The Animating Values of RxC

by Aug 10, 2020

I’ve been with RadicalxChange from before it existed, at least under that name. I met Glen at a book talk for Radical Markets in the summer of 2018. I had just finished my first year at university. I asked if he needed any help with his work, and he mentioned that he was interested in planning a conference. I’ve been working with RadicalxChange ever since. These past few years have allowed me to see the growth and elaboration that this movement has undergone, and in this blog post, I wanted to explain what I see as the animating values of RxC.

RadicalxChange appeals to a wide range of people. At our conferences, I have seen hardcore libertarians getting coffee with self-professed communists and longtime anarchists sharing mini muffins with social democrats, panels featuring an imam, a buddhist monk, and a rabbi, and an audience made up of students and retirees, itinerant artists and parliament members. I could claim this wide appeal is due solely to the soundness of our proposals, but more likely, it is because our values are relatively uncontroversial. While US politics, and those of many countries, seem deeply and acrimoniously divided, there is a wider consensus among citizens than this situation would suggest. Most people, at least broadly, agree on what a better world would look like: more peaceful, inclusive, efficient, far-seeing, and just than our current one. RadicalxChange defines a more specific positive vision, but one that is broadly appealing — and it may be exactly what you are looking for.

Does this Describe You?

You are sick of everything being presented as a zero-sum game. You know that there are many proposals that create — not just redistribute — value, and that there is much room for growth and collaboration. You recognize that you are being offered false choices.

You are seeking a movement that respects the dignity of the individual, and which follows this respect through to see what it entails for both politics and economics.

You want a movement that is open. That truly includes and respects a wide range of backgrounds, disciplines, and ideas. You understand that no single group or discipline has a monopoly on truth, and you are seeking a curious and intellectually humble movement.

You are not a single identity. (“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.”) but in all seriousness, you want a movement that honors plurality– the richness of your range of values, commitments, talents, and interests.

You are sick of current politics, not only because of the frequent maliciousness or division, but the stupidity and short-sightedness. Where is the rigour behind certain claims or decisions? Where is the integration of the latest research or technologies? You are seeking a rigorous, empirical movement that makes use of the best tools available to it.

If any of these ring true, then RadicalxChange could be the home for you.

Who are We?

RadicalxChange is a vision for a better world, a movement, an annual conference, and a foundation. RadicalxChange Foundation’s President, Matt Prewitt, did a great job of summarizing the main goals of RxC in this blog post, while founder Glen Weyl offers a longer introduction to RxC’s political philosophy here. For those of you who want a shorter piece, in this blog I will lay out the values and tenets that would make RadicalxChange compelling to you.

What do We Value?

Avoiding Zero Sum Gains

The force of RadicalxChange’s ideas comes from the power of increasing returns — the idea that we can produce more through collaboration than we can separately. Often, politics assumes that any gain for one group will come at the cost of another and spends much of its time on competitive, zero-sum exchanges. While we do not deny that tradeoffs frequently exist, we think the range of occasions where political decisions are not zero sum is too often ignored. Glen Weyl writes that,

“Civilization is definitionally about increasing returns. Through organizational forms like cities and complex economies, we increase what is available for all of us to consume—whether of food, water, or other goods. We could not all live in isolated huts or villages and be just as well off as we are today absent increasing returns….The power of human cooperation to generate increasing returns should be harnessed for the general well-being of humanity.”

Many of RxC’s ideas focus on how to support better collaboration so that we can generate the immense benefits of societal cooperation. Failure to appropriately harness the power of increasing returns can lead to monopoly, underfunding of public goods, and international disasters like climate change. One toolset that we rely upon heavily, that of mechanism design, focuses on how to use incentives to motivate desirable behavior. Certain incentive structures can encourage people to take beneficial actions and can make everyone better off. The main roadblock seems to be creating, perfecting, and gaining support for these structures so that they can be widely implemented — what RxC strives to do.

Just because our proposals are not zero sum, in the sense that they do create value, they are not neutral towards all groups. We recognize that many groups — like the global poor, ethnic minorities — have less power and fewer resources. Our proposals often favor them over other groups that are more secure, and we do this for reasons of both justice and efficiency, that we will touch on more in the next section.

The phenomenon of increasing returns also has other surprising consequences: most value is collectively created, rather than individually. Consider the value of a home. Usually, most of the value is not attributable to the structure, but to the land and location. A house in Burns, Oregon — a small town in the east of the state — is one tenth the cost of a similarly sized house in Portland, the biggest city. Those other nine tenths come from the employment, educational, cultural, and social benefits arising from the gathering of people in the bigger city.

This realization of collective value informs many of RxC’s proposals. Some wonder how we can support SALSA, or Self-Assessed Licenses for Sale via Auction, our proposal that would have everyone self assess the value of their real estate, list it on a transparent marketplace, pay a tax that is a proportion of that value, and be ready to sell to another buyer at their listed price. Critics claim that this undermines peoples’ property rights — why should they have to be ready to sell it? Why should they pay more in taxes than they currently do, or pay any at all? Haven’t they earned/created the value of their homes, and shouldn’t they have a right to do with that value as they please? We say that no, the bulk of the value of their home, in most cases, arises from the collective of people living in that place — from the schools it grants their children access to, from the roads it is connected to, from the proximity to new friends and employers — and from the land itself, which no one created. This means that they do have an obligation to support the community that creates this value with their taxes. So, if they initially acquired the property with these as transparent conditions, being “forced” to sell (although it is at a self-set price) does not violate their rights. The value of land really shouldn’t sit on individuals’ private accounts in the first place; and with SALSA, it wouldn’t.

If you believe zero-sum games should be avoided, and that situations that are genuinely zero-sum are more rare than commonly thought, then RxC will be compelling.

Dignity and Egalitarianism

Dignity and egalitarianism are separate on our “values” section of the RxC website, but I am pairing them here because they are deeply interconnected.

Our belief in dignity animates our desire to ensure that each person has a degree of financial well-being sufficient to support their health, autonomy, and self-development. This requires a world where most people are wealthier than they currently are (considering that nearly 50% of the world lives on the equivalent of less than 5$ a day) [1]. We believe that our support of technology and efficient policy could help bring this about, and that through our governance mechanisms to bolster and refine democracy, these gains could be shared in a just way.

Dignity requires more egalitarianism. Wild inequalities in wealth or political power undercut the dignity of those with less by putting them in a subordinate position to their fellow citizens and other members of their community. One of our main critiques of economic inequality is that it frequently translates into political inequality. This is particularly obvious in countries that allow for unrestricted campaign donations or that see mostly wealthy candidates run for office. While we believe that our current implementation of democracy is imperfect, we fundamentally support democracy as the best way to check arbitrary concentrations of power and ensure a wide range of information makes its way into governance decisions.

One could also go further and say that economic inequality does not just create political inequality — they are actually the same thing. Those with more wealth determine what movies are made, what restaurants open, what news is written, and so much more because producers pay more attention to their potential consumers who have more economic weight. This means that those with more wealth shape what our collective life looks like, which is political, even if not in the narrowly defined sense like donating to political campaigns. Money can also “buy” different treatment from the government: for example, it can pay bail and thus get a wealthy person out of jail earlier than an impoverished person for the same crime, and can allow the wealthy to hire tax consultants that creatively rearrange their wealth in order to minimize their tax burden, while others pay the expected amount.

We also oppose inequality from a more fundamental level. If you accept that most segments of our economy display increasing returns, i.e. that the value of the whole is more than the value of the parts, then you also see that attributing value purely to individuals is foolish. Take Google. Yes, some incredibly bright engineers thought up and built an algorithm — but its value would be tiny were it not for the millions of people creating useful and interesting content on the internet every day. What could we search if it were not for the editors of Wikipedia, the bloggers, the authors of uploaded books, the altruistic question answerers of Stack Overflow, and the many memesters of Twitter? Attributing the whole value of Google to its creators then is false — they simply didn’t earn it. This exact line of thinking can be played out over many other economic interactions. Thus, inequality is often not only unjust and inefficient, it is a result of attributing value incorrectly.

In the US, one political party seems to have gained a monopoly on the term inequality, and its mention to members of other parties seems to suggest spectres of soviet communism. This seems strange and limiting, since almost everyone cares about inequality — at least certain kinds or degrees. Extreme economic inequality in particular, which is a major concern of RxC, also troubles almost all people — whether out of a belief that is immoral, threatens democracy, or creates inefficiency. We write on our info page that many of our mechanisms are “animated by a belief that hyper-concentrations of wealth are not natural or efficient, and that a more genuinely competitive market system would result in a broader distribution of wealth.” We think that most people will agree with this claim — and realize how nonpartisan it is.

Syncretism | Interconnectedness | Plurality

RadicalxChange recognizes that people are interdependent and multifaceted. A given individual cares about multiple things, and is part of multiple groups. RxC does not falsely try to simplify itself or its members (even if it would make our movement easier to explain.) We reject both an atomized view of fully independent individuals, and one that only recognizes a collective without noticing the important differences among its members.

In an interview with Tyler Cowen, Glen was asked what he viewed himself as rebelling against at a foundational level. Tyler wanted him to put it in one word. Glen at first said “many things,” clearly rejecting the premise that it could be so neatly summarized, but when pressed to specify he answered:

“I’m most deeply rebelling against the separation between the role of the expert and the role of the politically engaged person. I grew up wanting to be a politician … and also wanting to be a physicist… I’m deeply frustrated by the ways … these [are] separate and contradictory roles in our society. ” Cowen pushed Glen to boil this answer down to one phrase. Glen replied.

“Singular identity is one way of putting it. Many people who are economists think they’re an economist. Many people who think that they’re libertarian think they’re libertarian. Every identity that I’ve been part of, that I thought I believed in, ended up having so much corruption entwined in it, and ultimately, it’s the plurality and intersection of those things where I find meaning.”

To avoid the perils of singular identity, Glen encouraged listeners to “Travel in different circles. Take them all really seriously, and don’t let yourself totally compartmentalize them. Ask why there are contradictions and what it means.” [2]

This exchange embodies the values of RadicalxChange. Before the first RxC Conference, Glen wanted “syncretism” to be one of RadicalxChange’s core values — which we were about to put on some piece of conference advertising. I remember trying to axe the word, on the grounds that it sounded strange with the other choices, and that few would know what it meant, since it was a rather obscure world. My position prevailed, and syncretism stayed off. Since then, I’ve revised my position on syncretism: It’s actually a beautiful word, and one that captures RxC well, meaning “the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.” RxC deals less often with religion, but we do certainly attempt to amalgamate different disciplines, ideologies, and values. That being said, RxC does not try to render itself into some neutralized, bland, toothless version of all schools of thought; Instead, RxC clearly and fearlessly takes and integrates the best parts of a wide range of sources, without being afraid to cast out other parts and say “these are not necessary for or compatible with the best version of the future that we can build.”

While some political movements limit you to a single aspect of your identity or encourage the pursuit of a single goal, RadicalxChange does not. We think many people will resonate with the recognition that there are plural values worth pursuing, plural goals that embody these values, and plural ways to reach them. Many of you take pride in the richness and complexity of your own identity, and RxC recognizes and reflects this plurality.

Openness and Interdisciplinarity

Building upon syncretism and plurality, we want our movement to gain from the rich diversity of the world. This leads us to support interdisciplinarity and openness.

RxC includes artists, activists, policy makers, entrepreneurs, academics and more — each have different methodologies and concerns, and all contribute to the richness of our vision and the likelihood of its success. Some may wonder, what do art or music or game design have to do with issues of politics and economics? Everything. People will not work for a better world if they cannot imagine it. Take art, it helps spur creativity, which in turn helps us escape suboptimal societal arrangements. Art helps people viscerally experience the feeling of a better world, and this clarity and motivation allows them to build it. Also, many great ideas never gain the support they need because they fail to be explainable and widespread — artistic representations can bridge this gap. Like art, all the disciplines RxC indlues bring methodologies and communities that help us hone and spread our ideas.

We value openness because we can learn from many perspectives. We do not see ourselves as infallible: We know we have blindspots, and our ideas may be wrong or incomplete. This means fighting to have our staff and conferences include people from diverse backgrounds, whose different life experiences give them specific insight into the world. It also means including varying political ideologies and working assumptions. Finally, it means making room for our critics and being open to challenges and feedback.

This openness comes with requiring respectful discourse. As we write on our info page, “RxC community members treat each other as epistemic and social equals and should aim to empathize with the intellectual and personal perspectives each member of the community brings to the table.” We expect even those who disagree within our movement to treat each other with respect and dignity. And our openness does not go so far as to allow for hate speech or intimidation. We recognize that bad faith actors can sabotage permissive environments, so we preserve norms of discourse that support productive and respectful exchange.

Rigour, Iteration, Technology

RadicalxChange does not rely on ideological certainty. We acknowledge all of our concepts and proposals need empirical confirmation. We welcome test drives of our ideas, particularly on small scales where they can be quickly corrected and reversed if they go amiss. It has been exciting and validating to see Quadratic Funding tried out on Gitcoin, and Quadratic Voting tested in the Colorado State government — and these are only two out of a huge number of such implementations.

Some political movements seem trapped in past centuries. RxC wants to make use of the best new technologies available, and often participates in their development. From the beginning, RxC has had a close connection to the blockchain community because we recognized a new technology — and one whose community shares much of our vision — that could be used to implement new, experimental institutional designs. Likewise, other technological communities interest us, like human augmenting AI and privacy preserving technology. RxC wants to make use of today’s technological capabilities, not those of centuries ago when most of our social and political institutions were created.

Despite our openness to technology, RxC is not technocratic. Technocracy conjures to mind experts implementing solutions from above. We believe that technology must be informed by, and ideally created by, the people who will use it. It must be easily understandable and transparent, free of jargon. Finally, it must be democratically governed and cannot be implemented by an autocrat, insulated experts, or a managerial class.

If you seek a social movement that can effectively integrate new discoveries and technology, and encourages rigorous, empirical testing of its ideas — then RxC will appeal to you.

Conclusion

If you share these values, we encourage you to get involved with RadicalxChange. Finally, you might agree more with some than others. RadicalxChange nevers asks you to take our program wholesale. We are not an ideology. We are a group of collaborators, with a set of goals and projects. There is room to join in many capacities. You might have more interest in one area than another, you might support one project and oppose another. All of that is fine. We hope you challenge us where you disagree, and contribute where you can. All we ask is that you help us form a positive vision. In the words of our quasi-slogan, “It’s not radical to critique our current society. It’s radical to build a better one.” We have enough critics. We need more builders.

[0] This blog post is inspired by and takes portions from Avital Balwit’s grant write up for The Institute for Practical Ethics & Public Life.

[1] 5$ a day fact: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/10/17/nearly-half-the-world-lives-on-less-than-550-a-day

[2] Tyler Cowen’s interview of Glen: https://conversationswithtyler.com/episodes/glen-weyl/