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Archive for December 19, 2009

On Bad Faith- I

December 19, 2009 4 comments

I have been an information and opinion junkie since I can remember. This drive to seek out new bits of information, viewpoints and process them into a more complete picture of reality has given me a fairly unique viewpoint on the human condition. Unlike most other people, I am not intimidated by ‘experts’, ‘guardians of knowledge’, ‘keepers of the faith’ nor can I be convinced to believe in ideas that cannot be independently verified or interrogated.

There are certain meta-issues that seem to drive the majority of change in any given area. However these issues are often invisible to ‘experts’ who spend a lot of time convincing others that they know about a given area (see my previous articles on new priests, here and here). Given the dismal record of experts in predicting the future which is a much better proxy for the validity of their ‘expertise’, it is certainly peculiar that most people even listen to such blowhards.

This post will talk about one such ignored meta-issue:

Can the current state of human civilization survive a significant amount of bad faith from multiple groups?

Some readers might point out that many other older civilizations survived such conditions for decades and centuries. However this line of argument conveniently forgets one important change in the last 150 years, namely the diffusion and acceleration of technological progress. It is however not the primary effect of this change that is on a collision course with human tendencies to act in bad faith. The secondary, tertiary and higher order effects of this change, its speed and interactions between non-primary changes are however such that such collision is inevitable and is indeed happening as we speak. Before I get into the details and examples of such collisions, in upcoming posts, let me pose another simple question.

Does upholding higher levels of technology make it necessary for people to reduce their tendencies to act in bad faith? The related question is whether we can go back to a ‘simpler time’ if it all collapses.

Let us start by trying to answer the first question. Compare south american countries with west european countries. Are you more likely to be mugged, killed or otherwise swindled in brazil, argentina, mexico or germany, sweden or ireland? If we go back in history, it becomes obvious that both groups of countries had a past where acting in bad faith was the acceptable and profitable mode of behavior. In case you believe that west european countries were always morally better than others, do read a range of different historical accounts about the pre-1800 era. I would go even further and suggest that what we consider as modern civilization truly came into its own only after world war 2. So what changed?

I think that people in west european countries experienced the futility of zero sum behavior in a far more personal manner than those in the second group of countries. Acting in bad faith is one aspect of believing in a zero sum world. While we had the technology to not act in a zero sum manner for almost a century now, attitudes and technology diffusion constrained the ability of people to act in a non-zero sum manner. The world wars, exposed the fallacy and limitations of the old model, to an extent that no amount of preaching could cover up. This is not to say that the process is complete, and I will talk about that in later posts. The rise of the welfare state is a direct consequence of the need to stop people from acting in bad faith. It is a pity that it’s implementation has been so poor, and not sensitive to human behavior. Therefore, I think that upholding higher levels of technology make it necessary for people to reduce their tendencies to act in bad faith, and this can only be realistically achieved by a decent welfare system. It is far easier, cheaper and profitable to buy good faith from your own citizens than it is to oppress and exploit them. A country with undiffused high technology, like china can keep up the old ways for some time. However they will have no option left once high technology truly diffuses to its inhabitants (one generation after it is widely available and necessary).

For those who think we can go back to a time when it was a ‘white man’s world’ (or your favorite nostalgic delusion), I have this to say. Try it! Issues caused by technology diffusion, ability to retaliate, long supply chains that span continents and multiple systems that are crucial to survival make any back tracking impossible (and any attempt to do so suicidal). Only simple systems are fully reversible, complex evolving systems are not reversible. On an other note, the old system benefited only a few white men, at the expense of most other white men.

PS- If you do not believe that society has changed a lot since ww2, please look at old photos of buildings, houses, technology, machines, people etc and read literature and newspaper extracts from that era. In some ways, people have changed as much since ww2 (third industrial revolution), as they did with the start of the first industrial revolution. We are now at the start of the fourth ‘industrial’ revolution (though it is quite unlike the first three).