What Has Changed my Political Beliefs

I think it’s safe to say that political beliefs are one of the most sticky types of beliefs we commonly hold. By some measures partisan polarization is at record highs for the modern era (though these figures are also debated). Politics are also beliefs that provoke some of the strongest arguments between differing viewpoints, and the strongest consolidation among shared viewpoints. Eliezer warned us to be particularly careful when grappling with these ideas.

But, as good rationalists, all of our beliefs should be subject to updating upon receiving further information – and when I look at my political beliefs over the years, I see that they have indeed changed, in some ways massively, in other ways slow and subtly. I thought it would be an interesting to lay out what the drivers of these changes were, as a case study in the art of changing one’s mind.

It’s Not the Economy, Stupid

Glance over at the tag cloud for this blog, and you will see that it very clearly has a person-oriented approach: emotions, communication, cognition, and relationships are close to the top of the list. But Divia and I didn’t always used to be this way! In my own case, I didn’t start developing this approach until about five years ago. Before this revelation, my model of people was something much closer to Homo economicus.

I have incredible respect for the economic order. It is a beautiful and elegant optimization algorithm, dynamically matching needs and wants and producing coordination on a scale we can scarcely imagine. But it is also an inhuman – and thus inhumane – order, that does not hold the components of that order in any regard. Even Hayek realized that we have two completely separate domains, with separate rules and necessities for interaction, and that we cannot apply one to the other without losing something important. I would argue that as much as liberals try to apply the human elements to the market, libertarians try to apply the market elements to the humans.

Once I began to model the individual units of the economic order – their interactions with one another, from the context of the marketplace to the home to the workplace, and even the dynamics at play within our own minds – I realized that the substrate matters. Really matters. Not just to keep the whole system working, but because those are the things we actually care about. Those lived experiences, those relationships with each other, the joy, the love, the loss, those are the things that make life worth living. Ultimately both systems depend upon one another – the order cannot exist without the substrate, and the substrate cannot thrive without the order – and both have to be taken into account. Particularly, we must be able to care for the substrate in a way that least distorts and damages the economic order.

Of course this is a fine art, and one that almost always seems to go wrong in large-scale collective action, but fortunately there is reason to believe we are good at solving these problems on smaller scales. Nonetheless, we cannot ignore it as an optimization target.


It turns out that having nice things is a hard problem. Keeping things nice may be an even harder problem. Indeed, not-so-nice things may well be the default state of the universe.

I used to much more strongly believe in resilience – that complex adaptive systems tended to have a stochastic but ultimately beneficial path of growth and development. I believed this was true of personal development (the subject of another much needed blog post), and I believed it was true of civilization as a whole. If the current system completely burned down, a beautiful new shoot would emerge from the ashes and produce a new civilization even better than before… so might as well hurry through those nasty end-times and get to that nice little rebirth in my lifetime! But it became very hard to square this with notions of persistent trauma, or civilizations in decline for centuries, or the seemingly inevitable decline of large corporations and political institutions, or how very horrible revolutions can be, or even the biological effects of aging. Indeed, once I started to check the track record, progress started to look like a slow and steady process only when conditions allow, while declines were more sudden, very harmful to those involved, and permanently weakened the surviving institutions. To build is far harder than to destroy.

When Eliezer first established Less Wrong, the rationality group blog, he gave us some advice on how to make communities work. He explicitly warned us that “well-kept gardens die by pacifism”, that almost every online community that has existed has managed to succumb to a very predictable failure mode: lack of curation. He even explicitly warned the NYC rationality group I was leading at the time that we would implode under the weight of net-negative contributors if we didn’t have some kind of curation mechanism.

But it was already too late. I had told the world how appealing the NYC group was becoming, and we received a flood of new members very rapidly. We had no idea how to onboard so many people, how to raise their level of collective awesomeness fast enough, how to maintain the values and norms and shared experiences that we had carefully cultivated over the previous year. Even worse, I shortly thereafter moved to the Bay Area – a choice that profoundly affected my life, but that change of leadership during a difficult transition was undeniably stressful for the group. Ultimately the group declined, and eventually had to be rebooted in a very different form. But the community that I once knew and loved is for all intents and purposes gone, and I personally facilitated its destruction.

This seems to be a very common problem among intellectual groups in particular, a la the five geek social fallacies, though I suspect that more and more groups have problems with this as politeness and inclusiveness are values that our larger cultural milieu have come to hold very strongly. Both of those things are valuable in many contexts, but they are not among my most sacred values. And there is a tension forming even now within that cultural milieu, as evidenced by the rise of the safe space, a place that values safety, comfort, and belonging at the cost of inclusiveness. I want safe spaces for everyone – including me, my family, and those who share my memes – but you cannot maintain a safe space without defining who is allowed to be in that space, and who is not.

Geeks (and hippies!) in particular love to rail against ingroups and outgroups, we seek to make everyone a part of our one universal ingroup cuddle puddle. It sounds great! Until you realize that the cuddle hormone itself is physiologically responsible for strengthening ingroup/outgroup distinctions. The very act of creating tight social bonds automatically and necessarily begins to weaken bonds outside of that circle. Oxytocin is hardly the sole culprit either – testosterone surprisingly promotes altruism and generosity but only when not feeling threatened by outgroup competition.

Sure, we can call upon people to transcend their natural impulses, and maybe we can even implement some changes in the memetic stratum overlaying our reproductive fitness drives… but I don’t expect those types of solutions to be stable. Humans are embodied game theory. We are algorithms carefully crafted in an environment of ruthlessly competitive (and cooperative!) game theory. Those algorithms run deeper than many of us would like to believe, in my opinion, and we ignore them at our own peril. I greatly prefer that we build systems that are robust to our best understanding of human nature, not our idealized vision of human nature.

A Work in Progress

My political beliefs even now are not static.

I already mentioned an interest in game theory above, and physiology, and evolutionary heuristics – these are some of my most beloved tools, yet even now I am still finding new ways to apply them to human interaction, and how those interactions scale up to produce the political system. History is an incredibly rich source of anecdotes, but is very difficult to interpret reliably – economic history, on the other hand, gives us reliable tools with which to interpret events beyond the given narratives (which also change drastically over time). My libertarian tendencies have also blinded me to seeing the true motives behind government interactions, so understanding things like geopolitical affairs are massive areas of interest and growth for my continuing education.

I cannot predict exactly what I will believe tomorrow – if I did I would be well on my way there already – but at the very least I can identify the areas that currently feel intriguing and useful, and figure out the ways in which my previous strong political beliefs were keeping me from observing reality. This process has been slow, sometimes difficult, and often unsettling, but has ultimately yielded a lot of changes in my belief structure, including actionable changes in how I structure and lead smaller-scale groups, tribes, and organizations.

  • Edwin Urey

    Great post Will. I can certainly relate to different elements of your political evolution.

  • Kevin Perrott

    Loved it Will… evolution is the default, stand still and you’re going to get run over.. it’s a busy freeway out there. :)