On ‘Beautiful Patterns’ and my path toward liberty

In a recent short essay, “The Beautiful Patterns of Nature,” economist Peter Boettke expands upon Alfred Marshall’s observation that markets face physics-like forces toward equilibrium. Boettke describes the entrepreneur’s role in reacting to those forces, and how the forces and the reactions form a “beautiful pattern” that “should inspire our intellectual awe and amazement.”

Boettke’s essay reminded me of two books that I read in my early teen years and which shaped the course of my life. The first was James Gleick’s “Chaos,” about fractals, nonlinear systems, and other complex yet ordered systems. The other was “Metamagical Themas” by Douglas Hofstadter, which talked about memes, strange attractors, self-referential systems, and complexity theory (among many other things).  

I spent hours and hours with these books. I won a science fair in 8th grade with software I wrote to generate strange attractors. These books are why I studied computer science. However, I never could have predicted how profoundly they would influence my daily approach to policy topics right up to today. 

My teenage self lacked the math skills to absorb all the ideas in these books. But what did soak into my very core was the idea that beautifully ordered systems can and regularly do emerge from the independent actions of molecules or cells or people, without anyone being in charge

Maybe you can already draw the lines from that to my current libertarian leanings, but it took me *decades* to figure out. I was politically agnostic through college, although I had an instinctual contrarian streak – I remember trying to vote for Ralph Nader in 1996. Likewise, political philosophy wasn’t a big part of my life in grad school. (Although copyright battles around filesharing were what first made me interested in law school.) It wasn’t until law school that I began to develop an overarching view of how law ought to work. The first considered political philosophy thought I remember was in Constitutional Law when I thought how silly it was that “substantive due process” was necessary only because earlier Supreme Court decisions had limited the protections of Ninth and Tenth Amendments. 

Still, I didn’t know such views lined up with others and I certainly didn’t know what it was called. But as a baby telecom lawyer, I repeatedly saw very smart people trying to design rules to govern complex systems with little humility about what success they should expect. Administrative law (like my constitutional law class) often looked like a series of patches, each applied to correct the unintended consequences of the previous patch — and each applied with full confidence that *this time* the system was tamed and controlled. It all looked like using a deterministic Newtonian mindset to govern a non-linear system. A real mismatch. So I started looking for other answers to how government ought to manage complex systems.

Honestly, I haven’t found many answers. What I have found is people asking better questions, admitting that there are limits to what we can design and control, and arguing that maybe the best we can do is identify recurring patterns and principles that free up the system to progress to a better state.  

I am very much still on this journey. I don’t know enough law, history, economics, or, especially lately, philosophy. But I marvel at the complexity of individuals and even more so at the systems they participate in, influence, and shape – and which shape them. 

People like @PeterBoettke are helping me learn more about all these things. But I thank @JamesGleick and Douglas Hofstadter for the early inspiration to be curious about the world, humble about my place in it, and aware that there are limits to what we can control.

Why Antitrust Can’t Solve Online Bias or Hate Speech

Casey Mattox and I have a new paper: [The] Breakup Speech: Can Antitrust Fix the Relationship Between Platforms and Free Speech Values? The paper is part of a terrific symposium by the Knight First Amendment Institute. We argue that if private platform power over the speech environment is a problem, antitrust is the wrong solution. Even worse, using antitrust could actually threaten free speech values. 

As Katy Glen Bass from the Knight Institute summarizes,

“[Neil and Casey] make a strong & straightforward case that antitrust is the wrong solution to complaints about content moderation practices – whether the complaint is about perceived bias, concern that too much is taken down, or too little. In fact, they argue, unleashing antitrust regulators to pursue non-competition-related goals would threaten free speech values: antitrust’s powerful tools have a history of abusive and arbitrary use, and removing key constraints on use would weaken antitrust’s ability to protect the competitive process and increase the risk that governments and others will abuse such tools to interfere with speech.” (emphasis added)

Read the full paper here: https://knightcolumbia.org/content/the-breakup-speech-can-antitrust-fix-the-relationship-between-platforms-and-free-speech-values

Below is a short video where I summarize one of the key points of the paper:

My Presentation on ‘Seeing (Platforms) Like a State’

This past weekend I presented at the Southern Economics Association annual conference a paper I have been working on for some time, titled “Seeing (Platforms) Like a State.” The paper plays off of James C. Scott’s book, “Seeing Like a State.” I argue that the lessons from Scott’s book are relevant to the governance of tech platforms.

The paper will be up in full soon-ish over at Lawfare. But the presentation is available below.

Economic Calculation

Robert Murphy, Choice, Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action, p112.

Economic calculation, by its very nature, can attach monetary values only to those elements of our lives that are sold against money. Many things are quite valuable subjectively but do not enter the market nexus directly and consequently cannot be quantified in dollars and cents. Nonetheless, economic calculation is still an indispensable mental tool of action because it shows individuals – with as much precision as possible, given the nature of the situation – the monetary implications of various possible choices. This makes it possible for the individuals to focus their attention on the tradeoffs involved between the monetary and nonmonetary elements of their decision.

CL+B Fest

Yesterday, I participated in the D.C. node of the 2018 Computational Law and Blockchain Festival and had a great time talking about the importance of computational thinking in law and policy, how F.A. Hayek and the Lego Movie show computational thinking can’t solve everything, and the importance of regulatory humility and analytical egalitarianism. Slides below. Video should be available soon.