Secession, liberty, and dictatorship
While still delirious in my slow recovery from (I kid you not) the Pig Flu, I seem to have decided to do a UR post for Patri Friedman’s Secession Week superevent. This would explain the UR philosophy of secession—reaction in one state, as it were—and be written for a totally naive and unsuspecting audience, simply falling on them like a falcon on a duck.
Later on, well again, I repented. But it was too late. In my computer files, I found the opaque, fragmentary and erroneous MSS. below. Make of it what you will.
Secession! The word has a definite bite to it. We can’t even start to talk about secession without acknowledging the harsh toxic charge bestowed upon the word by the Confederacy, of whose sins we are all guilty. This could be punk, or just nasty—depending on your point of view.
If you are interested in a fresh look at the Confederate episode, the archive contains many excellent older sources. If not, your opinion (whatever it may be) has no particular bearing on the question of 21st-century secession—this is a standard legal term for the separation of sovereign entities, as in, say, the Velvet Divorce of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I believe the velvet in question was not cut in pillowcases and sheets.
Furthermore, even if we disregard the details of the cause, there is a crucial qualitative distinction between the 21st-century secessionist and his weird uncle from the 1860s. Whereas your Confederate was nothing if not a Southern patriot, your modern secessionist is not motivated by nationalism or tribalism. For example, while I as a Californian would love to see California strike out on its own, or better yet on several owns, in this I am not motivated by any “Californism” or “Franciscism.” These ideologies do not exist, and nor should they.
Fortunately, they cannot exist, because the polities themselves do not exist. The 20th century left America with little true political geography. A 21st-century “state” is an arbitrary administrative subdivision, not a community or polity in any sense. Multiple tribal communities, between which social connectivity is the exception, certainly exist in America today. But they are not organized along state lines, or any convenient border. They are castes, not polities.
For example, even that most distinctive of states—Texas—contains all American types. As a matter of culture, red-state Texans are not particularly different from red-state Ohioans or Oregonians. Nor are Austin hipsters particularly different from San Francisco hipsters. Conclusion: secession of any or all American states is not a way to redraw political borders to match tribal, cultural, or linguistic boundaries.
So the weird uncles might ask: well, then, why bother?
Tribalism excluded, I see only one remaining reason to either talk about secession, or actually carry it out: the tantalizing project of creating a new sovereign structure from a clean-room design in the 21st century. When implemented on existing populated territory (rather than via dynamic geography), this can be described as a reboot.
If one favors the secession of California, it is not because one feels the Schwarzenegger administration has done such a great job that it should be promoted to full sovereign stature, like the PLO. It is because one feels that the way California is being governed is entirely wrong. It is completely and utterly misguided. The political institutions of California are not in any way susceptible to repair. Rather, they require complete replacement.
And for any such thing, they cannot remain joined at the hip to Washington, DC. If one favors a reboot of California, secession is obviously a prerequisite, simply because Federal law is such an important part of the process of state government. All of USG at once could reboot, of course, or all the states could reboot separately, or California could just decide on its own that it’s too cool for school. For the purpose of this essay, we’ll consider only California.
But: besides a reboot, is there any other reason to secede? I can’t think of much.
The problem with a reboot is that there is always some old regime in your way. Said old regime typically does not want to depart this earthly bourne. And yet: anything that can’t go on forever, won’t. And when it stops going on, what will the event look like? My guess: a reboot.
Just so it’s clear what we propose to terminate, let’s briefly look at the old regime as it exists in California (and every other state). Why is Sacramento (or any state government) what it is? Why does it do what it does?
In the system of government that has brought California, once an international synonym for prosperity, promise and paradise, to its knees, there are three general decision sources: popular tradition, corrupt interests, and official expertise. The first is politically Republican; the third is politically Democratic; the second is bipartisan. Briefly, they all suck.
First source: popular tradition. Among uneducated white people, i.e., Republicans, there remains some hazy folk memory, vague, idealized and distorted, of the way California (and America in general) was governed when it was a synonym for prosperity etc. This tradition was once a governing tradition, equipped at the top end with an elite that had the talent and experience to rule. You can see it in, say, the McKinley administration, or as late as the Harding-Coolidge reaction. San Francisco is covered with wonderful, wildly incongruous, Late High American Fascist statuary from this era.
Regardless of their merits as a governing caste, the people who erected these statues are dead. Their modern equivalents, such as any are, are no one’s definition of a new ruling elite. Michael Savage is no Chauncey Depew. Any system of thought that must tailor its clothes, even reluctantly, to this audience is unlikely to turn out a suit that fits well on the truth.
Like the political thought of the late Unionist era, modern mainstream or “neo-” conservatism is an endless goldmine of truths, half-truths, insights, myths, and evasions. Conservatism can be very informative. It should not be swallowed as a pill. It requires processing and filtration. Like anything, however, it is easily believed in its entirety by fools. And a lot of fools vote.
The increasingly proletarian nature of the modern conservative movement produces a corresponding puerility, fatal to any attempt at sovereign gravitas. This pattern of prolation is seen everywhere in the late Right: the decline from Robert Taft to Sarah Palin, Enoch Powell to Nick Griffin, Metternich to Hitler, Sir Edward Carson to Johnny “Mad Dog” Adair. Is this the meme train you want to be on? Is this the mandate of heaven, or the manhole to hell?
Second source: corrupt interests. Venality is by no means inconsistent with good government—indeed, the quality of government in the UK seems to have declined almost in lockstep with personal conflicts of interest. Britannia became mistress of the world in an era in which both offices and elections were regularly bought and sold. Personal venality, for all its faults, tended to unify the interests of office and officeholder, and often increased responsibility.
But corruption today tends to consist of institutional conflicts of interest, which exhibit none of this benign quality. Besides, not even UR is perverse enough to idealize corruption. We will leave this decision source condemned by definition.
Third source: official expertise. By far the most significant source of decisions in the modern American system of government is something called public policy. In the 20th century, it was discovered that the task of governing, thought in all previous centuries to be an art requiring wisdom, talent and experience, is in fact a science, like chemistry or card-counting. This set of sciences is often described as the social sciences, a slippery name if I ever heard one.
For every class of decision a modern government makes, from diplomacy to economics to issuing fishing licences, there exists a caste of scholars in the social sciences, carefully selected for their race, gender, intelligence and/or political reliability, who use the methods of science—which, as you may know, split the atom and put a man on the moon, and is absolutely infallible—to divine the correct public policy. None of these professors is in any way, shape or form responsible for the success or failure of these policies—generally the latter. I swear I am not making this up.
Moreover, our scholars have mastered the instruments of public communication. They are treated as generally infallible sources by individuals known as journalists, who tell the public (or those of the public who still listen to them, rather than Michael Savage) what to think, hence how to vote.
This third decision source is in general the primary positive force in government today. Public-policy scholars generate a set of policy options, which can be promoted or resisted by the first two means. Even corruption, being sly by definition, inside the Beltway generally goes cloaked in the form of scientific public policy. Policy also flows into the legal system, of course, through the invisible cloaca of case law. Because its power is not seen as power per se, it can seep in through every crack.
It is here that we must part company with many of our naive, but reasonable, readers. If you are an educated progressive of normal, moderate opinions, you are probably operating under the belief that the basic problem with the system of government you observe, whose bad results are by now apparent to all, is that the third source (which is proper and legitimate) is constantly being thwarted and frustrated by the first and second (which are improper and illegitimate).
Au contraire, mon frère! America has been in the grips of the third source—the logothetes, the scientocrats, the professional planners of men—for three quarters of a century. The true rulers of our country are the professors, the journalists, the mandarins. Any feeble twitch of resistance from the continent squirming in their talons is promptly magnified, through these exquisitely sensitive and powerful information organs, into the most hideous and awful oppression. Leading you to the belief system above—so convenient to this mode of mastery.
And in this age—the age of the New Deal and the Brain Trust, neither yet ended—what has become of America? Well, for example, before the Brain Trust, Detroit was America’s fourth largest city. After 75 years of progressive public policy, it is a charred, savage ruin. Who, exactly, is responsible for this? Herbert Hoover? The Liberty League?
Inasmuch as the first and second sources—politics and corruption—have played a significant role in the period, that role has often been to moderate, test and restrain the river of lunacy flowing out of the ivory tower. But the net effect of these sources remains negative, because their continued existence—however minor—allows a regime which is predominantly that of public policy and social science to evade responsibility for its own epic incompetence, as demonstrated obviously and beyond any doubt by actual results.
But I digress. Suffice it to say that while none of these decision sources is entirely without redeeming value, each of them, considered on its own and a whole, is a foul mound of goo. And we know that all three swirled are no tasty dish, for this is Sacramento as she is today. It makes no sense at all to speak of reforming this sundae. It is clearly due for replacement. Hence secession and reboot.
I feel it is wise to forget, for a while, the problem of how exactly to terminate the old regime. How does California secede? It doesn’t. Any actual effort toward this goal is clearly not practical at the moment, and it is as unnecessary as it is premature. The first question to be answered is: what should replace the old regime?
What do you reboot to? You uninstall Windows, and install what? It is difficult to see why anyone would even begin to favor a reboot without a very clear answer to this question. If you would like to see a reboot and you don’t have some other OS you prefer (yes, I’m aware that I am mixing my system-software metaphors), perhaps you should reconsider your advocacy.
Clearly, the sovereign structures we inherited from the 20th century are not in perfect working order. We know what they are. It sucks. What should they be? What is the New California? If the three decision sources of the old regime are incompetent beyond restoration, how does the new regime decide what to do?
If we design a new government from scratch, we at least have a stab at this very tough question. If the design is actually implemented, our guess is tested. Its results should astonish and strike mute the naysayers. Of course, they could also be horrendous and/or comedic, which means we stabbed wrong.
But wait: the idea of designing government from scratch is ridiculous. When establishing a true sovereign structure, responsible to no one but God or the Devil, we can’t go around stabbing wildly in the dark. No matter what geeks we are, we must think within some box, some set of standards, some political tradition. Humans have been forming territorial political structures since well before we were chimpanzees. No fundamental innovations in this field are possible.
Worse, if we assume we are thinking from scratch, we are probably just preserving unconscious assumptions which may in reality be entirely untested. For example, you may think you are thinking from scratch, but you probably think that democracy is good, and dictatorship is evil. Has anyone ever seriously tried to convince you of the converse? If not, have you examined both sides of the question to the best of your ability? That’s what I mean by “assumption.”
So we need a collective anchor to imagine from. But we also need to think without assumptions. We need to break from tradition; we need to preserve it. The conflict is a classic design tradeoff. There is no perfect resolution.
One compromise, however, is to design the political institutions of the New California not according to the standards and traditions of government known to present public opinion—which are largely in keeping with the government California has now, which has failed—but according to some past, foreign, or otherwise alien tradition of government. (We then may face a more difficult problem of accomplishing this change. But we have agreed that the subject is out of scope.)
Since the alien tradition is an authentic sovereign tradition and a product of genuine human experience, it is no mere contrivance of geeks. But since the alien tradition is alien and hence utterly different, installing it represents a complete break with the entire way of thinking that brought Sacramento to its present abyss.
Since it is alien and hence extremely weird, no one can be tempted to leave its assumptions intact by default. Since it did exist, it is human and it will contain errors, omissions and anachronisms. Since it does not exist, no one need feel any pressure to mindlessly adopt or preserve these errors, omissions and anachronisms. Etc.
Perhaps when some think of an alien tradition, they think of modern Europe, i.e., Brussels. For example, California might bloom again if it used more of that “European airport” font, and had soothing blue road signs marked in kilometers.
Alas, this fails the alien test (as well as a few others). It is customary and understandable, though incorrect, among Americans of both political hues to consider the present European political tradition as somehow European. But “European socialism” is simply the export version of American progressivism, as installed in 1945 by the victorious bureaucrats of OWI and State. It is the thinking of Harvard in 1945—of John Kenneth Galbraith, say. In short: our old friend, public policy.
The American public-policy tradition is often purer and more recognizable in its new European home because all its native enemies were exterminated—not by intellectual means. But it is not even slightly alien, and nor can it be honestly described as European or (worse) “international.” At best you could call it Anglo-American, thanks to the Fabian influence.
There is nothing European about the EU, except that its offices are in Europe and most of its employees were born on that continent. As a matter of political tradition, not place of birth, you know who’s European? Metternich is European. You know who’s not European? George Ball is not European. Reimporting this invasive weed, and calling it a reboot, is like injecting yourself with your own leukemia and calling it a bone-marrow transplant.
Oh, no. There are no extant alien political traditions. In 2009, all is American, with occasional mutations and introgressions. For instance, the ideology of al-Qaeda is the ideology of Third World revolutionary nationalism, with a light Koranic glaze. The ideology of Third World revolutionary nationalism is the ideology of James P. Warburg, with a bandanna. And the image of John Brown is also easily recognized in the men with the box cutters. One could perhaps quarrel over the mullahs of Qom—but do we need to?
No: for a truly alien tradition, we can look only to the past. Fortunately, there exist these things called “books,” which people used to read before there was TV. Many of these books were written in the past. And the excellent people at Google have chosen in the wisdom and goodness of their hearts and wallets to put almost all the pre-1922 archive online.
For good open-source reasons alone, we must choose some tradition whose major works are largely pre-1922, and available in English. So another obvious option jumps to mind: the tradition of the American Founders, which meets both these constraints. Indeed the writings of these gentlemen are readily available—and even somewhat well-known.
This is an absolutely terrible idea—for three simple reasons:
First: we are misinterpreting the alien test. While it’s true that the American political tradition of 1789 was unrecognizably different from ours (as measured by the governments they produced), the two cannot possibly be alien, because ours is descended from it.
Second: we know there was something wrong with the American political tradition of 1789—because it evolved into the one we have now. If we somehow manage to evolve the clock back, why won’t it just spin forward again?
Third: such a transition cannot possibly be an effective reboot, because every major American political ideology today believes (in one way or another) itself to be the true and proper heir of the American political tradition of 1789. Despite the ridiculous historical and political gap between the Founders and all extant American ideologies. (Consider, for instance, Thomas Jefferson’s position on race relations.)
It’s easy for your arbitrary belief system to connect itself to the Founders. If the Founders agree with you, you are following in the footsteps of the Founders. If the Founders disagree—they would have changed their minds. Americans have spent two centuries learning to play this blithe little game, great sport of a wonderfully Jesuitical nature, and has allowed each of the various modern American ideologies to craft its own Founders and its own Old Republic.
The events of the late 18th century in North America are fascinating. Recovering the actual story behind the various layers of myth is a difficult exercise of dubious present relevance. In such a minefield of snares and delusions, nothing can be done. It is quite possible that the institutions would work perfectly if cleansed from two centuries of accumulated propaganda. Or not. In any case, the task is pointless and impossible.
Any restoration of the Old Republic, no matter how well-intentioned, will end up as yet another autologous cancer transplant. The same old nasties will sneak back in, powdering their hair and wearing their three-cornered hats, claiming to be just as patriotic and American-spirited as anyone else. It’s certainly not that they don’t know how.
To prevent this exploit, we see, our alien political tradition must be truly alien. Whatever the New California is, it is not New unless it is genuinely un-American. It is the foreignness of the alien tradition that allows all sensible people to regard it sensibly, clearly and afresh.
Perhaps the most sophisticated approach now popular was that devised by Murray Rothbard, the inventor of modern libertarianism. Many, if not most, modern secessionists are libertarians. While this philosophy has many fine qualities, and I myself followed it for many years, I do not believe it is a viable intellectual foundation for a reboot. Let me explain why.
Libertarianism is at least no more than a cousin of the American tradition. Rothbard chose to revive the British tradition that in the 19th century was commonly known as Manchester liberalism, rename it classical liberalism—presumably to prevent Morrissey from flooding unexpectedly into our heads—and reintroduce it into the 1970s. Rothbard was a titan and this was one of his many titanic works, but it did not really have the results intended.
First, libertarianism is not alien enough. Although the Manchester liberals (intellectuals like Mill and Spencer, politicians like Cobden and Bright) were a primarily British movement, they were also the present incarnation of the English Radical party, who were America’s sponsors in Whitehall to begin with.
Thus we see genuine links to libertarianism in the Founding—and thus we repeat the entire tawdry process of reinventing our own Founders. Libertarianism is inescapably invested in the fatal, fruitless battle of political mythology. It cannot avoid pretending to be the True American Way, because it has a real case for this title. It thus descends, willing or not, into the swamp of symbolic flag-waving. (To be fair, Rothbard’s four-volume history of the early colonies is a fascinating read, but its judgments should be swallowed with salt.)
But this is a comparatively trivial point. Regardless of whether you accept the alien strategy, the real faults of libertarianism, as a vehicle for a reboot, are easy to demonstrate logically. First, though, let’s talk about its virtues.
First: Libertarianism correctly identifies one pathological symptom of the 20th-century state: sovereign bloat. The government is way, way too big. It employs too many people, it intrudes into far too many things, it makes far too many rules. This cannot be healthy. It isn’t.
Second: Libertarianism is no mere geekfest, because it can claim genuine experience in power—broadly speaking, the middle to late 19th century in both Britain and the United States. Cobden and Bright were not victorious in all their causes, but certainly in many. Mill and Spencer were not Mao and Marx, but they were remarkably influential. For example, I know for a fact that San Francisco once had eleven independent, private cable car companies, so I know that private transportation systems can work in the real world.
Third: Libertarianism appeals to the most basic human political belief, the desire for personal independence. It is impossible to give words like freedom or liberty negative connotations. Thus, libertarianism should be popular as well as desirable.
Having acknowledged these virtues, let us see the vices.
First, libertarians often argue that libertarianism is a moral necessity. Through various Jesuitical tricks of the tongue, your Rothbardian is always deriving ought from is. The merits of Hume aside, I have seldom found this approach an effective means of proselytizing. You’ll note that socialists, too, believe that socialism is a moral necessity. There are a lot more socialists than libertarians.
Second, if we disregard the possibility that it is divinely ordained, libertarianism fails as a reboot vehicle because it is an outcome rather than a design. The assertion that the New California will be libertarian is like the statement that the bridge you are building will stay up. Will it? How do you plan to make it do so? The United States was supposed to be libertarian, too, and we see what happened to that.
Other than an unhealthy fascination with overlapping jurisdictions, an even more unhealthy fascination with actual anarchy, and a healthy distrust of democracy, libertarianism contains no ideas at all on the subject of constitutional design. It cannot be interpreted as an instruction sequence for a reboot.
Third, even as an outcome, libertarianism reduces to tautology. Suppose you are a libertarian. You must, therefore, believe that libertarianism is (generally) prudent government. That is, a prudent government is likely to be minimal and confine itself mostly to achieving security. I am happy to agree with this as well.
But in this case, why not just insist on the whole shebang—prudent government? If we can write some magic incantation that restrains the New California from any un-libertarian act, why not write the incantation slightly more broadly, and restrain it from any imprudent act? Is there some reason that one incantation would work, and another fail?
Fourth, you’ll note that libertarianism is a sort of formula for government. To the orthodox believer, whatever the question, free trade is always the answer. I will buy “generally,” but I will not buy “always.” Prudence does conflict with libertarianism, and prudence must win.
No job worthy of a human can be removed from human hands. And the task of governing is perhaps the most human of all, which is why Shakespeare wrote all those plays about kings. Show me someone with a formula which can replace a human, and I will show you a quack. To get any job done right, find people who are good at it, and give them both authority and responsibility. Government is not exempt from this basic observation.
But divided-authority regimes often find themselves adopting these quack formulas, because such organization is constantly in search of agreement between contending factions. It is always easier for A and B to agree on a decision formula, than to award the decision to A or B. Indeed, any division of authority involves some such formula—for instance, to implement Montesquieu’s good old separation of powers, we must define “legislative,” “judicial” and “executive.”
Fifth—and worst of all, though most subtly—libertarianism will always fail as a revolt against progressivism, because libertarianism contains, at its core, a shard of pure Left. This gives it power, or the semblance thereof. But it is a mistake, like using the Ring against Sauron, and just as fatal.
Cobden and Bright were Radicals, i.e., leftists. The party of the left, on the bottom, or on the top is always the party of chaos. Out of power, it vandalizes; in power, it tyrannizes. All leftist ideologies generate power—the believer implicitly joins a coalition, whose goal is to wield collective force. This is basic chimpanzee politics.
Since the simplest form of power is the power to destroy, leftist forces tend to come to power in a flurry of institutional destruction. But since some things do need destroying, it is easy to identify positive side effects of the process. This must not be mistaken for evidence that leftism is a good idea.
Manchester liberalism, as a branch of the English Radical tradition, was an ideology of the left. It generated its power through an economic attack on the old landed aristocracy of England, including any and all medieval economic and political survivals. Once that aristocracy, which had guided the Sceptered Isle to its position as the queen of nations, was fully vandalized and liberal intellectuals were firmly in the saddle, libertarianism no longer helped the Radicals achieve power, but prevented them from gaining more. It was thus a liability, not an asset, and thus it disappeared. So did Britain’s greatness, of course.
Thus, we blow up libertarianism. What is left? Nothing. Where are we going with all this?
What we’ve shown so far is that all the obvious plans for constituting the New California are, in a word, half-baked. We don’t see a realistic and coherent alternative to keeping things as they are. We have no viable ideas at all for the New California, and what we have learned is no more—and no less—than this: the perfect nature of our ignorance.
This is not surprising, because we are still resisting genuine change. All the traditions we’ve examined so far can be, and typically are, marketed as restorations, not replacements, of the American political tradition. From a sales perspective, this is perhaps ideal—but why are we selling, when we don’t have a product?
From an engineering perspective, this constraint is constantly shooting us in the foot. California is seceding not because the American system of government is a success, but because it is a failure. Why are we restoring, when we set out to reboot? Why, for our alien tradition, are we looking only at branches of the broad Anglo-American liberal democratic tradition, when this is the design that failed us in the first place?
We need to broaden our minds and start looking at the illiberal, anti-democratic, un-American opponents of the traditions we have been considering. After all, the liberals of the 19th century shared one broad belief: that American democracy was the wave of the future, that its vices were ephemeral and its virtues eternal, that the whole world should learn from it and blossom. They, no less than their opponents, agreed that America was an experiment in government. They were confident that this experiment would succeed. They would have been comfortable in allowing their beliefs to be judged by this success. Should we condescend to them, by overlooking this?
When California secedes, it renders its verdict: the experiment has not succeded. The American political tradition is not a winner. America remains an excellent place full of excellent people. It has many assets. Washington is not one of them. Nor is Sacramento. Moreover, when the American system of government is exported, the results seem either mediocre (Europe) or disastrous (Latin America, Africa, etc.).
Therefore, we conclude that if America seemed successful in the past, it succeeded not because of American democracy, but despite it. The past apparent success of the American experiment was in fact due to the unique situation of America: a vast, empty continent with a self-selected, energetic and intelligent population of voluntary immigrants. So we ask: who predicted this? Not the liberals, classical or otherwise.
In our search for reboot traditions, we have missed an important criterion. We have forgotten to ask, using the benefit of hindsight, who was right. Exhibit A: UR’s favorite 19th-century sage, Carlyle. From the dark heart of Carlyle, the Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850):
But there is one modern instance of Democracy nearly perfect, the Republic of the United States, which has actually subsisted for threescore years or more, with immense success as is affirmed; to which many still appeal, as to a sign of hope for all nations, and a ‘Model Republic.’ Is not America an instance in point? Why should not all Nations subsist and flourish on Democracy as America does? […] Deduct what they carried with them from England ready-made,—their common English Language and that same Constitution, or rather elixir of constitutions, their inveterate and now, as it were inborn, reverence for the Constable’s Staff; two quite immense attainments which England had to spend much blood, and valiant sweat of brow and brain, for centuries long in achieving;—and what new elements of polity or nationhood, what noble new phasis of human arrangement, or social device worthy of Prometheus or of Epimetheus, yet comes to light in America? Cotton crops and Indian corn and dollars come to light; and half a world of untilled land, where populations that respect the constable can live, for the present, without Government: this comes to light; and the profound sorrow of all nobler hearts, here uttering itself as silent patient unspeakable ennui, there coming out as vague elegiac wailings, that there is still next to nothing more. ‘Anarchy plus a street constable:’ that also is anarchic to me and other than quite lovely!
I foresee too that, long before the waste lands are full, the very street-constable, on these poor terms, will have become impossible: without the waste lands, as here in our Europe, I do not see how he conld continue possible many weeks. Cease to brag to me of America, and its model institutions and constitutions. To men in their sleep there is nothing granted in this world: nothing, or as good as nothing, to men that sit idly caucusing and ballot boxing on the graves of their heroic ancestors, saying “It is well, it is well!” Corn and bacon are granted: not a very sublime boon, on such conditions; a boon moreover which, on such conditions, cannot last! No: America too will have to strain its energies, in quite other fashion than this; to crack its sinews, and all but break its heart, as the rest of us have had to do, in thousandfold wrestle with the Pythons and mud demons, before it can become a habitation for the gods. America’s battle is yet to fight; and we, sorrowful though nothing doubting, will wish her strength for it. New Spiritual Pythons, plenty of them; enormous Megatherions, as ugly as were ever born of mud, loom huge and hideous out of the twilight Future on America; and she will have her own agony, and her own victory, but on other terms than she is yet quite aware of.
Now: one can be forgiven for not quite following this. Easily forgiven! But whatever Carlyle meant by enormous Megatherions, as ugly as were ever born of mud—a shiver runs down our spines, the unmistakable sense of prophecy confirmed.
And the water clears slightly when we watch Carlyle address our exact problem:
The practical question puts itself with ever-increasing stringency to all English minds: Can we, by no industry, energy, utmost expenditure of human ingenuity, and passionate invocation of the Heavens and Earth, get to attain some twelve or ten or six men to manage the affairs of this nation in Downing Street and the chief posts elsewhere, who are abler for the work than those we have been used to, this long while? For it is really a heroic work, and cannot be done by histrios, and dexterous talkers having the honor to be: it is a heavy and appalling work; and, at the starting of it especially, will require Herculean men; such mountains of pedant exuviae and obscene owl-droppings have accumulated in those regions, long the habitation of doleful creatures; the old pavements, the natural facts and real essential functions of those establishments, have not been seen by eyes for these two hundred years last past! Herculean men acquainted with the virtues of running water, and with the divine necessity of getting down to the clear pavements and old veracities; who tremble before no amount of pedant exuviae, no loudest shrieking of doleful creatures; who tremble only to live, themselves, like inane phantasms, and to leave their life as a paltry contribution to the guano mountains, and not as a divine eternal protest against them! […] What these strange Entities in Downing Street intrinsically are; who made them, why they were made; how they do their function; and what their function, so huge in appearance, may in net-result amount to,—is probably known to no mortal. The unofficial mind passes by in dark wonder; not pretending to know. The official mind must not blab;—the official mind, restricted to its own square foot of territory in the vast labyrinth, is probably itself dark, and unable to blab. We see the outcome; the mechanism we do not see. How the tailors clip and sew, in that sublime sweating establishment of theirs, we know not: that the coat they bring us out is the sorrowfulest fantastic mockery of a coat, a mere intricate artistic network of traditions and formalities, an embroiled reticulation made of web-listings and superannuated thrums and tatters, endurable to no grown Nation as a coat, is mournfully clear!
In other words: a clean slate and adult supervision. What more could we ask for?
The irony of Carlyle’s owl-droppings and guano-mounds, of course, is that the British state of the mid-19th century was by any standard one of the most efficient and effective in history. And yet: no running water was forthcoming. And no prophet is now necessary to detect the presence of substantial bird manure.
This is just a taste. We could entertain ourselves all afternoon with Carlyle. All year. And nor is he the only illiberal, anti-democratic, un-American thinker of the 19th century. Not by a long shot! Carlyle happens to be such a titanic figure that his name could not quite be airbrushed out of intellectual history, but needless to say he has no living heirs.
Our alien tradition, broadly described, is the classical European tradition of political thought. This is a deeper, faster and colder river than the American democratic tradition, which largely rejects all pre-American political thought—even the Greeks and Romans, whose opinion of democracy was much the same as Carlyle’s. “Plato? Aristotle? Socrates? Morons.” That would be you, O worshiper at the altar of the People.
The most accessible examples of the classical tradition are not Continental but British, and date to the Victorian and Edwardian eras. They are aristocratic, monarchist, imperialist, colonialist. They are, as promised, deeply strange and troubling, and imperfect in many regards. But they are alien, no doubt of it, and real.
The classical tradition of political thought is a great one, and we could discuss its pros and cons forever. Let’s just take an example, however. As libertarians—that is, people who believe that minimal government is good government—we seek metrics for the weight of the State. One obvious such metric is the ratio of governors to governed, i.e., civil servants to serfs.
And who is the grand champion in this category? I have not run the numbers—but one strong candidate must be the British Raj, in which a century ago 250 million Indians were governed by 1000 Englishmen. Without computers, etc. If we could apply the same ratio to the New California, which admittedly is a big if, it would be the size of a large startup. Minimal enough for ya?
So, without exploring the classical tradition further, let me simply state and explain its result, as I see it. Which is this: there is only one structure of government that can save California, and only one worth seceding for. That structure is dictatorship.
California needs a dictator—a single man or woman, who wields absolute and undivided authority. And is not afraid to use it. Of course, our dictator must be prudent. Here is our shortening of the way to prudent government: a prudent dictator. Some things are just simple.
After antiquity, the towering figure in classical political thought is Machiavelli. So don’t take it from me. Take it from the Discourses on Livy:
But we must take it as a rule to which there are very few if any exceptions, that no commonwealth or kingdom ever has salutary institutions given it from the first or has its institutions recast in an entirely new mould, unless by a single person. On the contrary, it must be from one man that it receives its institutions at first, and upon one man that all similar reconstruction must depend. For this reason the wise founder of a commonwealth who seeks to benefit not himself only, or the line of his descendants, but his State and country, must endeavour to acquire an absolute and undivided authority.
I.e., if you want to reboot, you need a dictator. Do Californians want a New California? Then they need to get it together, strap on a pair of balls and hire themselves a dictator.
Or if you cling to our modern professors, ponder the oxymoron of phronetic social science. As I suspect Professor Flyvbjerg is aware, there is one fast path to phronesis (i.e., prudence): a phronetic dictator. Certainly few phronetic committees, processes, “sciences,” etc., are known to history. Thus we might describe dictatorship as the auteur theory of government.
Our toxic charge is back with a vengeance. If you are an average American, there is no form of government you more despise than dictatorship. And for the average libertarian, this goes double. As we’ve seen, libertarianism has a left-wing core. And nothing is more right-wing than a freakin’ dictator.
(On the bright side, if secession is starting to sell because of, not despite, its hard historical bite, what could be even more punk? But remember also that dictatorship was a perfectly normal institution of the Roman Republic. If you need to be a total fag about it, try a faux Roman pronunciation, e.g., rhymed with “lick that whore.”)1
Note that we could use a euphemism. We could say that California needs a “CEO,” or that it should be “run like a startup,” or that it should report to a “single plenary administrator.” All of these would mean exactly the same thing. But this is where you get into creepy, because you’re sugaring the pill. A dictator is a dictator. You have to just suck it up and take the punch. California needs a dictator—a prudent, responsible dictator, of course.
Where do you find a prudent, responsible dictator? An excellent question. Let us answer.
To the extent that there is anything like reason behind your fear and loathing of dictators, you might answer that a dictator ordered the Holocaust. Very true. You might also mention that not only did this dictator conceive himself as restoring the European tradition from the slings and arrows of Anglo-American democracy, but he was also a considerable fan of none other than—Carlyle. Indeed the line from Carlyle to fascism is not at all hard to trace.
And what of it? The line from Carlyle to socialism is not at all hard to trace, either—as La Wik puts it:
These ideas were influential on the development of Socialism, but—like the opinions of many deep thinkers of the time—are also considered to have influenced the rise of Fascism.
Thus we may charge Carlyle not only with Hitler, but also with Stalin. Both dictators! You see what these dictators do.
Of course, we are on equally safe ground in noting that both Hitler’s party and Stalin’s originated as political parties, and reading both genocidal maniacs as accidents of democracy. We may also note that the first two attempts at post-Greek democracy produced the Articles of Confederation and the Reign of Terror, i.e., a failure and a disaster. Surely confirming the conventional view. So why did anyone keep trying?
In reality, the 20th century is an especially bad century to draw examples from. History records personal government as more the rule than the exception, and it records only one Hitler. It also records only one Elizabeth I, only one Frederick II, and only one Pitt the Elder. If we must restrict ourselves to the last century, we see one Lee Kuan Yew, one FDR (who did not quite hold personal undivided authority, but close), and one Deng Xiaoping. What generalizations can possibly be drawn from this set? None at all. Social science is not much for individuals.
What we do know, from the Hitler example, is that an imprudent, incompetent or irresponsible dictator is dangerous. But data is not needed to tell us this. Logic tells us just the same. Indeed, if history tells us anything, it tells us that bad government is extremely unsafe. In accepting the risks of a reboot, we accept this fact.
The difference between an airplane that flies, and one that crashes and burns, may be as small as a single untightened nut. The difference between a toxic drug and a safe one may be one atom. Have past airplanes crashed? They have. Do we fly? We do. If a pharmacologist tests a drug and finds that it works but is toxic, does he discard the whole mechanism? Or does he search for a similar drug, which works but isn’t toxic?
But enough of this hairsplitting. Let’s look at how New California works as a dictatorship. We will assume that you, the reader, are supervising this process in some slightly divine capacity.
First, you must find your dictator. Or Dictator—dignity demands the majuscule. And while the position is gender-neutral beyond a doubt, some pronoun is demanded, and our discussion will be softer and more pleasant if we select the distaff.
To find your Dictator, use some objective if crude responsibility test to select the right 50% or so of California’s most responsible, adult citizens. A good test will find responsible citizens from all backgrounds and generations. Let’s say X is an objectively responsible citizen of California if X owns a house, is a college graduate, is a veteran, or is married with children. Obviously, not everyone responsible is caught in this filter and not everyone irresponsible is excluded. It is a broad and arbitrary test. Life in the New California will be glorious, but it will not be fair.
Persons found on this test are dubbed proprietors. Collectively, the proprietors are the Foundation. The proprietor’s membership right in the Foundation is an F-share. An F-share is not a human right—after the initial distribution, no more are created. The Dictator is responsible to the Foundation, which selects through some elective process a Board, which hires some expensive executive-search consultant to help it find a Dictator. Candidates should have extensive management experience in other dynamic, diverse world-class enterprises.
Initially, the F-shares are nontransferable and pay no dividend. The Dictator is politically responsible (through the Board) to the Foundation. In much the same sense that Hitler was politically responsible to the Nazi Party. Without actual superpowers, a dictator can be absolute, but not irresponsible.
Note the difference here: the Foundation isn’t the Nazi Party. It is perhaps best to think of it as an extremely large jury. The responsibility test not only renders this jury much more reliable, but disrupts all political structures that existed under universal suffrage. It is especially important that no new F-shares be issued, because this will quickly land you right back at universal suffrage. Proprietorship is a coincidence, not a human right.
Over time, this political responsibility is designed to convert itself into financial responsibility. Under the Dictatorship, New California will blossom, because the financial interests of its proprietors will correspond to the personal interests of its residents—just as in any business. If financial efficiency is assumed, it can be presumed that the Dictator will act to maximize property values in the New California, i.e., more or less turn the state into Monaco with national parks. The old California will be a distant memory, and not a very pretty one.
Thus, perhaps after five years (once the finances are cleaned up), the F-shares start paying dividends, and perhaps after another five they become transferable and exchange-traded, and perhaps after another ten they can be held outside California. When you sell an F-share, of course, the vote (and the honorary title of proprietor, which confers no other rights) go with it.
This design starts as the time-honored constitutional design of timocracy, which in Rome, Athens, and Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries proved stable and brilliantly successful. It segues (if the timocracy so approves, of course) into a more daring modern design of my own, neocameralism, which tries to emulate the great success and scalability of the joint-stock corporation at the sovereign level.
If the Foundation does not, upon reflection, approve of this latter scheme, it can stay a timocracy. As John Jay (if you must have a mugwump) put it: “A country should be governed by those who own it.” And whatever he meant by this, he meant what I mean, or if he didn’t he would have changed his mind.
Thus you have your Dictator. Now: point her at the owl-droppings.
Unlike the pathetic, shrunken Austrian who holds the position today, the Dictator starts on day one with full plenary power over every arm, branch or tentacles of the old state of California. If her first act is to order the LAPD to arrest the ex-Governator and throw him in Alcatraz, they will no doubt take great pleasure in exactly this act. If the mayor of LA wants to tag along in the same jailbus, there is plenty of room on the Rock. When she fills up the Rock, there’s always Modoc County. The Dictator is a dictator, not a clerk. She is responsible to the Foundation, to her own conscience, and to no one else’s rules or regulations. This is the whole point of sovereignty.
That said, the Dictator takes the grasp-the-nettle view on security. She believes that firmness prevents anger. Dictatorship is like parenting: any failure to enforce authority damages it. Conflict is the result of weakness, not strength. The Dictator never makes this mistake. Because she has the power to govern New California as a police state, she has the freedom to operate it as a libertarian utopia.
Outside security, the Dictator’s task is essentially that of a corporate turnaround specialist, perhaps with some additional postgraduate training in exorcism, asbestos removal and crime-scene sanitation. Her goal is to understand the reality of the enterprise that is California; remove all nonproductive organs; identify all state debts, and convert debts paid in services to debts paid in cash; and yes, even expand the enterprise, where that is appropriate. (If nothing else, there will be a lot of unemployed civil servants who can be moved to barracks and used for glorified yard work, WPA-style.)
It is probably best to assume that none of the agencies in Sacramento will be preserved in its present form. An easy way to start with that assumption is to put the headquarters of the New California somewhere else, such as San Francisco. A new civil service, of top startup quality, must certainly be hired. Perhaps some Googlers could be drafted.
But I want to focus on security, because this is most people’s concern when it comes to living under a Dictatorship. Should the residents of the New California feel secure?
For example, suppose your resident is a Jew. The Dictator could turn into Mrs. Hitler, and order him (and all other Jews) killed. Of course, the Board would probably stop her some time before this… but. I can certainly imagine scenarios under which this design goes south, especially if it stays in the timocratic mode. On the other hand, all these scenarios seem to pass through democracy as the first breakdown stage.
Indeed the main danger in this design is that it will degrade into democracy—for instance, the Foundation will develop factional patterns which will propagate into the Board. The Dictator will then lose genuine independence and become a factional tool. This is ruinous, of course, and will probably lead in the long run to universal suffrage, as factions compete for new voters. The transition to a financial, rather than political, model of control is the main mechanism that prevents this failure mode, which can indeed lead (in the long, long, long run) to Hitler.
Thus your residents should feel quite secure against the deadly catastrophe of insane government, because in the New California they are living under a regime with strong engineering guarantees that the government will be basically sane. They will note that this was not the case in the past. The comparison will definitely not escape anyone.
We now must ask: are the residents of California secure against sane government? This is a far more interesting question. The answer is, of course, that it depends on your resident. It also depends on your definition of security.
The theory of sovereign security under which the Dictator (who is nothing if not sane) operates is a needs pyramid, much like Maslow’s hierarchy. When you can’t breathe, drinking is irrelevant. When you are dying of thirst, you have no interest in eating. When you are dying of hunger, you have no interest in sex. And so on.
In the Dictator’s book (small, and red), there are four levels of sovereign security. These are peace, order, law, and freedom. Once you have each one, you can work on the next. But it makes no sense to speak of order without peace, law without order, or freedom without law.
Peace is simply the absence of war. The Dictator’s first goal is to achieve peace, preferably honorably and with victory. There is no telling what wars New California will be embroiled in at the time of its birth, so I will decline to discuss the matter further. But in war, of course, there is no order; war is pure chaos. Thus we see our first rule of hierarchy.
Once peace is achieved, the Dictator’s goal is order. Order is a subtle concept, but it can best be understood by postulating the Dictator as a god: omnipotent and omniscient. Direct rule of will by an actual, omnipotent, omniscient, real-life god constitutes ideal order.
The Dictator is not a god. So her definition of order is slightly reduced. The Dictator need not know or control everything; she does not see every sparrow fall, she cannot pluck any one blade of grass. Nor does she need to. However, her order is defective if her authority or awareness is resisted, or in any significant way incomplete.
(Note that the Dictator’s power is no greater and no less than that held by the present authorities. They, too, cannot be resisted. All limitation of government, if it is not weakness and disorder, is consigned to the prudence of human officials. The Dictator is prudent, too, and there is a lot less red tape in her office.)
Here are some random facts about the present California which, I feel, are violations of order. The major cities are full of racist paramilitary gangs. Large sections of them are unsafe at night. Other sections are unsafe by day. Millions of people are in California illegally. California has no secure list of the people who are authorized to reside there, nor does it know the addresses and occupations of its residents, nor does it have their biometric identities. If an unlocked bicycle is left on the street, it will be stolen. Many Californians are idle despite not being independently wealthy. Many schools approach the zoological. Graffiti is everywhere, as is garbage. Etc., etc. (You’ll note that by the global standards of 2009, California is actually quite orderly.)
To the residents of the New California, after a few years of the Dictatorship, any of these phenomena would be as shocking as the sight of a live rhinoceros walking down the street. More to the point, they would be about as shocking as the exact same phenomena would to the residents of California in 1909. The Dictator’s theory is that all recent earthquakes in California are caused by these individuals spinning in their graves. Her regime should thus end this menace as well.
(Libertarians: note that at present, your risk of having your human rights violated by a private actor is much greater than your risk of having your human rights violated by a state actor. Which hurts more? A cop hitting you over the head with a club, or a mugger hitting you over the head with a club? In my mind, they hurt about the same. Thus, as a libertarian, my most serious complaint against the State is not any alleged abuses of the security forces, but its tolerance of widespread anarchy and disorder—by several orders of magnitude.)
Once order is achieved, the next step is law. Obviously, the old laws of California were entirely abrogated by the establishment of the Dictatorship, with which they are quite inconsistent. In establishing order, the Dictator does not need law. She has direct command of the security forces. Again, there is no law without order—our second rule of hierarchy.
With order, law can be restored. But few lawyers, and no non-lawyers, can be found who believe that the present legal system of California is fair, efficient, and just. Therefore, one of the Dictator’s first priorities is to recodify the law—taking another tip from Frederick the Great. In fact, Frederick’s code (or a later successor) might be an excellent starting point. You are rebooting, after all.
A sovereign operating under the rule of law is not, contrary to several centuries of Whig horsepucky, a sovereign bound by the rule of law.2 It is a sovereign which chooses to abide by the rule of law. It declares a consistent and stable set of rules by which everyone in New California, Dictator included, can live and work and play nice with each other.
Ideally, because New California is in a state of order, the Dictator does not need to deploy her prerogative, which is her sovereign right to violate her own law. By maintaining this blissful state, the Dictator does not abandon the prerogative and allow it to decay (as Charles I did), but reaffirms and justifies it. If order threatens to lapse, the LAPD is still on line 1.
Finally, from law we reach the ultimate state: freedom. As libertarians know, freedom is the state of minimal government. Once the Dictator has turned California into Prussia, she feels free to relax and let everyone chill out a little. New California is a money-making proposition, but it is also California. It doesn’t pay to be too uptight.
Obviously, without law there can be no freedom—our third rule of hierarchy. One can live a perfectly normal life in a pure police state under martial law, but it is always ever so slightly stressful.
A Dictator attentive to the goal of freedom will be constantly pruning the edges of the law, trimming it back, reducing it, creating more space for personal self-actualization, giving residents more and more privacy guarantees. Without, of course, jeopardizing her achievement in creating law and order in the first place.
Freedom, like anything else in government, is an art. Californians today simply have no idea of all the ways in which their life is made duller, more rigid, and more monotonous by unnecessary rules. For example, the rules by which businesses are forced to play, of which their customers know nothing, limit the types of business that exist. Overconstrained building codes ensure dull, monotonous and expensive buildings. Etc., etc., etc.
But freedom is not a function of “rights.” (It is certainly not a function of your political power.) It is a function of your actual personal independence. Similarly, privacy (which is a form of freedom) is a function of your actual personal security. If the Dictator will not tell you what to do, if she will not snoop into your desk drawer or your car or your computer, in what sense is it an injury to you that she could tell you what to do, she could snoop? Isn’t your skin a little thin?
Thus we see the paradox of the Dictatorship: freedom achieved through authority. This is a paradox quite alien to Anglo-American political thought, but well-known in the East. “Confucius compares a virtuous prince to the North Pole in which he finds himself: he does not move, and everything turns around him.” Our Dictator is of course that virtuous prince—or princess.
This simple principle of wu wei is the instinctive spirit behind libertarianism. Once we understand it as the pinnacle of the sovereign’s pyramid of needs, we can see the easy but fatal mistake the libertarian makes.
Quite simply, (policy) libertarians mistake disorder for freedom. They believe it is possible to make government smaller, and achieve wu wei, by weakening and dividing sovereign authority.
While this is in some senses true—disorder can certainly be quite a liberating experience—it never lasts. In the short term there can be such a thing as benign anarchy, but in the long term never. And since power is easy to divide, but hard to unify, the long-term result is always more duplication, less unity of authority and responsibility, and a bigger, nastier government. Thus the attempt to quash the enormous Megatherions is the exact food on which they thrive.