Reflecting on Steering, Pitfalls, and History

by Davidmanheim5 min read21st Nov 2021No comments


LongtermismCause prioritization

In light of Holden's excellent discussion of Rowing, Steering, Anchoring, Equity, Mutiny, I've been thinking about steering and its problems, and think there's something missing in his analysis. I haven't figure out how to plug the hole, but I have some initial thoughts.

Epistemic status: Preliminary thoughts and tentative conclusions, with some concrete examples which I hope are illustrative of something general, but may  be post-hoc justifications to support my intuitive arguments.


Holden  proposes that steering, which he says is, in the analogy, trying to "navigate to a better destination than the current one." The idea is, then, to "anticipate future states of the world (climate change, transformative AI, utopia, dystopia) and act accordingly."  He then notes that the historical track record of this type of work is not particularly great. Unfortunately, I think that this tries to combine two different things, in ways that are misleading, and uses far too narrow a historical lens. I'll start by addressing the elephant which Holden correctly located as crowding the room, Communism, then try to look elsewhere for examples.

Communism as Steering

First, true communism has never been tried. That's because true communism isn't even a single platonic idea, so there are mottes all over the place that allow for ambiguity and prevarication. But it's still useful to look at where the ideas have gone wrong.

The origins trace back well before Thomas More's Utopia, written in 1516, but that's a good place to start, with a vision of a society with communal ownership, simple needs, and rejection of competition. Of course, the idea of an idea state wasn't a blueprint or charting a course - but it clearly identified some problems  with European society, and  then proposed fanciful and impractical solutions.

In response to a varity of related ideas and recognition of problems, there were attempt to create such communal societies which clearly predate Marx, for example, in places like New Lanark - where Robert Owen, with support of philanthropists and others, including Bentham, built a Owenist commune around the time Marx was born. The small-scale communes, both predating Marx, during his lifetime, and over the following century, seem to have been anywhere from fairly successful to unspectacular failures. 

But communism wasn't really compete until Marx. Much of what Marx added was a specific concern for what happens without radical reform, an economic theory, and a theory of history. I won't address the problems with the economic theory, but the specific concern - that capitalism would run roughshod over the workers and lead to poverty for all but the richest - wasn't actually unreasonable. In fact,  without the labor movement in the US, and similar movements abroad, which developed largely prompted by socialism and communism, the trajectory of the working poor was quite grim. It's plausible that without a communist movement, Marx's vision of a capitalist dystopia wouldn't have been particularly wrong - and his assumption that things would inevitably become more socialist was mostly wrong in thinking that revolutions would necessarily be violent.

The problems with communism as attempted aroudn the world are manifold, but mostly seem to go alongside the planning and active steering. The types of abuse that communist states embraced were largely driven by certainty about their vision, and the inevitable human tendency to build "ideal" systems that in practice are self-serving rather than beneficial to others.

I think this is a trend - identifying problems is far easier than solving them, and grand schemes for solutions, is a typical red flag. It describes almost all the failures of communist states, including various types of failures in the USSR and China. It also seems to describe the French revolution - finding a corrupt system and identifying how to attack it is easier than building something which doesn't succumb to either identical or novel abuses. 

So as a first tentative conclusion, I'll propose that it seems easier to see obstacles than it is to steer around them without sinking on other obstacles.

Other examples

Partly in support of my claims about the ease of prediction, I think that we have many examples of groups which correctly identified systemic trends and problems. This ranges from abolitionists to women's rights and civil rights crusaders to high-modernists to environmentalists to anticommunists to anti-tax crusaders. All found extant systems or trends which they saw as problems. In each case, they pushed for policies that they felt would address those problems. Of course, there is a significant selection bias, in that groups which incorrectly forecast were often more quickly disposed of, as their ideas failed to find purchase.

But the I think the clearest differences between the worrying failures and the successes, at least in my narrow list of available examples, were their scope and theoretical versus concrete approaches.  The broader the scope of policy prescriptions and the more theoretical justifications, the riper the movement was for abuse. To the extent that high-modernists, communists, and others looked at systems and built theories before pushing for change, they pushed for solutions which were disastrous. And to the extent that they had narrow and concrete goals, they were more successful. (I think that the biggest problem  have with Holden's explanation of Equity as a motive is that it fails to distinguish between systemic visions and specific ones.)

Theorizing and Certainty in Steering

 I don't think that the problem of vision is the one to worry about most - it's easy to find things which are going wrong, and the biggest failures of prediction in most areas is failing to account for how much other forces and other groups will also push to change the world. That makes it very hard to understand marginal importance; if we're wrong about how much others are going to be successful in fighting climate change, we'll misallocate effort. And if we're wrong about how easy or hard it is to change governance systems, the same applies.

Second, steering narrowly seems much less worrying than steering broadly. I'm certainly biased here, but pushing for pandemic preparedness seems less likely to backfire than pushing humanity to embrace a long reflection, and pushing against gain-of-function seems safer than pushing for slowing AI progress.

Another preliminary concern that seems relevant from my current musings is that embracing philosophical visions seems like a worrying indication of steering in ways that are not sensitive to reality. If the future is important enough,  perhaps longtermists will be led to ignore indications that their policies are harmful or ineffective. |If we're sure enough that AI cannot end well, we can ignore any indications of failures on our part to push an agenda we may continue supporting. And this seems like an empirical reason to worry about philosophical visions which allow for extremism or fanaticism.

My Updates

To conclude, I'm more excited than I had been about better historical analysis of the various classes of steering, since I think this is useful and neglected. I'm less enthused about strong philosophical arguments, and more excited about continuing to make the general ideas which motivate longtermism into very concrete issues which can be evaluated independently, and (partly due to what I've been working on recently,) even more excited about people finding concrete plans for what to do - not even approaches, but object level actions.


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