– June 19, 2020
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My favorite passage in Adam Smith comes from The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In it, Smith describes a character he calls “the man of system:”

“The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”

I’ve been thinking about it a lot more recently as in the last month or so, I’ve basically abandoned social media and taken up chess. I have a lot of room for improvement, to put it mildly. As I commented during one online tournament in which I participated, “Watching my king during end games is like watching the weak gazelle that got separated from the pack in a nature documentary.” I imagine David Attenborough narrating one of my games and weeping. In The Art of War, Sun-Tzu writes, “He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.” Let’s just say that Sun-Tzu probably wouldn’t be very impressed with my performances.

As I’ve spent more time honing my skills at the world’s greatest game, I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking about what the actual chessboard and the emerging culture surrounding it might be teaching us about the supposed chessboard of human society. I work to notice the seemingly miraculous in the mundane, and it’s surprising how much we can see in a “simple” game with thirty-two pieces on sixty-four squares. All in all, it illustrates the futility of thinking we can come up with a master plan for society. Here are some observations based on what I’ve seen during my short time in the growing world of online chess.

There Are No Practical Limits to Economic Progress

I remain convinced that there are no limits to economic progress (following Randall Holcombe’s discussion in Entrepreneurship and Economic Progress, I like thinking about things in terms of economic progress rather than economic growth as growth connotes “more stuff” while progress connotes better stuff and more capabilities). I’ve written before about how the arts, the Spider-Verse, and the music of The Prodigy show that there are no limits to economic progress. Chess provides yet another illustration.

Chess is a deceptively simple game. Each piece moves a certain way–it has a “law of motion” described by the rules of the game. Easy-peasy. The elegance and seeming simplicity of chess, however, mask its complexity. According to the great information theorist Claude Shannon, there are 10^40 possible chess positions and 10^120 possible chess games. This post provides interesting commentary, analysis, and criticism, but if we’re within a few dozen orders of magnitude of the “real” answer, we’re still dealing with an incomprehensibly large number. To put it in just a bit of perspective, about 436 quadrillion seconds have passed since the Big Bang. If people have played a trillion different chess games per second since the Big Bang, you would still need to multiply that number by ten about another hundred times before you’ve played the number of possible games. A trillion games a second since the Big Bang would be about 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000436% of possible games. It’s such an amazingly tiny number that if I’m missing a few zeroes–or have added a few extra–it doesn’t change the larger point that this is a space we will almost certainly never explore completely. If everyone in the world devoted literally all of their time to nothing but chess, we still might not exhaust all the possible games before the heat death of the universe. 

And chess is just one game. To worry about limits to economic progress is like worrying that we will run out of combinations of sounds and exhaust all musical possibilities. When we think about this in the context of the chess set, a single chess set or any other board game means practically infinite possibilities. In Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum’s character, a mathematician named Ian Malcolm, famously says “life finds a way.” So do innovation and economic progress.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic practically stopped the world in its tracks, one of my students asked how people earning their living streaming themselves playing video games on Twitch.tv might affect GDP and employment numbers. I think it will be quite some time before Twitch streaming and YouTube are big enough to make much of a difference in employment and GDP statistics, but they illustrate a much larger process. It would be a mistake to think that a few thousand people watching a Twitch.tv stream of a chess match portends some sort of large scale revolution; that’s still only a few tenths of a percentage point of the 15.8 million or so people who watch the average NFL game. 

It’s just as bad a mistake, though, to look to one big thing to save us all. Innovation creates new possibilities, though, and necessity is the mother of invention. The surge in popularity of game streaming and online chess are examples of how people soften the blow when they’re hit with big negative shocks. Twitch.tv chess streaming and YouTube videos of people playing Minecraft are not revolutionary by themselves. They are, however, illustrative of a much larger social process. They are drops in what Don Boudreaux calls “The Prosperity Pool.” They are unremarkable by themselves–I wouldn’t be greatly harmed if online chess streaming disappeared tomorrow–but again, they are small parts of a much larger process that has led, over time, to standards of living our ancestors couldn’t have imagined. Could they have played chess? Of course. Could they have played a thousand games or so in a couple of months with people from all over the world and gotten instructions and insights from some of the world’s best players? Probably not.

Political Borders are Economically Irrelevant

 One of the simple pleasures of watching elite performers in any venture is to see absolute mastery of something very, very difficult. The gymnast Simone Biles, for example, seems superhuman. The world’s best chess players are scattered around the world, from the United States (Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura) to Norway (Magnus Carlsen) to Russia (Peter Svidler and Daniil Dubov) to Iran (Alireza Firouzja) to Holland via Russia (Anish Giri), just to name a few places. In following tournaments on Chess24 I’ve really enjoyed the banter between Lawrence Trent (England), Jan Gustaffson (Germany), Laurent Fressinet (France), and others. The most popular chess YouTube channel is hosted by someone in Croatia. It looks pretty easy to hire a chess coach from around the world at a reasonable hourly rate. When you play online, you’re getting matched up against people from around the world. We would be impoverished socially and spiritually if we had to ask government permission before we let chess moves or ideas cross international borders.

Chess itself is a global game with a global history. It started in India, migrated to Persia, and spread around the world. The word “checkmate,” I learned from an interview with Alireza Firouja, comes from shah mat, which is “Persian for ‘the king is helpless.’” Indeed, the very process of writing this article has been an exercise in decentralized, unplanned global cooperation (Wikipedia, HJR Murray’s 1913 The History of Chess, available for $0 and downloadable on Google Books, the laptop on which I’m writing a Google Doc). I shudder to think about what we have lost because people have insisted so frequently on violently interposing themselves between two others who wish to cooperate.

In my quest to get better at chess and to experiment with online learning, I bought a premium membership to Chess24.com. I wouldn’t know where they are based without looking it up, but consider everything that is going on here. I paid a company run by people I’ll probably never meet living in a part of the world I may never visit. The transactions were processed and recorded instantly by PayPal. Soon, another automatic transaction will send funds from my bank account to PayPal. While it’s possible that someone along the line will abscond with my money–and things like that have happened to me–it’s simply astonishing that such things happen so infrequently given the sheer volume of transactions happening at any time.

Competition is a much more effective check on scumbaggery than people usually think, and this is one of the crucial insights economics brings to the table. Even if we assume a world populated with selfish sociopaths, we can still get a surprising degree of cooperation just because of the incentives people face. If I’m unhappy with my experience on a chess site or with a payment processor, it’s not that hard to take my business elsewhere. As M. Todd Henderson and Salen Churi point out in their book The Trust Revolution, innovations in the provision of trust and assurance are substitutes for the regulators. Uber, they argue, competes not with taxi companies but with the taxi commission.

The Curious Task and the Chessboard of Human Society

These mundane examples about something as seemingly trivial as a board game should make us pause and be a little bit more humble about our ability to plan society. They illustrate the point F.A. Hayek made in The Fatal Conceit:

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptations to the unknown, can be achieved more efficiently by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralization actually leads to more information being taken into account.”

The Bible exhorts us to be faithful in small things to be trusted with much. I think there’s a clear lesson from my experience playing chess online. It seems reasonable that we will never actually master every possible detail of chess, Monopoly, and other games. If games that happen within very well-defined spaces according to very well-defined rules present such insurmountable difficulties, I’m definitely skeptical of the notion that we can design and control a great society.

I’m active on lichess.org and chess24.com, username artcarden if you’d like to play. I’m a premium member of Chess24, and if you want to get a premium membership and support AIER at the same time, use my affiliate link and I’ll give all the proceeds to AIER through September 1.

Art Carden

Art Carden

Art Carden is a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.

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