Wednesday, July 25, 2007 89 Comments

Democracy as an adaptive fiction

It's been a while since I posted anything really controversial and offensive here, and I have a vague sense that there are some new readers who don't know what they've gotten into. Sure, it's still legal to read UR. But unless you take special precautions, you're leaving a trail of HTTP requests that future regimes may have no trouble at all in tracing to you personally. These may well qualify you for a stint in one of the new inpatient sensitivity facilities. Mellow out, as Jello Biafra put it, or you will pay. Try tapping on the wall - I might hear you.

In any case. Today I thought it'd be fun to talk about democracy. Unless you are 107 years old and a veteran of the Austrian Landwehr, you probably associate democracy with peace, freedom, progress and prosperity. Since I associate democracy with war, tyranny, destruction and poverty, we certainly have something to talk about.

My guess is that the conventional view of democracy, which I of course grew up with, is what we can call an adaptive fiction. An adaptive fiction is a misperception of reality that, unlike most such misperceptions, manages to outcompete the truth.

For example, suppose we somehow became convinced that warm beer is refreshing, whereas cold beer is poisonous. Obviously a fiction, and obviously maladaptive in our society. However, if we imagine a hot country ruled by brewers, who control their serfs by paying them only in lager, which being warm leaves them both tipsy and unrefreshed, hence quite incapable of revolt... you get the idea.

In this brewers' republic, the warm-beer fiction is what Gaetano Mosca called a political formula. (Mosca's philosophy is nicely summarized in James Burnham's The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, which at $50 for a used pocket-book is positively a bargain, and about as close as you'll get to Oligarchical Collectivism.)

A political formula is a belief that makes the ruled accept their rulers. Since the former tend to outnumber the latter, a political formula is, if not absolutely essential, an excellent way to cut down on your security costs. A political formula is adaptive because the rulers have, obviously, both motive and opportunity to promote it.

The best example of a political formula is divine-right monarchy - simply because this formula is defunct. Hardly anyone these days believes in the divine right of kings. Since at one time, most everyone did, we have incontrovertible proof that adaptive fictions can exist in human societies. Either divine-right monarchy is a fiction, and people then were systematically deluded. Or kings do rule by the grace of God, and people now are systematically deluded.

Or, of course, both. Because Mosca's second example of a political formula is - democracy.

In UR terms, democracy is a core tenet of Universalism. It's really not possible to be a Universalist and not believe in democracy. It's like being a Catholic and thinking the Virgin Mary was "just some chick."

Universalism is the faith of the Brahmins, the intellectual caste whose global dominance has been unchallenged arguably since World War II, and certainly since the end of the Cold War. Since an intellectual is defined by his or her ability to influence the opinions of others, it's not hard to see why democracy is such an effective political formula. Democracy means that popular opinion controls the State; intellectuals guide popular opinion; ergo, intellectuals guide the State.

As Walter Lippmann pointed out 75 years ago, public opinion in a democracy is a sort of funhouse mirror that reflects - albeit inaccurately, imperfectly and often quite reluctantly - the views of the governing elite. To be fair, it also has a certain filtering effect which discourages some of the nuttiest intellectual fads, if only because they can be positively incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't been to Harvard. But the history of extraordinary popular delusions does not afford much confidence - and with only a few exceptions, the beliefs held at elite schools in the Unionist (Lincoln to Wilson), Progressive (Wilson to FDR), and Universalist (FDR to now) periods have been leading indicators of American public opinion. Very generally, the consensus at Harvard at year Y is the consensus of America at Y+50. If this isn't power, what is?

I don't think anyone reasonable would dispute this. What I do think many reasonable people would dispute is the claim that democracy is a fiction - which, note, I have not justified at all.

In fact it's perfectly possible for a political formula to be an accurate description of reality. If democracy is the rule of Brahmins, fine. But don't the Brahmins seem to be doing a pretty good job of it? Don't we have - with a few small exceptions - peace, freedom, prosperity and progress? And, even more damning, don't the places in the world that lack democracy also seem to lack these things?

It is all very convincing. But, you see, a political formula has to be convincing. We're not talking about something some asshole came up with on his lunch break here. We're looking at the result of 200-plus years of adaptive evolution. We shouldn't expect a sordid little lie. We should expect a spectacular masterpiece of incredible mendacity. If it is, in fact, an adaptive fiction - and it certainly seems prudent to start by assuming the worst - democracy has fooled pretty much all of the people, pretty much all the time. At least for most of the 20th century.

So I could point out that the Austro-Hungarian Empire had plenty of peace, freedom, prosperity and progress, and hardly any democracy. Or that the same can be said of Dubai, Hong Kong, and even in many ways Singapore. Or that the Founders who created the American Republic for the most part feared and despised mob rule, or that the Civil War more than justified these fears. Or that the so-called democracies of the Progressive and Universalist eras, especially colonial confections such as the EU, combine a homeopathic dose of democracy with an allopathic dose of the Hegelian civil-service state, whose functionaries are intentionally unaccountable to "the People," and whose jobs would change not at all if elective offices suddenly became familial - as in fact they may be in the early stages of doing.

But this would be the same kind of argument that is made in favor of democracy. A jumble of negative associations to counter the jumble of positive associations. Hardly effective against a sacred status quo.

As Swift said, it's useless to try to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into, and certainly few of us were reasoned into democracy. However, I do vaguely remember my earliest, and surely entirely received, thoughts on why democracy is so great. And perhaps it's worthwhile trying to unravel the string from the beginning.

As I recall, I thought democracy was great because America was obviously democratic and free, it was opposed to the Soviet system which was non-democratic and non-free, and both had fought a war against the Nazis, who were non-democratic and evil. It was pretty clear to me, as it still is, that the parties running these non-democratic states were simply mafias.

So we have the association again: democracy equals free and prosperous, non-democracy equals tyrannous and poor. Case closed, it would seem.

Unfortunately, correlation does not imply causation. And there's another causal explanation of this correlation that makes at least as much sense.

In the standard view, democracy is like the cure for a disease. This disease might simply be described as primitiveness. The primitive way of government is tyrannous and, frankly, bestial, going back to the chimpanzees with their chief-chimps and chimp wars. Democracy cures this disease and allows us to have HDTVs and iPhones. Those who don't take the democracy pill are stuck in chimp world and have to live under chimp government, fishing for ants with sticks.

In the inverted view, democracy is like a poison. The permanent contest for political power that democracy creates is an extreme case of limited war, in which no weapons at all are allowed, and battle is resolved by counting heads. In other words, democracy is a permanent source of friction. Only very stable, healthy and homogeneous societies can withstand this poison. In those that can't, the cultural convention of limited warfare breaks down, and true civil war emerges, culminating in, of course, chimp government.

So a free, prosperous democratic society is like a person who's so strong and healthy he can take a dose of arsenic every day - or at least, every four years - and still survive, sort of. The free, prosperous democratic society might be remarkably unfree and unprosperous compared to an undemocratic society that never took the arsenic, but so few of the latter survived the last two centuries that we have no basis for comparison. (You can't really compare the US or France to Singapore or Dubai. Even the Central Powers of WWI were anything but free from democratic politics. Any exercise in imagining what 180 years of technical progress would have brought to, say, the France of Charles X, is entirely in the department of fantasy.)

Meanwhile, the undemocratic, tyrannous societies are not those which failed to take the democratic arsenic, but those which took it and found it fatal. Of course they are no longer ingesting the medication. Their lips do not move and their throat does not swallow. Civil society has been destroyed. I'm sure there are one or two 20th-century tyrannies which did not get that way as the result of a democratic degringolade, but I find it hard to think of them.

Both the standard and inverted perspectives are quite consistent with historical fact. And the inverted model is by no means as unusual as one might think. Every time you hear someone decrying the presence of politics in government, he or she is expressing it. Anyone who praises "nonpartisan" or "bipartisan" or, so help me God, "post-partisan" government, or (especially in Europe) decries the existence of "populist" parties or politicians, or even who believes that there is no room for "extremism" in politics, is stating their fear and distrust of democracy.

Yet none of them will put it in these terms. In conventional Universalist discourse, therefore, the democratic state becomes a kind of sickbed patient, an employment opportunity for every chiropractor, homeopath or bloodletter under the sun. Its health is constantly fretted over in the direst of terms. All the problems of democracy can be solved by... more democracy.

Most people don't know this, but Marxist-Leninist thinkers saw socialism in the same way. Socialism had this problem, it had that problem, yes, it was true, the turnips were rotting in the fields and men were sent to Siberia for speaking their minds. But was this an occasion to discard all the achievements of socialism? Wouldn't that be curing acne with decapitation? Shouldn't we instead move forward, to a kinder and more efficient socialism? The temptation to reform, rather than abandon, the adaptive fiction, is omnipresent.

Another way the democratic fiction protects itself is to define "democracy" as "successful democracy." Therefore, it is easy to see that democracy is always successful. For example, there was a democratic election in Iraq - using one of the most democratic of democratic forms, proportional representation, specifically recommended by the UN - and there is now a democratic government. This government is incapable of enforcing the law or even administering itself, however, so it cannot be true democracy.

(And no one thinks the failure of democracy in Iraq casts any aspersion on democracy. Even the pessimists conclude that Iraq is simply not "ready" for democracy. The ultra-pessimists conclude that Iraq may never be ready, presumably because of its strong tribal culture and its national IQ of 87. No one seems to suspect democracy itself. If your medicine routinely kills the weak and spares only the sturdy, Occam's razor doesn't lead you to suspect that it's bad for sick people, but good for healthy ones.)

In fact, the word "democracy" has narrowed over time to focus on those democratic forms which have been more correlated with success. Reversing this definition creep is a difficult and unenviable task, and so I'll resort to my usual tricks and define a new word, which corresponds to the literal derivation of "democracy" rather than its present connotations.

Let's define demotism as rule in the name of the People. Any system of government in which the regime defines itself as representing or embodying the popular or general will can be described as "demotist." Demotism includes all systems of government which trace their heritage to the French or American Revolutions - if anything, it errs on the broad side.

The Eastern bloc (which regularly described itself as "people's democracy") was certainly demotist. So was National Socialism - it is hard to see how Volk and Demos are anything but synonyms. Both Communism and Nazism were, in fact, obsessed with managing public opinion. Like all governments, their rule was certainly backed up by force, if more so in the case of Communism (the prewar Gestapo had less than 10,000 employees). But political formulae were of great importance to them. It's hard to argue that the Nazi and Bolshevik states were any less deified than any clerical divine-right monarchy.

Most people in democratic states tend to instinctively classify political systems into two types: democracies and everything else. (Of course, this dichotomy is typical of all political formulas - any regime constituted under a conflicting formula must be somehow invalid.) The old monarchist-aristocratic order in Europe, which was certainly not perfect, falls into "everything else," and thus we wind up putting, say, Elizabeth I and Stalin into the same bag.

The difference between a monarch and a dictator is that the monarchical succession is defined by law and the dictatorial succession is defined by power. The effect in the latter is that the fish rots from the head down - lawlessness permeates the state, as in a mafia family, because contending leaders must build informal coalitions. Since another name for a monarchist is a legitimist, we can contrast the legitimist and demotist theories of government.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I see legitimism as a sort of proto-formalism. The royal family is a perpetual corporation, the kingdom is the property of this corporation, and the whole thing is a sort of real-estate venture on a grand scale. Why does the family own the corporation and the corporation own the kingdom? Because it does. Property is historically arbitrary.

The best way for the monarchies of Old Europe to modernize, in my book, would have been to transition the corporation from family ownership to shareholder ownership, eliminating the hereditary principle which caused so many problems for so many monarchies. However, the trouble with corporate monarchism is that it presents no obvious political formula. "Because it does" cuts no ice with a mob of pitchfork-wielding peasants.

So the legitimist system went down another path, which led eventually to its destruction: the path of divine-right monarchy. When everyone believes in God, "because God says so" is a much more impressive formula.

Perhaps the best way to look at demotism is to see it as the Protestant version of rule by divine right - based on the theory of vox populi, vox dei. If you add divine-right monarchy to a religious system that is shifting from the worship of God to the worship of Man, demotism is pretty much what you'd expect to precipitate in the beaker.

Demotist political formulas have varied a good bit, but the phrase that expresses demotism as well as any I can think of is "self-government." I frequently see this term used as if it meant something. In fact it does not, which is perhaps the best debunking of democracy I can offer.

Does "self-government" mean "government by yourself"? Certainly "self-employment" means "employment by yourself," "self-abuse" means "abuse by yourself," etc, etc. But the idea of "government by yourself" is inherently tautological. Unless you're possessed by a demon, you govern yourself by definition. If the term means anything in this sense, it means that there is no other form of government, ie, no government at all - anarchy. But clearly this is not what the people who talk of "self-government" mean. If we are governed at all, we are governed by others - and thus "self-government" is a classic Orwellian paradox.

In practice the term seems most commonly to refer to "government by persons of the same race, culture, language, or social class or as oneself." Since I am not, in fact, a bigot, it's quite unclear why this should matter to me. Surely I can be either oppressed or treated decently by people of any race, color or creed, whether my own or someone else's.

From the perspective of its subjects, what counts is not who runs the government, but what the government does. Good government is effective, lawful government. Bad government is ineffective, lawless government. How anyone reasonable could disagree with these statements is quite beyond me. And yet clearly almost everyone does.

If we look at the entire demotist family, consisting of Anglo-American liberal democracy, Marxist-Leninism, and National Socialism, the last two are clearly disasters. (There is a strange tendency in contemporary Universalist thought to see National Socialism as somehow on an entirely different plane of evil than Marxist-Leninism - for example, purging neo-Nazis is routine, whereas purging neo-Communists is McCarthyism. I don't understand this at all, but then again, I don't understand a lot of Universalist doctrine.)

This leaves us with liberal democracy. As we've seen time and again here at UR, the word "liberal" is meretricious to perfection, so we need a substitute - perhaps "lawful" will do. Let's define "lawful democracy" as any demotist government that upholds the rule of law.

In other words, Universalist lawful democracy is the least demotist of demotisms, Demotism Lite if you will. Compared to Communism and Nazism, there's much to be said for it. But this is a rather low bar.

I think it's pretty clear that, if you lived in 1750 and a djinn appeared to you, explained the history of demotism in the next 250 years, and gave you the option of erasing all of it and just sticking with legitimism, you'd have to be a fairly perverse and sadistic fellow to decline the offer. It's difficult to even scrape together 10^6 victims of legitimist government, let alone the 10^8 plus that Communism and Nazism racked up - not forgetting the million or so killed in the ruthless Universalist city-bombings of WWII, which were certainly war crimes by the standard of anyone who can produce a river of tears for the sufferers of Guantanamo.

The reason it's so difficult to oppose lawful democracy is that we have so few alternatives to compare it to. Existential dissidence in the Soviet Union, for example - the desire to defeat the system, not just reform it - derived an enormous percentage of its credibility from the fact that the West clearly existed, and clearly (much propaganda notwithstanding) worked better.

The West has no West of its own. Besides tiny fossils of old Europe like Andorra, Monaco and Lichtenstein, the only successful non-democratic states in the world are Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai, each of which is interesting and impressive, but none of which are without problems. (I don't normally spend much time in the Universalist blogosphere, because I consider myself pretty familiar with the product, but these threads on Singapore struck me as interesting and sincere.)

So there is no getting around it: democracy may be, as I contend, a lie, but this lie has us by the gills. It is not going away any time soon. The reason I oppose it is not because I believe there is any chance of getting rid of it in the near future, but simply because I prefer to live with what I consider an accurate perception of reality.

Also, remember that democracy is a state of limited civil war. It is always pregnant with the spark of war proper, at home or abroad. It's fairly obvious that, in many of the international conflicts of the Universalist era, the two sides have been allied or parallied with different American political parties - even when the US military is involved in the war. To call this phenomenon dangerous would be an understatement, and I'll say more about it shortly.

Two 20th-century writers who have existentially opposed democracy are Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. Hoppe is a libertarian and K-L was a monarchist, so neither's views are exactly the same as mine, but they are both worth reading. Hoppe is probably the more rigorous thinker; K-L was a much better writer with a broader, more intuitive feel for history. If you're considering the hard and rocky road of the anti-democratic dissident, you should definitely check out their works.

89 Comments:

Anonymous Edward Williams said...

An excellent piece of fantasticly equivocal analysis, radically flawed by the rampaging and levelling assumption that anyone (not to mention everyone) in the past had all these definitions, which amount to a series of future assumptions!, available to them at the time, or times--which you confabulate and commingle, rather so zealously as to make the reader (myself) think you could only be, yourself, an aspiring polymath, maker of salads. Are you a chef?

July 26, 2007 at 1:02 AM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

"warm beer is refreshing, whereas cold beer is poisonous"

But. . . it's true!

July 26, 2007 at 2:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

outstanding.

July 26, 2007 at 6:41 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

It seems to me that my main point of contention here is precisely the point that you asserted that no reasonable person could disagree with, namely, that public opinion lags Harvard opinion by 50 years. In some respects this is true, but in general I think that intellectuals/brahmins have MUCH less influence than they attribute to themselves. Public opinion generally either doesn't change at all or does so only in a thin surface veneer which tends not to influence actions, while the intellectual rubber stamp of such movements as Populism (creating Progressivism) is in reality the rubber stamping of existing mass public opinion the expression of which has become fait accompli.

With respect to peace, prosperity, freedom, and progress, I would say that the US resembles the very non-Democratic middle Roman Empire, with much of the first and little of the other three, while Europe's constitutional monarchies tended in the opposite direction, with more war but more prosperity, progress, and freedom. Oddly though, the constitutional monarchies tended to do fairly badly in terms of sexual freedom and were a mixed bag in terms of freedom of expression. This could also be said of Dubai and Singapore, (which also have draconian drug laws even by US standards) though maybe not of Hong Kong.

July 26, 2007 at 7:23 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Also, it seems to me that since kicking out the Optimates and installing Brahmins (I prefer the term Mandarins) in their place (mostly in the 1960s), Harvard has done a remarkably good job in bringing it's empirical beliefs into line with reality, rejecting postmodernism and socialism, for instance. It has some way to go surely, but in aggregate it's dogmas are much closer to reality than is the consensus of the broader society. Chomsky is a relic. History departments are becoming data-driven and non-Marxist. Etc. I will except the occupied territories of women's studies, X studies etc from any praise, but surely this is fair, as I see no risk of the dogmas of such departments penetrating public consciousness.

It's fairly easy to find 10^6 victims of legitimist government in the 30 years war or in the Crusades. Easier still in Islamic or Japanese history.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurangzeb

I'm not sure you would call 19th century Latin America "legitimist", but what else was it?

By the way, what you call the beliefs of Harvard, do you see them as relatively arbitrary or as logical unfoldings of Christianity/Universalism.

July 26, 2007 at 7:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mencius: It seems you have some money. Why don't you fly out to Bhutan and try to sell your ideas to the king there? That or try to build a mercenary corps, forge the Ring of Fnarg, and test formalism out in some chunk of the next politically unimportant country to melt down.

July 26, 2007 at 8:01 AM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

You point out that some non-Democratic regimes have been good and many Democratic ones have been bad, but that doesn't really tell us that much, except that Democracy is not by itself sufficient and may not even be necessary. I see no evidence of Democracy as poison and I think your analogy of voting to warfare confuses more than it elucidates.

The permanent contest for political power that democracy creates is an extreme case of limited war, in which no weapons at all are allowed, and battle is resolved by counting heads.

You make it sound like the difference between counting heads and mass killing is simply academic, when really it's the whole point. Unlike any of the other forms of government you mention, in successful Democracies (more on that phrase later) it's possible to kick the bastards out without violence. (Indeed, it's an amazing testament to the power of our system that zero internal violence came out of the 2000 election fiasco.)

Another way the democratic fiction protects itself is to define "democracy" as "successful democracy."

While you appear to be pointing out a "No true Scotsman" fallacy, I think you're using it against a straw man. That is, nobody argues that Democracy is sufficient in the absence of government's ability to enforce the rule of law or without adequate checks and balances. Without the ability of enforcement, Democracy is toothless, and without checks and balances, it quickly turns back into "chimp government."

So what about [democracy + power to enforce law + checks and balances]?

It seems to me that the chief advantage of "legitimist" government over "democratic" government, in your view, is that the latter produces "friction." However, the "friction" you speak of is no problem if government has sufficient enforcement power and furthermore, a legitimist system would surely have it's own forms of friction without the outlet of being able to vote the bastards out.

July 26, 2007 at 9:52 AM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

(I meant to add: Iraq's problem is not the Democracy, but the lack of ability to enforce the rule of law. If they get that problem solved, they still might have the lack of checks and balances that could prevent the tyranny of the majority.)

July 26, 2007 at 9:56 AM  
Blogger Bruce G Charlton said...

I would focus on democracy as a political system for non-violent change of government (which could employ a wide range of mechanisms including methods of voting) - as contrasted with a system in which governments can be changed only by coercive revolution.

Democracy then entails the current government plus at least one other aspiring government (opposition party) competing for power.

It is good that parties seek power, because that is what makes them try to discover policies that tend to satisfy the electors.

As you say, democracy only works in somewhat modernized societies in which there is already a specialization of social function. For example, democractic politics cannot be too moralized, or else people who supported one party would regard the other party as evil, and would not consent to be governed by them, preventing a peaceful transfer of power.

(This can be a problem when religion has too much secular power - you get parties based on religions, and the opposition is regarded as blasphemous, illegitimate, wicked).

July 26, 2007 at 10:25 AM  
Anonymous dearieme said...

In 1812 there were only two sizeable democracies in the world. The newer attacked the older, on the flimsiest of pretexts.

July 26, 2007 at 10:27 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Edward,

Not only am I not a chef, I'm a terrible cook - I can never follow a recipe. Stubbornness has consequences.

My general assumption is that everyone is sincere and well-intentioned - I really am not interested in blaming or praising historical figures. I'm interested only in the causal effects of their actions. Unfortunately it's difficult to discuss these without sounding like a witch-hunter. Perhaps I should post some kind of permanent disclaimer, or something.

July 26, 2007 at 10:33 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

JA and Bruce,

I think you're both starting by assuming what you're trying to prove, which is that changes of power are necessary.

It's important to distinguish changes of power from changes of management. When General Electric, say, replaces its CEO, this is a change of management, not a change of power. Barring a bad corporate governance design (and American corporate governance is anything but perfect), power belongs and will always belong to the shareholders.

The reason that GE doesn't need a change of power is that (again, assuming ideal corporate governance) the interests of GE are identical with the interests of its shareholders.

And even more important, the interests of the shareholders are identical. They all want one thing: for GE to be as profitable as possible. This is a frictionless design. If GE was run, for example, by its customers, they would be having political conflicts over whether lightbulbs should subsidize jet engines or the the converse.

The reason democracies do need changes of power is that the design is full of these kinds of frictions. The interests of the governing class are anything but the interests of the voters, and different voters have many different interests. (Glenn Reynolds' Is Democracy Like Sex? is quite cogent on this point.)

I certainly believe nonviolent politics is far preferable to violent politics. Limited war is much more pleasant than unlimited war, and democracy is really the ne plus ultra of limited war.

But battle is always an unpredictable struggle aimed at securing political power, and by this definition an election is certainly a battle. Moreover, historical examples of drift along this spectrum are common - of course the canonical example is Weimar Germany, in which even the Social Democrats had their paramilitary streetfighting arm.

I'd certainly rather live in a lawful democracy than in most of the regimes that have ever existed on earth. But there is no reason to believe this system, which is a product not of Providence but of the random conflicts of history, is optimal or anywhere near it. It is certainly quite capable of degenerating into something worse, and its various attempts at world government - whether through the US or the UN - can only be described as disastrous.

Describing lawful democracy as "democracy," and attributing its obvious virtues to its suffix rather than its prefix, is pure Orwellian thinking. Lawful but undemocratic government seems to work just fine; democratic but lawless government is a disaster. Surely the tail is wagging the dog here.

For example, suppose Bush had invaded Iraq with the intent to convert it not into Belgium or New Jersey, but the United Arab Emirates. How the press would have howled! Personally I'd rather live in Belgium, or even New Jersey, than in the UAE. But I'd take any of these over Iraq - and I suspect the Iraqis feel about the same way.

July 26, 2007 at 11:00 AM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

And even more important, the interests of the shareholders are identical. They all want one thing: for GE to be as profitable as possible. This is a frictionless design.

That's because shareholders hold shares of GE for the sole purpose of getting money. If GE also had to provide law enforcement, highways, medical research, national defense, economic management, and all the other things governments do, this would no longer be the case. If you argue that government shouldn't be involved in any of those things than it seems like they would be taken care of by chimp government.

July 26, 2007 at 11:27 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Michael,

You raise quite a few interesting points.

For Harvard's intellectual influence, look at American attitudes toward slavery, race, socialism, environmentalism, homosexuality, women's rights, and anything similar. I think the T+50 effect comes through quite clearly.

Of course it's impossible to be sure that the relationship is causal. Possibly, as you say, Harvard (et al) just anticipated changes that were somehow organic and inevitable. But this rather smacks of the vox populi, vox dei fallacy, the belief in history as progress.

The Mongols (and the Mughals) were certainly quite murderous. I suppose I meant the comparison to apply to Europe in the Age of Absolutism and beyond.

Even the 30 Years War is more a foretaste of democratic violence than a last gasp of medievalism, sparked as it was by conflicts of popular opinion - the same can be said for the Albigensian crusade. These events certainly don't argue against the proposition that political power is best divorced from public opinion.

As for the "liberators" of 19th-century Latin America, they certainly tried to establish republics, although it's not surprising that many never even reached the level of stability where they could hold an election.

In reality no legitimist monarchy got anywhere near the point where it could be secured by military force alone. They all tended to have a base of informal political support, notably in the clergy, and the price of this support was repression of the people their supporters didn't like. Of course this repression was repaid, in triple spades, when their enemies gained control.

Perhaps the best memoir of one of the last absolutist monarchies I've read is Alexander Romanov's Once A Grand Duke, reviewed here.

Apropos of nothing, I have a special antipathy to "data-driven" methods in history, which I regard as pure cargo-cult science. The pernicious idea that even if you can't actually perform experiments, the more science-like your work is the better, seems impossible to extirpate. Statistics surely make good illustrations, but they are not inherently superior to anecdote, as they are in actual science. The historian's task is still to present an accurate and convincing picture of reality as it happened, and there is no scientific procedure which can select between two such conflicting presentations.

Marxism in the Western university has outlived its adaptive usefulness. Back in the day, any Brahmin/Mandarin who wasn't a hardline Stalinist could present himself as a moderate, thus painting a plausible and convincing picture in which the old Optimates were on one extreme and the Marxists were on the other. Now that one end of this spectrum is gone, it's only natural that the other should atrophy as well. It's hard to derive energy from a struggle without an enemy - people still go through the forms of ritual hate, but all the real fun has gone out of the thing.

So, while there has certainly been some retreat of Marxism in the academy, Marxism was always a symptom rather than the real problem. The real problem is the feedback loop between power and education, which is a formula for unanimity and false consensus.

The '60s generation has indeed mellowed, and with its rise to power has coalesced into near unanimity at a point slightly left of the American political center, and roughly matching the European center. (I don't regard this as a coincidence, either - it's not really surprising that, since Europe was conquered by Universalism, Europeans have become Universalists.)

But Chomsky, while he may be a relic among the current generation of professors, has enormous clout among the younger generation of activists, whose lust for power is not at all abated by the victory of their parents - or even grandparents. One of the classical symptoms of decadence is that young aristocrats spend all their time on political scheming, and it'd be hard to say we don't see this now.

The 9/11 Truthers, Earth Firsters, Palestinists, and other hard-line neo-progressives, all of whose intellectual passion is derived from taking Universalist doctrine at face value, without the "unprincipled exceptions" that allow a basically lawful society to exist, exhibit a level of antinomian fire that in many ways equals and surpasses Tom Hayden. They don't oppose the Optimates - they oppose anything that is sane, and inasmuch as power has brought responsibility to the hippie generation, they are targets as well. The new activists are young, and their full impact is yet to be felt.

I think the best way to judge Harvard, or any university, is not by the opinions of the faculty, but the opinions of the students. This is a better gauge of the information transmission that's actually going on. There was definitely a backlash in which undergraduate opinion moved a little to the right, but my sense is that this is over, and radical leftism is as fashionable as ever.

July 26, 2007 at 11:47 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

JA,

GE does not provide law enforcement, roads, national defense, etc. But it does provide jet engines, lightbulbs, refrigerators, etc.

This is because GE does not have a business unit which owns a few thousand square miles of land, independent of any other authority. If it did, you would certainly see it providing law enforcement, roads, etc.

Because I doubt it would get any customers if it left these services to chimp government. GE also doesn't sell chimp-made jet engines, lightbulbs, etc. Without law enforcement, roads, etc, you are pretty much talking cowboys and cattle-grazing, which is probably not the most profitable use of real estate.

Not only this - GE's shareholders would be best served if GE itself obeyed the laws it wrote for this territory. Not because, in this thought-experiment, anyone would force it to do so, but because real estate under lawless government is a lot less valuable than real estate under lawful government. Breaking your own laws is the financial equivalent of selling off your factories as scrap metal.

July 26, 2007 at 11:54 AM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

If I may, I'd like to try to mediate the debate over how much power the Brahmin ideals have over most citizens. I'll posit that they have tremendous power in one sense, and very little in another.

The status quo in the US is more or less a formalist hell: what we truly believe, and the way we act privately, is quite different from what we say we believe, and how we act democratically. The Brahmin progressive-idealists have a lot of influence over the latter and next-to-none over the former.

So Mencius is right when he makes the case that our public values are dominated by a progressive-idealist consensus: we vote for parties which increase (or condone the increase in) the size and scope of government. This happens continuously even though the results (huge 20th Century increase in crime, etc.) are beyond disappointing. We modify our speech to always assert and assume (and reinterpret facts to support the notion that) everyone wants democracy and equality. We route around non-governmental solutions to problems, under the very un-Jeffersonian notion that "if government is there, it's got a purpose, and ____ is a legitimate purpose".

Michael is also right in pointing out that that is a "thin surface veneer". We vote for expansions in government while constantly insulting government officials. We love democracy and can't stand voters. We are privately very pessimistic about the progress our public optimism demands that we not question.

Steve Sailer* and MM have critiqued this discrepancy, the former mainly from the angles of immigration, crime, IQ, etc., and the latter from political theory and a broad historical view. Having decided realist/formalist critiques are A Good Thing, I am left with difficult choices in passing the ideas along. Do I introduce my pals to SS, with his (superficially) inflammatory statements about human diversity, or do I point them in the direction of MM, with his intimidating grasp of history?

It's sort of like introducing someone to late 20th Century music. You can show them Moldbug "bebop", which is complex, bewildering, and often tongue-in-cheek, or you can show them Sailer "punk", which is shocking and direct but boils to down to simple ideas that are only remarkable because few people are promoting them.

July 26, 2007 at 11:59 AM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

I think one of the ways democracy creates friction is by various groups using progressive ideals as a vehicle to make their special pleas sound more like the only natural role of government. Failure becomes a necessary-and-sufficient argument for government intervention on one's behalf.

When the expectation is that the government will not support the people, but merely protect people from each other, the scope of politics (and thus friction) is naturally limited. I'm not so sure this makes democracy a fiction per se. I think a real aspect of democracy is its tendency to increase the size and scope of government, not because the people can't control it, just because they vote on specifics (whether a certain program will help them) rather than generalities (whether they'll like paying the taxes or debt interest that program will require). In a way, it's more of a Prisoner's Dilemma than anything else. Your interest group can give up its program, and reduce friction (and taxes), but the benefits of a move to smaller government are diluted by everyone while the cost is felt only by the group which used to get the program. So it rarely happens, and the growth of government and politics tends to have a ratcheting effect.

July 26, 2007 at 12:00 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

anonymous,

If only I had that kind of money! I'm afraid it will be back to the salt pits for me, sooner rather than later. At least it's not Harvard.

July 26, 2007 at 12:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Mencius: GM operates in a highly competitive marketplace. It seems to me that the shareholders of some other companies, say Microsoft, or Wall Mart for people in small town America, frequently have significant personal interests in the quality and price of the products produced by those companies, and in some cases in the working conditions in those companies, the salaries and benefits of their employees, etc. GM shareholders in Flint Michigan had substantial economic interests in GM not moving its factories, while shareholders in Mexico may have had competing interests. As the size and power of a company grows to encompass all aspects of life, as governments not infrequently do, the interests of shareholders become less and less focused on dividends or market cap.

In any event, if the government was run like GE and the CEO decided to award himself and some cronies an options package that gave him and them collective majority control of the company once cashed in, where would the remaining shareholders sue for conflict of interest, fraud, or what-have-you when the entire dividend was eliminated and the salaries of those top officials rose a thousand-fold. Sorry Mencius, but corporate forms are basically just Democracy without universal suffrage but with the oversight of a higher level Democracy. Eliminate the latter and leave the former and you don't solve any of the latter's problems.

July 26, 2007 at 12:13 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

bbroadside,

Why not introduce them to both? :-) I'm flattered by the comparison to Sailer, I think he's genuinely a great man. It's true that he goes more for two-minute, three-chord Ramones songs than album-length Sun-Ra jams, but this is hardly a demerit...

I'd say part of the ambiguity you present can be teased apart by separating out the "we." Brahmins really do trust the Brahmin side of the government - I recall a "news analysis" piece I saw recently in the Washington Post, in which the author's aim was to demonstrate the underlying problem with George W. Bush - that he didn't really believe in government! Presumably this is not at all inconsistent with being a harbinger of fascism.

Who knows what Bush believes? Inasmuch as there is a Vaisya tradition, American Vaisyas don't believe in government - but there isn't really a Vaisya tradition, because there aren't really Vaisya institutions. Other than the Revelationist churches, and they tend to focus on their pet issues. The result is that, Ron Paul notwithstanding, few middle Americans are available to complain about being effectively paid for their votes.

You are definitely right about the ratchet effect. I keep mentioning Jouvenel - I don't have a copy handy, but I think at some point I'll just type in the whole introduction to On Power. Limited government simply has no motivation to stay limited. And so it doesn't. The experiment is over, the results are in.

July 26, 2007 at 12:14 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

michael,

The US system of corporate governance is definitely infirm, but it's not so infirm that a CEO can grant himself options! Any such thing has to be approved by the board, who have fiduciary responsibility and can very easily be sued.

As for GM (as opposed to GE), it's a very special case, because it is intimately tied in to the American political system, for example through its unions, who exercise a large amount of very informal control.

If you wanted to fix GM, you could do a lot worse than dissolving its unions in exchange for a large - very large, probably a majority - of shares distributed to union members, replacing the informal profit and informal control that comes from union membership, with the formal profit and formal power that comes from holding shares (which, unlike a union card, can be sold).

I think I will do a full post on corporate governance, why it works and how it can be made to not work. I'm assuming things which I learned through personal experience, and I suppose they are not common knowledge.

July 26, 2007 at 12:21 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Apologies for the repititions here, I wrote this offline before I got a chance to read the comments. In particular, I note that my third comment is mostly moot.

First, I would note that while Democracy is a lie, Republicanism is not. Confusing Republicanism with Democracy makes baby Publius cry.

Second, you could do with some metrics. You've said that democracies have caused a great deal of war (a point I'll not dispute) but you've failed to demonstrate that they caused more war than their alternatives. This is something like saying that Aaron was a greater slugger than Ruth just because he hit more home runs, without asking any questions about home run rates.

Third, you've slightly confused cause with effect with regard to the Brahminesque nature of our government. Our governing officials are not necessarily Brahmins, nor terribly sympathetic to the Universalist worldview, nor inherently likely to be either. Rather, they are totally and completely hungry for power. Since the abandonment of limited powers, the only choke on federal power has been the willingness of federal officials to say "no". The Congress being ever needful of reelection, it has been of late only the Supreme Court that says no anymore. I'll not offer insult by arguing that the Supreme Court is anything other than an inherently Brahminist institution; I only assert that the remainder of federal governance has parroted Universalism adaptively, without being true believers in anything but more power to themselves.

As a point of data (yes, data, not a datum. A datum can only take the form of 1 or 0. All other forms of information must necessarily include multiple datum, and therefore be data.[not that I'm bitter, why do you ask?]) I would suggest that a modern day Andy Jackson could quite easily be elected to the Presidency. Any definition of Bramin or Universalist sufficiently large to encompass Jackson is frankly, contentless.
I'm inclined to suggest that Regan was just such a modern Jackson, but for the moment I demur.

Fourth, you say that the correlation of democracy and prosperity doesn't imply causation. True enough as far as it goes, but please indicate how prosperity increases by taking freedom-- or anything at all, really-- away from individuals. While non-democracies have imitated prosperity making methods from democracies, can you cite any instance of a government which was significantly less democratic adopting more innovatively prosperous policies?

Fifth, you criticize Republicanism for being an eternal limited civil war. That is no criticism, that is the highest of praise. War is not the problem, killing is. An invention which causes war without the need for killing should rightly be seen as the greatest invention in the history of the human race.

War, not sex is the original sin of Man. Disputes as to the truth of this claim should be directed to the socio-biologists, upon whose preliminary researches I'm basing my claim. I can't say for certain they are right, but given how much the Universalists take umbrage at their claims, I'm not betting against them.

Finally, you have the matter exactly backwards with regard to legitimism versus demotism. The ending of legitimism had very little to do with prosperity and monarchical opposition to personal freedoms, but rather because of the technological changes to warfare that made the demos the literal source of power. Witness the New Model Army, and of course, Napoleonic France. The Cavaliers couldn't go toe to toe with the New Model Army, because they misunderstood war. They learned fast, or they died. Alas the Bourbons missed the memo. This incidentally has something to do with why WWII was the slobberknocker it was: Each army was unquestioningly demotic, with stylistic variations.

Any formal system you propose had damn well better understand the nature of power flowing from guns in the possesion of the Demos, or it will be crushed under the bootheel of someone who does understand it. Note for instance that in Iraq that our planes and tanks do not avail us, but our Marines and Soldiers on foot with M-16s do.

Finally, I think I've earned the right to have a question answered. How would your formalist system handle corruption? Give extra governmental shares to those who ferret corruption out? Our current corporations handle the matter two ways, by leveraged buyout, and by minority shareholder lawsuits. The difficulty with the first will be that owning the US Government has sufficient non-monetary value (Tanks, Planes, Marines, etc.) that moral hazard seems likely. The problem with the second should be self-evident.

As for a claim that leveraged buyout by a new-style brahmin class who would rule undemocratically, but magically better than the republican system wouldn't be so bad, how would such a buyout be effected against the will of the people? And in what way would this leveraged buyout be magically better than oh, I don't know, an election where Barry Goldwater won instead of LBJ?

July 26, 2007 at 1:05 PM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Maybe I need to step back a bit, because I'm not following at all. Here are some questions:

1) In what way precisely would state-as-corporation be superior to [democracy + law enforcement + checks&balances]? What's the problem you are attempting to solve?

2) If all citizens are shareholders, isn't the process of choosing leaders the same as in democracy, i.e. voting? What's to prevent shareholder blocs forming in order to get GovCorp to enforce Christianity? What's to prevent blocs from forming to get GovCorp to take actions that reduce the value of the shares but increase the assets of that bloc's shareholders in other ways by, e.g., siezing assets from another country and giving them to that bloc? What prevents a bloc holding a majority of shares from somehow seizing everybody else's shares?

July 26, 2007 at 2:26 PM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

Why not introduce them to both? :-) I'm flattered by the comparison to Sailer, I think he's genuinely a great man. It's true that he goes more for two-minute, three-chord Ramones songs than album-length Sun-Ra jams, but this is hardly a demerit...

Agreed. Sailer would be a little easier to hawk to my friends if he would turn the distortion down just a little; he makes ethnic and gender generalizations based on personal experiences, pointing out that it's perfectly fair if everyone can do it. It's the kind of thing that engenders trust in me, since I think pretty much everyone has their prejudices and seeing Sailer's completely naked of shame makes them suddenly seem much less spooky. If he were to tone it down to save people's feelings, he wouldn't be Sailer.

I do put you and Sailer in the same broad category: Observant People Who Can't Be Fired, and who consequently say things that I simply can't ignore or forget. Sailer made a point that I meant to add, marked by an asterisk above. A Russian immigrant observant or urban crime patterns thought the utterly dogmatic American view of racial equality (to wit, People of Different Races Have Exactly the Same Criminality) was evidence of insanity. When Sailer assured him it was only hypocrisy, the Russian was relieved, and felt at home again. I couldn't get that image out of my head: Russian slips out of Soviet Russia in search of wealth and/or public honesty, and finds only the former.

I'd say part of the ambiguity you present can be teased apart by separating out the "we." Brahmins really do trust the Brahmin side of the government....

Oh, well, my experience is different but I don't think I run in true Brahmin circles. I hear so much expand-the-government progressivism mixed in with government-is-inherently-bad rhetoric that sometimes it scares me. Maybe it is a combination of their Vaisya demographic underlying their Brahmin education; the fact that it makes me uncomfortable but not them is probably telling.

Who knows what Bush believes? Inasmuch as there is a Vaisya tradition, American Vaisyas don't believe in government - but there isn't really a Vaisya tradition, because there aren't really Vaisya institutions. Other than the Revelationist churches, and they tend to focus on their pet issues. The result is that, Ron Paul notwithstanding, few middle Americans are available to complain about being effectively paid for their votes.

Bush is an interesting case. He lacks the introspection and abstraction that might allow a Brahmin to take a hard look at his beliefs, but also lacks the practical experience that might make a Vaisya skeptical of ever-increasing government. And as to the possibility of enduring Optimate values ... I just don't think an Optimate would raise his daughters that way.

And yes, Jouvenel is on my reading list, at #20 or something. Edged out by Eric Voegelin, Karen Horney, Solzhenitsyn....

July 26, 2007 at 2:26 PM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

Oh, and here is the link to the Steve Sailer piece I keep forgetting to include.

July 26, 2007 at 2:31 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

I think the best way to judge Harvard, or any university, is not by the opinions of the faculty, but the opinions of the students.
I am quite confident that if polled the students will be less leftist than the faculty (I'm pretty sure some folks pushing the David Horowitz line have other done this). Most of the students just want to join the establishment by way of the university, not overturn it. People that stay on campus after they've gotten their degrees are selected for leftism. I can't claim this is original, as Caplan made the same point here. If you just wanted to use the general social survey, you could look at the opinions of people with a bachelor's degree or higher. My guess is that they'll be rather moderate.

I just read Amy Chua's "World on Fire" yesterday (she should take that as a compliment, as I usually don't plow through them in one sitting like that), and I think she prevents a pretty good case that the godawful policies and actions taken in the third world don't really have much at all to do marxism or socialism, but are really just stupid tribalism without an understanding of how markets or the rule of law work. It's surprising how sympathetic to the rioting masses she is considering her aunt was murdered by one of her servants due to being one of those hated market dominant minorities and the police didn't even bother to do jack about it.

July 26, 2007 at 9:10 PM  
Blogger Black Sea said...

Democracy's success perhaps lies in the fact that it is the most convincing political formula for relatively secular, relatively homogeneous, mass societies.

Such socienties need orgiastic communal rituals bearing the venner of rationality. The democratic process, like professional football, tent revivals, and U2 concerts, serves to reinforce two suspect beliefs of great utility to the organizers, so long as they remain utterly unexamined by the participants:

1. You have a say in all of this.

2. You have a stake in all of this.

Despite the passionate vehemence of serious sports fans, any impartial observer can see that they have no actual say in the direction of the team or the calling of the plays, and, beyond their purely emotional loyalties, absolutely no stake in the outcome of the game.

While devotees of rock concerts and tent revivals may believe that they have greater influence on these events and a greater stake in the outcomes, these assumptions deserve a far colder analysis than most adherents or participants are ever likely to give them.

As you point out, democracy, at it's best, offers conflict without bloodshed, and here lies perhaps its greates appeal, as a ritualized expression of grievances and resentments emerging more often than not from our discontent with the unalterable.

This purging of anger and grief democracy necessarily mixes with the inextinguishable possibilities on which hope is founded . . . "the shining city on the hill . . . a thousand points of light." (Glaring beacons seem always to be involved.) And this of course brings us back to one of your recurrent themes, democratic universalism as a quasi-religious faith.

Finally, democracy would seem to work best among conglomerations of like-minded people of similar culture and background, as democracy actually tolerates only relatively small ideolgical variations.

Hard-core British Islamists are quite right to point out that the only REAL way to thwart their ideology is to suppress or deny their rights as citizens of the UK. They simply don't share a host of rather mild, and arguably bland assumptions that most participants in functioning democracies have long since learned to swallow.

July 26, 2007 at 9:41 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

christopher,

These are all good points.

First, I don't see any clear line between a republic and a democracy. Certainly the US was founded as the former and rapidly degenerated into the latter, for reasons that I think now are quite obvious.

Second, if you read the comments above you'll note that I don't believe in metrics :-) It's impossible to issue a report card to the legitimist alternatives to 20th-century democracy - and demotism - because those alternatives never existed. We have no option but abstraction.

Third, given that the previous generation of my family has about 70 years of combined service to USG, I beg to differ. Outside of DoD, Universalism is the faith of Washington - Republicans are a beleaguered minority. I refer, of course, to the civil service rather than to elected officials. It's easy to overstate the influence of the latter.

Fourth, I think you're confusing freedom and power. Voting is not freedom, it is power (if an infinitesimal slice of power). Removing the power to vote does not make anyone less free. Controlling their actions or their minds makes them less free, and if they don't have political power, whether individually or collectively, the state has no rational motivation to infringe their freedoms.

Fifth, you are absolutely right - it is a great achievement. But so is climbing Everest. That doesn't mean there aren't other ways to achieve the same result - or a better one. (Taking a helicopter to the top of Everest - yes, okay, I know, they don't work well in thin air. But it's an analogy, dammit.)

Sixth (finally), you are again right and I hope I didn't imply the converse. The military power of the levee en masse had a lot to do with the death of legitimism.

But the military power of the Demos is over, done with, dead. What you see from Iraq is a carefully maintained illusion. The events are real, their cause is fiction. Dr. Luttwak will set you straight.

Since I am not a respected defense consultant, I will be even more brutally frank. The war in Iraq is an American civil war by proxy. The real prize of this war is political power in the United States. If the US military wins, the Republicans win. If the US military loses, the Democrats win. We saw the exact same thing in Vietnam, and given that, in general, the Republicans are the Democrats' punching bag, the result is pretty inevitable.

The US has advantages in military technology that far outweigh those the early British had in India, when a handful of men subdued a subcontinent. In fact, it would not even take the US military to turn Iraq into the United Arab Emirates. The Blackwater Group could probably handle the job.

If it had a free hand, and could apply Luttwak's "easy and reliable way of defeating all insurgencies everywhere." A result which would certainly benefit both the US and the vast majority of Iraqis, but would bring no joy at all to the Democrats. "Treason doth never prosper; what's the reason?"

As for corruption, private companies handle the problem in a very simple way: they always fire, and often prosecute, employees who take bribes or kickbacks. The problem is almost unheard of. Dealing with corruption is so easy that even the US government has very little problem with it. Again, I refer to the civil service, rather than elected officials.

Corruption in third world countries is a case of the formalist pattern trying to reemerge. A third world government, far more than ours, is a system for distributing dividends, which even in the worst countries on earth are nontrivial. It is just a hellaciously intricate and absurdly informal system.

As for the leveraged buyout, it would probably have to have the support of both the elites, or at least a significant fraction of them, and the masses. Significant attention to Pareto optimality must be paid - fortunately, the present system leaves a lot of Pareto gains on the table.

Once this is done, however, the identities of the shareholders are pretty close to irrelevant. There's a reason European corporations are called "anonymous societies" (eg, SA).

July 26, 2007 at 11:38 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

JA,

(1) The problem I'm trying to solve is the seemingly inexorable growth of official power in both scope and complexity, which if present trends extrapolate has us headed for something very much like the Brezhnev administration. In fact, since a 19th-century liberal like Lord Acton would probably find the current US or EU much more similar to Brezhnevism than to the Manchester liberalism he knew and loved, which happened to give us the Industrial Revolution among other things, anything that can not only stop, but even reverse, this trend, can be expected to yield significant relative advances in civilization and prosperity.

(2) The same questions could be asked relative to, say, GE. The answer is that shareholder voting is not equivalent to democratic voting, because shares are transferable and yield proportional benefits. Therefore, the motivations of shareholders tend to overwhelmingly concentrate on maximizing the value of their shares.

For example, in theory there is nothing stopping GE's shareholders from giving themselves discounts on lightbulbs, or dedicating GE's revenues to the propagation of Christianity, or any other weird thing. But it is very difficult to organize a bloc of shareholders for the purpose of promoting actions that would lower the stock price, as all of these certainly would.

July 26, 2007 at 11:48 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

black sea,

Living in Turkey has clearly endowed you with unusual distance and perspective. Try not to forget it under the bed when you're packing :-)

July 26, 2007 at 11:50 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

tggp,

If you look at American university graduates as a whole, you are probably quite right. However, this does not weight them by intellectual influence, and if you apply this weighting - eg, if you look at top-10 or 20 universities only - I suspect the results are quite different.

These days, my impression is that you basically have to convince the admissions staff that you're a Universalist for them to let you in. They sure don't want to hear about your summer with the Minutemen or the Boeremag. Ketman is not hard to practice in such a case, of course, but few teenagers can pull off Ketman with real gusto.

It's been a long time since I read World on Fire - I should probably look at it again.

July 26, 2007 at 11:55 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

bbroadside,

I agree with your observations on Sailer.

As for the Jekyll-and-Hyde attitudes toward government, see my post on red vs. blue government. Briefly, both red-staters and blue-staters tend to fear the side of government that is controlled by their political enemies, and revere the side controlled by their friends. So they can simultaneously loathe and worship the State, and often when they are doing so they tend to forget the other half, with typically schizophrenic results.

I simply refuse to speculate on Bush personally. Thinking about what's actually going on in the head of a contemporary politician makes any debate about authorial intent seem positively pellucid. And in any case, as a generalist, I prefer to deal only in generalizations :-)

July 27, 2007 at 12:03 AM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

The US has advantages in military technology that far outweigh those the early British had in India, when a handful of men subdued a subcontinent. In fact, it would not even take the US military to turn Iraq into the United Arab Emirates. The Blackwater Group could probably handle the job.

If it had a free hand, and could apply Luttwak's "easy and reliable way of defeating all insurgencies everywhere." A result which would certainly benefit both the US and the vast majority of Iraqis, but would bring no joy at all to the Democrats. "Treason doth never prosper; what's the reason?"


In the past you've been critical of Allied stategic bombing of Axis civilians in the Second World War. Now it seems like you're criticizing US hesitation over hurting civilians in Iraq. I'm not saying you're being inconsistent but I'm not sure I get the underlying principle.

Luttwak's thesis (haven't read anything by him but that article) seems to be that, if the United States were a different country we'd use more successful victory strategies. I have no problem with counterfactual speculation per se, but I'm not sure what could be said in response. It is my belief that guilt over Hiroshima and My Lai are pretty powerful in causing the US to pursue difficult doctrines in reducing collateral damage. I am not embracing the difficult doctrines (though I don't know if I'd call them malpractice). "We could win if we weren't us" sounds like a good argument for not fighting, rather than for changing who we are.

July 27, 2007 at 12:22 AM  
Blogger Bruce G Charlton said...

1. MM said: It's important to distinguish changes of power from changes of management.

I say: Maybe not. I think deomocracy is evolving towards political parties as rival managment teams: offering different priorities and methods.

Remember, democracy is *evolving*. Modern US democracy is not the same as it was 50, 100 or 150 years ago.

2. I think people are making a mistake by trying to use current events (GW Bush, Iraq, progressive bloggers, the state of Harvard etc) as evidence in this _strategic_ discussion.

Current events can be used as illustrations, but not evidence, because we simply have not had time to process current events in the way that past events have been processed.

There are formal reasons (from complex systems theory) why it is simply not possible to process current events in complex reasoning (for example, the speed of commnications in a subject like history has a timescale of many, many years - time spent in learning historical skilles, researching, writing a book, the book being read and provoking further research and writing - it takes decades!).

If people insist on incorporating current events then they will (like it or not) simplify their information processing to a level of mass media instant punditry - attention grabbing, but not profound.

So - I would say drop the current affairs, if possible.

July 27, 2007 at 3:49 AM  
Anonymous ru said...

I agree that this blog would be better if everyone avoided mention of any political dispute less than, say, 80 years old.

July 27, 2007 at 9:35 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

bbroadside,

What I'm criticizing is the hypocrisy and inconsistency. But for obvious reasons, it's difficult to criticize these without sounding inconsistent oneself.

My preferred approach, like yours it seems, is isolationism. At least this is my preferred approach for the US Government, virtually all of whose activities I find ineffective and/or counterproductive.

I think someone should secure Iraq by Luttwakian techniques. In my ideal world this would be done privately. In the real world perhaps Turkey is the best candidate, though Israel is certainly a longshot, and I'd love to see the French return to the mission civilatrice with a vengeance. Probably in practice it will be done by Iran, Syria, the Saudis, or most likely one of the Iraqi factions, with a lot of quite unnecessary bloodshed and a resulting state that's nasty indeed.

Likewise, on the WWII front, I think the US should have stayed out of both WWI and WWII. It's pretty clear that our entry into WWII was voluntary, and it certainly had nothing to do with saving the Jews. If FDR gave a rat's ass about the Jews, you'd think he might have accepted them as refugees.

I also find Allied explanations of the military necessity of city-bombing, then and now, quite disingenuous. Allied leaders were perfectly aware that they were attacking civilians to destroy morale.

Which did not, incidentally, work at all. Thus failing the familiar test of proportionateness and effectiveness. City-bombing was proportionate (since both the Germans and Japanese were perfectly willing to engage in the same), but not effective.

But what city-bombing (I find the euphemism "strategic bombing" distressing) did do was make the subsequent occupations very peaceful, because the natives were under no illusions that Allied forces had any inhibitions about killing Japanese or Germans. This result was almost certainly serendipitous - few in wartime were thinking that far ahead.

I don't think there's anything inconsistent in any of these explanations, but you're certainly right that they require elucidation...

July 27, 2007 at 10:43 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

bruce (and ru),

(1) My view is very different: I think democracy is evolving toward a purely symbolic role for elected officials, who are not managers at all. The best parallel is probably the fate of the monarch in constitutional monarchies.

A true manager controls budget, policy, and personnel. The executive branch in the US system controls neither of the first two, and has only slight influence on the latter. The parliamentary absolutism of the UK in theory grants complete control to the PM, but in practice the political playing field favors parties whose policies are aligned with the civil service - as immortalized by the great Sir Humphrey Appleby.

In any case, most law even in the UK is now made at the EU level, and the EU is a "people's democracy" hardly distinguishable at all from the Soviet Union. It was specifically designed to be apolitical. The EU Parliament, for example, is a dead ringer for the Supreme Soviet, and the European Commission for the Politburo. The only difference is that the Soviets had their own military and police forces, a separation which is being rapidly eroded.

As we can see when we look at the People's Republic of China, this by no means implies an Orwellian state of the sort most people imagine. China, which of course never abandoned its Communist model, is a fine example of a state in which the civil service goes all the way to the top. In China today you are perfectly free unless you have some political bug up your butt.

All these systems are certainly evolving. But I think it's too easy to assume that all the evolution is in a Panglossian direction. Providence is not in charge here. We may want it to evolve in some direction, but I'm not sure that's the direction it's actually going.

(2) I think there's a simpler reason to avoid recent history: many people have emotional reactions to it.

But propitiating this reaction is only a way to perpetuate it. The fact that almost everyone thinks of recent events in emotional terms is more, not less, reason to apply a consistent reasonable framework, to treat them as normal history, much as we treat the Roman Empire.

There are still plenty of debates over the history of Rome. But they are not emotionally loaded. My observation is that if you treat recent history in the same way, not with pseudoscientific detachment, not without the willingness to call Claudius a buffoon and Caligula a sadist, but simply calling the shots as you see them, people seem to respond in a surprisingly mature manner.

To me this suggests that one aspect of early 21st-century "modernization" will be a retreat from this approach of treating present-day politics as a minefield of taboos.

For example, the BDH-OV and Universalist-Revelationist divisions that I use may be quarreled with on their substance. But they are easy to understand and they explain the present political situation in a way that I think would make it reasonably understandable to an intelligent alien. Who probably would be quite confused by most contemporary political discourse.

For example, it's a typical experience in Third World countries that if you go to the Republic of Foobar, you may see two political parties, one of which may be called the Foobar People's Front and the other the Democratic Party of Foobar. And while these may have different policies on X or on Y, the reality is that the former is the party of the Foo tribe and the latter is the party of the Bar tribe.

Yet no one in the country will admit this. FPF and DPF officials both will claim that that their parties speak for all Foobarians. And who is to say otherwise? Only some smirking consul or Economist reporter.

But today's West, if it is as I believe Foobar-like in many ways, has no paternal superior civilization to report on it. You will not see a real explanation of Foobarian politics in the New Foobar Times, even though it can be stated in a paragraph and the NFT publishes a pound of newsprint a day.

So I appreciate the advice, but I think I will stick with my approach of treating all historical periods in the same way, distant or recent.

July 27, 2007 at 11:21 AM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

Okay, Mencius, your position is much clearer and more consistent now. I tend to agree with your feeling that Turkey, Syria, etc. could and should pacify Iraq for the sake of that region, though I am not a trained strategist. I don't really think the US is in a position to help much in that region, nor has it ever been. There are some times when we have to realize that "great power" doesn't mean "unlimited power" and it certainly doesn't mean "unlimited power to do good". But I suspect I'm preaching to the converted.

I don't remember Allied explanations of their bombing techniques too well. I dimly remembered breaking enemy morale to be among them, but I have no citations. They were obviously wrong in their predictions. My sense is that the Allies copied German morale-breaking strategies all too quickly, commonly, and thoughtlessly.

Then again, I don't know how much the goal of breaking enemy morale overlaps with the goal of boosting your own. Revenge can feel pretty good when people feel that they have been unjustly attacked, or attacked in an escalatory manner. The sense that your standards of fair play should be higher than your enemies' seems to come and go. My sense is that the Allies felt that they could justifiably play dirty in both wars, so long as they played cleaner than the Central Powers/Axis, and that they weren't too worried about criticism from future generations.

To sum up, I'm glad I'm not a general.

July 27, 2007 at 11:28 AM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

I'm having trouble understanding why you think civil servants have so much more power than elected officials do. Elected officials (or, in some cases, judges) have ultimate power (or at least more power than civil servants) in all three of the categories you mention: budget, policy, and personnel, no?

July 27, 2007 at 11:44 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

But the military power of the Demos is over, done with, dead.

Excuse me??

Look Kids! It's Postmodernist Bullshit!

For more than 4000 years of history, the root of military power has been the Poor Bloody Infantry (PBI hereinafter.) They are usually also the scarce resource. While temporary shortages in other forms of power have happened, (the most famous, and possibly most recent, example being the stirrup induced shortage in horsemen.) in short order, someone figures out how to mass-produce a solution to the shortage by either making new technology available to the PBI, or inventing a new technique that makes the old invention obsolete.

What is the new scarcity? Will to fight, presumably. Do you imagine that scarcity will remain unfilled long?

What current technology exists that would allow us to overcome this shortage of willpower? The Media. I'll spare you the obvious argument about the democratization of the media.

What foreseeable future technologies would allow the willpower problems to be ended? Virtualization seems the most likely. Soldiers sitting in cubicals controlling infantry robots as the wave of the future is a little troubling, but isn't likely to put power in the hands of anyone other than the plebiscite. Resurrection(ish) tech would also solve the primary willpower shortage, but that's considerably more fictional than science-y

For the record, insurgency is an ooooold technique. It almost never as profitable as open warfare, which is saying something, given how unprofitable open warfare is, and can be.

Second, if you read the comments above you'll note that I don't believe in metrics :-)

I keep trying to parse this sentence, but as it keeps making absolutely no sense to me, I can only assume it's not English.

How do you intend to formalize the extant power structure without applying metrics to WHO actually has the power?

And I come to my final criticism of your formalization plan: How do you intend to account for latent power?

eg. Pretend I wave a magical wand and make 55% of the U.S. popluation Libertarians. (Yes, that's a lot of magic, but play along.) Under the current system, while the typical power of the bureaucrats exceeds the typical power of the elected officals, do you imagine it would remain so for long after I'd waved my magic wand How do you apportion such latent power? Or is your formalism so silly as to take power away from people just because they don't feel the need to use it?

July 27, 2007 at 12:18 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

One point worth noting in any discussion of "democracy" is that human society really has very little experience with this form of government as it is now defined - i.e., universal-franchise, one-man-one-vote, with seats in representative assemblies apportioned to populations in the districts or ridings represented.

I'd be willing to hazard that almost no historical examples can be cited that are more than perhaps 70 or 80 years old. Ancient democracies, like those of Athens or republican Rome, had highly restricted electorates. Most of their denizens, including numerous slaves, did not hold the franchise. This was also true in the United States until 1865. Property qualifications for the franchise were only slowly removed, and the franchise in the U.S. cannot be said to have been truly universal until the ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964, banning the exaction of poll taxes as a qualification for voting, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In other words, the universal franchise in the United States dates from about the same time as the independence of most British and French colonies in Africa.

One-man-one-vote-once was the usual sequence of events in most of those places, which very quickly threw off their parliaments, prime ministers, robed and bewigged judges and barristers, and slid either into anarchy or tyranny. The decline of self-government in the United States under the universal franchise has not been as precipitate, but one would have to be a fool not to see its signs.

One of the most telling is the degree to which the making of policy has systematically been delivered into the hands of unelected judges and bureaucrats. Our elected officials have happily punted to these people every controversy on which making an actual decision might have adverse effects on their popularity. One must conclude that what they really want to do is to say whatever will please their constituencies, whom they hope will return them to their happy and comfortable sinecures, in which they may continue to enjoy the trappings and perquisites of authority without having to soil their dainty fingers in its exercise.

Congress could, if it wished, reassert its control of any number of issues. It created the bureaucracies and their authority to promulgate regulations having the force of law by publishing them in the Federal Register; it could abolish all or some of them, and alter or eliminate their regulatory powers. Under Article III, sections 1 and 2 of the Constitution, Congress may ordain and establish such inferior courts as it sees fit, and may make exceptions to and place regulations on the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. In the past, Congress has exercised both powers, for example, removing jurisdiction over labor disputes from the Federal courts and vesting them in the National Labor Relations Board, or establishing a special Tax Court to try cases arising under the Internal Revenue Code. It is clear that, had Congress wished to do so, it could have excluded from the Federal courts' jurisdiction such matters as abortion, affirmative action, school prayer, same-sex marriage, campaign finance, gun control, the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, flag-burning, or any of the other inflamed political questions/grievances of the past fifty-odd years. That it has not done so attests to only one thing - it sees no political benefit in so doing.

While the United States probably won't slide into chaos or tyranny quickly, it is likely that "democracy" of the character we have here at present will become an increasingly irrelevant ritual, much as the appointment of curule aediles, quaestors, consuls and tribunes continued in Rome long after the principate became firmly established and the real operation of the state was left to the bureaucracy of skilled freedmen set up by the emperor Claudius. There is a lot of ruin in a nation, and ours, like Rome, may continue in this fashion for a long time until it collapses in sclerotic dysfunction or under the force majeure of a vigorous enemy.

July 27, 2007 at 12:25 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Mencius: I really think you should post something about your take on the Optimates and how they differ from the Brahmins. I though I understood, but now I don't think I do. Is it basically that the Optimates don't believe in Universalism?

July 27, 2007 at 12:25 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

I can't presume to speak for Mencius, but it seems to me the distinction he is trying to draw is quite clear.

Optimates are the old élite, consisting of the remnants of the old landed gentry together with the nineteenth/early twentieth-century haute bourgeois families whose fortunes were made in finance and industry. They derived their élite status initially by the acquisition, and subsequently by the inheritance, of capital assets, over and through which they acquired control as well as ownership. There are, at least in the United States, no new creations to this caste. One enters it by birth and very occasionally by marriage into it. They correspond, in rough terms, to Pareto's lions. This is the caste about which such worthies as Frederick Lundberg or Prof. G. William Domhoff have obsessed at such length, members of the Union League or Bohemian clubs, listed in the Social Register, and with pedigrees approved by the Society of the Cincinnati or Colonial Dames.

Brahmins are the new élite, characterized by skill in the manipulation of ideas and words. While there are probably by now two or three generations of Brahmins by inheritance, it is possible to enter this caste by professing the proper credo and by acquiring the proper credentials, which are conferred by universities. They correspond, in rough terms, to Pareto's foxes, or to Burnham's managerial élite. They are less likely to be listed in the Social Register than in Who's Who, and much more likely to be members of the Council on Foreign Relations than of the Society of Colonial Wars, much more likely to attend a Renaissance Weekend than to be invited to the St. Cecilia's Ball.

The distinction between Optimates and Brahmins is not so much that Optimates don't believe in Universalism as that they don't uniformly believe in anything, because belief does not define their caste. Tradition, family, and property do. On the other hand, belief is a major defining factor of the Brahmin caste.

The task of the university (at least at the level of the Ivy League, Stanford, Chicago, and a few other comparable institutions) is to generate new Brahmins. The prime material for this has in the past been the children of Optimate families. While some stubbornly cling to their hereditary ideals, enough are converted that, given the absence of new creations of Optimates, the latter caste is diminishing in its numbers.

The university also assures that the children of Brahmins are kept loyal to the ideals of their caste, since failure to obtain its stamp of approval is generally a condemnation to out-caste status. Facilis est descensus Averno! Inheritance taxes and other nominally egalitarian measures in fact exist to prevent the Brahmin young from developing into a rentier class, and adopting the attitudes of Optimates which naturally flow from such status.

Finally, a very few promising young people of lower castes, principally Vaisyas, may be admitted to Brahminity through the universities. This satisfies the psychological need of the Brahmin élite to assure itself that it is egalitarian, and not snobbish or exclusive like the Optimates with whom they are always anxious to contrast themselves favorably.

How stable this caste structure is has yet to be determined. My guess is that, given the tax code and the influence of the universities and mainstream media over American culture, that here Brahminity has a pretty secure hegemony over the culture as long as it maintains its facade of egalitarianism, which sits well with the Dalits and Helots.

I'm not so sure about the future of Brahmin dominance in other societies in which egalitarianism is less embedded, for example Britain. There one notes a remarkable continuing tendency of rich and influential people who were not born to the nobility and gentry to acquire country houses, to take up traditionally aristocratic avocations like hunting and shooting (the latter, which is considered a redneck activity in the U.S., in the U.K. is a favored pursuit of toffs), to send their children to Eton, Harrow, or Winchester, to acquire knighthoods and peerages, etc., in just the way that West Indies sugar planters did in the eighteenth, and successful brewers and ironmasters did in the nineteenth centuries.

It would not surprise me if the strong cultural traditions of the old British upper class in two or three generations prevailed over the upstart techno-bureau-cratic outlook of New Labour, even as they triumphed amongst the merchants, financiers, and industrialists of the past. Adjusted for inflation, the attitude expressed by the younger Pitt that anyone with £10,000 a year had a presumptive right to a peerage is still surprisingly current in Britain - and recent Labour governments have been amongst the worst offenders in selling honours.

July 27, 2007 at 3:43 PM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

I googled "Ketman" and the top results didn't seem to have anything to do with what you said.

I agree that not all schools are the same, but I think the Harvards and Yales have a higher Optimate/Brahmin ratio when it comes to driving force behind the university than your Berkeleys, Dukes and Evergreen State Colleges. Of course, I'd need to see some actual data. Presumably the Harvard Crimson and Lampoon might have polls on the student body, and I think the amount of Ross Douthats and apoltical status-seekers there would put the radical activists to shame.

Vietnam was started by Democrats (unless you count Eisenhower, and I don't), and it helped give political power to, of all people, Richard Nixon. You have to screw up pretty bad to make Dick Nixon popular, and that's just what the Democrats did (though not just through Vietnam). The less fubard Korean War was also started by a Democratic President and helped hand power over to a Republican. Do you think the Brahmins/Universalists/whatever were on the other side of the political aisle at that point in time? Adlai Stevenson indicates otherwise.

The note about voting not being freedom reminded me of "the liberty of ancients vs the moderns". I criticized Benjamin Constant's speech there, and I think Mencius would as well. It is Whig enough to offend him, and not Anglo enough for my tastes either!

In a Mises thread compiling attacks on Randy Barnett's writing on Iraq/war, I came across this from him, about from whence the legitimacy of government, including our own derives. It is highly critical of democracy and blather about "the people". I think Mencius might be interested.

Christopher: I don't see what is "postmodernist" in Mencius' writings. He could write for the Victorian speaking pagan thinking folks at www.cominganarchy.com (I wonder, Mencius, if you read that or John Robb's Global Guerrillas) without seeming too out of place. Furthermore, in Greece the infantry was not "poor", they usually had to furnish their own armor and uniforms. In Sparta in particular they would have been elites, since most people were Helots. It was in places with navies and oarsmen that the poor had importance. With robots, I actually don't know how important the operators are.

When it comes to war, the real thing that I think has changed is explained in Steve Sailer's dirt theory of war.

Final thought: Jouvenal's writings are nowhere to be found online or in local libraries and book stores. If you had to recommend one book, what would it be? Also, any other good source I can find them?

July 27, 2007 at 9:45 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

JA,

It may be because my father, mother, and stepfather are all retired civil servants (Foreign Service, DOE, and Hill staff respectively).

Except for a few political appointees, personnel in USG is controlled by civil service rules. No one in the executive branch has hire-and-fire power.

Formally, policy and budget are controlled by the Congress, rather than the executive, who is the nominal manager. Legislative control cannot under any circumstances be described as management.

Furthermore, given 98% incumbency rates - and these rates are a good bit higher for members of Congress with actual seniority, ie, power - it is probably more accurate to describe Congress itself as the top level of the civil service. Party control of the House and Senate does change, but the iron triangles which govern policy and budget in most areas are well-established on both sides of the aisle - anyone who thought the Gingrich period in 1994 would bring major structural change to the US government was seriously mistaken.

The conclusion one has to arrive at is that the electoral system no longer has the capacity to restructure or destroy any major executive-branch agency or even program. Granted, it can create new ones, or pseudo-agencies such as DHS. But DHS doesn't work by giving Chertoff 100 billion dollars and telling him to "secure America." The iron triangles of all its components remain intact.

Look at how much trouble DoD has in killing military contracting programs, such as the Crusader artillery system, that it doesn't want. If anyone could have pulled the trigger on this decision, it would have been made - or not made - in a day. Instead it took years.

July 27, 2007 at 10:04 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

tggp,

Ketman is from Milosz's The Captive Mind.

I think the problem may be that you're looking for "Jouvenal," and you need to look for (Bertrand de) Jouvenel. I believe Amazon has used copies which are fairly cheap.

It's true that there are a lot of Optimates still at the Ivies. But they keep a very low profile, and many if not most have turned into Brahmins. Life is simply easier if you're a Brahmin, or can at least pretend to be one.

Korea and Vietnam were very complex conflicts - I can't possibly do them justice here. But instead of looking at presidential politics, try looking at the relationship between the State Department and the Pentagon.

Barnett's piece seems more or less identical to a similar bit in his Restoring the Lost Constitution. I think my formulation - that the US is a corporation that owns its land, and its serfs except for certain historically established freedoms, by right of adverse possession - makes most of this rhetoric moot.

I find John Robb a bit buzzwordy, though I suppose the same criticism could be hurled at me. "Coming Anarchy" is interesting, I'll have to look at it a bit more.

July 27, 2007 at 10:18 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

michael (not S.),

On Brahmins, Optimates, etc, please see these two old posts. But Michael S's summary is also good.

July 27, 2007 at 10:22 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Christopher,

Basically, my view is that infantry (a) is rapidly being obsolesced by drones, and (b) only really matters if you're concerned about collateral damage. If you are not so concerned, your enemies can be destroyed from the air.

By "I don't believe in metrics," I mean that I don't believe in social science, that is, I don't believe in the use of statistics in anything which is not a controlled experiment. For why, see Feynman on cargo cult science.

As for formalization, how do you define the numbers? You pull them out of your ass, basically. They are entirely dependent on the political reality. A pure product of horse-trading.

If your magic wand was actually waved, the bureaucrats could be fired without compensation, but perhaps there's a way to get rid of them that doesn't require a magic wand.

July 27, 2007 at 10:29 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Michael S.,

I agree with all of this, and in fact I probably will be tempted to pull some of your text into a FAQ as soon as I can get around to it, as your description of the Optimates and Brahmins is, frankly, much better than mine.

I don't know enough about the UK to have any opinion on your theory that the toffs will rise again. It's an interesting one, to be sure.

Even in the US, just by virtue of wealth the toffs are not without power, and with a new set of institutions and a refreshed ideology they might surprise us all. Perhaps the closest thing to this is the Internet libertarian-entrepreneurial complex, which I'm nowhere near wealthy to be a part of, but I wish I was :-)

July 27, 2007 at 10:34 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Also, the point on Congress' control of court jurisdiction is interesting. I think you are right legally and historically - but the Supreme Court, after all, cannot be obliged to agree. And if they disagree, who decides?

In the final analysis the military is always the court of last resort. They may delegate their power of decision to any other institution, but if they decide to resume it there's little anyone else can do. Perhaps America's Schneider Doctrine is not eternal.

In the meantime, however, we carry on with our symbolic quaestors and consuls. Restoring the old Republic is always an attractive battle cry, but somehow it never seems to actually happen, either here or in Rome. I would be pleased enough with it, but I suspect that if the future holds any changes its forms will be new, not old.

July 27, 2007 at 10:39 PM  
Blogger Bruce G Charlton said...

I must admit that I don't much like this caste system way of analysis - I just don't think it leads on to useful results. In particular it misses the fact that modernity really is new.

Modernity is defined as (something like) a society based on growth of specialization (hence complexity) - and this is missed by a typology which is applied to all historic societies (except hunter gatherers).

But - to continue the game - the main weakness in the caste analysis is the neglect of the Vaisya class - where almost everything interesting is happening.

Optimates are aristocrats, Brahmins are the priests - which mutated into the mandarins (who combine technical expertise with cultural expertise - including lawyers, physicians and other high status professions).

In early modernity the big news was that mandarin/ Brahmin class grew at the expense of the aristocrats/ Brahmins. This seems to be the main focus of MM at present; but I would suggest it is a sideshow, and has been for a long time.

Since more than a hundred years now - the big news is the expansion of the technocrats/ Vaisya class at the expense of mandarins/ Brahmins.

I first saw this noted by Bernard Shaw early 20th C in his description of the New Man (eg in Man and Superman), then a few decades later by George Orwell.

Since the mid 20th century the technocrats/ Vaisyas have grown to be the biggest group in the UK who determine the governments by votes and set the general cultural tone by the mass media choices. Nowadays they mostly have university degrees (mostly from non-elite colleges, because this is a huge class) - and they perform all kinds of specialist skilled jobs, where culture is not considered important or essential.

Indeed the technocrats (including middle managers especially) are rapidly ousting the mandarins/ Brahmins across the board, almost without exceptions, in the UK - especially since the time of Mrs Thatcher - who identified explicitly with this group.

Nowadays, almost all the areas previously associated with Brahmins are either in long term decline, else pretty much done by Vaisya technocrats, or else serving the tastes of the Vaisyas. I would suggest _this_ is the big story of late modernity.

July 27, 2007 at 11:45 PM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

Bruce G Charlton -
Your last post kind of clashes with my current understanding of the castes as Mencius proposed them. I thought there was only a moderate amount of techno- and very little -crat in the Vaisyas. I kind of thought they were electricians, shopkeepers, agribusiness, owner-operators, schoolteachers, etc., and that government work (not counting education and law enforcement, below management) wasn't usually their domain. Mandarin just seems like a low-tech sort of technocrat.

I am thinking that Mencius is positing a much larger (and growing) Brahmin caste than is traditional. Herrnstein & Murray tell in detail in their book on The Curve That Dare Not Speak Its Name about how, as colleges expanded their student bodies, they also became more competitive. Money and self-selection had made elite college an Optimate thing for the first half of the 20th Century. Standardized tests, student loans, the GI Bill, and growing labor market competition sent unprecedented numbers of really smart people to college.

The growth of a competitive civil service has necessitated education to move up in government, which has meant education in universalist/progressive ideals, which is part of the cycle that ratchets government up, with Brahmins keeping the Vaisyas happy by giving them a (disproportionately low) share of distributed goods.

Mencius asserts (and I tentatively agree) that there are no real Vaisya institutions, which might point out that getting a share of the pie isn't all that great when you provided almost all the ingredients yourself. An important note is that the castes here are very much values-based - a Vaisya raised on corn and self-reliance, who moves from the farm to a big university to some organization tinkering with numbers to increase utility ... he or she must believe in all of that to some degree. It's the belief that a central organization of smarties can use math (or psychology, or whatever) to make a bunch of strangers happy that makes someone a Brahmin. Without that belief, the smart person self-selects away from the social sciences, perhaps into business, science, or law but perhaps right out of the university and into entrepreneurship.

I'm not sure Orwell's world really had a place for Vaisyas. His proles weren't really self-reliant traditionalists; they were closer to Helots, probably. That's based on pretty fuzzy recollections of 1984. The thing that really struck me about that book is that Outer Party Members had less freedom than the proles - no sex, no chance to chat with friends (or even to really have friends), etc., almost as if they were monks in an ascetic order. They were expected to sacrifice things to Big Brother that the proles weren't. In the information-based environment, prole brains were relatively free since they were so completely irrelevant to power.

That makes a much more compelling vision than the usual notion that the powers that be preach puritanism to the masses but practice licentious behavior in private. The Brahmins may be the richest caste (I'm not sure), but on some level they feel they shouldn't be, since it places them further from their progressive ideal of themselves.

July 28, 2007 at 1:31 AM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

I'm sure all you techno-libertarian types have probably thought more about this than I have, so I risk stating the obvious here.

It's been pointed out that the Libertarian Party draws a lot of its support from sysadmins, engineers, and other high tech professions. Why? The first explanation I heard was sort of mean, to wit, that high tech people are nerds with no social skills, who feel like they wouldn't have to interact as much if government were smaller in scope. I don't really see it, but of course I can't falsify it.

It's my contention that high tech is one of the few places where abstract thinking is at a premium which hasn't been completely dominated by any of the polygons. There are plenty of big economic sectors other than government, journalism, and the unis, but how many of them have a big draw for the sorts of people who really spend their spare time on philosophy?

High tech certainly overlaps with government and the university, but there is a much bigger potential to make an independent profit in this sector than there is in something like sociology, military engineering, etc. "Independent profit" means only taking money from people who have chosen your product; no taxes allowed. So the non-conspiracy of Universalist thinking that has so much influence in some places ends to run a little thing among the smartest (and richest) of the Vaisyas, who sneeze at Social Security and aren't unionized.

The rest of the Vaisyas aren't dummies (I don't think any caste is all or mostly stupid people, though some of them act like it on purpose), but philosophy isn't really a Vaisya pastime. (It's no NASCAR, Steve Sailer might say.)

July 28, 2007 at 2:08 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

If the Supreme Court happened to disagree with a particular Congressional act of jurisdiction-stripping, that would throw the issue into the hands of the executive branch, which could then either decide to enforce the Supreme Court's orders, or to ignore the Supreme Court (as Lincoln often did during the late hostility between the states).

It is probably significant that the last major jurisdiction-stripping action took place during the New Deal, when the Wagner Act gave authority over labor union organizing and strike actions to the NLRB. Previous to this, both federal and state judges were often prompted by the petitions of affected businesses to issue injunctions against certain union activities, because they were pretty straightforwardly extortionate. The unions objected to this use of the judicial injunctive power, and wanted a forum more favorable to them than they thought the courts were. The result is that, even today, union sabotage of an employer's business property is just about unpunishable.

Like many other parts of the New Deal, the enactment of such an extraordinary change in existing law was possible only because the Republican party had been reduced to such low strength in Congress that it could not resist the combined pressure of a Democratic supermajority and the assertive Democratic administration of FDR. The Supreme Court had overturned other earlier provisions of the New Deal, but FDR's court-packing threat sufficed to make the court back down on future New Deal provisions, even as FDR backed down on enlarging the court.

I suspect that one of the reasons jurisdiction-stripping has not been tried (apart from the reasons I suggested in my previous comment) is that Congress and the President are not prepared, much less able, to gang up effectively on the Supreme Court in the way they were during the '30s. To bring about the kind of shift in government that the New Deal represented requires two branches of government to join forces against the third, rather in the way two players in a three-handed game of pinochle will against the third. They are not really partners, but act as such temporarily when it is to their mutual advantage to do so.

Your point about the military is an interesting one, though I wonder if the civil service is not the more likely source of a coup d'etat. We already see how wilful and independent various bureaucratic agencies are. I am personally aware of a recent case in which one such agency responded to a U.S. Senator's enquiries about its overstepping of bounds with deliberate opacity and barely concealed contempt. Such an example reflects the bureaucrats' knowledge of where the power really lies. How long can it be before these mayors of the palace tire of paying deference to our elected rois fainéants, and decide to have done with the charade after the fashion of Pippin the Short?

I'll admit that my suggestion that the toffs will rise again, at least in the UK, is based mostly on anecdotal evidence from personal observation, rather than on the sober demographic and economic studies on which one would be better advised to rely. Still, consider Blair's "reform" of the House of Lords. It was scarcely "democratic," since although it removed most of the hereditary peers, the rest serve on the basis of lifetime appointments by successive ministries. Thus the Lords were transformed not into an elective Senate, but into a place where superannuated party hacks can be put out to pasture.

And, although their peerages are only for life, these aged politicoes still enjoy all the pomp, circumstance, and social privilege they ever did. The Earl Peel, one of the leaders of the hereditary peers' resistance, wrote in "The Field" following the passage of the reform, that during the debate he had introduced a motion to eliminate the use of noble titles by delegates to the "new" House of Lords, on the theory that to style a life peer, e.g., "Mr. Joe Doakes, Delegate to the Lords," rather than "Lord Doakes of Doakington" might show a suitable devotion to the egalitarian and democratic values professed by Blair & Co.

As he expected, New Labour would have none of it. They coveted their coronets and parliament robes with shoulder-knots and rows of ermine, grants of supporters to their coat-armour, and the gratification of being addressed as "My Lord" by club servants, headwaiters, hotel clerks and tailors, as avidly as any nineteenth-century Tory.

It is hard to imagine such people not eventually succumbing to the allure of the traditions of the nobility and gentry. As an example, the ban on hunting with hounds, nominally based on concern about its cruelty to the fox or stag, was one of the long-sought class-warfare goals of Labour's hard left. Blair & Co. threw it to them as a sop, but it backfired, producing the huge Countryside Alliance marches which have been amongst the largest mass demonstrations to take place in London in many years. And who should emerge as sympathisers (even leaders) in opposing the hunting ban but several Labour peers, e.g., the Baroness Mallalieu?

An illustration of the resilience of the Optimate class in Britain is the wit and fun its young people seem to be able to have at the expense of the Brahminity. Here again, the hunting ban is a defining issue. The Connaught Square Squirrel Hunt [csshhq.org.uk] is a good example. There is nothing to compare with this in the U.S.; it's light-years away from such dispirited and dispiriting organizations as the Young Republicans.

July 28, 2007 at 11:34 AM  
Blogger mtraven said...

There seems to be an unstated supposition in the original post that conflict in a society is a bad thing, and democracy is bad because it is a generator of conflict:

The permanent contest for political power that democracy creates is an extreme case of limited war, in which no weapons at all are allowed, and battle is resolved by counting heads. In other words, democracy is a permanent source of friction. Only very stable, healthy and homogeneous societies can withstand this poison.

How about the more conventional view that democracy is not a source of friction (because conflict, after all, is always going to be present) but a way for conflicts to be resolved with relatively little bloodshed and uncertainty? Or is this too boring a point of view?

July 28, 2007 at 6:39 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

bruce,

I have to side with bbroadside on this. I agree with Mosca, Pareto, etc, that societies are always ruled by elites, and the Vaisyas at least as I define them are anything but a ruling elite - sometimes slightly techno, but hardly ever crat.

Mrs. Thatcher was certainly a Vaisya, but personal leadership in the modern state is much overstated. If she'd instantly raised a wave of red-brick-educated grocer's children into positions of high responsibility, Thatcherite Britain would have been a very different place. Hers was not a real revolution, as the rise of New Labour (which is looking more and more like Old Labour) shows us.

Of course there is one almost perfect example of a real Vaisya revolution in the 20th century, and that's Nazi Germany. A very high percentage of influential Nazis had no respectable background, either intellectual or aristocratic.

It's no accident that American Brahmins fear and loathe Pat Buchanan for talking of "peasants with pitchforks," because it's obvious that he's talking about much the same thing. The basic reasons I don't consider myself a conservative, at least not in the modern American sense, are that (a) I don't see this working, and (b) if it did work, I'd want to be very far away from it.

July 28, 2007 at 7:44 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

mtraven,

Friction as I define it is conflict plus uncertainty. Friction has an unavoidable tendency to escalate, as people throw more chips into the pot.

Conflict is always going to be present. But if the law is stable and impartially interpreted, uncertainty need not be. If you can predict the outcome, the chips are either yours or they aren't - there is no need to escalate.

My basic point is that I don't think politics is necessary, whether violent or nonviolent. The usual assumption is that a certain level of politics is unavoidable, and the emphasis should be on keeping it nonviolent. I think it is possible to eliminate politics entirely in a free society.

In fact, I think a society without politics can be freer than any that contains this smoldering bomb, even when it comes to political speech. Because, in a society without politics, the consequences of even intemperate political expression are null by definition.

July 28, 2007 at 7:50 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Michael S.,

I love the Squirrel Hunt! You are dead on that there is a spirit of life in the UK that hardly seems to exist in the US. If I lived in London and had a Jack Russell I'd be there tomorrow.

In a way the closer the moribund Optimacy comes to death, the greater the chance of reviving it. Because the association with the old, tired and stuffy disappears.

Witness the "Dangerous Book for Boys." It lists Henley's Invictus and Kipling's If, among other utterly unregenerate Optimate faves, as "poems every boy should know!" There is no way this would have been publishable 20 years ago, but now parents my age are snapping it up. Definitely something in this.

As for the civil service charade, I'd have to say that one will be kept up until the corpse is rotting on live TV. The appearance of democracy is just so useful. Perhaps the better comparison is to the Japanese emperors, whose status has been predominantly symbolic for most of the last millennium.

July 28, 2007 at 7:59 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

And thanks for bringing the jurisdiction-stripping aspect of the union movement to my attention - I wasn't really aware of how constitutionally drastic it was.

I agree that to pull this stunt again you would need something like the united Roosevelt movement in its heyday, which no American politician since has dreamed of. That doesn't mean it can't happen, but I shrink at the thought of what would have to cause it.

July 28, 2007 at 8:02 PM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

I also find Robb far too buzzword-heavy. I agree with most everything said in the critiques of him at tdaxp (which you might like since he also has a software background): http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2007/05/17/brave-new-war-part-ii-systems-disruption-and-open-source-war.html
http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2007/05/09/brave-new-war-part-ii-global-guerrillas-the-long-tail-of-war.html
http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2007/05/06/brave-new-war-part-i-the-future-of-war-is-now.html
http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2007/04/24/global-guerrillas-as-petty-realism.html
http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2007/02/05/working-definition-of-global-guerrillas-try-2.html

I think John Robb, like you, hugely overemphasized the decrepit nature of modern states. To me they are often mighty stupid, and it is good (which I define to mean I enjoy it) to point out the stupidity, to me they are not in any where near the danger that the Robbs, Crevelds and even Mencius (Brezhnev would kill for what we've got, or even something half as good whatever that means given the unquantifiable and subjective nature of "good") claim, and the "Global Guerrillas" rarely focus on "systems disruption" or "evergreen damage" (especially the profit-oriented street gangs, which Robb is really stretching in his lumping them in with political terrorists), because they are not some evolved spontaneous order in the business of collapsing states, but more like Auster's caricature of Derbyshires view of them: a bunch of idiots angry about stuff.

July 28, 2007 at 9:02 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

My basic point is that I don't think politics is necessary, whether violent or nonviolent. ... I think it is possible to eliminate politics entirely in a free society.

Ah, well, thanks for clearing that up. I guess that lets my situate you within a broader libertarian context. Unfortunately I think it's a ridiculous proposition; it's neither possible nor desirable to eliminate politics. However, you are much more learned and entertaining than the run-of-the-mill net libertarian, so I will enjoy seeing you flesh out this vision of a non-political paradise. Perhaps I will dust off some of my anti-libertarian arguments that have been mouldering away in the attic for the last couple of decades.

July 28, 2007 at 10:00 PM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

My brief apologia for democratic minarchy:

Eliminating politics is certainly a radical proposition, and I'll agree it may be an exaggeration. Still, I have to say that if you conceive of the ideal state in minarchist terms, you can see how politics - uncertain conflicts not necessarily involving violence - could be minimized.

The state has a tremendous number of proposed roles, but there isn't the same amount of disagreement about how and if each should be fulfilled. The one most people agree to be necessary is also one of the oldest, and (this is important) one of the least abstract. Everyone knows whether it is safe to be on the street after dark; it is rather less obvious if social justice or equality exists.

Conflict ensues when hairless primates try to agree on what constitutes "social justice", "class solidarity", "progress", etc. Democracies are different from tyrannies because the conflict in the formal is usually bloodless, but they are not different in being peopled by more advanced creatures.

Getting a consensus on an abstraction isn't going to be easy since not everyone is really capable of thinking that way. If Social Security were cut, how many people would describe that as, "Well, the government stopped giving me benefits, which is okay because I have already gotten out more benefits than I ever paid in in FICA, and the information was always available to me demonstrating that Social Security was never a true trust fund, rather a very expensive institution controlled by a freely-elected legislature. I have no complaints whatsoever."

Okay, that's pretty funny because it's undoubtedly true, it's just not really bald-primate thinking. If you told Pavlov's dog that dinnertime would change but the bell would ring at the same times, he'd just keep salivating at the wrong times. Teach him a little social justice rhetoric, and he'd complain that he'd been robbed of future dog biscuits.

The point is, maybe it's a bad idea for government and its Brahmin helmsmen to be treating people like dogs. By entering into new roles all the time, we call on our voters to use their Neolithic brains to cut up some pies of unprecedented complexity.

I gather that Mencius (and John Locke, maybe Thomas Jefferson, etc.) would advocate a state restricting its role to providing security, plain and simple. Protect people from each other. Other roles are arguably necessary (my opinion of John Rawls is higher than Mencius's opinion, which isn't saying much), but if you want to avoid conflict, "arguably" isn't good enough. Bottom line: conflict over secondary state objectives threatens the primary state objective: security.

My addendum to the bottom line is: Yes, I personally do want the security forces to be controlled democratically. I think the average voter is reasonably capable of assessing their safety and tossing out their employees who fail to fulfill it. My point is that the average voter is not also capable of being a rudder to a state that has achieved titanic size ("size" meaning budget, number of employees, and especially scope). If people quit shaking their fists over budgets they don't understand being made in cities they've never visited, they would have more time and brain left over for more concrete problems.

Certainly a starry-eyed vision, but maybe interesting anyway.

July 29, 2007 at 12:57 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

mtraven,

Please dust away! It is always good to have intelligent, hostile commentators.

bbroadside,

The trouble with minarchy is that it's not stable. It tends to expand, leaving you with exactly what we have now: maxarchy, as it were.

There's a lot of "ought" in your model. "Ought" is important, but it's generally a good idea to do the "is" part first.

Minarchy is unstable because control of a country is an enormous asset. Inhabited land produces revenue, aka rents, aka taxes.

Historically, the function of government is to maximize, secure, and collect these rents, and distribute them to its owners.

The fact that governments are useful to the inhabitants of their territory is a purely secondary and emergent property. They need to be useful, because a government that does not provide at least basic security will not find itself with any rents to collect.

Minarchy or libertarianism says: taxation is theft, your rent should be zero. Effectively, it says that government, which is the oldest and greatest form of capital, should not generate profits. Jesus called - he wants his economics back.

This essentially leaves a huge pile of money sitting on the table for someone to steal. And indeed, anyone who can grab control of the democratic process will steal it.

In a formalist, propertarian design, the closest way to duplicate this is to allocate dividend-paying shares proportionally to all taxpayers. So you pay your Laffer-maximizing taxes but you get a rebate. The net result is still zero profit, at least, zero external profit.

But you can also sell these shares. Anything else is Pareto-suboptimal. And over time - actually rather rapidly, I suspect - owners and tenants become separate groups.

How does this system stack up to your "ought"? Pretty well, I suspect, because historical designs that approximate it seem to work pretty well. But the bottom line is that it's stable, and surely that is the most important test.

July 30, 2007 at 3:22 AM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

How does this system stack up to your "ought"? Pretty well, I suspect, because historical designs that approximate it seem to work pretty well. But the bottom line is that it's stable, and surely that is the most important test.

As much as I feel like I'm beginning to understand, I couldn't guess which historical designs approximate this. Illuminate me please!

July 30, 2007 at 11:16 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Unfortunately, none really come that close - but the closest are monarchies with effective monarchs, quasimonarchical one-party states such as modern Singapore or Japan, and limited-ownership republics such as the Republic of Venice. Even the People's Republic of China is perhaps moving in this direction, although it's by no means stable.

I'll discuss my more explicitly corporate version of this system (I've decided I like the word "propertarchy") in a future post...

July 31, 2007 at 8:52 AM  
Anonymous nick said...

Closer than any modern state to Mencius' idea were the true for-profit govermental companies such as the Congo Free State and the East India Company. The Venetian Republic is quite inapt because it was not a joint-stock company and bond-holding was not bundled with voting rights.

Dubai, Hong Kong, and Singapore, even if they were monolithic and issued voting stock (they do nothing of the kind) are economic outliers -- tiny countries that specialize in international trade and for that reason only require low exit costs and thus substantial freedoms. Their success cannot be duplicated in the vast majority of countries that do not and cannot specialize in this manner.

The closest modern examples of stable and non-federal monarchies with real power are probably Saudi Arabia and North Korea. China and Japan are sophisticated systems of political patronage (and thus distributed power) that bear very little resemblance to Mencius' Byzantist vision of an absolute monopoly over political power.

July 31, 2007 at 4:13 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Neither the Congo Free State nor the British East India Company were in any sense sovereign. Their property was confirmed and secured by others, respectively the Belgian and British governments.

In practice the East India Company had a very proprietary outlook, and came much closer to being a sovereign company. The Congo Free State was much more of a tax-farming operation. Tax-farming never works well, because the tax farmer has no obligation to preserve capital, and tends to basically strip the assets. It is not a good division of firms.

When the Belgian government took over the Congo Free State and abrogated this separation, the result was much, much better.

There are a considerable number of people with low exit costs in every country, and economics being what it is their economic role tends to be quite decisive. You could certainly ask Robert Mugabe about exit costs - I think they are much lower than you imply. Especially in a world of free propertarchies, which one can expect compete for valuable citizens. The difficulty that even highly productive workers face in moving from country to country in the present world is a pure artifact of democracy.

North Korea is a personal tyranny, not a stable monarchy, because the regime has no legitimacy. Saudi Arabia suffers from the severe defect of an ill-defined succession process.

August 1, 2007 at 5:54 PM  
Anonymous nick said...

Your proposal is increasingly sounding like it's unfalsifiable. Any real-world example similar to what you are proposing is or was "too insecure" or "too unstable", or is in some other way different from your supposedly unprecedented proposal. Even though examples like North Korea and Saudi Arabia are the most stable monarchy-like entities with real power in the last century, you dismiss them as insecure. But insecure is exactly what any new political property rights would be during its first few decades of life -- an uncertain experiment with many political opponents trying to derail it. The real world is a rough place, and the trick is to figure out what will make government less nasty despite such risks.

Your dismissal of the colonial companies is certainly inapt, because they are by far the closest historical model to what you are proposing, and there were hundreds of examples. Most of them (including the Congo Free State and East India Company) had practically no dependence on the mother country for their internal seurity, and often provided most of their external security as well.

For much more on this subject, see my new article Government for Profit.

August 2, 2007 at 2:12 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

Also, remember that democracy is a state of limited civil war.
Conflict is an inescapable part of life, and it seems like limited civil war is better than the alternative of actual war.

I find it odd that people who seem so familiar with history (far more than I am myself) should think it possible that conflict can be made to disappear using legal formalisms or any other such trick.

August 2, 2007 at 9:25 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

nick,

Stability is measured by the future, not the past. The reason I say "North Korea" is not stable is that a prediction market would, I suspect, lay very low odds that it will still be ruled by the Kims in 2107. Saudi Arabia is stabler, but not a huge amount more.

All of this stuff is unfalsifiable. Politics is not a science.

Let me try this again: I prefer monarchies as examples because they are much less subject to external politics. Colonial companies never, ever existed in anything like a free-market paradise. Sovereignty is the difference.

August 3, 2007 at 2:12 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

mtraven,

Conflict is an inescapable part of life. Uncertainty is not.

The alternative to politics is law. Ie, "justice," in the original meaning of the term.

Conflict asks the question: who gets to monopolize scarce resource X? Law answers it: whoever owns the right to monopolize scarce resource X. Ideally, evaluating this question is a mere matter of computation. (Torrens title is a good example.)

August 3, 2007 at 2:15 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

The alternative to politics is law. Ie, "justice," in the original meaning of the term.

I find this naive. Who gets to make (and enforce, and interpret) the laws? The law is, ideally, nonpartisan. In practice law, like anything else, is another object in play between various special interests. Reconciling special interests with the general interest is the work of politics, democratic or otherwise. Impartial law is a very nice idea but where is it supposed to emanate from?

The authoritarian solution that you seem to favor might work, if you could find an authority that was all three of:
- overwhelmingly powerful
- fair
- disinterested (hence uncorruptible)
I don't know where one goes to find such excellent rulers.

August 3, 2007 at 5:56 PM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

Mtraven is making a good point here about subjectivity being the rule and disiniterest being the exception. It's a point relying on what most of us would call social justice and Mencius would call righteousness.

Formalism doesn't free you from arguments over righteousness. Those are matters, more or less, of opinion and chance. A simple body of laws should not be. It strikes me that when taking a dispute to trial is called "rolling the dice", the body of laws (statutes and how they are intepreted) has grown excessively complex.

I'm not sure formalism overtly promises simpler laws and more predictable legal outcomes, but I'd think that would be a selling point. Without writing laws to please special interests with countless non-overlapping views of social justice, you can write much simpler laws, and spend less time rolling dice. Formalism isn't saying the people in power are extremely fair, it's just saying they're in power, and should start running things like they know it.

The other day is was shaking my fist in the usual futile way at the slow pace of the wheels of justice. Generally when a process is changed to take longer, the justification is a better product (unless the process in inherently good, like eating a fine meal). Correct me if I'm wrong, but a lawsuit in 1807 was settled in less time, on average, than one is today. I just don't see how legal action can produce a better product in most cases. 50% of the parties will have to be losers so about 50% will probably consider themselves shafted. Better to shaft them sooner rather than later, from a disinterested perspective.

Court cases drag out because, more or less, the lawyers own the system and don't see any reason to cut their incomes. The implicit UR solution would be to pension them off (Mencius recommends this for civil servants, so I surmise it extends to trial lawyers as well). They could keep collecting most of their salaries but people wouldn't have to wait around for years wondering when the settlement would finally come.

The antipropertarian solution would be a variety of statutory reforms: tort reform, "speedy trial" requirements, measures to suppress frivolous lawsuits, etc.

I've fantasized (in the usual futile way) about command-and-control approaches to encourage people to bring their suits to a quicker close, e.g., a measure banning an attorney from receiving compensation after a certain number of months into a case. That sort of measure wouldn't get much support from either the lawyers, or any institution dominated by them (say, a legislature), or from a formalist, who'd point out correctly that I'm trying to alter laws based on an arbitrary notion of righteousness.

August 3, 2007 at 10:31 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

mtraven,

Law is impartial by definition. If it's not impartial, it's not law.

Perhaps you have a law that says "The Duke of McBuccleuch owns the Isle of Whisk." Is that law fair to me? I, too, would like to own the Isle of Whisk. Or at least part of it.

But this doesn't make the law anything but impartial. It is clear to me, clear to the Duke, and clear to everyone else: he owns Whisk, and I don't.

Now, if you're looking for fairness - that is quite a different thing. There is no formula at all for fairness. You state the problem quite correctly.

Law, in other words, is nothing more than consistency. It assigns a certain set of rights to each individual, and those rights cannot be equal except in the ultimate Maoist commune. The Duke can go to Whisk any time he likes and do whatever he wants there. I need his permission to set foot on the Isle, or his dogs will chase me off.

Clearly, certain structures of rights distribution are more even than others. But this is an entirely separate question from the question of whether law exists and is permanent and consistent.

This idea that the legislature is omnipotent and can make any law it wants, for example, is an entirely modern invention. Read Bruno Leoni's Freedom and the Law to understand how much damage this view, which is truly lawless, has done.

August 4, 2007 at 2:46 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Essentially, you need only one of those three: ultimately powerful.

Fairness is unachievable. Any distribution of rights will be perceived by someone as unfair. If it starts as equal, it will not long remain so. If you try to set it back, you can only do so by breaking the law.

Disinterest follows for the same reason that it is not hard to achieve in corporations. The entire system is working for the profit of the shareholders. Once the employees are able to siphon off profits, for example, it is curtains for the company.

Think about the incentives of a sovereign company, which owns a large splotch of land and wants to make money by building a city on it and renting it to tenants. Would it mistreat its customers? In what ways? If so, why?

August 4, 2007 at 2:50 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

bbroadside,

One way to think of it is to look at law - not as it should be, but as it is - as a state industry.

What do state industries do? They overproduce inefficiently.

What does law produce? Law, in our society, produces justice - that is "social justice," ie, what mtraven means by "fairness."

So our legal system invests vast quantities of labor to produce microscopic marginal quantities of fairness. In fact it often destroys net fairness - it produces a fairness deficit rather than a profit. All par for the course for a state industry.

August 4, 2007 at 2:52 AM  
Blogger mtraven said...

Law is impartial by definition. If it's not impartial, it's not law.

What an extraordinary thing to say.

There are whole industries devoted to molding the law to fit one special interest or another. This process is so institutionalized that the industry has a street in Washington identified with it. The American version of this may take it to an extreme, but the same dynamic is going to be found in any center of power.

Perhaps you have a law that says "The Duke of McBuccleuch owns the Isle of Whisk." Is that law fair to me?...But this doesn't make the law anything but impartial. It is clear to me, clear to the Duke, and clear to everyone else: he owns Whisk, and I don't.

You seem to be equating "impartial" with "clear and well-defined". This is a very unusual usage. I'm willing to follow your argument for having well-defined laws and property rights, at least part of the way. But let's not pretend that because something is well-defined it is thus magically also not favorable to one interest over another.

Clearly, certain structures of rights distribution are more even than others. But this is an entirely separate question from the question of whether law exists and is permanent and consistent.

Ah. I believe this to be false in an interesting way, which gets to the core of my antilibertarian views.

The law requires broad social consent to be effective, to be in fact the law. This consent can be accomplished through threat of force or through softer means, like giving people a vote, or bribery. If the law institutionalizes a highly unequal distribution of rights, those who get the shitty end of the stick are likely to reject the law. The permanence of the law depends on keeping its subjects reasonably contented, at least below the boiling point of revolution.

You seem to to have a model for law and authority as something that transcends the real world, that somehow sits outside and above it. Unlike some of the lesser libertarians I've argued with, you seem at least to be aware of this and willing to acknowledge it, hence your model of Fnargl (or whatever his name is) the all-powerful alien, who is above the fray. In the real world, law and authority is part of the fray.

You seem to view the law as something like an operating system kernel, letting each process run according to some well-defined formula, but itself untouched by them. The real world operating system doesn't have such a clean separation of levels. If there's a kernel, it's just an ordinary processes that has gotten its extraordinary powers temporarily, either through force or general consent, and all the other processes are constantly trying to seize or co-opt its root priveleges. Democracy institutionalizes this dynamic, but it's going to be true of any system of government where the governors are human beings rather than remote omnipotent aliens.

August 4, 2007 at 12:00 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

mencius said: Essentially, you need only one of those three: ultimately powerful....Think about the incentives of a sovereign company, which owns a large splotch of land and wants to make money by building a city on it and renting it to tenants. Would it mistreat its customers?

If the sovereign company has a monopoly on land, force, and everything else, then they have no obligation to treat its customers well, since the customers can't take their business elsewhere.

Somebody in another thread linked to a paper by Brian Caplan that took the bold and controversial position that totalitarianism is bad. Yet Stalin had ultimate power -- or maybe his problem was that it wasn't ultimate enough, so he had to regularly slaughter entire classes of enemies who might be sneaking up on him? If he had the Ring of Fnargl, maybe he would have been a real pussycat, and the USSR would have been run like Singapore?

I am somewhat confused by the simultaneous glorification of ultimate power and disapproval of the state and state-run enterprises.

August 4, 2007 at 1:15 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

mtraven,

Thanks again for an interesting discussion. (Is that M. Traven or M.T. Raven, or neither? And where in Pacifica do you live? I myself spent a couple of foggy years in Sharp Park...)

I will take a pass on your OS analogy, not only because my views on operating systems are somewhat heterodox, but also because I don't find arguments by analogy all that effective.

As long as you understand what I mean by "impartial," this is sufficient. I have no need for any of the positive associations of the word. Perhaps "precise" would be a better term.

My point is that in many of these words, such as "justice," the basically Christian idea of distributive fairness has become confused with the basically Roman idea of law, as expressed in maxims such as pacta sunt servanda and fiat justitia ruat coelum.

John Jay put it very well when he described the essence of law as the fact that law can protect the rights of a million against the claims of one, or the rights of one against a million.

Again, words are of no importance to me. When I say "law," I mean any system of predictable dispute resolution. If the word implies something else to you, perhaps we can use another word.

I certainly do believe that what is called "law" in the US today would be better described as a massive system of administrative regulation. So perhaps another word would be ideal. It's unfortunate that no such lexeme is readily available.

Whether you know it or not, you are expressing many ideas from the 20th-century tradition known as Legal Realism. You might enjoy these thoughts by liberal law professor Brian Tamanaha on the history of the conflict between Legal Realism and legal formalism.

As for the "boiling point of revolution," of course you are right that, if we accept the definition of law as certainty, any outcome in which revolution becomes probable (for example, as measured by a prediction market), decreases the effectiveness of law.

But the BPR, if I may, is by no means a historical absolute. It is not the boiling point of water. It is, as I've said, very much a function of military and political reality.

And historically, I believe you'll find that making concessions to those who back their demands with threats of revolution - as with any threats of force - at least as often tends to increase the probability of violence succeeding.

Indeed, Stalin's position was incredibly weak and fragile. Read Sebag-Montefiore's Court of the Red Tsar. Everyone who worked for Stalin was terrified of him, and it is very reasonable to think that the converse was the case. Certainly when Beria tried to step into Stalin's shoes, he was shot within weeks. And Beria was hardly a pussycat.

As I've said previously, when you have a trustworthy modern military, the BPR approaches infinity. Your only worries then are a military coup. And in a modern technical world - and why do we care about anything else - such devices as cryptographic weapon locks, as used already in nukes, become quite useful and practical. Slave all the military hardware in the country to one key, and keep the key in your offshore management office, and the problem is solved.

Your most interesting point, I think, is this one:

If the sovereign company has a monopoly on land, force, and everything else, then they have no obligation to treat its customers well, since the customers can't take their business elsewhere.

Now this is a fascinating issue, which is why I covered it in my very first Fnargl post.

You don't specify this, but assume the sovereign company has a global monopoly, and there is no space travel. What are its incentives? How should it rule?

First of all, you're probably familiar with the Laffer curve, whose shape is disputed but whose existence is not. All present-day governments are quite unabashed about their desire for Laffer maximization, and we can assume a global sovereign monopoly would behave in just the same way. 100% taxes, therefore, are out.

Second, any restriction on freedom that mimics a tax but does not actually produce revenue will be either eliminated, or replaced with a tax. Our global sovereign has no reason to restrict freedom of speech, freedom of instruction, freedom of medicine, etc, etc - because any such restriction is equivalent to a prohibitively high tax, which is past the Laffer peak by definition. The global sovereign will also frown on artificial monopolies, which have become one of the main ways that the democratic state funnels cash to its supporters.

And third, by assuming a global sovereign, you may think you've escaped the attractive image of a world with tens of thousands of independent, competing city-states, which it's easy for customers to move between. But you have in fact ensured that world.

Because FnargCo has no reason at all to administer the entire planet as a single giant country. In fact it will recognize that different people have many different preferences, and that large administrative structures are topheavy.

Therefore it is very likely to decentralize itself into a layer of city-states which are administratively independent, but which compete for tenants and pay rent back to FnargCo. So even the worst-case scenario, global monopoly with no exit possible, devolves back into competitive, customer-oriented government.

Basically, in all of these problems, we end up with the same question: what is the initial distribution of resources? Who owns the Isle of Whisk? Who owns the shares of FnargCo?

Suppose, for example, you think that person X should receive some government benefit.

First, it is always a Pareto optimization to convert payments in kind into payments in cash. For example, suppose the benefit is medical insurance. This can be defined as a rather funky, but still perfectly negotiable, financial instrument which pays out the cost of treating whatever condition you may develop.

Suppose for example you develop terminal cancer. If this instrument were as described above, you could choose whether to spend the payout on heroin, cocaine and a beachfront villa in Tahiti, or on heroic medical treatment that will be agonizing and horrible and extend your life by two months. If you want to know why the instrument is not Pareto-optimal as described, note that the medical industry has some nontrivial skin in this game.

Second, in place of this horribly complex financial instrument, you can substitute the cost of purchasing such an instrument, thus offloading the complexity to an agent which will be capable of dealing with it. There is no reason a medical insurance company couldn't sell you a contract where you pay them $100 a month, and if you get cancer they pay you a cool million. And there is no reason for the revenue producer - FnargCo - to be in this business. If you hold FnargCo shares that pay $100 a month in dividends, this should be sufficient.

This assumes of course that you are interested in Pareto optimization, rather than thinking of this effort as a paternal charity.

Of course there is a place in the world for charity. But FnargCo's competence is in collecting taxes, not running charities, and there is a very nasty tendency for government charities to develop into what are actually patronage systems. Therefore, if you want charity to benefit from tax revenue, form a charity and issue FnargCo shares to it. It can keep these shares, sell them, etc. It's all just money.

So again we end up with the question: who owns the shares? With the right distribution, we can model all present uses of tax money for whatever purpose, and remove all the inefficiencies of the informal political allocation process. Which, as I'm sure you know, are quite considerable.

The only problem is what you can't do: after you have distributed these shares, decide the distribution isn't fair, and redistribute. The best definition I have found of tyranny is that tyranny is lawless government, and any redistribution of assets is lawlessness by definition.

August 4, 2007 at 3:48 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

It's M. Traven, in homage to the enigmatic anarchist writer B. Traven. And I live pretty much close to around Sharp Park, near Oceana High School and Eureka Square.

I will take a pass on your OS analogy, not only because my views on operating systems are somewhat heterodox, but also because I don't find arguments by analogy all that effective.

Darn, I thought that was a pretty good one (it was actually a disanalogy -- my point was that societies have much more fluid, dynamic, and self-modifiying structure of law and power than you find in a cleanly-architected computer system). Oh well.

As long as you understand what I mean by "impartial," this is sufficient. I have no need for any of the positive associations of the word. Perhaps "precise" would be a better term.

My point is that in many of these words, such as "justice," the basically Christian idea of distributive fairness has become confused with the basically Roman idea of law, as expressed in maxims such as pacta sunt servanda and fiat justitia ruat coelum.

Well, yes. Justice admits to a number of different meanings, and it's good to be clear which one is meant.

I don't think Christianity holds the patent for the idea that distribution should be fair, or at least maintained at a level that doesn't interfere with survival. The Romans had their share of bread riots.

My point, if I have one, is that the formal rule of law can only be maintained if the end results are broadly acceptable (whether they are accepted by force or by consent -- but consent is probably easier to achieve, less wasteful, and better all around). So the two meanings of justice are not so easy to separate in practice.

Whether you know it or not, you are expressing many ideas from the 20th-century tradition known as Legal Realism. You might enjoy these thoughts by liberal law professor Brian Tamanaha on the history of the conflict between Legal Realism and legal formalism.

I'm vaguely aware of those conflicts, but I'm about making up my own ideas.

The specific thing you cited, though, is about the role of the judiciary. I was referring mostly to the legislative process. Even the legal formalists who believe that judges should be strict interpreters rather than creators of the law still believe that somebody needs to be making the laws, and those somebodys are going to be under the forces of special interests. Unless of course you think you can come up with an eternally perfect set of laws, seal it in epoxy, and let it run as the unmodifiable microkernal of society (sorry, my analogy crept back in).

BTW, it occurs to me that the meanings of formalism and realism modifying "legal" are almost opposite to the meanings those words have when modifying "mathematical".

As I've said previously, when you have a trustworthy modern military, the BPR approaches infinity. ... Slave all the military hardware in the country to one key, and keep the key in your offshore management office, and the problem is solved.

You're back to the Fnargl model again. I don't get it. You've centralized all military power in one locus. But what problem does that solve?. Who is managing that locus? Why should I trust him more than I trust anyone else? I guess you are not saying I should trust him, just that it would be a better world to have a single essentially omnipotent locus of power, rather than the distributed power we have now. Maybe so, but in the absence of Fnargalian out-of-band technology, there will be contention between humans to get control of the locus.

The only problem is what you can't do: after you have distributed these shares, decide the distribution isn't fair, and redistribute. The best definition I have found of tyranny is that tyranny is lawless government, and any redistribution of assets is lawlessness by definition.

You will have to explain the relation of Fnargl and lawlessness to me, slowly. Fnargl is a lawless tyrant, by definition, right? He can do whatever he wants to, there's nobody to stop him. But he's going to impose fair laws on the rest of us because that's going to optimize his wealth-extraction activities. I can see Fnarglianism might be a good thing, but its relationship to the real world escapes me.

BTW, "Redistribution of assets" is not lawless by definition, except maybe in the imaginary universe you are constructing. In the real world, assets get redistributed, by law, all the time, via taxes and other means.

August 4, 2007 at 8:04 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Even the legal formalists who believe that judges should be strict interpreters rather than creators of the law still believe that somebody needs to be making the laws, and those somebodys are going to be under the forces of special interests. Unless of course you think you can come up with an eternally perfect set of laws, seal it in epoxy, and let it run as the unmodifiable microkernel of society (sorry, my analogy crept back in).

Okay, I'll go with your unmodifiable microkernel.

In fact, people believed exactly this right up until the 20th century. Most societies in the past lived with a small, permanent set of legal principles. For example, one of the complaints of the Magna Carta barons was Nolumus leges Angliae mutari - "we object to changes in the laws of England."

The basic microkernel of all law is twofold: one, property rights are respected; and two, agreements are respected. (As the Romans put it, pacta sunt servanda.)

In the old English system, this was supplemented by a system of case law in which these fundamental principles were applied to practical examples in consistent ways. The result, at least ideally, was that the only cases in which the outcome was unclear were cases that were new and different.

Legislation is something entirely different from this. At least in England, it evolved through the practice of compiling the common law - the accumulated results of these judgments - into handy references. Compilers found the temptation to add their own rules during this process irresistible, and we wound up with the very odd idea that the legislature "makes" laws. Again, an excellent read on this is Bruno Leoni's Freedom and the Law.

Historically, legal "operating systems" that are on the verge of complexity collapse become cluttered with vast piles of manually defined special cases. This is certainly happening to ours, and the predictability of legal disputes in the US, which is essentially the measure of the rule of law, is extremely low.

I'm vaguely aware of those conflicts, but I'm about making up my own ideas.

Me too, obviously, and it's very hard to have your own ideas if you're inundated with old ones. But that doesn't mean all the old ones are bad.

BTW, "Redistribution of assets" is not lawless by definition, except maybe in the imaginary universe you are constructing. In the real world, assets get redistributed, by law, all the time, via taxes and other means.

Not at all - this is precisely my point. If you model the state as a property owner, taxes are no different from rents. I suppose in a sense it is redistribution if I pay you $5 for a slice of pizza, or $1000 for a month of rent, but there is nothing lawless about it - I am fulfilling an agreement.

Note the variance from libertarian theory. To the libertarian, the state is illegitimate for various silly reasons, and taxation really is theft.

My point, if I have one, is that the formal rule of law can only be maintained if the end results are broadly acceptable (whether they are accepted by force or by consent -- but consent is probably easier to achieve, less wasteful, and better all around).

I think this is a false dichotomy. All governments rest on force - no society without law enforcement, private or public, has ever existed.

The Rousseauvian idea of "consent" is so ethereal I find it hard to say it even exists. It is intended to be analogous to a contract. But in fact it is nothing of the kind, except in the trivial sense that you accept the implicit contract by remaining on the property, sort of the way you accept a contract when you drive into a parking garage. In this sense, though, it obviously has nothing to do with the form of government.

If "consent" has any practical meaning it means that somehow less law enforcement is required, that because the people love the State there will be no mob violence and there is no need for a riot squad. But why not have a riot squad anyway? What does it cost? I don't get it at all.

(Try reading Rousseau's Considerations on Poland and see if you really want to be associated with this guy...)

You're back to the Fnargl model again. I don't get it. You've centralized all military power in one locus. But what problem does that solve?. Who is managing that locus? Why should I trust him more than I trust anyone else? I guess you are not saying I should trust him, just that it would be a better world to have a single essentially omnipotent locus of power, rather than the distributed power we have now.

Not quite. I'm saying that the structure of property rights, at a global level, should be stable. This could be implemented by a single monopolist, but I prefer a top-level system of independent states.

Law does not have to be enforced by a hegemonic power. It can be enforced by mutual agreement, in which bad actors are restrained by their peers. The problem (another thing that libertarians don't recognize) is that peer-to-peer law doesn't scale.

However, you can probably have a pretty large number of independent city-states with their own nuclear deterrents.

Maybe so, but in the absence of Fnargalian out-of-band technology, there will be contention between humans to get control of the locus.

Or the individual loci. In a single centralized state, the only answer is "watch that basket." If you actually have multiple independent jurisdictions, you can cross-list - Dubai can be a Hong Kong corporation and the reverse, or something.


You will have to explain the relation of Fnargl and lawlessness to me, slowly. Fnargl is a lawless tyrant, by definition, right? He can do whatever he wants to, there's nobody to stop him.

This is precisely the definition of sovereignty, and Fnargl is indeed a sovereign.

But he's going to impose fair laws on the rest of us because that's going to optimize his wealth-extraction activities.

Watch out with that word "fair" - it is quite tricky.

He's going to impose precise laws on the rest of us because he profits from our productivity, and only from our productivity; and because a precise legal system violates productivity.

A sovereign cannot be forced to respect its own law. But it is in a sovereign's interest to respect it, because a lawless sovereign is the definition of a tyranny. And tyranny is much less productive than lawful rule.

So why are any governments lawless? Because they are not best modeled as unitary actors. Tyrants are in general weak. The usual pattern is that tyrannies depend on supporters whose lawlessness they have to ignore, and whose depredations they are not powerful enough to formalize. Informality does not benefit Leviathan as a whole, but maintaining it may serve the interests of various selfish organs or tissues.

I don't think Christianity holds the patent for the idea that distribution should be fair, or at least maintained at a level that doesn't interfere with survival. The Romans had their share of bread riots.

Panem et circenses is not exactly a feature of Roman government that most historians have chosen to praise! But yes, it's not that everyone was utterly cold and unfeeling before Jesus came to us. However, they justified it in very different ways.

It's M. Traven, in homage to the enigmatic anarchist writer B. Traven. And I live pretty much close to around Sharp Park, near Oceana High School and Eureka Square.

Around 95-97 I lived in the Pacific View Apartments on Talbot. I assume it still looks like a motel out of a Raymond Chandler novel. But the views are pretty good, assuming it's not foggy.

August 5, 2007 at 12:52 AM  
Blogger mtraven said...

Okay, I'll go with your unmodifiable microkernel.

Heh, well, googling around reveals that Nick Szabo already explored this lovely metaphor in some depth. You and he together have about 100 times more knowledge of the history of law and economics than I do, and you guys are having some violent disagreement that I can't even follow, so I don't even want to get into the historical game.

The basic microkernel of all law is twofold: one, property rights are respected; and two, agreements are respected. (As the Romans put it, pacta sunt servanda.)

I have no objection to basing law on a small microkernal, in fact, it sounds like a good idea. Whether property rights (in the libertarian sense) is part of the microkernal historically or if it should be in the future is another question, or what exactly it means (see below).

Historically, legal "operating systems" that are on the verge of complexity collapse become cluttered with vast piles of manually defined special cases. This is certainly happening to ours, and the predictability of legal disputes in the US, which is essentially the measure of the rule of law, is extremely low.

No real argument from me...although I'd like to see some data to objectively determine just how bad ours is compared to others.

Given a microkernel model that allows for the passing of contingent, less-basic laws, there probably needs to be a sunset mechanism or other technique for preventing buildup and encrustation.

me earlier: BTW, "Redistribution of assets" is not lawless by definition, except maybe in the imaginary universe you are constructing. In the real world, assets get redistributed, by law, all the time, via taxes and other means.

Not at all - this is precisely my point. If you model the state as a property owner, taxes are no different from rents. I suppose in a sense it is redistribution if I pay you $5 for a slice of pizza, or $1000 for a month of rent, but there is nothing lawless about it - I am fulfilling an agreement.

I think we are pretty much in agreement here, although in my universe, which happens to be the real one, the state also has the ability to set taxes as it will and spend them as it will, based on changes to the law, which may result in things that are more traditionally called redistribution -- ie, if it decides to tax rich people at a high rate and use the money to provide free cheese for the indigent. I don't see anything inherently problematic about this, don't know about you. It depends how hard-coded property rights are in the microkernel, or whether they are modifiable. This is a real issue in current law, for instance some believe that any environmental law that has any economic impact on property owners is an illegal taking and must be compensated under the takings clause of the 5th amendment.

Note the variance from libertarian theory. To the libertarian, the state is illegitimate for various silly reasons, and taxation really is theft.

Oh, I note it alright, it makes your viewpoint a lot more interesting than the typical net.libertarian.

me, earlier: My point, if I have one, is that the formal rule of law can only be maintained if the end results are broadly acceptable (whether they are accepted by force or by consent -- but consent is probably easier to achieve, less wasteful, and better all around).

I think this is a false dichotomy. All governments rest on force - no society without law enforcement, private or public, has ever existed.

I didn't mean to make that a dichotomy. Real governments rest on some mixture of force and consent, and force is certainly always part of the equation. "Consent" means roughly that people accept the current arrangements and are willing to play by the rules, as oppposed to trying to overthrow or bypass them. So, let's agree that all governments rest on force, but the subjects can be more or less happy about their rulers and circumstances, and more or less disposed to do something about it.

If "consent" has any practical meaning it means that somehow less law enforcement is required...

I think we are basically in agreement here.

So why are any governments lawless? Because they are not best modeled as unitary actors. Tyrants are in general weak... Informality does not benefit Leviathan as a whole, but maintaining it may serve the interests of various selfish organs or tissues.

Why wouldn't a government-scaled corporation have the same problems? In my limited experience, they do -- they develop their own internal byzantine politics, fiefdoms, jockying, and rules. Private entities that take on government roles take on government failings -- witness Halliburton, the Pinkertons, the old IBM, the old AT&T.

One of my standard complaints about standard libertarians is that their arguments are of the form:
1) government is nothing more than a local monopoly of violence (true enough, except perhaps the "nothing more than")
2) we don't like violence (admirable indeed)
3) so, let's eliminate government and the violence will magically go away too. (catch the error?)

Sometimes step 3 is not quite that blatant, and instead there will be schemes for private police forces and judges and the like, most of which don't seem very practical and re-introduce the problem we were supposed to be solving, namely violence. Someone is throwing their weight around, and the benefits of it being the Pinkertons rather than the sheriff is not clear to me.

You seem a good deal more sophisticated than this, but still in the same general line. You don't eliminate government or violence, we just centralize it in the person of Fnargl, or some corporation that (for reasons unspecified) is going to be more rational and unitary than a government of similar size, power, and soverign reach. But it is difficult for me to envision just exactly how converting governments to corporations and citizens to stockholders/customers/rentiers is going to magically make the violence go away. It smacks suspiciously of the false bromide that was going around a few years ago, that "no two democracies have ever gone to war with each other". No corporations have gone to war with each other, as far as I know, but there's no inherent reason they wouldn't if they were armed to the teeth and in competition for resources, with no supervening authority.

August 5, 2007 at 7:25 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

mtraven,

You ask the right questions, so possibly this can converge. If not, there's always Winter's.

My thesis is that misgovernment and mismanagement are the same thing. That is, when you find a government doing bad things, it is almost always the case that those things are not in the interest of the government as a whole. In other words, the government is misusing its capital.

Of course this depends on your definition of "bad things." My point is that this statement is true for a quite uncontroversial definition of "bad things" - war, tyranny and so forth.

If all companies were perfectly managed, the corporate world would be a lot less interesting. But - please trust me on this, I come from a mandarin family - corporate management tends to be at least an order of magnitude better, even for organizations of the same size.

It is easy to see why this should be the case. A corporation, however large, has a single quantitative benchmark by which it can measure its performance. Shareholders may have slightly different time preference, but a public stock market tends to even this out - they basically all want the same thing, ie, money.

An informally managed organization has stakeholders, not shareholders. They are all pulling in different directions. There is no unity of purpose. This is why we do not see large corporations developing before the invention of the joint-stock design. A partnership simply doesn't scale well.

Take your example with taxes. In fact a well-managed government is unlikely, I think, to retain the power to adjust its own tax rates. This creates uncertainty which is a definite damper on business, and inasmuch as the government is there to tax business, uncertainty loses it money. In a system of competing jurisdictions, one with tax rates that are contractual, rather than discretionary, will tend to win.

Of course, since the government is sovereign, it can break its own laws any time it likes. But it will not do this unless it has a good reason, because the value of a lawless state is much lower than that of a lawful one. Instant capital destruction.

The result is that the state becomes bound in a web of its own laws. Its power may start as arbitrary omnipotence, but it does not remain as such. In fact, it has to be careful to reserve the right to make necessary ordinances, so that unforeseen exigencies do not force it into lawlessness.

War is another good example. War can be profitable. But it usually isn't, and it is fairly easy for a defender to make it not worth an attacker's while. The Nazis, for example, certainly could have conquered Switzerland, but it was not worth the time and effort.

A system of sovereign states - or any system of independent actors - is stable when each can deter all the others from any aggression. Deterring a rationally managed aggressor is much easier than deterring an irrational one.

For example, a rational state is not subject to salami tactics, because it's quite aware that giving away thin slices of its capital will result in no capital at all. So it will vigorously defend its rights on even minor points of principle. Problems will only arise if international law is unclear and it is genuinely impossible for a sincere investigator distinguish between aggression and self-defense, which is rarely the case.

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January 31, 2009 at 11:07 PM  
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March 2, 2009 at 7:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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March 2, 2009 at 8:02 PM  
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March 6, 2009 at 9:25 PM  
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March 12, 2009 at 7:09 PM  

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