The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Samo Burja. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Samo Burja coming back for part two of a conversation we started in EP 117. We’re going to talk today about his book, Great Founder Theory which can be found in PDF form for free at Samo, S-A-M-O, Burja, but pronounced Burya, B-U-R-J-A dot com. If you like what you hear here, feel free to pick it up and read it. I found it to be really good. Welcome, Samo, how are you today?
Samo: Yeah, it’s good to be here with you. It’s been a lovely day here in Slovenia since lockdown is finally lifted. So there are people out there in the streets, eating in restaurants and all of that. I really missed that.
Jim: We’re still have sort of light lockdown here, but my wife and I both had our two jabs and I’ve had two jabs plus four weeks, so I can get back out into things a little bit, but I’m going to do it somewhat cautiously, because I think we need to see how the variants interact with the vaccines before we get too far ahead of ourselves.
Samo: That’s certainly true, but I’ve been feeling a desire to see people, at least outdoors, at least at a distance, having some activity in the streets is … it feels good.
Jim: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, before we get into the details of the book, let me tell you a little bit about Samo, he founded Bismarck Analysis, a consulting firm that investigates the political and institutional landscape of society. He’s a research fellow at the Long Now Foundation, that’s a really cool outfit, if you don’t know anything about it, check it out, where he studies how institutions can endure for centuries and millennia. He’s a research fellow at the Foresight Institute and he’s a member of the startup team of the Consilience Project, which we recently discussed at some length with Daniel Schmachtenberger on one of our just two or three previous episodes.
Jim: So I’m going to throw out a quote, which out of, frankly, I don’t remember from your book or from your web page or something, but I thought it was really, really interesting and that was that you said, “There has never been an immortal human society. I work on figuring out why.” What can you say about that?
Samo: I think that it’s best to always present your intellectual project as honestly as possible. I think there is too much indirection with the way we currently approach ideas, with the way we currently approach why people are interested in the questions they’re interested in. Now, the reasons for that are quite understandable. We kind of live in an information ecology that’s somewhat weaponized, we live, again, in a world where, arguably, our intellectual culture isn’t as healthy as it once was. So I decided to just try to, in my own small way, contribute to that honesty. Yeah, this has been for me, a motivating question for at least the last 10 years of my life, possibly longer, though, I make a distinction between dabbling and actually actively pursuing it.
Samo: Almost every single aspect of my professional and scholarly life has been me trying to find a home to address at least one component of this big question. Why do I think it’s a big question? Why do I think it’s an unanswered question? Well, first off, there is no field of civilization studies. Possibly, that’s a good thing. Possibly modern academia would do a bad job of it, or possibly, we just don’t know enough. However, I think that whenever we try to contribute to a notably better future, we’re implicitly making a bet on our own current civilization. Yet, if we made this bet in any previous civilization, be it say, the Mohenjo-daro society in India, be it Hellenistic Greece and the Roman Empire, be it Tang Dynasty, China, our efforts that are … it could be thought of as passengers on this ship, as passengers in this ship that is a civilization or possibly just one species in a forest, if we think of civilizations as ecosystems rather than ships.
Samo: Well, they would go extinct together with the biome. Of course, there are some things we have preserved from these past societies but it’s honestly very fascinating to me that there are people so motivated to say unearth the deep truths of mathematics, and give them to the distant future, and I think those are very noble pursuits but very few of them ever asked the question, “Well, how likely is my math? How likely is it that my math will reach that distant future?”
Jim: Yeah, I was reviewing our previous episode, one of the snippets that really jumped out to me was you quoted how few of the thinkers referenced in the literature that survived from classical Greece, we have any documents for. Do you remember what that number was?
Samo: Yeah, if I remember it right, the estimates differ and they’ve been several papers on this, but the estimate I find most credible is 94%, right? 94% of the authors, ancient Greek authors we know by name, we only know through references, we don’t have complete works by them. We don’t have fragments by them. Can you imagine picking up a book from the 20th century, and having references to people like Szilard, or Einstein or Oppenheimer, and not knowing anything about them. They’re just footnotes in a book. Your understanding of 20th century science, let alone 20th century history and society would be crippled.
Jim: Yep, I’d like to get my own favorite example of how far knowledge can be lost. One of the great inventions of the Romans was concrete, and the use of it in construction. They used it a whole lot and when the Western Roman Empire fell, concrete was not rediscovered in the West until the 19th century, more than 1500 years later. Something as basic, fundamental, and frankly, not all that difficult and useful disappeared for 1500 years. So societies come, societies go, and there’s no guarantee that my podcast is going to survive, oh, no. I hope it’s laying around for the graduate students of the future, but there are no guarantees. We’re not going to go and do a review of the last episode. It was very detailed and I would point people to EP 117, if they want to hear the first half of our discussion about Samo’s book, Great Founder Theory, and we’re just going to hop in where we left off, which is, what is a bureaucracy and what are they for?
Samo: Yeah, it’s very interesting, bureaucracy is likely with good reason, almost something of a dirty word. Yet also, it is the case that so many of the key institutions of our society and honestly our civilization, arguably, from Egyptian times, are very much reliant on bureaucracy or essentially bureaucratic measures. One way to think about a bureaucracy is that it is an institution, in the sense of this kind of zone of coordination that’s running on mostly automated systems. You could argue that these are inherently centralizing systems or you could pick a definition where such a thing as decentralized bureaucracy is possible. When I talk about bureaucracies, I usually focus on the former, I focus on the sort of centralized, engineered, automated processes.
Samo: Now, a metaphor I like to use for a well-functioning bureaucracy is that of an assembly line. No individual worker at the assembly line necessarily knows how their part fits into the car or into the laptop that is assembled there. However, at the end of it, you still have a finished physical product, someone had to design that entire factory floor and had to design that sequence of actions. I think when bureaucracies are at their best, and again, this is a reason why I think they were an important step in civilization developing information, processing capacity. These were factories of symbol manipulation, where things such as tabulating taxes or ensuring logistical supplies for armies or undertaking the necessary preparations for public works in a city and so on.
Samo: All of those things had to be done with some efficiency, some cost efficiency, while at the same time, requiring non-trivial information processing. I think, especially in the era before computers, especially in the era before ubiquitous data gathering, it’s a massive operation to send out people into the wild and conduct something like an information gathering exercise, bring this information in, processed in a certain way, formatted in a certain way and then have other bureaucrats who never went out there, just use the information correctly. There’s an interesting question whether we perhaps should have expected a drop in bureaucracy and bureaucratic power with the introduction of computers, and possibly This brings me to the dysfunctional version of bureaucracy.
Samo: If the functional version is this kind of assembly line of people who are doing essentially symbol manipulation, holding to particular rules, their clear inputs, their outputs. It’s been designed to be fit for purpose where purpose might be say, I don’t know, something like a national census, right? National censuses, even today, require a lot of human labor. They’re not purely digital. If that’s the functional version of bureaucracy, this kind of automated proceduralized space, then we have to also tackle, the dysfunctional version of it. The dysfunctional version occludes information, hides information at every level, for the benefit and political advantage of the bureaucrats themselves.
Samo: So, what happened was sort of a transition from borrowed power that was lent to these bureaucrats for a particular purpose by some other authority and some other system, into owned power, where they stockpile information asymmetries over time, exploiting what’s called the principal agent problem to their own advantage and ultimate incumbency. That dysfunctional bureaucracy is best thought of as a patronage network, a patronage tree, where sort of spoils are distributed at every level and responsibility is discharged at every level.
Jim: Yeah, the issue of this dysfunctional bureaucracy was one of my pet peeves in business when I came in as a naive young fellow, and particularly what you described as politics, and in my own company, I didn’t tolerate it. In fact, when I hired people, I’d often tell them, “If I catch you stealing petty cash from the petty cash box, I might give you a second chance. If I ever catch you play in politics in the first degree, I mean, doing exactly the things you said, hoarding information, not bringing forth bad news, not bringing forth good news, stealing credit, et cetera, I will fire your ass on the spot, I got references to prove it.” It’s amazing. When we build organizations that were relatively free, and I’m not so naive to think they were free of these kind of pathological parasitism in our operating system, it was amazing how much better our organizations ran.
Samo: Yeah, functional organizations multiply human efforts, it’s not that a team of 10 people does 10 times as much as a single individual. If you built it right, it’ll do 100 times more than an individual.
Jim: That goes all the way back to Adam Smith and his analysis of the pin factory, right, where he analyzed that a well-organized factory to make pins literally produced 100 times as many pins per worker as a single workman making pins that his forge might do. So yeah, there’s definitely a tremendous leverage there. Now, another distinction you make, which actually resonated with me quite well, is the distinction between bureaucracy versus delegation. Maybe if you could draw that one out a little bit for us.
Samo: Yeah, the key distinction there is that with a bureaucracy, there is a strong focus on proceduralization, breaking things down into discrete steps, where executing the steps results in a particular outcome. The delegation approach, however, is one where you rely much more on skill evaluation and trustworthiness or at least, alignment of goals with particular individuals. You give someone a mandate, a mission, and you don’t really care which steps they take to fulfill that mission. The result, when this works very well, is a much more flexible approach to almost anything. This might be in the domain of military strategy. It might be on again, the factory floor. It might be in a software project. It might be in an intellectual project of some kind.
Samo: The key advantage that I think the delegation approach has, is that it really builds up over time, human capital. It gives people opportunities to develop a very agentic approach to the world. I think the advantage the bureaucratic approach has though, is that if you truly want to scale something, again, if you are either an ancient Chinese Emperor or the modern US federal government, and you just want to count all the people in the country, and how much stuff they have for you to tax, well, in that case, you can’t really rely on the alignment of thousands or tens of thousands of people. So I do think that the proceduralization has some scaling advantages. Given all of these costs discussed, and given the deep, deep problems with civilizations maintaining and building human capital, I think we could stand to move much more in the direction of delegation.
Jim: Yeah, it’s interesting, I had some great experience in that. I worked for Thomson Corporation in the 90s, now, Thomson Reuters and it was a radically decentralized organization. We had 50,000 employees, eight billion dollars in revenue, but that was scattered over 150 strategic business units and it was amazing how delegated that business was. One of our policy statements was, you should push down responsibility and accountability as far as you can possibly stand and then one level lower than that. We actually did. Basically, if you were running one of these business units, your report up to your boss was once a month, about a 10 line spreadsheet and that was it. Somebody come around talk to you once every quarter or so but it was sort of just a general kind of bullshitty conversation most of the time, kind of fun and sometimes you get some ideas from your boss
Jim: Oftentimes you’re just humoring them, but they never told you what to do or anything else. It was very, very interesting and it allowed us to outcompete the other companies in our category, and say in 1990, we were fourth in the category of professional publishing companies, behind the likes of Elsevier and McGraw Hill and Pearson, I think it was. Then by 2000, we were number one and I’m convinced, it was that we had this delegative style, but to your point, I don’t think we realized it at the time, but some new management came in, upper management, some things were changed about the culture and a whole bunch of us left between about 1998 and 2002. We didn’t probably realize it, but the reason that this delegative ecosystem could work so well is that we had somehow developed this high coherence, high trust environment amongst people at various layers and in various business operating units around the corporation.
Jim: When that relatively rapidly disappeared over a couple of two, three year period, there wasn’t enough bureaucracy to survive the loss of a couple of dozen of the very best people. So it overperformed when those people were there, using this kind of jazz ensemble style almost and then, probably underperformed for a while when it was forced to fall back into bureaucracy and didn’t have very well-developed bureaucratic processes.
Samo: There’s always the question of how advanced do you want to make your organization or how complicated should one make their social, political and economic legacy? One of the more interesting critiques I’ve heard of, say Bismarck’s foreign policy. Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor that unified Germany into the German Empire, was that his foreign policy was brilliant, but set up so in such a complicated manner, in such a nuanced manner that no possible successor in the office of Chancellor or the Foreign Ministry could ever hope to carry it on. So therefore, by doing extremely well in diplomacy, possibly dooming Germany to World War I.
Jim: Interesting, I had not heard that that. That makes a lot of sense and I would put it out as a kind of an interesting thing to think about for people that are building companies or working at companies, using an idiosyncratic approach, like the radical delegation, and an eight billion dollar multinational company, did allow us to outperform for a long time but maybe it didn’t have the robustness and resilience of a more bureaucratic approach. On the other hand, the company is still number one in its category, so that phase change from number four to number one, may well have been worth a certain amount of turbulence after. Another example that I’m very well aware of, from my days at the Santa Fe Institute is the US Marine Corps. The US Marines, unlike the army, practices, radical delegation.
Jim: Marine officers are all trained. Yeah, you get orders from above but they are only very general forms of direction. It’s up to you to figure out to the local conditions, and in fact, I was amazed to see about 2002 some early swarm based, agent based modeling that the Marine Corps had developed to try to understand, how to fight using very local signaling rather than strategic doctrines or top down direction. It worked really well. I don’t know if you have been watching the news over the last 20 some years. It’s kind of interesting that the Marines are all over the place. Marines are only supposed to be originally designed to be an amphibious force, to operate, it used to be, within 50 miles of the coast but because the marine doctrine of radical delegation and decentralization worked so well, they got sucked into being a big part of the fighting forces, hundreds of miles from the coast, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jim: Actually, in both of the Iraq wars and in Afghanistan, so that’s a very interesting example of how an organization that in a context where most of its competitors, shall we say and weirdly, in the US government, the army and Marines compete for resources and missions and things of this sort. The delegative model actually has beat out the bureaucratic model.
Samo: The reward for a job well done is always more work and the competition between different branches of services is something that’s not unique to United States. You see this in almost every large, industrialized, bureaucratized society and in every modern and arguably even ancient military force. In modern day China, there are existing disagreements within the PLA. In Imperial Japan, there was … it went so far as to have the Navy and the army have different preferred foreign policies, and both of them would lobby for a different foreign policy. The army wanted to focus on the Soviet Union and wanted to complete the conquest of China. The Navy wanted to quickly push out first Britain, and then the United States out of the Pacific. Well, what Japan did was, in a way pursued both. They didn’t invade the Soviet Union.
Samo: However, they did end up pursuing an incompatible policy, where both naval and land expansion was demanded simultaneously and there was no coherent unified foreign policy. That’s a story in its own right. How does one construct, a state where the military doesn’t lobby for the wars at once, and the sort of diplomatic organs understand the cost of what they’re proposing.
Jim: Yep, that’s difficult because bureaucratic entities in particular are hill climbers. They’re just trying to improve their relative position, they generally can’t elevate themselves to the level of understanding the co-evolutionary fitness landscape, which is inevitably not a monotonically, increasing slope, but rather a series of peaks and valleys and ridges. That’s really hard for organizations to gather. I’m going to insert one of my own favorite ideas here, because I think it fits, which is a generalization of bureaucracy and delegation, which kind of incorporates both, is what I call the idea of boundaries and signals. The idea that if you think about building a social operating system, whether it’s a company or a community, or a political party or a nation state, one can think of it consisting of boundaries that are around groups of people or processes and signals that pass between them.
Jim: If you start with that blanker sheet of paper, I believe you may be possible to find ways of organizing cooperation. That’s what all this stuff is about, that’s superior to either bureaucracy or kind of a simple minded delegation.
Samo: There’s definitely an unexplored space here. In general, I think that systemically looking at all the possible ways humans can coordinate, all the possible ways that coordination, cooperation can happen, I don’t think that’s ever been done. It’s also an interesting question, whether it ever could be done. The theoretical space of possible solutions might just be so vast, that we’re only ever going to be exploring tiny, tiny parts of it. One could easily argue that say, a theory of law, philosophical discussions, modern economics, many religions and parts of religions are all focused on exploring the space.
Jim: Yep, I think that’s exactly right, but I would suggest that we’re probably not exploring it widely enough and our GameB Movement, one of our core holdings is that we are a whole series of parallel explorations of design space and cooperation. I think that will be a very fruitful area for humanity in the rest of this century. Let’s move on to the next topic in your book, which is competition for power. Do you think this is inevitable?
Samo: I think it very much is inevitable. I think it’s only a question of how do you contain that competition? How do you have it be something that is as productive as possible, because almost always, no matter what kind of system you set up, no matter how perfect the set of rules is or how emergent the behavior is, someone somewhere will be clever enough to turn it to their advantage, and to manipulate procedural processes for desired outcomes. Instead of direct action, maybe they’ll go for indirect action. Instead of waging a war, if you’re a state, you might wage a proxy war. There’s always something to be done. Even in say, mechanisms such as market mechanisms, we all know market manipulation can happen. We know lobbying of favorable regulation happens. Whatever rule set we might imagine and whatever corrective process we have, there will at least be imperfections in it.
Samo: At the end of the day, I’m not even sure the imperfections are that bad because it really depends on what we mean with the word power. If we mean, the domination of other human beings for the heck of it, then it’s obviously negative. If we mean by power, the ability of individuals to get things done, even without consensus, well, then we want more power in the system not less.
Jim: Yeah, we want more power in the right place, if it’s good power, something like that.
Samo: Exactly. Exactly. Believing only evil or wicked or bad people can wield power. Well, ironically, what’s the fitness landscape of that belief? Arguably, it makes it … it is a self-fulfilling prophecy since good people are then not interested in having power.
Jim: Yeah, that’s a very good point, and there have been some people who have used power very effectively, think of Winston Churchill, one of my heroes, right? He was a person of great power and he wielded it very well.
Samo: Yeah, and there’s many examples of very pro-social societal reform, as are say, for example, the people behind the smallpox eradication program, the people involved with that, the health experts and bureaucrats, they really deserve a better name because they behaved in a way that was quite distinct and quite different from any other UN style program. It was a personal mission to them and they pursued it vigorously.
Jim: Interesting. Yeah. Now, one of the points you make about, one of the things that leads to competition for power at the individual level is there are differences in distribution of skills across multiple dimensions. Talk about that a little bit.
Samo: Well, one of the most interesting effects is, and we can first talk about this on the organizational level and then on the individual level. On the organizational level, it seems to be that, institutions in the same reference class, such as if you compare companies to each other or if you compare organized religions to each other, or if you compare states to each other, you’ll routinely find order of magnitude differences in outcomes, right? These could be manufacturing outputs. If it’s a factory. They could be, specific intellectual achievements, specific feats such as, say, the Apollo moon landing, and with individuals, this seems to also be the case. It seems to be that people who are only on the surface of very minorly different or perhaps bureaucratically indistinguishable, right?
Samo: Two males, both 33 years old, both with about the same IQ, both with the same education and socioeconomic status, et cetera, an admissions committee at Harvard might think this is basically the same person. However, their life trajectories start revealing these compounding differences. Now, the reasons for why I expect this is happening is we could discuss, various skepticisms of this, we could discuss that maybe it’s a relatively sort of random type difference, and I’m sure there’s something there that there’s like a winner takes all dynamic, but one of them is that I suspect for very complex and intricate undertakings, it’s not that 50% of the skills gets you 50% of the result, 50% of the skills gets you 0% of the results.
Samo: In fact, 90% of the needed skills might get you 0% of the result. It’s much like a car, if it’s missing only the steering wheel or only the engine or only the wheels, there’s just nowhere you can go in that thing. You have to repair it, maybe you can, maybe you can’t. Maybe you never find the spare parts in your life. What might the spare parts be? There are many very brilliant people who I think could easily make outstanding contributions to the sciences. However, they, in fact, do not know how to navigate social circumstances. On the other end, there are some people who can navigate social circumstances very well, who are in fact, again, brilliant. However, something like attention deficit disorder prevents them from succeeding in a highly credentialized contexts, such as, unfortunately, even the very best academic environment today.
Samo: Even MIT I think, just requires a bunch of ability to do pointless work. There are happy exceptions, right, where people find the right niche in their own society to thrive, but then, is that always a matter of luck or is it also a matter of going to the right place in society, of feeling agentic and in charge of your destiny, of being able to accurately observe almost as an anthropologist would, the differences between subcultures and being like, “You know, this seems like a little bit culty. I’m not going to go here. This other thing, however, seems completely empty. Look at that over there. That seems a little bit culty but it’s not an abusive subculture. I think that’s where I’m going to find my intellectual scene or that’s where I’m going to find the co-founder for my company that I really need. That’s where I can find trust.”
Samo: It’s really difficult and intangible to try to enumerate the skills one would need to as an individual, both find and act on navigation grade information. Now, of course, if the epistemic commons are healthier, this is a bit easier. If the epistemic commons are a bit unhealthier, this is harder. The fundamental completionist aspect of this, I think remains.
Jim: Yeah, that actually does make some sense and yeah, you referenced the fact that Google has systematically looked out for what they call 10X programmers, and that reminds me, in my own career, when we were hiring for people, there was several periods we’re in a real feeding frenzy. One time, I hired 200 technical folks in one year and I hired some great ones. Our hypothesis was similar. We call it ABC, a C was worth one, a B was worth four and an A was worth 16. We optimized our whole recruiting and filtering process to yield as many As as possible. Fill out the rest of it with Bs and never knowingly hire a C. It was amazing, particularly because our hiring context in this was Washington DC metro area 1996, ’97, we were essentially competing with bureaucracies, the Beltway Bandits.
Jim: The people who were able to pimp out some contractor to some poor defense agency, based on people’s resume and years of experience, period, irrespective of their competence. So we essentially just filtered through all those people that were working in these Beltway Bandit bureaucracies being pimped out at $150 an hour because they had a master’s degree and seven years experience, even though they’re totally incompetent, and instead pull out the ones that were competent. It turned out, you only had to pay them 15% more to get them to leave the Beltway Bandits. So we got a hugely disproportionate number of the As, and a disproportionate number of the Bs and it made a gigantic success differential for us and not understanding that is leaving opportunity on the table.
Samo: Of course, ideally, one is pursuing opportunities that others might miss. So that’s an excellent example of also being sensitive to a distinction that others might overlook.
Jim: Yeah, I can give you another example in that same era. We famously did not require drug testing, and Beltway Bandits all did. Plenty of people smoke a little reefer, it’s perfectly fine. In fact, the CTO of my second company, one of the most brilliant people I ever worked with, also extremely high strung, he smoke a number on the way to work every day and I’m damn glad he did, he probably would have punched even more people if he hadn’t, right? I don’t give a damn. In fact, when some new jackass, head of HR came into Thomson Corporation, he sent out this memo that they were going to institute mandatory drug testing on all the business units. Again, and as I mentioned, Thomson had this delegative style.
Jim: It was very radical. It was so radical that some of our business units refused to participate in the corporate health plan and got their own health plans, just as an example of how radical our decentralized delegation was. So I said, What the hell is this and I wrote very carefully, caught my breath, calm down. Three days later, I sent a well argued letter to our CEO that they had cheese, they had a 50,000 people. I said, “One, this is a violation of our culture of autonomy and delegation.” I didn’t use word delegation, I used … I forget what the hell our insider word was, but we had one. “By the way, I just need to tell you that I’ve been using no drug testing as a competitive advantage, because I’m competing with a bunch of goddamn Beltway Bandits,” or say, I wrote it much more diplomatically in that.
Jim: To his great credit, he read the letter carefully and called me up and said, “Jim, you’re right. I am overwriting this policy, not only for you but for all the business units. Those who want to have drug tests can have them from the corporate office. Those that don’t want them, don’t need them.” I continued to be able to use that no drug tests differential filter to get talented but, “Hey, you like smoke a little weed? What the fuck, right?” That worked good for me. So understanding that landscape was very, very useful.
Samo: It’s, I think, a good example of cultural arbitrage, where one way to think about it is the talent is distributed in a society and subcultures. They’re often mutually incompatible, especially incompatible when it comes to surface features. The question of what is the preferred drug of a subculture, right? Is it alcohol? Is it smoking? Is it weed, and so on. These are real social barriers, right? These different groups of people do not mix and I think that trying to intentionally figure out, “Okay, what’s subculture is usually not tapped for talent? Which culture is usually not mined for talent, expertise, and so on?” Okay, once that is figured out, it becomes very easy to develop these kind of contrarian strategies, these contrarian scouting strategies where you can’t please everyone.
Samo: This is a way in which I perhaps somewhat disagree with the argument about the inclusive workplace. I feel the economy should be inclusive. A particular workplace has to fit a particular culture, and not everyone can be or should be comfortable with something like a drinking culture or a smoking culture, or say a particular focus on perfectionism or a focus on long work hours and so on, but if you have different organizations in society, with different work cultures, then nearly all the subcultures that develop and house human capital are utilized?
Jim: Yeah, that’s a very good point. In fact, it’s interesting, you should mention it, I actually was doing a diversity thing, the Howard diversity was cool, because I had discovered that in the DC area, there were lots of high quality black people who had been trained in the IT space while they’re in the military. For whatever reason, the Beltway Bandits didn’t know how to recruit these people and one of my innovations in DC area recruiting was radio advertising. Nobody else much did radio advertising. They all did newspaper advertising. So, I said, “Well, since the big boys are advertising in the paper, I’m going to hit them somewhere else.” So I tested and it worked, and I did more and more radio. At my peak, I was spending $600,000 a year on radio advertising, which is a shitload of radio advertising in a market the size of DC.
Jim: So, one of the things I decided to experiment with was, “I have this hypothesis, lots of well-trained, disciplined African American technologists who are being underutilized, probably because of racial prejudice,” but truthfully, I didn’t care what the reason was they’re being underutilized, so I started buying radio ads on Howard University radio, which played black oriented music, to black oriented professionals. Guess what, those ads are great. I hired some amazing people by being a contrarian. So, it’s just exactly the way you said, if I figure out how to find a configuration of things for my workplace that works, it could have some really interesting effects on the overall ecosystem.
Samo: Historically, arguably, say in something like Europe class divisions, where a very big barrier to talent, flowing through society. There’s a reason that say, Napoleonic era reforms, when Napoleon’s armies went through Europe, abolishing things like guilds and so on, abolishing titles of inherited privilege, often would lead to good runs of economic, social and cultural development, people that previously could not really reach for particular positions suddenly find themselves in those positions. I do think that there is an interesting question of what exactly is meritocracy? How does one pursue it, right, where you could see meritocracy in one sense as the systematization of this, of an attempt to bureaucratize this and that’s perhaps where I would introduce a little bit of skepticism.
Samo: If you build a machine, an automated procedure such as a bureaucracy to mine, all pockets of society for talent and possibly even encourage the creation of talent, it seems to me such a machine cannot possibly, stably and reliably find that type of talent. I think that this is one of the underlying reasons why, say, in China’s history, almost every single dynasty has to just rebuild the civil service exam up from the ground. The civil service exam historically being the way that they would award government jobs of various kinds, right? The Chinese system, it was less feudal than the European system. I would then perhaps also wonder whether the current Ivy League admission system in the United States has more in common, not with Napoleon’s reforms, but with a relatively corrupt and at that point, inefficient, late Chinese exam system towards the end of a dynasty rather than the start.
Jim: I love that and in fact, two of my own ideas, one is I was long with Google. Google no longer requires four year college degrees for entry level developer jobs. I got there in 1983, I think. When I realized, the actual skills to write software are basically a good solid understanding of seventh grade mathematics and the ability to think clearly. The relationship of that to having a four year college degree is not zero, correlation greater than zero, but it’s a shitload less than one. So I stopped requiring four year college degrees and sure enough, that brilliant CTO I told you about, who smoked a doobie on the way to work every day, he dropped out halfway through his sophomore year of college.
Jim: I didn’t give a shit. He was the right guy for the job. So there was an example of the unnecessary bureaucratic brainless choke point in the hiring process, and then you got to another one of my pet peeves, Ivy League entrance, ridiculous. Ruining the lives of the smart kids in high school, way worst though when I was a lad. I graduated high school in ’71. I basically just sort of threw my application over the fence at two colleges and both of them accepted me and I went to one, what the fuck, right? I didn’t really sweat it too much but now kids sweat it constantly, rather than hanging out and going to a good party over Christmas vacation, they go and do their community service at the dog hospice or some ridiculous fucking thing.
Jim: What I would do if I were the dictator, which would be a damn good idea, make me a dictator for five years, is I tell all colleges, Ivy League or not what they should do is set one or two objective measures for entrance into their university and it could be whatever they want. That’s a threshold. Yes, no. So let’s say for Ivy League school, it would be an SAT score and a class rank percentile. Everybody over that line goes into a bucket, and you select the freshmen class at random. I suspect that would be a hell of a lot better than this current arms race of see who can out-obsess the other, which I believe is producing no smarter people, and if you look at the GRE results and things like that, the kids coming out of Harvard or MIT today are no smarter than they were in 1975, maybe dumber but their lives are a shitload more miserable.
Jim: I would also warrant that they are personality wise, less typical or less like their fellow citizens. They’re more obsessive grinds and that’s probably not a good thing.
Samo: I mean, the interesting thing about this also is that whenever we propose a solution, and it can be a very functional solution for a certain period of time, eventually Goodhart’s law kicks in, where as soon as a good measure, any sort of social measure becomes a target it overtime ceases or is less and less a good measure. So the correlation between a degree from an elite university, and the relevant life skills might have once been much higher. It might have been, 0.9, 0.8, 0.7, who knows. However, if everyone uses that shortcut, over time, it’s going to drop. One of my favorite examples for this is that if you looked at the heritability, that is the heritability of height in the Netherlands, in the cohort of 1945, and the cohort of 2020, you would seem to find that biology has changed and that height had become much more heritable, so that kids tended to be about the same height as their parents.
Samo: Now, obviously, the real thing that had happened over there was that 1945, there was a large cohort of people who are malnourished due to food shortages during World War II. So over time, as we optimize more and more, as people are better and better fed, healthcare gets better and better, the heritability became more important, but the underlying laws of biology didn’t change. Likewise, if we optimized our education system, as best as we could, our bureaucratic education system, this would only make the intangible differences between different cultures in society that much more predictive.
Jim: Yep, that’s probably true, very likely to be true. I do believe that this Goodhart’s law, and there’s another variant, the Campbell’s law or something, is extraordinarily true. Going back to our Ivy League admittance, probably before it was a thing and before anybody was tracking it, there may be was some positive correlation with kids who chose to do charitable community service but once it became well-known to be a way to game the admissions process, and every kid who-
Samo: A mandatory exercise and it ceased to carry information,
Jim: In fact, I would argue, it might be negatively correlated, to good people. If you’re the kind of person that will jump through arbitrary hoops like a train circus dog, that’s probably not who we want in the elites of our society and yet, that’s what you end up selecting for. We could talk on this one all night. This is something I’m passionate about, as you can tell. Let’s go into another topic that you talk about, and this sort of how especially humans end up in power competitions and that’s the one that they used to write about a lot, but they don’t talk about so much anymore. Our founding fathers wrote about it quite a lot in the Federalist Papers and that’s ambition.
Samo: Yes, ambition is very interesting, because it’s partially this, it is a personal motivator that can drive people to do very unusual things. Yet it is partially inspired by imitation, right? We can definitely say that a Julius Caesar is somewhat unique in the extent of his drive, but can we really say that he isn’t merely pursuing the values of Roman society at the time? Crassus, Pompey, all of these other individuals are also pursuing glory, are also pursuing military accolades and honors and yes, popularity with the population of the city. I think that in this sense, the desire was in around the time of America’s founding but also in the time of, say, the French Revolution, though the French Republic, it’s an interesting question to what extent they did a worse job and in some small ways, a better job than the American revolutionaries.
Samo: This understanding that you have to set up state honors so that the competition generated by those who had tried to prove themselves and try to best one another, that those competitions as much as possible, encourage imitation of positive citizen virtues, things that are compatible with the desired system of government, and that insofar as possible, would be beneficial to society at large and to some extent the state, right? The interesting thing about say, the Roman example which I can safely use, because it’s so ancient, is that the Roman Republic benefits from the competitiveness between Julius Caesar and Pompey, right? They’re each trying to outdo each other in conquering the enemies of Rome or trying to bring in treasure and all of that.
Samo: It benefits all the way until Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon River. At that point, what used to be great becomes terrible, at least if you’re the Senate, and possibly if you’re the people of Rome, though there, again, is an interesting question. If you’re the people of Rome, what’s actually better for you? Is it Caesar or is it a dysfunctional senate? I think that this really … it’s a little bit like a Japanese blowfish. It’s almost like a poison gland in the fish and unless you’re perfect in removing that poison gland, you might get poisoned. However, if you can, it’s the most delicious meal you’ve ever had and I think when you look at the most successful societies, historically, they do with an abundance of live players, with an abundance of very adaptive, ambitious people.
Samo: However, it’s kind of set up with these surprising both safety features, but also surprising ways in which the societies themselves tolerate some more breakage, because there are just more individuals around who will, as part of their ambition, repair whatever damage occurred in a previous break.
Jim: Yep, yeah, the Roman system … I’m quite a student of the Roman Republic, especially the high Republic and they had the so called cursus honorum, where young folks started out, a lot of them, who were either rich plebes or patricians, would start out as … a position in the military that was sort of a staff officer and then, they become a Questor, which was a treasury official. There was about 20 of those and they’d be a praetor if they passed the tests in one election, and then they might be a console, and they might be a console again. So, there was this known ladder of ambition, which people were filter over and people could see people in the smaller roles before they gave them the greater power.
Jim: That actually seemed to work for quite a while though eventually, someone figured out how to hack the system, Marius and Sulla, those guys, and through the late Republic into the disorder that you mentioned, in which Julius Caesar probably would have been a better answer, and Octavian Augustus Caesar almost certainly was, as opposed to the chaos of the late Republic. So as you say, ambition is interesting. Federalist papers are full of talking about ambition, and they expect people to be ambitious, but they also know it’s both a driving force and a danger.
Samo: I mean, arguably, are we really going to say that modern politicians suffer from the vise of being too ambitious? I actually think that they’re rather lacking in ambition, and that perhaps this is one of the reasons for the US state to be in such dire straits as it is right now. In the early 1800s, people have the most ambitious caliber, they might undertake a productive venture, such as a merchant company or a manufacturing company, but they might just as well pursue a life in civil service, a life in political engagement, a life of like intellectual debates with the desire to shape public discourse. I have to say, in the America of 2021, I don’t know who the people of ambition are, who are still driven to try to shift the politics of the country. I think there’s very few of them.
Jim: Most of them aren’t in politics. There are people like Elon Musk. Of course, this collapse is relatively late. I’m reading a very interesting book called the Free World, Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand. I highly recommend it and it’s a multi-threaded examination of America from 1945 to 1965 and there was still an awful lot of people who from ambition and noblest of liege and just wanting to make a difference, worked in the public sphere during that time. Today, nobody but crazy person would run for public office, right? I wouldn’t even consider it. Why would you put up with such a shit show? Then, we get weird phenomena that come through that filter, truly deeply defective people like Donald Trump, who is all ambition and no skill, at least no relevant skill to public policy or even interest in public policy, just raw ambition of the … again, sort of the founding fathers warned us against.
Jim: This post 1965 or 1975 epoch where the public sphere has become so poisonous that very few people have real ability, have any interest in participating, it’s got to be a very bad thing.
Samo: Well, it’s also again, the question of what are the ambitious people rewarded for, and what are the examples that they emulate? If you have a reality TV show culture, having a reality TV show president is hardly surprising. I’m reminded here of the fluidity with which 16th and 17th century Englishman, the very same person might just as easily be a merchant or a pirate, depending on the exact political and economic incentives of that year. War breaks out with Spain, letters of Marque are handed out, suddenly, you’re less interested in trading spices and more interested in plundering the Spanish main.
Jim: Yeah, very interesting. All right. Next, in your book, you talk about Empire theory. What is an empire and what is Empire theory?
Samo: Well, Empire theory is named in this way that is fairly general. I wanted to evoke quite clearly the idea of a landscape of power, the idea of a bounded, sometimes limited domain. In the theory itself, it’s defined as this area of persistent coordination and usually has a recognizable features such as, there’s the very center of it called high, which is this position of societal predominance. There’s the mid powers, which are sort of defined by, can they occasionally resist high and then, there is low that cannot resist high, but can occasionally resist these other mid powers. I use this framework to analyze, several different things. I analyze actual historical empires, such as the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empire, and I also use it to analyze some organizations.
Samo: I think that at times, there is a very useful fractal nature to organizations. One of the models I propose in it is that you can almost think of empires on a two by two matrix, expanding or declining, centralized or decentralized. Then, I compare the examples of these various types of organizations and I propose that in a centralized, expanding Empire, it is high, that is the center, the strongest relevant player of society that is bringing in the resources in a partnership with mid, right? In the case of an empire, this might be say, a strong government in partnership with rapidly growing companies. Arguably examples of this would be saying mercantilist Asian states of the 20th century, say Taiwan when it was first industrializing, South Korea and yes, to a certain extent, modern China.
Samo: Then, you have the obvious failure mode of that centralized declining Empire, where there is no more stuff that can be gained from outside the empire, that high can redistribute or exploit in partnership with mid. Therefore, the only remaining option is to predate on mid. This is where the center of society slowly cannibalizes the supporting institutions around it. A great example of this is, I think, the late Western Roman Empire, where more and more so, the cities are depopulated, as much by excessive taxation, and as much by strange and often arbitrary in positions of the Empire as they are by any barbarian horde. In fact, it’s much better to think of the Western Roman Empire in this late decaying stage, as essentially, a society where the real GDP and population are shrinking by about half a percent a year.
Samo: Imperceptible at first, but after a century, a completely different society and it’s only after that hollowing out happens, that the Germanic barbarians start to become, first, an important political force and then eventually, in some places even a demographic factor in its own right. So that’s only two units of the two by two matrix I described, right? I talked now about decentralized expanding and centralized declining Empire, what might be a decentralized expanding Empire like? Well, this one ironically is perhaps not too dissimilar from the declining centralized empire and at high is not necessarily the most productive element of society. However, mid is very, very productive, so it is possible to maintain the space of coordination partially through taking resources from mid and deploying them from a high but taking in such a way that mid continues to grow.
Samo: In this case, you’re going to see this uneven multi-directional spread. The distinction that might illustrate this on historical empires would be the difference between the Mongol Empire and the British Empire. The Mongol Empire only expands one domain at a time. All of the horses are there, they’re following the Khan, they’re sieging these cities, they’re conquering a particular territory. It’s expanding one stage at a time. Meanwhile, the British Empire often on the initiative of various adventurers, and so on, would expand in multiple parts of the world simultaneously, because what’s happening is much more that the East India Company say is pursuing its interest in India, and the colonists in North America are pursuing their interests in North America, and the British Empire benefits as a byproduct, rather than the British Empire, say focusing very strongly on India first, and then, focusing very strongly on North America second, and all of that,
Samo: I think the British Empire of the 18th century and the 19th century is often a good example of a decentralized, expanding Empire. Now, what might a decentralized declining Empire look like? I think that this one is probably easy to understand. It’s sort of a situation where you have a sudden breakdown of coordination or perhaps at first, a slow break down and eventually a very rapid breakdown in the coordination where the empire simply ceases to exist. I think the late Zhou dynasty of China, and the seventh, sixth and fifth century BC is a good example, where it almost imperceptibly at first, and then very rapidly gives way to a period of warring states, right, where the Zhou Empire breaks up into these kingdoms that are then locked in many centuries of war.
Samo: I explain these on the examples of the entire societies or governments, but these principles can often be applied to companies as well, and to other objects, such as organized religions or sometimes even individual cities.
Jim: Obviously, this is the obvious thing to do. Where do you think the United States is on your two by two?
Samo: I think that I am very hopeful, we are approaching a period of centralized expansion, but I have to say right now, I perceive it as a centralized decline and I think that the reason for my pessimism here is that if I look at the parts of say … if I look at cultural production, if I look at economics, if I look at technology, there are only a few places that seem to be doing very well and are producing this kind of resource surplus. I have to emphasize here that when I’m talking about resources, these aren’t purely material resources, right? These could be, again, things like human capital, things like scientific breakthroughs and so on.
Jim: I’m going to now hop around into some of the topics that you brought up about the dynamics of power, I’m not going to hit all of them in the interest of time, but just the ones I think we might have an interesting conversation about. One of them is that you state, that at least in our kind of society, power is Pareto distributed. Let’s talk about that a little bit.
Samo: Yeah, a Pareto distribution is basically a power law distribution, where … one way to think about it is that Wilfred Pareto, himself is an Italian sociologist, from the 19th century, came to the observation that 20% of the people in Italy owned 80% of the land, the real estate in the country. I think that type of pattern shows up over and over again, where there’s this small number of individuals or small number of factors that dominate and explain most of the observed variants. I think that that shows up again, with things like wealth, things like political influence, things like popularity. If you went on Twitter right now and you charted the size of Twitter accounts, there’s all sorts of manipulation obviously that would happen there, but I’m pretty sure you would end up with something like a power law distribution.
Jim: Yep. Of course, at Santa Fe Institute, we have number of our folks who see power laws everywhere, it usually turns out they’re not quite power laws, but they’re pretty close. Some of the more famous ones are Zipf’s laws, that city sizes are on a power law distribution and another one is the rate of occurrence of words. If you rank ordered them from most common A and the, all the way down to antidisestablishmentarianism at the bottom, they also have a power law distribution to them. So it does seem that things that are like power laws are often commonly emergent in complex social systems. Let me push back just a little bit. One of the things I find most interesting when I’m thinking about what is possible for human organization, is to look at our forger ancestors.
Jim: A book that I just think is so interesting and important, is a book called Hierarchy in the Forest by Chris Boehm, B-O-E-H-M. It should have been titled, Anti-hierarchy in the Forest because he makes the point that even though Homo sapiens genetically probably have strong inclinations towards hierarchy being our two closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos are both very hierarchical animals. At the foragers stage, we developed the social operating system that massively collapse the hierarchy, in fact, very, very substantially. They did not tolerate chiefs, they did not tolerate big men. They made fun of them, they ignored them. They exiled them, and if they kept coming back, they killed them. It was actually quite remarkable that seemed to have been independently developed in most all foragers societies.
Jim: Now, of course, that was typically in groups around or below the Dunbar number but at least it is an existence proof of the possibility of having a society that was explicitly … actually, probably not explicitly, implicitly designed around the goal of not having at least a noticeably large exponent on the power law distribution of power.
Samo: I think it’s certainly the case that it’s possible to produce distributions that deviate from it, but it seems to me that the equilibria state is one of essentially oligarchy, right? There’s even people who have argued, there’s the observation called the Iron Law of Oligarchy that proposes that whether a system starts off as democratic or monarchical, it’s going to overtime, trend towards oligarchy where power is held by the few. That this is sort of … this process that will run on top of any system given time, given the exploits in the system becoming more and more obvious, at least to insiders over time.
Jim: Yeah. A book that I think puts the why and how on that better, again, another indispensable book is The Logic of Collective Action by Mancur Olson and his argument is that it’s really quite simple people, that small concentrated interests are able to outmaneuver and defeat broad diffused interests. For instance, why is it cable companies get the fuck over all the users and keep raising the rates all the time, right? Well, because cable companies, a small, intense, single unit or small group of cable companies that work together, then they bribe and subvert local politicians, et cetera because they have a gigantic incentive. They raise your cable bills by $1, multiply that by 10 million dollars in their service area, it’s 10 million a month in their pocket, pure profit, while the citizen who’s being screwed out of an extra dollar a month on its cable bill, he goes, “Is it worth going down to the county council meeting to worry about a dollar?”
Jim: The answer is no. In a nutshell, that’s the essence of Mancur Olson’s Logic of Collective Action, why oligarchy tends to emerge if there isn’t counter veiling tendencies in the other direction.
Samo: Yeah, and there’s also an argument related to the complexity of the environment and how dynamic an environment is. If you have a society that is relatively static, with few, what I would call life players, then it’s very easy to build massive centralized systems, essentially massive bureaucratic systems, because predicting the behavior of the rest of society, it becomes very simple. On the other hand, if you have a very dynamic society, then for any given “would be” oligarch the amount of things they can pay attention to, is quite limited, right? This is one of the reasons why, we all want to avoid chaos, we all want to avoid destruction and social dissolution. However, social dissolution is one of the ways incumbent oligarchs lose power, simply because the situation becomes too complex for them to control, that could be described as the silver lining of a decentralized declining Empire.
Jim: Not where you’ll think about Germany and Japan, they had their shit kicked out of all their structures, they came back better for it actually. It’s quite interesting. The traditional oligarchs were all disempowered and for a while at least, it was a more egalitarian and less oligarchic society, though, as one would predict the oligarchy reemerged, so it’s kind of interesting. Another one of your points, which I always think is really important to emphasize, but not over-emphasize, you called the competitive nature of reality. I like to make the distinction between rivalrous and non-rivalrous. An awful lot of reality of, when we think of economy and such, is rivalrous. Either I eat the ham sandwich or you do, but other parts of our reality are non-rivalrous. The canonical example is the MP3 music file.
Jim: There’s no reason in principle, other than intellectual property laws that everybody on earth that wants an MP3 file of their favorite Pink Floyd song, shouldn’t have it at some remarkably low price to duplicate. So I do think that nature by its reality is competitive with respect to the rivalrous, but I think there’s a lot more room to work in the non-rivalrous than most people have given thought to.
Samo: I certainly agree that’s true. So much of the positives that we see around us are just the result of strong and you know, judicious investment into a non-rivalrous strategies, right? We’re over time you accumulate both the resources and the skills, that you’re better and better off in non-rivalrous games. I feel that the rivalrous aspect of it is, “Well, let’s let’s talk about first, maybe human nature but then also some strategic considerations.” If you have the capacity to overthrow a government, it doesn’t really matter whether you want to overthrow the government. Someone in that government will be paying attention to you and will perhaps consider whether it might not be best to limit your growth. This can apply to entities such as companies, it might apply to even successful military units.
Samo: You mentioned the Marines earlier. There are plenty of countries where the political system being very different from that of the United States, a successful military organization would be seen as a liability to the state rather than an asset. One of the interesting dynamics in China that actually causes me to be a little bit bearish on their military potential is that the only organization within China that could possibly challenge the Communist Party is the People’s Liberation Army. It has the same source of legitimacy as the Communist Party does, which is the defeat of Japan in World War II plus some claim to China’s unity. The only difference is the CCP gets to also claim economic prosperity, which the army, not so much.
Samo: However, were to Chinese economic growth to slow, well, perhaps the most rational thing domestically for the Chinese government would be to cripple organizationally the PLA. Of course, that wouldn’t be a globally rational but that’s hardly, hardly the dominating concern. I feel like domestic politics often tends to dominate foreign politics. With regard to other examples, there might be things such as … in China right now, billionaires occasionally go missing. Well, why? They became popular, right? Elon Musk do have an easier time in the United States than they have in China, but it’s not that the US is inherently resistant to such dynamics. It just happens to currently do better on them, it was engineered to do better on them. That’s, of course, something has to be maintained over time.
Jim: Now, it’s interesting, the example of the military and its relationship to the civil, Latin America for a long time went through military coup after military coup and it was only quite recently that that patterns slowed, though, I think it’s always possible for it to recur, but one country in Latin America saw that dynamic. It was Costa Rica. In 1948. They abolished their military, quite interesting. In 1948, the GDP per capita between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, they were similar, Costa Rica a little bit ahead. Today, it’s 5X which is quite remarkable.
Samo: Yeah, and there certainly are countries that succeed without having a real military presence of their own. Iceland is a good example, but I have to emphasize, merely declaring that your society is not going to have a military is insufficient to avoid actually having something that truly is a military. One of the tricky aspects of studying society is that things aren’t always what they call themselves. Officially, Japan does not have a Navy, it has a coastal Self Defense Force. It doesn’t have an army. It also has self defense forces. Tell me, does it even matter that we use a euphemism? The thing is, what it is, right? What we name it, that’s a separate matter and I feel that one of the banes of would be social reformers is to believe that you can abolish things merely by abolishing their name.
Jim: Yeah. Costa Rica, well, they really did get rid of their military, but of course, something has to fill the void. So they had become the complete subservient diplomatic tool of the United States, right? They’re the country that is most highly correlated with voting with the United States in the General Assembly of the United Nations, even higher than Israel. That’s the decision they made, America will protect us, if it comes to it, in return, we will be their diplomatic tool. So you have to fill the function. We only have a few minutes here. What do we want to talk about here? So many things on my list? How about this, it was a section you titled, “How Late Zhou China Reversed Engineered a Civilization.” You talked about three basic different approaches that were explored during that epoch. Let’s talk about that.
Samo: The period in question that most interests me is the period called the Contention of the 100 schools. Today, China isn’t known necessarily as an intellectually creative culture. I think this reputation is a little bit unearned. I think they’re much more creative than the West gives them credit for. However, this period, I think, is like a unique period of intellectual flourishing comparable to the Greek Golden Age. The three responses that emerge, however, intellectually to what was a society-wide decline, there was a cultural Renaissance that had come into being in response to a broader civilizational failure, again, the Zhou dynasty being the dynasty that had broken up into warring states. These wars were brutal. They caused significant civilian casualties. They were also causing a shift and a change from a culture that had been previously much more peaceful, much more refined to one that was cruder, simpler, less economically advanced.
Samo: So the healthy intellectual response was to notice this decline. Now, that’s the first interesting anomaly here. Most societies tend to rationalize their own failings. If you try to read the Romans from the third and the fourth century AD, they mostly don’t comment on, “Oh, we’re doomed.” All they see is a never ending set of temporary setbacks or the rationalize things, as sort of sour grapes, where the failures of the Empire, turn out to not be failures because we could defeat the barbarians, but we really are much better off with these particular barbarians coming here, because they’ll help us fight the barbarians that come next year, and really convoluted ideas like this, and in Zhou, China, the discourse is much more straightforward, during the contention of the hundred schools. The decline of the Zhou is seen for what it is.
Samo: The approaches they have to restoring this are radically different. The Confucian approach is study of the past and study of the both rituals and examples of the past, and the idea is that by reverse engineering these rituals, will reverse engineer the effects that they have on the human soul. Confucius famously said that, “Ritual without feeling is empty.” Now today, our stereotype of Confucius would just be the person telling you to perform your social role no matter what, but his perspective was no, you have to perform the social role with feeling in your heart. He emphasized filial piety for that reason. The moral theory he had was that, if you truly learn to take care of your parents, your brother, your children, then you can learn to take care of your neighbors and then eventually you can learn to take care of all of mankind.
Samo: Jesus’s logic is kind of on its head, in contrast, where it’s sort of like, we’ll learn to take care of all of mankind, and then you love your neighbors and then you’ll end up being a good daughter or a good mother or whatever, almost as an afterthought. Both approaches have something going for them, but I feel the Confucian one is under disgust as a viable path, right? So this is why I think we tend to view Confucianism as more boring than it was. Anyway, Confucianism tries to learn from the past, tries to educate a new class of civil servants. These civil servants would then go to emperors and try to be hired and eventually, the values of this new class would trickle down into the rest of society, and write all the ills of this warring states period almost.
Samo: That kind of happened. Confucianism hybridized with some other worldviews and Confucian thinking became important in the training of bureaucrats, and while the first generation of any new dynastic emperor often has unique ideas, the son of the Emperor and the grandson of the Emperor are raised by Confucian scholars. It sounds funny, but even when the Mongols invaded China, the grand sons of Genghis Khan were often you know, Confucian gentlemen, reading the same classics that Confucius recommended, a good Chinese Emperor should read. So that project was fairly successful. A different project of the period was that of the legalists. The legalists proposed that tradition is kind of useless in this regard, and really what people want is power.
Samo: I mean, look around yourself. All of these states are pursuing self interest. All of the politicians are scheming, the Emperor can trust the chancellor, the Chancellor can trust the governor’s, the governor’s can trust the generals, the generals can trust the Emperor. Our only solution is a very rigid, very transparent, very harsh set of laws. They also had this interesting distinction where they thought that punishments were more reliable than rewards. Now, we can discuss this but whatever the reasoning, I do think it resulted in a very efficient military state, the state of the Chen. The Chen dynasty was short lived, but it is the state that ended all the fighting, right? So one could argue that legalists basically unified and made China peaceful.
Samo: They did not make it stable, though, because almost as soon as the first Chen emperor was dead, a rebellion started. This rebellion started partially because bad weather delayed a traveling general. Well, that’s not a big issue, is it, but the law for … what is the punishment for a general with the late army was death and the general successfully reason that, “You know, what, if I am dead anyway and the punishment for rebellion is also death, I might as well try to carry out a successful rebellion.” So legalist logic was also a little bit self defeating with its emphasis on punishment and rote execution of law, where the law is always carried out rigidly, because this is the only way we can really all trust each other.
Samo: It arguably did help bootstrap Chinese society into a higher trust state than it had existed when the states were still fighting each other. The third approach was the Taoist approach, which is sort of non-intervention and attunement to the way where you allow things to emerge and things to proceed on their own. The Emperor’s role really, is to kind of stay out of everyone’s business, not meddle too much and simply allow things to flourish. I hardly need to discuss the virtues of that approach, the emergence, school of thought, very much values these phenomena. An interesting artifact your listeners might not be aware of is the discourses on salt and iron, which are essentially discourses between a more Taoist perspective and a more legalist perspective on whether the Emperor should have a monopoly on salt and iron production.
Samo: I’m not pulling your leg when I say that, these are essentially all the same arguments you would see between debates on the role of government in the economy in the 20th century, except 2000 years earlier, in a completely different civilization, and not based on natural law argumentation but based on the Tao, the way, that is the sort of unspeakable harmony between everything.
Jim: Very interesting. When I read that section, I got, “God Almighty, that’s these three components correspond quite closely to what we’re trying to do in the GameB movement.” I basically map the Taoist to personal change, which is one of the things that we believe is necessary, but not sufficient to bring in a new society that really works for our humans. The legalist, I projected that onto building new and useful and appropriate institutions, which we think are kind of co-evolutionary with personal change. Then the third, Confucianism, I mapped on to our interest in virtue ethics, the pluralistic virtue ethics, and that we believe that each on the ground community should establish its own virtue ethics, and they should strive to live by it, but that virtue ethics are man made, and we should not try to claim that they’re supernatural.
Jim: So, I found that very interesting that the three lenses of that period turned out to perhaps be very similar to the same issues that we’re wrestling with today.
Samo: It’s very much so and I find the example of Chinese civilization in this case, very inspiring, right? It shows a society that did engineer its own revival, where the reserves were sufficient, both of sort of activism of information, of culture, of concerned individuals. Individuals was often incompatible, narrow ideological views, whose joined efforts nevertheless resulted in a new golden age for Chinese civilization.
Jim: Well, why don’t we wrap it there? We’ve kind of got to the end of our time and man, even doing this book in two parts, we still didn’t get through it all. So if you want to read a really interesting read, go read Samo’s book, Great Founder Theory at samoburga.com. Thank you again for a really wonderful energized, deep and interesting conversation.
Samo: Thank you, Jim.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.