Stable and Unstable Ideas

Debating or discussing people’s unstable ideas tends to be awful.

Stable ideas are believed over time. They tend not to change. People tend to consistently believe them in multiple contexts. People tend not to forget about them. There may be some special exceptions where they don’t realize it applies, but that’s the exception to the general pattern of applying their stable idea.

Stable ideas are more integrated into people’s thinking and have survived more self-criticism and often more external criticism too.

Unstable ideas are often ad hoc excuses or rationalizations made up during the current conversation. If you try to argue with them, you’ll often find them replaced with some other idea later in the same conversation. Since you don’t have a stable target to argue with, it’s hard to debate. The person often forgets or ignores their own idea, or changes their mind in the middle of trying to make a multi-step argument (often with no acknowledgement that they changed their mind, and no learning, they just start saying new things which are also unstable).

When you get an error correction for a stable idea, that’s useful. Without that error correction, you likely would have made the mistake next month and next year. You already have a history of keeping and using the idea over time, so it’s worth effort to improve. And you already had plenty of time to find the error yourself but you didn’t find it.

With unstable ideas, you could usually find an error in them yourself if you tried. They wouldn’t last a week even with no discussion or debate. They were never going to become integrated into your thinking and used for many things. They’re generally just temporary ideas made up to address specific local, short-term optima. They’re biased and unreasonable excuses and rationalizations. They come from e.g. starting to lose an argument and needing to find a way to disagree with some threatening idea. So you just carelessly throw out some opposing idea you just made up.

It can be tricky to figure out which ideas are unstable, ad hoc, half-baked junk you just made up.

When we have discussions, we always say some things which we didn’t think of before in that exact form. When you respond to someone else, who said something you haven’t heard before, then you have to think of a response which is partly new. Even if what they said is very similar to what you’ve heard before, and your response is similar to something you’ve said before, it will often be partly new.

So what’s the difference between a customized response that you just created and an unstable idea? The customized response is in line with your existing, stable ideas. It’s created by and implied by your stable ideas. It fits with your longer term thinking. It’s similar to things you’ve said and thought before.

It can be OK to share unstable ideas in discussions. They should be labelled as unstable in some way. Generally they’re suitable for less adversarial discussions, not for debates. The most common way to label them is brainstorming. You guys are cooperatively trying to come up with ideas about something, so you throw stuff out there which is lower quality and less thought through. You do brainstorming together. That’s fine as long as everyone knows what it is. You don’t want people to be misled that your brainstormed ideas are you actual ideas you believe and take seriously.

Only stable ideas are suitable for debating. To debate ideas, you need to actually have some ideas you favor which you can consistently advocate for over a conversation without contradicting yourself or forgetting about the ideas you’re debating for.

It’s common in debates that people make arguments and then seem to forget about them or drop them later. When you recognize people are saying unstable ideas, that they don’t take seriously, you should generally avoid debating with those ideas. They can create an unlimited number of unstable, unserious objections to what you’re saying. To make progress, the root cause has to be addressed.

The concept of unstable ideas is similar to ad hoc ideas and some other terms. But I think it’s a useful concept with some differences. Ad hoc means something is done for a particular purpose – e.g. having no answer to an argument so you make something up. Unstable ideas emphasizes that there won’t be any continuity. You can’t debate with it because the person who said it won’t be a consistent advocate of it. It has no consistent advocates. Ideas are often both ad hoc and unstable. Unstable contrasts with stable – ideas that you’ve believed over time and which have survived your error correction and which you’ve integrated into your thinking.

Another way to get unstable ideas is to tell people your ideas. Some people will then say they agree, but it’s a new idea to them which they haven’t thought through yet. Often, it won’t really last. They’ll forget about it, never take it seriously, never think it through, etc. This can cause a lot of trouble in discussions. If they would say their objections, you could explain the idea more. Instead they concede/agree and say no further argument or explanation is needed, but they don’t follow up appropriately, so they’re being dishonest with you (and usually, more importantly, being dishonest with themselves).

There are some ideas you can accept quickly. Sometimes you can change your mind rapidly and be confident right away that you’re going to stick to this new idea over time rather than drop it by tomorrow. Others require taking your time with and thinking over more before you decide whether you accept them. They need to spend some time as a “maybe”. Not giving them “maybe” treatment for a while is a way of sabotaging learning and refusing them the attention needed to ever adopt them as your stable idea.

Agreeing to ideas is a common tactic for changing the topic in a discussion. It’s often done because of disagreement, not agreement. Often the disagreement involves some dishonesty, confusion or problem, so it’s problematic to talk about, so the person desires to change the topic and doesn’t want to say why, so they pretend to agree with stuff so the discussion can move on to building on that stuff. Building on stuff you don’t really understand or agree with is not going to work, so now the discussion is a waste of time and gives misleading feedback and confusing results. The person maybe like “OK so you agree with X and Y … I’m really struggling to understand why you don’t accept Z.” It’s because you didn’t really agree about X. You gave them bad data which they’re now trying to understand.

Being suspicious of early concessions and fake agreement is socially problematic. People are often touchy about it. They tend to get upset if you suggest that, contrary to what they just said, they don’t really understand and agree yet, and we should continue with the topic further. They just said they’re done with it and that it’s settled, and if you don’t believe them that can be offensive. But improperly agreeing with things is widespread, so suspecting it could be going on and taking steps to check for it is not insulting or offensive – it’s reasonable. People should give arguments and analysis to convince you and themselves that their agreement is proper and complete, rather than just asserting it and expecting the assertion to be accepted.

This is similar to how bias is widespread, but if you see signs of bias in someone’s comments and raise the issue of potential bias, they often get offended. That unreasonable response is an indication you were probably right about the bias, though it’s certainly not definitive. You can have irrational attitudes to bias and be a touchy defensive person but not be biased about a particular topic. People like that are biased about some topics but not every topic. And they might communicate some red flags about bias even when they have an unbiased view.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Capitalism Means Policing Big Companies

I wrote a new article called Capitalism Means Policing Big Companies. Here's the introduction:

I’ve changed my mind about corporations. I used to have a negative view of government and a favorable view of industry. Now, I think basically every large corporation is awful – similarly bad to the government. Big companies commit ongoing fraud and other rights violations. They violate laws that would exist even in a fully free market. Therefore, if we had a more capitalist society, that wouldn’t mean companies are left alone more. Capitalism involves protecting rights, enforcing contracts, policing aggression, etc. Our government does a lot of things it shouldn’t, but it also fails to do a lot of things it should. Part of a capitalist society would be a better, more effective government.

I’ve recognized many flaws in specific companies and incidents. But I only recently extrapolated the pattern that all the big companies are bad. Therefore, our government’s failure to police fraud well is a huge deviation from capitalism which a free market society would fix.

I haven’t changed my political principles, like peace, freedom and limited government. Nor have I changed my mind about Austrian economics. But I now hold some beliefs that I haven’t seen anyone else advocate who has similar pro-capitalist principles.

This article is an update on my political philosophy ideas for September 2022. I’ll discuss my principles first. Then I’ll criticize corporations from a pro-capitalist perspective. I’ll focus more on conceptual issues than on the specifics of flaws in current companies, though I’ll give some examples and link to more. I’ll also discuss investors who fund frauds, disagreements with libertarians (e.g. I think capitalism is a limited framework that isn’t meant to address all problems, not a solution for everything), and creative adversaries who don’t initiate force. I also bring up the root cause of the problem (irrational people).

My main theme is that capitalist or libertarian type principles imply a government that actually does enough policing of companies to stop fraud and other initiations of force, not a smaller government that leaves companies alone more.

Read the rest.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Archives Non-Endorsement Policy

I don’t agree with all my old writing or speaking. But I leave it up instead of hiding past errors or hiding changes.

Why? I want to be transparent and leave my intellectual history visible. I think more people should do that. It’s misleading when people try to show only their best current work. It gives audiences a false impression that experts don’t change their mind or go through processes of learning and growing. It misleads people about how common mistakes are. Even impressive people make lots of mistakes now and made even more in the past.

I’ve also written often about topics I consider important and under-discussed. In my opinion, the world doesn’t have enough total writing about the ideas of e.g. Karl Popper or William Godwin. I wouldn’t want to delete writing on underserved topics (or popular topics approached in a different way) just because I’m a better writer with better ideas today.

I think a lot of my old writing has unique things to say, some of which have value. Even some of the mistakes have value when I get things wrong in interesting ways instead of having more common views.

Even with disclaimers, people may believe stuff that I don’t. Which is fine I guess – it’s up to them what beliefs to hold. And they may believe that their beliefs match mine, which is less fine, but I have only limited influence over that. Specific disclaimers on individual articles have limited effectiveness, even if they include links to counter-arguments or contradictory ideas that I wrote later. A generic disclaimer like this post is less effective than specific disclaimers. So there are downsides to leaving my old stuff available but I’m doing it anyway.

I have major disagreements with TCS and ARR, so I specifically want to warn people about those. I have already posted multiple previous negative things on those topics.

Also, posting old podcasts to YouTube, in order to consolidate material in fewer places, isn’t endorsement. I didn’t review them first.

Overall, I’ve changed my mind more about old political ideas than rationality ideas. Similarly, although my grammar stuff is reasonably recent, and I haven’t changed my mind in any big way about it, there are certainly errors and inaccuracies in it. I’m not a grammarian. It’s not my specialty and I don’t do it perfectly. Although I learned a fair amount about grammar, you shouldn’t expect the same level of expertise when I talk about grammar as when I talk about epistemology.

When talking about areas where I know less, I try to be careful with what claims I make, and match my confidence to my knowledge. But if you just think I’m a genius at everything, and don’t notice when I use qualifiers, or don’t expect me to be fallible, then you could get the wrong idea even for new articles let alone old ones.

I’m willing to write and speak about topics that I have less expertise on. I don’t focus my public communications exclusively on epistemology. Why? I’d like to have critical discussions for many topics. I’d like feedback so I can improve my ideas on many topics. If I didn’t write about them, it’d be harder for me to learn about them.

Covering other topics provides some examples of applying my philosophical methods. For example, I’ve recently looked into food health and I’ve shared some of my research and rough thoughts about it. I don’t wait until I reach conclusions privately and then share only my final, best answers. (Really polished conclusions would actually require more effort than I want to put into food. It’s just a side project not my career. I’m aiming for more like “good enough” knowledge, not the higher standards I’d have for my specialty.)

Another example is that I’ve recently shared some anti-adoption videos from TikTok on my forum and brought the issue up in my post about Roe vs. Wade being overturned. I have reasonable confidence in these ideas. They seem important and worth sharing to me. I could read a dozen books on the subject to find out more, but I haven’t done that, and I don’t think I should be required to do that before saying anything. But there’s a higher risk that I’ll change my mind in 10 years (or be wrong without finding out) compared to the risk for ideas I give more attention to like debate trees or impasse chains.

I think sharing learning and thinking processes, rather than just final answers, has value to rational readers. It gives people a more realistic look at what they should be doing themselves. That’s similar to how keeping old articles available has positive value to rational readers who are able to search for topics of interest and think for themselves about which ideas they agree with or not and why.

I try to be open and honest. You can think of it as the opposite of how many people manage their Facebook and Instagram accounts, where they try to make everything look really good and hide all negative information. I think so many people doing that increases the rates of eating disorders and suicides (because people form incorrect beliefs about how much worse their life is than their friends’ lives), among other things.

If in doubt about whether I currently agree with some old comment I made, feel free to ask. (Please use things like links, quotes or timestamps. I probably don’t remember specifically what I said!)

What if you want a curated experience where I currently agree with and endorse everything you see? The Critical Fallibilism (CF) articles and CF videos provide that. By contrast, I use the curi blog and videos for more informal or off-topic stuff. And the CF site is newer, so it doesn’t have old stuff that I changed my mind about. Also, the CF “Classics” section has links to some of my favorite older work.

The older the post, the more likely that I changed my mind about something. I’ve changed a lot from 10+ years ago. I’ve changed less from 5 years ago. I haven’t changed very much from 1 or 2 years ago.

Rational intellectuals should change. They should keep learning new things. If they can’t come up with any improvements on their ideas from 10 years ago, that’s a bad sign. And if they hide their journey and learning process, and hide their past errors, that misleads audiences about how rational thinking works.

I haven’t changed my mind on some big ideas in my specialty (philosophy, rationality, critical thinking, epistemology) such as induction and justificationism being errors, fallibilism, or knowledge being created by evolution (those are ideas Karl Popper advocated before me). My ideas are more stable in my specialty because I give it more thought and effort. Basically, I already made most of the easier to make changes. Whereas in a topic I don’t spend much time on, I’m more likely to miss something. Changes in philosophy, where I’ve already studied so much, are harder to come by. But I have made ongoing refinements to my philosophy views. I’ve developed ideas like decisive arguments and Paths Forward which build on Critical Rationalism.

And there would be no shame in making larger changes mid-career as long as one had pursued his previous ideas with rationality and integrity. Not everyone can be lucky enough, like me, to start with Popper instead of e.g. one of Popper’s rivals. Or perhaps it will turn out that actually Popper was wrong (rather than just needing refinement and further development, as I currently think) and one day I’ll find that out and change my mind about some of my major principles. People can review many opposing positions before choosing one to study further and they should try to. (I didn’t actually do a lot of that before initially favoring Popper; I did more later.) But even if you read a few books with summaries of ideas from many different thinkers, it’s easy to prefer the wrong school of thought when you’re new and don’t already have a bunch of critical thinking knowledge. Our society doesn’t have good mechanisms for rational debate to help people reach decisive conclusions more quickly and accurately.

In conclusion, just because I don’t delete or edit some old writing or speaking doesn’t mean I agree with it. For big ideas I said repeatedly, I do say new things about them when I change my mind, so if you follow my work you’ll get some updates. For errors in minor comments, I may never say anything to the contrary later. Use critical thinking skills when reading anyone, including me, especially for old posts outside my specialty.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

I Don’t Want a Non-Public Discussion with You

People send me non-public messages on various platforms. This is fine. If you want to give me feedback on my work by email, I’ll take it. You can reply to any Critical Fallibilism article which you receive by email and tell me your comments. If you want to say something else to me, you may.

I call the messages non-public because the public can’t see them. But they’re not private either. If you contact a stranger on the internet, you shouldn’t expect privacy. I don’t usually share non-public messages, but I think sharing them is permissible. I didn’t agree to keep your secrets. Don’t send me anything secret. (I’ve never actually had a stranger send me their secrets, but I have had people argue that I owe complete 100% privacy to anyone who sends me an email. I disagree. If you don’t like my opinion, feel free not to contact me non-publicly.)

If you contact me non-publicly, the chance that I reply is lower than in public. If I do reply, my reply is likely to be shorter. And if you try to initiate a discussion, I’m going to tell you to use my discussion forum instead of having the discussion non-publicly.

I read the messages people send me, but I’m busy and I’m much more likely to give a substantial reply (like a few paragraphs of explanation) on my forum. A lot of people get discouraged if I don’t reply, or if I give only a brief reply. If that’s you, you’re better off using the forum, so you’re less likely to get discouraged. And if someone else replies, that may prevent discouragement too.

Why do I want you to use my forum? Mainly because I want my writing to be readable by my whole audience, not by one person. I want to share my ideas with the world. I’m more willing to write for many people – for the public – than for you personally. I want to help more people, explain ideas to more people, and have the possibility of feedback from more people.

Lots of people want to talk with me, and I've already had a huge number of conversations with people. I still have conversations but I need to take steps to manage the conversation requests and reduce repetition. Asking people to use my forum is one of the main ways I do that. I then prioritize people who listen. (I also do other things more now like linking people to existing writing instead of writing new things.)

I also want my writing and conversations to be easy to bring up in future conversations. I want to be able to reuse quotes and examples. That works best if I discuss somewhere on the internet which is readable at a permanent link that will still work in the future.

If you ask me questions or make arguments, sometimes other people besides me know the answer. One of my audience members might be willing to answer. If someone else gives a good answer, that saves me time. And you’ll get more answers in a public discussion since I won’t answer everything but someone else might talk.

If you have a question, it’s likely that someone else had the same question. If you ask it in public and I answer in public, then it’s answered for other people too. I don’t want to repeat myself more due to people contacting me non-publicly.

If you want help learning in private, hire me as a tutor. If you don’t want to pay me, the best way to get some help from me anyway is by using my discussion forum. And the more my fans help each other instead of relying on me, the better.

Some people seem to want (free) personal attention from me, but don’t want to talk to anyone else in my audience. I don’t appreciate that attitude. If you want help beyond my articles and videos, you need to use the available resources including other people. And you should participate in creating resources that can help others. If you make a public forum topic where you learn something, that’s now a resource that others can learn from too. If you don’t like something about the forum, feel free to post criticism or help make it better by participating in positive ways.

Some people think using my forum doesn’t matter because they’re just asking a small question and there isn’t going to be a long discussion. But often they make a mistake or bring up an interesting topic, and either way there’s a lot that could be said.

If you think it’s fine to non-publicly ask me a question because that’s just a question not a discussion, think again. Even if it’s only a very short discussion, I don’t want to answer everyone’s questions individually. I want each answer I give to answer the question for many people. I don’t want to give people free, non-public help just because it’s short; if you want a small amount of free help, I might be willing to give it to you but one of the things I want in return is that you use my forum.

Even if i could answer your question in one sentence, other people probably have the same question, so I’d rather do it where they can see the answer. That saves me time so I answer the same question fewer times. Also, a lot of people with a question won’t ask it and will never get an answer unless they see someone else ask it and be answered.

Another problem with having a non-public discussion with people who contact me is they are usually pretty repetitive in the early stages of the discussion, and then usually stop participating later. Most people and flakey and busy, and only dabble in philosophy. I actually want long, deep discussions and debates related to philosophy, but I find that other people usually don’t, so trying to get a substantial conversation is a risk. Risky things need to be gated by some barriers to entry such as making the effort to use my forum (other things help too such as putting 20 articles on a blog, which shows you’re actually willing and able to write a bunch).

What about public places other than my forum? They’re better than DMs or emails, but worse than my forum. They’re a middle ground. If you use my YouTube comments, the majority of my audience will never see that. And it will be hard for me to find later. It won’t show up when searching my forum. I prefer to keep discussion in one place so it’s more organized. Also, if the discussion starts to get more long or interesting, YouTube is actually a bad place to have it, so we’d have to move mid-discussion. My forum uses the Discourse software which has much better discussion features than YouTube. I don’t want to discourage YouTube comments (or even emails). You’re welcome to send them. I read them but I’m unlikely to write substantial replies.

If you post on my forum then:

  • Others can read the discussion (this benefits my audience, which I want)
  • Others can answer your questions or arguments (this saves my time)
  • Others can share thoughts and comments (this benefits me)
  • Everything I say is exposed to public criticism (so if I make a mistake, I have a better chance at receiving a correction)
  • If you stop discussing, someone else might take over your side of the discussion (I want the possibility of long, deep discussions)
  • The forum software has better discussion features
  • And I can use forum discussions in the future:
    • I can reuse an argument, example or idea without rewriting it
    • I can link or cite things from the discussion
    • I can use quotes from the discussion
    • I can point to something from the discussion as an example
    • I can respond to the discussion with further thoughts, even years later

To summarize, non-publicly sharing comments and feedback with me, about my work, is fine. I prefer comments are shared publicly but if you prefer non-public, go ahead; I still want the comments and it doesn’t make a big difference. But if you want discussion or replies, then I strongly prefer using my public forum so that others can read and participate. You can send me non-public stuff for my benefit, but if you want a benefit for you then, in exchange, I ask that you use my forum.

Join my discussion forum at The ability to post costs a one-time $20. That’s not aimed at profit; it’s to help filter out low quality participants. I don’t want people to use the forum who value it less than $20 (and I don’t want non-public discussions with those people either). Also, to be clear, while I do participate at my forum more than most intellectual writers participate in their community discussions, I don’t guarantee replies or personal attention. Signing up doesn’t buy my time.

Remember, I’m busy. I have lots of things to do like writing more articles, making more videos, reading, and developing new ideas (which I do largely unpaid, and which I share with the world primarily out of generosity and good will).

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Individualized Attention Policy

I’ve got a new policy. I’m going to deprioritize people (more than before), for any kind of individual/personal/custom attention, unless they engage a lot with my philosophy, Critical Fallibilism (CF). This policy doesn’t apply to formal debate.

I’m happy to generously go first and provide value to others, in the form of my free articles and videos. This is “first” in the sense that they haven’t yet provided value to me. This is more than enough. It’s bad to provide additional value, in an individualized way, unless they first reciprocate by providing value to me (ideally a similar amount of value to what I provided, but there’s flexibility there).

How can people provide value to me? The main option is feedback on my philosophy. An alternative is money (some people have a lot more money than time or energy). Another alternative is doing good work that I value (book, blog, videos, etc.).

You should only give feedback that you want to give, not feedback you’ll resent doing or that you’re just doing to try to get my attention. Sometimes people give 2-3 pieces of feedback and then completely stop if I don’t give them significant attention and reward them for it. Doing that has negative value to me. It’s like I give out $1,000 for free, then you give $1 in return 2-3 times, but then you stop unless I give you a further $20.

Feedback doesn’t have to be clever to be good. You can even just say that you’re not interested in something and why. Or say that you couldn’t think of anything to say about an article and explain your thought process (you shouldn’t give up without doing brainstorming or another specific method which you could then say something about). Pointing out parts (or whole articles) that you particularly liked or disliked is feedback. More thoughtful feedback is better, but even simple praise is feedback. Reddit comments are mostly feedback and you could read those for examples (note: nested Reddit replies are usually feedback on the comment they reply to rather than on the original post).

The most important purpose of my forum is to enable feedback for CF, especially criticism so that there are Paths Forward. It’s not to chat with people about their interests or to help with their problems. I’ve sometimes been too generous with ungenerous people.

What should you prioritize engaging with? My most important and high effort articles and videos. I organize my more important work by putting it on the CF website and CF YouTube.

Prioritizing well can take some thought. For example, if you’re not currently working on a topic (like grammar), then it’s understandable to engage less with practice-oriented (as opposed to theory-oriented) material about that topic.

Here are some things which are great to do but don’t replace CF feedback:

  • Sharing CF stuff.
  • Engaging with my less important articles, videos and forum posts. That provides (less) valuable feedback to me, rather than seeking value from me.
  • Doing practice and study related to CF. That primarily provides value to yourself, and if shared it also provides value to other people trying to learn CF. Practice and study also put you in a good position to give valuable feedback on how CF educational worked for you materials; the more you share about things directly related to my work, the more it’s feedback for me.
    • Responding to other people’s questions and comments about CF.
  • Bringing up your own topic or problem and relating it to CF in some way.

Please don’t engage with CF in negative ways like social climbing at my expense. Don’t debate me in an ambiguous or indirect manner, particularly without stating your position. Criticism for the purpose of truth seeking is appreciated. Bad, lazy questions are unwanted, especially when they’re arguing with me while maintaining some kind of ambiguity. Don’t ask someone else (like me) to lead or micromanage your learning (unless they’re a paid teacher or tutor). Good questions ask for help with a problem solving process you’re doing that ran into a difficulty (this often involves saying what you already did, towards what goal, and where you got stuck). Trying to understand what I said is a type of problem solving process, and a clarifying questions are good (when genuine, not part of a hidden agenda to argue).

Also, don’t start by giving feedback or arguing with me but then try to pivot the conversation into you receiving unpaid tutoring. Attempts to get asymmetric value from me should be kept separate from attempts to provide asymmetric value to me or attempts to have a symmetrically valuable conversation. I’ll illustrate with a diagram, but let me explain first.

Imagine I write an article which gives you non-individualized value. Then ignore that value and look only at a forum topic where individualized value is provided. (Individualized value is customized or personalized, as opposed to e.g. a book written for a large audience.) Take the value you give to me and subtract the value you get from me. That’s the net individualized value. We can put the net individualized value on a number line and label three regions:

We don’t have good units to measure this in, so you have to estimate. The numbers are a bit made up but you can still form a reasonable opinion about whether the value given or received is bigger.

Don’t start with giving or neutral, then try to switch to receiving in the same conversation. That’s a bait and switch. If you want to switch regions, you should generally start a separate forum topic.

When you want receiving, you should ask for that in reasonably clear words. Like sometimes students go online and ask for help with their homework, and it’s clearly labelled and everyone knows what’s going on. That’s fine. But occasionally students try to get homework help without admitting what they’re doing, which is bad.

If you and your conversation partner aren’t on the same page about which region a conversation is in, that will cause problems. Ambiguity or disagreement about region are bad.

Keep in mind that, if you’re my fan, you actually did get some personal value from my non-individualized articles and videos. Although they weren’t customized for you, they still had significant relevance to your individual situation, which is why you liked them a lot. So overall you’re receiving value from me. Even if you gave a lot feedback and I never replied, you’d still be a net receiver of value.

If you’re a fan, you should take mutually beneficial actions to help the person who gave you lots of value. There should be win/win options there. If you don’t engage with CF or otherwise give me value, you should expect to be ignored not helped.

If you’re unsure/undecided about CF, do whatever you want – just don’t expect my personal attention and help.

If you want to engage in critical discussion, I’m open to debating many topics besides my own philosophy ideas. You’ll have to read my debate policy to see how I organize debates, and either agree to the impasse chain rules or propose an alternative methodology (that is written down at a permalink or in a publication). Debate should involve the initiator claiming to be a peer or better (similar level of knowledge and expertise, or higher, about the topic), which means the debate initiator isn’t aiming to receive value. He may receive value anyway if he loses the debate (the loser gets to learn something), but as long as he had a good faith expectation of winning that’s fine. (If you start debates that you expect to lose, as a way to learn things, you should openly say that at the beginning. And my debate policy isn’t for that.)

PS: My article Specialist Creators with Small Audiences is also relevant.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Predatory Pricing and Amazon

I read the article The Slow Erosion of Amazon's Power by Matt Stoller. Comments:

I agree there’s a problem here with Amazon and their “predatory” pricing where they are willing to lose money to fight competitors so that, once the competitors give up, they can raise prices.

But I also have a much more free market perspective than Stoller. So here’s a way I’d look at it differently.

I don’t think we should start by considering what government can do to solve this. We shouldn’t first look to create or more vigorously enforce laws to help with the problem. Instead, a better place to start is by considering what government is doing to make this problem worse. What laws do we already have that are contributing to the problem? Getting rid of counter-productive laws should generally have priority attention over adding laws to try to make things better.

There are several downsides to adding more laws which mean we should prefer to remove bad laws. Basically, removing bad laws is a higher priority tool which we should use first, and then we can add some laws to deal with remaining problems. Why?

Adding laws creates more laws. Everything else being equal, that’s bad. It makes the law more complicated. It increases the cost for people to learn the laws. It increases the cost to enforce the laws. It means judges and lawyers need more training. It makes it harder for lawmakers to keep track of what laws exist and what the current landscape of laws is like.

Adding laws creates more restrictions on liberty. Everything else being equal, freedom is good.

New laws can be bandaid solutions which deal with some kind of symptom without addressing the root cause. These kinds of laws generally aren’t very effective. In cases where removing a bad law could improve the situation, if you instead make a law to try to deal with the negative consequences of the bad law, you’re at major risk of putting a bandaid on the problem instead of actually solving it.

New laws can have unintended negative consequences. This can be due to our lack of perfect foresight. And making good laws is hard. And the more laws we have, the harder it is to understand what’s going on and design great laws.

Laws are ultimately backed up by the force of guns, so that’s a reason to minimize them. They’re potentially dangerous. Bad laws can do a lot of harm.

So what current laws contribute to Amazon’s predatory pricing strategy? Broadly, it’s laws that make it harder to start a new business. The easier and cheaper it is to start new businesses that compete with Amazon, the harder it is for Amazon to lose money trying to destroy each one. If it was very easy to start new businesses, Amazon could become overwhelmed with too many competitors to destroy. Or maybe just a few competitors at a time, or even one at a time, but whenever there were none it’d be cheap and worthwhile for someone to start another competitor.

Why start a competitor if Amazon will take actions to stop having a competitor? A common way of being gotten rid of is being bought. Amazon might find it cheaper to buy your company than lower their prices for long enough that you give up. However, if starting companies is cheap and easy, and Amazon keeps buying them, then people will keep starting more companies and taking Amazon’s money until Amazon gives up on buying out the competition. Buying out the competition only works when their are significant barriers to entry for new competitors. Barriers to entry exist naturally in some industries, but not in many others. Most barriers to entry are due to laws, and many of those laws are bad laws.

If Amazon can’t buy out the competition, what about using low prices to destroy them? That hurts Amazon more than the small business it’s being predatory towards. It still sucks from the point of view of a small business owner. But people with deep pockets can fund it. There are lots of rich people who’d like to see Amazon do worse, and who could profit off that. Funding some one small business each in a bunch of industries, to make Amazon lose money in all those industries, would be cheap and effective for some rich people who have stakes in big companies that compete with Amazon or who bet against Amazon in the stock market. If the small company and Amazon are both taking losses due to the low prices, that might cost a million dollars a year for the small company but a ten million or more per year for Amazon. In other words, you could get Amazon to lose 10x what you lose. That’s powerful and isn’t actually viable for Amazon to do for long or in many industries. It reminds me of Francisco D’Anconia in Atlas Shrugged:

“[…] For instance, look at San Sebastián. It cost me fifteen million dollars, but these fifteen million wiped out forty million belonging to Taggart Transcontinental, thirty-five million belonging to stockholders such as James Taggart and Orren Boyle, and hundreds of millions which will be lost in secondary consequences. That’s not a bad return on an investment, is it, Dagny?”

Also, small companies can compete with Amazon even if they have higher prices. How? Better quality or better customer service are good options. Those things matter in most industries. Doing marketing aimed at a subset of customers can work too. Competing with Amazon is great in some ways as long as it’s not about one of the main pillars of their business. Then it’s hard for them to care much about your industry or allocate any attention from their top people. You’ll be competing with some of their lower tier, more mediocre executives, managers and workers. Sure they have a big budget but on the other hand they also have a big internal bureaucracy. They have that bureaucracy for various reasons including because they don’t trust most of their workers, to protect their highly valuable brand name, and because no one knows how to run a really big organization without significant efficiency losses.

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No Non-Genuine Debates

I don't want to debate people about a conclusion that we agree on. Don't play devil's advocate to advocate something you think is wrong. Don't bait me to make arguments that you already knew and could have said yourself.

Why would anyone want to do that?

First, because they're uncertain. They don't believe X. They didn't reach X as a conclusion. But they can't fully rule it out either. They want to argue in favor of X without declaring themselves pro-X. They may think X is probably false, but they can't reach a clear conclusion with their current knowledge.

That's fine if you’re open about what you’re doing. If you have genuine questions and doubts, we can talk about it. Arguments for a position that you can't refute, but also haven't accepted, are fine. You don’t have to have reached a conclusion to argue for it; it’s also fine if you don’t have a conclusion yet (in which case we don’t already agree – in the sense of sharing the same conclusion).

If you're certain about your position, and we agree, then don't try to debate me. To debate, you either need to have stuff to learn or disagree with me. If you want to collaborate to develop the position further, that’s a discussion not a debate.

Why would someone want to debate if they agree with me and aren't trying to learn anything? Why play devil's advocate in that case?

A typical reason is they want me to tell them what to say to win debates with other people. They are acting as proxies for people who won't debate me so they can say my arguments to those people. Please don't. I want to debate with people who are being genuine. If the people who believe something aren't willing to debate me themselves, and you're convinced that something is wrong, don't try to debate me on their behalf in order to get me to say criticisms of people who don't want my criticism. Also, people sometimes mix this with plagiarism (using my arguments that they asked me for, but without giving me appropriate credit) which is even worse.

If you can’t win a debate yourself, you should reconsider your conclusion instead of trying to get me to win it for you. Based on your own knowledge, should you have reached the conclusion you did? Or should you have a more tentative conclusion that admits to some ignorance, confusion, etc.?

If you want help debating better – generally or for a particular topic – ask for that openly and directly. Ask for me to teach or help you in some way. Don’t pretend we’re debating while you’re actually trying to get a different kind of thing from me.

What if you want to make some arguments, and if they work it was a debate, but if they suck then it was never a debate and you were just asking for help? That is common but dishonest. Please don’t.

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Links for My Health Ideas

I’ve recently talked about health and food. This post gathers links in one place. Links within lists are ordered from oldest to newest.




Those are the forum topics with lots of unique content that isn’t on my blog or YouTube. You can also view all topics tagged with “health”.

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