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Zhang Weiwei: China is the Silicon Valley for Innovations in Governance

January 5, 2015

Zhang, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in China, debated Francis Fukuyama in 2011 on the relative virtues and vices of an authoritarian “China model” versus Western style democracy. While I am not totally bullish on the future of China–it still has many growing pains to come–it is refreshing to see the US critiqued by someone outside the matrix:

A careful observer will find that Shanghai has overtaken New York in many respects. Shanghai outperforms New York in terms of “hardware” such as high-speed trains, subways, airports, harbors and many commercial facilities, but also in terms of “software.” For instance, life expectancy in Shanghai is three to four years longer than New York, and the infant mortality rate in Shanghai is lower than New York. Shanghai is a much safer place where girls can stroll the streets at midnight. My message to this German scholar is that we’ve learned a lot from the West; we’re still learning from the West, and will continue to do so in the future, but it’s also true that we have indeed looked beyond the Western model or the US model. To a certain extent, we are exploring the political, economic, social and legal systems of the next generation. In this process, the more developed regions of China like Shanghai are taking the lead.

He continues:

This brings me to Prof. Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis. I have not published my point of view yet. But mine is exactly the opposite to Prof. Fukuyama’s. I take the view that it is not the end of history, but the end of the end of history.

The Western democratic system might be only transitory in the long history of mankind. Why do I think so? Two thousand and five hundred years ago, some Greek city states like Athens, practiced democracy among its male citizens and later were defeated by Sparta. From then on, for over two thousand years, the word “democracy” basically carried the negative connotation, often equivalent to “mob politics.” The Western countries did not introduce one-person-one-vote system into their countries until their modernization process was completed.

But today, this kind of democratic system cannot solve the following big problems. First, there is no culture of “talent first.” Anyone who is elected can rule the country. This has become too costly and unaffordable even for a country like the US. Second, the welfare package can only go up, not down. Therefore it is impossible to launch such reforms as China did in its banking sector and state-owned enterprises. Thirdly, it is getting harder and harder to build social consensus within democratic countries. In the past, the winning party with 51% of votes could unite the whole society in the developed countries. Today American society is deeply divided and polarized. The losing party, instead of conceding defeat, continues to obstruct. Fourth, there is an issue of simple-minded populism which means that little consideration can be given to the long-term interest of a nation and society. Even countries like the US are running this risk.

Zhang spouts some stupid apologetics for Mao at one point, but his ideological differences from Fukuyama provide a fresh view on stagnant Western political institutions. Read the whole thing here.

Social Technology, Trade-offs, Nrx-ish Concerns

October 23, 2014

Interesting post on Social Technology & Anarcho-Tyranny from More Right. Key idea:

We use the term “technology” when we discover a process that lets you get more output for less investment..when you lose social technology, both sides of the bargain get worse. You keep raising taxes yet the lot of the poor still deteriorates. You spend tons of money on prisons and have a militarized police force, yet they seem unable to stop muggings and murder…

A lot of our thorniest political battles involve two sides desperately trying not to lose too much ground in the aftermath of a loss of social technology. Civil libertarians bemoaned the growth of the police state while law and order types bewail soaring crime statistics. Left-wingers bemoan the lack of progress on poverty, while right-wingers point out that the ratchet of federal funding is clicking upwards with no end in sight. And because of human loss aversion, these fights are often some of the most bitter debates in politics. Both sides remember a time when they were much closer to achieving their values, and neither wants to backslide further now.

That last point is novel, seems to fit the data, and rather poignant.

Social technology here is related to the governance technology we often talk about here, but subtly different: it not only includes institutions, but the web of customs, culture, and trust in a society which supports those institutions. Those “soft factors” not captured in my simple “law as code” model seem quite relevant to today’s problems, yet it’s much less clear to me how to fix them. Letting a thousand nations bloom would help, but unlike the legal and administrative aspects of governance, what if webs of social trust take generations to form, require culturally and/or racially homogeneous inhabitants, and/or have inherent conflicts with modern technology and/or post-industrial revolution capitalism?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb on How Exit Enhances Voice

October 3, 2014

He writes in a quick Facebook post:

Another attribute of small is beautiful: (what we call) democracy.

The idea of democracy is to take the citizens’ location as fixed, and the identity of those in government as variable, the “representatives” matching the preferences of the people. But you can get similar results of representation, even under dictatorships, by varying the people’s location instead.

Assuming you are able to move to the canton or municipality where you feel the dictators represent your tastes & beliefs, such competition would put pressure on local municipal dictators to please taxpaying constituents so they stick around.
So the smaller the size of political units (and the larger their number), the more democracy we get in the system.

Opting out of Gun Laws: Ghost Gunner

October 1, 2014

Wired reports:

Wilson’s latest radically libertarian project is a PC-connected milling machine he calls the Ghost Gunner. Like any computer-numerically-controlled (or CNC) mill, the one-foot-cubed black box uses a drill bit mounted on a head that moves in three dimensions to automatically carve digitally-modeled shapes into polymer, wood or aluminum. But this CNC mill, sold by Wilson’s organization known as Defense Distributed for $1,200, is designed to create one object in particular: the component of an AR-15 rifle known as its lower receiver.

That simple chunk of metal has become the epicenter of a gun control firestorm. A lower receiver is the body of the gun that connects its stock, barrel, magazine and other parts. As such, it’s also the rifle’s most regulated element. Mill your own lower receiver at home, however, and you can order the rest of the parts from online gun shops, creating a semi-automatic weapon with no serial number, obtained with no background check, no waiting period or other regulatory hurdles. Some gun control advocates call it a “ghost gun.” Selling that untraceable gun body is illegal, but no law prevents you from making one.

Ethereum: Leapfrogging City Hall Legal Technologies

September 10, 2014

Vitalik Buterin and the others on the Ethereum project have raised more than $15 million for their effort to expand the technology underlying Bitcoin to new uses. (Vitalik is a Thiel Fellow, a program I help run.) Wired’s coverage

A year ago, Vitalik Buterin was a teenaged college dropout dabbling in the bitcoin digital currency. Now, he’s the founder of a futuristic programming project that just got backed to the tune of $15 million.

The project is called Ethereum—an effort to transform the kind of technology used in bitcoin into something that can help you build, well, anything—and after a two-month Kickstarter-style crowdfunding campaign, it has raised 30,000 bitcoin, or close to $15 million at today’s bitcoin prices. According to Buterin, Ethereum could represent the future of the blockchain—the cryptographically backed distributed public ledger that drives bitcoin—and apparently, many others agree with him.

Ethereum will let engineers build applications that rely on the distributed consensus made possible by the blockchain. One new possible application fits in nicely as a stepping to stone to opt out/opt in governance. With the Ethereum platform, you could build a public ledger that verifies title and the exchange of property. Instead of going to town hall to authenticate a sale of land–or better, instead having no town hall at all as is the case in the developing world–a community could use the Ethereum platform as a system of recordation.  Smart phone penetration is deep in the developing world, and, as M-Pesa has shown in Kenya, people will leapfrog old tech and migrate to the new. 

 

Time to Revive This Blog

September 9, 2014

I’m going to start writing again here as an exercise. My blogging hiatus has demonstrated to me the intellectually obvious truth that writing helps to clarify your thinking. So for selfish reasons, here we go.

Competitive governance will remain the main theme, but I now see a flawed assumption in the title of this blog. It would be nice of course if more nations bloomed, but recent struggles in various markets between state-protected interests and new entrants have led me to see that perhaps the opt out/opt in model of competitive governance will not occur at the level of the city or region first, but instead cascade industry by industry. To take one example, Uber, Lyft and other similar services let customers opt out of the taxi cab medallion system of governance and opt into a reputation and credit based system of transport. City residents who want to use the old system are welcome to keep hailing cabs with a whistle (or in San Francisco, keep waiting indefinitely), while others may opt out and into the mobile summon at command model.

Likewise, Bitcoin lets people opt out of the fiat money system; AirBnB lets travelers opt out of the regulated hotel industry; charter schools free students from public schools; the Thiel Fellowship, technologists from college, and so on. Or as I recently mused:

I expect I’ll be writing frequently on technologies that enhance the power of exit.

 

The Inverse Amish

January 3, 2014

Balaji Srinivasan makes a great analogy

Just like the Amish live nearby, peacefully, in the past – imagine a society of Inverse Amish that lives nearby, peacefully, in the future. A place where Google Glass wearers are normal, where self-driving cars and delivery drones aren’t restricted by law, and where we can experiment with new technologies *without* causing undue disruption to others. Think of this like a Special Innovation Zone similar to the Special Economic Zones that Deng Xiaoping used to allow China to experiment with capitalism in a controlled way.

9) In sum: I believe that regulations exist for a reason. And I believe that new technologies will keep coming up against existing rulesets. I don’t believe the solution is either to change the rulesets (which, again, exist for a reason) OR to give up on new technology. I think instead we need a third solution: a way to exit (whether to the cloud for purely digital technologies, or to a Special Innovation Zone or ultimately a startup nation), prove/disprove these new technologies among a self-selected, opt-in group of risk-tolerant early adopters, and report back to the mothership on what works and what doesn’t.

10) This concept – a Special Innovation Zone – is a new idea. It is really about humility, not hostility. USG is a big thing, it has a lot of responsibilities, it runs a nation of 300M people, and it can’t just change federal laws to permit some crazy tech guys to try (say) self-driving cars without affecting millions of people. A new region – like a Special Innovation Zone – can experiment with this kind of thing without bothering anyone who wishes to live under the previous rulesets.

Again: this is complementary to USG’s own efforts. I don’t see them as competitive, anymore than a startup competes with IBM’s research labs.

 

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