Why sloth isn’t a vice

Curt’s J.B.S. Haldane quote got me thinking a bit about science and technology and such the other day, which quickly morphed into some musings about technology vs. politics and why one works and the other doesn’t. Of course, it doesn’t take much thought on that subject to recognize the answer: people are lazy.

Think about it: virtually every technological innovation throughout history is due to laziness. In every case, someone got sick of doing something hard or boring and figured out some new way to do it faster or make it unnecessary to do at all. Computers are obvious: doing long division sucks, so people invented machines to do it for them. Same with the printing press: handcopying manuscripts is really tedious (not to mention hard on the carpals), so Gutenberg figured out how to make a machine do all the work. But this doesn’t just hold true for gadgets. For example, animals you’re trying to eat have a nasty tendency to run away, bite back and migrate every six months; eventually, someone got sick of all that nonsense, looked at some plants that couldn’t move or fight back and presto! agriculture was born. → Yes, I’m aware it wasn’t quite so simple To steal a line from Heinlein, “progress doesn’t come from early risers – progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.” → Time Enough for Love, pg. 53

Continuing this line of thought, it hardly even needs to be said that new technology proliferates and makes lives better because everybody else is just as lazy as the inventors (though, admittedly, less creative in their laziness). After all, the scientific calculator wouldn’t have sold if people liked doing long division and looking up logarithms in giant tables. Since laziness and technology are so complementary, the vast technological advances throughout human history seem only natural. → To borrow a single example from Paul Graham, “[i]n 1800 an empty plastic drink bottle with a screw top would have seemed a miracle of workmanship.”

On the other hand, politics has advanced hardly at all in the last 2500 years. In broad outline (oversimplification alert!), the only major political differences between a modern Western democracy and classical Athens are: (i) owning slaves is no longer considered couth and (ii) a higher percentage of people get to vote. (i) and (ii) are obviously important, but two major advances in 2500 years isn’t what I would call speedy progress (especially since both really only became fashionable in the last 150 years).

Now, maybe politics is an inherently more tractable problem than how to avoid boring, sweaty work. In that case, maybe the ancient Greeks already had it mostly worked out and there were only a couple of things to improve upon. Alternatively, maybe the Athenians just got lucky and guessed the answer that otherwise would have taken centuries to figure out. But neither of these answers seems likely or particularly satisfying, especially since there still seem to be lots of political problems that nobody knows how to solve.

Actually, that last phrase is a complete lie. Everybody knows how to solve all the political problems in the world and they’ll be more than happy to explain their solutions at the slightest provocation. The problem is, nobody seems to be able to implement his solution.

Why is that? Because laziness is like Kryptonite for politics. Why did Communism fail? At least half the answer is that people are much too lazy to work hard when they can do the bare minimum for the same compensation. → The other half of the answer is the “Knowledge Problem,” which has the same counter-intuitive aesthetic appeal as the notion that progress comes from laziness Why do politicians that anybody who’s paying attention knows are corrupt, dishonest and/or incompetent get elected? Because people are much too lazy to devote hundreds of hours to researching the candidates, reading position papers and thinking through the logical conclusions of a candidate’s platform. Why do monarchy, feudalism and totalitarianism fail? Because the people in charge are too lazy to formulate good policies and then stick to them; oppression and plunder are much easier. → In these contexts, it’s fashionable to call laziness “rational self-interest”, but I disagree with this convention. Not because I’m against rationalism or self-interest, but because this particular phrase obscures the issue.

The list goes on and on. Think about virtually any political problem you can come up with (Why do countries fight unnecessary wars? Why can’t we “win” the Drug War? What’s up with Social Security?) and odds are the reason the “solutions” don’t work is because they require too much hard work. Of course, the basic system in which solutions have to be implemented is already broken because it requires too much hard work, but it could be argued that the fundamental problem is cultural: being lazy seems like cheating. Since nobody wants to view himself as a cheater, I’m convinced that everybody is secretly ashamed of his laziness and, therefor, trumpets diligence and industriousness as the ideal.

I, for one, say screw that. Until we recognize that we’re all lazy bastards at heart, realize that that’s not necessarily such a bad thing and accept the implications of this fact, we’re going to continue to find political problems insoluble.

p.s. Please don’t interpret this as a “call to action” or anything silly like that. Like the man said, “I’m just sayin’, is all.”

8 Responses to “Why sloth isn’t a vice”

  1. Curt Says:

    Isn’t the real reason science and technology advances more quickly than politics that science generally requires us only to make progress in relation to our relatively more stable environment, whereas politics requires us to make progress with respect to each other, who are considerably less predictable?

  2. George Potter Says:

    As I’ve noted many times before, the main advancement of politics from ancient times is the sleight-of-hand transform of ‘divine right of kings’ to ‘will of the people’. Both are mystical in nature, but the latter gives the serfs a nice feeling. 😉

  3. shonk Says:

    Isn’t the real reason science and technology advances more quickly than politics that science generally requires us only to make progress in relation to our relatively more stable environment, whereas politics requires us to make progress with respect to each other, who are considerably less predictable?

    It’s not nice to respond to my overly-reductionist rant with thoughtful objections.

    Seriously, though, there are obviously multiple causes for any complicated problem and people are obviously more complicated than, say, gravity (you’ll also note that I intentionally omitted the “politics is harder than science” option in paragraph 5, though that was basically the point of graphs 6-8). Which is to say, yes, that’s certainly part of it. Still, it’s not entirely a tenable position, since most bad politics are due to either obvious ignorance of what people are like (e.g. Communism) or blindingly unsubstantiated assumptions that people can miraculously change (pretty much every revolutionary movement ever).

    Also, although it’s true, I think the “politics is hard because people are complicated” attitude is dangerous, because there’s a tendency to think that complicated problems require complicated solutions. In reality, the more complicated a problem you’re facing, the more simple the solutions you should look for, at least initially. The effects of a complicated attempted solution on a complicated problem are exponentially harder to evaluate than the effects of a simple proposed solution on a complicated problem, simply because of the vastly greater number of possible interactions of problem and solution. Obviously, simplicity, in and of itself, isn’t sufficient, but I think history generally supports the notion that simple solutions work better than complicated ones. Put it this way: I would be surprised if historians 500 years from now can objectively evaluate the EU constitution as having been more successful than the US constitution, even if they agree more with the spirit of the former.

  4. Dave Says:

    I take it your point is that compared to politics technology is more efficient in producing results that benefit humanity and the reason for this is one recruits laziness as motivation for innovation and the other is held back by laziness in the populace in choosing good leaders or complying with the plan the utopian plans of the leadership. I don’t disagree but I would modify your position slightly. It is true that many innovations, especially in the modern age were labor saving in origin or perhaps more broadly to solve problems or achieve advantages. As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Agricultural, manufacturing and medical advances were promoted to improve peoples well-being, and make money for the entrepreneur. The invention of various military weapons and tactics was an area in which laziness was not involved, unless soldiers got tired of killing people with swords and invented guns as a labor saving device. The whole field of esthetics, everything from having a nice lawn and washing your car to composing poetry are projects requiring much work and also require overcoming laziness, in order to accomplish. You actually increase your work when you seek esthetic achievement, though your motivation is esthetic satisfaction, not escape from drudgery. (As exemplified in your pictures) In fact if I were even lazier than I am now I wouldn’t have to cut the lawn, which grows too fast on account of too much effort fertilizing and watering it.
    I do agree that labor saving technology is wonderful because it reduces drudgery. It is much taken for granted. Access to the use of technology equals wealth. Everyone is much wealthier now than in the past. That is why I have trouble feeling sorry for the material circumstances of “the poor.? I sympathize with their social circumstances, but no one knows what to do about that. As for politics, I am convinced that a lazy do nothing government is the best government except that there is no such thing. At least it would do no harm, if it would get out of the way. How many people get elected by saying, “I will spend most of my time on vacation instead of passing more laws that interfere with your life?? They always have to promise to do something, which risks making things worse. Just ask our president, Lyndon B. Bush.

  5. Curt Says:

    Also, although it’s true, I think the “politics is hard because people are complicated? attitude is dangerous, because there’s a tendency to think that complicated problems require complicated solutions.

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, and in any event if the idea is true it’s probably more dangerous not to acknowledge that truth for reasons ideological or otherwise. Plus, remember Hayek’s liberal position on economic management: he said, yes managing an economy, which is to say determining people’s preferences and then assigning values to them, is an enormously complicated task–so complicated that it is behind the scope of any one person to manage, which is why people need to be allowed to make their own calculations for themselves. One would hope that a similar realization would produce an similar conclusion in politics.

  6. Curt Says:

    p.s. Plus, the fact that people still believe in ridiculous political ideologies that don’t work at all tends to support the idea that people are more complicated to understand than impervious natural forces, since you could say that our understanding of human motivations is in a pre-scientific or pre-paradigmatic state (though one could argue about whether it would be possible not to be), since we still haven’t really hit on many, if any, basic standards and assumptions that everyone shares or at least accepts.

  7. Curt Says:

    p.p.s. I am also not necessarily arguing that human minds are more complicated than natural forces (a. although they might be [insofar as they are distinct]), I’m simply suggesting that they are more unpredictable. One of the foundational assumptions of the natural sciences behave in the same way everywhere, which is by no means a settled assumption regarding human behavior.

  8. shonk Says:

    Plus, remember Hayek’s liberal position on economic management: he said, yes managing an economy, which is to say determining people’s preferences and then assigning values to them, is an enormously complicated task–so complicated that it is behind the scope of any one person to manage, which is why people need to be allowed to make their own calculations for themselves. One would hope that a similar realization would produce an similar conclusion in politics.

    Right. In this context, the “best” solution is not to come up with ever-more-complicated ways of managing the economy, but the (relatively) simple method of not trying to manage the economy. But that insight isn’t one that naturally springs to mind if you have the wrong assumptions going in.

    Regarding the “dangerous” comment, my point was simply that if we go in with the false assumption that complicated (unpredictable, whatever) problems require complicated solutions, then knowing that a problem is complicated is dangerous. Obviously the truth isn’t dangerous absent these false assumptions, but I do think this assumption is more widespread than we’d like to admit.

    if the idea is true it’s probably more dangerous not to acknowledge that truth for reasons ideological or otherwise.

    Certainly, ignoring the truth for ideological reasons is a bad idea. However, the cliché that “the truth isn’t dangerous” is patently false, because it ignores the fact that knowledge is (for humans) necessarily incomplete. Certain combinations of knowledge and ignorance complement each other rather more destructively than is healthy. For example, knowing how to build an atomic bomb without the knowledge/moral awareness/whatever that killing innocent people is bad is more dangerous than having the same moral lack and not knowing how to build an atomic bomb. Replace moral ignorance with certain assumptions about the relative worth of people based on their beliefs/skin color/citizenship/etc. in the above example and the conclusion still holds. Admittedly, something of a pathological example, but I think it illustrates my point.

    That all having been said, I’ve already said my post was overly-reductionist; it was intended to be thought-provoking, not definitive. I certainly agree that people are less predictable than “natural forces” (as you say, insofar as they are distinct) and, that being the case, it’s obviously going to be harder to come up with political than technological solutions. In fact, given your observation in the p.p.s., it may well be impossible to use scientific/technical techniques to solve political problems (certainly the example of the “scientific” socialists should be a cautionary one).

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