The Routerhead: a fable

Inspired by: reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine this week alongside Ludwig von Mises’s The Anti-Captialistic Mentality.

Addendum (7/28): Here’s my review of The Shock Doctrine.  If you want to know what I thought of the book, you should probably just read the review and ignore the dumb fable that follows.


I tried unplugging the router and plugging it back in, messing around with my DHCP settings — everything I could think of.  Still no Internet.  Hours passed, then a day.  In desperation, I finally called the tech support number for my Internet service provider, Laissez-Faire Solutions.  After putting me hold for an hour with Brahms and Beethoven, “Ayn” finally picked up the phone.”I don’t know what to tell you,” she said curtly, after I’d explained the situation. “Your connection ought to be working perfectly.”

“But it isn’t.”

“It ought to be.”

“But it isn’t!  Look, isn’t it possible that there’s some failure on your end?”

“You don’t understand, sir. There can be no such thing as a failure on our end. If a failure exists, then it must by definition be on your end and your end alone. What is provided to your home qua home is Internet access qua Internet access. It follows, then, as surely as A is A, that either your router is not configured properly, or your cable is disconnected, or in some other way your own stupidity or incompetence have prevented you from getting online, a failure you now seek absurdly to blame on the Internet itself.”

“I’m not blaming anything on the Internet.  I’m blaming it on you, my ISP.”

“Let me ask you something,” said Ayn.  “Did anyone hold you at gunpoint, or otherwise coerce you to sign up for Internet service with us?”

“Well, I guess not…”

“Then what exactly is your complaint?”

“That the service you agreed to provide isn’t working.”

“As I explained previously, it is working, by definition.  If for some fanciful reason you think otherwise, obviously you have the freedom of switching providers.”

“But all the others suck as much as you do.”

“That is not possible.  Were it the case that every Internet provider sucked, a provider that didn’t suck would have arisen and driven all the others out of business.  The market abhors a vacuum.”

“Yeah, I’ve been waiting more than a decade for this particular vacuum to be filled.  Until it happens, what else would you suggest I do?”

“Did you try going to Google again?”

“I’m still getting a ‘Page Not Found’ error.”

Frustrated, I decided to call the Tech-support Cooperative of the People’s International Proletariat (TCPIP).  Karl picked up the phone.  As I related my conversation with Ayn, Karl doubled over with laughter. “You mean you actually believe they want it to work?”

“Who exactly is the ‘they’ we’re talking about?”

“All of them — the service providers, the government, even the academics who designed the Internet in the first place.  We’ve amassed mountains of evidence that they’re all conspiring to keep the Internet broken, in order to force people like you to sign up for expensive, exploitative ‘solutions’ — solutions no one would ever agree to under normal circumstances!  Won’t you join us this weekend? We’re going to carouse around some rich neighborhoods and slice their fiber-optic cables.  Maybe the fatcats will finally get it, once their precious Internet connections work exactly as well as ours do…”

“To be honest, I really just wanted to check my email and blog comments.”

“This is not about the individual; it’s about the community!  There can be no truly reliable connections until the Internet as a whole has been demolished and rebuilt from scratch, until we’ve established a new social order on this planet where everyone is responsible for everyone else being able to get online…”

“Until the millennium comes, can you put me in touch with someone who specializes in fixing Internet connections now?”

“Traitors!  Don’t you see Internet access has to get much, much worse before it can get better?  That fixing your connection would just be a ruse to lull you into complacency and dim your justified anger?”

So what did I end up doing?  Well, until my connection starts working again, I found this unsecured wireless in my apartment building that I’m sometimes able to leech off of, as well as a nearby cafe that offers free wireless from 10 to 4 on weekdays.  And when all else fails I use my Blackberry, pecking out emails on the microscopic keyboard (though that connection, too, has become finicky lately).

I talked again this morning to Ayn and Karl, and they completely agreed with each other that I was beyond hope.  By focusing so obsessively on “fixing” a “problem,” they explained, I’d become distracted from the real goal: namely, comprehending a universal principle that explained why my Internet access wasn’t working, as well as every other question that I might ever want an answer to.  Maybe they’re right.  All I know is, at least for now I can usually get my email when I have to.

29 Responses to “The Routerhead: a fable”

  1. John Sidles Says:

    Hmmm .. I see your problem … Ayn and Karl are theorists.

    That explains why both their solutions work in principle, but neither works in practice. :)

  2. Scott Says:

    John: The difference is, we in TCS don’t demand that governments bring their policies into line with the PCP Theorem (or if we do they don’t listen). :-)

  3. wolfgang Says:

    > messing around with my DHCP settings
    but did you check your firewall settings?
    8-)

  4. Will Says:

    Interesting. I was about to come in here and say the same thing as John…

    But I don’t think the analogy quite fits in view of Scott’s response; rather I think of people like Karl and Ayn as the Jesuit schoolmen of http://scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=292 (A recurring theme for Dr. Aaronson?)

    There’s a difference between being a theorist (even being, gasp, a philosopher) and being focused on “truth” above the actually deep things we can find out about our cold, inherently meaningless “reality.”

  5. Brew Says:

    I think Ayn would roll over in her grave at your depiction. Her answer would be one of apology for not living up to her end of the contract then jumping to get you back up and running ASAP. You should read her interview with playboy: http://www.ellensplace.net/ar_pboy.html

  6. Liron Says:

    Hey Scott,
    What do the sucky ISPs represent?

  7. mitchell porter Says:

    Brew, thanks for posting that, very refreshing to read.

  8. Scott Says:

    Brew, I have read that interview, as well as plenty of her other writings.

    Liron, my starting point was contemplating the libertarian idea (most associated with the Austrian School) that “markets can never fail by definition”: anything that looks like a bank run, a whole population starving and out of work, etc., is really just rational agents choosing to trade or not to trade by mutual consent — or else the result of whatever government interference still exists. I thought to myself, “where have I heard that before?” And then it hit me: tech support people! (Not all tech support people, but certainly a large fraction of the ones at Bluehost.) “Something not working? Must be a problem on your end. We can never be wrong by definition.”

  9. Jack in Danville Says:

    I think if Ms. Rosenbaum really acted this way from the call center Ludwig would say enforcement of contracts is one of the legitimate functions of government.

  10. harrison Says:

    [M]y starting point was contemplating the libertarian idea (most associated with the Austrian School) that “markets can never fail by definition”

    Of course, the difference between the libertarians and the tech-support people is that, in economics, it’s actually useful (at least for theoretical analysis) to assume, a priori, that markets can never fail. Where Austrians start getting weird is when they insist that the real world must behave exactly like the theoretical model.

    I have no idea what the justification for the tech-support people’s claims would be.

  11. John Sidles Says:

    (1) Zookeepers know what is best for chimpanzees

    (2) Zookeepers never employ libertarian methods

    (3) Libertarian methods are best for human beings

    (4) Therefore, human beings are not chimpanzees

    This reasoning would make perfect sense … were it not for Darwin and Goodall. So which of the four premises are in doubt? IMHO, all of them are rather dubious … and (3) is most dubious.

    That is why the Federalist Papers is among the most admirable political documents ever produced, because it can be read as an ingeniously designed set of checks and balances, whose intent is to motivate people to behave like humane beings.

    That is a pretty considerable achievement, for a group of (mainly) farmers who had never heard of evolutionary biology, game theory, or modern economics.

  12. Irit Says:

    Scott: you clearly missed the point of The Shock Doctrine.

  13. Scott Says:

    Thanks, Irit! I found it strange that I was only getting attacked by the libertarian side; glad to hear from the other side as well.

    I actually wrote a whole review of The Shock Doctrine, which was going to be my blog post, but then I saw this review by Jonathan Chait in The New Republic (as well as a dozen other reviews), which together said almost everything I wanted to say, and I felt that another review would be superfluous. So I went with a silly parable instead.

    For your interest, though, here is my review:

    Review of The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein

    This is not the sort of 560-page book that you finish thinking, “yes, but what does the author really think about rapacious capitalists at the World Bank and IMF, spurred on by Milton Friedman’s free-market fundamentalism, exploiting wars, natural disasters, and other crises to foist their narrow corporate agenda on unwilling populations while crushing authentic democratic people’s movements?”

    At the risk of spoiling this well-researched and thought-provoking book for those who haven’t read it: she’s not a fan.

    A few reactions:

    First, as many other reviewers have pointed out, again and again Klein blurs the distinction between libertarian principles and repressive acts carried out by “pro-capitalist” governments that manifestly violate those principles. This is the exact mirror image of a common tactic on the other side that Klein rightly detests: conflating democratic socialism with the crimes of Stalin and Mao. So for example, she repeatedly describes the corrupt Iraq reconstruction effort as “Friedmanite to the core,” without ever mentioning the seemingly important fact that Friedman himself opposed the war (as well, I’m sure, as all the crony capitalism and no-bid contracts that accompanied it).

    Second, while Klein displays many strengths as a writer, giving a fair hearing to the other side is not one of them. Even when I fundamentally agreed with her, I often winced at the way she characterized the opposing arguments. In 560 pages, I doubt there’s a single paragraph that a Friedmanite could point to and say: “while I disagree with almost the entire book, this at least is a fair summary of my position.”

    Third, the libertarian economic theory I’ve read is full of bizarre hypothetical scenarios and faux-deductive reasoning (often involving the word “qua”), rarely descending to the real world except to denounce the Soviet Union. This book seems to err in the opposite direction. Klein passionately argues that wherever deregulation and privatization were actually tried, they succeeded only in lining the pockets of the rich (which Klein believes was the real goal all along). Not once does she step back and ask: “if libertarian theory failed, then why did it fail? what was the crucial error in the assumptions or the arguments?” Of course, to disprove a theorem, it suffices to find a counterexample; there’s no additional burden of finding an error in the proof. But economics is not pure math, and a book without the slightest hint of intellectual curiosity about these issues left me feeling unsatisfied.

    And yet … I can accept all this, and still find myself left with a powerful argument. Not an argument that Klein ever explicitly makes, but one that can be extracted from her case studies. The argument is as follows: free-market fundamentalism suffers from the same essential flaw as communism, that of not being able to take real, live human beings as its raw material. Where communism requires hypothetical altruists, free-market fundamentalism requires hypothetical law-abiders, who will either succeed in a cutthroat Darwinian competition, or else peacefully starve to death, without staging a mass revolt (which no government run on libertarian principles would ever be able to suppress). Thus, the problem with both communism and libertarianism is not that they “work in theory but not in practice.” It’s that they don’t even work in theory. The whole problem that an economic system has to solve is how to achieve some approximation of the general good within the severe constraints imposed by human nature. If you can redefine human nature however you want, then you trivialize the problem.

    To put it differently, the lesson I drew from Klein’s case studies is this: if a rich minority wishes to survive, it must either bribe the poor majority not to murder it (i.e. maintain a welfare state), or else go into the torture, murder, and intimidation business itself. Furthermore, there’s a smooth tradeoff between these two possibilities: the closer to a true free-market economy you want to get, the more repression you need to maintain such an economy. (In Bolivia, which implemented the relatively-moderate ideas of the economist Jeffrey Sachs, less repression was needed than in Chile under Pinochet, which sought to implement Milton Friedman’s ideas.) You can trace the Pareto curve all the way from Pinochet-like terror regimes (“economic freedom” without political freedom) to modern welfare states (political freedom without “economic freedom”), and at least if historical experience is any guide, you’ll never once hit the Randian utopia of political and economic freedom coexisting. (There have, of course, been plenty of states with neither political nor economic freedom, like the USSR and Nazi Germany. Here I’m only interested in the Pareto curve.) Personally I’ll take political freedom over economic freedom any day; that’s why I support modern welfare states, the only question for me being how much wealth redistribution is optimal. I suspect most people have at some level understood all of this since the 1930’s, but it’s good to be reminded of it.

  14. Ronald de Wolf Says:

    Hi Scott,

    I have to disagree with your characterization of “modern welfare states” as “political freedom without economic freedom”. If you look up the index of Economic Freedom at
    http://www.heritage.org/Index/countries.cfm
    you’ll see that the top 20 consists mostly of welfare states.

    In fact, the Scandinavian countries (the ultimate welfare states) seem to be at or close to the top of most indices we should care about: thriving democracy, political freedoms, social mobility, quality of education, low corruption, high trust, economic freedom, competitiveness, etc.

    It seems to me the real distinction to focus on is “pro-market” vs “pro-business”. The first is more or less Friedmanian, and aims at creating a level playing field with the rule of law and undistorted free markets (but with government regulations to ensure markets don’t lose their effectiveness to monopolies). The second is where government favors certain businesses (farm subsidies, oil companies, underhand privatizations benefiting a small clique etc.), at the expense of the larger interest. I haven’t read the book, but I bet most of Klein’s examples fall in the second category.

    — Ronald

  15. Scott Says:

    Hi Ronald,

    Yeah, that’s why I put the phrase “economic freedom” in quotes. Like you, I don’t find (say) a progressive income tax or antitrust laws inimical to my concept of economic freedom. But if you read libertarian theorists like Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, or Walter Block, it’s certainly inimical to their concept. I don’t think they recognize any daylight between a tax-supported fire department and the gulag.

    As for Klein, it’s true (as I mentioned) that pretty much all of her examples involve government corruption and cronyism—even torture and murder—and therefore ought to make libertarians like Friedman every bit as aghast as she is. However, Klein certainly believes that she’s criticizing Friedmanism as such: indeed, her entire book is built around the concept of Milton Friedman as a sort of diabolical mastermind, cynically justifying a small clique’s exploitation of the rest of the world. (If that doesn’t sound like a fair characterization to you, read the book and judge for yourself!) In other words, I think any defense of “Friedmanism” that’s compatible with what Klein writes, would have to deny that Friedman himself was a Friedmanite!

  16. Dave Bacon Says:

    As a fan of parables: bravo, Scott.

    You had me at qua.

  17. Irit Says:

    I can see why you decided to shelve this review. It’s not that interesting.

  18. Scott Says:

    Irit, you’re welcome to participate here if you have something substantive to say. The converse holds as well.

  19. Chris Granade Says:

    With respect to your review of Shock Doctrine, it sounds like the book is like her earlier No Logo in style. I felt like in that book, she danced around the point with lots of brilliantly researched case studies. I mean, I got a lot out of No Logo, but probably not quite what she intended.

    On a different note, discussions like these always make me appreciate Keynes’ insights more. A lot of economic “debates” annoy me because of how reductionist they can get. It’s fair to say that I lean more towards the socialist end of the spectrum, but I recognize that the world is a quite complicated place, and I do myself a disservice by simplifying it to the level of “capitalism bad communism good” or visa versa.

    By the way, have you ever read Freakonomics? There’s some good chapters in there about complicated side-effects of economics that don’t fall well into the simple profiles of Ayn and Karl…

  20. asdf Says:

    Thanks for the review. I’ve been interested in Shock Doctrine but haven’t read it yet. Klein’s article Baghdad Year Zero was very powerful, or maybe I’m just naive: http://www.harpers.org/BaghdadYearZero.html

  21. Scott Says:

    By the way, have you ever read Freakonomics?

    No, but seemingly everyone I know has, so I may have picked up the majority of it by osmosis.

  22. John Sidles Says:

    asdf Says: … Klein’s article Baghdad Year Zero was very powerful, or maybe I’m just naive …

    I have a son in the Marines … presently in Iraq on his third tour … and so I am happy to pass on what the Marines really read … the answer surprised me.

    Was it Ayn? Was it Karl? Neither one. It turns out that what the Marines read is Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Then, for specific instructions on how to make decisions and take action, they read the short (three-page) Commander’s Guidance. The Marines understand that they’re playing the Great Game, for real … as is everyone on the planet, from a Kim-ian point of view.

    The above is carefully constructed to be a statement of fact, *not* a evaluation of relative merit. The only evaluation of merit that I’m going to make is this: the brevity of the Guidance, when contrasted with the immense length of Ayn’s and Karl’s writings, is a very considerable point in its favor. :)

    To echo the (Buddhist) closing passage of Kim: “May we all find salvation for ourselves and our beloved. Just is the Wheel! Certain is our deliverance!” :)

  23. Douglas Knight Says:

    In Bolivia, which implemented the relatively-moderate ideas of the economist Jeffrey Sachs, less repression was needed than in Chile under Pinochet, which sought to implement Milton Friedman’s ideas.

    Is this Klein’s example or yours? The former case makes her title rather ironic, since the term “shock therapy” is most associated with Sachs.
    Does she convincingly argue that Friedman’s advice made the violence worse? I’ve never heard more than an insinuation of that; usually people just say that Friedman should have boycotted repressive dictators.

    I prefer the comparison of Poland and Russia, both of which were advised by Sachs, but which had rather different outcomes. You might say that Russia did worse because it wasn’t advised by Sachs, but the US government probably couldn’t even tell that. Ultimately, its most meaningful choice was whom to put in charge. And it can’t put Sachs in charge of everything, so it has to rely on brand name to hope other people will do the same thing (which Russia demonstrated they won’t).

    My point is just that there’s a lot of noise here, so case studies are dangerous.

  24. Scott Says:

    Douglas: I agree, the case studies all seem incredibly complicated, with so many factors at play besides the ones we’re trying to understand. Klein writes in great detail about both Chile and Bolivia. Regarding Chile, her thesis is that the entire purpose of Pinochet’s violence was to force Friedmanite economic policies down people’s throats, policies the people would never accept democratically. She does give evidence for that position, including the testimony of Orlando Letelier (the former defense minister of the deposed President Allende, who himself was later assassinated, most likely with the knowledge of the CIA). So, her thesis may have some element of truth, but it strikes me that a major problem with it is that Chile subsequently became a democracy, yet has mostly chosen to retain the free-market policies.

    Regarding Sachs, Klein devotes several pages to how he’s more moderate than Friedman was—Sachs took Keynes as his hero, and acknowledged that “the invisible hand is not enough”. She also describes Bolivia’s economic reform as considerably less repressive than Chile’s. But all of that only seems to make her angrier at Sachs, in the same way that Nader supporters are angrier at Democrats than at Republicans.

  25. Bram Cohen Says:

    The argument is as follows: free-market fundamentalism suffers from the same essential flaw as communism, that of not being able to take real, live human beings as its raw material. Where communism requires hypothetical altruists, free-market fundamentalism requires hypothetical law-abiders, who will either succeed in a cutthroat Darwinian competition, or else peacefully starve to death, without staging a mass revolt (which no government run on libertarian principles would ever be able to suppress). Thus, the problem with both communism and libertarianism is not that they “work in theory but not in practice.” It’s that they don’t even work in theory. The whole problem that an economic system has to solve is how to achieve some approximation of the general good within the severe constraints imposed by human nature. If you can redefine human nature however you want, then you trivialize the problem.

    Clearly you don’t understand the pull of market forces. For this ‘starving to death’ thing to happen, it would require that missing a meal not only destroy that person’s enjoyment of the meal, but all their future productivity as well. Obviously this is an inherently inefficient response to available resources, and market forces will inevitably select for humans who are able to simply go into stasis when food is scarce. The apparent ‘starving to death’ issue must therefore be a fallacious by-product of current fashions in pop psychology, and will cease to be an issue once everybody gets over it.

  26. John Sidles Says:

    Just to mention, Dave Kilcullen’s commentary in today’s Small Wars Journal vividly describes some of the many respects in which real-world nation-building contrasts as sharply with the writings of Ayn and Karl, as applied math contrasts with pure math.

  27. Ted Diesel Says:

    Hi Scott,

    You bring up an objection to “free-market fundamentalism” on the grounds that it “requires hypothetical law-abiders, who will either succeed in a cutthroat Darwinian competition, or else peacefully starve to death, without staging a mass revolt (which no government run on libertarian principles would ever be able to suppress).”

    Let me try defending Ayn Rand’s view, as I understand it. (Incidentally, I think she would object to being called “libertarian,” partly due to philosophical differences that undercut superficial similarities with some other thinkers you’ve mentioned.)

    Under a capitalist system, we would have the courts, an army, and the police. And we would have voluntary charities, which would be free to help the poor. We would not have forced redistribution of wealth (which also means no subsidies for businesses). According to the objection, this whole state of affairs would lead to mass starvation for those who do not come out on top after “cutthroat Darwinian competition.”

    My initial response is to flatly deny that mass starvation is the inevitable result of pure capitalism. You’ve noted that “pretty much all” of Klein’s examples of supposedly-free markets aren’t the real thing. Couldn’t we make a better case for mass prosperity, based in part on nearly-capitalist historical examples such as the late 19th century United States and post-WWII Hong Kong? A recent Objectivist take on this is Andrew Bernstein’s The Capitalist Manifesto.

    Taking a more philosophical view, I wonder if there might be an incorrect premise behind the “mass starvation” objection: that acquiring wealth is a zero-sum game in which the other guy loses whenever you win. But wealth is not just a static pie that people trade slices of. Under capitalism, the best minds are free to create values, like the light bulb, the airplane, and the (quantum?) microprocessor. Such innovations make possible great enhancements in productivity, and thereby benefit even those of us who are not great productive thinkers.

  28. szeni Says:

    Milton Friedman debated three Scandinavian economists on Iceland TV in 1984, covering welfare state versa free market in some detail.

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1107486496526618897

    Shortly before his death, he said that he’d been wrong with ‘privatise, privatise, privatise’ for post-Communist Russia.

    By contrast, Naomi Klein is an ideologue who rivals Lysenko at dredging facts to her liking. And, as Bertrand Russell said about Marx, her inspiration comes from hatred.

  29. NeedleFactory Says:

    communism requires hypothetical altruists

    Yes, but that’s not all! Even given as an axiom that all people are altruists, Mises showed communism unworkable (1920) in the so-called Great Calculation Debate. Why not include the topic in your lectures on computability? (Joke, I think)

    free-market fundamentalism requires hypothetical law-abiders, who will either succeed in a cutthroat Darwinian competition, or else peacefully starve to death, without staging a mass revolt (which no government run on libertarian principles would ever be able to suppress)…

    I respectfully disagree, on two grounds.

    1. I find your phrase “cutthroat Darwinian competition” loaded, ringing with overtones of Hobbes (nasty, brutish) and Tennyson (“tooth and claw”). Free markets rely on cooperation as well as competition. It is their cooperative nature that gives them their power to improve our lives. (Digression: “cooperative market” is likely a more accurate term than “free market”, as it denotes the positive connotations of “free” while excluding the negative connotations. Regretfully, it’s not catchy.)

    2. A “government run on libertarian principles” is oxymoronic. However, a society run on libertarian principles has too many (countable!) ways to protect its members from “law-breakers” to enumerate here; see Part III of the younger Friedman’s “The Machinery of Freedom” for an overview.