Inaccessible Is Ungovernable

I sometimes use the term ‘accessible’ in the Microsoft sense.

The mouthful version of ‘accessible’ is something like this:  To abstractly describe the character of a human interactive or processed experience when it is tailored to not exceed the limitations of the particular human being to which it is being presented.

So, if you are blind or paralyzed, your disability prevents you from using a computer terminal in the normal way without some assistive technology.  If you are confined to a wheelchair, you cannot easily enter a building without a sloped ramp.

And everyone is ‘disabled’ in terms of not having infinitely capable brains or strengths of will.  We can only absorb so much information so fast, and we all have limited cognitive potential and capacity to resist detrimental impulse.

The ‘accessible society’ is an ideal where we cease to propagate the common legal fiction of ‘choice, agreement, and contract by notice and informed consent’ and are honest with people that they will only be given the choices that they have the potential to make responsibly for themselves.  This is the same kind of custodianship / guardianship relationship we insist upon for the legally incompetent, like children or the senile, and when we admit that all adults are in reality ‘disabled’ and ‘incompetent’ below the libertarian ideal to some degree or another, then it is just enlightened paternalism.

Even if you are smart, but you are not an expert in a complex licensed profession (say, the law), or practiced in some skilled trade (say, auto repair) then sometimes that ‘assistive technology’ is another person, perhaps an agent or ombudsman, who can ‘boil it all down for you’, and ‘bring it down to your level’ as a layman.  He presents simple questions to you to establish your preferences and priorities, and then he uses his skills to take care of the rest.  It’s a black box to you, and a form of specialization for which we are usually willing to pay.  Gains from trade and all that.

The theory of general suffrage in a republic also uses this justification to rationalize how individuals who are incompetent to govern can nevertheless express their preferences and have fiduciary-like representatives of their interests govern on their behalf.  Obviously, it doesn’t work this way.  Because it can’t.

Part of the problem is presented by the question, “What if you can’t ‘black box’ the mess away?”  The principal is required to make certain difficult decisions, but the complexity involved in making a genuine individual choice is irreducible.  And what if, furthermore, something is so complicated that there simply are no human agents actually able to navigate the confusing maze?

So, in this sense of ‘accessible’, I mean something like ‘comprehensible’, ‘digestible’, ‘fathomable’, ‘intelligible’, etc.

So, while it might be possible to build manned fighter jets capable of taking turns at 20g, it would be pointless for us to do so because it would turn the pilot’s brains into pulp.  In general, nothing should be built that exceeds the potential of the individuals who must wield it.  This category includes the governance of organizations.

Perhaps one need not place too much respect in the Democratic ideal that the ordinary citizen should be able, with only a reasonable amount study and research, to understand the nature of his government’s operation.  But one should insist that the actual managers of the enterprise be able to understand it.

One would think that such a principle would provide a kind of human-capacity upper-bound on the scope of any collective endeavor.  Not every decision is delegable or process scalable. Indeed such limitations have diminished the perceived attractiveness of the integrated corporate conglomerate model after some enthusiasm in the 60’s and 70’s.

In addition, Luttwak has noted that the leadership of large nations are often distracted by time-consuming requirements to personally respond to categories of events perceived by their populations (and media) as rising to the national level of significance.  The larger the nation, the more of these types of events, the greater the distraction.

These are all good reasons to favor focus and brevity.  Yet USG’s operations has become so plenary and its rules so extensively written by expert bureaucrats that the systemic, big-picture view, indispensable for intelligent management, is often inaccessible even to them.

And so, in what will probably evolve eventually into that hallmark of the blogosphere, the ‘watch’, as in ‘Inaccessible Government Watch’, I present to you some of the latest examples:

Administration didn’t know the date of the Obamacare Tax Penalty deadline.

Obamacare regulations are up to 12 Million words.

Dodd-Frank is in the same ballpark.

More to follow, we can be sure.


How can we make things more accessible?  Here’s one clever way from the pre-financial crisis, pre-CFPB  real world.  Too lazy to google the source at the moment, but I was taught about a regulation concerning a certain key part of Credit Card contracts.  The idea was that the agency involved would take the language directly from a bank’s advertised agreement and would then form a kind of focus group which would be a, ahem, ‘cognitively-representative’ sample of the, ahem, ‘most vulnerable’ set of target consumers.

The agency would have these poor, nearly-but-not-quite-incompetent-to-contract individuals read the language of the offer (as if anyone, even smart people, actually did that), and they would then give them a very simple, true-false quiz about the key elements of the offer – the interest rate, delinquency penalty, etc.  If the tender minds didn’t do at least a little better than random guessing on the quiz, then the agency wouldn’t permit the bank to advertise the offer in that form.  Back to the drawing board!

Of course, this lowest-common denominator approach to accessibility will certainly overprotect more competent and sophisticated adults from entering into higher-risk-higher-reward agreements.  Instead of presuming maturity and competence, government can discriminate and only license the most savvy individuals (or some proxy for astuteness, like wealth) to participate in such ventures, much as the SEC already does with its rules governing Accredited Investors.

But in general, the lesson is that when the government really cares about the capacity for something to be understood, it tests for that comprehension and nothing gets past the post without such verification of accessibility.


James Madison on Inaccessibility, Federalist #62:

It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?

And people, he’s talking about an era with quills, primitive printing presses, and delivery of correspondence by horse.  It didn’t get better with modern IT.

UPDATE 2 (HT: Moonbattery) A single year of the Federal Register:

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19 Responses to Inaccessible Is Ungovernable

  1. VXXC says:

    It’s not supposed to be accessible or understood. If it were, it might dawn on the commons that democracy has been dead for 80 years. It also might lead to the ultimate nightmare of politics [democracy] holding the actual government accountable. The system is working as designed.

    Except…with no checks but the virtue of the Administrators…who were apparently supposed to be saints on earth …without these checks the governance is actually an no limits EBT card. Fill your shopping carts with Abandon. Don’t be the sucker who doesn’t abandon his cart.

    The circle of horrible consequences for insane and evil choices, events with lives of their own, and the approach of a wronged and terrible people with their loins already girded did not close today. It will. When you’re insane, evil and bankrupt I don’t fancy your chances.

    As to the commons make decisions about governance: they governed well for far longer than we have been governed criminally, which is since Clinton.* For the commons of course have no power even collectively at the ballot box for decades, we have Shinto democracy and a Shinto republic. People without power are victims. It’s human nature to take advantage of them, and it’s as predicable as gravity. The Republic and Democracy in America weren’t about forming a ever more perfect government, it was about a more perfect Union , of which the government was only part. The commons might not make better administators of others lives, but they might be the best administrators of their own.

    * If it hadn’t been Clinton it would have been somebody else. Money laying on the table and all that..

    • Handle says:

      No one is trying to make it inaccessible on purpose. And while the content of all unclassified regulations (or the ‘deep, effective understanding of the dynamics of the body of law of the issue at hand’) may be ‘inaccessible’ cognitively, it is at least completely transparently available and free on the internet. But no one is willing or able to read and understand even small fractions of it without getting paid to do so.

      • VXXC says:

        Honest Government would sweep this mess away. This has happened many times in History, and many times in History it’s swept away and simplified, codified. What you are pointing to is self-interest against fixing it [they won’t fix it as a wise man said].

        I will add malice by the actual powers as to opposed to functionaries.

        They do not mean my people [Americans] well. They have proven it relentlessly over decades. They who meant well would not have allowed Detroit, never mind the Rust Belt, CA, parts of NJ, NYC until recently [and on sand is the revival built] St Louis, Gary IN, Baltimore..this is the Morgenthau plan with drugs and porn thrown in for degradation.

        That list of indictments alone is damning malice .

        Malice is the Motive.

  2. spandrell says:

    Problem is any individual bureaucrat has the incentive to overcomplicate his job so as to gain a personal advantage towards competitors. This guild-like behavior scales to the bureau,, agency and ministry level, so you get an ever more convoluted mess.

    • Handle says:

      I understand the incentive argument, but I’ve never seen this happen in practice. Not once. There are plenty of counter-incentives (work load, comprehensibility), not to mention adversarial interests and enough career transition / progression to diminish the personal reward for ‘indispensability’.

      Instead, the complexity arises from other origins. Sometimes length is required to add a lot of special-interest exceptions from a general rule. See, e.g. “The Computation of Taxable Income“. Sometimes it just takes a lot of words to express something quantitative (even graphical) in parliamentary language. (another tax example).

      Sometimes the courts force our hands. So, if there are one hundred synthetic molecular variants of a particular intoxicating substance, the courts have insisted that each substance be described with the precision of organic chemistry nomenclature. The Analogue Act is surprisingly toothless. And if you don’t anticipate every atomic manipulation, then some new, but trivially different, substance can come out for which the producer can make a colorable argument that he was not on sufficient notice of it’s illegality, and the rule of lenity quashes the prosecution. So the reaction is to stuff the controlled substance list with volumes of words.

      A lot of length comes from trying to deal with the problem of legal uncertainty and creative / activist / results-oriented interpretation in jurisprudence. If judges and magistrates tend to do all kinds of crazy and unpredictable things with any tiny ambiguity, then that creates huge amounts of uncertainty for everyone involved. The only way you can forestall and preempt that nonsense is to spell out every specific detail to the point of nausea so that there is no meaningful interpretive room left. The same rationale applies to trying to regulate private actors incentivized to look for loopholes ex-ante, or creative defenses ex-post.

      It’s not just a government problem – private firms that can’t rely on predictable patterns of fair, unbiased, sensible jurisprudence also have to pay teams of lawyers to write contracts orders of magnitude more lengthy than is reasonable. Check out an End-User License Agreement sometime (ha, nobody ever reads those things, they just click ‘I agree’ or even ‘I have read and agree’).

      So regulators / contract writers act like military planners and try as best they can to wargame out every possible scenario and predetermine the results and reactions. Unlike military planners, when the plan goes into effect, adapting to new circumstances or realizing mistakes or loopholes isn’t met with immediate adaptation. That makes it even more vital to get everything nailed down at the very beginning, because you may never get a second bite a the apple.

      • spandrell says:

        You’ve never seen a bureaucrat awfully proud of his trained knowledge of bureaucratese, and his angry dismissal of any efforts to simplify his job? I have.

        • Handle says:

          Heh, oh, I’ve seen plenty of bureaucrats try to justify the inescapable necessity their utterly dispensable tasks! That’s not what I meant.

          I meant that I’ve been involved with many collective rule-writing efforts, and no one writes unnecessarily lengthy and complex rules for the sake of preserving their sinecure or making themselves termination-proof. They just do it to try and cover all the bases. Reality and crazy jurisprudence creates countless bases.

          It has that effect, certainly, but it’s incidental, not consequential. Cui Bono is a good start, but never the end, of analysis.

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  4. Dan says:

    I am a bureaucrat (patent examiner) and I think the truth is much simpler. I try to be straight and to the point in my interactions because I am aware of how our kind can gum things up.

    Bureaucrats complicate things because it fills an emotional need for attention and involvement. It is much like how my older mother will rarely give the short version of a story when the long version will do. She craves the interaction, while I am writhing to get the facts and get back to my responsibilities. When I ask her a simple question (e.g. would you like to join our family for dinner?), she makes every effort to do everything but answer directly because she can temporarily command attention while I wait.

    • Handle says:

      ‘Bureaucrats complicate things because it fills an emotional need for attention and involvement’

      There’s something to this. Everybody on a team wants to feel like they contributed something novel and substantial – they raised some point that eluded everyone else and earn a tiny 15 seconds of glory. Everybody wants that bullet point on their evaluation report about their special project fiefdom.

      But I’m talking about the law and regulation in general, and when I’m diving through reams of CFR or contract language, I see no evidence of emotional need fulfillment. I see a lot of responses to hypothetical what-ifs and cases that went the wrong way.

      There is probably a good analogy to computer programming and code-bloat in that realm. I hope Stanislav can opine on the matter. If one if trudging though thousands of lines of computer programming, one doesn’t seem emotional fulfillment, one sees miles of kludges, and secondary and higher orders of kludges upon kludges, and attempts at backward compatibility with legacy designs. There are elegant programs, most programs probably start with elegant ideas, but things just tend to develop into a giant, ugly mess with time. A mess that is ‘inaccessible’ – that no one can understand. Trying to make such systems stable or secure becomes an impossible task, and at some point one recognizes the need to just start over with something completely new. Maybe like URbit.

      • Dan says:

        Good point. Emotional needs of bureaucrats probably can’t explain the volume. Perhaps a big explanation is the modern computer, with the copy-paste ability and the ability to duplicate and send infinitely many copies of documents to different recipients at no marginal cost. In the past, the physicality and printing and organizational costs of law books and other files wowas a restraint. If the Obamacare rules had to be printed and bound and sent to 100,000 recipients they would be far less than their current size.

        • Dan says:

          As a patent examiner, I often deal with prior art disclosures by applicants who are putting forth the prior art that they know of beforehand to cover themselves.

          I have occasionally encountered submissions with tens of thousands of documents, something that would be entirely impossible before the computer age. It is easy to use software to turn whole database query results into prior art disclosures submitted to the patent office, which would have been unthinkable in the analog age.

  5. Konkvistador says:

    Two minor thoughts:

    Catholicism is interesting in that it is a memeplex that seems to accommodate everyone from the village idiot to the genious, while being primarily organized and designed by a hierarchical structure. Worth some study. A Machiavellian analysis of Catholicism may be harder than it looks however since, it can compromise the studier, by converting him and because its enemies have a century long tradition of ink squid clowds ( most of the English sources on its politics and history.

    Monarchy seems to be an accessible social arrangement for most cognitive levels. Personal loyalty or at lest professing it is something humans are both capable of after all and something in which we are equipped by evolution to detect fakery. I think Nick Land called it the primordial dream of the alpha male ape telling us what to do and taking care of us. The hereditary version of monarchy has the added advantage of formalizing nepotism, eliminating most of the corruption (disinformation) that usually accompanies it.

    • Handle says:

      The traditional military is also a classic example of an institution that was able to find a useful place for, and message digestible by, anyone in the population, whatever their level. That’s decreasingly true, as you can see from this table. The last column, “I + II + IIIA Subtotal,” is the key. The Air Force, for example, is the Lake Wobegon of the forces, ‘All our Airmen are above average’.

      But the other services are getting close. Increasingly, in a crappy labor market, and with declining budgets and a shrinking force structure, the services can afford to recruit, retain, and promote the cream of the crop. Simultaneously, and mostly coincidentally, the capital-and technology-intensive military job has become much more cognitively demanding than the old ‘cannon fodder peasant’ stereotype. And like in sports, all else being equal, smarter brains make better troops.

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