Political Freedom is Really Only About Managing Recursion

Part 1: Free Speech

Almost all free-speech-advocates make the argument for free speech in a flawed way. It’s understandable; the complete case for free speech is more complex than even what I will provide in this essay. I think the right case for free speech is from a “political freedom” frame. A good, popular, short-form argument for free speech is something like, “who will you put in charge of censorship? Who do you trust to do the censoring?” I give this argument the rating of “close, but no cigar.” It either clicks with you or it doesn’t.

If it doesn’t, you might say, “I don’t understand. Isn’t this just an administrative problem? Like, is the problem not being able to find good enough staffers for the censorship board? This doesn’t seem like a problem… if the first moderators you hire don’t work out, just get better moderators! We have plenty of examples of effective moderation already…”

Definitely no cigar to that. To be obtuse, the issue is the directionality of information handling, a sort of recursion problem. So let me explain what I mean.

All decisions require information. You cannot make a non-random decision without information. In a censorship regime, one of the most critical decisions is what should and should not be censored. I believe the truth should never be censored, that we should never accept noble lies. So to make those decisions, the censors will have to figure out what is both worth censoring and false. Figuring out what’s true is not a trivial problem! In fact, it is impossible to do perfectly.

The types of people who would be drawn to join a censorship board are the types of people who like to censor, who are the worst kinds of people. The group would be captured by people who are biased, politically motivated, self-deluded, and with poorly placed intentions. Imagine if Politifact had guns and was controlled by Congress. Add to this the problem of simple human error, and the need for oversight comes into the picture. You will need incalculable resources both to oversee and to advise the censorship board. The oversight board would tell them what they can censor, and make sure they do so correctly.

Let’s call the group of people tasked with advising and overseeing the censorship board the “intelligentsia.” There are basically two approaches the intelligentsia can take: open-forum or closed-forum.

The open-forum approach is just as the name suggestions: let this oversight body be inclusive and democratically guided. But any intelligentsia this large and free-form would encounter all of the same speech and information-related problems as those of the general public, the group you are ostensibly trying to censor in the first place. You might as well outsource/expand the work of the intelligentsia to the public, which is exactly what free speech does by eliminating the censorship board from the loop.

The second approach is to keep the intelligentsia as a small, elitist, and tightly controlled group. What do you call the form of government where a small, elitist, and tightly controlled group rules over others? That’s up to you, but whatever you call it, that’s what we would have. I personally find it offensive that someone else could possibly know better than me about what I should be allowed to read. I want to make that decision myself, thank you very much.

Maybe it’s ironic to make a pro-free-speech argument from personal offense. So putting that aside, the bigger issue is that this second approach encounters all of the same problems we had with censorship board in the first place. You haven’t nullified any of the criticisms I made of that group, you simply shifted them to another body. This then becomes a problem of infinite recursion: who watches the watchers?

The solution is representative democracy, right? In some combination of the two approaches given above, democratically elected politicians watch the watchers! No, that’s not a good solution; we will find that it too runs into a “recursion” problem.

Part 2: Corrupt Recursion

A few years ago, I was debating with someone on a free-speech-related topic: universities cancelling speakers. I said that since any government-funded universities have to take a politically neutral stance, and he disagreed. My argument was that political bias in universities influences the political situation, which is what controls whether universities get funding in the first place. He replied that the actual effect of campus speakers on the political situation was slim to none, so it didn’t matter, and besides what would be so wrong with that anyway.

The theoretical problem, and what my debate opponent didn’t appreciate, is with politicians using their political power to affect information dissemination institutions to their own self-serving ends. There is a cycle: political power → making journalists/universities/media give only messages positive to you → more power. It actually doesn’t matter if it happens in small and subtle quantities, because the effects are compounding. The effect widens in each iteration of the loop.

Let me compare that to gerrymandering. By re-drawing the districts, politicians can manipulate who their voter base is comprised of. In doing so, they can influence electoral outcomes, which obviously is going to benefit the people drawing the districts, which is to say people in power. Even if people in power are good, we can expect bias, because Econ/PolySci 101 is that people respond to incentives.

With gerrymandering, therefore, there is a feedback loop: political power → redrawing district lines to manipulate election outcomes → more victories for the types of people who were in power during the original gerrymandering → repeat. In each iteration of this loop, the variable of “who gets elected” grows apart from “who the people want to get elected, on political aggregate”. It is very hard to arrest this process. The very fact that it is possible almost makes it inevitable, because politicians respond to incentives (i.e., for self-continuation).

In each of the examples above, people entrusted with political power abuse that power to get more of it for themselves in corrupt feedback loops. I will use the term “corruption” abstractly to refer to any manipulation of the democratic process, such as with gerrymandering.

Corrupt recursion

The left and right both accuse each other of manipulating elections in their own special way. Democrats claim that Republicans use voter suppression (voter ID laws, controlling ballot times and locations, restricting registration, etc). The right accuses Democrats of using immigration to change the voter-base to be more favorable to them (because immigrants tend to vote Democrat). Each side has their own set of retorts to these accusations, like “that’s not really what’s happening” or “there are good reasons to do that”, or “that’s a conspiracy”, or “that’s not intended”, etc etc.

I’m not going to try to persuade you one way or the other here. And I’m intentionally not talking about the Trump situation, because that is a whole different can of worms. My point is just that people on all sides of the political spectrum accuse the other of manipulating elections.

Part 3: Virtuous Recursion

The thing is, there is some recursion inherent to well-working democratic systems, and this was by design. If a party governs well, they will get more votes, which will allow them to continue to govern more, which will lead to more good governance. Repeat.

Virtuous recursion

In theory, setting up the system this way will reward good governance and punish bad governance. We imagine that in the case of a party that governs poorly, they will cause a bad economy or society, which will result in them losing votes. That’s exactly what you want: more time-in-power for people who govern well, and less time-in-power for people who govern poorly.

This is a Darwinist process. Indeed, one of the best things about Democracy is that (like the free market, but unlike Monarchism) it has a Darwinist feedback loop built into it: the most “fit” political parties win.

You might have already come up with some criticisms of this idea. The main issue is that, in this context, “fitness” simply means the ability to win elections. Even if elections are fair, many voters are stupid, poorly informed, or have bad judgement (in one’s opinion), and so they will not always generate the outcomes that one wants.

What’s more, the corruption I talked about in the last section is its own type of predatory “fitness”. I view corruption as a type of short-circuit, as pictured:

Virtuous recursion short-circuited

Another sufficiently distinct type of electoral “fitness” relates to media manipulation. In a Democratic system, public opinion is highly important. Who gets elected is entirely determined by public opinion. Therefore, Democracy creates a massive incentive to control and manipulate public opinion. Essentially, the incentive system of Democracy drives the funding of propaganda.

The recursive cycle morphed by media manipulation

Maybe a Monarchist system would not have this problem? I don’t know; in actuality we tend to find that autocracies in our world have much stricter speech controls than do Democracies, so empirical evidence contradicts that theory.

In summation, a well-functioning Democratic system would have more of the dynamics pictured in green, that I call “political freedom”, and less of the dynamics pictured in red, that I call “corruption” (apologies to the colorblind). It’s all recursive loops, except some are good while others are bad. Of course, “political freedom” only refers to the beneficial recursive loops in Democratic systems; it is well possible that ancient Monarchical systems had their own kinds of beneficial Darwinist loops that evade my explanation.


You might accuse this article of having Physics-Undergrad-Syndrome: someone from STEM waltzes into a social science, declares them to be confused and in need of a math guy, then touting a STEM-style description of a dynamic its researchers already knew about, as portrayed by my least favorite webcomic XKCD. I might agree that that’s happening here, but I just don’t think it’s a very bad thing. Many a great advancement in the social sciences have been made by STEM guys chauvinistically afflicted by Physics-Undergrad-Syndrome.