Fireside Friday: October 15, 2021

Fireside this week! We’re in that mid-semester crunch time with students turning in papers and exams which need grading, but fortunately Ollie is getting into the fall season:

The pumpkin spice cat-toy was a gift from a friend.

For this week’s musing, I want to discuss in a fairly brief way, my views of ‘megahistory’ or ‘cliodynamics’ – questions about which tend to come up a fair bit in the comments – and also Isaac Asimov, after a fashion. Fundamentally, the promise of these sorts of approaches is to apply the same kind of mathematical modeling in use in many of the STEM fields to history with the promise of uncovering clear rules or ‘laws’ in the noise of history. It is no accident that the fellow who coined the term ‘cliodynamics,’ Peter Turchin, has his training not in history or political science but in zoology; he is trying to apply the sort of population modeling methods he pioneered on Mexican Bean Beetles to human populations. One could also put Steven Pinker, trained as a psychologist, and his Better Angels in this category as well and long time readers will know how frequently I recommend that folks read Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization instead of The Better Angels of our Nature.1

Attentive readers will have already sensed that I have issues with these kinds of arguments; indeed, for all of my occasional frustrations with political science literature (much of which is perfectly fine, but it seems a frequent and honestly overall positive dynamic that historians tend to be highly critical of political scientists) I consider ‘cliodynamics’ to generally take the worst parts of data-driven political science methodologies to apotheosis while discarding most of the virtues of data-driven poli-sci work.

As would any good historian, I have a host of nitpicks, but my objection to the idea of ‘cliodynamics’ has to do with the way that it proposes to tear away the context of the historical data. I think it is worth noting at the outset the claim actually being made here because there is often a bit of motte-and-bailey that goes on, where these sorts of megahistories make extremely confident and very expansive claims and then when challenged is to retreat back to much more restricted claims but Turchin in particular is explicit in Secular Cycles (2009) that “a basic premise of our study is that historical societies can be studied with the same methods physicists and biologists used to study natural systems” in the pursuit of discovering “general laws” of history.

Fundamentally, the approach is set on the premise that the solution to the fact that the details of society are both so complex (imagine charting out the daily schedules of every person one earth for even a single day) and typically so poorly attested is to aggregate all of that data to generate general rules which could cover any population over a long enough period. To my mind, there are two major problems here: predictability and evidence. Let’s start with predictability.

And that’s where we get to Isaac Asimov, because this is essentially also how the ‘psychohistory’ of the Foundation series functions (or, for the Star Trek fans, how the predictions in the DS9 episode “Statistical Probabilities,” itself an homage to the Foundation series, function). The explicit analogy offered is that of the laws that govern gasses: while no particular molecule of a gas can modeled with precision, the entire body of gas can be modeled accurately. Statistical probability over a sufficiently large sample means that the individual behaviors of the individual gas molecules combine in the aggregate to forma predictable whole; the randomness of each molecule ‘comes out in the wash’ when combined with the randomness of the rest.2

I should note that Turchin rejects comparisons to Asimov’s psychohistory (but also embraced the comparison back in 2013), but they are broadly embraced by his boosters. Moreover, Turchin’s claim at the end of that blog post that “prediction is overrated” is honestly a bit bizarre given how quick he is when talking with journalists to use his models to make predictions; Turchin has expressed some frustration with the tone of Graeme Wood’s piece on him, but “We are almost guaranteed” is a direct quote that hasn’t yet been removed and I can speak from experience: The Atlantic‘s fact-checking on such things is very vigorous. So I am going to assume those words escaped the barrier of his teeth and also I am going to suggest here that “We are almost guaranteed” is, in fact, a prediction and a fairly confident one at that.

The problem with applying something like the ideal gas law – or something like the population dynamics of beetles – to human societies is fundamentally interchangeability. Statistical models like these have to treat individual components (beetles, molecules) the way economists treat commodities: part of a larger group where the group has qualities, but the individuals merely function to increase the group size by 1. Raw metals are a classic example of a commodity used this way: add one ton of copper to five hundred tons of copper and you have 501 tons of copper; all of the copper is functionally interchangeable. But of course any economist worth their pencil-lead will be quick to remind you that not all goods are commodities. One unit of ‘car’ is not the same as the next. We can go further, one unit of ‘Honda Civic’ is not the same as the next. Heck, one unit of 2012 Silver Honda Civic LX with 83,513 miles driven on it is not the same as the next even if they are located in the same town and owned by the same person; they may well have wildly different maintenance and accident histories, for instance, which will impact performance and reliability.

Humans have this Honda Civic problem (that is, they are not commodities) but massively more so. Now of course these theories do not formally posit that all, say, human elites are the same, merely that the differences between humans of a given grouping (social status, ethnic group, what have you) ‘come out in the wash’ at large scales with long time horizons. Except of course they don’t and it isn’t even terribly hard to think of good examples.

Take, for instance, Chinggis Khan (born Temujin; I am going to use Temujin here to mean the man himself and Chinggis Khan to mean his impact as a ruler once the Mongols were fully united). The conditions for Chinggis Khan were not new in 1158; the basic technological factors with made the Steppe way of war possible had existed in the Eurasian Steppe for at least two thousand years by the time Temujin was born. Political fragmentation was also an important factor, but this was hardly the first time that nearby China had been politically fragmented (at the very least the periods 771-221BC, 220-280AD, 304-589 and 907 through to Temujin’s birth in 1158 all qualify) and the steppe had effectively always been politically fragmented. Our evidence for life on the steppe is limited (we’ll come back to this in a second) but by all appearances the key social institutions Temujin either relied on or dismantled were all centuries old at least at his birth.

What had been missing for all that time was Temujin. To buy into the strongest form of ‘cliodynamics’ is to assume that the Steppe always would have produced a Temujin (in part because his impact is so massive that a ‘general law’ of history which cannot predict an event of such titanic import is not actually a functional ‘general law’). And to be fair, it had produced nearly Temujins before: Attila, Seljuk, etc. But ‘nearly’ here isn’t good enough because so many of the impacts of Chinggis Khan depend on the completeness of his conquests, on a single state interested in trade controlling the entire Euasian Steppe without meaningful exception. The difference between Temujin and almost-Temujin (which is just basically ‘Jamukha’) is history-shatteringly tremendous, given that both gunpowder and the black death seem to have moved west on the roads that Chinggis opened and the subsequent closure of those routes after his empire fragmented seem to have been a major impetus towards European seaborne expansion.

Moreover, it is not at all clear that, absent Temujin in that particular moment – keeping in mind that Temujin hadn’t appeared in any other moment – that there would have inevitably risen a different Temujin sometime later. After all, for two millennia the steppe had not produced a Temujin and by 1158, the technological window for it to do so was already beginning to close as humans in the agrarian parts of the world (read: China) had already begun harnessing chemical energy in ways that would eventually come to rob the nomad of much of his strength. If Temujin dies as a boy – as he very well might have! – it is not at all clear he’d be replaced before that window closed; his most obvious near peer was Jamukha, but here personalities matter: Jamukha was committed to the old Mongol social hierarchy (this was part of why he and Temujin fell out) and was so unwilling to do the very things that made Chinggis Khan’s great success possible (obliterating clan distinctions and promoting based on merit rather than family pedigree). Jamukha could have been another Seljuk, but he could not have been another Chinggis Khan and in this case that would make all of the difference.

To get briefly into a bit of historical theory, Chinggis is an individual whose actions in life fundamentally altered many of what the ‘Annales School’ of history would call the structures and mentalités of his (and subsequent) times. The Annales school likes to view history through a long duration lens (longue durée) and focus on big shaping structures like climate, geography, culture and so on. The difference between this and cliodynamics is that Annales thinkers propose to describe rather than predict, so it is not fatal to their method if there are occasional, sudden, unpredictable alterations to those underlying structures – indeed those are the moments which are most interesting. But it is fatal to a cliodynamics perspective, which does aim for prediction since “our prediction is absolutely right unless it is completely wrong” hardly inspires confidence and a “general law” of anything is only a “general law” in that it is generally applicable not merely to the past but also to the future.

In short, Chinggis Khan wasn’t a commodity; he couldn’t be replaced by any other Mongol warrior. And figures like that abound through history (for Roman history, it matters greatly for instance that Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar and Octavian had very different personalities when they found themselves in a position to dominate the Republic with military force). Moreover, the figures like that who we think of, generally capital-g ‘Great Men,’ are hardly the only such individuals like that. They’re the only ones we can see. What of, for instance, the old Argive mother – her name lost to history – who killed Pyrrhus of Epirus, considered the greatest general of his generation, with a lucky throw of a roofing tile, both ending his career but also setting in motion a chain of events where the power vacuum left by Epirus would be filled by Carthage and Rome in a way that would bring those former allies (allied against Pyrrhus, in fact) into a shattering conflict which would then pave the way for Roman dominance in the Mediterranean? History must be full of innumerable such figures whose actions created and closed off courses of events in ways we can never know; how do we know that there wasn’t some would-have-been Temujin on the steppe in 100AD but who was killed in some minor dispute so very minor it leaves literally no evidence behind?

(The fancy way of putting the influence of all of those factors, both the big structural ones and the little, subject-to-chance ones, is to say ‘history is contingent’ – that is, the outcomes are not inevitable but are subject to many forces large and small, many of which the lack of evidence render historically invisible.)

Both cliodynamics and psychohistory assume these differences and problems ‘come out in the wash’ over a long enough period and a big enough sample. It doesn’t take much of a counterfactual thought experiment about how small changes by individuals could lead to enormous historical differences to see that they don’t. The defense that cliodynamics only deals in probabilities is little comfort here: in fact the apparent randomness (which one may argue is merely complexity on a scale that is beyond simulation) swallows the patterns. One could easily argue, for instance, that the extremely unlikely career of our fellow Timujin is a necessary cause (albeit merely one of many, several of which might be considered deeply improbable) for the fact that all commercial pilots and air traffic controllers worldwide have to learn a form of English (which one may well assume has its own structural knock-on effects in terms of the language used for business and from there the outsized cultural impact of English-speaking countries).3 No one in 1158 was likely to have supposed that English – a language at that time not even spoken by the English nobility (they spoke French)! – would become the first truly global lingua franca (and arguably the only one, though here caveats may overwhelm the claim) and thus the language of aviation. But that is precisely the kind of big structural change that is going to be really impactful on all sorts of other questions, like patterns of commerce, wealth, culture and influence.

Such complex causation defies general laws (even before we get into the fact that humans also observe history, which creates even more complexity) with such tremendous import from such unlikely events in an experiment which can only be run once without a control.

The other problem is evidence. Attempting to actually diagnose and model societies like this demands a lot of the data and not merely that you need a lot of it. You need consistent data which projects very far back in history which is accurate and fairly complete, so that it can be effectively compared. Trying, for instance, to compare ancient population estimates, which often have error bars of 100% or more, with modern, far more precise population estimates is bound to cause some real problems in teasing out clear correlations in data. The assumptions you make in tuning those ancient population figures can and will swallow any conclusions you might draw from the comparison with modern figures beyond the fairly obvious (there are more people now). But even the strongest administrative states now have tremendous difficulty getting good data on their own lower classes! Much of the ‘data’ we think we have are themselves statistical estimates. The situation even in the very recent past is much worse and only degrades from there as one goes further back!

By way of example, I was stunned that Turchin figures he can identify ‘elite overproduction’ and quantify wealth concentration into the deep past, including into the ancient world (Romans, late Bronze Age, etc). I study the Romans; their empire is only 2,000 years ago and moreover probably the single best-attested ancient society apart from perhaps Egypt or China (and even then I think Rome comes out quite solidly ahead). And even in that context, our estimates for the population of Roman Italy range from c. 5m to three to four times that much. Estimates for the size of the Roman budget under Augustus or Tiberius (again, by far the best attested period we have) range wildly (though within an order of magnitude, perhaps around 800 million sestertii). Even establishing a baseline for this society with the kind of precision that might let you measure important but modest increases in the size of the elite is functionally impossible with such limited data.

When it comes to elites, we have at best only one historical datapoint for the size of the top Roman census class (the ordo equester) and it’s in 225 BC, but as reported by Polybius in the 140s and also he may have done the math wrong and it also isn’t clear if he’s actually captured the size of the census class! We know in the imperial period what the minimum wealth requirement to be in the Senate was, but we don’t know what the average wealth of a senator was (we tend to hopefully assume that Pliny the Younger is broadly typically, but he might not have been!), nor do we know the size of the senatorial class itself (formed as a distinct class only in the empire), nor do we know how many households there were of senatorial wealth but which didn’t serve in the Senate because their members opted not to run for public office. One can, of course, make educated guesses for these things (it is often useful and important to do so), but they are estimates founded on guesses supported by suppositions; a castle of sand balanced atop other castles of sand. We can say with some confidence that the Late Roman Republic and the Early Roman Empire saw tremendous concentrations of wealth; can we quantity that with much accuracy? No, not really; we can make very rough estimates, but these are at the mercy of their simplifying assumptions (we’ve actually discussed this problem before).

And this is, to be clear, the very best attested ancient society and only about 2,000 years old at that. The data situation for other ancient societies can only be worse – unless, unless one begins by assuming elite overproduction is a general feature of complex, wealthy societies and then reads that conclusion backwards into what little data exists. But that isn’t historical research; it is merely elevating confirmation bias to a research methodology.

As noted, I have other nitpicks – particularly the tendency to present very old ideas as new discoveries, like secular cycles (Polybius, late 2nd century BC) or war as the foundation of complex societies (Heraclitus, d. c. 475 BC) without always seeming to appreciate just how old and how frequently recurring the idea is (such that it might, for instance, be the sort of intuitive idea many people might independently come up with, even if it was untrue or that it might be the kind of idea that historians had considered long ago and largely rejected for well established reasons) – but this will, I hope, suffice for a basic explanation of why I find the idea of this approach unsatisfying. This is, to be clear, not a rejection of the role of data or statistics in history, both of which can be tremendously important. Nor is it a rejection of the possible contributions of non-historians (who have important contributions to make), though I would ask that someone wading into the field familiarize themselves with it (perhaps by doing some traditional historical research), before declaring they had revolutionized the field. Rather it is an argument both that these things cannot replace more traditional historical methods and also that their employment, like the employment of any historical method, must come with a very strong dose of epistemic humility.

Psychohistory only works in science fiction where the author, as the god of his universe, can make it work. Today’s psychohistorians have no such power.

From XKCD. In a hilarious irony, I have had this very webcomic cited to me as an example to support the notion that STEM folks in general and physicists in particular were just smarter and more capable than all other kinds of specialists; it does not appear to have occurred to the person in question that their own inability to manage the basic humanistic skill of reading subtext undermined their argument.
To be clear, I have tremendous respect for physicists (and zoologists, for that matter) when it comes to their mastery of physics (or zoology); I just wish they extend to historians the same respect (many do, of course).

On to recommendations:

Over on YouTube, Drachinifel has an interesting discussion of how the Royal Navy might have responded to Germany’s ‘Plan Z‘ (a plan to radically build up the Kriegsmarine) over a ten year period. The counter-factual is interesting for two reasons. First, I think the analysis that essentially no version of Plan Z, either the initial proposal or the scaled down version put into production, was likely to actually produce a German navy which would have an even playing field (much less a decisive upper hand) with the royal navy is fundamentally correct. The problem here is an asymmetry of interests combined with the fearsome technical ‘catch up’ the project demanded. The reason for this is the broader interesting point here which is that military plans cannot be considered in isolation because chances are any major build-up is going to be noticed by potential adversaries who will then seek to do something to prepare for it (a dynamic now quite visible in the Indo-Pacific).

Speaking of which, over at Foreign Policy (paywall, alas), I found “China Is a Declining Power – and That’s the Problem” by Hal Brands and Michael Beckley to be a useful read. It is both a good discussion of ‘power transition theory’ which happily moves beyond just using oversimplified and inaccurate descriptions of a supposed ‘Thucydides trap’ which also notes that not only can rising powers disrupt international systems, but so can once rising powers who now see themselves stalling out.

Also in Foreign Policy lately is me, writing on the United States’ pattern of failure in training foreign auxiliary forces and suggesting a range of historical models built either around incorporating (rather than bypassing) local social institutions or completely deracinating the soldiers in question (essentially obliterating, rather than bypassing those institutions). The halfway approach that the United States has often used of trying to impose military institutions developed for radically different cultural environments leads to situations in which local social institutions and ties reassert themselves in the form of debilitating ‘corruption’ which has simply become our name for the mismatch between our expectations and local customs.

Also by me is an essay in The National Interest (not pay-walled, but multiple pages long), comparing the American All-Volunteer Force (AVF) with the Roman experience of transitioning from a conscript citizen militia to a professional, all-volunteer army. I suggest that many of the drawbacks which boosters of the AVF insisted could be overcome are in fact inherant in the structure of any standing volunteer army and so cannot be avoided but must be accounted for and that we should take seriously the notion that the AVF might not be the correct force structure going forward into a period of intensified partisan polarization and great power competition.

Meanwhile, over at the Ancient World Magazine, editor-in-chief Josho Brouwers writes that as of next month he plans to begin focusing on AWM full-time in an effort to get the platform to really take off. AWM is a public-facing ancient world publication (so broadly, but not exclusively, what we’d call ‘Classics’) with its own distinctive editorial tone and a particular emphasis on debunking ideas about the ancient world. Given the planned intensification effort over there, now might be a good time to give it a look and decide if that’s something you’d be interested in reading; AWM is free but supported via Patreon. I certainly know how challenging it can be to build a public education web platform that is truly self-supporting, so I wish them the best of luck.

Also, because we have been talking quite a lot about the First World War, I thought I should mention The Great War YouTube channel. The channel is still active, bu its great fame came from the run from 2014 to 2018 where the channel ran week-by-week summaries (on the 100-year anniversary) of the events of WWI, along with in-depth looks at the weapons, tactics, people and countries involved. It is a truly incomparable resource, though I do find that following the events of the weekly summaries can be difficult if you are coming at it with no knowledge of the war, but see below on that score.

Finally, for the book recommendation, again as we have been talking a lot about the First World War, so I wanted to make two recommendations. The first recommendation is simply my favorite readable summary of WWI, which is the somewhat aged but still relevant J.L. Stokesbury, A Short History of World War I (1981). Truly following the whole of WWI, with its bewildering array of fronts and battles, can be a real challenge; Stokesbury’s history is well written (with a fair bit of understated sardonic wit that can come off as very dry but that is absolutely my jam) and very clear in ways that I have found other summaries of the war not to be. It is by no means a ‘last word’ on the war (indeed, some of its points are a touch out of date) and it can be quite dry, both in its humor but also in the sometimes flat presentation. But I found it importantly easy to follow as an introduction to the war back when I was assigned it years ago and I go back to it fairly regularly. It also has one of my favorite extended examples of Clausewitzian friction.

The more substantive (and more recent) recommendation here is Robert A. Doughty, Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War (2005), which you will note I leaned on quite a bit in my discussion of the trench stalemate. Pyrrhic Victory is clearly written, easy to follow though not exactly riveting reading, but then for a complicated issue I would rather have solidly functional writing than something more fun but also more confusing. It isn’t a complete history of the war (and one would be advised to have at least a basic grasp of that first), but rather a fairly in depth focus on the way that the French strategy and operational doctrine changed over the course of the war. It is this focus that I think makes it a particularly interesting work because it gets away from merely going through ‘they fought X battle; it didn’t work, then they fought Y battle; it didn’t work’ and instead gets into how each phase of the war forced changes and adjustments within French military thinking as they tried to come to grips with the novel tactical and operational problem that was trench warfare on the western front. Doughty’s approach is very detailed, often narrowing down individual orders and guidance offered by senior French commanders and decisions made on a day-by-day basis (which explains the book’s 578 page length), but that kind of detail is welcome in a topic that is, in the end, all about the details. Most doctrine-studies at this level of detail are written for a very narrow audience and consequently hideously expensive but Pyrrhic Victory is mercifully fairly cheap in both physical and electronic form and so makes a good entry-point (assuming you have a baseline familiarity with WWI) for both the concept of doctrine and also the practical ways that doctrine is actually implemented in an army.

  1. Yes, I am aware that Gat was consulted for Better Angels and blurbed the book. This doesn’t change my opinion of the two books. my issue is fundamentally evidentiary: War is built on concrete, while Better Angels is built on sand when it comes to the data they propose to use. As we’ll see, that’s a frequent issue.
  2. Of course the predictions in the Foundation series are not quite flawlessly perfect. They fail in two cases I can think of: the emergence of a singular exceptional individual with psychic powers (the Mule) and situations in which the subjects of the predictions become aware of them. That said Seldon is able to predict things with preposterous accuracy, such that he is able to set up a series of obstacles for a society he knows they will overcome. The main problem is that these challenges frequently involve conflict or competition with other humans; Seldon is at leisure to assume such conflicts are predictable, which is to say they lack Clausewitzian (drink!) friction. But all conflicts have friction; competition between peers is always unpredictable.
  3. For those confused by the causation, the Mongols are considered the most likely vector for the transmission of gunpowder from China, where it was invented, to Europe. Needless to say, having a single polity spanning the entire Eurasian Steppe at the precise historical moment for this to occur sure seems like a low probability event! In any event, European mastery of gunpowder led directly into European naval dominance in the world’s oceans (its impact on land warfare dominance is much more complex) which in turn led to European dominance at sea. At the same time, the English emphasis on gunnery over boarding actions early in this period (gunpowder again) provided a key advantage which contributed to subsequent British naval dominance among European powers (and also the British navy’s ‘cult of gunnery’ in evidence to the World Wars at least), which in turn allowed for the wide diffusion of English as a business and trade language. In turn, American and British prominence in the post-WWII global order made English the natural language for NATO and thus the ICAO convention that English be used universally for all aircraft communication.

302 thoughts on “Fireside Friday: October 15, 2021

  1. Another problem with psycho history and it’s derivatives, aside from non fungibility and agency of humans, is that in postulating that in a large mass of people individual actions average out, such that history becomes predictable; is a major category error.

    Even if mass of people may react predictably to an exogenous force, analogously to a group of iron atoms reacting to heat and carbon. It does not follow that the future of people or individuals is predetermined just as one cannot predetermine the future a group of iron atoms. It’s one thing to say that a group of iron atoms will melt and fuse with a given amount of heat. It’s another thing entirely to say that this group of iron atoms will be in x place or condition ten, one hundred or one thousand years from now

  2. The trope of the arrogance of physicists cuts a little close. I once (to my sorrow and regret) deeply upset a trained musicologist by analysing the 12-tone scale as powers of 2^(1/12).

      1. Exactly! The musicologist knew that, I didn’t or didn’t want to. We agreed not to discuss music after that, he just got too upset

  3. Recently I’ve been binging my way through the archives at this blog and I thought I’d leave my first comment on this post, since I’ve done a bit of the quantitative Poli Sci research that Bret mentions in his post. Generally, there are a few differences between what you find in a Poli Sci journal/book and this grand unified history stuff.

    1. Poli Sci people tend to be more aware of the need for reliable data. In international conflict (my area), most quantitative studies don’t start before the 19th century and many don’t start until after WW2.

    2. The topics are narrower. The goal of a given paper isn’t to make some grand pronouncement about, say, voting in all democratic systems but about the effects of immigration on voting patterns in swing districts or some such.

    3. The aim isn’t to prove that a cause definitely predicts an effect but that it changes the likelihood of it occurring. The argument is not, “If you have a revolution, you will go to war,” but rather, “If you have a revolution, there is a higher likelihood of going to war.”

    4. That said, Bret is right that there can be real problems in the field. Most commonly, it involves using one thing as a proxy for another because the first is easier to measure or because there’s more data on it, even if the two things aren’t the same. For example, militarized interstate disputes are often used as a proxy for war because there are more of them to run analysis on, but there’s reason to think their causes may be somewhat different.

    In my opinion, this is why case studies are important to supplement quantitative research. Quant stuff lets us survey a larger field and make sure we’re not reasoning by anecdote, while case studies lets us get into the nuances and trace the relationship among events more carefully.

  4. I’m surprised to see, in your National Interest post on all-volunteer vs conscript militaries, so little discussion of the morality of conscription. Usually in your ancient-history posts, when people in some society did some awful thing (enslavement, subjugation of women, serfdom etc) you’re very clear on the awfulness of that thing and clear too that the expediency of that thing for the people at the time isn’t an excuse and doesn’t mitigate how terrible it was for its victims. Well, a major modern anti-conscription argument is that conscription is tantamount to slavery. Maybe you don’t agree with that– would be interested to know what you think of it either way– but it’s strange not to see at least some mention/discussion of it.

    1. Conscription strikes me as far more akin to taxation than to slavery or even serfdom, with a correspondingly different morality.

      1. I think that’s a pretty common view: but taxation in the modern era is not “in kind,” it demands monetary sacrifice only– put another way, we have no corvees anymore. Conscription is almost definitionally forced labor and, in wartime, very dangerous forced labor at that.

        1. The modern era USA includes jury duty, which in our form is basically taxation in kind: forced and unpaid (or underpaid) service.

          And several countries still have conscription, or have had until recently, so taxation in the modern era *does* include in-kind elements.

          Agreed that we’ve otherwise mostly replaced labor/corvee tax with income and VAT taxes, but arguably that’s just because they’re more efficient. You get more roads built by letting everyone do whatever and taking 20% to pay full-time road builders, rather than making everyone spend 20% of their time building roads.

          With conscription, the argument would be that the political stability gained from passing everyone through the military outweighs the efficiency gains of having a full-time specialist population in warfare.

          1. That those countries have conscription does not prove that it’s “in-kind” taxation.

          2. Yes, but you’re not likely to get shot at on jury duty. Though that is changing in the US

      2. Do you have any arguments for the peculiar claim that being forced to work is more akin to being forced to pay money than being forced to work?

          1. For some reason my comments aren’t going through? Or do they just need to be approved? Commenting this partly to test.

          1. That would be an argument against head taxes (aka. poll taxes) but residents in rich countries mainly pay income taxes and sales taxes. If they are low-income, they generally get back more in government subsidies than they pay out!

            The other fundamental difference between taxation and conscription is that a soldier can be ordered to die.

          1. Moot point. Slavery does not require that the slavery last for life. In many cultures, you could be sold into slavery for a term of years.

        1. Do you think a Russian conscript in a foxhole in the Ukraine in 1942 was just at his workplace? I think comparing soldiering to waiting tables is so different as to be nearly disingenuous.

    2. As someone who has done my compulsory service for my country, I honestly find it distasteful to in any form equate conscription with “some awful thing (enslavement, subjugation of women, serfdom etc)”.

      And the discussion following below is… strange.

      My compulsory service, conscription if you like, is a duty I have performed (and may be called to perform again) for my nation-state. As a citizen of that nation-state, I have duties as well as rights and privileges. My rights are held to be inviolable and “natural”, such as human rights and certain property rights. However, they are in practise actually upheld by the social contract (and in the extreme the state monopoly on violence), same as the privileges I enjoy.

      As long as the social contract is upheld and the society of my nation-state continous to flourish, I can enjoy all sorts of goods, from the most basic right to control over my own body, to the more “advanced” rights like education and health care, to the privilege of driving a car on public roads.

      However, for that social contract to be upheld, all citizens also have duties to attend to. These duties must, on average, be attended to. Some of these are compulsory. Others are non-compulsory, but through cultural and social pressure are still performed to a very high degree.

      Non-compulsory duties include things such as completing a basic education, earning my own living, taking state-approved vaccines, and voting during elections.

      Compulsory duties include paying taxes and military or civilan service. In practise, only one in twelve young adults actually perform military service, but having a trained, conscripted force, including a reservist force through the Home Guard is considered imperative for our national sovereignty.

      Anyone who has read Brett’s blog posts about EU and Vicky should be pretty clear on why a nation-state considers having a military to call upon as imperative to their national sovereignty, and indeed their very survival. And without survival as a state, there is no social contract (in its current form), and thus my rights and privileges are moot.

      From that point of view, it can easily be argued that military service, conscription, is the *highest* duty. I gladly pay my taxes and tolls knowing it funds universal education, universal health care, public infrastructure and so on, and so on. I also gladly wore the King’s colours because I want to safeguard all those things my taxes pay for, and moreso, the society they enable.

      In a liberal democracy, it should be the duty of any citizen of sound mind and able body to do what is within their power to uphold the social contract. To me, likening conscription to slavery (or indeed taxation to theft) suggests that either you are not willing to do your duty in order to get the rights and privileges given to you, or that you are not a citizen of a functioning state that affords you rights and privileges in accordance with a sound social contract.

      Enslavement is when all your rights are stripped away from you. Conscription is when you are asked to do your part in defending those rights.

      1. This is the third time I’m trying to get my reply comment to go through, so I’m going to keep this concise for now and elaborate if required.

        In a nutshell, this is a misapplication of social contract theory. The social contract regulates affairs affecting parties to the contract. Military service and military activities affect other peoples and states, who aren’t party to a common contract ( at least in this particular way you’ve set it up).

        In this case, the result veers close to unwittingly accepting the sort of thing subversive social contract theories critique;

        https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/contractarianism/#SubvCont

        This is why contemporary social contract theory doesn’t do this, and deals with internal and international relations separately.

        https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rawls/#LawPeoLibForPol

        Taking Rawls as paradigmatic (he’s certainly more limited in his aims than many other philosophers with respect to international justice),

        ” The actors in Rawls’s international theory are not individuals (citizens) but societies (peoples). A people is a group of individuals ruled by a common government, bound together by common sympathies, and firmly attached to a common conception of right and justice. “People” is a moralized concept, and not all states currently on the world map qualify as such.

        Rawls’s conception of peoples within the law of peoples parallels his conception of citizens within justice as fairness. Peoples see themselves as free in the sense of being rightfully politically independent; and as equal in regarding themselves as equally deserving of recognition and respect. Peoples are reasonable in that they will honor fair terms of cooperation with other peoples, even at cost to their own interests, given that other peoples will also honor those terms. Reasonable peoples are thus unwilling to try to impose their political or social ideals on other reasonable peoples. They satisfy the criterion of reciprocity with respect to one another.

        Rawls describes the fundamental interests of a people as follows:

        Protecting its political independence, its territory, and the security of its citizens;

        Maintaining its political and social institutions and its civic culture;

        Securing its proper self-respect as a people, which rests on its citizens’ awareness of its history and cultural accomplishments.

        Rawls contrasts peoples with states. A state, Rawls says, is moved by the desires to enlarge its territory, or to convert other societies to its religion, or to enjoy the power of ruling over others, or to increase its relative economic strength. Peoples are not states, and as we will see peoples may treat societies that act like states as international outlaws. ”


        The principles selected in the international original position contain provisions for non-ideal situations: situations in which nations are unwilling to comply with the ideal principles, or are unable to cooperate on their terms. These provisions are embedded in principles 4 through 8 of the law of peoples.

        Outlaw states are non-compliant: they threaten the peace by attempting to expand their power and influence, or by violating the human rights of those within their territory. The principles of the law of peoples allow peoples to fight these outlaw states in self-defense, and to take coercive actions against them to stop their violations of human rights. In any military confrontations with outlaw states, peoples must obey the principles of the just prosecution of war, such as avoiding direct attacks on enemy civilians in all but the most desperate circumstances. The aim of war, Rawls says, must be to bring all societies to honor the law of peoples, and eventually to become fully participating members of international society.

        ———————-

        I’ll also note that there are also problems with universalizability; there can’t be a general duty to defend a given state and it’s social contract in interstate anarchy because increasing the security of your own state decreases the security of other states; so no one can’t consistently will that people adhere to a duty of military service to their state for the purpose of state security.

        1. First time commenter’s comments go into moderation so I have time to make sure you aren’t a bot; that’s why it didn’t go through right away.

          Shouldn’t be a problem going forward.

          1. Thanks. I’ve commented on one or two other posts before so I didn’t think they were going into moderation here, but I suspect it’s either via a different account, or perhaps it’s on a per-post basis?

            In any case, thanks for the clarification.

            Also, since I haven’t managed to say this before, thank you for everything you’ve done on the blog; I’d not found history interesting before but seeing it in application here, and having it explained why things happen the way they do really changed my perspective on it.

        2. Thank you for the reply!

          You will take note that Rawl’s sixth principle for the international basic structure is “Peoples have a right of self-defense, but no right to instigate war for reasons other than self-defense.”.

          You note in your post that the people have the interest of “protecting its political independence, its territory, and the security of its citizens; maintaining its political and social institutions and its civic culture”.

          How do you suggest people defend themselves from a different state (an outlaw, non-compliant one, as it were) without some sort of military service and military action?

          It is true a social contract necessarily regulates the parties adhering to it, and not others. In this case, it regulates how military service is regulated internally. The need for a military force is dictated not by the social contract, but by the security needs of the people regardless of their contract. The social contract only regulates the duty of defence born out of the circumstances of the people.

          In other words, should an outlaw state attack the people, someone must actually “do self-defence”. This could be a warrior elite, an all-volunteer professional force, a conscripted force, mercenaries, some other military force, or a mix of all of the above. The form of the self-defence depends on how the people self-organise through their institutions which should be born out of the social contract.

          To a lot of societies, including modern, liberal democracies, they organise their defence forces through a form of compulsory service. That is, defending the people is a duty of all the people, as opposed to some of the people (a warrior elite or volunteer professionals). Such military forces are often literally called a variation of “The Defence”, and is in some cases constitutionally limited to be used only defensively, including the prohibition of certain offensive capacities. Note that this is different from a state acting its self-interest in interstate anarchy: No rational state acting according to the situation of interstate anarchy would limit its offensive capabilities or deny itself the option of expansion.

          1. ” How do you suggest people defend themselves from a different state (an outlaw, non-compliant one, as it were) without some sort of military service and military action? ”

            They would require military action to defend against a non-compliant state, I agree.

            My contention is with some of the implications of your claim below, as well as the implications of the assumption of interstate anarchy you make;

            ” Anyone who has read Brett’s blog posts about EU and Vicky should be pretty clear on why a nation-state considers having a military to call upon as imperative to their national sovereignty, and indeed their very survival. And without survival as a state, there is no social contract (in its current form), and thus my rights and privileges are moot. ”

            Under Rawlsian international social contract theory, liberal peoples are fundamentally not engaged in the antagonistic competition of interstate anarchy. Liberal peoples are strongly constrained in their actions towards other liberal peoples, but also tolerant of non-liberal decent peoples (Rawls is using decent as a bit of a technical term here it seems). Fundamentally, they cannot be in pure interstate anarchy.

            It makes no sense to assume interstate anarchy exactly after the international social contract, because then there is just system of international law that is generally complied with. Of course, from Dr Devereaux’s post series that you mention, we know that there has never been such a just system of international law in practice. This is to say that the international order as it is, is violation of the requirements of international justice (at least as per Rawls), and the current activities of states are morally suspect.

            Note; The point here is that according to Rawls, liberal peoples cannot justly remain in interstate anarchy; they are obligated to join the international social contract as a matter of moral imperative. The fact that we do have interstate anarchy is in violation of the moral imperative.

            Because of this, states use of military force on the international stage does not satisfy the moral principles of Rawls’s theory and their moral status is doubtful. Under these conditions, it’s not clear that a duty of military service can be justified, and to the extent that states use their military power in direct opposition to the Rawlsian principles ( unjustified intervention, human rights violations in this context, unethical means of warfare) it’s questionable if there’s still a duty of individual military service. To the extent that liberal peoples still act as if under interstate anarchy, they risk violating the moral imperatives of Rawlsian theory.

            —————-

            “In this case, it regulates how military service is regulated internally. The need for a military force is dictated not by the social contract, but by the security needs of the people regardless of their contract. The social contract only regulates the duty of defence born out of the circumstances of the people. ”

            So part of the point is that this duty of national defence cannot be justified by the social contract within a given state; national defence fundamentally involves interaction with parties outside the state, so social contract theory requires either that some of these parties be members of a common social contract with the state in question, or that there is an overarching system of just international law that, in practice, regulates state conduct. It’s not valid to infer something affecting state relations from just the internal state social contract.

            “To a lot of societies, including modern, liberal democracies, they organise their defence forces through a form of compulsory service. That is, defending the people is a duty of all the people, as opposed to some of the people (a warrior elite or volunteer professionals). Such military forces are often literally called a variation of “The Defence”, and is in some cases constitutionally limited to be used only defensively, including the prohibition of certain offensive capacities. Note that this is different from a state acting its self-interest in interstate anarchy: No rational state acting according to the situation of interstate anarchy would limit its offensive capabilities or deny itself the option of expansion. ”

            Because of the earlier distinction between the in-state social contract and the international social contract, we see that there isn’t necessarily a universal duty of service for defence. The thing that obligates defence of peoples is the international social contract. Individual citizens aren’t the parties to this contract; it is instead the states that are parties to it (there are theoretical justifications for setting up the contract in this way).

            So the only thing that follows is a general duty on the part of the state to defend peoples by some means. Whether or not this is achieved via a conscript force or a volunteer force turns on other things.

            It turns out that Rawls DID provide a justification for conscription, but that was that conscription might be demanded not only because of the liberties of the citizens of that society, but also of other societies; that, if a conscript army was less likely to be used as a tool for unjustified foreign adventures, it could be justified on that basis alone, despite it infringing on the liberties of citizens.
            [https://www.jstor.org/stable/40231607 Unfortunately, this seems to be paywalled, but it’s where I’m getting this bit of information from. The author is technically arguing against Rawls, but unless I’m mistaken, for reasons similar to the ones I’ve sketched, it’s still remains questionable if a duty of conscription can be justified in his view for world as it is].

            ———————————

          2. It doesn’t seem like I can reply to Vankous Eon Frostification’s post below, so I will put it here…

            “So the only thing that follows is a general duty on the part of the state to defend peoples by some means. Whether or not this is achieved via a conscript force or a volunteer force turns on other things.”

            Here we are in exact agreement.

            As I pointed out earlier, the question is how the people of a given state view this duty. Keep in mind this discussion started with others equating conscription with slavery. My contention with that is plainly that conscription is a duty and service to the people, and is done to uphold the rights of the people (for example from foreign aggression), rather than an act of stripping away the conscripted’s rights and humanity (slavery).

            In my view, this can be understood through the lens of a social contract. You argue strongly that this is faulty, because conscription (or any military service) impacts on people who are not privy to the same contract. This is true, but is also somewhat beside the point I am making: I am taking it as a given that there is, unfortunately, a need for a defence against foreign aggression, and that people outside of the given social contract will be affected no matter. When taking this as a given, the question is narrowed down to how the duty of defence is organised internally by the people of the state. Duties, rights and privileges are very much a matter for the social contract.


          3. “So the only thing that follows is a general duty on the part of the state to defend peoples by some means. Whether or not this is achieved via a conscript force or a volunteer force turns on other things.”

            Here we are in exact agreement.

            As I pointed out earlier, the question is how the people of a given state view this duty. Keep in mind this discussion started with others equating conscription with slavery. My contention with that is plainly that conscription is a duty and service to the people, and is done to uphold the rights of the people (for example from foreign aggression), rather than an act of stripping away the conscripted’s rights and humanity (slavery). ”

            I think at this point I’m persuaded that equating conscription and slavery is invalid. However, Rawlsian theory would note that national and international institutions must achieve public legitimacy and support; the fact that conscription does not have this support can be analyzed as a failure of international or national institutions to meet the requirements necessary to demonstrate or ensure that military force is being used for just causes via just means.

            ——————-

            “In my view, this can be understood through the lens of a social contract. You argue strongly that this is faulty, because conscription (or any military service) impacts on people who are not privy to the same contract. This is true, but is also somewhat beside the point I am making: I am taking it as a given that there is, unfortunately, a need for a defence against foreign aggression, and that people outside of the given social contract will be affected no matter. ”

            Right but at this point you’ve gone beyond social contract theory; your justification for a duty of military service can’t rely on the (national) social contract because social contract theory fundamentally requires that affected parties be included in the contract somehow (either as states or peoples or individuals). That’s the motivation for social contract theory; it’s a hypothetical agreement between affected parties on common rules. That’s what gives it its capacity to justify political arrangements. It’s contrary to the very spirit of social contract theory to derive duties affecting people who are capable of being part of a common contract, not on the basis of a contract that includes them, but on the basis of a contract that does not.

            Further, any requirement of national defence would be modulated by the international social contract. Keep in mind that even modern liberal democracies, to the extent that they use military force for antagonistic competition in interstate anarchy, are in violation of the demands of the international social contract. Under those conditions, there simply can’t be a moral duty of military service justified on these grounds. At best, what you’d have is the claim that military service is instrumentally valuable for preserving the national social contract; it’s moral status is very much questionable given the disparity between the dictates of the international social contract and the continuing presence of interstate anarchy.

            ———————————-

            “When taking this as a given, the question is narrowed down to how the duty of defence is organised internally by the people of the state. Duties, rights and privileges are very much a matter for the social contract. ”

            Well, not exactly. Even if defence is necessary, how it’s organised can still be subject to the requirements of the international social contract. This is what Rawls is using to justify conscription ; the duty to refrain from unjustified military interventions generated by the international social contract generates a duty that individual states use conscript militaries (for the instrumental purpose of minimizing unjustified interventions).

            On the other hand, given interstate anarchy persisting, foreign military action by states are highly morally questionable (given the violations of the international social contract). In this situation, nothing in either contract can validly justify a duty of military service (technically, the national social contract would suggest it’s instrumentally valuable, but the amount of justification this can give is limited since the it’s not meant to apply to interstate relations).

            It would instead, I think, suggest that citizens be highly selective in what military endeavors they contribute to (given there’s no just international system in place to make sure these endeavors are themselves just ). This lends slightly more support to a volunteer military force for which citizens can exercise their conscience in deciding whether or not to directly contribute. I’d caveat this though; at this point it’s very hard to weigh up which option is better, especially because we’re in more non-ideal theory where states are failing to comply with the international social contract.

      2. I’ve just received a duplicate comment notification, so hopefully one of my replies to you went through (though it’s not showing up when I refresh). Apologies if there’s a bunch of replies to you repeating the same thing.

      3. In a culture where people are randomly selected to be the king’s slaves, I can easily imagine one saying that it is an honor, and he finds it distasteful to call it slavery.

        The emotions of the person involved cloud rather than clarify thought.

        1. Emotions may very well cloud perception. We are all vulnerable to biases. I know my perception is affected by living in a society in which conscription is considered a duty to the people, and because it is in service of the people, is held in a certain esteem by the people. What emotions are clouding your thoughts, since you bring it up?

          Either way, have you any argument against what I am actually saying, or just strawmen?

          I thought Vankous Eon Frostification’s objections to my post were very interesting, and made me reconsider (if not change) my view of the topic. Your reply, on the other hand, does nothing to move me: How can I be wrong if this is the best argument someone disagreeing with me has?

          1. You were the one who cited your emotions as reasons. Therefore your emotions are the subject of discussion.

        2. The metaphor is too good not to warrant a reply with another metaphor:

          What if the king calls all the landed aristocrats in the kingdom, who during peacetime, enjoy many rights and privileges guaranteed by the king … who coincidentally is chosen by the aforementioned aristocrats themselves?

          Maybe the king should allow the aristocrat to renounce their title and become a commoner, or move elsewhere.

          1. Won’t work unless the noble is a separate caste. Because otherwise it’s a claim that existence is a favor that you owe someone else.

          2. @Mary

            Nobility were (are?) usually a separate caste, either de facto or de jure. In the conscription case, I’d say it’s in exchange of the privileges afforded as part of being a citizen

          3. > For existing, in other words.

            For existing, _as a citizen_ of that particular country, which comes with privileges (usually called rights) and obligations; if the terms seem too onerous, citizenship can be renounced.

            > By that logic, the government literally owns you.

            I’d argue that modern governments litteraly own their citizen, perhaps not as strongly as ownership in the sense of chattel slavery, but still owned unless one takes the steps to sever that.

  5. No one’s mentioned Oswald Spengler so I will. To over-simplify drastically, following a biological aging metaphor he matches up chronologies, e.g. Classical 300 BC = Western AD 1800. Thus you can compare Napoleon with Alexander but not with Julius Caesar.

    I got hooked on Spengler about 25 years ago. For some time I believed Saddam Hussein was the modern Jugurtha, and that 911 would have consequences similar to the massacre of Italians in North Africa, circa 113 BC — which led, ultimately, to the demise of the Roman citizen army and the rise of Marius and Sulla. Things don’t seem to be playing out this way (though I notice there are comments here about the volunteer US force structure and about the morality of conscription).

    There is plenty to quarrel with in the detail. Spengler was a conservative, nationalistic German. He can just about be rescued from Nazi associations but it’s a close call. His view of Western culture seems too Germanocentric.

    I do though sign up to Spengler’s message that civilisations collapse to a universal
    State e.g. Roman, Ottoman, Han, Assyrians 2.0. Note, “collapse to” not “achieve” — the universal State is a sign of exhaustion. What a joke it will be if, while we obsess about the danger posed by this or that “power”, wars to come turn out to be civil wars fought between morally indistinguishable factions, cutting across all national boundaries, for control of the apex of our world.

  6. Thanks for this counter-argument against supposedly quantitative predictions in history!

    If someone proposes gaseous state physics as a paradigm for human behavior, then it is good to remember that the ideal gas equation (and even its extension to “real gases”) only describe equilibrium. When it comes to describing the behavior of a gas in movement around obstacles, there is no such easy theory. To the present day, the aerodynamics of cars or aeroplanes is measured either in real air flow channels, or estimated in supercomputers using brute force modelling, tiny element by tiny element.

    Of course, event without the benefit of detailed measurements or modelling, it is possible to judge, based on experience, that a drop-shaped car will have less drag than a cube-shaped car.

    Coming back to history: equilibrium doesn’t exist, and one can’t do experiments. Agent modelling, trying to predict what each of thousands or millions of human beings, or small groups of human beings, will do at each moment in time, works up to a certain point in computer games, but not for modelling entire countries or continents, and would in any case have little predictive power.

    Still, I think knowledge of history can provide limited, fallible understanding of what “works” and what doesn’t “work”. I also think historical experience might indeed suggest certain cycles that are more probable than not to complete their run. That is where I think Spengler and Toynbee have some value.

  7. I think this essay, as a refutation of Turchin’s project, would be a bit stronger if it presented and debated more Turchin’s ideas and less Isaac Asimov’s science fiction literary plot devices.

    If I have a permission to be a bit of crank: You tell lots of what Turchin or his fans think of comparisons to Asimov, but much less about how much substance there is into this comparison. As a person who has read Asimov and some passing familiarity with Turchin’s ideas but not with Turchin’s books (buying books is expensive and reading them time-consuming!) … after reading your blog post, I don’t actually know anything new of Turchin’s ideas or their theoretical underpinnings. Does he argue that people are like gas molecules? I hope not. Speaking as a non-biologist, even beetles in to long run face changing ecosystems and evolutionary pressures (unlike gas molecules). I don’t think physicists assume gas molecules eat each other; in ecological models such assumptions are commonplace.

    Also, some of your criticsms sound like a missing their mark. Ecologist will have hard time making a prediction where exactly one particular critter is going make its nest and will its descendants get eaten by critter-eating predator pack A or B in next year, but they probably can say something about the general dynamics of critters and critter-eating predators. Predicting whether English or French is going to be the lingua franca in the 21st century with the information available at 1158 sounds like a prediction about locations about nests of great great great (…) grand offspring of one particular critter, that ecologists to my understanding do not make either. However, it does not sound prima facia impossible to imagine a theory applicable to human communication in interconnected societies, which shows that with some parameters of trade flow and political environment and general interconnectedness, the conditions are extremely favorable to one major language getting adopted as a lingua franca, but it is not so in some other situations.

    I can’t really come to defense of any Turchin’s specific claims here, and it sounds like he is a tad too overambitious, but as a general principle, not all predictions have to be Hari Seldon-like prophet-like visions to be worthwhile predictions. Exact weather forecasts can’t be made two weeks into future, but climate models can say useful things. Grand unified theory of laws of history isn’t necessary, a narrow theory of laws of one particular phenomena could be quite cool, too.

    Stretching the analogy to other modelling enterprises, it is not altogether implausible to imagine a quantified analysis of historical situation in Eurasia that concludes there are certain probabilities for various kind of events during a certain time period (some probability for Steppe warlords like Attila, lower probability for the likes of Temujin) yet conclude a zero probability for some other kinds of events. Or possibly there is a good model for the board ramifications of political realities in Eurasia both before and after Temujin, but as an individual he presents an awkward situation where the model breaks down.

    1. Turchin extends several teories. He extends Malthus theory for the dynamics of population and adds the state as an actor in this dynamic. The state can mantain order and vigurous trade networks which allow for population increase. It can also impose very harsh taxation and corvee labour which will lead to population stagnation.
      He also extends the theory of ibn Khaldun about group solidarity and tries to explain the ability of some societies to handle crises (economic, military) or break under them. The two concepts are fused as an elite which is too large for the economic base of its society will start to fight for resources and in so doing will starve both the commoners and the state for money, grain, work, etc. This sapps the trust between commoners and elites and leaves the society open for revolution or invasion.
      Turchin explains clearly that there is little data to show that the population is overextended or that the elites are in excess. There can be only relative checkings by taking samples of some data for several intervals. He uses the height of adult male skeletons and checks if there is an increase (balanced/small population) followed by a decrease (overpopulation). Elite overproduction can be gauged fro the number and size of private palaces/ villas (small and few in peace time – small elite) and the sanity of state finances from the size of public buildings. Each data set is certainly very incomplete and untrustworthy but their collection is rather reliable. Literary evidence can then be checked against these curves.
      Turchin made only one prediction of which I know, related to an icnrease of social polarisation and elite overproduction in the US. He made it clear that troiubl;e signs will start to appear from 2020 and they will be systemic and not just ephemeral.

  8. Whatever problems might arise from a volunteer army, I don’t see how anything else would be possible today, though not because conscription is unjust or even because it is unpopular. (In fact, mandatory national service polls fairly well.) The problem is that a short service conscript army is not going to be capable of implementing the “modern system” which demands high levels of training and technical sophistication. The European boys I knew in my youth (I’m not sure how those militaries operate now) spent six months or a year drilling and playing in the woods: they would have been good as no more than home guards in an actual war.

    1. The Israeli defense forces are an extremely effectice conscript army. As a European… I feel like you are talking about the German Bundeswehr, an army whose overall combat effectiveness declined drastically after it became a volunteer force. (Seriously, the Bundeswehr is a joke). And of course, we see that volunteer troops might not have the numbers to effectively occupy large swaths of territory. I think Brett pointed that out in one of his articles. This is very relavent for the US, which has recently shown it’s inability to pacify expansive territories, like Afghanistan.

      1. Israel Defense Force conscripts serve two to three years, they don’t face peer forces, and they haven’t been particularly successful in recent years.

        1. Yup, the IDF’s record of success over the past half century or so is thin-to-nonexistent when facing any opponent more dangerous than Palestinian teenagers armed with rocks.

          Basically the only workable military strategy they have left anymore is to stand back, use their airpower and artillery to reduce civilian infrastructure to rubble, and hope the enemy is too demoralized to keep fighting (the so-called “Dahiya Doctrine,” named for the Beirut residential neighborhood that the IDF vindictively blasted to pieces after getting its clock cleaned by Hezbollah in 2006) …a relatively textbook case of the “morale bombing” strategy that, as Bret spelled out in his recent WWI posts, has never really been shown to work at all.

      2. Worth noting is that the Bundeswehr also became an all-volunteer force after the Iron Curtain fell and Western Europe decided it could take a vacation from history. The shift to a volunteer force and the current ineffectiveness of the German military are the result of the same cause–a belief that robust armed forces are unnecessary at best and downright harmful at worst.

        1. I see no reason why Germany should have armed forces in the first place. All of it’s neighbors are either trusted allies (France) and/or way to small to ever be any threat to Germany at all (Luxemburg, Austria), or need Germany as an ally, even if they do not like it very much (Poland). If Russia invades Europe without resistance on part of the United States, Germany would not be able to resist, regardless of how good the military is or not. The difference in manpower and ressources is just to substantial. Their really is no reason for Germany to need an army. In fact, there are good arguments against the Bundeswehr, like arms and ammunitions disappearing and landing in the hands of right-wing nutjobs. Or that is has been a constant drain on German ressources pretty much since it’s inception.

          This is obviously colored by the fact that I, like most Germans, do not like our military and think it’s a joke.

          1. What happens when France can’t be trusted any more? Or Poland doesn’t need you?

            One notes a weak military hastens the data of the second.

          2. The idea that Germany couldn’t resist a Russian invasion alone isn’t necessarily true. Yes, Germany’s population is smaller (83 m to 144 m) but its economy is much larger. (GDP 3.8 trillion to 1.48 trillion) If it wanted to, it could build a more formidable armed forces than Russia, if not in men under arms than in the quantity and quality of those arms. It could also develop nuclear weapons if it had a mind to; for a country with its wealth and technological sophistication, that would be almost trivially easy

            It doesn’t do these things due to a cultural aversion to militarism and the aforementioned belief that the United States would defend it in a crisis, which is almost certainly true. But that guarantee has conditions, one of which is that the Germans make some contribution to their own defense. If the Germans decided to abolish their armed forces, the US might well say, “We’re not picking up the entire tab for your national defense” and leave them in the lurch.

          3. “If Russia invades Europe without resistance on part of the United States, Germany would not be able to resist, regardless of how good the military is or not.”

            This assertion seems highly dubious, given that there have been times when Germany seems to have been capable of giving Russia quite a good fight without the assistance of the United States.

          4. This is actually simple: the United States would never defend Germany unless Germany was making an equivalent effort. The choice of “eliminate the German army and rely on the US” is not available. The only available choice are “maintain an army” and “be conquered by Russia anytime it so chooses.”

          5. Hi chickpea, great to hear from Germany where I spent some happy times in my youth. The latest data shows Germany far the largest net contributor to the European Union budget and Poland the greatest withdrawer…

            https://www.statista.com/chart/18794/net-contributors-to-eu-budget/

            WHY IS THIS? I don’t go with the ‘German guilt’ explanation. Apparently (I have this from the UK Unherd website) much of the money goes to roads. These will IMHO make Poland (as a glacis for Germany and points West) more defensible against the utterly hypothetical possibility of an inconceivable invasion vie the in-no-way-Soviet-sucessor-state Belarus.

    2. The Great Powers created the modern system in the World Wars and put it into good use with the conscript armies of that era. They then continued to use conscription alongside the modern system throughout much of the Cold War. I see little reason to think that they could not combine the two again if there was the political will to reorganize their militaries along those lines once more.

  9. The American population currently numbers 330 million. I understand a general conscription of males between the ages of 18 and 22 would produce a logistical nightmare.
    I understand that the self selection of an all volunteer force is likely to lead to a cultural disconnect, but remember elites always managed to except their own children from conscription, that was indeed one of the objections to the practice.
    Finally I don’t see how conscription can be compared to jury duty or taxation in kind. Conscription removes you from home and family, subjects you to a severe discipline and just possibly a chance of being killed.

    1. I don’t dispute any of this. My point is that compulsion by government — conscription, taxation — is different in significant ways, which have moral implications, from compulsion by private actors — slavery, theft. (That the latter sometimes require government support — slavery, clearly, but also, e.g., wage theft — does not eliminate their private character. Nor does the fact that governments can also engage in them: prison labor, civil forfeiture, or, as I learned on this very blog, Spartan helotry.)

        1. Voting, administrative law, courts? You are more likely to get redress from the government (in most liberal democracies) than from a corporation.

          1. Disagree.
            You’re not going to get redress for conscription, in effect forced labor, if it’s government policy.

  10. > increased welfare benefits were sold in the sixties as decreasing dependency and poverty. So we know they didn’t work on their own terms.

    What you claim we know is hardly undisputed. E.g. https://www.vox.com/2015/9/16/9337041/supplemental-poverty-measure

    “But if you take out government programs, you get the green line below, which doesn’t fall at all. Poverty — measured accurately — fell, and it fell entirely because of government programs”

    1. I notice you don’t argue the dependancy side. . . .

      One notes that welfare reform decreased childhood poverty and no one has to argue about the “accuracy” of that.

      1. Dependency on government is the whole point of the welfare state. Dressed up as ‘compassion’ and ‘fairness’.

        1. Ah, the same way that anti-abortion politics are all about controlling women, dressed up as “concern for the fetus”? And imprisoning blacks is the whole point of the war on drugs?

          1. No. Abortion rights are about enabling the sexual exploitation of women and saving men child support.
            If drug use is endemic in the black community that is definitely a Bad Thing. But drug legalization is really about upper class whites getting to toke up or snort with impunity.

          2. mindstalko and Roxana – let’s both remember we’re going to remain civil here. This is perhaps not the ideal place to hash out disagreements on hotbutton domestic political issues.

  11. “I’ll grant you that is a difference between History and Physics. But it is not a difference between History and Cosmology. Or Geology.”

    I’d say there are still huge differences between history and observational sciences. The sciences have much more data, that is more comprehensive of the subject matter, and less noisy — rocks and stars don’t *lie* to you, human writers often do. And the subject matters are much simpler and easier to model. You can’t re-run the Earth but you can do useful geological experiments, like measuring rock behavior under pressure or seeing how water flows over and erodes surfaces. Stars are simple enough that I think astrophysics was largely worked out by 1940; stellar conditions are so extreme that there’s not much room for surprise.

    That said, I’d say geology/planetary science is closest to history; pretty much every time we look more closely at the other bodies of our solar system, or increasingly at other systems, we get surprised. Not so much having our models challenged, I think, but discovering ever new ways that complex planetary processes can evolve.

    (Astronomy has *way* more data than planetary science — billions of stars are literally beaming their information at us, and we can do seismology on the Sun via Doppler effects — and again, a big ball of mostly hydrogen plasma that’s fusing has less room for differentiation than a ball of solid-liquid of various kinds of elements.)

    Cosmology has its own weirdness, on the one hand I remember when the estimated age of the universe abruptly went from 10-20 billion years to 13.7 billion years with better stellar parallax data, we have much better ideas of much of the universe than we do of the Greek Dark Ages, say; OTOH we can’t even observe what seems to be most of the universe, dark matter and dark energy.

    1. On the face of it, cliodynamics appears to be an attempt to discover the dynamics of human societies. History appears to be an attempt to work out what we can discover from records of the past. So if cliodynamics is akin to cosmology, history is akin, not to astronomy, but to the science of “whatever can be discovered with optical telescopes”.

      So cliodynamics is defined by its subject matter, but history by its method of study.

      Even if cliodynamics were done well, and I have no particular reason to think it is, it would have no business in a department of history. It should probably be grouped with political science, economics etc.

      But I don’t feel comfortable saying that cliodynamics must in principle be wrong because historical records are sometimes dishonest or spotty. Charles Darwin dealt with a fossil record that was sometimes misleading or spotty, and we don’t say he must have been wrong on that account. Which is not to assert that actual existing self-described cliodynamicists are not leaping speculatively forwards where wiser men would cautiously and nervously crawl.

      I find it hard to believe everything in human societies is driven by a single dynamic, akin to natural selection, plate tectonics or the Big Bang. The separate dynamics that do exist are probably already being studied by different disciplines.

  12. Nice call out on Pyrrhus’ death. Always a good story. I would add the somewhat random deaths of Thrasybulus (and Conon) more less set the table for effectively a Persian victory in the Corinthian war. Also Thrasybulus seemed to be a backer of the more inclusive democracy pre Pericles hard to say where that would have gone.

  13. On a different note, a question for Dr. Deveraux: Have you ever played A Legionary’s Life, and if yes, are you going to review the historical dimension of it like you did with AC:Valhalla and other games? I would be most interested to read a specialist on Ancient Rome’s take on it.

  14. As a machine learning person–aka applied statistics–I can heartily endorse your critique of the version of Turchin you present. (I have no reason to think he’s mischaracterized; I just mean to say I don’t independently know his work.) Also with the below I don’t mean to invalidate quantitative history–I think it’s great! It just sounds like Turchin et al are claiming far too much for it.

    We’ve been able to make pretty sophisticated predictive apparatuses over the last couple decades–but what people outside the field don’t realize is that this is due to *unfathomably enormous* amounts of data coming in. Gmail’s automation features required *being an email provider for a fifth of the planet for fifteen years* to gather enough data so that they work (to the extent that they currently do, which judging from the things auto-categorized as “Promotions” in my inbox, isn’t all that well). Same deal with machine translation–we have really good statistical models for high-resource languages, because we have *an entire Internet’s worth* of raw materials to train them on. Historical sources from anything but the very very immediate past–like, since maybe the Clinton administration–simply do not have enough data for the patterns to emerge. Or, statistically speaking, the Central Limit Theorem is A Thing, but it only holds as the number of data samples approaches infinity. (And the more correlated the variables are, the longer that process takes.) Roman census records & the weights of a couple thousand skeletons that happened to be preserved & found are not going to cut it for training predictive models.

    But even setting that aside, for statistical predictive methods to work you need to *encode* the data properly. You need to normalize it, clean it, and come up with a way to represent it so that a predictive model can actually learn from it. 90% of the work of machine learning is just massaging data. And what you get from that process is *not something human-interpretable*; it’s mathematical sausage, the data equivalent of pink slime, and you don’t learn much from inspecting it directly. You only know it works if you build successful predictive models from it. But we aren’t separate from history; we don’t even agree on what a prediction is, let alone a successful one. So there’s no good methodology here beyond horse sense and sometimes-trends.

    At the same time, I think it’s important not to overstate the Great Men version of history either. As I’ve claimed elsewhere in this blog’s comments, Newton wasn’t just being modest when he said he was standing on the shoulders of giants; he was accurately describing the process by which knowledge accretes. (There’s a reason that Newton and Leibnitz independently invented calculus at the same time; that Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filed telephone patents on the same day, etc.) Of course Temujin had unique features that can’t be taken for granted & weren’t guaranteed to occur, but it’s also very difficult to separate the individual’s contribution from the surrounding circumstances having been just exactly right. And history does seem to have thrown up lots of candidates for almost-Temujin (as Dr. Devereaux has stated above)–maybe a slight tweak in timing or circumstances would’ve made them the Harry Potter and Temujin the Neville Longbottom.

    The point that would remain is that those operations of history–even if there’s a reliable statistical process generating a Candidate Temujin every three, or thirty, or whatever years–are *statistical noise* relative to the kind of predictive model one could build from even perfect data. History is a complex and chaotic system. All predictive methods are limited by the underlying randomness of the feature being predicted and the level of precision of the prediction. The best one could realistically imagine doing is something like “There’s an 80% chance of a steppe-nomad leader creating a large empire between 800-1300 AD.” Now as any competent analyst would say–how could you falsify that? Maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t; but you don’t have a test set, you don’t know if there *was* an 80% chance and you got unlucky in the draw, or there was a 3% chance and you got really lucky, or what. At the scale where all the little variables (whether they’re due to some quintessential uniqueness in people, or merely in their highly specific circumstances) actually does come out in the wash, we are no longer interested in the kinds of predictions that can be made. I can tell you that two dice give you a 22.22% chance of rolling a natural on your come-out roll at a craps table; I can also tell you that anyone who claims to know anything with more precision than that is either actively cheating, or full of crap.

    Tl;dr — As a Professional Quantitative Person, Dr. D has hit the nail on the head with this one. Neither history nor data science works that way.

    1. I’m not sure how non-state the Iroquois were. They had a pretty sophisticated representative apparatus.
      If I were you I’d look over the anthropological literature on forest dwellers.

    2. ” The best one could realistically imagine doing is something like “There’s an 80% chance of a steppe-nomad leader creating a large empire between 800-1300 AD.” Now as any competent analyst would say–how could you falsify that? Maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t; but you don’t have a test set, you don’t know if there *was* an 80% chance and you got unlucky in the draw, or there was a 3% chance and you got really lucky, or what. ”

      I mean, in theory, the model could be cross-validated somehow instead of waiting for the progress of time to throw up novel situations, but practically given the lack of data I suppose cross validation wouldn’t lend the model much credence anyway.

      Which I suppose is part of the core argument on this; historical data is so sparse that without extensive background knowledge on the part of historians, it isn’t enough to lend all that much evidence to much.

  15. Do you know any places to start on forest nomads or forest-based non-state peoples generally, ideally in Dark Ages or Roman Europe? I’m trying to flesh out the “barbarians” in the Symbaroum RPG, and realized I know next to nothing about how forest-based nomadic societies work, outside of a tiny bit on the Iroquois confederacy. I’m leery of just basing it off Amerindian societies, because that’s become somewhat tired solution.

  16. “This assertion seems highly dubious, given that there have been times when Germany seems to have been capable of giving Russia quite a good fight without the assistance of the United States.”

    Plus Finland, a population currently 1/16th that of Germany, giving the USSR — bigger than Russia — a strong resistance.

  17. “It’s contrary to the very spirit of social contract theory to derive duties affecting people who are capable of being part of a common contract, not on the basis of a contract that includes them, but on the basis of a contract that does not.”

    You and Daniel are both using the phrase “social contract” but I’m not sure the two of you are actually talking about the same thing. You’re talking about Rawlsian social contracts, which seem (I don’t think I finished his book, and it was long ago) an attempt to derive a comprehensive system of justification, covering all people (everyone who might conceivable be able to agree to a contract.) But the idea is much older, as far back as Epicurus (“justice is an agreement not to harm or be harmed”) and more recently Hobbes. Here everything is initially ‘allowable’, in the state of nature, and the putative contract defines prohibitions, rights that you agree to recognize. Anyone not in the society is fair game. And a conscripted defense force is just as justifiable for survival as a vaccine mandate or a Dutch obligation to monitor and repair dikes; the fact that one threat is human and the others aren’t isn’t relevant until the humans try to negotiate a contract.

    I’m guessing that modern philosophers don’t like the Hobbesian model, but I’d also guess that a layman’s idea of social contracts is much more likely to be Hobbesian than Rawlsian. Hobbes got mentioned repeatedly in my (US) high school history classes, plus a famous comic strip, and a hit science fiction novel; Rawls is far more obscure in my experience, and I would guess most of my liberal friends haven’t even heard of him.

    1. I agree that there is a vast difference between a Hobbesian and a Rawlsian social contract. (Locke is the other philosopher laypeople might think of when they hear the term social contract, but I am less familiar with his work) Hobbes was focused on the social contract as an actual agreement between actual people. In it, those people surrendered certain freedoms they enjoyed in the state of nature, in exchange for which they escaped from anarchy and gained specified rights and protections. However, the contract only applied to the contracting parties. Hobbes explicitly describes international relations as being akin to the state of nature, which means that states can do as they please to one another, because there is no social contract between them and no power to enforce one. (For this reason, international law is not real law to Hobbes)

      The problem with this kind of social contract is that it’s often deeply unfair. Hobbes says that we should accept any contract better than the state of nature, which covers a lot of forms of poverty, discrimination, and general injustice. (It was undesirable to be, say, a Jew living in medieval Europe, or a serf for that matter, but was still better than the violence and insecurity of anarchy) Therefore, although his theory may describe aspects of politics well, it works poorly as a basis for justice.

      Rawls adds to this the idea of the veil of ignorance. He argues that we should make our social contracts by assuming that we know nothing of our own positions in society, which will cause us to be fair, lest we be the ones discriminated against. This extends to international relations. Since, behind the veil of ignorance, we might live in any country, we would not agree to imperialism since we could be its victims rather than its beneficiaries. This contrasts him with Hobbes, who views those in other countries as being outside the protection of the social contract and focuses on the duty of the sovereign to look after their own people.

      Conscription poses no problem for Hobbes. The state needs to defend those under its rule and for that reason is justified in imposing military service. (Although if the sovereign recklessly wastes the lives of their soldiers, this might void an obligation of obedience to them, since the point of the social contract is to protect us) For Rawls, conscription might still be justifiable, but only to defend the state, not to attack others, since aggressive wars are forbidden. He would also require that the burden of military service be distributed fairly. (No buying your way out, men and women probably have to both be eligible, a la Israel, etc)

    2. ” You and Daniel are both using the phrase “social contract” but I’m not sure the two of you are actually talking about the same thing. You’re talking about Rawlsian social contracts, which seem (I don’t think I finished his book, and it was long ago) an attempt to derive a comprehensive system of justification, covering all people (everyone who might conceivable be able to agree to a contract.) But the idea is much older, as far back as Epicurus (“justice is an agreement not to harm or be harmed”) and more recently Hobbes. Here everything is initially ‘allowable’, in the state of nature, and the putative contract defines prohibitions, rights that you agree to recognize. Anyone not in the society is fair game. And a conscripted defense force is just as justifiable for survival as a vaccine mandate or a Dutch obligation to monitor and repair dikes; the fact that one threat is human and the others aren’t isn’t relevant until the humans try to negotiate a contract. ”

      Ah right. I took Rawls as paradigmatic because from what I’ve read of contemporary philosophy, his version of social contract theory seems to be taken as one of the most successful versions of social contract theory (but also because his basic framework seems to have been much more widely accepted; I believe his work has penetrated into things like legal studies, social science and political science outside philosophy).

      I looked up the variants of social contract theories and the passage below seems to give a good overview.
      https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/contractualism/#HowDoeConDifOthSocConThe

      Your explanation of it has probably captured the underlying disagreement. Of course, ultimately, I don’t see much reason to accept the Hobbesian version of social contract theory over Rawls ( I’m not certain how the current international order is too far off from what you could expect of the model outlined in Hobbesian theory).

      ” I’m guessing that modern philosophers don’t like the Hobbesian model, but I’d also guess that a layman’s idea of social contracts is much more likely to be Hobbesian than Rawlsian. Hobbes got mentioned repeatedly in my (US) high school history classes, plus a famous comic strip, and a hit science fiction novel; Rawls is far more obscure in my experience, and I would guess most of my liberal friends haven’t even heard of him. ”

      Hmm. I’m not from the US (I’m commenting here on the more abstract and general issues being brought up) so I wouldn’t really know; I have heard that A Theory of Justice did sell unusually well, but looking at Goodreads Hobbes does seem more read than Rawls.

      Getting back to topic, I’d think that the Rawlsian version of social contract theory is one of the best possible versions of it ( for example a large survey of philosophers did , if I’m remembering right, put A Theory of Justice as one of the “best” works of 20th century philosophy by intrinsic merit, but also i’s overall framework seems much more versatile and able to better handle problems in political philosophy (leaving aside the more specific issues with Hobbesian theory)). To that extent, I’d think that in terms of one of the best iterations of social contract theory, my comments still stand to some extent.

      But then again, my view at this point is that conscription MIGHT be supported anyway by the Rawlsian social contract theory; my arguments I suppose are more criticizing the Hobbesian theories and their implications here from the perspective of the Rawlsian one when it come to method or validity, not (absolutely) rejecting the conclusion.

      1. The argument agianst the Rawlsian tehory is that largely it “cheats”, it sets up the veil of ignorance in precisely the right way to produce the results and the socail contract Rawls wants. Which isnt uncommon among political philosophers.

        I

        1. I think the response here would be that, to some extent, the initial setup of the social contract HAS to be finetuned; the use of the social contract is to tractably model interpersonal morality. Some moral content needs to go in, to get moral content out.

          Similarly, I’d think especially some versions of Hobbesian contract fail to do this and work at best as descriptive “explanations” of why people abide by norms etc. For example, since it may not use the veil of ignorance, it allows completely non-moral phenomena to influence the result. paulwenstein’s elaborated on this above.

          Further, I don’t think Rawls finetunes the original position that much; within reflective equilibrium, it would be finetuned (in the way you say) mostly with respect to our considered moral judgments (which aren’t that controversial; equal fundamental moral worth of persons, slavery is fundamentally wrong etc)

          Additionally, I think something like this would have to be done; this is because our beliefs generally, and normative beliefs in particular, form an interconnected web (like Quine’s metaphor of the web of belief).

          Reflective equilibrium seems to be an appropriate method in philosophy (where disagreements about substantive issues boil over more easily into disagreements about techniques, or affect lots of other issues.

          The idea seems well-supported by the more formal concept of Bayesian networks

          https://www2.bcs.rochester.edu/sites/robbie/JacobsKruschke_cogsci.pdf
          (page 16-18)

          https://www.reddit.com/r/askphilosophy/comments/mdkhn4/since_we_usually_cant_claim_any_philosophical/

          1. In response to your reply below (the site won’t let me reply to it directly for some reason), I understood the linked article to say that while Rawls may assume his contracting parties have some values, he doesn’t assume they have any concern for one another, only themselves. He’s trying to show that we can derive sound principles of justice from rational self-interest once we take out our biases.

            To the other point, I agree that rationality doesn’t necessarily mean expected utility maximumization. Rather, I was trying to argue that Rawls assumption of rational contractors being risk minimizing isn’t the only viable one. He chooses it because from it he can derive moral rules that he prefers to the ones that would follow from a different model of rational behavior. (Such as utility maximumization)

          2. “our considered moral judgments (which aren’t that controversial; equal fundamental moral worth of persons, slavery is fundamentally wrong etc)”

            Those aren’t controversial *now*, but many philosophers and other people throughout history have considered such issues without reaching the same judgements. So are we agreeing on any real demonstrable moral truth, or just the current moral fad, as obvious to us as the divine Great Chain of Being was obvious to medieval scholastics?

          3. @paulewenstein

            ” In response to your reply below (the site won’t let me reply to it directly for some reason), I understood the linked article to say that while Rawls may assume his contracting parties have some values, he doesn’t assume they have any concern for one another, only themselves. He’s trying to show that we can derive sound principles of justice from rational self-interest once we take out our biases. ”

            Hmm. My reading of this passage in the article is that Rawls is assuming motivations beyond just narrow self interest (just in a very formal or thin sense), or that the parties are fundamentally not pure utility maximizers to the extent that that economic rationality is or can be constrained by a basic commitment to reciprocity ( they WANT to cooperate with other on terms that the other people can reasonably accept) ;

            “Essential to being reasonable is having a sense of justice. The sense of justice is a normally effective desire to comply with duties and obligations required by justice; it includes a willingness to cooperate with others on terms that are fair and that reasonable persons can accept and endorse. Rawls sees a sense of justice as an attribute people normally have; it “would appear to be a condition for human sociability” (TJ, 495/433 rev.). He rejects the idea that people are motivated only by self-interest in all that they do; he also rejects the Hobbesian assumption that a willingness to do justice must be grounded in self-interest. It is essential to Rawls’s argument for the feasibility and stability of justice as fairness that the parties upon entering society have an effective sense of justice, and that, as members of society, they are capable of doing what justice requires of them, either for its own sake, or because the believe this is what morality requires of them. An amoralist, Rawls believes, is largely a philosophical construct; the amoralists who actually exist Rawls sees as sociopaths. ”

            ————————————————————————————-

            “To the other point, I agree that rationality doesn’t necessarily mean expected utility maximumization. Rather, I was trying to argue that Rawls assumption of rational contractors being risk minimizing isn’t the only viable one. He chooses it because from it he can derive moral rules that he prefers to the ones that would follow from a different model of rational behavior. (Such as utility maximumization) ”

            Technically, Rawls doesn’t assume the parties are risk-averse. See this passage;

            https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/original-position/#ArgMaxCriTJSec262

            In particular,

            ” It is often claimed that Rawls’s parties are “risk-averse;” otherwise they would never follow the maximin rule but would take a chance on riskier but more rewarding outcomes provided by the principle of utility. Thus, John Harsanyi contends that it is more rational under conditions of complete uncertainty always to choose according to the principle of insufficient reason and assume an equal probability of occupying any position in society. When the equiprobability assumption is made, the parties in the original position would choose the principle of average utility instead of the principles of justice (Harsanyi 1975).

            Rawls denies that the parties have a psychological disposition to risk-aversion. He argues however that it is rational to choose as if one were risk averse under the highly exceptional circumstances of the original position. His point is that, while there is nothing rational about a fixed disposition to risk aversion, it is nonetheless rational in some circumstances to choose conservatively to protect certain fundamental interests against loss or compromise. It does not make one a risk averse person, but instead normally it is entirely rational to purchase auto liability, health, home, and life insurance against accident or calamity. The original position is such a situation writ large. Even if one knew in the original position that the citizen one represents enjoys taking risks, this would still not be a reason to gamble with his or her rights, liberties and starting position in society. For if the risktaker were born into a traditional, repressive, or fundamentalist society, she might well have little opportunity for taking the kinds of risks, such as gambling, that she normally enjoys. It is rational then even for risktakers to choose conservatively in the original position and guarantee their future opportunities to gamble or otherwise take risks.

            Harsanyi and other orthodox Bayesians contend that maximin is an irrational decision rule, and provide ample examples. But examples do not suffice here; simply because maximin is under many circumstances irrational does not mean that it is never rational. No doubt maximin is an irrational strategy under most circumstances of choice uncertainty, particularly under circumstances where we will have future opportunities to recoup our potential losses and choose again. But these are not the circumstances of the original position; once the rules of justice are decided, they apply in perpetuity, and there is no opportunity to renegotiate or escape the situation. One who relies on the equiprobability assumption in choosing principles of justice in the original position is being foolishly reckless given the gravity of choice at stake. It is not being risk-averse, but rather entirely rational to refuse to gamble with one’s basic liberties, fair equal opportunities and adequate resources needed to pursue one’s most cherished ends and commitments, simply for the sake of gaining the marginally greater social powers, income and wealth that might be available to some in a society governed entirely by the principle of utility. “

          4. @mindstalko

            ” Those aren’t controversial *now*, but many philosophers and other people throughout history have considered such issues without reaching the same judgements. So are we agreeing on any real demonstrable moral truth, or just the current moral fad, as obvious to us as the divine Great Chain of Being was obvious to medieval scholastics? ”

            I think the point is that they’re the best or most reliable moral judgements we can have. Sure, we can make skeptical arguments based on past judgements, but that’s a little outside the scope here.

            Those arguments are to do with moral skepticism, whereas things like normative social contract theory are not really designed to respond to them in particular; rather they assume some reliable access to moral knowledge

            Rawls may rely on there being moral progress; again, this isn’t generally controversial and most philosophers do seem to be moral realists;

            https://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl?affil=Philosophy+faculty+or+PhD&areas0=28&areas_max=1&grain=fine

            The issue is further discussed in this article, where its review of work on the issue is that it’s not immediately a justification for skepticism or (presumably) for considered judgements.

            https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-epistemology/#SixCluProAnyPro

            In general, the kind of argument you’ve brought up has many many implications not restricted to the topic at hand. These kinds of broad skeptical arguments aren’t really brought up against social contract theory or Rawls. While it of course has implications for the current topic, discussing it in detail would require sidetracking into more abstract topics in moral epistemology.

        2. I think that’s right. The best example of this I know of is that he assumes that, behind the veil of ignorance, people would be risk averse rather than, say, maximizing expected utility. This leads to a social contract that prioritizes equality and raising the living standards of the worst-off groups rather than one that emphasizes raising the average living standard. This is what Rawls prefers but it’s not clear that’s how human beings actually think; there are a lot of areas in which we’re pretty willing to gamble in the hopes of achieving a good outcome.

          1. Note that the Original Position is at it’s core a model that’s meant to make finding out certain things easier. Unlike the Hobbesian contracts, the parties in the Original Position shouldn’t necessarily be construed as unidealized humans OR as pure economic agents.

            Note especially that the parties to the Original Position have a very very very basic sense of morality;

            https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/original-position/#DesParRatPriSocGoo

            (Note; unlike Hobbesian theory, Rawls’ parties to the original position aren’t meant to be completely amoral, just lacking any particular concrete moral conception: the link goes into this in more detail. )

            While expected utility is uncontroversial in some contexts, this is particular is one where it is controversial (which is not to say you’re ultimately wrong). It’s worth considering alternatives to the economic expected utility maximization account of rationality. While it’s standard in some contexts, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not absolute; it’s a descriptive assumption within economics that is empirically somewhat supported (but also somewhat not), and part of its justification there is its usefulness for economic theory. It doesn’t have to carry over to normative/moral philosophy;

            https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationality-normative-utility/#ObjExpUtiThe

          2. My impression is that risk aversion is closer to typical human thought than maximum expected utility. Probably both are incomplete, but focusing on MEU without considering variance seems especially so.

            Of course, humans aren’t all the same, due to circumstances or personality. Wonder how Rawls woudl play out if one assumed 10% of the entities behind the veil were risk-seekers. Or conversely, how it plays out if the entities don’t know what their risk preference would be.

          3. @mindstalko

            “My impression is that risk aversion is closer to typical human thought than maximum expected utility. Probably both are incomplete, but focusing on MEU without considering variance seems especially so.

            Of course, humans aren’t all the same, due to circumstances or personality. Wonder how Rawls woudl play out if one assumed 10% of the entities behind the veil were risk-seekers. Or conversely, how it plays out if the entities don’t know what their risk preference would be.”

            Rawls does seem to have addressed this a bit;

            https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/original-position/#ArgMaxCriTJSec262

            ” Rawls denies that the parties have a psychological disposition to risk-aversion. He argues however that it is rational to choose as if one were risk averse under the highly exceptional circumstances of the original position. His point is that, while there is nothing rational about a fixed disposition to risk aversion, it is nonetheless rational in some circumstances to choose conservatively to protect certain fundamental interests against loss or compromise. It does not make one a risk averse person, but instead normally it is entirely rational to purchase auto liability, health, home, and life insurance against accident or calamity. The original position is such a situation writ large. Even if one knew in the original position that the citizen one represents enjoys taking risks, this would still not be a reason to gamble with his or her rights, liberties and starting position in society. For if the risktaker were born into a traditional, repressive, or fundamentalist society, she might well have little opportunity for taking the kinds of risks, such as gambling, that she normally enjoys. It is rational then even for risktakers to choose conservatively in the original position and guarantee their future opportunities to gamble or otherwise take risks. “

        3. Another, related, argument is that what kind of society people might set up from behind the veil of ignorance depends heavily on what assumptions they bring in. Rawls, being a liberal, sets up a liberal society, but (say) a fundamentalist Christian who thinks that only Christians can go to Heaven would probably choose to set up a theocracy which bans the practice of other religions, because this would maximise his chances of being born a Christian rather than a Hell-bound infidel.

  18. Here’s the deal:

    No “General Law of History” may currently exist because 1) insufficient data.

    Saying that context will always outstrip sufficient data is a plainly unsupported conjecture. There are segments of society RIGHT NOW that are using advanced data science to determine the behavior of complex systems by 1) observing the available data, 2) constructing robots to teach themselves how to interpret the data without reference to context, and 3) evaluating the results of such interpretation via performance measures.

    I would argue that we are currently living through the dawn of the data age which given enough time will indeed construct a volume of data and predictive sophistication that will allow the construction of a general law of history.

    Just because you can’t do such a thing using Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Chinese, British, or American Empires in history does not mean such a thing can never be done.

    Tutankhamun might say ubiquitous personal magical screens containing every global library, theatre, and concert hall are an impossibility, but that doesn’t make him right.

    1. The problem is that in order to make “the data age” work, you need the actual data. And for the vast majority of history we dont. Not evne close. And that data is, by and large gone, never to be retrieved.

      1. I think what scottneves might be saying is that we DO have data for modern history; it’s just that we haven’t been modern for long enough to give us enough of that data for a long enough timescale yet. This will eventually change (given that we’ll be recording massive volumes of data into the future), at which point we might be able to build bigger data-driven models of history (which may ONLY apply from modern times onwards, but still does apply there).

        I don’t necessarily agree, I just think it’s worth considering whether this restricted future application of data-driven models could work.

  19. I think my deepest problem with Rawls is that the whole exercise seems largely pointless. It’s not just him, it’s the field: you’re very rarely going to ever *talk* real people into giving up power. There is no logical argument stronger than “nah, I don’t want things to change and you can’t make me”. Sometimes you *can* make them — but that’s real people acting on their real preferences, no veil of ignorance involved.

    It is worth thinking about what our ideal society would look like and why, but getting into weeds about maximin or not seems like overkill and digression.

    1. I suppose this a question of practical politics. That’s more covered by non-ideal theory, which explicitly takes into account the fact that people don’t want to give up power or do what’s moral sometimes.

      For example;
      https://philpapers.org/rec/ARVANT (freely downloadable)

      Abstract

      ” This dissertation defends a “non-ideal theory” of justice: a systematic theory of how to respond justly to injustice. Chapter 1 argues that contemporary political philosophy lacks a non-ideal theory of justice, and defends a variation of John Rawls’ famous original position – a Non-Ideal Original Position – as a method with which to construct such a theory. Chapter 1 then uses the Non-Ideal Original Position to argue for a Fundamental Principle of Non-Ideal Theory: a principle that requires injustices to be dealt with in whichever way will best satisfy the preferences of all relevant individuals, provided those individuals are all rational, adequately informed, broadly moral, and accept the correct “ideal theory” of fully just conditions. Chapter 2 then argues for the Principle of Application – an epistemic principle that represents the Fundamental Principle’s satisfaction conditions in terms of the aims of actual or hypothetical reformist groups. Chapters 3-5 then use these two principles to argue for substantive views regarding global/international justice. Chapter 3 argues that the two principles establish a higher-order human right for all other human rights to promoted and protected in accordance with the two principles of non-ideal theory. Chapter 4 argues that the two principles defeasibly require the international community to tolerate unjust societies, provided those societies respect the most basic rights of individuals. Finally, Chapter 5 argues that the two principles imply a duty of the international community to ameliorate the most severe forms of global poverty, as well as a duty to pursue “fair trade” in international economics. ”

      ————————————————————–

      Moreover, Rawls has had some concrete political impact. But it is true that his work isn’t having much influence on actual politics; that’s hardly Rawls’ fault though. Changing society’s views and practices is hard. Rawls and political philosophy have indirect contributions to this (to the extent that they try to find as rigorously as possible justifiable ideals of justice. Rawls especially in his later work, tries to find a justifiable “political consensus that tries to deal with moral disagreement and the like; http://caae.phil.cmu.edu/Cavalier/Forum/meta/background/Rawls_pl.html

      But really, this is a task for activism and public action, and while they can draw insight from Rawls (and more so from non-ideal theory, which explicitly consider the difficulties of reform and social change) , the logistics of all is a question of practical political, activism, public action etc.

      http://oro.open.ac.uk/10758/1/Rawls.pdf

      “The influence of A Theory of Justice on political ideas has been uneven. Anglo American liberal political philosophy was reshaped by it – Rawls’s book set the
      parameters for debate from the moment it was published. Prominent philosophers in
      that tradition have been fulsome in their tributes to Rawls; Thomas Scanlon of
      Harvard says that Rawls’s work ‘revived and reshaped the entire field, and its
      profound influence on the way justice is understood and argued about will last long
      into the future’. Joshua Cohen of MIT says that Rawls ‘wouldn’t have gone in for
      rankings, but his work has a place among the greatest tradition of moral and political
      philosophy that would include Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau’.7

      In the political world itself, Rawls’s influence is more uncertain, and difficult to
      detect. His brand of ‘left wing liberalism’ may have seemed radically welfarist in the
      US, but much of continental Europe, with established collectivist traditions and
      widely-accepted welfare state provision, could view his ideas as rather mainstream.
      There is little evidence of direct influence on US Supreme court decisions or on
      Democratic Party ideology or policy – especially into the Clinton era. The
      establishment of the Social Democratic Party in the early 1980s in the UK led to a
      flurry of interest in Rawls’s ideas. Former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley has
      been most prominent in discussing Rawls in mainstream UK politics, and claiming for
      him a place at the centre of Labour thinking. But A Theory of Justice has been
      translated into more than 25 languages, and it has been said to have been influential
      among some Chinese dissident groups. That should be no surprise. As Rawls argued,
      ‘The limitation of liberty is justified only when it is necessary for liberty itself’8
      ). “

  20. Stanisław Lem in his 1982 book “Observation on the Spot” (Wizja Lokalna) describes and satirizes this kind of thinking. The “Institute of Historiographical Computers” uses predictive modeling to overcome the speed of light limitation and get information about the state of the affairs on remote planets based on information obtained from previous expeditions. In the book, they send an explorer to verify the predictions.

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