Suppose that we could build some tools that accelerated the progress of certain parts of social science substantially. Suppose further that using those tools, humanity would gain a substantially better understanding of the conditions under which authoritarian regimes transition towards liberal democracy and vice versa. Would that improved understanding be a good thing?

Please assume for the purpose of this question that:

  • by the nature of the tools to be developed, the knowledge gained would be accessible to the general public
  • liberal democracy is much better than authoritarian regimes

I will post my own thoughts in a comment.

Thank you for your help!




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Michael - well, yes, it would be helpful to have better models of 'regime transitions' among various forms of government.

However, I think it's very important not to be naive about the rather narrow range of types of hegemonic regimes that we live under. To a first approximation, all functional nation-states in the world are quasi-meritocratic, semi-hereditary oligarchies run by elites who tend to be richer, more powerful, better educated, and more virtue-signally than the common folks they rule over. This describes how things actually work in the US, UK, Germany, China, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria, Brazil, and virtually everywhere.

In each case, the oligarchic elites use a combination of hard power and soft power to control their societies, including military and police power, economic control, digital surveillance, 'public education' and propaganda. 

This is equally true in the US and in China, for example. To call one a 'liberal democracy' and the other an 'authoritarian regime' strikes me a a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of political power in the 21st century. In each society, the oligarchic elites nudge, shape, and control public sentiment through 'engineering consent', using a combination of state propaganda (e.g. public education, press conferences, state media), corporate media (e.g. 'news', talk shows, journalism), state surveillance (e.g. China's Ministry of State Security; America's NSA, FBI, CIA, etc), and the deep state's stigmatization, criminalization, and demonization of various forms of dissent (e.g. crackdowns on Uyghurs or Falun Gong in China; crackdowns on 'Christian nationalists', 'white supremacists', and 'traitors' (e.g. Edward Snowden, Julian Assange) in the US).

For example, if you talk with behavioral and social scientists in the US versus China, they will mention all kinds of topics and truths that are taboo to discuss or to publish about -- topics that would be career suicide to study. The list of scientific taboos is, in my experience, shorter in China than in the US -- although the specific tactics for social control of academic research are somewhat different. In China, each university has a number of a Chinese Communist Party political officers overseeing teaching and research, whereas in the US, each university has a number of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion political officers (almost 100% from the Democratic Party) overseeing teaching and research. Their powers of censorship, ostracism, and control are roughly comparable, but in each society, their hegemonic presence is taken for granted.

Related to your last paragraph, what do you think about Have epistemic conditions always been this bad? In other words, was there a time when the US wasn't like this?

Geoffrey Miller
Wei_Dai - thanks for sharing your post about the epistemic conditions in the American Left.  I think you're right, that epistemics have gotten notably worse compared to previous decades and cohorts.  When I was in college in the 1980s, the Left tended to have quite a bit of mistrust of government, corporate power, academia, and the media. Now, having ideologically captured all four institutions, they tend to distrust the common people and common sense. But that's getting us somewhat off-topic, in terms of modeling 'regime change'....
Wei Dai
I have two thoughts that spring from this: 1. If epistemic conditions in the US weren't always like this, could it be that on average liberal democracies still tend to have better epistemic conditions than authoritarian regimes? (And we just happen to live in an unlucky period where things are especially bad?) 2. Maybe it's comparably important to model/understand "internal regime changes" (a term I just made up) where conditions for making scientific or intellectual progress (or other conditions that we care about) improve or deteriorate a lot due to institutional changes that don't fit the standard definition of "regime change"?
Geoffrey Miller
Wei Dai: yes, I agree with both points. I think on average, 'liberal democracies' have tended to have better epistemic conditions than other types of regimes. However, I also think there has been significant 'internal regime change' (to borrow your term) that has undermined this advantage, at least in the US. Specifically, the rise of the 'censorship-industrial complex' (in which the US government outsources censorship to Big Tech companies) seems to have significantly eroded the quality and reliability of public epistemics on social media.

PS: as always, for anyone who's disagree-voted with this, I'd value knowing what exactly you disagree with.

Thank you for challenging the question's assumption, Mr. Miller. Your points notwithstanding, I think you under-appreciate what we have, even though it could have been much better. I hope the tools that I envision would someday help clarify convincingly why not all regimes are essentially the same for human well-being.

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  • cons
    • if we understood regime transitions better, then so would pro-authoritarian actors, and they would be better able to protect and promote authoritarian regimes.
      • for example, if we discover that women's rights were a long-term driver of democratization, an authoritarian regime may choose to keep women repressed to preserve its grip on power. Without this knowledge, the authoritarian regime might welcome women's rights, and eventually liberalize as a result.
  • pros
    • if we understood regime transitions better, we would be better equipped to safeguard, strengthen and possibly even promote the development of liberal democracy where it does not exist.

Those are first-order arguments, and they are symmetric. Second-order arguments might consider whether the pro-democracy or the authoritarian side would have more use for this knowledge. 

  • In an authoritarian regime, the government has many more actions it can take to shape developments, and a greater command of resources, than pro-democracy forces. So a highly-detailed understanding of regime transitions is likely to solidify authoritarian regimes.
  • in a liberal democracy, 
    • the pro-democracy forces may be roughly on par or even stronger than those promoting authoritarianism. 
    • power-seeking actors are shaped by an evolutionary competition for political power, and so learn by trial and error how to gain and secure political power.
    • There is a certain asymmetry between the competitive dynamics that shape pro-democracy and authoritarian agents. I will hopefully develop this idea further in my next comment.
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