Saturday, May 19, 2007 39 Comments

The magic of symmetric sovereignty

Readers who find all this political theory interesting - perhaps there are four or five - may enjoy some of the debates I've been having with Nick Szabo in the comments of these posts. It's always a pleasure to cross swords with a master, even when all you get is a ghastly facial wound.

One of the issues - perhaps the main issue - that Nick and I differ on is sovereignty. Nick, like all other political thinkers, at least all those to the left of Attila the Hun, believes that sovereignty should be limited - that is, the sovereign has no right to infringe the basic legal rights of citizens.

My view is that the concept of limited sovereignty is self-contradictory and informalist. In fact, I think this limited sovereignty (of which "popular sovereignty" is one case) is one of the chief misconceptions in the Enlightenment's political toolbox. This innocent and appealing idea, in my opinion, is substantially responsible for the appalling chaos of our era.

Rather, I hold what Nick would call the totalitarian theory of sovereignty. While it's often fun to embrace the pejorative, this is an awful big word to swallow. I think a better word is symmetric - that is, for me sovereign property is just like any other.

I define sovereignty as an independently secured, or in other words primary, property right. This is in contrast to a dependently secured, or secondary, property right. The symmetric theory of sovereignty proposes that the same principle applies to both - the extent of the property right is defined by the actual powers secured.

Of course, this has the same results as Nick's "totalitarian" theory. But I think it sounds a lot nicer - don't you? Let's look at how the symmetric theory works out in practice.

Imagine I am a respectable white person who enunciates properly and is maybe a little portly, and I own a house in the suburbs. If a bunch of boyz from tha hood showz up with Tec-9s and say "out, you fat muthafucka, this our house now," my first call will be to Officer Friendly, who will arrive in some kind of an armored vehicle and enfilade the hoodlums.

This means my property right is secondary, not primary. In a sense, all I really own is an agreement with the township of Whiteville to protect my house, which is my castle, against the depredations of these colorful and militant delinquents. In fact, in the primary sense, I really own nothing at all, because Officer Friendly can just as easily confiscate the piece of paper that is my title, leaving me yelling in an undignified and pathetic way on the front lawn that used to be "mine."

So we see that primary property is very different from secondary property. In fact, the number of primary properties in the world may have peaked about 1500 years ago, and has been decreasing for quite some time. If you follow the thinking of some internationalists, there is only one primary property in the world: the United Nations, all mere nations being secondary. Of course, if Bush decides he really is Hitler, those guys will be on Riker's Island like that, so perhaps this model is a little simplistic.

However, one way to evaluate a political design is to consider its worst possible result. The worst possible result of symmetric ("totalitarian") sovereignty is an evil dictator who takes over the world and decides to torture and murder everyone in it, replacing us with his gesticulating, mustachioed clones.

Okay. I'll admit that this is not a desirable result (unless I get to be the evil dictator, in which case I at least need to start working on my mustache). So let's modify this slightly and instead look for the worst possible rational result. That is, let's assume that the dictator is not evil but simply amoral, omnipotent, and avaricious.

One easy way to construct this thought-experiment is to imagine the dictator isn't even human. He is an alien. His name is Fnargl. Fnargl came to Earth for one thing: gold. His goal is to dominate the planet for a thousand years, the so-called "Thousand-Year Fnarg," and then depart in his Fnargship with as much gold as possible. Other than this Fnargl has no other feelings. He's concerned with humans about the way you and I are concerned with bacteria.

You might think we humans, a plucky bunch, would say "screw you, Fnargl!" and not give him any gold at all. But there are two problems with this. One, Fnargl is invulnerable - he cannot be harmed by any human weapon. Two, he has the power to kill any human or humans, anywhere at any time, just by snapping his fingers.

Other than this he has no other powers. He can't even walk - he needs to be carried, as if he was the Empress of India. (Fnargl actually has a striking physical resemblance to Jabba the Hutt.) But with invulnerability and the power of death, it's a pretty simple matter for Fnargl to get himself set up as Secretary-General of the United Nations. And in the Thousand-Year Fnarg, the UN is no mere sinecure for alcoholic African kleptocrats. It is an absolute global superstate. Its only purpose is Fnargl's goal - gold. And lots of it.

In other words, Fnargl is a revenue maximizer. The question is: what are his policies? What does he order us, his loyal subjects, to do?

The obvious option is to make us all slaves in the gold mines. Otherwise - blam. Instant death. Slacking off, I see? That's a demerit. Another four and you know what happens. Now dig! Dig! (Perhaps some readers have seen Blazing Saddles.)

But wait: this can't be right. Even mine slaves need to eat. Someone needs to make our porridge. And our shovels. And, actually, we'll be a lot more productive if instead of shovels, we use backhoes. And who makes those? And...

We quickly realize that the best way for Fnargl to maximize gold production is simply to run a normal human economy, and tax it (in gold, natch). In other words, Fnargl has exactly the same goal as most human governments in history. His prosperity is the amount of gold he collects in tax, which has to be exacted in some way from the human economy. Taxation must depend in some way on the ability to pay, so the more prosperous we are, the more prosperous Fnargl is.

Fnargl's interests, in fact, turn out to be oddly well-aligned with ours. Anything that makes Fnargl richer has to make us richer, and vice versa.

For example, it's in Fnargl's interest to run a fair and effective legal system, because humans are more productive when their energies aren't going into squabbling with each other. It's even in Fnargl's interest to have a fair legal process that defines exactly when he will snap his fingers and stop your heart, because humans are more productive when they're not worried about dropping dead.

And it is in his interest to run an orderly taxation system in which tax rates are known in advance, and Fnargl doesn't just seize whatever, whenever, to feed his prodigious gold jones. Because humans are more productive when they can plan for the future, etc. Of course, toward the end of the Thousand-Year Fnarg, this incentive will begin to diminish - ha ha. But let's assume Fnargl has only just arrived.

Other questions are easy to answer. For example, will Fnargl allow freedom of the press? But why wouldn't he? What can the press do to Fnargl? As Bismarck put it: "they say what they want, I do what I want." But Bismarck didn't really mean it. Fnargl does.

In general, Fnargl has no reason at all to impose any artificial restriction on his subjects. He will impose laws only in order to prevent violence, which reduces gold production. He has no interest at all in "victimless crimes." Since he can define failure to pay one's tax as theft from him, Fnargl, the Vast And Pungent One, it turns out that he operates a very normal system of law.

It turns out that, except for the 30-40% of our economic output that disappears into his gold stash, Fnargl is actually an ideal ruler. Far from being "totalitarian," the Fnargocracy is if anything remarkably libertarian. Does Fnargl mind if you light up a jay? Not in the slightest.

Why is Fnargl's behavior so different from that of "totalitarian" dictators? What is the difference between Fnargl and the most powerful men of the 20th century, nasty pieces of work like Hitler, Stalin and Mao?

The difference is that Fnargl's primary property, Planet Three, as secured by his magic powers of Invulnerability and Finger-Snap Of Death, is secure.

In fact, Invulnerability and Finger-Snap perform basically the same service for Fnargl that Officer Friendly did for me. The reason the Thousand-Year Fnarg is peaceful and free is that we've defined Fnargl's primary right so that it works just like a secondary right. If one day, Fnargl tries to snap his fingers and it doesn't work - "damn," he says - problems will arise.

Hitler, Stalin and Mao, on the other hand, had enemies. Stalin and Mao, especially, basically operated under the assumption that everyone in the world wanted to kill them and take their jobs. After a while this was quite the self-fulfilling prophecy. Terrorist government - as in the Reign of Terror, a usage that's unfortunately lapsed - is a consequence not of absolute primary title, but of insecure primary title. It is best understood as a form of civil war.

Unfortunately, Fnargl's magic powers are beyond the reach of us earthlings. So how do we emulate the Thousand-Year (or, better yet, Eternal) Fnarg? Or is there some obvious problem with the whole idea of Fnargocracy? Readers' opinions, as usual, are welcome...

(Update: readers have posed some very cogent objections. Please see the comments.)


Blogger Victor said...

First of all, I think it's not at all obvious that maximizing economic production is the same as maximizing the gold extraction. it's possible for example that the economic model which will maximize gold extraction will actually result in a significantly suboptimal economic performance (to say nothing of liberty).

Consider Stalin's industrialization. Mind you, i am not talking about his political repressions, which can reasonably be seen as his struggle against those who would wish to displace him. No, consider industrialization and collectivization. Those were done for purely economic reasons: maximize production. Ukrainian peasants were forced to join kolkhozes or die of hunger in Holodomor. Essentially slave labor was deployed for massive construction projects, such as the White Sea-Baltic Channel.

What's more, the industrialization drive was actually successful. Stalin's policies had turned USSR from a largely agricultural state into an industrial powerhouse in just two decades. While such success is in all likelihood not extensible, the point is that maximizing economic production cannot be assumed to align with maximizing liberty (or happiness or anything else), and furthermore maximizing specific economic output cannot be assumed to align with maximizing economic production in general.

Or consider the american south antebellum. While in the long run slavery was economically unviable, in the short run, it was actually an economically superior solution to free cotton farming. There is no reason why the Great Fnargl couldn't determine, in a purely objective way of the universal sovereign, that some goals could be best accomplished by aggressive coercion, even enslavement, of people.

Even worse, Fnargl could possess the intellectual capability to actually plan the economic activity with perfect efficiency, so as to maximize gold output. Planned economy doesn't work in the real world because economic planning is mathematically intractable, and because coercion is never perfect; but if Fnargl embodies both computational and coercive excellence, why wouldn't he be best served by instituting a tyrannical planned economy system which would maximize gold extraction?

Essentially, liberty works because we are none of us perfect in any number of ways; and it is for the same reason that democracy is preferable to a perfectly rational selfish despot -- unless, that is, you very carefully decide what aspects the despot can be perfect in, and in what aspects he is only human.

I do applaud your blog though. I am a liberal, but I love the sort intellectual stretching and calisthenics your ideas provoke. It is always good to think in new ways IMO.

May 20, 2007 at 8:51 AM  
Anonymous George Weinberg said...

I think analogies are really only useful for explaining the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. This kind of bizzare analogy, explaining the familiar in terms of the unfamiliar, is only useful for amusement purposes. That being said, it seems obvious that a being like Fnargl would kill large numbers of people simply because (from his point of view) it's inefficient to keep them around. At bare minimum he'd kill off the pysically and mentally handicapped, like the Nazis did.
In any case, I would hope we could agree that establishing a despotism that is sufficiently secure in remaining in power that it would have no need to kill people for its own protection is an unrealistic goal as well as an unworthy one.
The first part of the post is more perhaps interesting, but I think it's just an illustration of what might be called Hobbes' error. It's more or less asserted that all rights, including property rights, are contingent on some particular authority with the direct power to enforce those rights, na dthat title is essentially arbitrary.
But I don't think that's right at all. I think the very notion of ownership (as opposed to possetion) requires that (at least within a community) there is a pretty strong agreement as to who owns what, that this is determined not aribitrarily but upon generally recognized (if somewhat fuzzy) rules, and that one can rely upon ones neighbors to side with a legitimate owner agianst an agressor without having to offer them inducements to do so in any particular case. Authority figures are only called upon to settle disputes within the "fuzzy" areas, and their continuing to hold authority status is to some degree contingent on it being perceived that they do a reasonably good job of appropriately settling disputes. There's an enormous degree of inertia, of course, but even a nominal despot requires a great deal of popular belief that he will "do the right thing" to avoid being killed. Anyone who gets near an emperor will quickly observe that the emperor is not some sort of god-man but just a mortal, and many have chosen to conclusively demonstrate this.

May 20, 2007 at 10:44 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


On reflection, I agree with your point about gold extraction - it's not clear that it's a good economic model of revenue maximization. Or at least it demands more monetary economics than I want to go into right now.

The problem with defining Stalin's industrialization as progress is that, since Stalin did not exactly publish quarterly reports and distribute dividends, we have no way to know whether this was actually profitable in any financial sense. Activity is not productivity. My suspicion is no, especially considering the ruined state the Soviet Union wound up in. Capital destruction is not profit.

It's clear that if Fnargl is omnipotent, omniscient and omnintelligent, no such thing as freedom will exist in his Fnarg. I probably should have made this clearer in the example.

My basic point is that Fnargl's goal is profit, profit is a prosperity tax, and command economies are not - in practice - prosperous. If you modify the thought-experiment so that command economics works, the experiment fails.

Slave labor is actually an excellent example of the Fnargl principle. If you assume security is not a problem, serfdom is always more profitable than slavery and taxation is always more profitable than serfdom.

The profit of slavery is equal to the difference between the price of slave labor and the price of free labor. This vig or rake-off can be replaced with an income tax without changing the economics of the game at all. And once this is done, why shouldn't the slave - now a serf - be able to change jobs? The more he makes, the more you make.

May 20, 2007 at 10:48 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


I have to agree with your point about analogies. It is hard to prove anything with an analogy, let alone one as bizarre as Fnargl.

That said, I am not sure Fnargl would have any interest in killing off the handicapped, etc, because it would annoy their relatives and make them disaffected and lazy. And under the Fnarg, it is not Fnargl feeding and housing these people. Fnargl has no conscience. It is their relatives, who pay tax. Certainly Hitler thought of his euthanasia program as an efficiency measure, but I'm not sure he was right.

I also have to disagree with your comment on security. Establishing a collective of those who respect the law is certainly an effective way to secure a community. But there is no reason to think it's the only path to security, and security is the goal. (That said, I certainly am not endorsing Hobbes in toto!)

Don't get me wrong. Collective security is great. I think the idea that it secures secondary titles against primary actors - that is, the "people's right of revolt," so beloved of the American Revolution - is at the very least no longer operational today. Rather, my ideal world is a decentralized system of primary, sovereign states which would owe a lot to collective security.

But they would probably also have H-bombs, just in case. Mutual assured destruction is another principle of security, orthogonal to the collective peace of law - and quite nice as a backup system.

May 20, 2007 at 10:59 AM  
Blogger Victor said...

MM, you wrote:

My basic point is that Fnargl's goal is profit, profit is a prosperity tax, and command economies are not - in practice - prosperous. If you modify the thought-experiment so that command economics works, the experiment fails.

Indeed. However, in practice, ownership laws are also imperfect, and your whole formalistic system depends on perfect ownership laws. You ignore many real-world problems that will arise with this system, for example the very real phenomenon of the corporate world, wherein the CEOs make decisions based on maximizing their own profit rather than the corporate profit; and since CEOs have a much shorter horizon of interest, this ends up biasing the corporate decision-making away from long-term planning and towards strip-mining. However, you can't exactly excise the human element from the corporate decision-making, can you?

If we are going to eschew Idealistic silliness, let's do so consistently. Discarding ideal Fairness or Freedom or Justice, only to replace them with ideal Property and Contract, is not exactly what you intended, is it?

May 20, 2007 at 11:08 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Your remark about primary and secondary properties reflects the feudal ancestry of Anglo-American law. Your "fee simple" title in your house is a feu from the sovereign, and you must pay feu duty (real estate taxes and assessments) in return. If you fail to pay feu duty, title reverts to the sovereign, who re-grants it (to whomever prevails in the sheriff's auction of tax-forfeited property).

"Limited" government in western history typically reflects a re-arrangement of sovereignty. Thus when bad King John got a bit too arbitrary in the exercise of the sovereignty he thought was entirely vested in him, his barons forced him to sign Magna Charta, which took some of it away from him and vested it in the law they made, above which even a king did not stand. And so on...

Most western philosophers of government since the time of Hobbes have fashioned their arguments upon the feudal foundations of the societies they knew. Your line of argument is basically Hobbesian.

But what about societies in which tenure of property is not feudal, but allodial? The allodial tenure of Polish landowners was what necessitated the rule of the old Polish parliament that all decisions had to be unanimous - each landowner was, as it were, sovereign on his own land, and no one else's will could be imposed upon him without his consent. It can be argued that the liberum veto was the reason for Poland's collapse in the 18th century, but that country had by then existed under that system longer than the United States has done under its.

Similarly, the Norse did not have a native feudal law. While they adopted it in Normandy because it was the pre-existing local custom - the law of the Salic Franks - when they settled in that part of France, they did not follow it in other places, e.g. Iceland. Out of the allodial or udal tenure the original settlers of Iceland enjoyed, the Icelandic Free State, governed by the Althing, grew as a natural development. It prevailed from 930-1262, until in a Hobbesian moment the Icelanders surrendered their sovereignty to the Norwegian crown.

An interesting situation exists in Orkney and Shetland over whether the native Norse allodial or udal law still governs property rights there. Shetland and Orkney have been held since 1468/9 by the Scottish crown in perpetual pawn from Denmark. See

Political theory needs to take account of political history and practice, and while the mentioned instances are not typical of western political practice, they at least show that political and legal systems can develop and have developed amongst communities of primary property owners.

May 20, 2007 at 11:31 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


The reason I don't think of Property and Contract as Ideals, in the sense I've been using the word, is that they are well-defined, and they are conceived as mechanisms to achieve some purpose rather than goods in and of themselves.

A programmer might call them "design patterns."

The conflict between CEOs and shareholders has been widely touted and overrated since the '30s (Berle and Means).

There are three kinds of failure in corporate governance: either the employees are not really working for the CEO, the CEO is not really working for the board, or the board is not really working for the shareholders.

The last is by far the most common, and (at least in my experience, both as corporate serf and as investor) it is the result of the fact that in the US corporate governance was basically frozen in time in the 1930s. Communication between shareholders and the board is lousy, lousy, lousy. For example, why do we have quarterly reports, not daily reports? Why can't we see the balance sheet live on the Internet? Why don't we have official shareholder message boards?

So it is easy for cozy practices between board and CEO to develop. But as so often, this disease is an iatrogenic result of the regulatory system that purports to be curing it.

May 20, 2007 at 1:07 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


Since (unlike Nick) I am not a lawyer, I at least like to think I'm reasoning from first principles rather than from tradition. It is probably true, though, that a lot of Anglo-Norman concepts have seeped in by osmosis.

Thanks for the mention of allodial law. I was not at all aware of this tradition.

But allodial property is certainly not sovereign property, although it seems to be a legacy of an era in which true sovereignty was much more widely distributed - developing, as you say, from within communities of sovereign owners.

Now if we could only find a way for this process to run backward. Don't get me wrong - planetary sovereignty is definitely a worst-case scenario in my book. I am very much a decentralist.

May 20, 2007 at 1:14 PM  
Blogger Victor said...


You said:

The reason I don't think of Property and Contract as Ideals, in the sense I've been using the word, is that they are well-defined, and they are conceived as mechanisms to achieve some purpose rather than goods in and of themselves.

A programmer might call them "design patterns."

Fair enough; but then would you really like Freedom, Democracy, and Justice any more if we figured out a way to define them accurately, and if we framed them as mechanisms for achieving some external purpose (as we already do, if 'we' are Utilitarians)?

BTW, I have a question. Why do you count it as a demerit for an idea to be its own goal? Aristotle for example argued quite well that actions which were their own goals (energia) are inherently superior to actions which have a separate goal (kinetika). Why do you think a primary goal is inferior to a secondary goal, if any secondary goal must be serving another goal (primary or secondary) anyway?

May 20, 2007 at 1:24 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


BTW, thanks again for your interesting comments. This is not VFR - liberals are always welcome here!

Utilitarianism is not well-defined because individual utility functions are not measurable and certainly not commensurable. There is no such thing as aggregate utility.

I would argue that any precise definition of Freedom or Justice will get you back to formalism. You can define democracy precisely, in a number of ways, but the result is not Democracy but politics - that is, limited warfare.

The problem is that we all have different goals. In order to find a goal that everyone agrees on, you have to pick something very simple. Minimizing violence strikes me as a very attractive candidate for this position. "Democracy" doesn't.

May 20, 2007 at 2:00 PM  
Blogger Victor said...

Sol basically your idea reduces not even to property and contracts per se, but rather to the idea of definability. You seem to regard definitional precision as the primary good, and you will go with whatever principles of socio-economic organization you can actually define (since all the other primary goods will suffer from the problem similar to to utility and happiness, certainly liberty does).

Does that about sum it up?..

If so, I do wonder what it is that you actually regard as a criterion or criteria of the acceptable degree of precision; and if it won't sooner or later run into Quine-type argument against analyticity, that being essentially that to establish analyticity, you have to rely on concepts which are at least as much in need of elucidation as analyticity itself.

On a higher level of analysis, it looks to me like any attempt to grandly, reductively formalize shit has consistently failed. The formalistic reduction of math to logic and set theory failed. The attempts to formalize ontology and epistemology failed. The attempts to formalize semantics failed. It seems to me, based on the human experience, that we are forever stuck muddling through, and that any attempts to establish some grand narrative framing any significant aspect of human experience inevitably fails. What's worse, due to the very nature of formalistic approach, there is no such thing as 'small failures' -- formal systems tend to collapse under a weight of even one tiny failure at the wrong place, while informal, muddling systems are much more resilient.

May 20, 2007 at 2:26 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

What are property rights? Property rights are mental constructs. A property right exists only because someone believes that the right exists. No property rights are truly independently secured; all property rights depend tenuously upon the beliefs of others.

How do you secure property rights? The only way to secure property rights is to make people believe those rights. One way to make people believe in property rights is to physically enforce them with overwhelming firepower. Another way to enforce belief is to indoctrinate people (and their children, and their children's children) with a "theory of sovereignty", which is really nothing more than memetic firepower.

What is sovereignty? Sovereignty is the recognition of property rights by others. Most people enjoy some sovereignty; a few people have much more sovereignty than others. Your degree of sovereignty is in relation to the unanimity with which other people believe in your property rights.

How do you overthrow a sovereign? Simple: you convince people to stop believing in the sovereign's property rights. It is possible for sovereignty to undergo memetic extinction.

Idealists are concerned with how sovereignty ought to be structured. This is as nonsensical as debating how DNA "ought" to work. Just as biologists try to understand how DNA really does work in the real world, we should try to develop a theory of sovereignty - or more generally, a science of human cognition and behavior - which accurately predicts how humans create and destroy property rights (and other beliefs) through their interactions with each other in the real world.

May 21, 2007 at 1:35 AM  
Anonymous George Weinberg said...

Property rights are mental constructs

"Property rights" are mental constructs in that "cats" are mental constructs. That is, the idea that there's a meaningful distinction to be made between cats and non-cats is "just" an idea in exactly the same sense that the idea of property rights is "just" an idea.

May 21, 2007 at 10:42 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

"Property rights" are mental constructs in that "cats" are mental constructs.

No. Cats exist whether people believe in them or not. A cat can pounce upon you and claw your eyes out even if nobody believes that the cat exists. Property rights, on the other hand, can only exist by "floating" upon social minds. A property right can not simply pounce upon you and claw your eyes out; rather, a property right must be enacted by a human being who believes in it.

(A digression: Note that the cat contains mental constructs of its own. One of those mental constructs is the "pounce upon other animals and claw their eyes out" program. When the cat does finally pounce upon you, you suddenly acquire a very certain belief in the cat's existence, and your mental state becomes entangled with the cat's mental state.)

My thinking shares much in common with John Searle's theory of collective intentionality. The main difference between me and Searle is that I reject Searle's Chinese room argument against strong AI; in other words, I believe that social reality is nothing more than the set of (subtle, obscenely complex) interactions among squishy, embodied computational devices.

May 21, 2007 at 11:34 AM  
Anonymous George Weinberg said...

You're missing the point, Steve. The concept of a cat is no more real than the concept of property rights. Certainly something exists, but your eyes being scratched out is no more proof of the existence of cats than being arrested for trespassing is proof of the existence of property rights.

It's true that cats are made of matter and property rights aren't. Maybe you'd prefer colors or words or numbers as an example? Certainly a number won't unexpectedly pounce upon you from the shadows, but it's a bit absurd to suggest that numbers only "exist" because people one day arbitrarily decided to "believe" in these meaningless abstractions.

May 21, 2007 at 1:39 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

victor -

I would say definitional precision is necessary, but not sufficient.

The point of "formalism" is to minimize violence. The mechanism is to make the outcome of conflicts over scarce resources predictable. This prevents people from engaging in behaviors whose goal is to change the allocation of resources, something hominids are all too good at.

Obviously, if you don't think the goal is desirable or you don't think the mechanism works, you're not a "formalist."

I certainly share your feelings on the program of turning philosophy, etc, into mathematics. In fact if you really want to get me started, computer science is on that list too.

The label "formalism" has been used in a lot of ways by a lot of people. I am reusing it as a political label just because no one seems to have used it for that yet.

May 21, 2007 at 3:35 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

steve -

I pretty much agree. The difference between dependently secured rights and independently secured ones is ultimately fuzzy. There is no real difference between Fnargl's finger-snap and Officer Friendly.

That is actually a good way of expressing the purpose of treating the two symmetrically - it keeps you from converting a soft definition into a hard boolean.

Nonetheless, the pattern of secondary or dependent law, which exists to serve the purposes of a primary owner, is quite common and worthy of attention. Of course such a hierarchy can have many levels.

I'm afraid I have no position, however, on whether property rights - or numbers - are "real" or not...

May 21, 2007 at 3:41 PM  
Anonymous nick said...

A great blog post and great comments.

Mencius, besides my belief that sovereignty is evil -- due in no small part to its utterly bloody history -- I claim that two of your main goals (or techniques?) are in sharp conflict -- sovereignty and alienability.

Instead of an omni-tyrranical Fnargl, let's take a historical example, William the Conqueror and his royal successors. This is a great example because this was a very formalist system where all political rights depended on clearly defined property rights. (It's no coincidence that the laws of inheritance for the Crown, for titles, and for land are basically the same). Furthermore it was your kind of formalism where the king in theory was the source of all ownership both of land and political authority. While you (and even I) wouldn't like some of their restrictions on alienability, there was enough alienability to severely degrade much of the king's sovereignty.

William, like your Fnargl, claimed alloidal rights -- a.k.a. sovereignty, a.k.a. bundled rights to all of England's lands and police powers -- via "right of conquest." This claim of original ownership of all was ever after upheld by the royal courts. (Judging their own case, here). It was only seriously disputed by some of his Norman barons who made claims, mostly unsuccessfully, to smaller alloidal rights (smaller bits of land bundled with police powers) by a right of conquest independent of the king's. These kinds of claims, probably reflecting the pagan Norse legal tradition, were in the historical record only sucessful in Iceland AFAIK -- George describes this well. While technically unsuccessful in England, these alloidal claims did lead to some largely independent Counties Palatine, one of the models for the later corporate colonies, and to other jurisdictional and police powers held by prescription (similar to modern adverse possession).

For a variety of reasons -- because of the general economic superiority of the market (and thus peer-to-peer property relations) over large-scale hierarchy, due to threats of rebellion by barons, due to problems collecting taxes from the locals, etc. -- the king found it profitable to alienate almost all the lands that were nominally his to barons and other freeholders (conveniently often the very people who "lost" same lands in the Conquest). Furthermore, and a thing very alien to us moderns, he also sold rights to exercise a variety of powers. (These property rights to political powers were called "franchises" and came in a large number of varieties even before being bundled in dizzying variety of ways).

Because _his own_ title depended on property law, and because property rights generally only produce economic wealth if they are secure, the king generally respected these property rights once he granted them. (This situated deteriorated for the franchises starting with Henry VIII and the ideological victory of the Roman imperial model of sovereignty, which is why franchises are now largely history and alien to modern political science).

The key, however, is the king did not _fully_ alienate his powers. He did not sell whole chunks of sovereignty, he only sold various sticks from that bundle and retained certain small but crucial sticks for the Crown. He might sell the right to hang thieves, the right to hold a market fair with a merchant court, and so on, but he did not sell all Crown powers in a bundled form. Even the Counties Palatine -- probably more independent than the current "sovereign state" members of the EU -- had some legal duties to the Crown. The king's courts retained jurisdiction in three narrow but crucial kinds of cases: (1) disputes over property rights held directly from the crown, including franchises to exercise police powers and jurisdiction, (2) cases of trespass on the king's real or jurisdictional property, and (3) cases involving imprisonment of a king's subject (even residents of Counties Palatine remained the king's subjects to this extent) -- a.k.a. habeus corpus, although even these were largely refused unless they involved issues of (1) and (2) or some other basic procedural rights, such as the right to a jury trial, that were part of the basic due process rights of all the king's suubjects.

Thus the medieval English king, starting with Fnargl-like powers in theory, in practice soon alienated the vast majority of them. The medieval Crown thus was much farther from being sovereign than our current U.S. federal government. This is even before getting to the king's very limited powers to tax independently of the "consent" of the major landowners (Parliament). The sovereign (really totalitarian) model which Hobbes glorified, and which modern political science takes for granted, came from the Roman Empire and Justinian's Codes, reflected in many misguided scholarly commentaries on the supposed powers of medieval kings. Nothing like it actually existed in medieval English practice.

There is much more information on this in my paper (for a legal seminar) on the subject of these English jurisdictions held as property.

BTW, formalists will find it fascinating that the famed Sir Francis Drake and his English contemporaries sailed, not directly for the crown, but for crown-chartered corporations that ran privateering fleets and paid rich dividends to their shareholders. England's victory over the Spanish Armada came, not mainly from the Royal Navy, but from these corporate fleets, despite the sharp conflict of interest between the goals of defending England versus looting enemy ships.

May 21, 2007 at 4:17 PM  
Blogger Victor said...

Hi again, Mencius; hopefully, for the last time in this thread -- I have already taken up way too much of your time.

You said:

I would say definitional precision is necessary, but not sufficient.

The point of "formalism" is to minimize violence. The mechanism is to make the outcome of conflicts over scarce resources predictable.

Yeah, I realized that after I posted my previous comment -- that ultimately what you are after is predictability, the total removal of chaos.

However, this doesn't change my point. Whether I think order is desirable is not the point (I don't think it the ultimate desideratum BTW). The point is whether the concept of 'order' or 'chaos' or 'violence' is any more susceptible to formal, precise definition than the much-maligned concept of 'utility' for example.

In effect, I think what you are doing might just be stuffing the uncertainty and the muddling-through complexity behind the curtain, kinda like 'cleaning up' a messy room by simply stuffing the mess into the closet. It's still a mess, you just hid it from the casual glance.

I certainly share your feelings on the program of turning philosophy, etc, into mathematics. In fact if you really want to get me started, computer science is on that list too.

As a computer scientist myself (Artificial Intelligence, to be precise), I somewhat share your sentiment. I just extend it to reality as a whole. Formalisms tend to be convenient aids, but shouldn't be taken too far. :)

May 21, 2007 at 4:58 PM  
Anonymous nick said...

A couple more points regarding Mencius' thought-provoking post:

M: "Imagine I am a respectable white person who enunciates properly and is maybe a little portly, and I own a house in the suburbs. If a bunch of boyz from tha hood showz up with Tec-9s and say "out, you fat muthafucka, this our house now," my first call will be to Officer Friendly, who will arrive in some kind of an armored vehicle and enfilade the hoodlums."

In the much more common case of typical armed robbery, you are much better off reaching for your gun before the phone. In a "stand-your-ground" state the possession of your house comes bundled in with a few sticks from the sovereignty bundle. This is also the case in a good formalist system -- see Semayne's Case. The rights to have cops "knock and announce" and the right to kill burglars are two of these sticks. Your house is not the realm, but neither is it a mere residence -- it is your castle, and that entitles you to some of the sticks from that overweaning bundle of property rights called sovereignty.

M: "In a sense, all I really own is an agreement with the township of Whiteville to protect my house, which is my castle, against the depredations of these colorful and militant delinquents."

What an unformalist thing to say! (Good formalists should beware of sentences that start, "In a sense, ..."). There is of course no such agreement; there is not even a legally plausible fiction of such an agreement. The Supreme Court properly says that you have no legal right whatsoever to be protected by the state.

May 21, 2007 at 5:05 PM  
Anonymous nick said...

BTW, here's the linkto my commentary on Semayne's case, which describes the little sticks of sovereignty that are supposed to be bundled in with our residences, turning them into "castles."

May 21, 2007 at 5:18 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Mencius: I know that George and I are getting off topic, but I hope that you find our argument interesting enough to tolerate it.

The concept of a cat is no more real than the concept of property rights.

I agree. Moreover, we can strike "concept of" from this statement, and simply state that a cat is no more real than property rights. All ideas are real things, just as brains are real things.

Suppose that you have a fold-up map of New York City in your hands. The map is certainly real; it is a human artifact, made of paper, which carries some information content. But the map may not be correct - i.e., the elements of the map may not accurately correspond to the streets and buildings that make up New York City. We may reasonably debate the correctness of a map, but it would be silly to question the reality(=existence) of a map which you hold in your hands.

Property rights are just as real as the fold-up map of New York City or a cat. But property rights are remarkably different in (at least) two ways:

(1) Property rights are sustained in our minds. If every person older than the age of two years were to die all at once, property rights would cease to exist on earth, whereas cats and leftover maps would continue to exist.

(2) Property rights influence their own conditions for correctness. You can not change the correspondence between a map of New York City and New York City, without either revising the map or rebuilding New York City. But property rights can induce their own correspondences with the world at large, via human behavior.

Certainly something exists, but your eyes being scratched out is no more proof of the existence of cats than being arrested for trespassing is proof of the existence of property rights.

Again, I agree. But I see no need to prove the existence of property rights. We can talk about property rights, therefore they exist in our minds.

It's true that cats are made of matter and property rights aren't.

Well, the strict truth is that everything is made of matter, including property rights and all other mental phenomena.

Maybe you'd prefer colors or words or numbers as an example? [...] it's a bit absurd to suggest that numbers only "exist" because people one day arbitrarily decided to "believe" in these meaningless abstractions.

Everyone who studies vision agrees that colors only exist in our brains and only loosely correspond to wavelengths of light. Likewise, linguists agree that words do not meaningfully exist outside of linguistic agents. I'm not sure about numbers. Regardless, I admit that my use of the word "belief" was sloppy. People don't have to willfully "believe" in numbers or property rights to make use of them.

May 21, 2007 at 5:50 PM  
Anonymous nick said...

The reality of property rights is similar to the reality of genetic codes. They are both inherited information. They are both often highly evolved, with highly improbable and functions that are often difficult or impossible to understand. Property rights are blueprints for social interactions; so are some combinations of genes.

Albeit, the mental and social processes of interpreting and enforcing property rights are less mechanistic, and thus less predictable, than the epigenetic construction and interaction of proteins from genetic code. A major task of formalism, IMHO, is to try to make up for this with clarity and rigor in our political and legal thinking and practice.

May 21, 2007 at 6:55 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

I suggest that trying to arrive at an understanding of law or politics by reasoning from first principles is akin to trying to arrive at an understanding of grammar by such reasoning. It may seem to work at first but eventually it is defeated by irregularities and exceptions to rules. The only grammars that develop predictably and perfectly from first principles are those of artificial languages. Similarly one might suppose the only legal and political systems that so develop are those of utopias.

I have not read Nick's comments about jurisdictions held as property in England and look forward to doing so. I should point out that this type of property existed in other countries to a greater extent in other countries. A Scottish barony, for example, conveyed rights of infangthief and outfangthief, pit and gallows, but reserved jurisdiction of certain crimes (e.g. murder) to crown courts. On the other hand certain baronies and superior feudal lordships carried with them "regalities" that conveyed the complete royal jurisdiction to the holder.

Scottish geography was probably the main reason for such grants of regalities. This is an illustration of how historical circumstances set principles. English palatine jurisdictions were much rarer, and never entitled a magnate, for example, to erect baronies motu proprio, as the duke of Argyll and some other great Scottish nobles were entitled to do - as recently as 2003!

May 22, 2007 at 11:05 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

victor -

"AI" doesn't narrow it down much these days. You could be an old Lisp warhorse or a believer in numerical methods for pattern recognition. I'm guessing the latter.

Precision actually can be quantified - with the aid of a prediction market. This does not give us mathematical precision, but it produces the best result that a large number of competing humans can achieve.

May 23, 2007 at 2:10 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

nick - see the following post, and in particular its distinction between delegation and alienation.

The right to defend yourself and your property against intruders definitely strikes me, and I would say most people who lack your acquaintance with legal history, as a right that is delegated rather than alienated.

I agree that I cannot sue the state for failing to defend me. However, I suspect that in a world where government was a matter of competitive customer service, it might well offer me such a right of compensation.

May 23, 2007 at 2:13 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

steve - I can hardly object to philosophy! I am just trying to find an excuse for not having an opinion on the question.

michael, nick - while I think the genetic analogy is useful, especially when we consider the actual structure of existing property rights rather than the methodologies under which we analyze them, I find it slightly too easy to get from this view to a kind of Burkean conservatism.

In my view, the best way to defend property rights is to admit that they are morally and legally arbitrary, and that they only serve a practical purpose. From a rhetorical standpoint it's a way of pulling the chair, so to speak.

May 23, 2007 at 2:16 PM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

May 25, 2007 at 4:50 AM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...


Whether or not imposing exit-costs is a revenue-maximizer depends on the time-preference of the subject. In the short term it is.
Thus, if time-preference is high (interest rates are exorbitant, the world is turbulent, there is no tomorrow, etc.), exit costs will be imposed and robots will be sold off to weld by hand (and money will be saved by not buying lubricant, of course).
I have seen it done by perfectly rational revenue maximizers, who did a pretty good job at becoming insanely rich in the process and ruining everything around themselves.
The nice thing about Fnarglocracy as a model is that you defined Fnargl's time preference: his goal is to depart with as much gold as possible after 1000 years. Thus, in the beginning, his time preference is very low: it doesn't matter whether Fnargl gets his gold from me right now, or from somebody two generations down, who happens to find my nice little cache. If I try to get any favor out of Fnargl by credibly hinting at a large gold cache, all I get is instant Finger-snap of Death. The day before the end of the 1000-year Fnargl, the picture is quite different: I can probably have the entire male human population of Earth except myself finger-snapped by letting Fnargl know that I have some gold stashed away in a number of caches around the globe.

Time preference is crucial, when you speak about revenue-maximization. And time preference, as it manifests itself in interest rates is nothing but the cost of uncertainty; that of not knowing everything we want about the world.

May 25, 2007 at 4:51 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


I agree 100%. Once you lose the infinite time horizon, a lot of stuff gets very, very ugly.

May 26, 2007 at 5:38 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Well, except for the equation of time preference and the cost of uncertainty. I think these are not quite the same thing. But that is a very separate discussion!

May 26, 2007 at 5:39 PM  
Anonymous Eliezer Yudkowsky said...

You'd better pray that Fnargl can't build robots.

September 14, 2007 at 9:49 PM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

"And, actually, we'll be a lot more productive if instead of shovels, we use backhoes". Actually, we'll be a lot more productive if instead of shovels, we use spades. A shovel is a scooping tool with a short lever arm to keep the load near the worker's body and a broad blade with raised sides to keep in loose material, while a spade is a digging tool with a narrow flat, blade to dig in and a long lever arm for prying material loose. They are not the same at all.

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Blogger 信次 said...

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January 31, 2009 at 11:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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March 2, 2009 at 7:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! thanks a lot! ^^

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March 2, 2009 at 7:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


March 6, 2009 at 5:07 AM  

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