Might is Right

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philosophy

The Athenians said, “we shall not trouble you with specious pretences … since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Thucydides, Melian Dialogue

JFK versus Kruschev in the Cuban Missle Crisis is one of the past century’s most climactic moments. Both were bright, powerful leaders that for a few days decided the future of the world. Not many people know that JFK was the black sheep of his family: the golden child was actually his brother, Joe Kennedy Jr., who died in WW2. However, JFK came from financial privilege, went to LSE, and earned his keep as a war hero before his serendipitous election to the senate. All of this later situated him within the American intelligentsia.

On the other hand, Kruschev was born in one of the poorest Russian towns and fought his way through Russian politics through equal parts tenacity and savvy. He was one of the few generals who could tolerate Stalin’s bipolar nature, knowing when to laugh and when to be “ignorant” of his misdeeds. Kruschev’s background was as far from that of JFK’s as one could imagine and in the Missile Crisis, these opposites attracted.

We all know how close we came to disaster in 1962 – it was a known known even at the time. Sadly, our world today is not that clean cut; the pugnacious mushroom clouds of nuclear warfare aren’t staring at us in the face, rather America’s biggest threats today loom in the shadows and are larger than ever before. Cyber warfare, autocratic governments, IP theft, genetic weapons: the list goes on ad infinitum.

浑水摸鱼

Muddy waters make it easy to catch fish

Carson Block, Muddy Waters Research

How America can protect itself? We generally need to have a stronger systems approach to defense than our adversaries, whether it’s in drone warfare or in securing our borders. Lack of emphasis on defense and infrastructure are the largest precursors to civilizational decay. The Romans, near the 4th century AD, supposedly remarked: “huh, the roads are getting worse aren’t they.” In the case of America, we’re not the only superpower on horizon anymore. Competition should be worrysome, but we’re taking it very lightly even though the consequences for losing such a game would be catastrophic.

I oscillate on the question of competition, but warfare is a 0 sum game. For Rome to have expanded its empire, Carthage had to lose and indeed it did. Winners erase the history of the losers, which is exactly what happened with the Athenians and Melians. The latter suffered what they had to as the consequence of being weak – the Athenians did whatever they could to them. In this sense, most who have absolute power are corrupted absolutely.

Another world war would be globally apocalpytic. The political zeitgeist claims that MAD prevents this possibility, but humans aren’t rational creatures. Kahneman and Tversky were right in saying that its near impossible to balance our system 1 and 2 thoughts. Game theory has a mental model for this: the trembling hand strategy reflects the notion that an actor might play an unintended strategy. The past shows that people are not always aware of the most optimal decisions nor even if they were, would they choose to make them.

Geopolitically, the only strategy that has worked with any real level of success has been for one power to soar over everyone else. It’s only because America had the might to potentially discipline other nations that we haven’t seen another war. Otherwise, we’d see another warring states period where mimetic desire compels people to fight over the same parcels of land (scramble for Africa) or belittle the same groups of people (Jews). Europe sees a genocide once a generation: it’s not the EU that stops another massacre from taking place. Having a world superpower with its bedrock formed on the ideas of human rights and freedom of speech is better than those who throw minority groups into concentration camps the first chance they get.

Henry Kissinger writes that the the modern world order actually started with the peace of Westphalia in the 17th century, after the 30 years war, which established a collection of states who would decide on neutral rules for the rest of the world. Otherwise there would be incessant fights over religious grounds and the bloodshed would continue. And, we’re still grappling with this system today: the line between order and freedom of the individual has never been more blurry.

Any system of world order, to be sustainable, must be accepted as just—not only by leaders, but also by citizens. It must reflect two truths: order without freedom, even if sustained by momentary exaltation, eventually creates its own counterpoise; yet freedom cannot be secured or sustained without a framework of order to keep the peace. Order and freedom, sometimes described as opposite poles on the spectrum of experience, should instead be understood as interdependent. Can today’s leaders rise above the urgency of day-to-day events to achieve this balance?

Henry Kissinger, World Order

This does seem like navigating the waters between the Scylla of dullness and the Charybdis of mendacity. The battle between order and freedom for the majority of the world has taken place and they erred on the side of order and effectively, autocracy. But the question remains: where does the individual proceed from here on out? Who is willing to support natural law?

This is why the US must continue to invest in the rights of personhood as we have done in the past. The only way we can keep acting as a countermeasure to the rest of the world is by investing in defense technology, both in digital and analog.

In short, Anduril seems to be the only major American business addressing this with a realistic approach. By adopting a unique and “Silicon Valley” approach to defense, they can cut costs and align incentives between themselves and the government. Other defense and aerospace companies are laggards and rent-seekers. As FAANG is plagued by politics and a virulent employee base who believe the US government is evil, Anduril is free to come in and start making science fiction into a reality. Farcically, other corporations force the government to purchase the contract before seeing the weapons, which is ludicrous. That’s akin to purchasing a house sight unseen.

But Anduril is not enough; we need a coalition of players that are helping secure the safety and future of the USA. Like in the story of Athens vs Melias, we should settle for doing what we can in a positive sum manner to prevent those who wish to harm others take power.

The Author

Some musings about tech + philosophy + econ.

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