Monday, October 31, 2011

Why are so many engineers anarcho-capitalists?

I supposed I'm supposed to be talking about Herman Cain's sexual harassment problem right now, but c'mon. Everybody knows that white women throw themselves at black men 'cause they're curious to see whether black men's, err, instrument, is as big as reputed, and if the black man doesn't reciprocate then they file these bogus sexual harassment charges in retaliation, right? (Note: Sarcasm intended).

So anyhow, back to something more interesting to me. Anarcho-capitalism makes no rational sense if you know anything about human psychology and human history. Anarcho-capitalism is extremely inefficient -- for example, anarcho-capitalism requires that all roads be turned into toll roads, but collecting tolls is far more expensive than simply collecting taxes at the gas pump -- and does not deal with the freeloader problem of externalities. That is, if I pay a security company to catch the burglar who burglarized my house, and pay them to put this burglar in jail, I'm not the only person benefiting. Every other person that this burglar would have burglarized in the future is also benefiting. Unless they're paying part of the cost of catching and imprisoning him, they're free-loading off of me. Anarcho-capitalism has no solution to that free-loading problem, whereas democracy does -- in democracy, everybody who benefits pays (which is pretty much everybody to some extent, since a burglar in jail is no longer a threat to your own home and thus putting him in jail at least provides a mental benefit to you). I.e., *taxes* are the solution democracy has to the free-loader problem.

So, why do so many engineers, who are supposedly logical thinkers, fall prey to supporting anarcho-capitalism ("libertarianism")? In my opinion it's because they fall prey to the fact that the society that engineers live in, by and large, is a very circumscribed one filled only with like-minded people who behave in a way that ordinary people simply don't behave, and they then extrapolate from that to believe that society at large behaves that same way.

First things first. Engineers are a very special people. First of all, by and large engineering operates on anarchist principles. That is, engineering teams operate via consensus and engineers who are not capable of operating in that environment don't last, they leave or get fired. So engineers soon fall into the trap of believing that *everything* can operate via consensus that way. After all, if designing a huge software system can operate via consensus, why not society as a whole?

Secondly, there are very few Wallys out there -- Wally being the free-loading engineer from Dilbert. Engineers who don't enjoy their work don't last. They move into sales or marketing, or they move into management, or they end up in customer support somewhere, or they end up delivering pizzas or working as a "sandwich artist", but they don't stay in engineering. So the average engineer has very little experience with freeloaders in the workplace, the only society he really knows.

Finally, engineers generally are not... how should I put this? Engineers are typically not social creatures. They don't have many hobbies outside of the workplace, they don't socialize with non-engineers very often.

The end result is that engineers operate in a bubble, a bubble filled with like-minded people all of whom are devoted to creating good product, a bubble that has no freeloaders and where everybody is able to reach consensus on major issues and where everybody operates in good faith. And in this bubble anarcho-capitalism would work just fine, because there would be no freeloaders and everybody would agree on the final solution to the problems faced by the society and there would be nobody gaming the system for their own benefit at the expense of everybody else.

The problem is that real society -- the society outside the bubble -- just doesn't work like that. In real society, there are people who will never agree on anything. There are people who will game the system for their own benefit. There are violent people who will use violence to get their way. There are externalities that almost guarantee freeloaders unless you have taxes, which anarcho-capitalists declare is "slavery" and thus evil, thus meaning that society collapses under the weight of the freeloader problem. Anarcho-capitalism ("libertarianism") simply doesn't work when faced with actual reality, which is why there are no examples of anarcho-capitalism on the face of this planet right now (unless you count the warlordism of Somalia as anarcho-capitalism, which I don't). Anarcho-capitalism in the face of reality simply doesn't work. End of story.

Yet engineers insist upon believing that it does work, because it does, in the little bubble universe of their engineering departments... and so it goes, when people observe a small bit of human behavior then think that applies to all humans, everywhere, the end result is generally stupid. Like anarcho-capitalism.

-- Badtux the Democracy Penguin


  1. Back when I used to stop by the neighborhood pub on the way home from work, a fair number of the other regulars were engineers. Best I could tell, they were always entirely clueless and haughtily dismissive of information from anthropology or even zoology. Your theory explains that. Interesting.

    Also, if you haven't done it already, please go google 'penguins in sweaters'

  2. Interesting thoughts - remember Technocracy, another Utopian scheme dreamed up by engineers?

  3. You nailed it, way up top: "Anarcho-capitalism makes no rational sense if you know anything about human psychology and human history."

    Neither is required for a P.E., and most engineers I know haven't studied much outside their area.

  4. I don't disagree, though I do feel a bit of a need to quibble at the margins.

    A great deal of the appeal of Libertarianism is that is really is logical. Alas, though, it's the underlying assumptions that differ from reality. As you computer guys used to say, "Garbage in, garbage out." No matter how pure the logic.

    You stereotype eng. personalities. I worked with M.E.'s and Chem E's for decades. There is a sizable segment that are as you described, but a good many are far more normal.

    Part of the problem is a lack of critical thinking skills. I see this from right wingers all the time. They see something on Fox, or some blog, or the infamous anonymous Nancy Pelosi email smear from a couple years back and NEVER QUESTION IT! Even the engineers. I had lunch with my former boss last week. He's a smart guy, less socially inept than the avg engineer, and a good-hearted person. Yet he likes Cain's 9-9-9 plan, thinks Obama caused the deficit, and is pissed at the 99ers. I plyed him with facts for the greatest part of an hour, and nothing got through.

    And the ones who end up in marketing and customer service are no better.

    On second thought, maybe I just felt the need to vent.


  5. BT: Could I get your permission to use this post on a couple of lists I use? I will credit you and include a link to the original post.

  6. Ummmm. Seems to me that the way you describe the world of engineers could be called "democracy." I guess I just never thought of "anarcho-capitalism" as the thing that you describe.

    I don't believe that democracy and capitalism are incompatible, but I don't necessarily equate them in my mind.


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