The Statist's Wet Dream

I find it absolutely unsurprising that Paul Krugman was enthralled by the vision of a science that can be used by a few people to control the actions and futures of all humanity.  He said “I want to be one of those guys!”  I was captivated by the vision in the book as well, but my thought was always "how do we avoid these guys?"  The second two books were about how government planners used mind control to deal with humanity whenever individuals had the gall to circumvent their plans.  Lovely.

If I remember right, Asimov wrote the Foundation after reading the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.  The notion of how much of history is inevitable due to large forces (e.g. economics) vs. how much is due to the actions of individuals and what historians now call contingency (e.g. luck) is an endlessly fascinating thing to debate, and I found the Foundation books to be interesting thought exercises along these lines.  But it certainly didn't inspire my life's goals, any more than Dune made me wish for a religious jihad.

I can see the secret Second Foundation scratching their heads now in their secret lair (which turns out to be in the New York Times building in the middle of New York City but that's a spoiler from the third book).  The equations show right here that a trillion dollar stimulus should have kept unemployment below 8%....

  • Brooks

    "I want to be one of those guys".... just... epic facepalm.

    Obvious retort from Hayek: The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.

  • pete h

    Presume you mean the Decline and Fall...(Gibbon)

  • IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society

    >>> The second two books were about how government planners used mind control to deal with humanity whenever individuals had the gall to circumvent their plans. Lovely.

    I think that's a bit of a cynical view of the idea. Possibly more realistic in terms of how it would be abused by government than Asimov, then only just beyond a teenager, would have realized, but that's not how ASIMOV perceived or intended it to be used.

    The first book was more about the whole idea of large scale forces, including economics and social patterns, having a predictable and directable quality of their own, and that, just as one might change the course of a river towards an end more beneficial for humanity than that which random chance would produce (see floods, midwest), so might one also direct and, if imperfectly, control them as well for the overall benefit of humanity. Asimov's assumption was that they WERE going to flow, and that it ought to be possible to determine a "greatest good for the greatest number" metric which would allow you to decide where it might be good to tweak those flows rather than let them run over humanity.

    And lest you think I'm defending his ideas, not really, I'm just acking that it's not quite so clearcut anti-individual as you suggest, either. I believe Asimov believed that his "Galactic Empire", for the most part, DID aim to rule much as benevolently and with as much room for free self-determination as ours does. By Hari Seldon's time, that was failing due to the society failing as a whole, but those ideas were supposed to be re-invigorated in under the Foundation's rule. As to the Second Foundation, it was always supposed to be very small and limited in scope, primarily there for dealing with self-serving individuals out to benefit themselves without regard for the needs of REAL society (as opposed to government... not the same thing). Again, I grasp that's a very difficult thing to define while preserving individual freedom and liberty, but remember, Asimov was working from and with "perfect ideas", not from real world ones.

    And I'd point out to you, the stuff he wrote in the 40s and 50s in this vein were fleshed out substantially in his later years as he melded the earlier robot stories with the foundation and its successor stories (there were a number of books set both before and after the original trilogy).
    ...
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    .Nota Bene: Some spoilers follow, read on "at your peril"
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    He vastly extended his robotic concepts/novels and used them in the followup novels about society and robots in the short term, and wrote precursor novels about the development of The Foundation and Hari Seldon, as well as post-trilogy novels.

    He postulated that two different robots changed the course of humanity --- one of them developed a flaw which gave it the ability to alter the soft direction of peoples' inclinations -- not so much mind control as being able to whisper a really really well-founded suggestion in someone's ear, so they were very likely to follow it... or to make them not bother to think about something that they knew. Another of them managed to rise above the 1st law to produce a "0th" law, which led it to believe it should act to the benefit of humanity as it, the robot perceived it, even if that meant that an individual human might come to harm. Hence, it could stand by and allow an individual to come to harm if it believed that it was in humanity's best interests that they do so, though it would be quite painful to the robot to do so (and if that isn't mirroring humanity's free will and empathy, what is?).

    That has TWO strong significances there -- first off, the robot could, nominally, grasp that being an overt controller of peoples' actions would harm them by removing their individual freedom, and, second off, it could theoretically (but with much pain to itself) allow a human to die if that person were, oh, "evil". The "flawed" robot understood how to induce the "flaw" into other robots, and he does so at the end of a book (having used its power in a "0th" way without having the rule built in, which destroys itself as a self-sacrificial act), giving the power to the one with the "0th Law" in its functionality, giving it both a power to act as a protector of humanity and the capacity to do so.

    In fact...
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    Double spoiler alert!!
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    it is this robot which, millenia later, fed funding to Hari Seldon and who was behind the small cadre of robots which controlled the Second Foundation.

    Again, granted, Asimov was an idealist and working from idealistic principles here, so one can see how an idiot like Krugman would be just as unable to see the problems with his ideas much as Krugman fails to see the problems with socialism/communism/collectivism.

    However, I'd point out here to you something important -- and that is, that Asimov's robots were, by definition, inherently incorruptible, and would always choose to do what was best for humanity when a choice presented itself (argue about the idea that there would be "one proper choice that was best for all humans" elsewhere, I cede it already).

    These ROBOTS were the ones directing use of the "mind control" power. And, while a human might abuse that power for his or her own benefit, a robot would not. So, while you can argue the robot's choice for it being the "one best choice", you CAN presume it was not made in such a way as to benefit any specific individual. In other words, the robots WERE guiding humanity within certain limits but not "controlling them" as you fear. And you can feel free to make any arguments for or against the notion of humanity being guided in the large part by well-meaning robots if you want. I think Asimov's overall description of what is done and why to be an acceptable balance between ordered freedom and chaos. Without the intervention of the robots, the entire point was that the galaxy would descend into utter barbarism for as much as 100,000 years or more, rather than the 1000 years the Seldon plan took to restore a level of civilization. Even if you argue in favor of individual freedom, "barbaric states" tend towards the least support for individual freedom. A state has to be fairly wealthy and civilized to offer any real freedom (yes, the ideal level is debatable for all of those parameters).

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    I'd point out that Asimov's last stuff is fairly, oh, pedestrian, in its writing and characterization, and I found it exceptionally boring to read mostly. The ideas and his connecting a large swath of his stories into a complete Heinleinesque "Future History" is of some interest but expect the reading to be a bit tedious for the most part, esp. on the stuff he wrote in the mid to late 80s or so. I think many of the last 5-6 books could be written in 2/3rds the words and be tighter and more entertaining, while being just as informative.

  • http://tjic.com TJIC

    Folks make fun of libertarians by saying "They read Heinlein at 13 and never got over it".

    True enough.

    I read Asimov at 11, and Heinlein at 13, and Heinlein helped get me over Asimov.

    Too bad Krugman never advanced from 11 yo thinking to 13 yo thinking like I did.

  • DrTorch

    Asimov was a PhD chemist (specifically biochemistry). But, he obviously had a brilliant mind and understood many scientific disciplines well.

    The Foundation Series is an allegory to statistical mechanics. Or perhaps a fun exploration of it remotely akin to Flatland. It is an anthropromorphic study of the relationship between the macroscopic, possessing a canonical distribution of states, and the microscopic events that lead to them.

    And at that level, it's BRILLIANT.

    It is not a recipe for government (national, local or galactic). It is not singing the praises of central planning (unless your an Intelligent Design believer).

  • MikeinAppalachia

    Maybe Krugman missed the part about the Mule?

  • Another guy named Dan

    @DrTorch: I think you're missing something important. yes, Psychohistory was influenced by statistical mechanics, and that is so much as spelled out in the books. However, they Foundation series is also a product of its times. Remember they were written in the late 1930s and Early 1940s.

    The world was awash with the great technocratic systems of National Socialism, Marxist Leninism, Italian Fascism, and Progressive Socialism. Though they were all in conflict with one another, they all touted as a central conceit that their ascendency was both scientifically and historically pre-determinate.

    In the best tradition of Speculative, rather than purely science fiction, Asimov assumed as true the tenent that history could be predicted scientifically, and then proceded to write the narrative from that perspective.

  • http://evilredscandi.blogspot.com Evil Red Scandi

    Snarking on Krugman is like picking on handicapped children. Nonetheless, it still brightened my morning.

  • Anonymous Mike

    Was I the only one rooting for the Mule?

    I loved the first book of the trilogy and when I read a snippet sometime back about Krugman and how he was inspired by the Foundation trilogy I read into it believing he was inspired by the ability of social science (psychohistory) to predict events (as opposed to controlling events.) That notion of social science permeated academia and was still there when I was in grad school but it was being supplanted by postmodernism.

    I loved the optimism of the First Foundation, the determination and pluckiness of its first leaders, the gumption and swagger of the Traders - a good blaster after all points both ways. It was part of Assimov's genius as a writer that you never saw the true nature of the Second Foundation coming.

    The larger and more nefarious analogy here is that the hard-working First Foundation, economically productive and vital, was supposed to unify the Galaxy while being used by the string-pulling Second Foundation. Now that I read Krugman's fuller quote I see that he sees himself as a Second Foundation string pullers and the rest of us as First Foundation stooges.

    Maybe that would be a good litmus test for anyone who wants to be a manager or leader- are you a First or Second Foundation type of a guy?

  • caseyboy

    May I cut to the chase? Krugman is a naive elitist, which I think can be safely distilled to "idiot savant".

  • http://myweeklycrime.wordpress.com Elliot

    I made it up to the point where the Mule is handled by the secret group. The whole telepathy aspect ruined the story for me. I can't stand it when a book or movie tosses in wild cards which totally change the nature of the fictional universe. Asimov himself argued against science fiction stories in which the laws of physics were ignored.

    The worst examples of the wild card plot twists are movies about vampires, werewolves, or superheros in which new powers, faults, or "rules" pop up several times throughout a movie, with no explanation why such items never affected the story beforehand. Eventually, I just throw up my hands. Hell, they could have Smurfs ninjas swoop in on flying carpets, attacking the bad guys using a combination of the Bene Gesserit prana-bindu and Shaolin Kung Fu. Follow that with a battalion of Gungan's riding Harleys, swinging Bat'leths screaming, "There can be only one!"

  • http://myweeklycrime.wordpress.com Elliot

    As for Krugman's fantasies of elites engineering society for their grand designs, Asimov and other science fiction writers had the liberty of positing grand cities, spaceships, or other devices which would dwarf the Apollo project, without explaining how such projects are funded, particularly since structures up to and including Dyson spheres would take multiple lifetimes to complete, a bit like the medieval cathedrals. The very concept of individual rights, including the right to refuse to contribute to such projects, is almost never visited.

  • aczarnowski

    This is my shocked face.

    I tried to like the Foundation series and just couldn't do it. Figuring out why took me a while. Now that I have it, the books are a handy litmus test when I meet new people and have to make geeky small talk.

  • me

    Well, it's easy. First you find the guy who took the trillion dollars, ...

  • IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society

    >> Asimov and other science fiction writers had the liberty of positing grand cities, spaceships, or other devices which would dwarf the Apollo project, without explaining how such projects are funded, particularly since structures up to and including Dyson spheres would take multiple lifetimes to complete, a bit like the medieval cathedrals.

    And yet the medaeval cathedrals got built... hmmm... hmmm...

    Yes, they don't have to worry about how it got funded. They rarely worry about the central character needing to take a crap, either. This would be the nature of fiction. Some stuff just happens in the background, with little explanation for the gory details.

    The reason why those things are "gory details" is because most fiction, not just SF, is about acting, not living. It allows us to escape the main BS of life and enjoy what are pretty much the high points of someone else's.

  • IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society

    >> The Foundation Series is an allegory to statistical mechanics.

    Actually, I seem to recall he identified the inspiration as stochastic chemistry. He thought that, once you got up to the galactic empire scale, that individual human behavior would be mostly subsumed into larger forces much as chemical macroprocesses subsume the Brownian motion of individual molecules.

    I think the real issue lies in whether or not you could have any kind of "Galactic Empire" as the informational distance between the top of the heirarchy and the bottom of the heirarchy becomes too large, not just by the number of intervening layers needed but also by the sheer inability of the top level to respond to the vast volume of information created at the bottom level. I think that such a system necessarily devolves into a network with things handled at the first connective join with the power and resources to handle it. I think the problems of the USA (along with Europe, for that matter -- look at the state of the Euro) to manage itself make the idea of a world government unstable, an overlarge interstellar government improbable, and a galactic government laughable.

  • Not Sure

    "I want to be one of those guys!" - Paul Krugman

    "How come in former lifetimes, everybody is someone famous?
    How come nobody ever says they were Joe Schmo?" - Crash Davis

  • http://hertzlinger.blogspot.com Joseph Hertzlinger

    If only he'd read The End of Eternity (also by Asimov) instead. In The End of Eternity, all of history is planned by the Eternals, planners who really are all-wise because they have time travel and can see what the effects of their actions will be, ... and they still manage to make a mess of things:

    "Any system like Eternity which allows men to choose their own future will end by choosing safety and mediocrity, and in such a Reality the stars are out of reach."