The World According to Glen Weyl

Glen Weyl is one of the more interesting thinkers I’ve encountered. His ideas are so futuristic they’re hard to tie to any political camp—He ends up arguing for, among other things, a rethinking both the corporation and the nation state.

Here’s me summarizing and making sense of some of his ideas.

One of his main critiques of modern economics is that it doesn’t take into account increasing returns — the idea that a collection of people can achieve more than the sum of what they could achieve individually. Modern economics is built off the premise that each person makes decisions as an individual, uninfluenced by the outside world, which isn’t how it works in real life. Our intellectual foundations for private property are built off of the idea of an atomistic individual.

In rejecting modern economics, Weyl claims we're massively social overdetermined. He says modern economics operates under ALONE — Atomistic Liberalism & Objectivist Naïve Epistemology — the idea being that economics is binary between individuals, conceptualized as largely pre-social, and is based in the belief of objective truth governed by a globally coordinated entity.

So why is this wrong? We need to back up a bit to explain.

If you have the same exact circle as someone else, you’re not as much of an “individual” — there’s no uniqueness in the relationship graph. 

The paradox is that we gain our individuality from our relationships to others — that’s what makes us unique.  

Each person on earth is represented by the intersection of the groups of which they are members. Think about the way you describe yourself to others — you're the girlfriend of X, the son of X, or an employee of X. It's usually an assemblage of the groups of which you're a part.

To be sure, this also goes in reverse: just as individuals are represented by the collectives of which they're a part, groups are also collective representations of individuals.

In pre-modernity, all the social circles you're a part of — your work circle, your family circle, your friend circle — overlap heavily.

In modernity our circles start to separate. So maybe you only have two people in both your work and home circles. You end up becoming the unique intersection of all these social groups that give you meaning. 

So you can then think of yourself as having a mimetic code made up of precisely these quantitative measures of your commitment to these different communities. And what makes you unique is the fact that that mimetic code is not the same as anyone else's mimetic code. 

So if we think of individuals as the unique social relationships they comprise, we only get to individual humans in the modern era. And the way we get to individual humans is not by removing social structure, but by adding more.

As we start to see, what actually creates the potential of being an individual is the plurality of human organizations. 

What's wrong about the libertarian view is that it fails to realize that it's the combination of private property or extreme individualism with the fact that we live in a society that's fundamentally social that creates the conditions that the libertarians are objecting to. 

So anything that tries to strip away community and reveal the true individual is fundamentally confused.

On the contrary, it's by creating a diverse range of communities — and fluid overlapping emergent identities — that we actually enable people to be individuals in the first place. 

Modern economics tries to do this, but it can’t seem to get it right.

We consume things as a family. Most of the things that make it nice to be in San Francisco, for example, are not features of my individual home, but features of the ambient environment around there that make it desirable to live there.

This is because the production and consumption of most value, and the origin and standards of ideas/beliefs/truth, are fundamentally social, but not universal. We can't attribute private good wants back to the individual linearly.

Once you understand this, the whole edifice behind utilitarian economics based justifications of market capitalism goes away, and you start realizing the enormous complexity of the system we're actually dealing with.

Markets that treat interactions between similar & different people symmetrically are problematic because they don't overcome the fundamental problem of personal differences and the conflict that results from it.

Consider auctions as an example, which treat people as equal.

Imagine an auction for a piece of art with four bidders:

  • Two people who work in the same office building

  • Their city's art museum

  • An indigenous representative from the place the art was allegedly stolen from

To treat these four entities as the same doesn't make sense: If I'm one of the people in the office building, the person down the hall winning the auction is nearly as good as me winning, given our proximity — I could go into their office and look at the art if I wanted to. The art museum is a close second because it's in the same city, but it’s still not as good. And the indigenous participant winning isn’t worth anything to me, because they're in another country.

If the auction doesn’t treat the social relations between people in ways that are meaningful, it’s missing what’s actually happening in its design.

Money and individual identity as markers don’t have sufficient content to design for most of the problems we care about.

Taking this into account, Weyl says the fundamental problem of economics is not "how do you reconcile the individual self interest with the common good," but instead, "how do we have cooperation under conditions of diversity?"

The problem permeates politics too. Backing up: The standard view of political economy is built on two tokens: an identity token for individual identity and an anonymous value token for money. There also exists an "N" dimension vector relating the two. 

According to Weyl, this view leaves out the N by N relationship that connects everyone to the rest of their network. As a result, it doesn't take into account, or accurately represent, social relationships between people, making this standard view of political economics inherently flawed.

We see now that the problem with states and the problem with corporations are two sides of same coin:

The problem with capitalism is that individualism monopolizes groups, and the problem with statism is that groups monopolize the individual and exclude from that individual all other groups of which they're a part.

This framework obviates the classic individual vs. collectivist schism — the difference in needs for autonomy vs. being part of a broader whole.

Both are problematic because one isolates an individual, and the other isolates a group. Neither of them have the richness and complexity that an optimal balance of the two would have.

Weyl wants us to regain our sense of political economy. Rather than corporations or states, we could have a whole range of public good providing organizations. Everyone would live within a range of polities — family, community, federal, global — and their votes would actually matter to them. Further, he claims, in the future (with improved transportation technology), borders may no longer make as much sense as they once did. If new clusters of people typically form around proximity (neighborhoods), new transportation technology would create different levels of sociality, both geographically, and non-geographically too.

While it's unclear what the exact solution is, Weyl's approach is to "design [society] with a democratic spirit." If the French revolution was about overthrowing the current system and inventing solutions on the fly, and the American revolution was about building communities that grow & gain legitimacy and formality on their own, we should definitely opt for the latter.

Writing of the week: Paul Skallas on how conspiracy became culture. He has other great posts as well.

Listen of the week: Margit Wennmachers from a16z hosts an episode on comms that’s quite good.

Big Ideas on Clubhouse this week is with Agnes Callard, Rod Dreher, and Jonathan Haidt on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday respectively at 730 PM PST.