Authority and Momentum

November 10, 2015

I’m currently in Mexico for my cousin’s wedding, and I put off packing until 12 hours before my flight left. In my haste, I forgot to pack my server’s private key, so I am unable to update my blog currently, deciding instead to depend on a cron-job I whipped up to periodically deploy. Like always, cron failed to run for whatever reason, and so that’s why there haven’t been any new blog posts recently. I realize that’s not very helpful information to you right now (2015-11-10), but it’ll be something interesting for you, dedicated reader, to know when I get back to civilization and you are mobbed by the backlog.

Anyway, here’s a thing that I don’t understand. I was reminded of it during my flight, when I was intending to have my headphones on during takeoff and the flight attendant politely told me that that “wasn’t allowed”. Ummmmm. What? What do you mean, not allowed? Like, prohibited by physics? Illegal in my current country of residence?

When we say “not allowed” we mean one of two things, either literally impossible (as in physics) or lacking authorization (as in law). In the airplane example, it’s obviously not the first, since I had my headphones on as I was asked to not, which means, by dichotomy, that the flight attendant is informing me I am lacking authorization.

But the existence of authorization implies the existence of an authority. Our above dichotomy, when viewed through this lens, actually collapses to the impossible being a special case of lacking authorization, with the laws of physics being an inviolable authority. In the realm of humans, your being an authority over me implies I have some reason to acquiesce to you. Governments have authority over you because they can throw you into jail; your employers have authority over you because they can put an indefinite moratorium on your income.

In the airplane example, however, I’m not entirely sure which entity is assuming the role of authority. It doesn’t seem like it’s the flight attendant, who probably doesn’t care one way or another whether or not I wear my headphones. I’m not even sure why anyone should care one way or another. My best guess is that if something goes wrong and they need to inform us of something, that maybe they don’t want noise-reduction headphones in the way.

Maybe. But any instructions that are given are going to be easily guessable from the context-clues of what everyone else is doing. It’s not like the captain will, over the PA, proclaim “Mr. Maguire, we need you to come up to the cockpit and write some regexes in the next two minutes or we’re all going to crash and die.” As cool of a story as that’d be, it’s not going to happen. But that’s beside the point.

The point is: who is assuming authority over me, and by what means of enforcement do they intend to hold it? I guess the answer to the first question is: some bureaucrat at the airline’s corporate headquarters, but the answer to the second is a little harder to pin down.

Stay with me here.

They can’t arrest me, because arresting is done by the police, who enforce the law on behalf of (read: authorized by) the government. Since as far as my knowledge goes, it is not illegal to wear headphones during takeoff on a flight, this is not the responsibility of the police. Maybe the airline’s enforcement of this issue is via social means: they refuse to takeoff and publicly shame you until your peers get vocally annoyed with you. Maybe.

I decided not to find out, but I think this was a mistake in terms of strategy on my part. Implied threats shouldn’t be enough to scare us into inaction; leave that to real threats, which you can evaluate and analyze more easily. Implied threats are too easily bluffed, especially by agents with no visible power or history of explicit threats.

This idea of asking “by whose authority” is a good example of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon: once you notice it, you’ll begin to see it everywhere. So let’s turn it up to 11.

I’ve been pretty dissatisfied with my government (and governments in general) as of late. It’s evident that everyone involved is crooked and that few politicians, if any, don’t have a price-tag. I’ve been meaning to write more about what I think the problem is, and how we might be able to get around it, but the whole thing is just so unpleasant that every time I go to start, I quickly get ugh-ed out. If I can stomach it, expect more on these themes later this month. If not, well, at least we have the remainder of this post.

So yeah, dissatisfied with the government. Canada’s newly-ex Prime Minister has recently had a bad habit of blatantly disrespecting the law, so while most of the country was figuring out how to strategically vote the man out, I was wondering what would happen if he refused to call an election. I mean, it would be unconstitutional, but our new Prime Minister’s dad (who, coincidentally, was also our Prime Minister) famously suspended habeas corpus and is somehow still considered to be one of the country’s greatest politicians of all time.

Curious, no?

I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty certain we don’t have a contingency plan for this. For example, a few years ago, Elections Canada asked the government for more power to investigate election fraud revolving around said government, and were told under no uncertain terms that that wasn’t going to happen. And that was that. If Elections Canada has to acquiesce to the Government of Canada, they’re probably not the people who are going to call it. If you want to be technical about the whole thing, it’s the Governor General’s (the Queen’s representative in Canada) job to call elections, but without exception, historically this has been at the behest of the Prime Minister. It’s the overwhelming opinion that Canada is only still part of the Commonwealth because the Commonwealth stays out of our way.

Regardless of the actual outcome, I sit and ponder these things. And here’s really the gist of what I’m trying to express: this entire system that we live in only works because we all agree it does. As much as we pretend otherwise, the Constitution is not an inviolable authority in the same way that physics is.

This is a pretty scary thought. The world is broken because we agreed that breaking it was the right thing to do, even if that agreement was implicit in the form of inaction. We’ve built this really interesting house of cards that we’re all pretending is stable as hell. But, we’re kinda right about that. It’s as stable as we all pretend it is. Which is a good thing if you like the system.

But I don’t. And fixing it is going to require a lot of coordinated cooperation. Unfortunately, as anyone knows who has thrown a dinner party and tried to get everyone to arrive at the same time, coordination is hard. And anyone who has played a few games of the prisoner’s dilemma knows, cooperation is even harder.

Scott Alexander, of course, in his infinite prolificity, has written about something similar which he personifies as a blind, Eldritch god – an agent who exists as the manifestation of unbounded growth, races to the bottom, and momentum. If you haven’t read his magnum opus Meditations on Moloch, go now. Go, even if you’re afraid you’ll get distract and won’t finish this essay. Meditations on Moloch is much better, and I won’t be offended.

That post about government I’ve been putting off writing, that’s more of what I think our destination should be, but even if I wrap the solution up to our current problems with a nice little bow (which I won’t, unfortunately, but I think I’ve got some good ideas1). Even if I managed that, there’s still the really hard problem of how to get there from here. If the Moloch hypothesis is correct, even if we can manage to get all of humanity on board (yeah, right), the system itself is still going to try its best to stop us.

Honestly, just the thought of that puts a shiver down my spine. There are a lot of obstacles in the way, but the good news is that not all hope is lost. If there’s one thing we should remember, it’s that common knowledge has tremendous momentum-breaking power when it comes to society/the system/Moloch. There is value in standing up and saying “no, not everything is right with this world,” even if you expect it to be an unpopular sentiment. I expect this to be an unpopular sentiment, but you never know. Maybe everyone is dissatisfied with the system, but nobody wants to say anything because nobody else is.

Just so we’re all perfectly clear on what I’m saying here, it’s the following:

  • democracy is not the best possible system of government, possibly not even the best one we’ve engineered so far
  • a significant fraction of politicians are crooked, and this is a bad thing a
  • collapse into anarchy isn’t a bad thing if we’re certain we can quickly rebuild something better in its place
  • others only have political (non-violent) power over you because you acquiesce to it
  • abiding by the law isn’t always the right, smart, or wise thing to do

Maybe some of these things are evident to you, maybe they’re not. I’m sure that given a few hours I could make a longer list, but this is all I came up with in my limited writing time. Fighting the zeitgeist is surprisingly tricky, because it has us even if we can’t see it.

Just as in physics, momentum requires an oppositely applied force in order to be slowed down. Let this be mine.

  1. I would think that.↩︎