Against political freedom
I am quite sure there are still some UR readers who believe in democracy.
(I am supposed to be a generalist, and it hasn’t escaped my notice that I’ve been concentrating excessively on this particular spot on the piñata. It is a tough one and it may take a couple more whacks. Then we will move on to more fun stuff. If you already feel convinced, if you are ready to open the window, stick your head out and yell like Peter Finch in Network (in your scream, please be sure to include the full URL—if you just howl “UR!”, they are unlikely to understand you), you have done enough and you can skip this one.)
Let’s call anyone who believes in democracy a demotist. A demotist is just anyone who has a positive association with the compound of demos and kratos. He or she thinks that democracy in general, if not necessarily every specific use to which this vague and ancient term has ever attached itself, is basically a good thing.
Presumably then an antidemotist would be one who disbelieved in democracy, who thought that democracy in general is basically a bad thing. An antidemotist might use the word demotist in much the way some demotists seem to call anything they don’t like fascist.
Can you imagine a 21st-century post-demotist society? One that saw itself as recovering from democracy, much as Eastern Europe sees itself as recovering from Communism? Well, I suppose that makes one of us.
The obvious problem for any would-be antidemotist is to explain the 20th century, in which Universalist liberal democracy fought and defeated Fascism and Communism. (See my last post.) Unless you are a Nazi or a Communist, you have to explain how democracy can be bad, yet the victory of democracy over non-democracy can be good.
As I’ve explained, my answer is that all three of these contenders were shoots from the branch of the 19th-century democratic movement. All revered the People, all devised a doctrine by which the State represents, symbolizes, or is otherwise identified with the People, and all attributed great importance to public opinion and went to great lengths to manage it.
To borrow the cladistic method of biological taxonomy, just as a human, a gorilla and a chimpanzee are equally related (or unrelated) to a baboon, Universalism, Fascism and Communism are equally related (or unrelated) to monarchism. Just as a human may find the gorilla and chimpanzee vaguely baboonlike, a Universalist is likely to think of Fascist or Communist dictatorships as somehow monarchy-like. But to a baboon, an ape is an ape, and biology supports his claim.
The baboon, therefore, is perfectly within his right in generalizing across the whole ape clade. He notes the general tendency of apes to slaughter, dismember, and otherwise abuse baboons. That not all apes are bad apes he will cheerfully admit. Indeed he’s very interested in knowing how to tell a good ape from a bad ape. But the general proposition that apes are dangerous and scary strikes him as quite uncontroversial.
I am neither a baboon nor a monarchist.1 However, when we look at the astounding violence of the democratic era, it strikes me as quite defensible to simply write off the whole idea as a disaster, and focus on correcting the many faults of monarchism. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine how the Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Holocaust, etc., could have occurred in a world where the Stuarts, Bourbons, Hohenzollerns, Hapsburgs and Romanovs still reigned and ruled. The royal families of old Europe had their squabbles, but conscription, total war and mass murder were not in their playbooks.
So let me coin another name for formalism, and call it neocameralism. The word is mainly picked for its Google virginity, but it should also be reminiscent of cameralism, the governing philosophy of Frederick the Great, whose Anti-Machiavel is good reading for anyone wondering what went wrong in the 19th and 20th centuries. (Of course, if you’re a demotist, maybe you don’t think anything went wrong at all.)
The basic insight of cameralism was that well-governed states tended to be prosperous. This was associated with a variety of primitive economic theories, such as mercantilism, which are probably best discarded.2 And cameralism was of course associated with monarchism, whose biological vagaries are infamous. A family business is a great idea if your business is a corner store or an auto-body shop. If you have a continent to run, you want professionals.
To a neocameralist, a state is a business which owns a country. A state should be managed, like any other large business, by dividing logical ownership into negotiable shares, each of which yields a precise fraction of the state’s profit. (A well-run state is very profitable.) Each share has one vote, and the shareholders elect a board, which hires and fires managers.
This business’s customers are its residents. A profitably-managed neocameralist state will, like any business, serve its customers efficiently and effectively. Misgovernment equals mismanagement.
For example, a neocameralist state will work hard to keep any promise it makes to its residents. Not because some even more powerful authority forces it to, but because it is very pleasant and reassuring to live in a country where the government can be trusted, and it is scary and awful to live in a country where it can’t. Since trust once broken takes a long time to rebuild, a state that breaks its own laws has just given its capital a substantial haircut. Its stock is almost certain to go down.
Suppose, for example, that our neocameralist state raises all its revenue with a property tax, à la Henry George. One easy way to run a property-tax regime is a self-assessment registry: every real-estate owner lists and updates a reserve price for every property, and anyone can buy at this price. If owners set the price too high, they will pay too much tax. If they set it too low, their property will be snapped up. This system is trivial to administer, its Laffer curve should be easy to map, and the curve’s peak should be quite high.
It’s easy to value this single-tax state as an enterprise. The value of the corporation is a function of its tax rate and the total value of its real estate. Assuming tax rates are fixed by contract, the neocameralist state’s incentive is simply to maximize property prices. Any policy that would make it a less pleasant place to live or work is clearly contraindicated.
Imagining, therefore, that Hohenzollern Prussia had somehow failed to degenerate into quasi-democratic nationalist militarism, but instead had listed shares in London—or imagining that 21st-century Singapore, Dubai or Hong Kong could somehow do an IPO—we can examine the demotist period from our safe, if imaginary, neocameralist future.
Clearly, the worst forms of demotism, the really bad apes, were the totalitarian systems—fascism and communism. The main difference between fascism and communism was not in mechanism, but in origin—fascist elites tended to be militarist, communist elites intellectual. But the one-party state is a clear case of convergent evolution.
To a neocameralist, totalitarianism is democracy in its full-blown, most malignant form. Democracy doesn’t always deteriorate into totalitarianism, and lighting up at the gas pump doesn’t always engulf you in a ball of fire. Many people with cancer live a long time or die of something else instead. This doesn’t mean you should smoke half of Virginia before lunch.
A political party is a political party. It is a large group of people allied for the purpose of seizing and wielding power. If it does not choose to arm its followers, this is only because it finds unarmed followers more useful than armed ones. If it chooses less effective strategies out of moral compunction, it will be outcompeted by some less-principled party.
When one party gains full control over the state, it gains a massive revenue stream that it can divert entirely to its supporters. The result is a classic informal management structure, whose workings should be clear to anyone who watched a few episodes of The Sopranos. Without a formal ownership structure, in which the entire profit of the whole enterprise is collected and distributed centrally, money and other goodies leak from every pore.
Totalitarian states are gangster states, in other words, and they tend to corruption and mismanagement. The personality cult of dictatorship is quite misleading—a totalitarian dictator has little in common with a neocameralist CEO, or even a cameralist monarch.
The difference is the management structure. The CEO and the monarch owe their positions to a law which all can obey, and those who choose to obey the law are naturally a winning coalition against those who choose to break it. The dictator’s position is the result of his primacy in a pyramid of criminals. This structure is naturally unstable. There is always some other gangster who wants your job. Dictators, like Mafia chiefs, are not good at dying in bed.
The internal and external violence typical of totalitarian states is best explained, I think, by this built-in mismanagement. Dictators are violent because they have to be—they use violence as an organizing principle. The totalitarian state has no principle of legitimacy that would render it impractical for an ambitious subordinate to capture the state with a coup. European monarchs made war, sometimes they were assassinated, and there were even succession struggles, but coups in the modern sense were very rare.
Note that the financial logic which keeps the neocameralist state lawful does not apply in any way to the totalitarian state, because the latter does not have a stable management structure which is controlled by its shareholders. Lawlessness is not profitable for the state as a whole, but it may be quite profitable for the part that chooses lawlessness, and in the totalitarian state no one is counting as a whole.
Similarly, only shareholder control gives the neocameralist state an incentive to remain small and efficient. The totalitarian state has an incentive to become large and inefficient, because every functionary has an incentive to expand his or her own department, and no bean-counter who demands that the department do more with less.
In a totalitarian state, since no gangster is permanently safe from any other gangster, there is a strong incentive for anyone with power to take what he can, while he can. And there is no disincentive for him to avoid abusing a resource which neither he nor his allies benefit from. Under gangster management, the totalitarian states often engaged not only in mass murder, but mass murder of their most economically productive citizens.
It may seem odd that a two-party state would be so much better than a one-party state. But it actually makes a great deal of sense.
Two-party or multiparty states succeed because none of the parties can redirect state revenue openly to its own pocket. They have an incentive to compromise, and they often compromise on something like professional management. The result, although still afflicted by factional tension, may approach something like the rule of law.
Unfortunately, two-party states have a number of paths by which they can degenerate into one-party states. For example, one party might use the power of government to marginalize and destroy its competitors. But this is by no means the only possible disaster.
Perhaps the greatest danger is that partylike structures form in civil-service departments that are nominally nonpartisan. If you think of Western journalists as a political party, for example, you notice that they fit the description quite well. Certainly their training is very much along the lines of cadre indoctrination. I’d argue that the entire Polygon is essentially an embryonic one-party state, although in the United States at least, it still has to be moderate in its attacks on the old political system. Nonetheless, the outlines of a “post-partisan” state are becoming clear, especially in Europe, and it is not neocameralist in the slightest.
All of this is easy to say. However, all of us grew up knowing that democracy is the best of all possible systems of government, and it takes a large stack of reasonable reasons before this deep fondness will even begin to buckle. So let me take another whack while the piñata is still swinging, and attack the idea of “political freedom.”
Political freedom is the freedom to engage in acts whose purpose is not direct satisfaction, but indirect satisfaction obtained by influencing government policy. When you vote, demonstrate, print underground leaflets, etc., you are engaged in acts of political freedom. You do these things only because you believe they have some political effect.
Personal freedom is the freedom to engage in all other acts that satisfy you directly, and that do not infringe the rights of others. For example, the other day I quoted Navrozov quoting Hobbes, who lists the following personal freedoms:
to buy, and sell, and otherwise contract with one another; to choose their own abode, their own diet, their own trade of life, and institute their children as they themselves think fit; and the like.
Note that democracies tend to do a rather poor job of respecting these Hobbesian liberties. The only two that are customarily still respected are abode and trade of life—the Universalist democracies, at least, do not assign their citizens housing or jobs. They are massively obsessed with the regulation of buying, selling, and contracting, they manage enormous programs of official education, and they are not without their dietary laws.
Furthermore, there are some rather obvious candidates for “the like” in a modern society. For example, one might have freedom of medicine—absolute ownership of your own body, and the right to choose what experts help you maintain it, or what chemicals, devices, or procedures they may employ. Or freedom of association—the absolute right to choose who you work and play with, when and why. Or freedom of finance—the absolute right to manage your own property and dispose of it as you see fit.
If a neocameralist state has any reason to infringe its customers’ freedoms in any of these areas, I cannot imagine what it might be. Whereas our democratic governments are constantly infringing them in almost every way imaginable, for reasons that seem to be rooted simply in the production and maintenance of official employment.
Of course, if you have political freedom, you can use it to agitate for personal freedom. Thus, the demotist catechism goes, political freedom is actually the most important sort of freedom, because if you have political freedom and enough people agree with you, you can get anything—including personal freedom. And if you can’t convince the People, well, you were probably wrong in the first place.
And political freedom can also get you other goodies. Such as, for example, a share of this delicious revenue stream that the State is constantly producing. Or various benefits purchased with such.
Perhaps I’m not presenting the case for political freedom eloquently enough, because these arguments strike me as very poor. If politics is good because you can use it to achieve personal freedom, this is not a case for politics over other methods, which seem much more effective, of producing personal freedom.
And the use of politics to benefit yourself is simply lawless extortion. Here we see the essentially paramilitary nature of democracy. When you use power to monopolize some scarce resource, in the absence of a law that assigns an owner to that resource, you are inevitably struggling against others who will use power themselves. This may be extremely limited war, but it is war nonetheless.
On the border between personal and political freedom are freedoms such as freedom of the press, which can be defined as personal freedoms, but which as such affect relatively few people in a relatively minor way. Not many people are intellectuals who like to write for the public—there are probably more windsurfers, for example, in the world. Banning windsurfing would be a personal cost to those that like to windsurf, but not so much to anyone else.
Of course, infringing the freedom of the press harms the freedom of those who like to read—a much larger group, if still hardly the majority. But suppose the freedom of the press is infringed only on political subjects? Or only trivial subjects? For example, suppose it’s illegal to insult the King, as it is in Thailand?
When I compare freedom of medicine, for example, to freedom of political publishing, I can’t help but feel that the former is much more important. Am I crazy? Perhaps I am crazy. If so, perhaps someone will write in and tell me.
The issue arises, you see, because of the existence of vaguely quasi-neocameralist states such as Singapore and Dubai. I linked earlier to this discussion on a very orthodox Universalist blog (Unfogged) of Singapore—it’s interesting how Universalists can maintain their convictions even while living in a place whose very existence contradicts them. The contradiction becomes just another proof of faith. Yet another case of Auster’s unprincipled exception, I suppose.
Singapore and Dubai are not neocameralist paradises. They are certainly very well-managed in most senses, but they are also extremely conscious of living in a political world. Singapore in particular emerged out of very nasty postcolonial street politics—the ruling party is still called the People’s Action Party. I really cannot think of a more terrifying name.
And so Singapore in particular works very hard, and very famously, to suppress politics and political freedom. My understanding—perhaps someone can correct me—is that almost everyone in Singapore has no interest at all in antigovernment politics, that people really are genuinely happy to simply think about their own lives.
But for a Singaporean to be involved in antigovernment politics has roughly the same result that involvement in racist or other extremist politics has for an American. It is simply politically incorrect in Singapore to say bad things about the government, much as it’s politically incorrect here to say bad things about protected minorities. At least it’s a social faux pas, at most it might cost you your job.
I find it difficult, of course, to endorse political correctness. This is because I’m an intellectual and I have trouble keeping my mouth shut. I have enough trouble with the American version of the doctrine.
But I agree with Hobbes on one thing: a government is not a government unless it takes all necessary steps to preserve itself. It is not physically feasible to arrest and prosecute every soldier of an invading army. The same applies for domestic “militant” movements as well. A state that does not have the power to ban political organizations is leaving itself open to linked political-military movements, such as Sinn Fein and the IRA—an open invitation for every political party to grow a paramilitary wing. In Weimar Germany, even the Social Democrats had their own equivalent of the SA.
If we regard suspension of political freedom in this light, Singapore is simply protecting itself from the ravages of democracy—which has certainly afflicted it in recent memory. It’s hard to fault the People’s Action Party for this. But I wish there was a better modern example of Bismarck’s dictum with regard to the press: “They say what they want, I do what I want.”
In my ideal neocameralist state, there is no political freedom because there is no politics. Perhaps the government has a comment box where you can express your opinion. Perhaps it does customer surveys and even polls. But there is no organization and no reason to organize, because no combination of residents can influence government policy by coercion.
And precisely because of this stability, you can think, say, or write whatever you want. Because the state has no reason to care. Your freedom of thought, speech, and expression is no longer a political freedom. It is only a personal freedom.
2. Moldbug later revised his position on mercantilism; as he puts it in “Sam Altman is not a blithering idiot”:
But really I’m a mercantilist, and everything I know about economics I learned by reading Friedrich List. Well, him and Mises. Odd bedfellows I know. But I really believe there is nothing in (to use its old name) political economy which is outside the philosophy of these two fine Teutonic gentlemen, opposites though they were.