Kalish Versus RadicalXChange

I feel like I’m a strong candidate for the RadicalXChange community (interest in the specific ideas mentioned in it, a love for certain democratic and liberal ideals but a concern that the current versions of them are stagnating, general uncertainty about specific solutions but interest in innovation). Despite this, I feel like I have never really drifted closer to the RadicalXChange community. Given my frequent interaction with relevant ideas, I have recently been thinking about why this is, and introspection on this issue left me…uncomfortable. On reflection, I realized that my experience with the RadicalXChange community actually gave me some pretty serious critiques I could bring up. I haven’t seen any strong, specific critiques of RadicalXChange before, and even if my take isn’t great, and is sort of an outsider’s view (if an outsider with a strong interest in relevant ideas), there still might be a good deal of marginal benefit from making it.

The closest I probably came to being part of the RadicalXChange community in a concrete way was time I spent participating in one of its chapters. I have fallen out of touch with the club members and don’t want to get too specific about anything without express permission from those involved, but I do think my experiences there were relevant. Essentially the RadicalXChange chapter spent each meeting talking about a preselected topic either chosen from “Radical Markets”, or from the RadicalXChange website. There is nothing wrong with this, but it felt more like a sort of Weyl-and-friends fan club than either a community with a large range of common reference points to discuss related to RadicalXChange, or a space for dynamic, original ideas.

This is not a repudiation; I enjoyed the club and liked its members. I presented on Quadratic Finance (QF) when my turn to contribute came around. I also don’t know how much the different RadicalXChange chapters might vary. The official website has a moderately-sized list of impressively international chapters. That said I expect many of them look similar to the one I went to.

Let’s also take a look at the grass-roots community presence of RadicalXChange online. I am not aware of any independent RadicalXChange forums, and the only blog I’m aware of that would comfortably fit the descriptor of “RadicalXChange blog” is the official RadicalXChange one. I think the online interaction of dedicated community members is hard to measure, but maybe looking at Reddit is the closest I can come. When I wrote a post a little while ago with an idea relevant to RadicalXChange ideas, I considered getting feedback from the subreddit. But then I visited /r/radicalxchange, and it was essentially inactive. Eleven posts since its formation two years ago, only one comment on a post. Ok, maybe the RadicalXChange community started out on the “Radical Markets” subreddit and never managed to fully emigrate? I checked /r/radicalmarkets, only two posts ever, no comments. This is not proof of anything, but it’s unsettling. Hell, the Georgist meme subreddit /r/georgedidnothingwrong produces more than twice as many posts every month as the main /r/radicalxchange subreddit has ever produced, and has nearly 200 times as many members.

Ok, what might be going wrong here? As I previously mentioned, I recently tried my hand at an idea that felt interesting and exciting to me in the same ways as RadicalXChange ideas, and I remember mostly feeling something like imposter’s syndrome at suggesting it, because I couldn’t tell what sorts of aspects of it would make it feel like authentic RadicalXChange to others, or even if it might be received as harshly as the automation idea. Indeed, like the chapter meetings I attended, none of the eleven earlier posts on the subreddit seemed to propose original ideas. Most didn’t mention any ideas from outside the front page of the main website. When I think about the types of ideas that excite or interest me for similar reasons to the sort of official RadicalXChange™ ideas, they mostly feel unwelcome or tangential to how RadicalXChange officially presents itself. There are some statements of the political philosophy uniting RadicalXChange which are credible, but the types of people interested seem united more basically by a dislike of: conventional socialism, conventional capitalism, and authoritarianism. In essence I believe we are best described as liberal democrats looking beyond the “end of history”.

The closest I feel to uniting my interests in the different RadicalXChange ideas I like, is in a similar type of feeling of hope and excitement that each gives me for politics. I believe there are many ideas that have a similar convergence of elements, which, insofar as RadicalXChange is an ongoing conversation rather than a single platform, belong to the conversation. LVT, alternate voting methods (besides quadratic voting, or “QV”), Futarchy, Andrew Yang, blockchain. All of these appear to have a presence in RadicalXChange discussions, but none of them have the centrality and position in the discussion of things like the Radical Markets ideas or the other ideas on the official website.

If this is because not everyone in RadicalXChange is interested in them, this is a standard I think many of the more central RadicalXChange ideas would also fail at. I am pretty critical in some way about some RadicalXChange ideas, and pretty uninterested altogether in others (like the immigration chapter of “Radical Markets”, though judging from its absence from the website, that one might have fallen out). Is it because the ideas generally came before “RadicalXChange”? Almost every similar movement I am aware of has central ideas that significantly preceded the movement. Bayes Rule is way older than Rationalism, Utilitarianism is way older than Effective Altruism. This point isn’t even all that credible when applied to the central RadicalXChange ideas themselves, “data dignity” for example, but also I believe some version of intersectional identity and COST, preceded “Radical Markets” and Weyl’s work.

Another example is the idea of an automated, post-work economy. Weyl is against this. Weyl is VERY against this. I am not. In fact, I am excited about it in very similar ways to how I am excited about RadicalXChange ideas, and I can’t resist going on a small tangent on it. Other people interested in RadicalXChange I have talked to are also often interested in this idea. Hell, the Sam Altman piece Weyl links to reads to me very much like a RadicalXChange piece in terms of its influences, rhetoric, concepts, and presentation. By contrast Weyl’s own ideas about AI, as given in this piece, are largely unsatisfying to me. To me, the problem is just work. Not a capitalist or socialist conception of labor justice, but the raw idea of human work – defined as the condition in which people must use their time to produce on average what they consume on average, and the consequence that people must be economically coerced into making this match. If not coerced with the outright threat of death by economic neglect, at least by conditions unpleasant enough that a world in which people would be full time artists for free, a million times more often than they would be cashiers, can produce a million times more cashiers than full time artists. Or frankly, a world in which people are forced to do anything in particular to receive a decent quality of life.

Furthermore it seems possible to overcome this only through automation, not necessarily fully, but enough that the remaining jobs we will always want humans doing (like politician and teacher perhaps) will always have enough eager volunteers. Even those jobs we won’t want to automate but which might not get enough volunteers we could try to tie to jobs that would, for instance make a term of service as a lawyer a requirement for service in politics. This does not suggest a governance structure, Altman’s plan is not without flaws, and neither is anything else so far proposed, but I believe there is a strong presumption in favor of thinking through possible ways to make this work.

Weyl’s ultimate long-term vision on the other hand seems to be at best a higher tech version of business as usual, and at worst a nightmare in which most people make the money they need to survive by providing steady streams of data to AI owners (but are nonetheless conceivably replaceable in any other job). And god forbid the owners of the AI decide they are satisfied with the data they have, with the material quality of life their machines can give them without squeezing advertising money through ML as well for instance. If this seems too snippy or one-sided to be a strong counter, please refer to the closest thing to an argument against an automated economy that can be found in Weyl’s own article:

“AI is best understood as a political and social ideology rather than as a basket of algorithms. The core of the ideology is that a suite of technologies, designed by a small technical elite, can and should become autonomous from and eventually replace, rather than complement, not just individual humans but much of humanity. Given that any such replacement is a mirage, this ideology has strong resonances with other historical ideologies, such as technocracy and central-planning-based forms of socialism, which viewed as desirable or inevitable the replacement of most human judgement/agency with systems created by a small technical elite. It is thus not all that surprising that the Chinese Communist Party would find AI to be a welcome technological formulation of its own ideology.”

There are also better counter arguments out there, Weyl for instance has linked to this piece which argues at more length but leaves me unpersuaded 1. This piece goes over some of the best arguments both for and against a position like mine (while coming to a different conclusion I don’t endorse), and I would recommend it as the best thing to read on this debate that I am aware of.

This is not a lengthy defense of my position (I may write something more dedicated at some point), nor an outright dismissal of Weyl’s – at the very least I agree that people being paid for their data is usually a good idea. It is a statement that it seems to me that disagreement over governance/economics in the face of AI runs deep, even given similar visions. Weyl’s views belong to the conversation of RadicalXChange, but I think so does the alternative I prefer. I also think there is some on-the-ground interest within RadicalXChange in this from my conversations. Weyl is of course free to have his own vision, but I get the strong impression that this being his favored interpretation of RadicalXChange values is ultimately what makes it viewed as the valid RadicalXChange position on this question.

Looking at the different included and excluded RadicalXChangeish ideas, it seems hard for me to find a uniting ideological theme that couldn’t be challenged. I think Georgism and alternate voting methods offer some hint of the issue. Their exclusion corresponds to the inclusion of ideas that serve a similar purpose. One possibility is that COST and QV are simply so clearly more advanced than these other ideas that they render their predecessors obsolete in the conversation. I don’t find this credible. There are modern Georgists and modern advocates of approval voting who are aware of these alternatives and still advocate the earlier ideas. I can see possible reasons, in particular each has some advantage over an obviously worrying aspect of the corresponding RadicalXChange idea. QV is much more complex to operate than approval voting, and Georgist taxes allow people who care enough about some property to indefinitely hang on to it. Nor do I find it credible that the difference is in fundamental political values. These are conversations about novel and difficult political ideas, disagreement is bound to be rife.

So what lies at the heart of the exclusion of Georgism and approval voting from RadicalXChange? I believe it is at least in part because one cannot (easily) advocate both these earlier ideas and the novel RadicalXChange mechanisms. It is inconsistent to profess a belief in all of these things. In this way one might view RadicalXChange as a platform meant for some shadow third party. To be “RadicalXChange” is like being a “Democrat”. You are associated with a particular slate of ideas as part of a larger coalition. You are likely to believe many at once, and the degree to which you stray from the stated platform is the degree to which you are not as much of a Democrat. If this is all RadicalXChange is, it doesn’t seem too unusual, or incredibly appealing to me.

That said, there is a crucial difference. RadicalXChange is not currently a comprehensive platform, but a developing, expanding one. The seed was Radical Markets, then ideas like QF and digital democracy a la Audrey Tang got added, and at some point the idea of intersectional identities got mixed in. I don’t feel like what is involved in getting something recognized and added to the platform is to have community discussions and have an organic favorite emerge. My impression is that, at all steps, everything in the platform was either an idea of Glen Weyl’s, or was approved of and promoted by Glen Weyl. This may sound extreme, but I can think of no exceptions. To summarize this perspective, RadicalXChange is currently not a political conversion driven by a set of abstract ideals and community inquiry. It is an unfinished political platform determined by Glen Weyl and the circle of people he has curated around him, and an attached fanclub waiting to see what’s added next. It is possible this is part of what can drive low community engagement.

Beyond the groups mentioned, the chapters and the subreddit, there’s an official conference, and there’s an official website. The figures more directly influential on and associated with RadicalXChange in public seem to mostly be a group of public figures with social/intellectual ties to Glen Weyl. They are visible and demographically/intellectually diverse activists, politicians, academics, and entrepreneurs. Very interesting people, if you just looked at them the movement would appear quite healthy and growing. But again, it seems RadicalXChange disproportionately belongs to this network of public figures, and it is healthy among them because they are the ones with the chance to move what RadicalXChange, on an object level, means. They have often been influential, for instance through legislatures experimenting with QV, or Audrey Tang’s work in general, but they seem to fit the commonsense definitions of “technocrats” much better than the Rationalist community at large, in my opinion.

I was kind of hesitant to write any of this for a few reasons, which I think should limit how it is received. For one, my involvement in the RadicalXChange community hasn’t been tremendous so far, and although I think that a good deal of the reason is related to the criticisms of the movement that I have just made, it is still limiting on how good of a picture I can actually give of the movement and its relative flaws. I suspect that there is a good deal in this piece that is wrong or skewed in perspective which people more involved with RadicalXChange could make note of, but the things that I specifically talk about are true of my experience, and I suspect some more moderate version of this critique is true and important.

Another reason I was hesitant to write this is that it follows my article on Weyl’s criticisms of the Rationalists. It might come off as a sort of revenge piece against Weyl, which I don’t want. To be clear, I focus a good deal on Weyl’s central importance to defining RadicalXChange, but he doesn’t want this, and he is aware of the issue – during the one community zoom meeting I attended, he asked several times for focus to not center too much on him. I also showed an earlier draft of this piece to him, and despite disagreeing with parts of it, he said he agreed with me about many of the problems, and confirmed that the community zoom meetings regularly touch on them. More recently, he also posted about these problems in public. Whatever disproportionate influence he has over the shape of RadicalXChange is unintentional, even counterintentional.

Still, I think there is some possible relevance to Weyl’s criticisms here, namely I feel that Weyl often applies an unusually harsh standard when evaluating the Rationalists, and I think many many movements would fail this standard if he applied it more broadly. It is therefore strange that I have only more rarely seen Weyl make criticisms of his own favored community along similar lines (or, at least, he seems much more interested in criticisms of Rationalists). That said, I think this is a weak contribution to the debate over Weyl’s critiques of Rationalists. Everything Weyl criticizes about Rationalists could be even more true of RadicalXChange, and without reference to what an average movement looks like it will change very little about how Rationalists should react to the criticisms.

Another reason I was hesitant to write this is that, even as a pure critique of RadicalXChange, I’m not sure how relevant these problems are. If RadicalXChange is mostly just a circle of public intellectuals in a set of interesting conversations, this isn’t too new or too sinister. There is a long history of groups like this that generally aren’t thought of as undemocratic threats and who continue to be influential. The Frankfurt School, the Vienna Circle, the Philosophical Radicals 2, the Oxford Group, the Kyoto School. If RadicalXChange is just one of these groups in denial, I’m not too bothered. Even the types of disproportionate influence RadicalXChange has had don’t seem too dangerous, it’s not like they lobbied governments to adopt their favored visions, at most they just influenced freely elected representatives with well-argued ideas.

That said I think there could be a good deal of value in something RadicalXChangey that operated more like a grass-roots community. I think the movement would have to change in some ways to really get there (though again I could be wrong), but I would be happy to see something like it form. Maybe active promotion of some online forum would help change some of the dynamics. A dedicated student conference might help as well. Even an emphasis on debate between different possible policies on the website, as opposed to the endorsement of particular favored winners. I would also like to see a community survey, if not for the direct enhancement of the community, at least to make the jobs of critics like me easier.

Another possibility is that RadicalXChange will eventually sort of fizzle out and disperse into other communities. Honestly, I don’t think this would be the end of the world either. I’m not really sure what being more of a part of the RadicalXChange community would look like for me at this point, but I do know what being interested in QV and COST and QF looks like.

A final thing I want to say that limits the scope of this critique: RadicalXChange is young. If it is currently awkward and top-heavy as a movement, maybe these are just growing pains. RadicalXChange could be fizzling or it could be simmering. The movements Weyl has criticized are usually much older. Maybe they looked a lot like this when they were new, I wasn’t there. Regardless of what happens, I hope that RadicalXChange has a positive impact, and either dies gracefully with some enduring ideas, or persists and grows past its current stage.

  1. As far as I can tell there are two main arguments in this piece against automation as a goal (as opposed to as a possibility). One is that claiming that full automation is possible will make people feel useless and replaceable. This seems to me a much darker assumption than is depicted, essentially it is saying that people find meaning only by being used, they are not comforted by any sense of intrinsic value, but only given a sense of instrumental value, so much so that it is worth economically coercing people to provide instrumental value. I don’t think this intuitive revulsion is reserved to a Utilitarian perspective either; isn’t Utilitarianism’s most famous competitor’s most famous slogan that “people are ends, never mere means”? Furthermore the logic doesn’t make sense to me. The reasons humans would feel useless is not even that they can’t do something, but that something else can do it instead? Would we be faced with crushing existential crises to learn that an alien species existed able to do every job a human could? For that matter, shouldn’t we be individually crushed by the knowledge that if individually we in particular got huge checks from the government without working, we could live out our lives without being much missed by the economy? By the fact that other humans can replace us? We could presumably still use our same skills to do the same things in an automated world if we wanted. The only change would be we wouldn’t have to do so to ensure our quality of life, because others could live good quality lives without us doing it.

    Another argument is that “data dignity” isn’t fully compatible with full automation. This argument is interesting, and changed my mind somewhat, but mostly against data dignity. The point is made that in order to keep up with language, AI will need to be trained on ever-changing data sets, and so economic value is provided by them listening in on human conversations for training. This is perfectly true, but no different from the human case. The people able to train the language models, or to do the jobs instead, have the updated version of language through interactions they have with other people, training on their data. Does this mean we should pay each other for our conversations because otherwise we are training someone on an economically useful skill for free? Ultimately I still like data dignity in many cases, but these examples have persuaded me that it is possible to take it too far without noticing. It smoothly transitions from common sense into absurdity in the same way IP laws do. ↩︎

  2. Actually, RadicalXChange may have a decent amount in common with the Philosophical Radicals. It is a group of intellectuals interested in promoting positive, rigorous visions of liberal democracy, attempting, sometimes with some success, to extend this influence internationally, led in a somewhat problematically centralized way by one charismatic socially conscious political economist, with tendencies towards being something like a political party. If this is all RadicalXChange is, that’s still pretty damn cool, I love and am fascinated by the Philosophical Radicals. ↩︎