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The Return of the Utopians (newyorker.com)
70 points by pepys on Oct 5, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 59 comments



I lived in two Utopian experiments, and am trying to create a third. The first was Deep Springs College, a two-year free-ride all-male school founded in 1917 and still operating in eastern California. 13 students admitted per year. The second was a zen center that operated in San Francisco and environs. The third is a startup whose sole constraint is to survive. Like all utopias, come to think of it. One thing you learn about utopias is that they are painful. Because they require changes in behavior, and because you must listen to others, and learn to live with them. It is a long process. It doesn't work if you let the wrong people in, which means that whole nations can't attempt it. Some must be silenced or excluded for a utopia to function.


"Some must be silenced or excluded for a utopia to function" and "It doesn't work if you let the wrong people in".

Powerful and brutally honest. Especially in today's political atmosphere of "forced inclusion" and "diversity for the sake of diversity (whether racial, religious, or thought based)". I've witnessed the same thing you're talking about in online communities. They start out being created by one group who adhere to a very specific set of rules (often unspoken rules) and as more people gather the community starts to wilt and die, losing the original cohesion it once had. Those who leave often go and start another community, and the cycle repeats.


Hmm. I'm guessing at what you mean by "diversity for the sake of diversity", but - pretty sure that's definitely something from the perspective of those, well, on the receiving end of privilege.

Sure, diversity for diversity is a shittier reason than diversity to break the glass ceiling, or to cover bases you don't otherwise cover ("hey let's built a web app and never talk to dev ops!" "hey let's build something without figuring out how to sell it!"); there's those statistics that say teams with both men and women function better, yadda yadda...

...but like college graduation, it's not for you, or about you; it's about a bunch of other people.

Diversity-for-diversity looks pointless when you already think you can join those groups. It looks like realizing you have a possibility you never thought could be yours, when you think you can't join those groups.

Does that make any sense?

With regards to what you've seen with online communities, that sounds a lot like gentrification: you have an influx of people that, rather than trying to adapt themselves to the existing culture and contribute to it - to actually join what was there, try (inadvertently or deliberately) to adapt the culture to their existing selves. On the other hand, what's the point if you have to / end up conforming so much you can't add anything new?


"Diversity for the sake of diversity" may be better phrased as "choosing to recruit member of ingroup Y due to government and media pressure when market forces would have instead chosen member of outgroup X".

The problem is almost immediately obvious: advantaging Y at the expense of X, at a 1:1 ratio, is already very bad compared to eg anti-malaria tents in Africa. Considering the cost of intervention and the cost to market efficiency, this ratio gets much worse.

The X-member being displaced is marginal, which means likely poor. So this is inefficiently redistributing resources from poor people to other poor people.

There is also a natural justice angle, for which I paraphrase an old play:

"But ingroup Y has been treated like slaves for the last eight thousand years -"

"So what, outgroup X should cop it for the next eight thousand?"


Ah, took me a minute, but I think I see. I can honestly say I haven't seen this occur. Do you have any real-world examples (news, probably) you can link do?


A certain biomed firm has in its annual report that xx% of its engineers are female. It has a goal of increasing this to yy% by %year%.

Most of the eligible applicants are male. This is easily observed in university graduate numbers as well as stated in their report. These are pretty smart business people. I can't imagine they're doing this without knowing it will impact the bottom line to potentially have to pass up on promising candidates for not having the right sexual organ (which, unless things go very wrong, will not be utilized in their work). Yet this is depressingly common. I am guessing that they have weighed the cost of inefficiency against the improved corporate image - or, put another way, against the decreased media pressure - and chose the lesser of two evils.

Maybe an example outside of US will make it a bit easier to see:

http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/09/29/495665329/f...


You are assuming without data that the old hiring process was fair and those women will do less for that firm than other new employees.

I am assuming without data that those old hiring practices were bad predictors of success, and those women will do more for the firm than the average new hire.

In absence of data you rely on the assumption that hiring practices and corporate practices in general are mostly smart.

In the absence of data I rely on the assumption that hiring practices and corporate practices in general tend to be nepotistic and unrelated to performance.

To me, the best affirmative action just takes demographics and uses them as motivation to find bad performance metrics.


Eligible candidates for most jobs are not 50:50 in gender. For some fields it may be 90:10. This means a perfectly fair selection process will select 90 men and 10 women for every 100 jobs, or at least in this ballpark.

Affirmative action is mostly policed by media pressure. The media does not give a shit about the above math. They will read the line in the annual report that says '90% of our engineers are male' and name and shame you on twitter. Alternatively, being more politically correct than your peer competitors is a way to virtue-signal and you get little award badges to put on your website.

The politically correct ratio is 50:50. Let's say you have 100 available jobs and 1000 candidates, 900 men and 100 women. To enforce 50:50, you choose the best 50 men out of 900 and best 50 women out of 100.

Your hypothesis is that affirmative action unlocks economic benefits. This is asserting that the marginal female engineer who is better than 50% of her peers is superior to the marginal male engineer, who is better than 94% of his peers. Additionally, the difference must be large enough to overcome the inefficiency of messing with market mechanisms.

This is an extraordinary claim and would require extraordinary evidence.

What about the effect of nepotism? Let's say the hiring manager really doesn't like women, and the selection ends up 95:5. Five marginal female engineers are replaced by five marginal male engineers. Compared to the huge skewing above, this is a blip on the radar. Note I am not saying it is not a problem, I am saying the current solution is on average much worse.

I do not doubt that for some pathological cases affirmative action actually does have a positive effect on the bottom line. But this will only happen when the company is badly screwing up recruitment. On the other hand, companies with saner, optimized hiring processes are penalized with an arbitrary ratio.

The effect here is to boost inefficient businesses and penalize relatively efficient ones.


> This means a perfectly fair selection process will select 90 men and 10 women for every 100 jobs, or at least in this ballpark.

How does one know what the correct target ratio is for their field?

You have blind faith in market mechanisms. I have blind faith in the general equality of the sexes. I'm not saying I'm right, I fully acknowledge it's an article of faith. I'm just hoping I can get to acknowledge that your belief in male superiority in certain fields is also an article of faith.


>How does one know what the correct target ratio is for their field?

One can look at the distribution of m:f in the list of eligible applicants, or more generally in university graduate numbers. It will be subject to noise, but the 'natural' outcome should be at least in the same ballpark.

>I have blind faith in the general equality of the sexes. I'm not saying I'm right, I fully acknowledge it's an article of faith.

Blind faith is not necessary here. Nor is a belief in 'male superiority in certain fields'. I agree that given equal qualifications, gender should not affect performance to a great degree, yet affirmative action vastly skews recruitment to one side in this case and only makes sense if it turns out gender does affect performance and women are somehow vastly better (without this effect being picked up and accounted for by the market).


> that sounds a lot like gentrification

"Gentrification" is frequently just a polite euphemism for diversity that the person making the statement finds undesirable.


A friend of mine explained gentrification very nicely, because I really didn't understand (and still only kinda do):

You have a historically poor & hispanic neighborhood. Typically, the youth will hang out on a particular street corner; it's not like they've got other places to go, or, the other place they have to go (home) are worse.

Wealthier white people move in. They don't see kids being the only place the kids can be; they see thugs making them feel unsafe. They complain to the cops, or maybe actually call the cops. Kids end up dispersed. What community they had, they can't have anymore. Bad cases, some end up arrested. Worst cases, some end up shot.

Is this necessarily the fault of the new people? Eh. Fault, maybe not; cause, yeah, probably. A summation is: People with drastically different expectations for their neighborhood use power [they probably don't realize they have] to enforce those expectations. Existing community is displaced [without the new people realizing it].

Diversification doesn't result in displacement; (near as I can tell) gentrification does.

Yes, it is still a more complicated question (I have a new society, where do I put it?), continues to stay more complicated (cultures with non-monetary wealth get out-competed by cultures with monetary wealth), but the gist remains: are you participating in the existing culture, or replacing it? (Of course, if the existing culture doesn't let you participate, well...)


But it's a pipe dream. You won't escape diversity ever because at some point, sooner or later, someone is going to slightly diverge from the norm even if the group is closed. That's how humans behave.


> Some must be silenced or excluded for a utopia to function.

This is one of the better demonstrations / explanations of, I guess, benevolent tyranny, that I've seen: http://strongfemaleprotagonist.com/issue-6/page-32-3/ (occurs over the next ~8 pages)


Don't have enought time to click through all. How does it end for Ms. Green? Does she fail the class?


TL;DR - Getting people to successfully cooperate is hard; everybody has a different situation and knowledge set. Tyranny is trying to force people to cooperate along some lines.

The comic doesn't mention this, but looking up the history of the word "fascist" tells a similar story.


Zen Center in SF = the one everybody knows, or was it something else?

What about the 3rd one - the startup? Can you tell us more about it?


It is SFZC, the zen center everyone knows. It's actually a system of at least three zen centers: City Center on Page and Laguna; Green Gulch farm in Marin; and the Tassajara Monastery in the Ventana wilderness near Carmel. I lived in all three for about a year total, and the community of monks and practitioners moved moved from one to the other for operational and other reasons. It was (and probably still is) a great community.

The startup is Skymind.io, which supports an open-source deep learning platform that we created, Deeplearning4j, ND4J, DataVec and some other libs in the JVM big data ecosystem.

Startup as utopia is particular, different from previous communities in its main goals of growth and focus on product and customer. But underneath those differences, there are many similarities around how people communicate with and treat each other, and how the organization configures itself to share information, allow for individual autonomy and perform tasks together.

The Collison brothers probably have some interesting thoughts about this. I'd be interested to hear from some of the YC partners, too, about the extent to which they want YC to have utopian characteristics.


How was Deep Springs? A friend of mine told me about it and visited the campus ("campus"?), because he considered going, but he never did. I'm interested in hearing what someone who actually lived there thinks about it.


Deep Springs is located in a naturally majestic place (the high desert valley and surrounding mountains are breathtaking), and the school was the most vibrant intellectual community I ever knew. The students were very dedicated to learning, and most of them were also dedicated to the goals of the school: labor on the ranch/farm and communal governance. Students have a lot of power at DS to make their own decisions (and mistakes): they admit each incoming class, hire and fire the faculty, and choose their own curriculum from what the faculty can offer. The student body is usually around 25 people, and the rest of the community (faculty and their families, admin and farm and ranch operations) tends to double that to about 50. Because it is a two-year school, it changes and leaks institutional memory more quickly than other places, at least among the students. There are many Deep Springs, and each DSer walks away with his own vision and experience of it. The labor, governance and academic demands, during my time at least, made it so intense as to be excessive. It was probably a bit much for a bunch of 18 year olds. A few students always leave because of that. I hear it's better now.


  Ever tried. Ever failed.
  No matter. Try Again.
  Fail again. Fail better.
  -- Samuel Beckett
I see this as "two steps forward, one step back" kind of progress. Something you'd expect from an evolutionary process -- which the evolution of social structures clearly is.

So the fact that there's perceived progress, which is then overdone to the point the structures in question collapse, then people pull back (too far in the opposite direction?) and are apprehensive for a while, but then try again, differently, having (hopefully) learned a lesson.

One interesting observation: the "pull back" phase is not uniformly distributed across societies. For us in Eastern Europe, we observe West's cheerful march into deep Socialism with despair (our collapse being too recent). Apparently, in the West, it's a distant memory or never really happened, and the societies there are ready to give these utopias another shot (again, hopefully, having learned their lesson...).


If social structures are "clearly" in an evolutionary process, what's the fitness function, and what's the unit of selection?

This is an honest question. I can see plausible answers, but I don't think that the plausible answers suggest that fitness = utopia.


> West's cheerful march into deep Socialism

Say what now?!

You don't happen to know Ayn Rand by any chance do you?


I believe we live in Utopia of someone else. For instance Central Banks were created as a response to small banks bankruptcies, in order to make a "perfect world" in which banks could not fail.

Everybody knows the consequence, there are companies that are "too big to fail", people in power "too big to jail", and at the end saving institutions with public money not only do not improve the banks but makes them feel entitled.

At the end we have the entire society collapsing, like it is happening in Japan, or with Deutsche Bank because in a society when nobody can fail you are rewarding bad behavior and making everybody fail.

The Banks that made enormous bets were rewarded with enormous profits but then are rewarded when those profits turned to be completely fictional, and loses were socialized.

Society and companies that do the right thing are punished with hardships like high taxes while those that created misery retire with Golden Parachutes. Nobody wants to work anymore, and everybody wants to speculate.


Central Banks were made flesh in the form of the Bank of England. The US ( rather belligerently ) avoided this model for a variety of reasons, but mainly because it was England, back when that was a marque of corruption ( the last President who was also more or less in the Revolution was roughly Jackson ). Jackson also used this strategically to stab at his enemies, who were of considerable number.

The Panic of 1907 was no joke; the Fed is Our Robotic JP Morgan, who forced the network of haircuts and liquidity support needed to end that.

It's not clear to me that the accusations of moral hazard hold that much water. Calomiris and Haber wrote the excellent "Fragile by Design", which examines the difference between the Canadian and US financial systems.

I'm far from an expert, but this seems the most fruitful examination so far - everybody was operating on towers of just-so stories. "Break the banks up" and "jail them" most likely would have accomplished very little. It's less corruption than it is Dunning-Kruger, less Mr. Burns than it is Homer Simpson.

Socializing the losses has little actual cost - no matter how fictional you think this is, it's even moreso - and the big profits in the end were made by Micheal Burry and the others who shorted those markets. If money is a convenient fiction, then the Fed balance sheet is five degrees of separation from that fiction.

Japan? Demographic collapse. Deutsche bank? Uh, Euro problems. What has gone well with the Eurozone?

IMO? The US used to be planted thick with $10, $20, $40M per year topline companies. They went the way of the dodo bird because who wants that? Just making a living? Nah, we wanna make a killing. Make a better product? No, use finance to edge the competition out, even ( perhaps especially ) if it cripples the company doing it.

That's culture rot. People did this sort of thing in, say 1950. Just not everybody.

I do want to work. This is widely disbelieved; it's probably cost me jobs, incredibly. After all, we're supposed to use real work as prep for the rent-seeking Olympics, right? If you're still doing Real Work(tm) at 30, you're a looser ( sic ). Oh, and we're going to dumb Real Work down for you because we don't trust you.

But even more profound is the observation that actual production, distribution, sales and support are on rails. Stuff costs ( in cases, way ) less than it used to. There are no bears to eat us, so we make up methods and practices to stroke our narcissism.

My daughter the evolutionary biologist has a slightly dissonant phrase for this - "not enough lions."


Spot on!


I don't think you get to just label every regime you don't like as a "utopia", say "utopianism is bad", and leave it there. After all, many people would say that the status quo today is also someone's utopia, with the important question being whose.

Societies are always and have always been creatures of intentional design. The design might be good or might be bad, but to try to cordon off via, "Designed societies are bad" just amounts to denying the design of your preferred actually-existing society.


Thank you. This is exactly what I got from the article. I think Bernie Sanders went too far in some of his policy proposal, but I wouldn't characterize him, or progressives in general, as promoting a utopian Marxist vision. I think this kind of intellectual laziness, where people project every political position out into some cartoonish slippery slope instead of tackling the complexity and nuance of public policy, is one of the most detrimental and pervasive logical fallacies in our political discourse.


>I think Bernie Sanders went too far in some of his policy proposal, but I wouldn't characterize him, or progressives in general, as promoting a utopian Marxist vision.

Very much agreed. From the point of view of actual radical leftists (for instance, the ones I grab beer with once or twice a month), Bernie Sanders is very much a moderate, even a kind of conservative. In trying to expand the sphere of public goods back towards where it has previously been (in some places and times) and a bit past that, he's just trying to turn our market society[1] back into a market economy subservient to a democratic society.

Correspondingly, we also need to consider the degree to which, while we don't live in Friedrich von Hayek's or Milton Friedman's ideal society, their ideas now exercise far, far more influence over our society than they did at the inauguration of the Mont Pelerin Society[2]. These men plotted utopia, and to a great degree, they've achieved it, exactly insofar as the social democrats whose hegemony they wanted to destroy are now seen as unthinkable radicals dreaming of utopia.

[1] -- http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/07/03/q-a-with-mi...

[2] -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mont_Pelerin_Society


> Correspondingly, we also need to consider the degree to which, while we don't live in Friedrich von Hayek's or Milton Friedman's ideal society, their ideas now exercise far, far more influence over our society than they did at the inauguration of the Mont Pelerin Society[2].

This is very true. It's a very interesting exercise to go back and read old copies of the Congressional Reports and compare them to ones from today. Back in the 1940s, Republicans would say things as lip service to prevailing views about labor that democrats wouldn't say today. Big sweeping appeals to the public interest in the way today people make narrow pointed arguments about efficiency and cost-benefit analysis.


Surprisingly, the "American Experience" bio of George HW Bush does a workman's job of explaining this. But it was really the demise of Nelson Rockefeller that ended the Liberal and Moderate Republican as a thing. After all, he was divorced.

Topologically, the Left pulled farther and faster, and there was also a reaction to that.

Industry became fragmented, and that's much harder to organize into unions. It was different when there were a small number of large monolithic firms.


I think the best description of Sanders is "the last New Dealer".

This being said, Progressivism has a checkered past. The bleeding edge is a fickle hellcat, full of bad normative assumptions. A devout New England Abolitionist would have thought nothing of beating the Irish in his employ severely. Stuff like that.


A political order may be adopted, imposed, etc, but "society" is something humans, as social animals, develop spontaneously. Proper governance of society follows understanding of human nature and the human condition as well as the contingencies of Man's existence. It is no trivial matter, of course, and utopian ideologies have a particularly bad record with philosophical anthropology. Furthermore, Man is a moral animal. His moral perfection is not a given and must be worked out during his lifetime through effort. Utopians, sadly, often like to blame "the system". Mind you, "systems" are always the product of morally imperfect and ignorant men for morally imperfect and ignorant men. Utopians tend to think they can somehow circumvent all of that.

Add to all of this the consequentialist tendencies in the political discourse.


"Societies are always and have always been creatures of intentional design."

Why do you think that? I'd say almost the opposite, that societies are not "intentionally designed", but evolve from myriad people and "accidents" of history.


Well said. Political and intellectual elites tend to attach negative connotations to the word "utopia". Perhaps they feel that the very concept of utopia attracts undesirable attention to the bleakness of our current status quo as experienced by the average person.


I do not think it requires elite status, or elitism, to doubt the value of utopianism. Indeed, judged historically, utopianism has always been an elite preoccupation in its own right, and this remains quite true today.


But a Utopia is really adherence to some perfect Platonic form, not the sort of greasy compromise necessary to accommodate the crooked timber of humanity.

Design in general is bad, if the design overrides all other measurement and input.

Wasn't More's book a reductio anyway?


>But a Utopia is really adherence to some perfect Platonic form,

There's no such thing as a Platonic form.


Precisely.


Utopian communities are useful, in the sense that they're social petri dishes that let us run experiments that would be unbelievably destructive to attempt in the wider world.

It is through the failure of various communities that we know, to a decent-enough approximation, how far you can scale egalitarian labor schemes. It's how we know how communal living arrangements tend to fail. Dunbar's Number [1] and similar ideas were largely derived based on real-world experience in nontraditional social structures (some of which were companies, e.g. Gor-Tex, not communes).

I think it's important to look at even "failed" attempts at utopian living through the lens of an experiment. Even if the outcome wasn't what was intended, we still learn something in the process, and that knowledge is valuable in the wider world as we work more incrementally.

The danger is when we allow people to run their social experiments in vivo instead of in vitro. A few dozen people choosing to share property and responsibilities and income based on a fringe socio-political philosophy is fine, assuming they're all consenting adults, and might lead to valuable knowledge. A few dozen people attempting to force that same model on an entire population is worth killing them all in order to prevent.

Utopianism in the context of people freely choosing how they want to live is a great thing; it is the cooption of putatively "utopian" ideas by violent revolutionaries, and their use of those ideas to gain followers who ought to know better, that has been an extremely deadly combination.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number


Our contemporary climate is only fully understood by surveying who has power today; the dominance of finance and the enthusiastic redundancy of politicians in thrall to the markets and the deep state have resulted ultimately in a catastrophic erosion of democracy. Without examining these deliberate shifts, attempts to rectify them architecturally will be tokenistic at best. Dubai is the obvious example of somewhere where the paradise of a few is propped up by the misery of many. This model is being replicated to varying degrees throughout the world. All utopias are dystopias, we have been endlessly told. They neglect to tell us the reverse is also true.

Utopias become dystopias by how they deal with those who do not fit into the plans.…

("On Utopia" by Darran Anderson, page 39 of http://www.ideasfestival.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/BF... -- the whole thing is worth reading!)


"Error, the requested file could not be retrieved."


More wrote his book as a satire, there is no contradiction between his actions in life and his book.


Lafferty said that, but has this been confirmed by academics? He was awarded something by the Soviets for Utopia, and I doubt that they'd do that ironically.


But they might do it naïvely and then pretend they didn't.


Hoping everyone here has read Brave New World. Utopia and dystopia only differ by a few letters.

The only Utopia I expect is the one of my religion. I don't expect to create one.


The thing that bugs me about Brave New World is that the world it describes actually appears to provide a much better life for the large majority of its citizens than our own. It has a lot of serious problems, but so do we; it's just that BNW's problems are weird and unfamiliar, where we've gotten used to our own problems and no longer truly see them.


BNW's society does make a concerted effort to maximize happiness for all of its members --- it does so in ways which we find abhorrent, but it does do so. It values empathy and individuality, too; people who obviously won't fit in in the World State hive culture are sent to the islands, partly because they're a destabilising influence, but also because they'll just be happier there. The society is reach enough to support them, so why not? And now there's a pool of talent the World State can draw on if it ever needs it.

So, yeah, simply branding it a dystopia is an oversimplification. It's much more nuanced than that. Fascinating book, and great fun to read too.

(I do have a few problems with the worldbuilding, which I think falls apart in a few places, but that shouldn't dissuade anyone from reading it. It is one of the great books of all time.)


At the time that I read it, by the end of the book, it was clear to me personally that the large disconnect between the Utopian world and the world of the "natives" was the same disconnect that I felt at the time with the described Utopian world. People grown in test tubes, bred to do and believe specific things, using various levels of oxygen to control their intelligence, orgies and perfume water in sinks being a normal thing- these were disgusting to me. If that sounds like Utopia to anyone, then something is seriously wrong.


But it's only disguisting to you because you haven't been created for this world.


But see, you had the intelligence to read what I wrote and write that.

What if someone were to have reduced the oxygen to your embryo so that you were an idiot and were happy but had no idea what I was talking about? That's ok to you?

BNW was not meant to be a template for a future society. It's a story to get the reader to try to adjust to the norm of morally reprehensible behavior and then at the end smack them back to cold, hard reality.


The problem is that, on top of all the actual nastiness like deliberately impairing embryos, the "norm of morally reprehensible behavior" includes some really problematic things. In the Brave New World, you can have sex without fear of disease, unwanted pregnancy, or religious censure--and we're clearly supposed to understand this as awful and depraved.


>What if someone were to have reduced the oxygen to your embryo so that you were an idiot and were happy but had no idea what I was talking about? That's ok to you?

You mean kinda like how they put lead in the water in Flint, Michigan?


No, I was just stating part of the story from the book. Man, there are a lot of people here that haven't read BNW!


I've read the book. I was just comparing it to real life a bit.


Something is fundamentally wrong with capitalism. The median standard of living in the US has leveled off, despite increasing productivity. Nobody really knows what to do about this. It has a name now: "secular stagnation".

The US economy is limited by individual buying power. Most Americans are maxed out. It's not like people are saving too much. There's plenty of capital available; too much, in fact, which is why interest rates are so low. But there are few good ways to use it.

There's a broad feeling that something has gone wrong. Some of this drives a desire for new Utopian movements. (Some of this drives Trump supporters, but ignore that for now.) The article doesn't list any successful new ones, though. If anything, growth is in deliberately dystopian communities - the "prepper" movement.

Small Utopian communities don't get economies of scale. Local, artisanal stuff just takes too much labor to make. So, in practice, that's a dead end.

[1] http://www.thenews.coop/49090/news/general/view-top-300-co-o...


Capitalism has the same problem all economic systems have, and that is a unidirectional drive toward more regulation. More regulation benefits entrenched companies and creates barriers to entry to new ones, who have increasingly bigger hurdles to overcome and a rapidly expanding list of ways they can be sued or regulated out of existence.

Regulation always increases; it never declines (except for small, select bits in little deregulation burps here and there). So long as a government endures, you can expect there will continue to be more and more laws and regulations, not fewer. Eventually the system ties itself up with too much red tape, like one of those old cartoons where the character becomes tangled in a ball of yarn.

Which is not to say total deregulation is a good thing. You need regulations in place to protect individuals, who often lack power and information, from suffering by decisions made by corporate super organisms with significant advantages in power and information.

The problem with the national movement toward ever more regulation is it enables the successful to do the same thing they do in every other socioeconomic model, which is to build firewalls aimed at preserving their class and wealth and keeping out competitors.

I say this as a diehard capitalist who sees it as the best economic model we've happened upon yet. Particularly in the early days of a well-regulated capitalist society, there's immense potential for anyone to reach the top. However, the longer the society continues, the more it stifles itself with labyrinthine laws, credentialism, certifications, and 10,000 rules to operate legally in any established industry (e.g., finance, automotive, utilities, etc.).


There is, pretty clearly, a sort of "Goldilocks Problem" with regards to the optimal amount of regulation: you need some level of regulation, or you get monopolization by first-movers who then use their advantage to prevent the emergence of competitors and extract rents. On the other extreme, too much regulation is typically associated with regulatory capture, and protection of entrenched participants ... such that they can prevent competitors and extract rents. You can end up at the same end-state (small number of very large market participants, little competition, huge barriers to entry) via either route.

I do not think that it is fair to say that regulation always increases and never declines; in the U.S. we have seen regulation swing back and forth over time. The early U.S. was a largely deregulated economy, which became regulated due to demands by citizens that companies be controlled; the tide turned in the later 20th century, with widespread utilities and transportation deregulation, fewer union-favoring labor rules, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, etc.; I think it's still unclear whether the tide has turned again today.


The first paragraph in your post can just as easily be applied to the idea of no regulation.

Without regulations you have corporate anarchy and an impotent and uninformed consumer base. Free-market capitalism naturally gravitates towards monopolies without a regulatory body to step in an attempt to preserve fair competition.

Regulation can be used to entrench big players that is true, but it can also be used to prevent entrenchment. The trick is finding a nice balance and it is an ongoing struggle.

And this;

Regulation always increases; it never declines

Is clearly untrue, as it was a series of deregulations of the financial services industry beginning with Reagan's clown-act presidency that led to our last financial crash. Protections put in place in the decades before were set up to prevent exactly the problems we have faced over the last few years.




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