Public Choice as Implied Space

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So, as part of my rot-your-brain-with-SF summer marathon, I recently checked out Walter Jon Williams’ Implied Spaces from the good folks at the Arlington County Public Library). As a novel, it was more-or-less on par with Williams’ other novels — entertaining hard SF that is absorbing enough to fill out a lunch hour but generally pretty forgettable 10 minutes after finishing.

Except that in this case, the central metaphor of the book has a staying power that (for me anyway) has transcended the rest of the book.

See, Williams’ protagonist, a 1000-year-old computer-programmer turned philosopher-king, bills himself as “a scholar of the implied spaces.” So what exactly does that mean? Well, as Aristide explains it, it’s all about the squinch.

Look, it's a squinch! Now you know.

Look, it's a squinch! Now you know.

For those of you who have no idea what “squinch” means, it’s an architectural term. Specifically, it’s a reference to the support structure that you’ll any time you have a dome that’s built on top of a square building. See, you can’t just stick a circle on top of a square. Or, well, you can, but only if you’re happy with big holes in the ceiling at all four corner. If you’d like an actual enclosed building, though, you have to do something to fill in the corners. That filling (which can take lots of different forms) is called a squinch.

Now, as Aristide points out, no one ever sets out to build a squinch. No architect says, “Hey, it’d be really cool to design a building with 18 squinches!”  But people do set out to design buildings with domes sitting atop square bases. Interestingly, though, any design that incorporates domes atop squares contains squinches by implication. Hence the central conceit of the novel: squinches are implied spaces. Aristide spends his time studying features that aren’t designed but that must exist by implication given the things that are designed. (In Aristide’s world, where humans design and build pocket universes, this means looking at the parts of the world that weren’t explicitly designed but that are implied by features that were explicitly designed.)

So why the fascination with the metaphor?

Well, besides the fact that “implied spaces” is a much cooler term than “squinch,” I also think it serves as an interesting metaphor for public choice theory.

See, there’s long been a tendency to think of governments (or at least the governments of Western liberal democracies) as being staffed largely by public-spirited technocrats who design and administer laws with an eye toward the overall public good. J.S. Mill famously contrasts bureaucracy with democracy, holding that the virtues of the former could be used to counteract the vicissitudes of the latter. This view held sway, particularly among liberals (broadly understood), until the middle of the 20th C, when economists first began positing that bureaucrats, like everyone else, are subject to incentives.

And so it was that the public choice school began paying real attention to things like rent seeking. That is, we began asking, “What happens when we combine capitalism, a regulatory system, and representative democracy?” The answer: we get businesses seeking to manipulate the regulatory structure by playing on the various incentives of politicians (by, say, offering money for reelection) and of bureaucrats (by, say, offering lucrative post-government gigs to the people responsible for crafting and/or enforcing regulations).

In short, public choice theorists study the implied spaces of our regulatory-capitalist-democratic structure.

And, on an only slightly-related note, apropos the recent Crooked Timber discussion about the relative standing of philosophy and economics within the humanities, I wonder whether public choice economists would be more or less welcomed by other humanists had they chosen to call themselves “scholars of the implied spaces”?

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On August 10, 2009
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