Further conversation on regime change

Beyond the obvious scourge of spam, which Blogger seems to have preserved us from so far, there are a number of ways to moderate a comments section.

For example, by far the most heinous is the “voice of God” UI deployed by such sites as RealClimate, in which the authorities answer the comment quite directly—by simply editing it and installing their response in brackets. (I should not even mention RealClimate without noting that it’s brought to us by the generosity of Environmental Media Services, aka Fenton Communications. On the Web, nobody may know you’re a dog, but it’s never hard to tell who’s a Party organ.) RealClimate has developed quite a reputation for simply deleting technical questions that they can’t knock out of the park, creating a wonderful impression of omniscience. Needless to say, if I could get away with this, I wouldn’t need to blog—I could simply issue orders.

I thought it would be fun to try a new approach, in which I stay out of the comments section and instead respond on the main stage. This is only possible because of the continuing high quality of UR’s comment brigade. You can help to maintain this delicate, ephemeral state of affairs, dear reader, by sharing this URL only with friends who are at least as intelligent and perceptive as yourself.

Let’s try this approach on this week’s post, which received many excellent comments, of a generally critical nature. UR is not, despite all appearances, a cult, and my gratitude to those who care enough to disagree cannot be repeated too often. Of course, if you do agree, I admire your foresight and wisdom. But please don’t expect me to spend too much time praising it.

Gojomo writes:

The diagnosis of systematic dishonesty is sound. The implied prescription remains suspect. For example, I find this suggestion fantastical:

Since I believe in separation of information and state, I believe it’s very easy for a government to avoid any implication in pseudohistory or pseudoscience. It can simply refuse to care what its citizens think, and separate itself from any activity that would involve the construction or propagation of “official truth.”

Governments don’t engage in propaganda because that’s the *hardest* way to retain ‘sovereignty’, but because it’s the easiest. A government could be honest, invest heavily in police/military, and face wealth-destroying resentment and occasional violent resistance from various organized idealists (who, historically, kill even in futile efforts). Or, a government could divert some of that ‘strongman’ budget into opinion-control and get an excellent ROI: fewer police/soldiers required, more cheerful compliance by coopted idealists, and less wealth-limiting negative-sum conflict. Lying by rulers is adaptive: cheaper and more effective than the alternative.

This position has much to recommend it and is historically associated with the Straussians.

Moreover, we can see easily how it leads directly to democracy. If convincing one’s subjects that your regime is governing in their interest, that it exists only to serve the People, is the pons asinorum of effective government, then a regime that does not enjoy popular support is doomed to fall and should probably receive a gentle shove. Democracy formalizes this process and thus makes it healthier.

The only weak link in the above is this judgment:

Governments don’t engage in propaganda because that’s the *hardest* way to retain ‘sovereignty’, but because it’s the easiest.

This may well be true, but it’s a military judgment. It is not an observation drawn from human nature, which is relatively constant across history. It is an observation of military reality as it is today, which seems to correlate reasonably well with the real problem of state security in the last two or three centuries.

Military judgments change as military realities change. Military realities change as military technology changes. It is hard to know what people will invent in future. But let’s try and reexamine this judgment with respect to the technical reality of 2007.

One: the difficulty of crowd control is vastly overrated. First, as the example of China demonstrates so well, the historicist assumption that any regime which orders its troops to fire on a mob has lost the Mandate of Heaven and is doomed, is questionable at best. This assumption is deeply intertwined with the mystical logic of democracy. Every democracy on earth has its martyrdom legend, in which a mob of its revolutionary supporters was fired on. If we’re looking for democratic pseudohistory, we need look no further.

In fact, the military advantage of soldiers over rioters has been increasing steadily for the last two hundred years, and continues to do so. “Investing heavily” is not required. A few loyal units with crew-served weapons and an adequate ammunition supply can defeat any mob. Furthermore, nonlethal crowd control technology continues to advance.

Two: the real problem with effective crowd control is maintaining the loyalty of the military. The subject is covered quite well in Professor Luttwak’s wonderful Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook. Given the advantage of military over nonmilitary forces, whoever controls the army controls the government.

In the past, ensuring military loyalty was a tricky and human problem, with no easy solution. For example, foreign mercenaries are more likely to be effective in crowd control. They are also more likely to turn on you and capture your state. At Tiananmen the PLA used forces from remote parts of China who felt relatively little personal sympathy for the students of Beijing, a very effective approach, but not one which is always available.

One way to describe the importance of popular support to military loyalty, despite the almost complete military irrelevance of unarmed forces, is to see control of the military as a coordination game and public opinion as its Schelling point. Military loyalty is a coordination game because, in a situation of conflicted military loyalty, the personal advantage of siding with the winning team is likely to be considerable.

However, 21st-century technology has made—or at least should make—this problem obsolete. The solution is to supplement personal loyalty with cryptographic weapon locks, as used today on nuclear weapons. In the world of modern networking, there is no reason at all why this approach cannot extend all the way down to small arms. When lawful authority is married to digital security, as it is today with the nuclear football, coups become impossible. Loyal forces will find that their weapons operate. Disloyal units might as well be wielding Super Soakers.

And, again, once military loyalty is assured, crowd control is a trivial problem. The era of mob rule is over. It just doesn’t know it yet.

Three: perhaps most important, propaganda (pseudohistory and pseudoscience) is an epiphenomenon of 19C and 20C information technology, which gave strong advantages to broadcast designs. Broadcast propaganda works. For almost the first three decades of my life, I was completely confident that the New York Times was presenting me with a complete and generally accurate perspective of reality. D’oh.

Pseudohistory and pseudoscience, when forced to confront reason on a level playing field, tend to lose. At least, they lose in the minds of reasonable and intelligent people. And, on a level playing field, it’s not too hard for reasonable and intelligent people to identify each other—and act effectively and collectively. Worse, the outcome has very little relationship to the mass of force deployed. A few reasonable people can defeat a giant horde of brainwashed flacks. The latter, again, might as well be armed with Super Soakers.

If you accept the proposition (which I’ve only just begun trying to demonstrate) that pseudohistory and pseudoscience are widespread in the present Western institutions of education and journalism, the appearance of a level playing field—peer-to-peer packet networking, aka this little thing called “the Internet”—creates an impressive disequilibrium.

It’s possible to unlevel the field by filtering the Internet. But effective Internet filtering is not easy. Worse, the success of pseudohistory and pseudoscience is not just the result of the fact that it’s easy to filter broadcast information systems. It’s the result of the fact that it’s easy to create subtly filtered broadcast information systems, which don’t appear to be in the business of managing public opinion on behalf of the security forces, but in fact are doing just that.

This level of plausible deniability is simply unachievable on the Internet. I can’t imagine how it could possibly be done. Therefore, my conclusion is that, if 20th-century Western information systems are indeed contaminated with pseudohistory and/or pseudoscience, the disequilibrium is unsustainable, and regime change in the medium term is inevitable.

JewishAtheist writes:

Therefore, my reboot test is that a government should be rebooted if it systematically and successfully promotes essential pseudoscience or pseudohistory.

I cannot believe any government on Earth could pass this test. We’d be rebooting more often than Windows 95.

Nor do I see why it should be grounds for rebooting. The only justification I see in this post is “I simply see no reason at all to tolerate this kind of crap.” I’m not sure that qualifies. :-)

Also, it appears to me that in order to affect a reboot, it would be necessary to convince a majority of the population that the government had engaged in pseudoscience or pseudohistory. But if you can convince the population of that in a democracy, you’ve already solved the problem!

I cannot believe any government on earth can pass this test, either. Which is why the issue strikes me as significant. As for “more often than Windows 95,” I suspect you are referring implicitly to the same argument that Gojomo makes above.

It’s very interesting that a thinker such as yourself, who if I’m not projecting too much seems quite comfortable in accepting continuity with 200 years of revolutionary democratism from the philosophes to Hillary, all aimed at freeing your mind so your ass will follow, would gravitate to the Straussian line that government without propaganda is physically impossible. If “I simply see no reason at all to tolerate this kind of crap” strikes you as short on gravitas, perhaps a visit to the Jefferson Memorial will refresh your memory. My alignment is lawful neutral and hence I try to keep a good distance from the altar of God, especially when swearing—it reminds me of the time I sacrificed a dead elf on the altar of Amaterasu Omikami, which didn’t work out well at all. But I certainly concur with the general sentiment.

As for convincing the majority of the population, yes: that’s one way to trigger a reboot. In fact, in today’s world it may well be the only way. The practicality of a military coup seems low at present, though of course these things can always change.

But my interest is in answering the question of what the dog should do when it catches the car. Certainly the likes of, say, Newt Gingrich, didn’t turn out to have a good answer. At present, the power of public opinion is considerable, but it is only useful if it is focused on achieving a desirable and specific result.

The tremendous looseness and vagueness of today’s political coalitions, especially in the US and Britain, effectively defeats the ochlocratic form of democracy and maintains the present mediocratic form. Using democratic mechanisms to achieve a major structural change in the state—such as a reboot—by definition involves a reactivation of ochlocracy, aka mob politics.

This is dangerous. So is a military coup. There is no non-dangerous way to accomplish any significant political change. By “safe” I suppose what I meant was “safe” in the FDA sense of the word, that is, “as safe as possible.”

Daniel Nagy writes:

In my experience, the only reasons for a populace to demand regime change are substantially lower living standards than those in recent memory or those it came to expect. This is an absolutely necessary, though not sufficient condition for a successful reboot.

As long as people are reasonably prosperous by their own standards, most of them oppose regime change.

Were the regime changes of 1989 really associated with a drop in living standards? And what about 1789? It’s certainly true that this correlation has held in a number of cases, and it’s true that you need some pressing source of rage and political estrangement, but I can think of many such.

Michael V. writes:

The question is: among what social or professional circles is it more fashionable to be a conservative than a progressive?

The answer is: the energy industry, the agricultural industry, the military, the salvationist religious community, and pretty much nowhere else.

You missed finance Mencius. Big miss. Combine that with real-estate development and medicine, where the fashion benefit is more moderate, and, oh yeah, everything associated with food and industry, and you are talking a majority of the economy and thus the society even ignoring the items you mentioned.

Exxon could, if it wanted to, buy control of all the Ivies, but that wouldn’t support the bottom line.

I think you’re thinking of social and professional circles in which conservatives are tolerated. It’s true that in some areas of finance and medicine (e.g., surgery), it’s acceptable and normal to be someone who voted for George W. Bush. It’s also true that in all of these areas, it’s acceptable and normal to be someone who voted for John Kerry.

Who, for example, is the anti-George Soros? Warren Buffett? Buffett (son of the great Howard Buffett) is donating his entire fortune to the generally liberal Gates Foundation. BTW, I don’t know where you work but I know where Byrne works, and I’ll take his word on this one.

When you look for social and professional circles in which progressive opinions are considered weird and disturbing, and their holders make a conscious effort to avoid admitting to them in the workplace, you have to move several steps away from anything that even resembles social influence. You’re probably right, for example, about real-estate developers. Real-estate developers influence one set of individuals in the next generation: children of real-estate developers. And even those probably want to distance themselves a little, if they have a clue.

Exxon could not do a damned thing to affect the opinions of Ivy League professors or students. Frankly, it’d have better luck trying to take over the Catholic Church.

George Weinberg writes:

I’m going to have to go along with the others here. The “essential lie” criterion for “reboot” is a crock. In the vast majority of societies which have existed, whether one was ruler or ruled was pretty much irrevocably fixed at birth, and this was well known. So because it’s not a secret, the ruled should regard this as right? That makes no sense. It seems to me that the pragmatic criteria should be 1) are you sure you can pull it off? and 2) are you sure you’ll be better off afterwards? bearing in mind the potential consequences of being wrong. When the estates general was first called, the French nobility thought the result would be a decrease in the monarch’s powers and an increase in their own. When one is wrong, sometimes there is nothing to be done but to shrug one’s shoulders.

I think the idea of an essential lie is peculiar to democracies, or at least to societies which pretend to be democracies. Coming from anyone else, I’d say this objection to being lied to sounds like moral indignation trumping practical considerations. Are you sure it isn’t? Because it’s okay if it is.

It is. And I think (1) and (2) are obvious questions to ask before considering any sort of regime change. I have certainly spent quite a bit of time justifying (2).

No one can justify an “ought” based on an “is.” I could argue that, over time, regimes which are based on an “essential lie” are unstable and hence dangerous. And I certainly believe this. However, I do object to being lied to, and since I live in a democracy, or at least a society which pretends to be a democracy, I am not alone in this. If you want to know why I consider (1) not beyond the reach of plausibility, perhaps this is my answer.

M. Traven writes:

Whatever force is sufficient to effect a reboot of government has to be at least as strong as the current government, and thus is likely to be just as problematic as what it replaces. The new one will be uncorrupt in your definition why, exactly? Because you’d prefer it that way? Lustration will remove all the corrupted and corruptors and replace them with a shiny new class of honest rulers? Where do these honest souls come from and what prevents them from becoming what they replace?

I refer you to my discussion of neocameralism. Either you buy it, or you don’t. But the crucial point is that a government whose legitimacy is a consequence of property rights, not public opinion, has no reason to manipulate public opinion or otherwise deceive its residents. And plenty of reason not to.

Studd Beefpile writes:

The more interesting question is how MM, as a good formalist, can support revolution?

I knew someone would ask this! Thank you, Studd.

The point of formalism is to move from disorder to order, and stay there. In general this involves recognizing and legitimizing existing power structures.

However, in cases where systematic deception is an essential aspect of the existing power structure, convincing it to formalize itself may be extremely difficult. For example, it may not even believe that it’s a power structure. In these cases, there may be no alternative to a reboot, or some other form of peaceful but effective regime change.

Randy writes:

The basic problem, as I see it, is that government = corruption. As the anarcho-capitalists are so fond of pointing out, an entirely voluntary government wouldn’t need to be a government at all. And as all elements of government that are not voluntary are corruption, government = corruption. Does it make sense to reboot corruption in order to establish a new order of corruption? Then neither does it make sense to reboot government. However, what does make sense is to downsize government/corruption, and the way to do that is to take each element one at a time and find a way to make them all voluntary.

This is not quite how I see it. The way I see it is that government = sovereignty + corruption, where government means “government as we know it today,” sovereignty means “self-enforced property ownership,” and corruption means “deception as an outdoor sport.”

The problem with anarcho-capitalism as I see it is that anarcho-capitalists seem awfully keen on eliminating sovereignty. Which equates to creating a vacuum of power, which creates an unstable power dynamic which is hence dangerous. Neocameralism is different in that it accepts sovereignty, but aims to strip it of the mystical claptrap in which it has always sought, generally successfully, to clothe itself.

Turning to some actual positive feedback, B. Broadside writes:

One argument against the reboot can be applied to almost any proposal for political reform: if the power to make this reform exists, how come it hasn’t happened yet? This isn’t particularly original nor is it easily dismissed. UR is about selling ideas of limited government to a new audience. Selling them democratically, à la the Libertarian Party, hasn’t worked, and UR argues it can’t work. So, stop asking people to give up power and sell them on a new way of using their power—coming forward, being honest about what they’re doing—and punishing them when they fail to do so.

I suspect any workable solution involves a bit of both approaches. Convincing people to give up power always does: it involves persuading them to use what is left of their power to ensure an outcome that they will find satisfactory, typically by presenting them with an alternative that is even less desirable from their perspective.

I haven’t talked much about the libertarian experience with democratic politics. To me, the basic problem, which is basically unsolvable, is that libertarianism and democracy are basically inconsistent. Judicially limited government simply doesn’t work, nor does any other approach of limiting government by separating or opposing powers.

So libertarians cannot present a realistic picture of a world in which their battle gets won and stays won. They wind up looking for ways to push a world in which the State’s natural downhill path is to grow, back up the hill. This prospect is Sisyphean, and it’s understandable why it attracts so few supporters.

From the same source:

Does the lustration extend to the military? I’m just curious, because it seems like you’ve spoken favorably of martial law, and in any case the loss of experience which would come from kicking out all the lieutenants and generals would seem pretty severe. On the other hand, maybe by “old regime” you only mean the blue government, in which case the old security forces could stick around as long as they took care to separate themselves from the information providers.

My goal, of course, is to kick out the blue government, because this is the government that has the real power (that is, the government that manages public opinion). Obviously in a coup situation this is how it would go down. For a democratic reboot, it would depend on the power structure.

It’s worth noting, however, that for every lieutenant or general, there are several retired lieutenants and generals. And, the Pentagon being what it is, I suspect that often these are actually the best people.

Byrne Hobart writes:

How do you segregate ‘government’ from the Polygon? Can a former member of the government edit a newspaper? Can he write a blog? Can he manage a campaign? If it’s literally “Members of the government” who are forced out, wouldn’t every major pol just switch job titles with his campaign manager and return to the status quo?

I think you need more than a bit. You need an ‘influence quotient’ that measures the correlation between someone’s opinion and subsequent policy. So I probably have an IQ of -.8, and Ted Kennedy probably has an IQ of .9. If you want this to work, you either have to have a cutoff (nobody in government without an IQ below .5) or a tax (you lose $10K and one vote for every .1 of IQ above 0).

I like your IQ, but it’s too algorithmic and not legalistic enough. Constructing the database would be an enormous and subjective task.

Here’s how you lustrate, I think.

One, identify all organizations which are considered part of the old regime. This is likely to include many nominally private organizations, such as newspapers, universities, etc. Step one is the hard part, because it’s inevitably subjective and has to be a personal decision. A good guideline is that the organization is subsidized or accredited by the State, but this is by no means a hard-and-fast rule.

Two, dissolve all these organizations and, perhaps after a short cooling-off period, publish all of their internal files. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Imagine what’s in the cabinet at the NYT! Or the Harvard admissions office!

Three, identify all employees of these organizations. This is a matter of public record. If nothing else, it can be done from their HR files.

Four, publish an official list of these employees, and declare them ineligible for employment in the new government or any contractor thereof. Otherwise, they can do whatever the heck they like.

Can the former editors of the NYT start a group blog and call it “The New York Times in Exile”? Of course they can. They’re welcome to. They will have to establish their credibility by what they say, just like the rest of us dumb assholes.