Did the Democrats brainwash me? Short answer, no. Long answer…

If you listened to the Word of Mouth episode last Saturday, you might have noticed a clip played somewhere in the middle, without context, of a young woman excited to leave Rochester, NY and move to New Hampshire. She was convinced that participating in the Free State Project was the best way to improve the world. What happened to her? Well, she changed her mind.

There’s a certain kind of objection that I want to preempt, which is that I must not have been very committed to “a priori” libertarianism in the first place. Maybe that’s true; as I will explain, I think I was always a consequentialist deep down. But if you think I didn’t understand libertarian theory well enough…I read Healing Our World in an Age of Aggression and gave out many copies as gifts. I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I interned at the Cato Institute. I started College Libertarians just so I could have a platform to promote the FSP to my fellow college students! I was committed.

When I decided to run for office, I was 25 years old. I knew immediately that I wanted to run in the Democratic Party, for a few different reasons. I had observed that Republicans and small-l libertarians had formed a successful coalition around economic issues (for better or for worse) and wanted to foment a mirror coalition between Democrats and small-l libertarians on issues like harm reduction, civil liberties, and criminal justice reform. When I won my primary in September 2014, it really sunk in that I would have a small amount of decision-making power over other people’s lives. This motivated me to read about cognitive biases, probability, what it even means to “believe” something… and the effect was that my worldview was transformed.

“By the time I was sworn in I was just sort of like doubting everything. And at that point I just wanted to do the best job I could. Whatever that meant – and not particularly vote with any agenda or game in mind, even if that meant voting to make New Hampshire less free in some sense.”

I stopped lazily straddling the line between deontology and consequentialism and realized that my real ethics were consequentialist – that what ultimately matters in the world is whether or not people live happy lives with autonomy and minimal suffering. I read How to Actually Change Your Mind. I read the Non-Libertarian FAQ. I admitted to myself that libertarian responses to problems like air and water pollution had never been fully satisfying.

Maximizing for “liberty,” especially a narrow, propertarian conception of liberty, sometimes trades off against human flourishing in ways I find unacceptable. Structural inequality caused by oppression, both recent and current, became much more salient to me. I noticed how widespread the Just World Fallacy is amongst my libertarian friends… I decided that the existence of coordination problems and negative externalities can justify government action. I also became much more comfortable with uncertainty and tradeoffs, which is good, because the world is a messy place and many policy areas are thorny and complicated. Sometimes there is no clear answer.

Anyway, my original plan – to focus my efforts on policy areas where Democrats/progressives and libertarians could work together – still seemed like a pretty good plan. Mass incarceration still seemed like a worthy target. To my criteria of 1. Appeals to progressives and 2. Appeals to libertarians, I added 3. A strong evidence base.

Ultimately, the question of “Are you a Free Stater”? comes down to definitions, like so many questions. If Free Stater means somebody who associates often with Free Staters, then yes, I am; about half my local friends are Free Staters. If Free Stater means somebody who moved to NH after signing the Statement of Intent, then I’m a Free Stater. But I think the definition that best allows you to predict somebody’s voting record is whether or not they endorse the vision from the Statement of Intent, and I do not.
The Statement of Intent is very deontological (very rule-based), so I don’t endorse it. I think humans living in a society where government does more than just “protect life, liberty, and property” can be better off than humans living in a society with such a constrained government.
Another way to think about whether somebody is a “Free Stater” is whether or not they want the FSP to succeed. To the extent that I think preference utilitarianism has merit, I think it’s good when people with strong beliefs self-sort into different jurisdictions where their preferences can be satisfied, and to that extent I want the FSP to succeed.
But as I said in my interview, “If the Free State Project means that a lot of people who don’t vaccinate their kids move here and it causes…outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses and deaths, then in that sense I definitely don’t want the Free State Project to succeed.”

I want Free Staters to succeed at making New Hampshire better and fail at making New Hampshire worse.

 

There are lots of Free Staters who pay some attention (e.g. to my voting record) but not perfect attention (e.g. they missed my first blog post where I warned everybody that my belief system was in a state of upheaval). Some of these Free Staters think that spending too much time around Democrats turned me into a “statist” (because I voted for e.g. Medicaid expansion). One of the reasons it’s well past time for me to write this clarification down is to make it clear to those people that the Democrats did not brainwash me. The cause of my change in beliefs was doing more reading and thinking on my own. I vote with my party on bills related to the environment, voting rights, and reproductive freedom. Sometimes I think my party gets it wrong, like when they take a position against reforms to civil asset forfeiture, occupational licensing, and drug war enforcement. No brainwashing has occurred.

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Type Errors and Election Integrity

(This is an analogy that came to me while I was sleep-deprived, so it may not be very good.)

In testing any intervention, you have two goals: make sure that if an intervention (for instance, a medication) has no effect (for instance, on recovery from a disease) then the experiment will show it has no effect. On the other hand, If the intervention does have an effect, then you want the experiment to show that effect.

If you fail at your first goal and mistakenly reject the null hypothesis (conclude there is an effect when there isn’t one) then you have made a type I error, or a false positive. If you fail at your second goal and fail to notice an effect when there is one, you have made a type II error, or a false negative.

These goals are at odds. Statistically speaking, if your test is too strict, if your bar is too high, then you might not notice an effect that is really there (and thereby give up the chance to help people with your intervention). But if your test is too loose, you will start seeing effects everywhere that are just the result of random chance (and thereby waste a lot of time/money/effort on useless interventions).

A lot of areas of policy are similar. There are tradeoffs, and you want to choose the strategy or policy that walks the line between two failure modes that mirror each other. (Or maybe you want to choose the meta-policy or meta-strategy that results in the fewest number of errors overall, just as you design your statistical methods to avoid coming to false conclusions of either type.) A lot of times, there is no perfect answer, and you just have to swallow the least-bad tradeoffs.

Many people are concerned about election integrity, and it comes up frequently in New Hampshire politics. It is relatively easy to vote here. We have same day voter registration. If you don’t have a photo ID, you can sign an affidavit promising that you are who you say you are. This leads some people to worry about false positives. They worry that there are people voting who should not be, and that this threatens our election integrity.

A policy change that would make it more difficult to vote in New Hampshire would decrease our chance of false positives and improve our election integrity in one respect, but it would simultaneously increase our chance of false negatives and harm our election integrity, just in the opposite direction.

There are some bills we’re facing in this legislative session which increase our risk of false negatives – that is, they prevent people who should have the right to vote in New Hampshire from doing so. For example, HB1543, which has not yet been scheduled for a hearing in the Election Law Committee, would restrict most college students from voting.

Why do I think college students should be able to vote here? A majority of their year is spent in New Hampshire, even if their parents live in another state, which means that for most of the year, they have to obey all the laws of New Hampshire, face New Hampshire courts if they commit a crime, and pay New Hampshire’s taxes, such as our meals and rooms tax. They are more affected by New Hampshire’s political decisions than the decisions of any other state. I could list some other reasons, but this is the biggest and simplest reason, for me.

When it comes to deciding between policy tradeoffs, our government has already pre-committed, via the State and Federal Constitution, to a preference for false positives when the question regards retaining a legal right. That is, given the option, we would rather citizens retain their rights when they ought not to instead of losing their rights when they shouldn’t. The most obvious example is the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”

From my experience, most of the vocal supporters of tightening up New Hampshire’s election laws and reducing false positives at the voting booth would balk at the prospect of tightening up New Hampshire’s gun control laws and reducing false positives at the gun shows. “We want to make sure nobody votes who shouldn’t be able to vote” sounds good to them, but “We want to make sure nobody has a gun who shouldn’t be able to have a gun” sounds threatening. The problem is, both voting and gun ownership are legal rights guaranteed by our Constitutions. The presumption is that everybody has those rights unless the government has proven that they they have forfeited them. The burden of proof is not on the person exercising a right.

What is my ask, here? I guess my main request is for my Republican friends to recognize that “election integrity” can be compromised in two different ways, and that the one way street of tightening ID and domicile restrictions is not a simple win for the goal of election integrity. Preventing somebody from voting who should have the right to vote is a rights violation and if you consider the way you feel when your political opponents talk about raising the bar to purchase a firearm, you might understand why they get so concerned when you talk about raising the bar to vote.

A Little Overwhelmed

(Reminder to self: It doesn’t need to be perfect or even represent me perfectly. It just needs to be readable and honest.)

My audience is suddenly a lot bigger. I posted on the Less Wrong facebook group asking for a mentor. I wanted to know if any other people out there belong to the (aspiring) rationalist group and the (reluctant) politicians group, or if my little Venn Diagram section is populated by only me. (So far, there is one other person in this intersection, who ran for office in the Finnish Parliament several years ago…but he didn’t win, so I’m still the only known resident.)

Then Eliezer Yudkowsky shared my blog on facebook…and tagged Robin Hanson and Carl Shulman. Then somebody created a post on Less Wrong announcing my existence.

I have a lot of emotions about this. Here are a few:

1) Guilt, or something like it. “I don’t deserve this attention. There are lots of people in the rationalist community who are smarter than I am and whose thoughts are more deserving of attention, whose careers have and will accomplish more than my career, who are smarter and more-educated and more thoughtful than I.”

2) Nerves. “Now I have one more community to represent (edit: I mean represent in the general sense, not in the sense of voting in the legislature), and it’s a community I respect a lot. If I make a bad choice or say something ridiculous…”

3) Excitement. “All these extremely intelligent people who’ve put a lot of work into educating themselves and overcoming the flaws in their hardware are now aware of my existence and my goals and able to give me advice. This can only be a good thing.”

The guilt is dumb, because people aren’t paying attention because they think I’m the smartest or the best-educated or the most thoughtful around. They’re probably paying attention because I’m doing something unusual in the rationalist community, and they’re curious about how it will go. Let’s shelve the guilt. The excitement makes the most sense.

…Posts I’m planning on making soon:

Advice Received So Far

Is the New Hampshire State House Optimized for Good Decisions?

Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Have Voted for Me (or Anybody Else)

Beginning

I can’t worry about getting every blog post exactly right, because then I’ll never publish a post, obviating the purpose of having a blog.

I might need to repeat that sentence at the beginning of every post, so don’t be surprised if you see it a lot.

What is my purpose in starting this blog? Transparency. I want the people in Manchester Ward 4 to be able to come here if they’re confused about why I voted the way I did.

I also think it will be helpful as a record for myself. If I make a mistake in my thinking, it will be recorded here, and I will be able to look back on it and learn from it.

Here is my big confession: I am in a state of flux. My opinions are not fixed. I am capable of changing my mind.

What can change my mind? Evidence. If you have strong evidence that a policy will have good results, please bring it to me, and I will consider that policy.

You might be wondering: if I’m not confident in my beliefs, why did I run for office? Isn’t ego the engine that drives politicians?

Here is how I originally decided to run for office:

Fundamental goal: helping people by reducing the causes of human suffering. (This hasn’t changed.)

I believed government is a major cause of suffering. E.g. war, the prison-industrial complex, the criminalization of poverty.

I believed as a general rule, peaceful, voluntary interactions (liberty) are superior to coercion (government). I self-identified as a libertarian and moved to New Hampshire as part of the Free State Project.

I saw some wins for liberty in the State House and some losses. I wanted to help liberty “win” in the State House, so I decided to run for state representative.

After I won my primary, I realized that I could very well have power (albeit a small slice, 1 seat out of 400 in 1 out of 2 chambers of the legislature, in 1 out of 3 branches of the government) and that my decisions would affect other people. I decided it was time to read the Sequences on the blog Less Wrong. I started with How to Actually Change Your Mind. I knew that I would hear a lot of arguments at the State House, some good and some bad. I wanted to be persuaded by good arguments and fail to be persuaded by bad arguments. I wanted to be certain that I was thinking clearly and rationally.

As it turns out, such certainty is hard to come by.

As an aspiring rationalist, I started questioning everything. Well–not everything. I still think suffering is bad. I still want to reduce suffering and promote flourishing. But all my assumptions are under consideration.

If you’re a libertarian reading this and you think that the weight of the evidence is on “your side,” this should not be cause for alarm.

If you’re not a libertarian and you have good evidence for a specific policy you think I should support, please e-mail me at ecomstockedwards (at) gmail (dot) com. Anecdotes are insufficient.

I’m going to do the best I can.