Equality Optimizing Number

This Pirahã man will agree that the equality optimizing number is "many".

Is there an optimum number for achieving equality? I think there is. 4 billion, for example, (as well as not being too great of a lucky number) is a terrible number for equality, because you can’t possibly know or care about 4 billion different things. 2 is also terrible, though, because when there are only two things, there are enough salient differences between them to rationalise why they shouldn’t be treated equally. Like, say you’re a team of two and you’ve gotten some loot. You can split it evenly, but one of you did more work than the other, so it makes sense that they’d get more of the money. And say you’ve got some loot and you need to split it between 10,000 people. That’s way too hard to keep track of. If some dude comes by to receive his portion three times or whatever, you’re not even gonna notice. Though both of these functions are monotonic in number, I tend to think that they combine in some way as to give an “equality optimum”. Some number where it’s so large that you can ignore unique circumstances, and yet so small you can still keep track of everything. My thinking is that this is related to Dunbar’s Number, although just by intuition I think the “equality optimum” to be somewhat less than 100, rather than somewhat greater. Relating Dunbar’s Number and equality of treatment would also be rather nicely suggestive, given the relative egalitarianism we see in primitive hunter-gatherer societies.

I was thinking about this when crossing the U.S. – Canada border. In Canada, there are only 10 provinces, and within that framework, Quebec is obviously unique and needs to be treated special, because it’s the one where most people speak French. In America, there are 50 states, and they’re all very different. Alaska may think it needs to be treated special ’cause its landmass is like a quarter of the U.S. total. But then, maybe Hawaii needs to be treated special ’cause it’s a tropical archipelago that used to be its own Kingdom. And maybe California ’cause so many people live there. And maybe New Mexico ’cause most people there speak Spanish. And maybe Maine ’cause everyone there is old for some reason. And maybe Florida ’cause it’s shaped like a penis. Whatever. My point is this gets bogged down pretty quickly so that on most issues, it is just easier to treat the states equally. Also at 50, the amount of dissenting voices to any sort of special treatment rise quickly. For instance, in exchange for not filibustering the ACA, Sen. Ben Nelson asked for special treatment for Nebraska. This was discovered, rapidly decried by people who weren’t from Nebraska and quickly abandoned. Okay, perhaps “there is a crotchety senator representing you” isn’t exactly a viable difference anyhow. But I think that even if there was some reason for Nebraska to be treated differently, it would be so immensely unpopular to do so that the only way you could get away with it is by hoping no one notices. I think anecdotally, this supports my idea that 50 is closer to the “equality optimum” number than 10 is.

We continue with the obvious point that sometimes equality is good, and sometimes it is bad. Equality of treatment among the states in the U.S. is actually quite inimical to certain types of progress in the U.S. For instance, say there is some fixed number of dollars for new train projects. And say one of them is an ultra-fast train from LA to SF. This is unlikely to ever get federal money, because there is nothing of a similar scale that would benefit, say, Wyoming, which would undermine the equal status among states. So, from a policy perspective, if you’re a state that loses out from state equality, you need to achieve inequality somehow. The two ways forward would be for the US to either add about 100 states (totally stupid!) or for to convince other states to group with you in a “region” which would have some sort of semi-official authority. For instance, if I were California, I would say to Nevada, Oregon and Washington: hey, there’s all these Eastern states that are screwing our states out of transportation money – let’s join together and lobby for more transportation funding for the West! And, hey, doesn’t that sound like a pretty good idea? Now if the other 46 states don’t follow suit, you get more transportation funding for the West – great! And if other states do follow suit and create regional entities, you’ve moved to smaller groups, where inequality is more acceptable.

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