Thursday, December 27, 2007 31 Comments

An explanation of democratic centrism

The political belief system of most normal people in the Western world is well-described, I think, by the phrase democratic centrism.

This belief system is democratic because it assigns unconditional positive valence to the word democracy. A rule of the modern world is that anything which can get away with describing itself as democratic will do so. The fewer Kevin Bacon steps between you and democracy, the better. Granted, I have never seen any breakfast cereal, personal hygiene product or mobile phone which managed to associate itself with democracy, but I'm sure it's not for lack of trying.

For example, most people today would agree with, or at least take no offense at, the suggestion that in a democratic country, it's important for corporations to be socially responsible. Perhaps we can allow this wonderful phrase, socially responsible, to hang in the air for a moment. It certainly has earned its delicious, bacony odor of democracy.

Obviously, neither the word democracy nor any of its multitudinous declensions, conjugations, and obfuscations can convey any information in any reasonable discussion between civilized and intelligent people. To define something as democratic is to define it as good, leaving us face to face with Hume's ought - the ultimate rhetorical dead end. At this point, one might as well just have it out with cavalry swords. (The only practical use I can imagine for democracy is as an ingredient of fun, contrarian labels, such as antidemocratist.)

So we are left with centrism. What is centrism? And why do so many people believe in it?

A centrist is anyone who believes in the concept of objective public policy. Another way to say this is that a centrist is someone who believes in the science of government.

To the centrist, government is not just one thing. It has a kind of metaphysical binary structure. Its staff is divided into two classes, elected officials and career professionals. Or if you prefer to be negative, politicians and bureaucrats. The gap between these tracks is about as bridgeable as the gap between vanilla ice-cream and Mongolian beef. And the two have completely separate responsibilities: elected officials make political decisions, career professionals set public policy.

Isn't this weird? I mean, does anyone who holds any position in this entire system ever stop to think about how bizarre this situation is? If by some wild off-chance you ever happen to have been employed in the actual productive economy, can you imagine working in a company whose organizational hierarchy was divided into political and professional categories? Surely if it was any way to run a railroad, at least one railroad in history would have been run this way. Perhaps one of our readers is familiar with some such animal.

(If you read the New York Times regularly, you will note that decisions which are driven by politics are often bad ones. Whereas policies formulated by experts tend to be good. Isn't this interesting? Is the New York Times generally right about this, or generally wrong?)

Anyway, it's easy to explain why centrism is a fallacy.

First, there is no conceivable categorical distinction between political and apolitical actions or decisions. Since the real world cannot be controlled or predicted, since we never step in the same river twice, every decision made by every organization which operates successfuly on the real world is a judgment call by definition. All decisions are executive and discretionary.

In particular, there is no such thing as scientific public policy. Public policy and science have no more in common than lawn tennis and animal husbandry. It is impractical to conduct any controlled experiment on the real world, human or natural. Economic remedies cannot be tested, diplomatic strategies cannot be modeled, military tactics cannot be verified, ecological outcomes cannot be predicted. At least not in any way that can claim Popperian falsifiability - and thus immunity to the tides of groupthink and general human folly.

Ergo, there is no "objective" or "nonpartisan" or "apolitical" basis for any public policy - even in departments often regarded as "scientific." Perhaps it is possible to define any policy whose motivation does not depend on pseudoscience (pseudoscience being anything that claims to be science, but ain't) as "scientific." But this is (a) hardly a high bar, and (b) yields results with no relationship to the conventional concept of "scientific" public policy.

For example, the absorption spectrum of CO2 is a matter of physics. The concentration of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere is a matter of chemistry. But absent infinite computer time or other magic superpowers, the climate sensitivity of the Earth cannot be calculated by any falsifiable procedure. Moreover, it is impossible to construct any conceivable objective conclusion as to why it should be "good" or "bad" for Earth, or even just for us poor schmucks who happen to live on it, to be warmer or colder than it is now, whether as a result of geoengineering by CO2 release or aerosol emissions, or variations in solar output, or UFO exhaust, or whatever. Therefore, climate policy is a value judgment of an unforecastable outcome, and any suggestion that it can be formulated "objectively" is comical at best. Reasonable people can disagree on the subject, and will always be able to.

So why is this belief in apolitical government - especially, of all things, apolitical democracy - so prevalent? There are several interesting answers to this interesting question.

We can start by observing that the illusion of objective policy creates an objective center for any system of government built around it. If you are a democratic centrist, you believe that an intelligent visitor from Saturn, knowing no more and no less about Earth history than we do, would come up with exactly the same structure of government as that we see in Washington today. Perhaps our Saturnian would withdraw from Iraq, perhaps there would be a few tweaks to energy policy, perhaps he would revitalize the Department of Health and Human Services with new performance-oriented metrics for a more efficient budget process. But, basically, he would look on what he saw and find it good.

In other words, his political perspective is essentially that of Dr. Pangloss. Our democratic centrist is no more than a believer in the status quo. His arguments are not arguments. They are excuses. Perhaps they are valid excuses. But we have no reason at all to assume so.

To the democratic centrist, the burden of proof always rests on whoever disagrees with him. (For example, anyone with proof of racial equality should forward it at once to Jim Goad.) There is no reason to even bother debating under such conditions. All attempts at rational conversation terminate in the democratic equivalent of "but Brawndo has electrolytes."

The rest of us, who due to some cosmic computer fuckup have retained our compos mentis, can see quite easily that the democratic center is not absolute or objective. Because, above all, if it was absolute or objective, you would kind of expect it would stay in the same place. And, um, it, um, doesn't.

In other words, if our Saturnian's political philosophies remained unchanged, he could not be a centrist on his first visit in 1907, and remain a centrist on his second visit in 2007. The centrist ideas of 2007 were held only by dangerous extremists in 1907. The centrist ideas of 1907 are held only by dangerous extremists in 2007. This does not preclude the possibility that either the 1907 center or the 2007 center is right, but it does preclude the possibility that both are. And they could just as well both be drifting way out in head-case space.

For example, as Peter Hitchens writes in his fascinating if somewhat mistitled Brief History of Crime:
So, before showing that something enormous and damaging has happened to English society since the Second World War, it is worth quoting an astonishing footnote from Jose Harris's social history of Britain before the First World War, Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914:
A very high proportion of Edwardian convicts were in prison for offences that would have been much more lightly treated or wholly disregarded by law enforcers in the late twentieth century. In 1912-13, for example, one quarter of males aged 16 to 21 who were imprisoned in the metropolitan area of London were serving seven-day sentences for offences which included drunkenness, 'playing games in the street,' riding a bicycle without lights, gaming, obscene language and sleeping rough. If late twentieth-century standards of policing and sentencing had been applied in Edwardian Britain, the prisons would have been virtually empty; conversely, if Edwardian standards were applied in the 1990s then most of the youth of Britain would be in gaol.
As it happens, 1913 was a fairly bad year by the standards of the time, with 98,000 serious offences recorded. This level would not be surpassed again until 1920 when the total rose to 101,000 after a wartime truce during which annual crime tallies sank to as low as 78,000 in 1915. Even convicts were reported to be showing patriotic zeal as they broke their rocks. Measure this against the figure of 2,521,000 recorded in 1980 and, even when you grant that the population had risen from 36 million to 49 million, the figures could be from different planets as well as from different eras.
Now, since I am a child of the late 20th century, the idea of a prison term for saying "fuck" does not strike me as sensible. On the other hand, one can scarcely regard a 2000% increase in crime as evidence of effective, scientific public policy. Surely the aficionados of scientific government in 1907 did not preface their promises with the caveat that, while the New Jerusalem that was to come would have this and that and the other thing, it would also come with, oh, 20 times as much crime. (Even setting aside the defining-down of "crime.")

Democratic centrism draws a sort of N-dimensional bullseye on policy space. Everything that the State does now, the center of the eye, is bipartisan, centrist, apolitical public policy. As we drift away from this magic vertex, our policies become first politicized, then radical or extremist. And when we see that this bullseye moves over time, that we have no reason to believe it is in any way correlated with reality, that in fact we have quite a bit of evidence that at least in the past it has been thoroughly delusional, we realize that we are dealing with a very weird, scary thing.

So, if we reject the self-framing of democratic centrism, if we refuse to accept this phenomenon on its own terms, we need to find another explanation of the movement that is simpler and makes more sense. Democratic centrism exists. It may not tell us anything useful about the world, but it is a part of reality and its existence at least can be explained.

One straightforward question is "where did it come from?" In American politics, the concept of centrism dates at least to the Greeleyite Liberal Republicans of 1872. (It's a little difficult to detect before then - perhaps there is some Prussian heritage, as many American intellectuals of the period studied in Germany.)

Perhaps the founding achievement of American democratic centrism was the Pendleton Act of 1883, which ended the spoils system and established a civil service which was effectively independent of democracy - excuse me, I mean, "politics." Another important milestone was Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion (1922), which perhaps best represents the birth of objective journalism - ie, of our present regime in which journalists consider themselves civil servants, responsible to "the public" rather than to their readers.

But this does not explain why we have democratic centrism, rather than nothing, or rather than something else.

One interesting clue is that, while this center does not appear to remain continuously in the same place, it does not appear to wander unpredictably, either. Over the last century at least, the American political center (and thus the US Federal Government) has moved in a direction which can be generally described as progressive. There have been occasional mild reversals of the trend - for example, in the 1920s, the 1950s and the 1980s - but even across these nadirs, we see the secular (no pun intended) curve. The same ideas that were centrist in the 1980s tended to be progressive in the 1950s, and radical in the 1920s.

Readers of UR are, of course, quite familiar with this trend. But what could explain it? I have talked quite a bit about what happened, but much less about why it happened.

First, we should never disregard the possibility that the progressive migration of the center is simply a passage out of darkness and into light, a gradual escape from delusion. This narrative is sometimes described as Whig history. By definition, to be a Whig is to believe in Whig history, and here at UR we do try to respect the reader's beliefs.

Moreover, it is easy to see how Whig history could be true. The truth has an obvious advantage over any delusion: everyone wants to believe the truth, no one wants to be deluded. So perhaps people were deluded in the past, and are just now getting over it.

If Whig history is true, this does not validate the fallacious, Panglossian philosophy of absolute centrism. But it suggests that the center of today just happens to either have arrived at an accurate perception of reality, or is in the process of arriving at it.

The latter possibility is especially interesting. It suggests the interpretation that an accurate view of reality is, if anything, far more progressive than today's worldview. If the causal motor of Whig history is simply best described as progress, there is no reason to believe that this process should stop in the present.

Indeed, it would be surprising if the relationship between increasing progressivism and general enlightenment had a nonmonotonic maximum precisely at the center point of contemporary American politics. The whole strange journey from Teddy Roosevelt to Nancy Pelosi was, as per Pangloss, for the best, but any continuation into Dennis Kucinich land would be a sad story of decline. Is it possible? Sure. But it seems unlikely. So many sensible people, having grown up on Whig history, extrapolate logically and end up as progressives in today's sense of the word. (It's worth noting that my father's parents, who were in fact card-carrying Communists, described themselves as progressive for their entire adult life.)

But is there an alternative to Whig history? There is. I'm not aware that the phrase "Tory history" is much used, but surely it would not displease the likes of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. (I have recommended this book before, but it's been a while. It really is essential reading. Although perhaps I should worry that after you read K-L, UR will seem like a cheap plastic imitation.)

Finding a way to convey the Gestalt of Tory history to readers in our uber-Whiggish age is definitely a bete noire of this blog. I don't believe I have done it. Perhaps it is simply impossible for a modern reader to simply grok Tory history, in one tremendous mental flash. However, the possibility is so seductive that I can't stop myself from trying.

One possible flash can be obtained by reading this LA Times article about Vladimir Putin's pet youth group, Nashi. (For registration, I use and recommend BugMeNot.)

Russia today is actually an independent country, which is pretty cool. I don't get the impression that it is particularly well-governed, but it could be a lot worse. Ideally, the mafias which run Russia today will coalesce into a more coherent entity, less like the New York mob and more like Singapore or China, and neocameralist incentives for good government will start to replace informal incentives for corrupt government. I wouldn't necessarily bet on this happening, but I wouldn't necessarily bet against it, either.

And Nashi is a fascinating phenomenon. It is best categorized as a pro-government activist group. Somehow, members of Nashi manage to be simultaneously rebellious and official. Does this remind you of anything? Anything at all?

We have many reasons to be thankful for Russia. Chekhov, Bulgakov and Brodsky are three. But one great reason to love Russia is that Russian history so often mirrors the political tropes of the West, but in a particularly crude, obvious and Russian way that makes their true nature especially apparent.

From the perspective of Tory history, progressivism is to Nashi as you and I are to the benthic and vagile California sea hare, Aplysia. Aplysia has something like ten neurons, each the size of a large asparagus stalk. I exaggerate, slightly. But just as Aplysia is the perfect research organism in which to develop a basic understanding of the neuron, Nashi is a perfect way to understand the fascinating phenomenon of pro-government activism.

It's especially helpful that Nashi, being basically a fascist movement, is aligned directly against Western progressivism. (Nashi's perception of the US State Department as its primary natural enemy strikes me as quite accurate.) So, for example, we hear:
Talking to Nashi members offers a sample of the kaleidoscope of fears that swirl in Putin's Russia. An alleged U.S. plot to infiltrate politics, get hold of natural resources and shatter mighty Russia into smaller, more easily managed countries is a recurring theme.
As a resident of San Francisco, perhaps the world's most progressive city, I find the phrase "kaleidoscope of fears" quite evocative. Especially when it comes to "swirling." San Franciscans have no swirling fears of the US State Department, but they certainly compensate in some other departments.

And then we have the money quote:
Nashi, the largest and most prominent of the youth groups, is heavily wrapped up in the concept of upward mobility. Many of the youths have been lured to Moscow with promises of yuppie dreams; they view Nashi as an investment in their careers, akin to joining the right fraternity at a U.S. university.
Of course, progressivism has nothing at all to do with upward mobility. The other day I was at a Christmas Eve dinner party, where all the other guests (except of course Mrs. Moldbug, whose agility at Ketman is unrivaled) were hardcore progressives, and someone was wondering out loud how Angelina Jolie manages to be involved in so many good causes. "Because she's obviously just so... shallow."

"Perhaps it has something to do with her PR people," I suggested. "I mean, they're not exactly going to tell her to endorse the Burmese junta, for their energetic maintenance of public order, are they?" Ketman is not exactly my strong point.

"I guess." I really did get the impression that this woman believed supporting progressive causes was some great sacrifice on the part of Brangelina. But why wouldn't she? I'm sure Brad and Angelina believe it, as well.

Of course, progressives also think of themselves as anything but pro-government. And how is this neat trick accomplished?

Welcome to our old friend, objective public policy. Progressives can think of themselves as bravely resisting an oppressive regime, because they oppose the Bush administration, which is political, and support the Federal civil service, which is professional and scientific. When they think of "the government," they think exclusively of the former, which seems to invest a considerable amount of its energy on frustrating the efforts of the latter. Needless to say, this is nothing but a vicious attack on democracy. At a certain point, all ya can say is wow.

The parallel between Nashi and progressivism gets even tighter when we realize that, although progressives are not acting in the service of any present leader whose personality cult can be compared to Putin's (for one thing, you can't really have a personality cult unless you have a personality, which pretty much disqualifies all living American politicians), we get a far better signal when we compare the American past to the Russian present.

In case it's not obvious who I'm talking about, try these four links: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Note that there is a discrepancy between Wikipedia's version of the Greer incident and the Nazi version - according to the Nazis, the Greer had dropped depth charges before the U-boat fired a torpedo. With all due respect to Dr. Goebbels, I think I'll go with La Wik on this one.

But when we look at the overall exchange, I don't think the picture leaves us feeling too good about Whig history. What's astounding about the American side of this exchange (there is nothing surprising in the fact that the Nazis, having truth on their side, could just stick to it) is not just the sheer volume of blatantly fraudulent inventions, not just the almost perfect inversion of reality, not just the incredibly crude and paranoid tone of the speech (doesn't it make Rush Limbaugh sound like Adlai Stevenson?), but the fact that the intended audience was the American electorate. And, by all historical evidence, this was exactly the sort of material they lapped up. (If this period interests you, there is more here.)

Imagine a Russia 70 years from now in which all significant intellectual movements are descended from Nashi. All teachers, professors and journalists grew up on the Nashi definition of reality. For most of them, their parents probably did as well. In fact, the Nashism of 2007 is remarkably tame compared to the Nashism of 2077. Anyone in 2077 who even begins to question that Putin saved Russia from disaster at the hands of George Soros and the State Department is simply a nut, a crank, an extremist.

Do I think Nashi and Putinism will actually survive until 2077? Of course not. It's Russia, after all. On the other hand, we still have the New Deal to kick around.

So here is our brief explanation of democratic centrism. First, centrism is a misnomer, because when we examine the movement over time we see that it moves gradually in a progressive direction. What we are looking at is democratic progressivism. The "center" is just the center of its shifting window at the present time.

Second, progressivism is a form of pro-government activism. Unlike Nashi, progressivism does not revere any living ruler. Its faith in the State is given entirely to the professional civil service. The mechanism by which it delegates this faith is the strange concept of apolitical government, which makes about as much sense as a cheeseburger without the cheese.

Third, democratic progressivism is not "democratic" in the classic sense of representative democracy, ie, wherein the government is managed by elected politicians. As we've seen, democratic progressives despise politics and all its works, unless of course the political process produces "leaders" who nourish and support the civil service, in which case they are wise and visionary statesmen.

The trick is that progressives are absolutely right about this. Political democracy is a disastrous system. As James Madison wrote:
Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
Madison was referring to direct democracy, Athenian style. His judgment of this form was indeed shared by his contemporaries, who could hardly avoid noticing the rather striking connection between the destruction of Athens and its adoption of democracy. But in the rest of Federalist 10, Madison goes on to explain how representative or indirect democracy will not suffer the same consequences:
A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
You will frequently hear people, often otherwise very perceptive people, telling us that "the US is not a democracy, but a republic." Next time you hear this, ask the wise sage who is speaking what exactly a "republic" is. Perhaps he will explain that republic is from the Latin res publica, ie, government. Ask him to give you an example of a government which is not a republic. Perhaps he will come up with a monarchy. In this case, thank him politely for explaining that the US has no king, ideally without revealing that you knew that already.

Here we have it straight from James Madison: a republic is different from a democracy because the former (a) has elected representatives, and (b) is bigger. This will have the following effects:
The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.
Elected politicians will be wise and noble.
Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.
At least, wiser and nobler than the people who elected them.
On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.
Ya think?
The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal; and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter by two obvious considerations:
Isn't it funny how bigger always turns out to be better?
In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice.
The more people you have, the more wise and noble people you have. Duh. World elections now! What are we waiting for?
In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.
I'm afraid we've learned a lot about the "vicious arts" since then.
The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.
If we adopt the Constitution, there will be no national political parties. The country is just too big. Besides, even if there are national parties, they will be weak and disorganized.
The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.
"Duh-huh, duh-huh. He said Confederacy. Duh-huh."

So much for Little Jimmy Madison, political sage. With geniuses like this, who needs fools? It's obvious why Ron Paul wants to restore the Constitution. Because it worked out so well!

As I explained last week, the actual form of government in the US at present is a massarchy, ie, a state whose legitimacy is dependent on the mass of public support. Democratic centrism is the ideology that legitimizes the state. Of course, one of the main activities of said state is to teach its free, independent citizens how great democratic centrism is. Everyone loves a self-licking ice-cream cone.

Electoral politics is quite vestigial in a modern massarchy. Polling is a far more efficient and reliable way to measure support. The EU, in which politics plays an even more negligible part, is a perfect example. It is quite tricky to convince people that they can have democracy without politics, but most of the work has already been done and the project is clearly practical.

One easy way to understand how the US power structure actually works is to adopt the hypothesis that the strongest institutions are the most stable and permanent. For example, in a conflict between Microsoft and the New York Times, who would win? One can imagine a situation in which the NYT triumphed and Microsoft was no more. Whereas it is impossible to imagine any force, short of the US military if its patience somehow turns out to be less than eternal, which could destroy the Times.

(People who talk about declining newspaper revenue have no clue. The NYT is an NGO which happens, for reasons that are basically historical, to be sponsored by a publishing corporation. If said corporation were to disappear from the face of the earth and Times reporters had to be supported by grants and foundations, like every other NGO in the world, do you really think they'd have trouble raising money?)

When we forget NGOs (they're called "NGOs" because of how easy it is to forget that they're not part of the State) and look only at the US government proper, stability is easy to find. The civil service and the judiciary cannot be replaced by any force short of God. Ergo, we would expect to see that they have most of the power, and I believe this is indeed the case.

What remains is largely in the hands of Congress. And it is not distributed evenly across the members of that august body. It is in the hands of the committee staffs and the committee chairmen. Congresspersons are technically politicians and can be replaced, but they also have a 98% incumbency rate, and I don't believe this is lower for committee chairs. Furthermore, when a chair dies or (theoretically) loses an election, his or her replacement is chosen not by lottery but by seniority, preserving general institutional continuity.

By changing the majority party, voters can also replace all the committee chairs en bloc. This has been known to happen, most recently in the '90s. It is these changes of party that really show us how close to the "center" both Republicans and Democrats are. To judge by their actions, the incentives affecting the Republican Congress did not seem to differ particularly from the incentives affecting the Democratic Congress. I think a few minor programs were abolished or restructured. But I could be wrong.

For obvious reasons, voter interest in Congressional elections tends to be negligible. In fact, by 19th-century standards, voter interest in all elections is negligible. There is simply no modern counterpart to the great mob upheavals that were 19th-century elections. Perhaps this has something to do with the depoliticization of government. However, to the extent that Americans care about elections at all these days, they care about Presidential elections.

The President is nominally the chief executive of the Federal government. But a real chief executive controls three levers of management: budget, policy, and personnel. The White House has no budgetary power other than the veto. Domestic policy is generally prescribed by law, or what at least is called "law," which is written in very vague terms by Congress and refined by judges and agency experts. Civil servants are completely insulated from political selection or promotion. The White House does select political appointees who are nominally the senior officers in their various departments, but their ability to steer the civil service ship is minimal and their temptation to "go native" is unending.

As late as the 1860s, as the debate over the Tenure of Office Act shows, the President was believed to have unchallengeable power to hire and fire all Federal officials. This did not work out well, and it shortly disappeared. Even in the '30s, FDR could promote a political general like George Marshall directly from brigadier to Chief of Staff. Like so many of FDR's executive decisions, this would be unthinkable today.

The Presidency today is perhaps best compared to the British monarchy as of 100 years ago. It is gradually becoming an entirely symbolic institution. Today there are still substantial exceptions to this pattern, but the pattern is clear.

The influence of politics is probably doomed to decrease over time, because politics sucks. Electoral politics is a disastrous way to run a railroad. Any politicization of government tends to have immediate negative effects on its performance. As anyone who recalls Sir Humphrey can testify, the permanent government has the motive, the opportunity, and the propensity to exacerbate these effects, and so the cycle continues.

So this is what it means to be a democratic centrist: it means you support, cherish and revel in your loyalty to a permanent government which is immune to electoral politics. Like Mary's little lamb, you follow it wherever it goes. Because you are a centrist, you believe the decisions of this Beamtenstaat are scientific and objective, whereas really it is just a bunch of people playing their usual hominid power games.

And why is democratic centrism so popular? Because as in Russia, all the State has to do to persuade large numbers of young, energetic people to support it is to create a situation in which pro-government activists are more likely to succeed - professionally, socially, and financially. In Russia, its methods are conspiratorial, heavy-handed and crude. In the West, they are anything but. But perhaps this is a discussion for another week.

I hope everyone out there is having a happy Winterval. I suppose it behooves me to report that, last Thursday, Mrs. Moldbug and I went to City Hall and made it official. This is not really an excuse for the large pile of unanswered email that still towers oppressively over my inbox, or the large number of highly perspicacious comments that deserve a response. But perhaps it will serve as some sort of lame excuse.


Blogger Gerard said...

Leaving aside the central arguments of the essay, and moving to the pith at the end, I congratulate you.

I also recall the statement of Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy when Informed that his nephew was to be married, "That fool! Now he'll never sleep diagonally in his bed again!"

December 27, 2007 at 2:00 AM  
Anonymous Randy said...

Re; "So this is what it means to be a democratic centrist: it means you support, cherish and revel in your loyalty to a permanent government which is immune to electoral politics."

Wow! But it makes sense, and is certainly a better theory for explaining the observable facts than the theory of "we the people".

December 27, 2007 at 7:59 AM  
Blogger Bruce G Charlton said...

Congratulations and all best wishes to you and Mrs Moldbug.

Re: the analysis - this seems convincing *so far as it goes*. But by generating an analysis which applies to the past 200 years you leave out the sources of growth and dynamism which make modern times so profoundly different.

It is the dynamism of economic, scientific and technological growth that maintains modern democracies - and these have not much to do with either politics or the civil service - except in a negative kind of way. (ie. 'negative' in the sense that in the US, UK, etc. politicians and bureaucrats do not *prevent* economic growth, science and technology).

The surplus and hope generated by this kind of growth is probably a major reason why modern democracies are stable compared with past democracies.

Maybe democracy has some kind of negative role here, too? I mean a role in preventing politicians and bureaucrats from preventing growth?

December 27, 2007 at 11:42 AM  
Blogger chairmanK said...

Granted, I have never seen any breakfast cereal, personal hygiene product or mobile phone which managed to associate itself with democracy, but I'm sure it's not for lack of trying.

You haven't seen the advertisements for CREDO Mobile at all the bus stops in San Francisco?

December 27, 2007 at 12:12 PM  
Blogger Aaron Davies said...

Surely if it was any way to run a railroad, at least one railroad in history would have been run this way. Perhaps one of our readers is familiar with some such animal.

Not to reason from fictional evidence, but the last days of Taggart Transcontinental come to mind.

December 27, 2007 at 12:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Surely if it was any way to run a railroad, at least one railroad in history would have been run this way. Perhaps one of our readers is familiar with some such animal."

Polskie Koleje Państwowe

December 27, 2007 at 2:15 PM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...

Congratulations and best wishes to Mr. and Mrs. Moldbug!

Also, I would like to second anon in that almost all railroads in Eastern Europe are run by an unbridged tandem of politicians and bureaucrats.

In Russia, railroads are (and have always been) actually an arm of the government.

December 27, 2007 at 2:23 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

Congratulations on getting hitched.

I'm confused because while you obviously don't like democracy, you seem to dislike unelected officialdom (NGOs, gov bureaucrats, the New York Times) just as much. I suspect what you really dislike is the hypocrisy or non-transparentness of the power relationships; the fact that we pretend to be a democracy while actually being some kind of mandarinate. While hypocrisy might be deplorable, it doesn't strike me as sufficient grounds for revolution.

I am deeply amused that anyone could look at the current state of US politics and conclude that the problem is that the executive has too little power.

Because you are a centrist, you believe the decisions of this Beamtenstaat are scientific and objective, whereas really it is just a bunch of people playing their usual hominid power games.

This whole argument seems like a strawman. Everybody everywhere argues as if their position is objectively supported, and everybody everywhere is involved in hominid power games. I can't see that our mandarinate is any more or less deluded than any ruling class anywhere else. Those who serve power serve power. The smart ones know what they are doing and the dumb ones don't. Twas ever thus. The divine right of kings has been replaced by the divinity of the Constitution and a largely imaginary set of democratic principles. Both do the same job, both are useful myths that keep the wheels of society spinning. Nobody has yet managed to have a society without some sort of ruling mythos, so if we have to have one, the democratic one seems much more suitable for the times. If the Russians are sticking to personality cults, well, we'll have to see how well it works out, but it feels so very last century.

December 27, 2007 at 4:14 PM  
Anonymous icr said...

A contemporary example of uni-speak as dismayingly crude as FDR's speech? I "like" this. Apparently sincere though, not patently mendacious like FDR's spiel.

December 27, 2007 at 4:37 PM  
Blogger Victor said...

mencius, dude, this was an awesome post -- mean, vicious, and to the point. Straight for the jugular. it reminded me why I come here.

You are totally wrong of course :), but this was nonetheless very, very good.

BTW, congrats on tying the knot. Any plans for mini-neocameralists?

December 27, 2007 at 7:37 PM  
Blogger Studd Beefpile said...

First, you brutalize Madison, but his aims were the same as yours are, to construct a system that would disincentivise tyranny. Objectively you can say that he failed, but compared to how the rest of the world has done over the last 200 years, he was a stunning success. This relative success and the massive general improvement in the human condition over the last 200 years (at least in the developed world) is too significant for you to simply handwave away.

Second You seem to wobble between support for the notion of non-political government and blaming much of our current woe on the increasingly apolitical nature of the current system. Some of this discrepency is explainable by a formalist critique (the system is bad because it is informal, not inherently flawed) but not all. Clarification would be appreciated.

December 27, 2007 at 8:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's right mtraven, it's a strawman for moldbug to say that "democratic principles" and "objectivity in government" are myths, but when you say it, it's totally correct.

December 27, 2007 at 9:30 PM  
Anonymous icr said...

Aside from Ron Paul and his (non-WN) followers there is noone to be found who has that old-fashioned 19th Century belief in the Constitution-although there was still a fair amount of it around in the Fifties and Sixties. Since the days of the Sixties Cultural Revolution the national myths have become increasingly creaky and few non-politicians can speak with them with a straight
face. I don't think the masses are being fooled so much as being rendered indifferent and apathetic.

What keeps society going are the Anglo-Saxon institutions(assumed by the majority of the population to be just part of the natural environment) created by the old evil, racist America and the hunger for more and more consumer goods. And enough high-IQ and medium-IQ people to keep the machinery running.

I thought all the above was pretty obvious, but maybe I was wrong.

December 28, 2007 at 4:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am deeply amused that anyone could look at the current state of US politics and conclude that the problem is that the executive has too little power.

I am deeply amused that anyone thinks the current occupants of the Executive Branch have too much power. Compare what they have said they want to do with what they've actually done, and tell me again how much power they have? How many times has the unelected bureaucracy openly defied their ostensible masters in the Executive Branch, and suffered no meaningful punishment as a result? How many times have journalists and the judiciary poked their finger in the Executive's eye?

The press, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy are clearly more powerful than the Executive. The idea that the Executive has unbridled power and seeks more is simply the propaganda line that the former groups advance in order to justify their defiance and prevent the Executive from increasing the small amount of real power that it actually has.

December 28, 2007 at 9:01 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

On "brutalizing Madison" - it has always seemed to me that the Federalist is best understood as a series of failed prophecies, scarcely less embarrassing than the "Great Disappointment) (the Revd. William Miller's prediction of Christ's second coming on Oct. 22, 1844). The Antifederalists had a far better understanding of how badly the new Constitution would turn out.

December 28, 2007 at 10:27 AM  
Blogger mtraven said...

I am deeply amused that anyone thinks the current occupants of the Executive Branch have too much power. Compare what they have said they want to do with what they've actually done, and tell me again how much power they have?
Well, let's see...they started a trillion-dollar failed war, suspended habeus corpus, legitimized the use of torture, decided that they had the freedom to unilaterally alter the meaning of legislation, all without any significant pushback from congress or anyone else...that's just off the top of my head. So, what exactly are the grand things they would be accomplishing if they had more power?

How many times have journalists and the judiciary poked their finger in the Executive's eye?
So, just to be clear, you would rather live under a system with no independent judiciary or press? You prefer an executive with absolute and unbridled power? You'd prefer that "poking the Executive in the eye" be a criminal offense? You'd prefer fewer rights than you have now? Fascinating.

December 28, 2007 at 11:58 AM  
Blogger Studd Beefpile said...

Well, let's see...they started a trillion-dollar failed war, suspended habeus corpus, legitimized the use of torture, decided that they had the freedom to unilaterally alter the meaning of legislation, all without any significant pushback from congress or anyone else...that's just off the top of my head. So, what exactly are the grand things they would be accomplishing if they had more power?

We must distinguish between the executive branch, and the person of the executive, the president. The executive branch clearly has too much power, but within the branch, the president clearly has too little. The whole thing is so huge and unwieldy that no one can properly control it, so it mostly functions on autopilot. Events like Iraq are rare exceptions. In fact, Bush ought to go down as a singularly inept for completely failing to take significant advantage of the power he was given after 9/11. Other than Iraq, every other thing he has changed has been decidedly minor.

December 28, 2007 at 5:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reasonable people can disagree on the subject, and will always be able to.

always? even as 'unreasonable' people weed themselves out...

December 29, 2007 at 8:27 AM  
Blogger drank said...

MM, I find the rant about policy analysis to be pretty similar to your rant about Bayesian statistics. In both cases, you've identified a useful tool of human knowledge, observed that your ideological enemies sometime use this tool, and then condemned the tool. Needless to say, this is bizarre. Should the glorious Formalist revolution succeed, how exactly do you expect your hypothesized professional managers to make decisions about SovCorp policies, to anticipate the likely consequences of their actions, or to choose between two competing proposals? Will they consult the entrails of a goat?

As to the "centrism" issue, I think a good definition would be "the set of political beliefs that a member of the ruling class may hold". That makes it obvious that the center is going to move over time, and that we shouldn't expect to find a similar center in 2007 as in 1907. You rehearse the "ratchet effect", which is a pretty common argument, but in the last 30 years, the contents of this set have not changed monotonically. In a large number of areas (but not all), the political center today is substantially more conservative than it was in 1977. I don't see any reason to reach your conclusions that this set must either be a Panglossian set, or otherwise some slight-of-hand to mask the New York Times' preferred policies. It's just the set that we happen to have at the present time after a random walk through political history.

As an aside, one of the entertaining aspects of Ron Paul's candidacy is that he holds a great many opinions that are not in the "centrist set", but has raised enough money that the ruling class is forced to interact with him. This makes for great fun, as in his interview with Tim Russert.

As for the rest of the article, it's certainly fun to fisk FDR and Madison, but if I were given the choice between Neo-Madisonianism (i.e. a new constitution on roughly Madisonian lines) and Neo-Cameralism, I'd pick the former.

Madison was not the woolly-headed Panglossian that you describe. Let's take a look at the most critical point, from Federalist 51:
It is equally evident, that the members of each department should be as little dependent as possible on those of the others ... the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. ... Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.

In other words, the guarantee of my liberty is that the various parts of government will be too busy fighting each other to have much time to mess with my life. Obviously this has broken down in the US today, but then, one of Madison's main power blocs - the state governments - has been completely removed from the equation. You can imagine that a Neo-Madisonian might start with exactly the power centers you've identified as the Polygon: the media, the universities, the permanent bureaucracy, the NGOs, etc. and set up structures that force them to compete rather than collude for power.

Congratulations and best wishes to you and Mrs. Moldbug!

December 29, 2007 at 10:13 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

Studd Beefpile's distinction between the power of the executive branch and the personal power of the chief executive is a crucial one.

The 'alphabet agencies' (SEC, FDA, FTC, IRS, CPSC, ATFE, etc.) are nominally divisions of the executive branch, but in practice are beyond the chief executive's control. He may, with consent of the Senate, appoint a new member to a commission when there is a vacant seat. In most cases he is constrained by the provisions establishing the commission to preserve 'partisan balance' through the requirement that there be equal or nearly equal numbers of nominal Republicans and Democrats as commissioners.

We would do well to view these bodies as constituting a fourth branch of government that combines the functions of executive, legislative, and judicial branches. They arose because of the laziness of Congress in doing its task. Congress delegated to them the duty of writing regulations that deal in detail with those matters Congress wishes to legislate only in general fashion. In effect any of these agencies can legislate merely by publishing a proposed regulation in the Federal Register. After a specified comment period - in which affected parties are supposed to be able to have the ability to object or suggest changes - the final regulation is promulgated. Once this essentially legislative task is accomplished, the agency has authority to enforce it - i.e., executive power. Finally, it may bring challenges to the enforcement action before its own administrative tribunals (often before several levels of them) before appeal to the Federal court system is permitted (the Internal Revenue Service is an example). In some cases the agencies can levy fines and penalties, which they may be able to keep rather than returning to the Treasury. These funds are available for use at the agency's discretion, above and beyond funds appropriated to it by Congress. Such a provision creates an incentive on the part of the agency to use its power to levy penalties as a method of obtaining funding, in effect giving them taxing authority in all but name.

It might be useful to discuss the ways in which abdication of responsibility (rather than actual abdication of one's post) can bring about - has brought about - significant alterations in a system of government. We may, for example, trace the origin of the present British system of government, in which the prime minister is the head of government and the head of the party that has a majority in the House of Commons, to the time of Walpole. There were prime ministers, of course, before this; but they were typically favorites of the ruling monarch, as (for example) the duke of Buckingham was in the reign of James I.

Personal rule on the part of the monarch was in conflict throughout the seventeenth century with the privileges of parliament and the independence of the judiciary. It was still very much alive in the day of Queen Anne, who was the last British monarch to employ the royal veto. Why did this cease? Why did no later monarch veto a bill, and how did the Walpole system (which is effectively still that under which Britain is governed) come into effect?

The reason for all of this was the succession to the throne of the elector of Hanover, as George I. George spoke no English and was primarily concerned with his continental affairs, centering around Hanover (in which he was an absolute monarch). He was happy to leave the task of running Britain to someone like Walpole, in the same way the owner of a great landed estate might leave the running of his household up to the butler, and that of managing his tenants to an energetic steward or factor - concerning himself only with those matters that impinged directly on his own comfort or convenience. This policy continued under his successor, George II, whose command of English was very limited and who was similarly inclined to abdicate his responsibility as a ruler to his servants.

By the time of the succession of George III, the first of the Guelphic tribe to be born in England, the monarch's ability to engage in personal rule had atrophied to a point where sustaining a royal veto (for example) would have brought about constitutional crisis. George's own propensity to mental derangement, and the proflicacy and sloth of his son the prince regent (later George IV) served further to aggravate this decline in royal power. British monarch hence reigned, but did not rule.

It is not difficult to see that our elected politicians - whether in Congress or the White House - have increasingly become like the house of Hanover, or like the Merovingian rois fainéants, who similarly abandoned power to their mayors of the palace. The modern day equivalents of Pippin the Short or Sir Robert Walpole are the bureaucrats who run the Federal government from day to day, and the Federal judiciary - equally un-answerable to the Will of the People that is supposed to prevail in our supposed democracy.

This suits the elected politicoes just fine, morevover. The last thing any elected official wants to do is to take an unpopular decision. Such people would much rather campaign, a job they know better how to do in any event. This is why we hear so many campaign promises that have no prayer of ever being realized. Politicians know they will never (for example) substitute a national sales tax for income taxation, will never arrest and expel all the illegal aliens, will never have the ideal cradle-to-grave system of 'free' medical care they propose, will never be able to withdraw all U.S. troops from Irag by a date certain, etc., etc. These things will be prevented either by judicial or bureaucratic imperative, or a combination of the two. And when their proposals amount to nothing for such reasons, they will shrug their shoulders and say they tried, and people will continue to vote them into positions in which they can enjoy large incomes and public honors - which is what they really want from public office, after all, and not the messy and difficult tasks of actual government.

December 29, 2007 at 1:28 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

The executive branch clearly has too much power, but within the branch, the president clearly has too little.
How much would be enough?

December 29, 2007 at 6:37 PM  
Anonymous icr said...

In a large number of areas (but not all), the political center today is substantially more conservative than it was in 1977.

What areas are those? My guess is that you referring to typically conservative goals that coincide with the goals of globalism like deregulation and "free trade". And-to be fair- "tough on crime" and pro-Second Amendment sentiments are higher than they were then. Oh- and we finally did get Welfare Reform, the only serious acomplishment of the GOP reign in Congress.

Did I miss something?

December 29, 2007 at 6:44 PM  
Anonymous icr said...

Sorry, that was "drank" I was quoting from.

December 29, 2007 at 6:48 PM  
Blogger drank said...

icr said: What areas are those?

I was thinking of both cultural and economic issues. You mentioned law & order and gun rights. I'd also think of the death penalty, the war on drugs, the pro-life movement, etc.

And of course, in the 70's, we had wage & price controls in various parts of the economy, direct regulation of a number of industries, less free trade, higher tax rates, and so forth.

I don't want to say that there's been no movement towards the Polygon's preferred policies in the last 30 years - environmentalism and global warming is one big counterexample - just that the vector has not been 100% in that direction.

December 29, 2007 at 7:10 PM  
Blogger Studd Beefpile said...

How much would be enough?

In theory, the same level of authority that a competent CEO exercises over his company. In practice, I would settle for the president to be able to fire employees as he wishes, a power explicitly granted to him in the constitution.

December 30, 2007 at 2:46 AM  
Blogger mtraven said...

In theory, the same level of authority that a competent CEO exercises over his company. In practice, I would settle for the president to be able to fire employees as he wishes...
If the country were a corporation, this might make sense. Since it isn't, it doesn't. The civil service was instituted precisely because this particular power was prone to abuse. If your goal, like Moldbug's, is to eliminate or reduce the conflicts of politics, you'd have to remove the president from politics before giving him more power to dole out spoils to his supporters. Otherwise you are just fanning the flames.

December 30, 2007 at 7:47 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

For some reason this comes to mind:

..large-scale machine industry... calls for absolute and strict unity of will, which directs the joint labors of hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of people.... But how can strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one.... We must learn to combat the public-meeting democracy of the working people--turbulent, surging, overflowing its banks like a spring flood--with iron discipline while at work, unquestioning obedience to the will of a single person, the Soviet leader...
--- V. I. Lenin, Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government

December 31, 2007 at 12:29 AM  
Blogger Studd Beefpile said...

If the country were a corporation, this might make sense. Since it isn't, it doesn't. The civil service was instituted precisely because this particular power was prone to abuse. If your goal, like Moldbug's, is to eliminate or reduce the conflicts of politics, you'd have to remove the president from politics before giving him more power to dole out spoils to his supporters. Otherwise you are just fanning the flames.

The country isn't a company, but the federal government basically is, and the current situation where the employees are basically unfireable is insane. Public employee unions are even more insane, particularly here in California, where they basically run the state. Besides, there already exists essentially infinte opportunities to dole out patronage.

I don't want to have a Dear Leader, but if we're going to go through all the trouble of electing them, I would prefer if they could actually change things. Will these changes be good? Most of them probably won't be, but some of them will, and the current system of infinite inertia is garrunteed to fail.

December 31, 2007 at 3:13 PM  
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November 6, 2008 at 5:35 PM  
Blogger 信次 said...

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January 31, 2009 at 10:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


March 6, 2009 at 6:51 AM  

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