferred answer waffles between nobody and democracy (or democratic representation) with limits. While we’re waiting for the Singularity, I’d like to nudge our society toward the limited government/anarchy end of the spectrum. The problem is “Democracy is the worst form of government ever devised by the mind of man, except for all those others that have been tried from time to time.” Democracy is messy, inefficient, and prone to corruption and excess. Unfortunately, democracy is the one form of government that produces results that most people are willing to grant legitimacy, meaning that they will put up with the results since the alternative is civil war, which is a Bad Thing.

    That is where the limits notion kicks in, since it increases the likelihood of results that will be granted legitimacy. Unless a nation is shielded by mountains (Switzerland), or the North Atlantic (Iceland), history’s most successful set of limits has been the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution is far from perfect, and there is a constant temptation to tinker. It is a fragile agreement, always threatening to fall apart from stresses produced by an internal contradiction, like the nation’s attitude and treatment of non-Northern Europeans and women.

    That fragility is why I sympathize, but not always agree, with the “let’s do things the way we’ve always done things” crowd. You have to keep an eye on the stresses and decide whether the advantages of dealing with the internal contradictions are worth the risk of bringing down the whole thing. That’s the scary part of constitutional reform.

  12. “Unless a nation is shielded by mountains (Switzerland), or the North Atlantic (Iceland), history’s most successful set of limits has been the U.S. Constitution.”

    Actually, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans have been pretty good shields, too. It’s important not to forget that a big part of the reason the US is in the financial position it is right now is that all its competition got destroyed during the world wars. The US was too far away to attack, so all its infrastructure remained intact.

    Combine that with the fact that the US was lucky enough to have access to most of a continent with no significant political history, and neighbouring countries that have no military agenda, and it becomes a bit harder to claim that the constitution is the primary reason the US has been so successful.

    I’m not saying the Constitution isn’t rad, I’m just saying it could have been a footnote if the ground hadn’t been so fertile.

  13. “Voting is not under siege in America, but many other rights are. In America, people are imprisoned for using even very mild drugs, tortured by our own government, and forced to bail out reckless financial companies.”

    Yeah, pot should be legalized (and probably most everything else, too). Unless he’s expanding the definition of torture even more than it has been already, the (alleged) torture didn’t happen to Americans. Also, I don’t think there’s a ‘right’ to opt out of the uses of your tax dollars that you specifically happen to disagree with.

    “I believe that politics is way too intense. That’s why I’m a libertarian. Politics gets people angry, destroys relationships, and polarizes peoples’ vision: the world is us versus them; good people versus the other. Politics is about interfering with other people’s lives without their consent.”

    Yeah. That’s a little dramatic, but basically that’s what politics is. However, humans didn’t invent any of that stuff, we just labeled it ‘politics.’ The simple fact is that no two people will ever agree on everything, and the larger the group the more likely disagreements become. When the disagreements are about things like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness the parties do tend to become animated. . .cuz that stuff is important. People who try harder (get intense) are almost always rewarded with more of what they want than people who don’t try as hard.

    Technology might be the only thing that has any hope of changing that dynamic. Most of what we fight over are limited resources. If we can figure out a way to ensure that those resources aren’t limited, we’ll probably fight less.

  14. Here is the actual rant I was referring to, in case I forgot to post it. If it is just too long, I understand.

    BTW, I have a complete collection of Mondo 2000.

    Shameless fanboy

    Perhaps I was a little terse. Before Gutenberg and after the Dark and Middle Ages, about the only books to be found in Europe were the Bible and books talking about the Bible. That worked out because if anyone had questions about God or Jesus or good and evil they were supposed to ask a priest appointed by the Pope. That was because the kings and princes and counts and so forth had inherited the deal brokered by the Roman Emperor Justinian a thousand years before: “I will become a Christian and make Christianity the state religion if you guys can stop squabbling, come up with a common creed and decide what books are in the bible and what books are not. In return, you just have to tell people to obey the secular authorities and you can take ten percent off the top. I can make the deal stick because, you see those guys over there with bows and arrows and spears and clubs? They work for me.” The barbarian kings and princes who assumed power after Rome kept up the deal.

    The printing press with moveable, durable type cut the price of making a copy of a book by, what, a factor of a thousand over hand copying or printing with woodcuts that were hand carved. People got their own copies of the Bible and some of them started asking, “Why do we need priests appointed by the Pope if I can read the Bible myself, talk it over with my neighbors, and select someone to moderate the discussions?” Bang, Protestant Reformation.

    Some of the kings and princes and so forth saw how worked up people were getting over this religious stuff and said, “Hey, guys. I’m a Protestant, too. Help me with my fight with my cousin, who’s a Catholic.” Bang, religious wars.

    In 1454 the Ottoman Turks take over Constantinople, effectively ending the Byzantine Empire. With the way to the Holy Land blocked to crusader armies, Europe started sending traders and merchants, instead. The dribble of stuff from North Africa and the Near and Middle East became a flood of spices, pigments, dies, and books. These were books of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, books of the modern Islamic and Jewish philosophers and mathematicians and astronomers and alchemists, and copies of the books of the Bible that hadn’t made the cut dictated by Justinian. People who were reading the Bible and thinking about God now had more to read and think about.

    A hundred years later Henry asks the Pope for a divorce and gets turned down. He says to priests in England, “You guys no longer report to the Pope, you report to me. If you have any questions, ask those guys over there with the guns and bows and arrows and spears and clubs. They also work for me. Now, give me my divorce.”

    Another hundred years go by, and the Protestant Reformation and the religious wars hit England. Here, the question becomes not “Why do we need the priests and the Pope?” but “why do we need the priests and the king?” The English civil War sees the king held captive by the rebels, and the various factions send representatives to debate about what to do with him. Some of the representatives ask, “Instead of asking what do we do with king, we should be asking what do we do without him.”

    Those questions morph into “Who tells people what to do with their lives and their stuff?” The answers turn out to be variations on A: nobody, B: the people and institutions who’ve always told us, C: our democratically elected representatives with no limits, D: our democratically elected representatives with no limits, and we’ll hold those elections just as soon as the current crisis is over, E: our democratically elected representatives with limits, or F: the “best” people, as determined by divine right, racial purity, environmental awareness, or some other criteria.

    Transhumanism and the Singularity add no new answers. They do hold out the promise that individuals will become so powerful that they can’t be told what to do with their lives and their stuff, and that stuff becomes so cheap and plentiful that no one cares about it very much. Libertarianism becomes the de facto state of affairs because all associations have to be voluntary and no one cares how the tab gets split.

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