Comments on “The Court of Values and the Bureau of Boringness”


I know you are saying that

Tim's picture

I know you are saying that your proposal is an absurd satire, but I'm aware of an occasion where a part of it was put into practice.

The National Status auction

Progressives might want to give a National Status boost to poor people. But… let’s think outside the box for a minute. Maybe you should be allowed to just buy Status? And the purchase price would go toward the national budget, to be used as the Boring Bureaucracy decides.

Consider an annual Status auction. You can bid however much you want for National Status; the bids are sorted, and where you are in the rank order determines what Status you get. How much would you pay?

You’d probably bid more if the formula depended partly on the auction, and partly on virtue. No one knows for sure if you have a 73 status because you recycle dutifully and go to church every week and eat a balanced diet, or because you just bought your status. Now how much would you bid?

Rich people would, of course, all have high National Status. Extremely unfair! Except, I think they might wind up spending a substantial fraction of their income in competition for it. I would guess that a Status 100 gold star badge might get bid up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Everyone would know that it was just money—but that’s what yachts are, too. For the 1%, it would seem worth it.

I used to play a video game called the Kingdom of Loathing, a long time ago. It was a niche browser based multiplayer RPG that attracted a cult following due to their peculiar sense of humour.

The people who made Kingdom of Loathing are brilliant humourists but not the world's best programmers. When the game was new, in 2003, they accidentally introduced a bug where players could generate infinite in-game money. This threatened to destroy the in-game economy.

They needed to do something. Ideally, they could have just rolled back the system to the state before the bug. But the bug went on for too long before it got patched. Sure, you could confiscate the hacked money from the hackers, but they transacted with other people, who transacted with others, and so on. The cheated money was too dispersed in the economy, and they would hit too many innocents with any confiscation scheme.

So they had a better idea. They started creating arbitrary in-game status competitions. Competitions that cost a lot of in game currency. So much currency that only people who had hacked infinite money would be able to afford them. The idea was to incentivize people, via completely arbitrary, useless in game items and competitions, to spend their hacked money. And since it was being spent on game-managed things, and not exchanged with other players, this removed it from the economy.

The best part was that all of the things they introduced were tongue-in-cheek self-aware about the fact that only cheaters could purchase them. The best example of this is the Mr. Exploiter. From the description text:

This is a badge of "honor" purchased by somebody who was "wealthy."

It was sold from an (in-game) store operated by the penguin mafia.

This is stupid, you'd think. These items are completely useless. They aren't even good status goods; they flag you forever as a cheater. You could spend the game money on making your game play easier, on getting the best equipment, on whatever. You could randomly give it away. You could use it to bribe people and cause community shenanigans. You could do anything with it.

Except that this worked. Everyone ate it up. The Mr. Exploiters and related items successfully drained enough in-game currency from the economy to restore balance and order.

Your 'ridiculous' proposition... it has been tried in about as real-world conditions as you're ever going to get. And it worked fabulously. People really do care about status more than anything else

Cloaking devices

pompolic's picture

Suppose someone invents cloaking devices. Suppose a there's a particularly privacy-conscious Bureau at the time, and they legalize them. Would this threaten the Court? In general, I'd be tempted to design various methods of opting out of, or subverting the Court's authority. How would the system handle this?

I assume one of the options that the status-minded people decide to vote in the Bureau elections next round, so they can outlaw opting out. But I think this could trigger an arms race. (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing in my opinion.)

And if the method happens to have significant benefits that are orthogonal to the status competition (For example: cloaking device also somehow cures cancer,) the Bureau might decide against banning it anyway. What happens then?

P.S.: I found Assistant Attache of Bureau of Buffer Bounds Checking hilarious.

The opposite of politics

I՚m probably responding too seriously, but I can՚t help noting that this post is based on essentially the exact opposite of the idea I՚ve been trying to articulate recently, which is that material interests and symbolic values are inextricably linked and that linkage is kind of the essence of what politics is about. So I don՚t see this as a problem to be solved, more like a game that needs to be understood and played better.

Another random thought: There have been other attempts to split off the boring parts of government and isolate them from sectarian conflicts, that is what the civil service bureaucracy is supposed to be about. This sort of works, albeit with many problems and instabilities.

Material and symbolic inextricably linked

Yes... that is where I was pointing with "how it might be addressed in a less silly and totalistic way."

Viewing it as a game rather than a problem may be helpful... although that doesn't seem like quite the right framing either. Maybe because I'm less on any side than you are. It's not that I want to shut the game down, it's that I'm not interested in winning, but in improving outcomes for everyone.

I do, also, see it as a problem because the symbolic tail has come to wag the material dog. I don't want to amputate the tail, but I'd like to calm it down enough that the dog can get on with its doggy business instead of flailing around on the ground spastically.

On your second thought: in many ways, Britain had, or used to have, a system relevantly similar to what I sketched here, including an independent civil service. It worked pretty OK at times; at others, not. Currently, not, unfortunately; the UK seems to be determined to throw itself off a cliff.

Simulations, also cake

floodmouse's picture

I would love to see you model this as a game, then run it for a few election cycles on a large sample group - but it would be hard to recruit subjects (at least, a representative cross-section of adults). You might have to promise them cake. Maybe you could draft a class of junior high schoolers, or upper middle schoolers, or whatever they call them these days.

When you program this game, you'll need to include a sort of "none-of-the-above," in addition to options A and B. A certain number of people will be offended at this form of government (possibly more due to the mandatory offensive costumes than to excluding the majority from policy decisions with this dog and pony show). The playtesters in your simulation should be allowed (encouraged?) to foment revolt and reform movements. (Put some clickable floating "sedition" links in between your reality shows, or the public service announcements for "National Participation Day." You know how gamers love searching for hidden levels and secret messages, and ways to hack the official rules.)

BTW: Faith is the belief that there is cake on the table, out of your two-dimensional line of sight. Atheism is the knowledge that there IS no table, since it is clearly impossible for objects to exist in the third dimension.

Also: The visible-status-badge thing has already been tried. In Europe, there were "sumptuary laws" to restrict merchants from dressing like the nobility. Your take on this is almost like an "anti-sumptuary law," where you are deliberately putting status on sale, instead of trying to ban the sale of status. All the same, I think the People's New Literalist Army would have something to say about "branding" people at the bottom of the ladder. It would be interesting to see if the lowest-status people rebelled against wearing the badges, or were too apathetic. I can also see a scenario where the "cool" people compete for the lowest status (as a gesture of rebellion), either by deliberately lowering their real status through anti-social behavior, or by manufacturing/distributing contraband fake badges that are not sanctioned by the Court of Values. (And how would you penalize that?)

I loved this piece. I wouldn

Joshua Brulé's picture

I loved this piece. I wouldn't be surprised if "Court of Values" and "Bureau of Boringness" end up working their way into my vocabulary when I talk about political systems.

Some comments/thoughts in no particular order:

Your national status badges remind me of Scott Alexander's "symbolic beads"

I love the idea of co-opting the urge for superior social status into something more useful, but I suspect it's one of those anti-inductive things. Which you address by pointing out the Court needs enough 'bite' to keep people interested - power over other people never seems to go out of style. But I'm really hesitant to cut out even a single section of the Schelling fence of, say, Free Speech. Once it's down, I don't think we get to renegotiate that later. Or to put it in dynamical systems terms, I think we're in a (kind of) stable equilibrium because enough people treat free speech as 'sacred'. Once we stop treating it as sacred, I think the ball keeps rolling towards more and more censorship.

But once we've carved out all the really dangerous stuff away from the Court of Values, I'm not sure there's enough left to ever get me interested in that election. Maybe I'm unusually passive in that regard, though.

To a certain degree, I think "Bureaus of Boringness" exist already and can work pretty well. I'm thinking of the USB Implementors Forum, or the IETF or the Unicode Consortium. Sure, they have their own politics, and every now and then someone sends a (U+1F595) to everyone on the Unicode mailing list, but it's pretty tame all things considered. Mainly because I don't think you sign up for the Unicode mailing list unless you really care about Unicode.

I kind of have a 'mental encyclopedia' of alternative forms of government and tweaks to existing ones I'd like to see somewhere try. I started building it up back when I was solidly in Stage 4 and still searching for The One True Form of Government. I often wonder to what degree the US could be replaced with a collection of (probably balkanized) mini-states held together by a mutual defense pact, some common economic protocols and guaranteed exit rights between mini-states. Related: I've been playing with the consequences of trying to replace most of the functions of government with publicly traded corporations, but with quadratic voting rights for their shareholders.

I should probably write some of this up, but it's been on the backburner for a while. Partially because there's a bunch of problems I just can't seem to solve. The most glaring one is usually, "How do we get from here to there." Hanson's suggested a path forward with Futarchy - corporations have begun using prediction markets internally, which may give us more data on how effective are they are and what their failure modes look like. From there, it might start being used for certain corporate governance functions and then eventually work its way into state/national governments.

I think I'd be quite happy living in a competently-engineered Aretopia. It might even be a stable equilibrium. But getting us into that state would require a Sufficiently Smart Coup. If we had a Sufficiently Smart Electorate, we wouldn't even need to change the current system.

The other reason I haven't been spending a lot of time on this sort of thing lately is that my advisor was not impressed when I showed up with another idea for a cryptocurrency and he asked me if this was why my thesis proposal wasn't ready yet...

Rebellion &c

I'd be tempted to design various methods of opting out of, or subverting the Court's authority. How would the system handle this?

It doesn't matter, for the scheme to work, whether the Court is effective in its own terms. Its function in the larger scheme is to draw "low-information voters" out of the Bureaucratic election. Having a fraction of the population successfully defying the Court might attract additional voters who wanted to punish the rebels.

Scott Alexander's "symbolic beads"

I think I had read that, so I may have been influenced! But both of us are strongly influenced by the economic and evopsych signaling literature, which makes the idea pretty obvious.

I'm really hesitant to cut out even a single section of the Schelling fence of, say, Free Speech. Once it's down, I don't think we get to renegotiate that later.

I agree. I think it's a disaster that the UK has de facto reinstated the crime of blasphemy (applying only to Islam). And some American universities rather similarly (applying only to social-justice-as-religion).

to what degree the US could be replaced with a collection of (probably balkanized) mini-states

Presumably you are familiar with Scott's Archipelago essay? I'm planning to write about that too.

Flavors of Archipelago

Joshua Brulé's picture

Archipelago is one of those ideas that keeps popping up in various forms. I think I first read about it on Moldbug's blog, read about it later as Nozick's "meta-utopia", got the full-blown an-cap version from David Friedman's Machinery of Freedom, stumbled on Scott Alexander's Raikoth and read Robin Hanson's take on "Law as a Regulated Private Good". And I'm probably missing a few other versions. (There's also Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and The Diamond Age; Snow Crash is straight anarcho capitalism, The Diamond Age adds a 'Common Economic Protocol' that everyone subscribes to if I remember correctly)

The 'special sauce' I was trying to add to my take on Archipelago is that the multi-state corporations would be required (or maybe just 'encouraged' ) to adopt quadratic voting - owning N shares buys you sqrt(N) votes. I didn't make it that far in the analysis, though.

Interesting idea. We already

John's picture

Interesting idea. We already have some of the infrastructure for the court you describe in place. There are government-granted awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the EU's written declarations

One path to get us from here to there might be to try to shift de facto power from the federal level to the state & local level. Then pass laws that force a person to either vote in the federal election or the state/local election. Unfortunately "state's rights" is kind of a tough sell in the US because it's historically associated with slavery. But I think that's just an unfortunate historical coincidence. In general nearby governments seem more efficient than faraway ones.

It might not actually be necessary to shift power. Just having competent state/local governments would give us a "backup plan" if things implode at the federal level. From a libertarian perspective, the only really critical function of government (law enforcement) is mostly handled at the state level. Axing your average federal agency does not lead to the end of the world. I'd worry a bit about the department of defence, the patent & trademark office, and the securities and exchange commission though.

The idea of making the court vs bureau distinction federal vs local also allows your idea to be tried out on a small scale, and phased in piecemeal. Convincing the entire nation to make a big change like this would be a tough sell. Convincing a small geeky town would be much easier.

One unexpected bad outcome: Let's say we've got a town that's full of passionate cultural warriors. 99% of them are opting to vote in the federal election instead of the local one. The remaining 1%? Corrupt local businessmen and municipal authorities. So we're back to the original problem.

Another item of interest: I

John's picture

Another item of interest: I hear in Texas the governor is largely a figurehead and the lieutenant governor holds the real power. Wonder if this is true and if so what can be learned?

Jonathan Haidt has the same

John's picture

Jonathan Haidt has the same idea I do:

"We have to recognize that we’re in a crisis, and that the left-right divide is probably unbridgeable. And if it is, we’ll have to give up on doing big things in Washington, and do as little as we possibly can at the national level. We’re going to have to return as much as we can to states and localities, and hope that innovative solutions spring from technology or private industry."

Another thing like this that

John's picture

Another thing like this that already exists is knighthood in Britain. There's a ceremony, you get the title of "Sir", etc.

Unfortunately, I worry that things like knighthood tend to gain significance over time, and if you were to start a tradition like that from scratch it would take a while to accumulate prestige. The best approach might be to steal existing traditions. For example, get the Queen to make the question of who gets knighted something that's determined democratically.

It might not even be

John's picture

It might not even be necessary to restrict people to voting in a max of 1 election. The important thing is to generate bullshit culture war stories that suck up all the attention of the press while having no actual impact on how anything functions. As long as all the bottom feeding outlets are busy writing about the symbolic election, the discussion of the actual election can stay intelligent.

Instead of a national holiday

John's picture

Instead of a national holiday with national outfits: have a government department that's devoted to funding the creation of movies or video games? These areas are already well-trodden culture war battlegrounds. (You could also have the bureau veto Hollywood movies, except that would violate freedom of speech.)

Make the House of Lords silly again!

Wow, yes, that's reality imitating satire.

All the UK needs now to implement my proposal is to let people vote for either the Lords or Commons; and to put the Lords back in charge of honours, which would thereby give them a role in governing, which they currently lack.

i totally disagree with the

jz's picture

i totally disagree with the way you associated nihilists with ancaps. anarchy/libertarianism is a moral code. nihilists can get along with ancaps as far as they can with holders of any other code: until their quasi-valuelessness becomes a problem.

I stopped reading the Haidt

Harold's picture

I stopped reading the Haidt/Cowen interview when they posited that dentists are conservative. This has not been my experience in NYC, at all. Where you live trumps everything.

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