Glen Weyl, the slave of history
"Looking at himself, he knows that not one word he pronounces is his own."
The intellectual gene pool of the early 21st century thinks it’s an ocean.
Yes, this ocean has cut itself off from the past—it did that because it is better than the past. That past was not even an ocean per se—just a small, muddy pond. Our minds are open now. Especially now that we have the Internet.
Take a leap of faith and imagine you have this exactly the wrong way around. Actually, it is the present which is the small, muddy pond. It is not the present that is universal, and the past that is parochial; it is the past that is universal, and the present parochial.
The present is a tiny rural province of history, with weird and backward local customs and beliefs, not quite charming enough to attract tourists. And to paraphrase Cicero: whoever does not know history is doomed to remain a hick.
There is a genius born every minute. Genius does not take kindly to ignorance. Genius can still be kept a country bumpkin. Simply convince your genius that he does know history—by any means which does not involve any serious contact with that field.
Again, the usual means of persuasion is to convince the present that it is superior to the past. This is true about semiconductors—why shouldn’t it be true about everything? Alas, once you learn this habit of condescending to the past, you are ruined for history, no matter how smart—like an NBA prospect with no knee ligaments.
When we recognize a genius trapped in the present’s small, parochial pond by one of these many tricks—especially if he is obviously too old to get out—our first response must be empathy. In a small enough pond, every goldfish feels like a whale. Indeed in the ocean he could grow much larger. He will never, ever see the ocean.
Today’s goldfish fight
Even if there are no whales—you and I may have made it to the ocean, but we are still goldfish, aren’t we?—the goldfish still think they are whales. And fight like it. And we should watch. Nay we should wade in ourselves! But never without losing our ironic awareness of the smallness of the fight—and of the muddy little pond it happens in.
A great illustration of the goldfish effect is this exchange between the decent, if timorous, Scott Alexander, and the utterly egregious Glen Weyl. (I keep hoping the latter turns out to be related to Nathaniel—so I can think something good of him.)
There is a genius born every minute. Both these men, plainly, are born geniuses. Yet it is hard—for me, at least—to imagine anyone reading their writing in twenty, fifty or a hundred years. And it is hard to blame them for that. Are they even trying? Who is?
There are many small eras—which produce little or nothing of any intellectual value. Perhaps most eras are small. The smallness of a small era is not made by a shortage of raw mental talent—but by the inadequate training and cultivation of that talent.
The result of this poor conditioning is a general softness: a lack of rigor, a slovenly and unmilitary intellectual bearing—like a natural boxer who has never really been hit, in the ring or outside it. This deep softness of mind is palpable in everything they do—but it really comes to the fore when you see them spar. Even with each other.
Iron sharpens iron; both of these men’s minds, plainly, are iron minds; just as plainly, nothing past plastic ever sharpened Weyl, whose CV is one long series of pats on the head for being born smart. Sad! At least here they are glancing off each other, kind of.
Alexander has seen some shit—but Alexander is not the sort of man to sail past his horizon. Shit has found him; he would not seek out shit; he is sharpened, but not so sharpened as he could be. While it is fun to see Alexander whacking Weyl, there is no real lead in his gloves. Not that he is alone in that—a lightweight in a flyweight age.
When criticizing your fellow human being, it is important to understand that you are not criticizing him (the man is unimportant—everyone is), but the age that made him. Even if you have to deliver a serious rhetorical beating, it is for his own good—it is in lieu of the mentors he should have had, who should have formed his unformed mind—but who spared the rod, spoiled the child, and doomed him to forever remain a child.
Glen Weyl, the slave of history
Weyl wrote his original piece (which, though it sneers tangentially at me, I only found through Alexander’s link) back in 2019. Alas, Weyl’s essay is neither brief, nor moist. While I cannot fault the reader for skimming, let me try to summarize.
Weyl is against “technocracy,” which he defines as:
the view that most of governance and policy should be left to some type of “experts”, distinguished by meritocratically-evaluated training in formal methods used to “optimize” social outcomes.
By far the most amazing attribute of this 7500-word essay—which often appears to emanate from a different reality altogether—is that Weyl never acknowledges that (a) this so-called “technocracy” is exactly how all modern governments work, and (b) the main enemy of this system, at least supposedly, is the worst person in the world—Trump.
Yet nor does Weyl appear to be in any sense a Trump fan, personally or ideologically. But maybe he’s… in the closet? Many such cases. In any case, it seems, even weird non-modern governments are also a form of this technocracy:
A couple of notable and less democratic versions are the forms adopted by the Chinese communist party, the “neoreactionary” movement and its celebration of Lee Kwan [sic] Yew’s Singapore.
Normally when you spend this many words on a definition—especially if the definition is the whole point of your essay—you get a definition you can use. Dear reader, try with me to figure out whether each of the following regimes is or was a technocracy: Golden Age Holland; Elizabethan England; North Korea; Napoleonic France; Hitler; Louis XIV’s France; ISIS; the New Deal; Brigham Young’s Deseret; colonial Massachusetts; the Most Serene Republic of Venice; the Byzantine Empire; the Old Kingdom of Egypt; the Roman Republic; Genghis Khan; Vichy France; the Ming Dynasty; and Canada.
You could guess. I could guess. Weyl could guess. Would all three of us have the same guesses, one wonders? Maybe the definition still needs some work. Maybe I can help—I’m an expert in computer science and dangerous drugs.
There are three forms of government: monarchy, oligarchy and democracy. Monarchy and oligarchy are both “technocracy,” therefore bad. Democracy is of course good—but democracy is not to be confused with “populism,” meaning Trump, which is bad. This does not capture all of Weyl’s 7500 words—just, I feel, most of them.
But if democracy isn’t oligarchy, and it isn’t populism, what is it? Weyl, uh, clarifies—
In short, we are very far from discovering formalisms capable of capturing and quantifying most of the critical inputs to policy and systems design for a decent society. So much of what we still need lives in e.g. the low-income housing developments, the lived experiences of workers facing powerful corporations, the NGOs on the ground in Myanmar, and the community educational justice groups.
Clearly, my computer-science expertise will be of no use here—this guy is just high—
To the extent that technocracy is a practice of insulating policy makers and system designers from the need to justify themselves in the language of, clearly explain their designs to and maintain open lines of communication from these highly informative channels, it leads to large-scale failures, corruption, crises and justified political backlash and outrage.
Weyl himself was informed by these highly informative channels: Choate, Princeton, Harvard, Chicago, Yale, and—Microsoft. (So I guess he has had the “lived experience of workers facing powerful corporations.”) After a glance at his headshot, it is diverting to imagine Weyl trying to “open lines of communication” with “low-income housing developments.” If anything still “lives in NGOs on the ground in Myanmar,” it better get to the airport or it’ll miss its flight. And I’m not at all sure what a “community educational justice group” is—but I’m sure it’s thoughtful, demure, and quite organic. As for “justify themselves in the language of”—
Does a person like Weyl literally believe the things he says? English? Does he speak it? Is he about to trot down to Lenox Street and open some “lines of communication?” Or does he already do this? If not—why not? Has he read Sudhir Venkatesh? At least he won’t be taken for an MS-13 sicario and asked at gunpoint if he speaks “Mexican.”
And it’s not just present reality from which this acclaimed Ivy League scholar seems completely disconnected. Even in the 20th century—from which all his historical examples are chosen—he comes up with this… interesting interpretation of Stalin’s Ukraine famine:
Yet most historical accounts do not suggest Stalin or other Soviet leaders ever intended or even would have countenanced the deaths of the millions whose lives the Holodomor took. How did the Soviet state “accidentally” exterminate several million people? The problem was that Soviet leadership did not receive clear indications that, as a result of reduced incentives to grow and adverse weather conditions, its demands were cutting significantly below the surplus and into necessary food supplies and seed stores for the population until it was too late.
Wow—just wow. Never having seen this revisionist history before, except maybe on the hemp table at the anarchist bookstore, I clicked eagerly on Weyl’s link above.
Imagine my shock when it led only to… the Wikipedia page for Timothy Snyder’s very popular pop-history book Bloodlands. I am not a giant fan of Professor Snyder, but of course he says nothing at all of the kind. Instead he writes:
In the waning weeks of 1932, facing no external security threat and no challenge from within, with no conceivable justification except to prove the inevitability of his rule, Stalin chose to kill millions of people in Soviet Ukraine. It was not food shortages but food distribution that killed millions in Soviet Ukraine.
Imagine a universal ocean of scholarship, in which a mighty whale like Weyl, with the logo of every prestigious institution of learning east of the Mississippi branded on his barnacled flank, and the trillion-dollar muscle of Microsoft powering his epic flukes, makes schoolboy errors like this—which leave him inventing his own excuse for genocide.
Is it conceivable? Do you find it conceivable? Yet for a goldfish in a small muddy pond, dear reader, I think you will find it eminently conceivable. Hence my hypothesis.
(Perhaps Weyl meant to link to another source—if so, he has only been caught cherry-picking. This is almost worse, though. It suggests the pursuit of useful history. In any case, “most historical accounts” is a straight-out lie—on the worst possible subject. Imagine writing a thing like that—just tossing it off—just to polish some nerd point.)
We have tried and failed to take this text seriously. Its metadata indicates reliably that it is the product of a thoughtful and scholarly person. When we process it as thought or scholarship, however, we are aghast at its loose, shallow, and superficial quality.
We must therefore conclude that the text before us is not thought; that it cannot be read as the sincere perspective of a serious person; and that, since it was nonetheless generated by a palpably serious person, it must have some other serious function.
Czeslaw Milosz, in The Captive Mind, his deconstruction of the totalitarian intellect, writes of his subject Gamma: “looking at himself, he knows that not one word he pronounces is his own.” This hypothesis certainly explains the evidence we see. This essay is not a serious thought; it is a serious performance; to process the real meaning of such a performance, we must inspect the performer, the theater, and the audience.
The slave of history
Gamma, “the Slave of History”—also a serious person; once a young nationalist poet; later, head of the Polish Communist writers’ union—”was convinced that History is the private preserve of the devil, and that whoever serves History signs a satanic pact. He knew too much to retain any illusions, and despised those naive enough to nourish them. What they thought was natural was for him sheer artifice.”
Gamma’s cynicism, I am convinced, is common if not universal on our cursus honorum. The slave of history is always convinced that he has transcended naivete, just as the slave of a drug is convinced that he has transcended ennui. The drug of history is power; the slave of history is an addict who says whatever will help him get his junk.
Does it help his argument to let Stalin off the hook? Then Stalin is off the hook. Any feather weighs more than the opinion of a junkie. A junkie will cheerfully put links in his text that contradict the text—no one will click—and what would they do anyway?
Weyl is a “slave of history” because he wants to matter. He has probably wanted to matter since the age of, I don’t know, 9. If by some chance Weyl himself is not this stereotype, his CV is the CV of the stereotype—a type that certainly does exist. And “want,” for the devouring desire of such a person, is a profoundly inadequate word.
But we have to remember that it is pointless to criticize an individual; that although these may be intellectual crimes, they are the crimes of our era, crimes Weyl did not invent; that it’s just not fair to hand out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.
We simply have to understand that we are watching a different sport. When the last century put scholars in power—the system Weyl affects to deplore, though he is its very cynosure—scholarship became something other than scholarship; it became a ritual of performative importance—a game. At which Weyl is clearly very good.
La règle du jeu
This ritual, like any ritual, has its private rules. Certain moves seem like fouls, but are fair play; other plays look fair, but are foul.
For example, just as we saw Weyl’s amazing carelessness with history—in the age of the “1619 Project,” this level of looseness is state of the art, like Kobe Bryant taking an extra step or palming the ball—here is another little exaggeration that no one in the professor trade would blow the whistle on. Just a parenthetical clause:
(we [Danielle Allen and I] were both deeply involved in developing a response plan here https://ethics.harvard.edu/Covid-Roadmap that significantly influenced now-President Biden's response)
I love the word “deeply.” And “significantly.” Link clicker here!
The link goes to a report called Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience: Massive Scale Testing, Tracing, and Supported Isolation (TTSI) as the Path to Pandemic Resilience for a Free Society—released, to honor the Führer’s birthday and International Marijuana Day, on April 20, 2020—as a project of the Edmond G. Safra Foundation for Ethics. (Safra, fittingly, seems to have been one of the great mafia bankers of the 20th century.)
The report, listing no less than 24 deeply and significantly involved authors, all of them worthy figures who have run many a lap on the cursus honorum, lays out
how a massive scale-up of testing, paired with contact tracing and supported isolation, can rebuild trust in our personal safety and re-mobilize the U.S. economy.
Among the report’s top recommendations is the need to deliver at least 5 million tests per day by early June to help ensure a safe social opening. This number will need to increase to 20 million tests per day by mid-summer to fully re-mobilize the economy.
Ah yes. Who remembers “test, trace and isolate?” Clearly the Biden Administration—in whose plans to run 20 million tests per day, by mid-summer, to fully re-mobilize the economy, our hero no doubt remains deeply and significantly involved.
As of mid-winter, we are ticking along at a little under 2 million—so China Joe sure has his work cut out for him. I got a Covid test (negative) a little while ago. It took a week from making the appointment to getting the result. What a country!
If you can find the whitepaper under the barrage of circular links to PR spin, the Edmond G. Safra Foundation for Ethics makes this core “anchor recommendation:”
Between now and August, we should phase in economic mobilization in sync with growth in our capacity to provide speedy, sustainable testing, tracing and warning, and supported isolation and quarantine programs for mobilized sectors of the workforce, or TTSI. We do not propose a modest level of TTSI intended to supplement collective quarantine as a tool of disease control. Rather we recommend a level of TTSI ambitious enough to replace collective quarantine as a tool of disease control. TTSI should replace stay-at-home.
So: test everyone who could have the virus, and lock them up for two weeks. Fact: China did this. Fact: it worked for China.
Fact: the US is not China. Fact: nothing like this happened. Fact: if this or anything like it happens here, in 2021, under our glorious new President Joe, I will cheerfully blow Weyl or a lucky recipient of his choice—deeply, and significantly—eye contact.
Again, this is not just the portrait of one egotistical, self-aggrandizing narcissist. It is the portrait of our narcissistic ruling class—which, like Hitler at the end of Downfall, was issuing complex, detailed battle orders to an army which did not even exist. It really is worth skimming the whitepaper to see the spectacular level of delusion involved.
We start to see the problem right after the “anchor recommendation”:
An effective strategy of pandemic resilience requires a number of key elements:
• Testing innovation
• A national Pandemic Testing Board to oversee supply and distribution
• Scalable manual contact tracing and warning methods
• Peer-to-peer warning-sharing apps
• Testing status certificate or card-reading equipment
• An expanded paid U.S. Public Health Service Corps and/or Medical or Health Reserves Corps (based on volunteer enrollment, not conscription)
• Disease monitoring infrastructure
• A cross-jurisdictional consensus plan for phased sectoral mobilization
• Federal- and state-level pandemic testing guidance, and tribal and local government administration of pandemic testing, all in accord with due process, civil liberties, equal protection, non-discrimination, and privacy standards
• Readiness frameworks to support local health leaders, mayors, tribal leaders, and other public officials in establishing test administration processes and isolation support resources, as well as innovative cross-jurisdictional organizational structures, especially linking cities, counties, and health districts, with specifics varying from state to state.
You can almost see this list coming together on some kind of Zoom whiteboard. Say what you want about the People’s Republic of China, but it doesn’t have any “tribal leaders”—let alone “due process” or “civil liberties.” And how are those “innovative cross-jurisdictional organizational structures” coming along? Gosh, I bet their “specifics” do “vary from state to state…”
What happened here is that 24 very smart people (odds are, the person who actually wrote the text is not even on the author list) got together virtually, inhaled many virtual hors d’oeuvres, and designed a public policy for a nonexistent country—a country which is still America, but an imaginary America, one which could actually do these things.
And the last author on the list is so proud of this it keeps burbling forth from his lips—he can barely be stopped, it seems, from rattling off some version of his CV. One wonders what his SAT scores were. Could they have been good? Top, even?
Such is the performative quality of our ruling class—whose main purpose is not to rule, in a way that actually works—but to be seen to rule. To be seen to matter. These people are serious about that—which, sadly, prevents them from being serious about reality. And rather than being embarrassed by it—they brag about it.
I remember “test, trace and isolate.” There was a whole world of thinkers designing these plans for a country that didn’t exist. To be fair, here is mine—written a month earlier, because I didn’t need 23 coauthors, and presented frankly as something that should happen but won’t. No such caveat from the Safra center—they were deeply and significantly engaged with “policymakers.” As no doubt they still are.
All of Weyl’s ideas have this same feel. They are ideas for an almost perfect world—one which is almost but not quite the best of all possible worlds, that is lacking only one or two bright designs from the Choate, Princeton, Chicago, Harvard and Yale man, which can open lines of communication to the insights of low-income housing projects, making our new utopia as vibrant and inclusive as we all know it deserves to be. The absence of these necessary, diverse insights is the pea under our princess’s mattress.
And yet outside Choate, Princeton, Chicago, Harvard, Yale and—Microsoft, America is a complete and obvious shitshow. Don’t listen to me—get in a car and drive around it. Heck, listen to Scott Alexander.
This country is crying like a dog stuck down a well for one tiny drop of basic decency, sanity, honesty and competence. Instead it finds itself with an army of Weyls—each one struggling to realize the promises of his top SAT scores by becoming, when he grows up, deeply and significantly influential. And none of whose ideas in fact matters at all—except to the educational and hors d’oeuvre industries.
Truth in advertising
There is actually yet another way to deconstruct Weyl’s essay. We can parse it as an ad. Like Milosz’s Gamma, any professional conformist—one thinks also of Bertolucci’s antihero—struggles desperately for individuality, meaning, and self-actualization.
The modern academic is a professional conformist, and his goal—ideally during his 20s, when he still has a bit of youthful creativity left—is to come up with the one big idea that will have a deep, significant impact. He will spend the rest of his career on marketing, exploring, extending, and teaching this big idea. Hey, man—everybody’s got to eat.
I actually think I know what “technocracy” means. This is a familiar advertising trick: a label for the absence of your product. You don’t need instant coffee—you need a cure for the coffee exhaustion of waiting for the brew, then dealing with the nasty grounds.
“Technocracy,” to Weyl (obviously others have used the label) is simply the absence of his one big idea: “quadratic voting.” This is also his “channel of communication” to the “low-income housing projects.” Watch him hint coyly at it when he writes:
A particularly striking example of this was [Alexander’s] identification of "democracy" with the one-person-one-vote rule, an identification I have in the past been guilty of (hence the self-critique). This is not coterminal with what democracy means to most people, nor how most political scientists think of it.
Yeah well. Maybe my idea of “most people” is not “coterminal” with Weyl’s. But I invite him to spend an hour at any shopping mall in America, explaining the fallacy of “identifying” democracy with the outdated, irrational “one-person-one-vote rule.” “Hence the self-critique.”
Maybe he could pretend to be collecting signatures for a petition to give our Black citizens—two votes? Now there’s a social-science paper I’d race to the library to read. As for the political scientists, though, he is right—most of them seem to feel the word “democracy” actually means “oligarchy.” That’s why they hate “populism” so much.
Perhaps the most striking thing about “quadratic voting” is that Weyl, modeling his spherical cow, actually seems to believe in democracy. To be exact: he genuinely thinks of it as an effective engineering device for aggregating the diffuse preferences, ideas and interests of a diverse and heterogeneous, but universally thoughtful, population. He is literally suggesting we use politics to collect good ideas to guide the government.
Does this person read the paper? Does he leave his house? Of course, democracy and politics are the same thing—and of course, American public opinion has considered “politics” a dirty word for roughly the last century. You wouldn’t want to politicize the government—so why would you want to democratize it? What? Are you crazy?
But I’ve saved the best thing for last. Weyl styles himself a “mechanism designer.” If he has ever designed a mechanism that anyone has ever used, I was unable to locate it on his CV. It is a long CV, so perhaps the fault is mine.
But the pons asinorum of social, economic and political mechanisms is that they avoid creating incentives for gaming the mechanism. For example, the core Google algorithm PageRank, which measures the importance of content by the number of links to it, was simple and beautiful before PageRank existed. Now link gaming or “SEO” is America’s second leading industry (after high-speed pizza delivery).
Quadratic voting, in which my second vote costs me 2 votes, my third 4, and so on, is a perfect system for incentivizing invisible corruption. If my third vote for A costs me four times as much as your first vote for A, why on earth would we not make a deal?
The true way of the autistic nerd
The answer is simple: because we are both autistic nerds. Fortunately or unfortunately—I myself go back and forth on this—the humans of earth are not, in general, autistic nerds. Autistic nerds can be very useful people—but designing mechanisms that only work for other autistic nerds is not a terribly good use of their time.
John von Neumann, arguably history’s ultimate autistic nerd, was not autistic at all—he was charming. (And based.) The story went that he was not human, but he had made a complete study of these humans and could emulate any type of human at any time. This path strikes me as a much better way than the usual academic road of designing milking machines for spherical cows.
Imagine if someone like Weyl could take some kind of immersion class which enabled him to actually think like the people in his “low-income housing projects.” If it worked, would the world even need quadratic voting? The proper study of man is man. Maybe the reader will forgive me for suspecting that Weyl has not done much of this study.
True: if you insist on focusing your intellectual gifts on reality rather than status, you will never get any status. At least not in the short term, where it matters. Nor will you have any real impact—at least not in the short term, where it matters. Will you anyway? Does anyone, really? And at least the words you pronounce will be your own.
And in case you had fun here, and want more of my words—the obligatory grift: