One bright day in late autumn a family of Ants were bustling about in the warm sunshine, drying out the grain they had stored up during the summer, when a starving Grasshopper, his fiddle under his arm, came up and humbly begged for a bite to eat.
“What!” cried the Ants in surprise, “haven’t you stored anything away for the winter? What in the world were you doing all last summer?”
“I didn’t have time to store any food,” whined the Grasshopper; “I was so busy making music that before I knew it the summer was gone.”
The Ants shrugged their shoulders in disgust.
“Making music, were you?” they cried. “Very well; now dance!” And they turned their backs on the Grasshopper and went on with their work.
I admit I’m quite fond of this fable. It promotes industry, a diligent work ethic and frugality. It also promotes effective risk management. The Grasshopper is not only lazy but blind to existential risk (a.k.a starvation). The Grasshopper not only fails to mitigate this risk but fails to identify it in the first place. The Grasshopper is the OptionSellers.com of the forest. And so the Grasshopper gets her comeuppance.
(of course there’s a BUT)
This fable “works out” the way it does because it’s set in a stable social system that respects the Ants’ property rights. Relax that condition and you might get very different results. Let’s pick up where we left off, for the extended edition:
“Making music, were you?” [the Ants] cried. “Very well; now dance!” And they turned their backs on the Grasshopper and went on with their work.
But the Grasshopper did not go back to dancing. Instead, the demoralized Grasshopper wandered the autumn landscape, sharing her tale of woe with other insects. Much to her chagrin, many others had not saved food for winter, either.
“What right do the Ants have to let us all starve?” the Grasshopper asked. “Why, wouldn’t that make them murderers?”
The other insects who had not gathered food for winter nodded in agreement, muttering among themselves about the greed and selfishness of the Ants. Did the Ants really deserve their hoard of food if they were going to lord the power of life and death over everyone else in the forest? It was hardly a crime to raise arms against someone who intended for you to starve to death, after all.
And so the Grasshopper and the other insects murdered the Ants and ate all their food.
My extended edition of this fable is about metastability. Or, more accurately, a breakdown in metastability. A superficial reading of metastability might make it seem like a breakdown in law and order. That’s not quite what I’m talking about here. Law and order might break down within an otherwise metastable social system. Whenever there’s a riot in an American city, for example, law and order break down. But a riot in and of itself does not alter the core values and mythology shared by American citizens.
A social system remains metastable as long as there is a reasonably broad consensus regarding its core values and mythology. Without this consensus, metastability weakens. Put another way: first-order threats to social stability, such as isolated riots and street crime, are risks that lie in the body of the distribution of outcomes, both for individuals and society. Metainstability is a higher-order threat. The risks associated with metainstability lie in the tails of the distribution. They fall under the broad category heading of Really Bad Stuff and include things like:
- violent revolution
- property expropriation
Back to the Ants and the Grasshopper. Would it behoove the Ants to share a bit of food with the other insects to shore up the metastability of the forest’s social system?
There’s no “right answer” to that question. This isn’t physics. The policy wonks among us might propose developing some model for relating the conditions of the forest’s welfare state to the political inclinations of its citizens. A neat exercise, but a reflexive one. Ultimately, the whole thing hinges on the insects’ subjective perceptions of themselves and their relationship to the other entities in the forest. The insects’ perceptions of themselves and their relationship to the other entities in the forest may or may not have anything to do with wonky policy position papers. The insects are under no obligation to act “rationally.”
The serious existential risks associated with this concept of metastability, and the reflexive nature of social systems, are the reasons we negotiate a social contract. Modern society is the output of a long and tortured series of negotiations over how and why we should structure the social contract to limit the nastiness and brutishness of the state of nature.
In the language of Epsilon Theory, managing risks to metastability requires the following:
Clear Eyes. Look through narratives and symbolic abstractions to see the world as it is.
Full Hearts. Treat others as principals in the negotiating process, in a way that promotes potentially cooperative game play.
My personal answer to the question of whether the Ants should share some of their food (or rather, whether the state should compel the Ants to share some of their food) is yes. Of course, we can endlessly debate the finer points of how exactly such a system should be structured. But broadly speaking, I think it ought to consist of the following:
- Some form of temporary unemployment insurance
- Some minimum level of health insurance coverage
- Some form of old-age pension scheme
Now, I certainly don’t believe these things are an unalloyed good. They have costs. There will inevitably be inefficiency and graft involved with their administration. People will free-ride on them. To me, these costs and inefficiencies are the price of some metastability insurance.
Am I completely at ease with these policies?
I think any clear-eyed view of them has to acknowledge social welfare programs tend to expand over time, and the power of the state along with them. The historical example of Prussia is instructive here. In the 19th century, the Prussian state was confronted with increasing social and political tensions between its rural and urban classes. Recall that Marx believed socialist revolution would happen first in Germany, not Russia. The tension intensified following German unification in 1871. Germany had a metastability problem. The Prussian solution was, in large part, the creation of a social welfare state.
In his history of Prussia, The Iron Kingdom, Christopher Clark writes:
The medical insurance law of 15 June 1883 created a network of local insurance providers who dispensed funds from income generated by a combination of worker and employer contributions. The accident insurance law of 1884 made arrangements for the administration of insurance in cases of illness and work-related injury. The last of the three foundational pillars of German social legislation came in 1889, with the age and invalidity insurance law. These provisions were quantitatively small by present-day standards, the payments involved extremely modest, and the scope of the new provisions far from comprehensive–the law of 1883, for example, did not apply to rural workers. At no point did the social legislation of the Empire come close to reversing the trend towards increased economic inequality in Prussian or German society. It is clear, moreover, that Bismarck’s motives were narrowly manipulative and pragmatic. His chief concern was to win the working classes back to the Prussian-German ‘social monarchy’ and thereby cripple the growing Social Democratic movement.
[…] By the eve of the First World War, the Prussian state was big. Between the 1880s and 1913, it expanded to encompass over 1 million employees. According to an assessment published in 1913, the Prussian ministry of public works was ‘the largest employer in the world’. The Prussian railways administration alone employed 310,000 workers and the state-controlled mining sector a further 180,000.
I don’t believe it’s possible to divorce the expansion of the Prussian welfare state, and the Prussian state more generally, from the subsequent arc of German history. Prussia is a cautionary tale.
So, where do we draw the line? Is there a way to balance a pragmatic view of social metastability with checks on the expansionist tendencies of the state? There’s no single answer to that. But there’s a process. Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, again. When considering a particular policy, ask:
Is this policy designed to promote equality of opportunity or equality of outcome?
How might this policy serve the interests of the State and Oligarchy?
What abstractions are being used to sell me this policy?
Does this policy respect my autonomy of mind, or is it a manipulative “nudge”?
Which brings me back to policy wonks. The way I write about policy wonks you might think I’m completely dismissive of them. Not so. We need folks out there conducting social science research. When that research is conducted with a proper scientific mindset (see The Road To Tannu Tuva), it provides valuable perspective on the tradeoffs associated with various policy initiatives. What I am suspicious of are policy wonks as optimizers–policy wonks promising The Answers.
Because there are always tradeoffs. There are always consequences. Some are intended. Some are unintended.
That’s what we learn from the Ants and the Grasshopper.