Printed: 2020-10-21

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

IEET Link:

How to maintain a vigorous, positive sum society… in theory

David Brin

Contrary Brin

May 06, 2016

I’ve long urged folks to go have another look at one of the founders of the Western-Pragmatic Enlightenment, Adam Smith. Lately, Smith has been picked up by ever more economists and thinkers seeking to understand how we’ve gone astray.

Liberals are surprised to discover Smith’s compassion, along with his denunciations of oligarchy and inherited power. Open-minded conservatives and libertarians are reminded that Smith’s recommendation of vigorous market competition can only happen when things are relatively flat-open-fair, but cheaters are only thwarted by rules, by regulation. (The same is true in sports, democracy, science etc.)
Both sides need to be reminded that human beings are essentially delusional, and we prosper best when we are shown – competitively – our mistakes. 

In an article - Stop Using Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek to Support Your Political Ideology - on the fast-rising Evonomics site, I show how both Smith and Friedrich Hayek offer no support for conniving, monopolistic concentrations of economic power.  For markets, democracy, science, etc to deliver their fabulous, positive sum outcomes, there must be reciprocal accountability.
In response, economist Nicholas Gruen agrees with most of my points, but complains that my emphasis on competition overlooks how much of our system depends on cooperation. Go have a look at his critique.

In fact, I had felt the cooperative aspect to be implicit, since where else would the regulations come from, that keep competitive markets and science and democracy, courts and sports flat-open-fair?  Those regulations – to maintain a healthy and vigorous commons – might be deliberated and negotiated competitively (in the arena called democracy) but they can only pass and be complied-with in a generallycooperative atmosphere and meme of shared citizenship.

(An atmosphere and meme that have been deliberately destroyed in America, rendering the U.S. Congress completely impotent. See below.)

Perhaps I should have commented at greater length about the implicit cooperativeness that allows for the creation of regulations that then empower creative competition.  But this twinning seems natural to me! Cooperation and competition are essential partners – not opposites – at nearly all layers of life that achieve any degree of health.

How do cooperation and competition depend on each other? 

At one level, individual creatures – predators and prey – seem totally competitive; yet we all know that a myriad defeats and victories add up to the “circle of life” of a wholesome ecosystem. But it goes farther. We now know that cells inside a fetus’s brain compete with each other, frenetically, to become nerve cells. Most are defeated, but the result is the most effective macro-entity ever formed. Adam Smith described how – when cheating and war and oppression are thwarted – normal human competitiveness engenders so much creativity that wealth pours forth in gushers, engendering the cooperative thing called civilization. 

(Karl Marx quite agreed, though his scenarios cynically assumed that there would always be cheaters, until there was so much wealth available that competition might – suddenly – be dispensed-with.)

What I just described are called “emergent properties.” From the competitive jostling of molecules within our cells, on up, we see subsequent layerings of regulated rivalry spawning an appearance of effective collaboration, in which entities of the next-higher level then commence competing, yet again… and forming what seems to be cooperative… and onward, building order.

Along the way, there are potential traps and pitfalls that cause such agglomerations to fail. When a type of predator or parasite gets too strong, it may gorge on prey and drive species extinct, destroying the ecosystem  it relied upon. Across millennia, ever since we began recording agricultural societies, competitively vigorous men would win local games of power, then seize way too much, cheating for the sake of short-term reproductive success (lordship and harems), stifling competition, thus starving the health of their tribes or nations.  

Indeed, both great Pericles and Adam Smith preached that we must stymie this trap by cooperative design, thwarting cheating, not only for justice and freedom but for the pragmatic reason, that only such limits to power can let flat-fair-open-creative competition resume its generative miracle, making us all better off. 

How all of this applies to Artificial Intelligence

This is, indeed, the whole and entire answer to the Problem of Artificial Intelligence… how to prevent AI from going berserk as in Terminator or The Matrix, a concern expressed by Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and others.

What do we dread about the arrival of new, smarter beings? 

Well, the simplest and most-feared scenarios depict coolly determined and cunning robotic beings conspiring to treat us the same way that human overlords treated peasants... or worse, the way they treated sheep. Seizing the top position on a feudal-style pyramid of might-based oppression.  In other words, we fret the possibility that AIs might behave in the way all-too-many human males have, when tempted by access to overwhelming power!

But any such robot-dominated hierarchy is likely to suffer the same disastrous effects of winnowing system health and delusional-governance which comes about when a predator or parasite is too successful... or when human leaders get strong enough to evade competitive criticism. 

Moreover, this argument is not an artifact of my being a dumb-organic, oldstyle human. Since the competition-cooperation emergent tradeoffs manifest across all levels of organization, from the cell to organs to species and ecosystems and societies - including the only human society creative enough to make AI(!) - it can be presumed that any robot overlord claiming to be an exception is likely -- no matter how "smart" -- to be ... delusional.

This is not about IQ.  It is about wisdom.


I know it's gone a bit long. But let's hang in to a conclusion.

This piece appraises “NeoLiberalism,” a powerfully influential political and economic theory that took over the West during the 1980s and still persists with the zombie-never-dying-though-always-wrong Supply Side economic theory and the meme to “hate all government.” 

The insidious thing about NeoLiberalism is that its basic premise is entirely correct: "Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty." You can see how this fits today's theme. Competition is indeed the fundamental process that allows positive sum outcomes to spill from markets, democracy, science, courts and sports, highly refined "arenas" wherein miracles of productivity arise out of flat-fair-open competition.

The insidious lie of NeoLiberalism is that there is only one enemy of competitive enterprise... government.

That is a towering and stunning falsehood, since Adam Smith would tell you to look (as he did) across 6000 years of brutal, grinding feudalism and see the force that destroyed flat-open-fair-creative competition in 99% of human cultures... inherited oligarchy and lordly-monied cheaters.  The testimony of 60 centuries shows this, despite the Neolibs desperate efforts to distract with hate-all-government ravings...

...when Smith himself called for governments to intervene to keep opportunity flat-open-fair.

Oh but some top conservative idea-folks have taken this further, suggesting: Could the GOP be facing an intellectual exodus? Daniel Drezner asks, "Forty years ago, neoconservatives started migrating toward the Republican Party. Is a reverse migration possible?”  

Well… it depends on what you mean by “intellectuals.” Under the influence of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and its relentlessly expressed hatred of science, medicine, teachers, journalists and almost every other clade of knowledge in American life, we’ve already seen almost total abandonment of the right by scientists and others who deal in facts.

Which leaves the airy realm of political theory and fact-free dogma incantation.There you can still find ‘intellects’ willing and eager to defend never-once-right and always-utterly-disproved doctrines like Supply Side Economics.  You’ll certainly see no defections from that quadrant. 

What about other elements of the right? Take the so-called “neocons” of the early 2000s, who concocted rationalizations for 'nation-building wars' in Iraq etc, based on the spells of Leo Strauss. (Noecons only overlap with neo-liberals; they aren't the same.) Where are the Nitzes, Perles, Adelmans and Wolfowitzes, nowadays? Hunkering in faux-academes like AEI and Heritage, eking out a political dotage, abandoned and disdained even by the Bushite-Cheneyites they helped empower.


Okay, hold on for the stunning aftermath of this riff, which poses a question.  Who said this? 

"It is important to have a national notification system to help safely recover children kidnapped by child predators. But it is equally important to stop those predators before they strike, to put repeat child molesters into jail for the rest of their lives, and to help law enforcement with the tools they need to get the job done." 

Who? Former Speaker and GOP head Dennis Hastert said this after another Republican was caught molesting congressional pages. 

Hypocrisy R Us. His "Hastert Rule" wrecked negotiation in Congress, making it the laziest do-nothing legislature in US history. He made gerrymandering an art and elevated cheating to the norm. His Bush-Cheney era was the father of the Trump-Cruz era. Be proud.

Finally, see: “Why Garbagemen Should Be Earning More Than Bankers: How more and more people are making money without contributing anything of value”… again on Evonomics.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837