Ep. 69: Ben Landau-Taylor on social technology, institutions, and the future.

Watch our interview with Ben on Youtube.

Ben Landau-Taylor is a senior researcher at Bismarck Analysis, where he focuses on power, industry, economics, and social dynamics.


Show notes

  • Ben has spent a number of years asking and answering the question 'how do societies work'?
  • This has involved taking a few different approaches. One is using the Great Founder theory developed by Samo Burja, and another is deeply studying particular episodes in history with a view towards arriving at principles which apply to social organization broadly.
  • Trent wanted to know how exactly this principle-finding process works. After all, as Ben himself admits, every time and place is different and it's not possible to do experiments in social science like we do in the physical sciences.
  • Ben's answer has several parts.
  • First, you want to be sampling broadly across a wide variety of time periods. Some things have been stable since the 1970's, some since the printing press, and some for all of human history.
  • Second, as you arrive at a new theory of how a particular social process works this must be tested against new case studies.
  • Thomas notes that Ben's approach is radically different from the way most people think about issues in social science, and wants to know what they're getting wrong.
  • Ben says that there's a tendency in the social sciences to begin quantifying things long before it's justified. Specifically, if you're going to try to build a mathematical model of a phenomenon the measuring tools need to be very precise relative to the effect they're trying to capture, and this just isn't true in many places.
  • There are certain problems, such as studying fertility rates across different demographics, where we have fairly well-defined concepts and quantitative models can reveal a lot. But too often researchers and the public want to act like a squishy metric, such as how democratic a society is, is meaningful simply because there's a number involved, and more often than not that's not true.
  • Trent asks about the foundations of economic methodology, specifically the deductive approach to the study of human affairs taken by Austrian economics. Ben replies that like most schools of economics Austrianism tends to overestimate the degree to which people engage in explicit economic reasoning (i.e. thinking in terms of supply and demand).
  • When asked about whether or not Ben thinks America is in decline he answers emphatically: 'yes'. He notes that America has gone through several periods of institutional building followed by long periods of decline as the institutions became warped and subverted to serving different ends than the ones they were designed for.
  • Today, we are living within the institutional framework established by FDR's New Deal program. One possibility is that America opts to undergo a fourth institutional change, which should buy us some decades. Or we may continue a slow slide into decay and irrelevance.
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