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Michael Anissimov over at Accelerating Future has written a great post discussing how politics is often a near zero-sum competition between political groups with different and arbitrary moral values. To people within the competition, it doesn’t seem to be that way because the illusion of moral realism ensures they believe their moral values have some objective value and are not just their own preferences. His conclusion is that engaging in such competitions is not a good idea for utilitarians, who should instead seek out the most positive-sum uses of their time such as inventing new technology that can potentially give everyone more of what they want:
“When I look at modern politics, I see arguments caused by material scarcity and inflexible underlying values. If our current level of technology were maintained indefinitely, I would bet that our political bickering and arguing could go on literally forever without resulting in substantial increases in standard of living or subjective happiness among all of us. Political reorganization and improvement cannot generate wealth from nothing.”
I agree with Michael that most political debates we see today are on disagreements over values and a scarcity of resources to satisfy them, although he may be underestimating the ability for political ‘reorganisations’ to be positive sum. Political innovations like liberalism and the creation of diverse, competing governments allow everyone to get more of at least some of the things that they want. Novel political institutions like futarchic prediction markets, would allow us to discover better means for achieving our common goals, also improve welfare. I’ve tried to represent the benefits from both technological and institutional progress on a simple diagram:
For simplicity the model assumes only two political groups each with homogeneous preference, but would demonstrate the same idea even if we broke society down into many groups. The style will be very familiar to anyone who has studied microeconomics and used consumption ‘possibility frontiers’. The similarity exists because a utilitarian should treat pleasure from government policies no differently to the pleasure we derive from other goods.
If you take an exclusively short term view it is possible for movements along the curve to be more valuble than pushing out the curve itself. However, if you place much value on the future, expansions of the curve will always be more valuable because they are longer lasting than movements along the curve.
Those who doubt the benefits of higher productivity (even excluding futurist concerns like the singularity) should read Will Wilkinson on GDP.