How Dawkins got pwned (part 6)
At this point we’ve established, at least to my satisfaction, that (a) there is such a thing as Universalism; (b) Universalism is an educationally-transmitted tradition that works just like any theistic religion, and is best understood as a descendant of Christianity; (c) Professor Dawkins is (despite his occasional twinges of conscience) operating as a vector of Universalism; and (d) orthodox Universalism insists on some rather unsupported conclusions about biology, and some theories of history and politics which seem less than parsimonious.
This is all very well and good. But it hasn’t brought us that much closer to constructing a way of thinking which is thoroughly non-Universalist, from which we can look back at Universalism and evaluate it aesthetically as a whole. Is Universalism basically normal and healthy, with a few historical quirks? Or is it basically weird and creepy, with a few redeeming graces?
This is obviously a subjective judgment. It’s obvious what I think. But I cannot change anyone else’s opinion by just repeating my own.
Rather, I think the only way to evaluate Universalism is to construct a reference ideology so foreign to Universalism that the Universalist immune system does not attack it, because it does not recognize it as comparable to any past or present enemy. By imagining the perspective of someone raised to believe in this ideology—which I’ve called neocameralism or formalism—you can start to assemble your own picture of what Universalism might look like from the outside.
In the last two chapters I synthesized a bit of neocameralist history. In this chapter, we’ll do a little “political science”—a singularly inapt name for the logic of law and power.
Universalism, again, is a mystery cult of power. Its supreme being is the State. And all of the Universalist mysteries—humanity, democracy, equality, and so on—cluster around the philosophy of collective action. Christianity has been a state religion since Constantine,1 of course, but it always also included magical and metaphysical mysteries, which the advance of science has rendered superfluous at best, embarrassing at worst. So Universalism, unlike its ancestors, is not concerned with the Trinity or transubstantiation or predestination. But its political mysteries remain chewy enough to delight the most hypertrophied of mental mandibles.
We want to avoid all this. Therefore, we have to build a new language which describes the logic of collective action in a way that does not remind us of Universalism. We’ll retain the Universalist legal or political terminology only in cases where the old word is (a) precisely defined, and (b) has no positive connotations.
Essentially, formalism is a system of collective action in which the only sin is to break your own promise. Neocameralism is formalism on a political scale.
Formalism starts with the idea of an agreement. When you are party to an agreement, you promise others that your future actions will follow some pattern. For example, you may promise to paint Joe’s house, as long as Joe promises to pay you for the job. You and Joe may also agree on how unexpected events, disputes, and so forth, will be handled.
The concept of property emerges naturally from formalism. You and Joe agree to be neighbors, rather than enemies. You construct an agreement which draws an imaginary line on the ground, and keep your respective cattle on your respective sides of the line.
Another concept that will emerge in any system of agreements is the corporation. A corporation is just a named pattern of agreement. If you and Joe construct a shared sheep-dip, it may be easiest to describe this virtual entity as a corporation, and describe its agreements with Fred’s Pesticide Supply as agreements between two parties—rather than between you, Joe, and all the owners and employees of Fred’s. Without this level of indirection, agreements would balloon to incredible size through cascading inclusion.
This model of labeling and indirection can be applied to even the most trivial cases. Instead of dealing with Joe, you can deal with JoeCorp, whose sole owner is Joe. There is really no use in constructing a system of agreements which does not recognize virtual entities.
Neocameralism deals with the special case of sovereign corporations, or sovcorps (Chapter 5). A sovcorp is a corporation which is not dependent on any other power. To make agreements with other sovcorps, it must ensure that it is not in the other sovcorp’s interest to break those agreements—otherwise, it will probably do so. How it achieves this is the problem of security.
Universalism, of course, has its own word meaning “sovcorp.” In fact, if you discard every doctrine or mystery of Universalism except for those which determine what a legitimate sovcorp is and whether or not it’s righteous, you’ll find that you still have most of it left. As Hume noted, righteousness is not susceptible to logic. We cannot disprove Universalism by describing its political doxology as weird. We can only attempt to construct an alternative system from which Universalism may strike us as, in retrospect, weird.
First, you and I are not sovcorps. We are people. We may be employees of sovcorps. We may be customers of sovcorps. We may even be slaves of sovcorps. Depending on the exact details of the relationship, some or all of these words may apply. However, if you make your home on a patch of land owned by some sovcorp S, it is certainly fair to describe you as a tenant of S. And anyone reading this today is certainly a tenant of some sovcorp—in my case, Washcorp.
Therefore, from the perspective of a tenant, we can ask: what makes a sovcorp good or bad?
This question is too abstract to be useful. To sharpen it slightly, we should place it in terms that are both relative and personal. We can do this by saying: given two sovcorps S and T, identical except in feature F, would you, dear reader, rather be a tenant of S or of T? For example, would you consider moving from T to S to take advantage of F, or from S to T to escape from F?
This approach leads us to two orthogonal criteria for judging sovcorps. A sovcorp should be judged by its stability, and by its actions.
We cannot assess a sovcorp without assessing its stability. If it fails to maintain security, the consequences are likely to be appalling. Transitions of power at the sovereign level, while they certainly may replace a worse sovcorp with a better one, can result in an arbitrary level of collateral damage. While it is always in the winner’s interest to seize the territory and its occupants intact, as both constitute capital, tactical considerations may demand devastation.
There are certainly cases in which a tenant may favor war or revolution. However, there is no reason to support a violent transition in power unless (a) that transition is likely to succeed, and (b) its destination is preferable to its origin, counting all tactical devastation. Neither of these tests is anywhere near positive in the West today, so I don’t find these cases interesting. And unless the tests are met, a tenant should always prefer a stable sovcorp (longevity can be easily assessed with a prediction market) to an unstable one.
Note that stability replaces the Universalist mystery of legitimacy. Legitimacy is an outlier in Universalist political doxology: it dates back to a pre-Universalist era which had far more in common with neocameralism. Universalists have no moral explanation of why any ruthless armed gang which seizes control of a historically-significant territory should be termed a government, develop the mysterious grandeur associated with this word, and be entitled to its seat in the United Nations. Apparently that’s just the way it is. Can you say “epicycle,” boys and girls?
Given stability, we arrive at a second criterion, which that a sovcorp should be judged by its actions. As tenants, we can have no possible reason to care who is running the sovcorp or why, except inasmuch as this contributes to its stability.
For example, if I live in Plainland, do I have any good reason to care about the identity of the administrators or the owners of the sovcorp that owns Plainland? They could be Plainlanders. They also could be from Deutschland, Thailand, or Somaliland. As a tenant, what matters to me is not who they are, but what they do. It will probably be cheapest for the sovcorp to employ Plainlanders as its low-level functionaries, but for executives and owners this is quite irrelevant. And using foreigners as executives has its own advantage for the sovcorp—they are far less likely to become involved in conflicts of interest.
When we consider other elements of sovcorp design, therefore, we will consider them only inasmuch as they affect the actions and the stability of the sovcorp. For example, is the rotary system a desirable feature in a sovcorp? Perhaps, but only if it makes the sovcorp more stable or its actions more desirable.
In my opinion as a tenant, there are four characteristics which describe the actions of the kind of sovcorp I prefer. Bear in mind that, since the first function of a sovcorp is security, its most desirable attribute is stability, and there is no stability without security, authentic security motivations justify exceptions to any of these principles.
One, the sovcorp respects all agreements between itself and its tenants. A good sovcorp employs an external arbitrator which resolves all disputes that may result from conflicting, confusing or poorly-drafted agreements. It accepts the arbitrator’s judgment as final.
Two, the sovcorp can enforce any agreement between its tenants. Since the sovcorp needs a security force to protect itself against other sovcorps, it must maintain unchallenged military control of its territory. It can—and should—allow tenants to invoke this power in their own agreements. For example, I can agree with Joe that if he pays me to paint his house, but I don’t paint his house, Washcorp will descend upon me and give Joe his money back. As a tenant, I have no reason to prefer a sovcorp which does not provide this service.
Three, the sovcorp does not artificially restrict its tenants. In other words, it maintains Pareto optimality. For example, I have no reason to prefer a sovcorp which does not allow me to wear red clothing, because my garish garb cannot harm Joe or anyone else.2 (Point two can be seen as a special case of point three—a sovcorp that does not enforce tenant agreements cannot be Pareto optimal, because any sovcorp has this capability.)
Four, the sovcorp does not tax its tenants, except as needed to secure its territory. And this is not a tax, but a security fee. A sovcorp should not be profitable. It should exist to protect and serve, not to harvest and render. Obviously, one reason to move from S to T may be that T has lower taxes—as long as these are not so low that security is jeopardized.
Now: which of these things is not like the other?
Obviously, as a tenant, I prefer all four of these features. But if I have to give up any one, I will give up the fourth. Giving up any of the other three involves at best major weirdness, and at worst a bullet in the head. Giving up profitable taxation involves, essentially, a rent increase.
A profitable sovcorp will attempt to maximize revenue. In other words, it will try to hit the top of the Laffer curve.3 Given that all sovcorps in the world today, and almost all in history, operate as revenue maximizers, this should not be too frightening or controversial.
There are three major reasons why profitability is a desirable feature in a sovcorp, despite its obvious disadvantage from the perspective of the tenant.
The first is that a profitable sovcorp is a more stable sovcorp. A sovcorp that is not maximizing revenue is leaving money on the table. Attackers can use the prospect of capturing this revenue stream to capitalize their attempts to defeat the sovcorp. The promise of loot has been an essential motivator in many invasions and revolutions. The miracle of capitalism allows the attacker to deploy this resource before it is even captured. If the defender cannot do likewise—because it is in some way bound to not maximize revenue—the advantage shifts to the attacker.
The second is that the nonprofit sovcorp is actually a general case of the profitable sovcorp. This is easy to see. If the nonprofit sovcorp were to go profitable and maximize its revenue, it would increase every payment \( P \) made by its tenants from \( P_n \), the nonprofit fee, to \( P_p \), the profitable tax. It can easily duplicate the effect by going profitable anyway, and treating \( (P_p-P_n) \) as a dividend payment or rebate. This is Pareto-optimizing, because the recipient of this dividend can treat the right to receive it as a share, and sell the share.
The third is an argument I made in this post: that the advantage of profitability, from the tenant’s perspective, is that it creates a coherent management objective. Profitable corporations tend to provide better customer service, because coherently managed organizations tend to be more efficient. This is why you never see the National Hamburger Society on the list of restaurants at the next exit.
Of course, a sovcorp is not a restaurant. We can reasonably ask whether it should be efficient. As tenants, would we prefer to live in a territory managed by a sovcorp which has coherent corporate goals, and achieves them at minimum expense? Or one whose owner is slow, bumbling, and harmless?
In my view, once you get to the point where it is preferable for a sovcorp to be inefficient, you are already into war-or-revolution territory. A sovcorp should be inefficient only in doing evil. If it’s in the evil business, it has already violated one of the major criteria, and it’s hardly worth debating its efficiency.
Once we’ve decided that our sovcorp should be both profitable and efficient, we are into very familiar territory. We know a lot about how to design profitable, efficient corporations.
A profitable, efficient sovcorp has two forms of capital. The first is the territory it owns. The second is its reputation. It protects these not out of the goodness of its heart, but for financial reasons—which, unlike the hearts of corporate managers, are extremely reliable.
So, for example, the sovcorp does not renege on its agreements with its tenants, because the capital value of a territory in which the rule of law holds is much greater than one in which it doesn’t. Prosperity flees uncertainty, and sovcorps profit by taxing prosperity. And it is quite unheard of for corporate executives to intentionally drive their own stock price down.
Thus, a profitable, efficient sovcorp should obey the first three rules above (and not, of course, the fourth). The problem would seem to be solved.
We would expect a profitable and efficient—and hence desirable—sovcorp to look very much like today’s private, non-sovereign corporations. That is, we would expect them to distribute their revenues as dividends to a set of voting shareholders, who choose a board in voting by shares, which chooses a CEO, who has complete management authority.
And yet today’s sovcorps look nothing like private corporations at all.
They are not in any way profitable. They are renowned not for their efficiency, but for their inefficiency. They are managed by byzantine networks of conflicting committees and books of procedure. Their managers do not have hire-and-fire power. Their customers are part of their executive selection process. They do not come even close to Pareto optimization. There is really no resemblance at all. The only thing today’s “governments” have in common with the sovcorp design above is that a “government” is, without question, a sovereign corporation.
So this analysis leaves us with three interesting questions.
First, why did this simple design process produce a sovcorp architecture so different from the one that history has bequeathed to us?
Second, how do shareholders maintain control of a sovcorp, when there is no higher sovereign authority to enforce the corporate charter? Why won’t the managers just perform an autogolpe? And who decides whether a security exception is “authentic?”
Third, how does understanding Universalism help us answer the first and second questions?
2. This isn’t quite right, as “garish garb” represents a potential negative externality, and indeed virtually all governments do enforce norms on manner of public dress. Historical examples include the traditional restriction of the Roman toga to citizens and the use of purple stripes to identify equites and senators. Modern examples include France’s banning of the burqa, requirements of modest dress in many Islamic countries, and near-universal proscriptions against indecent exposure.
Because governments are just sovereign corporations, legal enforcement of such norms is in principle no different from a fancy restaurant requiring male patrons to wear coats and ties. (Perhaps in Patchwork we might see a sovcorp or two requiring tweed for all public events.) Suffice it to say, though, that it’s difficult to imagine a well-run sovereign corporation’s dress code going so far as to ban the color red.