Monday DeLong Smackdown Watch: Still Looking for a High Quality DeLong Smackdown Over the Past Month (or Earlier) Kevin Hassett Edition

Must-Read: Smart meditations by the extremely sharp Danny Quah. I find myself wishing that he would engage with Habermas on the "public sphere" here, somehow...

Danny Quah: When Open Societies Fail: "Why is Wikipedia mostly OK, but so many comments at the end of newspaper articles make you weep for humanity’s future – when both are open for everyone to write?...

...Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia spoke at Khazanah Megatrends Forum in Kuala Lumpur. He reflected on, among other things, Wikipedia’s openness of knowledge production, its usefulness to many, and its sustainability. About 18 months before then, Microsoft had shut down a failed experiment on openness and Artificial Intelligence: Tay, the online Twitterbot AI-enabled to learn from its interaction with users. In the event, Internet trolls ended up keying in so much venom-driven input that Tay came to spew hate, racism, and misogyny. These three story arcs — Wikipedia, Tay, online newspaper commentary — reflect generally on the workings of open societies.

Many observers find appealing the hypothesis that open, individual-oriented, bottom-up societies achieve outcomes that, even if not point-wise optimal, are dynamically robust and resilient. Since at least Popper and Friedman, this idea has been a plank of Western economic and political analysis. This hypothesis often informs prediction of eventual failure in varieties of Asian economic performance, from Singapore’s to China’s. Open societies might suffer shocks — financial crisis, Trump, Brexit — but they learn from mistakes and get back on track quickly. In contrast, authoritarian controlled systems are unsustainable and fragile — even if they might achieve in the short to medium term Disneyland-like success and economic performance....

Openness and individual empowerment are in themselves desirable and deserving of aspiration. The question here concerns not their intrinsic appeal; it is instead about their implications for systemic outcomes. Do all open systems, in fact, show robustness and resilience?...

For Wikipedia, the user community grew empowered as an emergent, self-organised, self-recognised entity. The word “emergent”... suggest[s]... the outturn can only be described at the level of the system.... By contrast, for online newspapers and Tay, no emergence occurred: The community instead remained a ragtag group of fiercely independent separate individuals; further, the system itself continued to reflect accurately the actions and aims of the... representative agent. No positive externalities were generated.... Levels of hierarchy are not inconsistent with open systems, despite the emotional appeal of naive flat one-person, one-vote representation.... Near-invisible editors do not need to be world-leading experts on the subject in question — indeed, they cannot be — but instead are just reliable repositories of style and sense.... For Wikipedia, that background authority elicited a voluntary social responsibility in the system’s participants. The successful outcome came with a surfacing of a duties-oriented thinking....

The failed outcomes produced no such social identity: if anything, individual participants remained firmly embedded in an individual rights-centric approach to engagement. Under a rights-centric system, participants should be allowed to do or say anything they want. They can say uplifting, constructive, informative things; or they can be destructive. Here, that freedom to choose produced chaos and disorder....

Just as traditional views about individual rationality are challenged by behavioral economics, so too long-held thinking needs to be re-examined regarding the success of open societies.... Societies might need to trade off between individual freedoms and social well-being. Some observers find that uncomfortable. But then dealing sensibly with tradeoffs is what economics is all about.

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