Elections are weird. Then again, so is American football. If we imagine defending either to Hans-Adam II, perhaps we have a start on how hard it is to see democracy as part of history.
To explain anything as part of history is to explain it as foreign. When modern historians talk about the Bourbons or the Hapsburgs, they can be pretty sure there are no Bourbons, Hapsburgs, or rabid partisans of either in the room. No one is about to hound them out of a job for omitting Louis XIV’s style as the Most Christian King, or any other act of lèse-majesté. (Perhaps Professor Hindley’s offence could be seen as a sort of lèse-democratie.)
It is easy to explain monarchy as a historical phenomenon, because we all know that monarchy is weird. And so, of course, it is. Although not perhaps as weird as we were raised to think. (The Ruler of Sharjah has just displayed His Highness’s boundless wisdom in appointing a distant relative of mine to a distinguished academic position, so I’m feeling pretty good about hereditary government at the moment.)
Our great obstacle in thinking critically about democracy is the fact that everything we know about politics and government reassures us that democracy is, while certainly not perfect, the best possible system of government. As I suggested the other week, questioning this tradition on its own terms is about as likely to work as disproving God via Biblical scholarship.
Specifically: demotism is inseparable from the Whig theory of history, in which history is the story of political forms evolving, Great Chain of Being style, toward our present perfection. If democracy is bunk, so is Whig history. But if Whig history is bunk, what isn’t? Is there a Tory theory of history, and if so should we subscribe to it instead?
If you grew up in a democracy, as I assume everyone reading this did, there is a little golfball of neural tissue somewhere above your foramen magnum, which contains everything you know about politics and government. If you believe in the Virgin Mary, there is a similar golfball which contains all you know about the Immaculate Conception. If the Virgin has let you down and you are considering believing in Baal instead, you should probably grow a whole new golfball which is dedicated to Baal. Perhaps there is some way to construct a gradual transition from Mariolatry to Baal-worship. But I can’t imagine why there should be.
Similarly, if there is any way to stop believing in democracy, the only way to do it is to (a) grow a new golfball that believes in whatever you’d believe in, if you didn’t believe in democracy; (b) compare the old and new golfballs, and decide which you’re more comfortable with; and (c) allow the loser to be reabsorbed by the rest of your brain, which hopefully is young and flexible enough for this kind of appalling hot-swap auto-neurosurgery.
A good example is the political dimension of “left” and “right” which we’re all familiar with. As perhaps you know, this is originally derived from seating patterns in the 1791 Constituent Assembly. A certain Jonah Goldberg has just released a new book in which he argues that “fascism,” which most of us probably think of as “right-wing,” is in fact better understood as a form of leftism. I haven’t read Liberal Fascism, but from the reviews I get the impression that it recapitulates much of the thought of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. Goldberg may or may not be worth your time, but K-L certainly is.
But is he right? Is “fascism” “right-wing” or “left-wing”? And which would make it worse? Is it better to be “left,” or “right,” or somewhere in the middle? What about the libertarian Nolan chart, which asserts the existence of a second dimension—and blithely assumes the first? (If to be “left-wing” is to support “personal freedom,” what about, say, smoking? Or being rude to someone with the wrong skin color? Or driving too fast?)
It is all a bit of a muddle. Demonstrating, again, why introducing Baal into our Virgin Mary golfball is a waste of time. To question democracy is to admit the possibility that the entire system by which you think about politics and government, past and present, is nonsense. Or at least has no consistent relationship to reality. Perhaps we can understand what “left” and “right” mean from an ademotist perspective, but we need the perspective first.
So: if you knew nothing about government, how would you start to understand it?
The obvious first question is: government of what? Who is this government for? Can one system of government really fit all possible populations? What about aliens? Dolphins? Chimps and ourang-outangs? You have to be able to draw a line somewhere.
I don’t find the problem of governing aliens or dolphins interesting or useful at all. All I am interested in is the two-legged things that are walking around on Planet Three at present. There is a common English word for this animal, but I refuse to say it—the word has been attached to many ethical and historical concepts, all of which it imports instantly, without going through any kind of mental security screening. A good way to pick up something that could be hard to get rid of, if you get my drift.
The Latin root cannot be avoided, though, so let’s call them hominids. A hominid is any apelike critter that was wandering around on its hind legs any time in the last 100,000 years. No gibbons need apply. Perhaps this is not quite exactly how paleontologists use the word at present, but it is well-known and I will stick with it. If we design systems of government for arbitrary populations of hominids by this definition—quite genetically broad, considering the speed of recent evolution in the species—we are erring on the safe side.
From an engineering perspective, it can’t hurt if our theories also work for groups of hominids who are now extinct, and who do not resemble hominids now living. Shifting the bar backward dodges the nasty problem of evaluating the actual populations now living—which a lot of writers seem to get quite hung up on. If we need to make the distinction, we can talk about the protohominids of 100Kya, and the neohominids of 2008. As long as you have some neohominids to actually staff your operation, I’d like to think it is perfectly possible to govern either, both, or any mix of the two.
In any case, history starts with prehistory and prehistory starts with biology. We know three things about hominids: they are social, territorial, and violent. An excellent introduction to hominids in their cladistic context is primatologist Richard Wrangham’s Demonic Males. An excellent survey of prehistoric territorial behavior among hominids is anthropologist Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization. Hopefully these readings will be sufficient to rid you of any lingering Rousseauvian golfball that may be clogging up your foramen magnum.
Briefly, hominids exhibit what might be called a default pattern of government. In the default pattern, the basic unit of government is the tribe, which controls a well-defined territory and defends it from other tribes. The tribe has a chief, generally male, whose decisions are final. He maintains power by using it to reward his friends, relations, henchmen, lackeys, etc.
Hominids are very flexible and intelligent animals. They can exist in a wide variety of cultural configurations, with all kinds of weird power dynamics. The default pattern (which we see even in chimpanzees) is not inevitable.
But it gives us a concise definition of government. A government is either (a) the default pattern, or (b) whatever organization militarily suppresses the default pattern.
Can hominids exist without government in this sense? No, because hominids are social and violent. You might be able to breed a two-legged animal that was asocial or nonviolent, but why call it a hominid?
A more interesting question is whether a system of nonterritorial “protection agencies,” as proposed by anarcho-capitalists like Murray Rothbard and David Friedman, can exist. The correct question is: could such a system stably suppress the default pattern? In the absence of a superior force which constrains its actions, the only distinction between a “protection agency” and a “government” appears to be that the former exhibit territorial overlap. Especially given hominid territorial instincts, can any such system be militarily stable? I doubt it, but I am not a military expert. Of course, neither are most anarcho-capitalists.
Occam’s razor suggests to me that schools of political thought which purport to be “anarchist,” a category which includes both anarcho-capitalism and Marxist-Leninism (both Marx and Lenin constantly insisted that they were not replacing the hated state, but building a new kind of social system which would express the will of the people directly) exist and even flourish not because they have a realistic strategy for eliminating government without returning to the default pattern, but because they capitalize on the natural antigovernment frustrations of hominids who find themselves with neither political power nor any prospect of attaining it.
I am all for a polycentric world. I personally would be very happy to see a planet with thousands, even tens of thousands, of independent polities. However, sovereign actors have enough trouble relating to each other even with nonoverlapping jurisdictions. If the advantage of overlapping is, as it appears, that it lets you call your governments “protection agencies,” I have to question the sincerity of the proposal.
Libertarians—even anti-democratic libertarians, like Hans-Hermann Hoppe—owe more to Locke than I think they realize. Locke was a Whig and a Puritan, and a great tabula rasa man. The god of battles has treated his faction kindly. I don’t believe this is a coincidence, but I don’t think it makes Locke right. I’m sure he was a very nice guy, but Locke knew no more of hominid behavior than a cat knows of tennis. And I think any remaining Lockeans could stand a good strong dose of his Tory debunker, the sadly under-appreciated Josiah Tucker.
For the benefit of 21st-century readers, here is a tasty bite of Tucker in modern orthography (the OLL edition also contains many OCR errors; if you can stand the long S, try the original). Here, Tucker is comparing the divine right of kings to the divine right of the People:
Once more: all laws made, or to be made by the authority of usurpers, alias of Kings de facto, are, according to the doctrine of Sir Robert Filmer and the Jacobites, absolutely null and void; ’till they shall have received the sanction and confirmation of the rightful King. And so say the Lockeans in respect to their sole rightful King, - the People. For here again they have told us so often, that we cannot forget it, that no law can be valid, unless the People have authorized the making of it. Nay, they have gone so far as to declare, that the very essence of slavery doth consist in being governed by laws, to which the governed have not previously consented.
This being the case, you see plainly, that the consideration, whether the law be good or bad in itself; whether it is a law that is wanted or not wanted; and whether it tends to promote the liberty of the subject, or to restrain it, is at present entirely beside the question. For the sole point here to be determined, is simply this. Had the makers of such a law any right to make it, according to the Lockean ideas of right and wrong? If they had no such right, they must be pronounced to be usurpers, be the law in itself whatever it may; and therefore as they are usurpers, their doom is fixed; inasmuch as they cannot expect mercy for their daring attempts to alienate the unalienable Rights of Mankind.
Before this Lockean system had been broached, or at least before it had made many proselytes among us, it used to be considered as no bad maxim in politics, “not to be very inquisitive concerning the original title of the reigning powers.” For if the State was actually at peace, and if every man sat, or might sit under his own vine, and his own fig tree; or in plainer English, if the essential ends of government were answered both by the protection of good subjects, and by the punishment of bad ones, and also by the defence of the community from external violence;—then it was thought, that this was a sufficient reason for considering such powers as ordained of God. And if ordained of God, the people ought to obey them, under peril of damnation.
But now it seems, the world is grown much wiser. For the first question to be asked is, what is your title, to be the governor, or chief magistrate of this country? And what proofs do you bring that you have received your authority from the People, without fraud on the one hand, or violence on the other? Answer me this, before you can expect, that I should submit to obey you.
Few governors, I believe, would like to be catechized after this manner by their subjects. And fewer still would be able to answer these questions to the satisfaction of a Lockean patriot. Nay, we have been expressly told by one of the chief among them, Dr. Priestley, that there is not a government on the face of the globe, which can stand the test of such an enquiry. “For, says he, all governments whatever have been, in some measure, compulsory, tyrannical, and oppressive in their origin.”
Now this being the case, why will not these benevolent, political philosophers, erect a government of their own, for the good of mankind;—a government on their own plan, and perfectly agreeable to the Lockean principles; which shall therefore be a pattern for the rest of the world to copy after? Nay, why are they always sowing discords and dissentions among us, instead of establishing a free, and equal, and harmonious republic among themselves? Most certainly Great Britain is not the proper spot for exhibiting specimens of this sort. Because, to say the truth, we have had, and we have felt, too many of these political experiments already, during the last century, to wish to have them revived again.
But America! Yes, the interior parts of America is the country of all others, the fittest for putting every fond imagination of their hearts in practice. For if fame says true, and if Mr. Locke himself is to be credited, there is as yet no government at all in the inland parts of those immense regions. Nor have even the Congress extended their gentle sway beyond the lakes Erie and Ontario, if they have gone so far.
Thither, therefore, let all our republican patriots speedily repair. Time is precious, and the cause invites. A passport will undoubtedly be granted them, as soon as applied for. And ample leave will be obtained to exchange the slavery of this country for the freedom of America. Thither, therefore, let them all retire. For there they will live (according to the prediction of Dr. Price) undisturbed by bishops, nobles, or kings; and there likewise they will enjoy all the blessings which can attend that happy state, where every member of society will be his own law-giver, his own governor, judge, and director.
As Steely Dan put it, “all I can say is ouch.”
I’m afraid we have, indeed, had “too many of these political experiments.” You know what I want? The sinister, futuristic totalitarian fantasy at the heart of Mencius Moldbug Thought? I want to live in a world where when I go to Google News and search for poisoned arrows, I get no hits at all. I mean, call me crazy.
In any case, we have observed a problem with the word government. People have strange associations with it. As we’ve seen, it is not hard to define, but perhaps it is worth replacing.
I will stick with the word sovereign, which is old but whose definition is beautifully precise, and the extremely bland term organization, which just means a group of hominids working together in some coherent way. (In the past I tried corporation, which means exactly the same thing, but has undesirable pejorative connotations.) Thus instead of “government” we can say “sovereign organization”, or sovorg.
Since sovorgs are territorial by definition, we can name them by location. Thus, for example, there is a very important sovorg on the Potomac. We can call it Washorg. Furthermore, while heeding Dean Tucker’s wise warning against inquiring too closely into “original title,” we can distinguish four discrete revisions of Washorg, separated by breaches of legal continuity—in 1789 (Confederation to Constitution), 1861 (state to national sovereignty), and 1933 (limited to unlimited government). So our present lovely confection is Washorg-4.
Is Washorg-4 good or bad? The question is absurdly underconstrained. Good or bad to whom, and for whom? What makes a sovorg good or bad? What makes anything good or bad? These are normative questions. Presumably, for Kim Jong Il and his family, North Korea is not bad at all.
Though clearly, to anyone on either side of the Atlantic in the 1770s, Washorg-4 would seem an appalling monstrosity. The Dean himself is quite incisive on the point:
Here therefore be it observed, that without taking any advantage from the arguments that may be deduced from the tarring and feathering of their numerous mobs; and without insisting on the burning and plundering of the houses, and destroying the property of the Loyalists by the American republicans, even before they had openly thrown off the mask, and set up for independence;—I say, without bringing these instances as proofs that they would not grant that liberty to others, for which they so strenuously contended for themselves;—let us come to that very period, when they had established various civil governments in their respective provinces, and had new-modelled their several constitutions according to their own good liking:—I ask therefore, was any one of these civil governments at first formed, or is it now administered, and conducted according to the Lockean plan? And did, or doth any of their Congresses, general or provincial, admit of that fundamental maxim of Mr. Locke, that every man has an unalienable right to obey no other laws, but those of his own making? No; no;—so far from it, that there are dreadful fines and confiscations, imprisonments, and even death made use of, as the only effectual means for obtaining that unanimity of sentiment so much boasted of by these new-fangled republicans, and so little practiced. In one word, let the impartial world be the judge, whether the Americans, in all their contests for liberty, have even once made use of Mr. Locke’s system for any other purpose, but that of pulling down, and destroying; and whether, when they came to erect a new edifice of their own on the ruins of the former,—they have not abandoned Messrs. Locke, Molyneux, Priestley, and Price, with all their visionary schemes of universal freedom, and liberty of choice.
(I particularly admire the Dean’s deft hand with semicolon and dash;—a move he shares with Frank Bidart. If you find this paragraph hard to parse, his argument is that any difference between the new American and the old British regime is essentially cosmetic;—a point now admitted by all.)
In any case, the question remains: good or bad?
I will take the liberty of assuming that readers share my general taste in government. I suspect that taste in this matter is much like taste in restaurants. People can argue KFC versus Popeye’s or Mickey D versus BK, but no one puts any of them in a class with Nobu or the French Laundry. If you can’t agree that Vaduz is well-governed and Pyongyang is not, you are just quarreling.
A simple way to ask the question is: if all things were equal, where would I rather live? If SF was owned and operated by Hans-Adam II, and Berkeley was owned and operated by the Kims, would I prefer to make my home in the East Bay, or the West?
We can distinguish two factors in this decision: customer service, and personal authority. Customer service expresses the way the sovorg treats me, its customer or resident. Personal authority expresses any power I may have over the operations of the sovorg.
Suppose it is not Kim, but I myself, who run Berkeley. If I was the Ruler of Berkeley, it would undoubtedly serve me quite well. “I’m not just the Ruler—I’m also a customer.” Would I settle for the ordinary, plain-Jane service? Heck, no. I would have a limo, and uniformed flunkies. But it would still be customer service—just extraordinary customer service.
This, however, would not express all the satisfaction I received from ruling Berkeley. After all, I too am a hominid. And hominids like power. While I am not as far as I’m aware descended from Genghis Khan, I’m sure that possession of political power has often lubricated my Y chromosome’s path to survival. This sort of thing leaves an impact.
Suppose I was not sole Ruler of Berkeley, but just one member of a Triumvirate. The service would probably still be excellent. The limo might not be as swank. And my will could be frustrated by any two of my co-triumvirs. Definitely a step down. On the other hand, to make anything in Berkeley happen, all I have to do is persuade two people. How hard can that be?
Suppose instead I was one member of a Grand Council of 100, whose by-laws strictly barred any special treatment. Berkeley would treat me, and my fellow Grand Councilors, just as it treated any other resident. But as long as I could browbeat fifty of my peers into submission, my will could still hold sway.
What we see here is that personal authority, an intangible good but still a very desirable one, can be disconnected from customer service. We see also that since personal authority is directly desirable, it need not follow any mathematical principles, linear or otherwise. Is being sole Ruler of Berkeley three times as cool as being a Triumvir? Maybe, but maybe not. Is being a Triumvir 33 times as cool as being a Grand Councilor? Probably not.
Of course, if Berkeley is a democracy with universal suffrage, any Berkeleyite who is full-grown and capable of breathing is, effectively, a minor dignitary. There is no limo and no flunkies, but there is still a small but intangible sense of somehow controlling events. Voting in a democracy makes you feel powerful, much as playing the lottery makes you feel rich. Perhaps it shouldn’t. But why not? Perhaps you will win the lottery, and your vote will matter.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Negligible power certainly does not corrupt absolutely, but I’m not sure it corrupts negligibly, either. By handing a tiny slice of power to each of its residents, democracy performs the most essential task of a political structure: rewarding its supporters. If you can convince yourself to see this transaction as sordid and onanistic, you have taken a big step toward ademotism. Until voters learn to renounce this little wafer of fictitious authority that it regularly drops on their tongue, they will never free themselves from democracy.
Once we factor out personal authority, we are left with customer service. As the contrast between Vaduz and Pyongyang demonstrates, sovereign customer service can include almost anything in life. A nasty sovorg can enslave you, murder you, force you to wear nothing but shapeless, scratchy gray overalls, etc., etc. By definition, you have no recourse.
What does good sovereign customer service mean to me? High security, low taxes, attractive landscaping, and an absence of pointless restrictions on my personal actions? Again, defining good government is not unlike defining good food. Reasonable people will tend to agree.
It is a very striking fact, therefore, that sovereign customer service in the world today—and specifically, the customer service provided by Washorg-4—seems to be so poor. Imagine if Hans-Adam II were in charge not of Berkeley, but of California. Don’t you think he could make it such a desirable place to live that it would empty out the rest of North America? It’s not like California doesn’t have room for 300 million people. Of course, it’s not clear that Hans-Adam would want them all. I certainly wouldn’t.
Before we look at how Washorg-4 got to its present parlous state, there’s a very important aspect of sovereign customer service that is easy to miss. It provides a clue to the rest.
The question is how the sovorg controls its residents. We know that for it to be sovereign, it must do so. Otherwise, the default pattern will reemerge. Internal control is a strictly negative aspect of customer service—except for the fact that almost any sovereign form is preferable to the default pattern (since I am not well suited to tribal gang warfare), it can do nothing but annoy and inconvenience me and other residents.
There are two basic classes of internal control. A sovereign can control its residents by managing their minds, or managing their bodies. We can call the former mode psycharchy, the latter physarchy. A psycharchy persuades its residents to refrain from organizing, seizing and capturing it. A physarchy physically restrains its residents from organizing, seizing and capturing it.
From a customer-service perspective, which is more desirable? Psycharchy or physarchy? What’s neat about this question is that, if you are like me, you probably don’t have a knee-jerk answer. We have made it off the map of our democratic conditioning. No one wants to be physically dominated by an irresistible authority. But no one wants to have their minds controlled, either. And logic offers us no third choice.
Perhaps it helps if we separate physarchic techniques of internal control into two classes, which we can call legarchy and phobarchy.
Under legarchy, the sovorg exercises internal control as an extension of the judicial system which keeps residents secure from each other. It simply adds a class of offenses which are crimes against the sovorg itself, without any other direct victim. For example, you may not train your paramilitary militia in the Sierras. You may not keep a cache of automatic weapons in your basement. If you are in a crowd and the police order you to disperse, you must do so.
Violating any of these restrictions cannot be described as a tort against any person. They are pure infringements on your personal freedom. They may even be arbitrary and inexplicable. However, as long as they are at least predictable, their impact on a reasonable customer is minimal. Every city in the world has the death penalty for stepping in front of a bus. How do we live with this draconian, irrational, and instantly enforced rule? By not violating it. Most of us never give the matter a second thought.
Whereas most of us would howl to high heaven if Washorg-4 published a list of illegal organizations, for which membership incurs criminal penalties. But it is no more irrational to punish a resident for joining an organization than for stepping in front of a bus. If you relish the collegial pleasure of community, find some community that isn’t trying to overthrow the government. Otherwise, can you really complain?
We enter a different territory with phobarchy, which is the tactic of maintaining internal control by unpredictable intimidation. “Death squads,” for example, are a classic technique. Most of us consider finding bodies on the doorstep, let alone being one of the bodies, remarkably unacceptable from a customer-service perspective. However, since many 20C sovorgs have maintained power by exactly this method, we would be foolish to dismiss it.
Phobarchy—terrorism, essentially, in the original sense of the word—is best seen as a sort of force multiplier for weak or insecure sovorgs. Of course, it can also be used by organizations which do not hold power, but are contending for it. If you are secure in power, you have no need to strike fear into your enemies by spectacular random attacks. You know who they are. You can have them arrested, and imprisoned or deported according to taste. Moreover, if you are genuinely secure, potential enemies should be able to recognize the fact just as well as anyone, and they will abandon their pointless struggle. Everyone who fights fights to win.
Psycharchy is a method of internal control by which a sovorg manages its residents’ opinions, emotions and perceptions. If residents love, cherish and honor their Sovorg, they are far less likely to become unruly. Of course, for this to work, they need to actually be under the impression that their thoughts are their own, or at least are obtained from fundamentally trustworthy sources. This adds a touch of derring-do to the affair.
Drugging the water supply, inserting subliminal messages in fast-food ads, and beaming slogans into your tooth fillings are uncommon, ineffective forms of psycharchy. Mandatory loyalty training for children, official support for approved information producers, and social, civil or criminal penalties for wrongthink are common, effective forms of psycharchy.
The second is especially interesting. I think a special word, massarchy, is appropriate for the 20C system of internal control via education, journalism and science. Each of these words assumes a systematic professional infallibility, entirely unearned in the case of the first two professions, and increasingly dubious in the case of the third. The Third Reich had its own wonderful word for the distribution of official information, Aufklärung—meaning literally, “clearing up,” and more broadly enlightenment. Indeed, all the state-sponsored information professions see their task as that of enlightening the public. And from enlightening to guiding is a small step indeed.
What’s puzzling about psycharchy is that psycharchy basically sucks. Yet we see it everywhere. Unraveling this mystery is crucial, I feel, to an understanding of democracy.
Psycharchy is lousy customer service, because it’s creepy and weird. I want my sovorg to keep marauding gangs from assaulting my residence. I don’t want it to care what I think. I certainly don’t want it to take any kind of a fatherly interest in what my children think. Raising kids is hard enough as it is. When they come home from school and start reciting government slogans, the temptation to lock them in the closet may become overwhelming.
But psycharchy is also very unreliable as a mechanism of internal control. If you need to prevent your residents from organizing private paramilitary movements, tell them not to organize private paramilitary movements, warn them if they do, and if they don’t desist, arrest them. Not only is this is about twelve million times easier and less intrusive than brainwashing generations of children to swear obedience to the State, it’s also a heck of a lot more effective. Children are notoriously fickle. If you tell them to think X, sometimes they decide to think Y instead, just for the pleasure of misbehaving.
Worse, if psycharchy relies on propagating a perception of reality that a sensible, independent person would not share, it is unstable in the nastiest way. The so-called “marketplace of ideas” is a strange market indeed when your friendly local sovorg has a thumb on every scale. But if the thumb ever starts to slip, look out. The truth has strange advantages of its own. A sovorg whose continued rule depends on successful psycharchy is like a city below sea level. It can engineer the world’s best seawalls, dikes, and levees, but only one of them has to fail.
So we conclude that, from both sides of the game—the sovorg and its customer—legarchy is the most desirable system of internal control. Except in the nastiest, most unusual situations, amounting more or less to civil war, it is the only approach any sovorg should need. And yet history shows us that almost all 20C sovorgs relied heavily on psycharchy, phobarchy, or of course both. What gives?
What gives is that comparing 20th-century sovorgs is like comparing German restaurants. No doubt some are better than others, but unless you like sausage, cabbage and root vegetables, you are basically out of luck.
Even Washorg-4, certainly among the best of the lot, would have appalled not only Josiah Tucker but also the American rebels he so despised. Most of whom can be found delivering quotes on the subject of “democracy” that make Hitler sound like Barack Obama. Note that most of these soundbites (Federalist 10 being a good example) date to the late 1780s, which means that they were products of experience, not ideology. Even Burke started out as a Whig. What made him change his mind? Not Dean Tucker, that’s for sure.
It is striking how few people read Federalist 10 in the light of actual historical experience. Surely it is plain to everyone that the problems Madison describes are real, and the solutions he proposes are quackery par excellence. For example:
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. … 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.
This reminds me of nothing so much as the bit in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation where the Mule appears and Hari Seldon starts spewing utter nonsense.
Reading a document like Federalist 10 is like reading an explanation by the chief engineer of the Space Shuttle of how, when the shuttle is built, it will be cheaper to take a vacation in space than in Australia. The fact that the thing was built and is still operating is interesting, but a brief perusal of the design documents tells us that it is not operating in anything like the way envisioned by its designers.
If the exercise of thinking through the problem of government from scratch has convinced me of anything, it has convinced me that effective government and good government are one and the same thing. As long as a sovorg is effectively and coherently managed and its proprietors are motivated by ordinary hominid motivations, such as money and power (preferably the former), it will deliver what we think of as good government, and it will not engage in nasty and dangerous practices such as phobarchy and psycharchy.
So I conclude that if 20C sovorgs have not delivered good customer service, it is simply because they are not and have not been well-managed. Think of them as the equivalent of Pemex, perhaps if Pemex was a tax farm rather than an oil monopoly. Why hasn’t Pemex gone out of business? Uh, because it can’t?
To see democracy as a historical phenomenon, to understand how this disaster could have happened, we have to interpret it as an internal element of a sovereign organization—not internal in the sense of pertaining to residents rather than foreigners, but in the sense of “internal memo.” No one who helped create Washorg could have imagined the present state of Washorg-4, let alone hoped for it. Yet it is what it is now, and most of its residents cherish and revere it. How did this happen? It just did. The thing can’t really go out of business, after all.
So when we look at psycharchy as a conscious strategy, it strikes us as silly. Suppose, for example, that the Elders of Zion secretly control the government, which secretly controls the media, which brainwashes Americans into not suspecting that they are actually subjects of the Zionist Occupation Government—the infamous ZOG.
It should reassure us to realize that this makes no sense at all, as indeed it does not. Why should the Zionists bother with secrecy and manipulation? If they really control the government, isn’t the Duke of Wellington’s motto—pour la canaille, la mitraille—perfectly sufficient? Presumably if the Iron Duke had lived another half-century he would have modified it to pour la canaille, la mitrailleuse, which doesn’t rhyme as well but makes even better military sense. (Canaille is rabble, mitraille is grapeshot, mitrailleuse is machine-gun.)
I feel this is a pity, because I for one would be quite reassured to learn that the Elders of Zion were in control. (I’d prefer Hans-Adam II, but given Hans-Adam’s success in the financial industry I suspect he and the Elders would work quite well as a team.) Actually, the truth is much uglier than this. The only way I could imagine it being worse is if it involved Cthulhu, which it doesn’t—at least not as far as I can tell.
The truth is that no one is in control. In Washorg-4 and its global friends and relations, we are looking at a gigantic, spontaneously evolving, uncontrolled system. The decision-making process we call “democracy” is best seen as part of this system, as are the “voters” whose opinions guide Washorg-4’s decisions. Since Washorg-4 is a massarchy, since it guides public opinion as well as being guided by it, it can only be seen as a dynamic feedback loop.
(Anthony Blair, in his last speech before retiring, presented what I think is his own analysis of this situation. While I don’t agree with it in all respects, while it certainly understates the magnitude of the problem, I think Blair’s media speech may well prove to be the last frank and honest public statement by any democratic politician, ever. For all I know he even wrote it himself. This might be overstating things, but it’s certainly well worth a read.)
If our feedback loop is converging on any attractor, our only way to predict it is to study the dynamics of the loop itself. The assertion that any stage in this loop—mass opinion, the official information organs, or Washorg-4 proper—has any tendency to converge on sanity and good sense is unsubstantiated at best. It could even be described as laughable. The system could be fluctuating randomly and unpredictably, or it could be headed for some stable point that almost everyone in 2008 would consider horrifying and unbearable.
This is why I am so keen on finding a way to terminate Washorg-4. It is extremely dangerous and completely out of control. What else do you need to know?
What’s particularly nasty about the feedback loop of democratic massarchy is that when we ask why Washorg-4 does what Washorg-4 does, when we look to understand or at least predict it, our only answer is that its future actions are best predicted by whatever perspectives are most strongly selected in the loop.
Unfortunately, this includes a class of perspectives like the one I described last week. No one, or at least hardly anyone, who brought us the ruling underclass, the Brahmin-Dalit alliance and the strategy of yi yi zhi yi thought, or thinks, of these policies as ruthless or Machiavellian. Au contraire—in their logic and their stated objective, they are almost saintly.
Because these policies are conceived as saintly, they are very successful in the stage of the feedback loop that involves replicating perspectives. Everyone wants to be saintly. However, because these policies have a ruthless and Machiavellian effect, they are very successful in the sovereign stage of the loop. At each step, they defeat the competition. If there is any effect that will stop this loop from reinforcing itself monotonically over time, it is not obvious to me. It is very possible that the sooner it can be terminated, the easier the job will be.
I know I am turning into a hopeless Charles Francis Adams groupie, but let’s take one last look at that essay I mentioned the other week. What’s so neat about “An Undeveloped Function” is that Adams not only explains the past, but provides a horrifying glimpse of the future. Of course, he thinks he is helping, but he is dead wrong.
Take a look at his conclusion:
As I have also, more than once already, observed, this Association is largely made up of those occupying the chairs of instruction in our seminaries of the higher education. From their lecture rooms the discussion of current political issues is of necessity excluded. There it is manifestly out of place. Others here are scholars for whom no place exists on the political platform. Still others are historical investigators and writers, interested only incidentally in political discussion. Finally some are merely public-spirited citizens, on whom the oratory of the stump palls. They crave discussion of another order. They are the men whose faces are seen only at those gatherings which some one eminent for thought or in character is invited to address. To all such, the suggestion I now make cannot but be grateful. It is that, in future, this Association, as such, shall so arrange its meetings that one at least shall be held in the month of July preceding each presidential election. The issues of that election will then have been presented, and the opposing candidates named. It should be understood that the meeting is held for the purpose of discussing those issues from the historical point of view, and in their historical connection. Absolute freedom of debate should be insisted on, and the participation of those best qualified to deal with the particular class of problems under discussion, should be solicited. Such authorities, speaking from so lofty a rostrum to a select audience of appreciative men and women could, I confidently submit, hardly fail to elevate the standard of discussion, bringing the calm lessons of history to bear on the angry wrangles and distorted presentations of those whose chief, if not only, aim is a mere party supremacy.
The basic point of the essay is that politics in the 19th century went mad, and took public opinion with it. Or possibly the other way around. Or both. In any case, in the world of 1901, political hysteria is rampant and unchecked, and the sanity of the 1860s (!) is a distant memory.
And what is his solution? It is the worst idea I could possibly think of. It makes little Jimmy Madison’s genius prophecy, that the United States will be too large to have political parties, look like Hari Seldon on his best day.
Adams proposes to introduce historians into politics. That is, he believes that persons such as himself, possessed of tremendous taste, experience and judgment, can raise the level of public opinion by bringing historical perspective to factional political debates. A very common sort of thought for an aristocrat of Adams’ Liberal Republican or Mugwump ilk.
While as far as I know this specific proposal was never implemented, it is certainly the case that over the next twenty years the American intellectual class began its great project of capturing public opinion, at the expense of barbaric political chiefs, old-school press lords, capitalist robber barons, and others now routinely depicted as demonic. The project was essentially complete by 1933, when the dilettante figurehead FDR took power at the head of his academic “brains trust”—installed courtesy of Southern racists, urban Irish and Italian machines, and the other corrupt vote banks that comprised the Democratic party. All of whom would get, as Mencken so nicely phrased it, the government they deserved.
The only problem with this triumph is expressed by a little saying I once heard, which is that if you put a drop of wine in a barrel of sewage, you get a barrel of sewage. If you put a drop of sewage in a barrel of wine, you get a barrel of sewage. The saying did not go on to remark that if you put a dam at one end of Napa Valley and a sewer line at the other, you get a whole wine industry devoted to bottling sewage and selling it as Cabernet. But we can infer it.
Adams, who really ought to have known better, thought it would be possible to improve the American political system by connecting it to the American intellectual system. Perhaps he thought he had some kind of one-way valve (that “select audience of appreciative men and women,” perhaps?) that he could install between the two. The result was inevitable, abominable, and yet grimly hilarious. Somewhere, Lord Acton is certainly laughing.