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Blub in America: Can We See Better Options?

by , Editor in Chief, Free Liberal

Recently, Carl Milsted pointed me to Paul Graham, who is a programmer turned venture capitalist. What Graham says here about computer languages appears in line with the free liberal idea of getting unlocked from a particular dogma. Graham writes:

Programmers get very attached to their favorite languages, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so to explain this point I’m going to use a hypothetical language called Blub. Blub falls right in the middle of the abstractness continuum. It is not the most powerful language, but it is more powerful than Cobol or machine language.

And in fact, our hypothetical Blub programmer wouldn’t use either of them. Of course he wouldn’t program in machine language. That’s what compilers are for. And as for Cobol, he doesn’t know how anyone can get anything done with it. It doesn’t even have x (Blub feature of your choice).

As long as our hypothetical Blub programmer is looking down the power continuum, he knows he’s looking down. Languages less powerful than Blub are obviously less powerful, because they’re missing some feature he’s used to. But when our hypothetical Blub programmer looks in the other direction, up the power continuum, he doesn’t realize he’s looking up. What he sees are merely weird languages. He probably considers them about equivalent in power to Blub, but with all this other hairy stuff thrown in as well. Blub is good enough for him, because he thinks in Blub.

When we switch to the point of view of a programmer using any of the languages higher up the power continuum, however, we find that he in turn looks down upon Blub. How can you get anything done in Blub? It doesn’t even have y.

By induction, the only programmers in a position to see all the differences in power between the various languages are those who understand the most powerful one. (This is probably what Eric Raymond meant about Lisp making you a better programmer.) You can’t trust the opinions of the others, because of the Blub paradox: they’re satisfied with whatever language they happen to use, because it dictates the way they think about programs.

I sent this out to some friends interested in language and philosophy. Brandon Holmes wrote back:

I think this is right along the lines of the phenomenon I spoke of when last we met. People look around and see government “taking care” of nearly every aspect of our lives: they have no reason to think it should be otherwise. Like Dr. Pangloss, they believe the world to be in its best possible form, and history – as they understand it – to have unfolded as History to give us our current best-you-can-be world. We chose the Constitution as the penultimate instrument of ‘freedom’ and everything done since has happened under its watchful eye. We chose our national socialist war machine, and who are you to question? But I digress…

We have Blub in America – that may be a more family-friendly name for our situation than other tempting monikers – people look down at, say, Communism or Tribalism and understand that they are less desirable from the standpoints of economy, liberty and opportunity. When they look up the social continuum at what we might call a Liberal Polity they see strange concepts – like drug legalization and free banking – and perceive that some of their favorite features – like Social Security and economic protectionism – are missing. Blub works pretty damn good, thinks Joe American, so why spend our time looking for something else.

Of course the problem is that Blub isn’t working, our nation is fiscally broke, militarily overextended and domestically disintegrating. The paragraph before what you copied mentioned that programmers rarely switch languages voluntarily after a certain age. Our nation is clearly at that age, but it is also on the verge of receiving the necessary push to cause that change in outlook.

Notice that both Graham and Holmes are concerned about offending people who use a certain brand of program (computer or politico-philosophical). “Blub” becomes a nice way to talk about people’s problems, without directly implicating them as status quo intellectual couch potatoes. I recall years ago being introduced to “macho flash” libertarianism, in which the speaker attempts to induce the listeners to open their minds to libertarian opportunities by using an extreme statement. “Your philosophy is crap!” would be the essence of such a statement. Graham and Holmes, rightly, I think, reject the macho flash.

So how should a relatively free person talk to a person still living in “the Matrix.” Is it just as Morpheus warned, that anyone who hasn’t been liberated is the enemy? What are the prospects for liberation?

Also, does the strength of attachment to an ideology relate to strong identification with that ideology as being superior to potential competitors, or is the commitment stronger when the ideology is weaker (in the mind of the advocate or in actuality)? Such an assessment points at who the target market for the new philosophy should be. If being locked in corresponds to having a better philosophy, then free liberals will do best in speaking to people who have weak or non-existent philosophies. Those with stronger philosophies want to see more proof before they are willing to give up the well-considered “ground” that they’ve “won” through introspection and experience.

It seems that in an era of dangerous change, for instance, moves toward totalitarian group-think, as experienced during the 20th century, that a dose of conservatism is in order. But, how do we know when conservatism’s watchfulness is just another locked-in contributor to the status quo that is fueling the demand for totalitarianism?


Comrade Führer Kevin Rollins faces the world with an open heart and an open mind.
Kevin Rollins is the founder and editor of Free Liberal and principal of Kevin Rollins Consulting. He was formerly the managing editor of Econ Journal Watch. He holds a master’s in economics from George Mason University.