Is there anyone else in the room who’s here because he’s just plain embarrassed by the present world? The past is a foreign country, someone once said. If the past is a foreign country, someone else said, a reactionary is a patriot of that country. Almost an exile from it.
And unlike the presentist, who sees the past as a tiny, backward and contemptible province of his vast eternal present, the reactionary knows the opposite. The present is a province of the past. Yes, it’s true—like any province, it has its specialties. The food, for instance. The iPads—superb. The movies—never better.
But overall! Stuck here like Ovid among the Pontic Greeks, Augustus beyond deaf to all appeal, the civilized man can only murmur: barbarus hic ego sum.1 Does he wish for friends? He has no shortage—he could not imagine better. No, what he really needs is a better grade of critics. The bar is too low. And when you’re trying—absurdly of course, but with real feeling—to write sub specie aeternitatis, that’s what kills ya.
In Rome, of course, critics were no problem. Out here in Pontus, it’s pretty much all, you talk like a fag. What makes the provincial critic so grimly, hilariously terrible is that he imagines himself not just equal to the wits of the metropolis, but vastly superior. Is it even possible to respond? Shall the man of letters respond: “Excuse me, ‘Dr. Lexus,’ but I am resolutely heterosexual—as if it mattered—and ‘my shit,’ as you call it, is anything but ‘all retarded’?”
But the present world, province though it be, has some advantages. It does exist and we do have to live here. So, from one barbarian to another, perhaps a brief comment is in order.
Not to the original source. Argue with Dr. Lexus? Really? With Mr. Jones? When Mr. Jones is not quite sure whether he’s a belletrist or a Stasi-Mann (apparently “Doxing 101” is the cornerstone of the media and communications major these days at Pontus State); when neither he nor his undoubtedly overworked copy editor can balance a quote, place a comma, or master the mysterious art of the proper noun—forget it, Ovid. It’s Pontus.
No, obviously no one should ever respond to a journalist. (Or a Stasi-Mann.) It’s a mistake to think these people have opinions. They have careers. They’re paid by the click and not paid well. If you or I had Mr. Jones’ job, we’d write what he writes or lose it—maybe in slightly better English. It’s a mistake to anthropomorphize Mr. Jones. He’s a piece in a machine.
The basic nature of constitutional government is the formalization of power, and democracy is the formalization of mob violence. Why is America’s constitution democratic? Because the Puritan mob drove Charles I (who, like Louis XVI and Nicholas II, was basically just a nice guy) out of London in 1642. In a present world where mob violence is a thing of the past, we wouldn’t expect to see genuine demotic opinion actually matter in the political process—much as we wouldn’t expect to see feudal knights matter in a world that’s invented the musket. For instance, the closest thing America has to a non-astroturf political force is the Tea Party. Which doesn’t even litter. Nor does it matter, and this is not a coincidence.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call journalism the last real remnant of American democracy. The job is about two things: minting clicks for slave wages, and feeling important. (You might say that journalists are paid both in money and in power.) Anything that can produce a good Two Minutes’ Hate punches both buttons. If one Mr. Jones misses it, the next won’t. I’ve seen the future of journalism in America. It’s called Upworthy. It’s exactly what Pontus both demands and deserves.
Fortunately, the Pontic mob has both the attention and the testicles of a gnat, and its bite-to-bark ratio is really difficult to understate. Since I regret everything pathetic in the present world, and especially the death of all kings, I mourn even King Mob. (After all, Priestley got exactly what he deserved.) In this case, though…
Anyway. So much for Mr. Jones. But Pontus does offer its rewards, even intellectually. When I think of the Pontic critics, my mind turns always to Buck Harkness. The tragedy of Buck Harkness, “half a man,” is that he was born with all the ingredients to be a Colonel Sherburn. But nurture played him false—the bar was too low. In Pontus, half a man is all the best of men can be. (In Rome, I’d be instantly exposed as a ridiculous poser for talking about Ovid when I never even learned Latin. Whereas in Pontus, just the fact that I’ve heard of Ovid makes me sound like a fag.)
Take David Brin. Insomuch as Pontus has real writers—real critics, even—Brin is one. When I was twelve I read one of his books and really enjoyed it. Something about superintelligent mutant dolphins in an alien ocean. He has ideas, too—I’ve been meaning to read this for a while. It’s not terribly controversial to me, and, you know, 20th-century ideas. When there’s so much of Maistre I haven’t gotten to yet. But it offended a lot of the usual Pontic pundits, and who can argue with that?
But really. Your Pontic Buck Harkness shows no signs of ever having read anything pre-1922, except inasmuch as he was maybe assigned an excerpt from it in college. Colonel Sherburn shouldn’t have to argue with Buck Harkness and his mob. If he’s really Colonel Sherburn, he just sends them home. It’s less a fight than an episode of Knockout Game.
So for instance, Brin seems very big on the Enlightenment. It would be interesting to know the last book from the Enlightenment he read. If he’s read any. My suspicion is that what he reveres is not actually the actual Enlightenment, but the “Enlightenment” as taught in 20th-century universities. Did you know that powdered eggs are actually made from actual eggs? Imagine a science-fiction dystopia in which, perhaps on board your starship, you ate powdered eggs for breakfast every day. Eggs, to you, are powdered eggs. Real eggs are illegal. Or something. But one day, someone smuggles an actual chicken on board…
When I think of the Enlightenment, for instance, the man who jumps to mind is Hume. Pontus is a busy place and perhaps you don’t have time to appreciate Hume yourself. I’ve read a good bit of his History of England, which is excellent and really ought to be updated in the proper spirit. But I’ll just quote Wikipedia, which of course contains the truth on all subjects:
David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism. He was one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment.
Unfortunately for Buck Harkness, Hume’s ideal form of government was… a “civilized monarchy”:
In a civilized monarchy, the prince alone is unrestrained in the exercise of his authority, and possesses alone a power, which is not bounded by any thing but custom, example, and the sense of his own interest. Every minister or magistrate, however eminent, must submit to the general laws, which govern the whole society, and must exert the authority delegated to him after the manner, which is prescribed. The people depend on none but their sovereign, for the security of their property. He is so far removed from them, and is so much exempt from private jealousies or interests, that this dependence is scarcely felt. And thus a species of government arises, to which, in a high political rant, we may give the name of Tyranny, but which, by a just and prudent administration, may afford tolerable security to the people, and may answer most of the ends of political society.
But though in a civilized monarchy, as well as in a republic, the people have security for the enjoyment of their property; yet in both these forms of government, those who possess the supreme authority have the disposal of many honours and advantages, which excite the ambition and avarice of mankind. The only difference is, that, in a republic, the candidates for office must look downwards, to gain the suffrages of the people; in a monarchy, they must turn their attention upwards, to court the good graces and favour of the great. To be successful in the former way, it is necessary for a man to make himself useful, by his industry, capacity, or knowledge: To be prosperous in the latter way, it is requisite for him to render himself agreeable, by his wit, complaisance, or civility. A strong genius succeeds best in republics; a refined taste in monarchies. And consequently the sciences are the more natural growth of the one, and the polite arts of the other.
Moreover, when we read the Enlightenment, we pay it very little respect indeed if we read it as if it was the Bible. Hume today would both read and judge himself, and so must we.
For instance, Hume genuinely believed that the way to gain “the suffrages of the people” was for a politician to “make himself useful, by his industry, capacity, or knowledge.” Was he… a moron? Did he… talk like a fag?
No, his work is a product of its time and place—the Whig aristocracy of 18th-century Britain, a marvelous synthesis of the old Puritan and feudal strains which somehow preserved the virtues of both. It really was (to some extent) true that the Puritan middle classes of his era were a remarkably virtuous people. Empowering them with republican forms created a regime that wasn’t called Augustan for nothing, and laid the foundations for the empire in whose ruins we live.
But even by the late 18th century, this structure, really a settlement of the great 17th-century conflict, is crumbling. The engineering does not work. The republic is too strong for the monarchy and begins to tear it down. And the virtue… oh, now I’m making myself cry. Where did all that Puritan virtue come from, anyway? It brought down the Stuarts. But it was not born under the Stuarts.
Hume would be the first to point out that the constitution of any country depends on the actual people of that country. Republican forms are not an end in and of themselves. When virtue is widely distributed, these forms are a way of concentrating and employing it. You will find writers who believe republican forms can build a virtuous state from a vile electorate. Hume is not among them.
No, I suspect the average Pontic will accuse me of a little bait and switch here. When he thinks of the “Enlightenment,” he doesn’t think of the Scottish Enlightenment. He thinks of the French Enlightenment. He goes “full Rousseau.”
To explain what a sane 21st-century reader should think of the French Enlightenment—once again, not worshipping it in medieval scholastic fashion, but judging it in Enlightenment fashion—I have no better quote than the great dialogue of Taine, from the close of his Origins of Contemporary France. Who? Hippolyte Taine. Yeah, I know. He sounds like a fag. Worse, he’s quoting (probably with some editing) another obvious fag, La Harpe:
It seems to me, La Harpe says, as if it were but yesterday, and yet it is at the beginning of the year 1788. We were dining with one of our fellow members of the Academy, a grand seignior and a man of intelligence. The company was numerous and of every profession, courtiers, advocates, men of letters and academicians, all had feasted luxuriously according to custom. At the dessert the wines of Malvoisie and of Constance contributed to the social gaiety a sort of freedom not always kept within decorous limits. At that time society had reached the point at which everything may be expressed that excites laughter. Champfort had read to us his impious and libertine stories, and great ladies had listened to these without recourse to their fans.
Hence a deluge of witticisms against religion, one quoting a tirade from ‘La Pucelle,’ another bringing forward certain philosophical stanzas by Diderot… and with unbounded applause… The conversation becomes more serious; admiration is expressed at the revolution accomplished by Voltaire, and all agree in its being the first title to his fame. ‘He gave the tone to his century, finding readers in the antechambers as well as in the drawing-room.’ One of the guests narrates, bursting with laughter, what a hairdresser said to him while powdering his hair: ‘You see, sir, although I am a miserable scrub, I have no more religion than any one else.’
They conclude that the Revolution will soon be consummated, that superstition and fanaticism must wholly give way to philosophy, and they thus calculate the probabilities of the epoch and those of the future society which will see the reign of reason. The most aged lament not being able to flatter themselves that they will see it; the young rejoice in a reasonable prospect of seeing it, and especially do they congratulate the Academy on having paved the way for the great work, and on having been the headquarters, the center, the inspirer of freedom of thought.
One of the guests had taken no part in this gay conversation; a person named Cazotte, an amiable and original man, but, unfortunately, infatuated with the delusions of the visionary. In the most serious tone he begins: ‘Gentlemen,’ says he, ‘be content; you will witness this great revolution that you so much desire. You know that I am something of a prophet, and I repeat it, you will witness it… Do you know the result of this revolution, for all of you, so long as you remain here?’
‘Ah!’ exclaims Condorcet with his shrewd, simple air and smile, ‘let us see, a philosopher is not sorry to encounter a prophet.’
‘You, Monsieur de Condorcet, will expire stretched on the floor of a dungeon; you will die of the poison you take to escape the executioner, of the poison which the felicity of that era will compel you always to carry about your person!’
At first, great astonishment, and then came an outburst of laughter. ‘What has all this in common with philosophy and the reign of reason?’
‘Precisely what I have just remarked to you; in the name of philosophy, of humanity, of freedom, under the reign of reason, you will thus reach your end; and, evidently, the reign of reason will arrive, for there will be temples of reason, and, in those days, in all France, the temples will be those alone of reason… You, Monsieur de Champfort, you will sever your veins with twenty-two strokes of a razor and yet you will not die for months afterwards. You, Monsieur Vicq-d’Azir, you will not open your own veins but you will have them opened six times in one day, in the agonies of gout, so as to be more certain of success, and you will die that night. You, Monsieur de Nicolai, on the scaffold; you, Monsieur Bailly, on the scaffold; you, Monsieur de Malesherbes, on the scaffold; … you, Monsieur Roucher, also on the scaffold.’
‘But then we shall have been overcome by Turks or Tartars?’
‘By no means; you will be governed, as I have already told you, solely by philosophy and reason. Those who are to treat you in this manner will all be philosophers, will all, at every moment, have on their lips the phrases you have uttered within the hour, will repeat your maxims, will quote, like yourselves, the stanzas of Diderot and of “La Pucelle.” ’
‘And when will all this happen?’
‘Six years will not pass before what I tell you will be accomplished.’
‘Well, these are miracles,’ exclaims La Harpe, ‘and you leave me out?’
‘You will be no less a miracle, for you will then be a Christian.’
‘Ah,’ interposes Champfort, I breathe again; if we are to die only when La Harpe becomes a Christian we are immortals.’
‘As to that, we women,’ says the Duchesse de Gramont, ‘are extremely fortunate in being of no consequence in revolutions. It is understood that we are not to blame, and our sex.’
‘Your sex, ladies, will not protect you this time… You will be treated precisely as men, with no difference whatever… You, Madame la Duchesse, will be led to the scaffold, you and many ladies besides yourself in a cart with your hands tied behind your back.’
‘Ah, in that event, I hope to have at least a carriage covered with black.’
‘No, Madame, greater ladies than yourself will go, like yourself in a cart and with their hands tied like yours.’
‘Greater ladies! What! Princesses of the blood!’
‘Still greater ladies than those…’
They began to think the jest carried too far. Madame de Gramont, to dispel the gloom, did not insist on a reply to her last exclamation, contenting herself by saying in the lightest tone, ‘And they will not even leave one a confessor!’
‘No, Madame, neither you nor any other person will be allowed a confessor; the last of the condemned that will have one, as an act of grace, will be…’ He stopped a moment.
‘Tell me, now, who is the fortunate mortal enjoying this prerogative?’
‘It is the last that will remain to him, and it will be the King of France.’ ”
Imagine the fate of poor Condorcet. He has drunk his own medicine. Condorcet, the scientist! Lucky the scientist whose hypothesis is never tested. Condorcet’s was tested. Unlucky Condorcet—unlucky France. Who can see France today and not realize that it has never recovered from the Revolution? Go to Saint-Denis. See the looted tombs of the “thirty kings who made France.” Then get back to the RER as fast as you can—you’re in a ZUS…
But most agonizing of all for this scientist, he (like La Harpe) has thought scientifically. He has seen his hypothesis tested, and (presumably) stopped believing in it. You have not. Or, well… Buck Harkness has not. He did study science at one point, didn’t he?
Imagine that revolution is a drug. It’s seeking FDA approval. This drug, it’s claimed, creates social harmony, good government, the “reign of reason.” The mechanism has been studied. Philosophers everywhere agree. The chemistry seems plausible.
At what point in history do you approve the drug? After the French Revolution? The Russian? Where, in history, do we see the drug produce its claimed results? Everywhere—from France in 1789, to Russia in 1917, Libya and Syria in 2012—we see social catastrophe, mass murder, and the most rigid and savage of military despotisms. Historical comparisons are difficult, of course, but when we’re talking about a therapy, the first comparison is obvious: the patient before, the patient after. I mean, duh.
And yet, the good doctors of philosophy, not giving a shit about Hippocrates (obviously a fag) continue prescribing this medicine. The Enlightenment cannot heal itself. It cannot judge itself. Having given birth to the monster of Jacobinism, it produces this same monster again and again—in the 20th century and even the 21st. It finds a perfectly functional, if hardly perfect, absolute monarchy, and replaces it with chaos and terror and death—the rule of the gun at its most direct and barbaric, the “Turks and Tartars.” Then it pats itself on the back. Freedom! Yeah, man, freedom! You talk like a fag who doesn’t believe in freedom, man. Freedom is cool.
But David (no relation to Sergey) Brin lands what he’s sure is a deadly knockout punch:
North and South Korea.
Oh, dear! Tell me, Mr. Harkness: what is the difference between Kim Jong-un, Elizabeth I, and Louis XIV? Let’s see: all three are absolute monarchs. One of them is an insane dictator who throws whole families in concentration camps. The other two… talked like fags?
The enormous chutzpah by which a loyal disciple of the Age of Revolution attributes the North Korean monster to a reactionary absence of revolution can’t be overstated. Who is Kim Il-sung? Is he more like Louis XVI, or more like Robespierre? North Korea is not the converse of revolution. It’s the product of revolution—exported overland from America, through Moscow out of John Reed.
In fact, Korea was a perfectly successful and flourishing nation before we spread our cancer there. To the extent that anything of Korean culture remains after the devastation of the 20th century, it is the culture of the Chosen Dynasty. This empire was utterly determined to preserve Korea as Korea, adopting a policy of isolation very similar to that of the Tokugawa in Japan and the Qing in China.
Alas, all three failed, or we’d have a Japan, China and Korea that actually was Japanese, Chinese or Korean in some sense, you know, other than the language, the script and the gene pool. What a treat that would be! To have an actual non-American civilization, alive and well and living in the 21st century! Give me a passenger pigeon while you’re at it. Indeed, the mentality of Commodore Perry is very like the mentality that clubbed the passenger pigeon to death with sticks, and ate it.
Instead, after a century drenched in blood, largely through bizarre Cold War PR games that no one really understands yet, we end up with an American puppet state in the South and a Communist prison state in the North. Certainly the American puppet state is preferable to the Communist prison state. The whole Anglo-American tradition, which created this monster of revolution and unleashed it on the world, is also the most immune to it—on some days, you could even believe you were living in Hume’s “civilized monarchy.”
What shines through every line of Brin’s screed is this revolutionary passion for murder, desolation, destruction. The Voltaires and the Condorcets, in France’s civilized monarchy, could play with this same fire like a toy. At present the power of the fire seems pretty weak (which is why I can write this stuff, without a mob burning down my house)—it really is a toy. A tacky toy. On the other hand, we still export this toy, and it just burned down pretty much the entire Middle East (except Egypt, which somehow has by the skin of its teeth escaped—infuriating the NYT no end).
And there’s something else, besides its revolutionary heritage, that few of us notice about North Korea: it’s at war against the entire civilized world. At least, the entire civilized world would love to replace its regime, which is pretty much the definition of “at war.” If Washington doesn’t bother with the Korean equivalent of “Qaddafi must go” or “Assad must go,” it’s only because it doesn’t believe it can get itself obeyed.
In a world that was willing to tolerate the Chosen Dynasty, the Chosen Dynasty would still exist. It died because it couldn’t secure itself against a hostile world. Burke in his Letters on a Regicide Peace describes the foreign policy of the Jacobins, since inherited by America:
In other words, their will is the law, not only at home, but as to the concerns of every nation. Who has made that law but the Regicide Republick itself, whose laws, like those of the Medes and Persians, they cannot alter or abrogate, or even so much as take into consideration? Without the least ceremony or compliment, they have sent out of the world whole sets of laws and lawgivers. They have swept away the very constitutions under which the Legislatures acted, and the Laws were made. Even the fundamental sacred Rights of Man they have not scrupled to profane. They have set this holy code at naught with ignominy and scorn. Thus they treat all their domestic laws and constitutions, and even what they had considered as a Law of Nature; but whatever they have put their seal on for the purposes of their ambition, and the ruin of their neighbours, this alone is invulnerable, impassible, immortal. Assuming to be masters of every thing human and divine, here, and here alone, it seems they are limited, “cooped and cabined in”; and this omnipotent legislature finds itself wholly without the power of exercising its favourite attribute, the love of peace. In other words, they are powerful to usurp, impotent to restore; and equally by their power and their impotence they aggrandize themselves, and weaken and impoverish you and all other nations.
It’s small wonder that a regime that dares to fight against the universal revolution, and actually has preserved itself, would be a bit Spartan and more than a bit insane. Revolution created North Korea, but the North Korean state has an obvious desire to evolve into something much more like the Chosen Dynasty—the general process of recovering from revolution.
In a world in which Americans actually cared about North Koreans, rather than just using them as rhetorical pawns, or salivating about their chances of causing yet another revolution or civil war, Americans would see that the easiest way to let North Korea heal is to acknowledge the Kim dynasty as what it is: a monarchy.
If rather than exporting revolution 24/7, US foreign policy was actually capable of respecting, supporting and securing its sovereign peers the way, you know, classical international law of the Enlightenment era suggests, the Kims would have no need for their concentration camps. Possibly they’re so insane that they’d keep them anyway—but I suspect not. Historical examples of a genuinely insane monarch are rare—he has trouble hanging on to his throne. The regime in North Korea has a very simple problem, which is that if it relaxes its grip it explodes. The only actions that the outside world can take which will solve this problem: remove the regime by force, or accept and support it. I don’t see anyone proposing either, which leaves me to think Americans don’t actually care very much about the aquariums of Pyongyang.
So when he considers the faith in revolution as a whole, the sane man must consider it as a kind of satanic church of murder. It is as irrational as it is dangerous. Or to use a simpler word: insane. There is a kind of symmetry here: to Pontus I appear an insane barbarian; it seems natural to me, therefore, to view Pontus as a country of insane barbarians.
Insanity has consequences—big and small. The “Arab Spring” is big, but at least it’s far away. I want to talk a little more about the local consequences and knock out another critic or two.
David Brin didn’t come up with his Korean “evidence” by himself. He got it from a fellow named Scott Alexander, who’s produced a gargantuan and humorless “Anti-Reactionary FAQ.” Again, the constant embarrassment of life in Pontus is that you wish for better critics than you have. I really ought to give this thing the thorough reaming it deserves. But in general, it’s not bad enough to be funny and not good enough to be interesting. I’m a busy guy and my motivation does flag.
Alexander is a disciple of the equally humorless “rationalist” movement Less Wrong, a sort of Internet update of Robespierre’s good old Cult of Reason, Lenin’s very rational Museums of Atheism, etc., etc. If you want my opinion on this subject, it is that—alas—there is no way of becoming reasonable, other than to be reasonable. Reason is wisdom. There is no formula for wisdom—and of all unwise beliefs, the belief that wisdom can be reduced to a formula, a prayer chant, a mantra, whatever, is the most ridiculous.
I know a lot of people involved in Less Wrong and I have a lot of sympathy. I even met its charismatic leader, Eliezer Yudkowsky, once. For a reason which at the time I couldn’t quite place, he made me think immediately of a historical figure: Shabbatai Zvi. But why? Reading through the comments on Mr. Jones’ article, I finally realized why:
Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute here. […] “More Right” is not any kind of acknowledged offspring of Less Wrong nor is it so much as linked to by the Less Wrong site. We are not part of a neoreactionary conspiracy. We are and have been explicitly pro-Enlightenment, as such, under that name. Should it be the case that any neoreactionary is citing me as a supporter of their ideas, I was never asked and never gave my consent. Some kind of note in the article to this effect seems appropriate. Thanks.
Also to be clear: I try not to dismiss ideas out of hand due to fear of public unpopularity. However I found Scott Alexander’s takedown of neoreaction convincing and thus I shrugged and didn’t bother to investigate further.
Indeed! That one certainly comes through loud and clear. In related news, Shabbatai Zvi did not become a Muslim because the Sultan threatened to chop off his head. No, it was because he found the Koran convincing. He had certainly never heard of Islam before October 20, 2013. But once he did, wow, Islam! Poor Shabbatai—I’m still trying to work my way through “The Cow.”
Look, it’s no secret why people believe in the Revolution. The Revolution is powerful. Eliezer Yudowsky is, without doubt, rational, and it is the highest form of rationality to serve power. By doing so, one serves oneself, and what could be more rational? As a bit of a cult leader myself, I declare that Less Wrong will now and hereafter be known as “Less Wrongthink.”
And yet, because one has to lie to oneself to serve a lie, there are certain tics and insanities that actually affect one’s daily life. Take Scott Alexander—who is, in fact, a psychiatrist by trade. Surely he agrees with my definition of insanity: living and acting in a world that is not the real one.
I would much rather criticize his other posts than his gargantuan FAQ, because I think they are more interesting and illustrative. The other day he posted one I quite liked—about FDA’s (insiders say “FDA,” not “the FDA”) decision to kill consumer genetic testing:
To whom it may concern:
I am writing to voice concern at your decision to ask the company 23andMe to halt genetic testing. As a doctor…
Alexander goes on for many paragraphs in a voice of perfect reason. Everything he says is true, right, politely and elegantly stated, etc., etc.
Which is exactly the problem. First of all, this is a person who believes—ostensibly—in democracy. In other words, historically speaking, he is insane. Yet his actions bespeak actual sanity, because they bespeak an actual, practical knowledge that he is not living in a democracy.
Alexander sees that his government has made a bad, stupid, irrational and really downright evil decision. But he does not go out and try to convince his readers (all 10,000 of them, perhaps) to vote differently. In his actions, he reveals that he’s perfectly aware that this highly touted failsafe mechanism against bad government, always and everywhere, does not in fact exist.
That, in fact, the elected officials of American democracy have little or no effective control over the actual agencies of USG—and if these elected officials in fact ceased to exist, USG would continue as it is. In fact, to anyone who knows Washington, it’s quite clear that USG would work not only just as well without a Congress or White House, but in fact somewhat better.
Instead, following Maine’s law, Alexander adopts the oldest monarchical method of correcting abuses. That is, of course, petitioning the king. But there is one little problem here—which still reveals some actual insanity. Namely, Alexander suffers under the terrible delusion that someone in Washington cares what he thinks.
Actually he does not think of himself as addressing his letter to Margaret Hamburg, Jeffrey Shuren and Alberto Gutierrez. These actual, individual human beings, whose government (in this matter) is no less absolute than any king, are unlike a king anonymous and mysterious. If he had a king, he would actually know who the king was. Moreover, he would have some reason to know whether the king was actually someone who cared at all what he thought.
Actually I suspect that Alexander does not sees himself as ruled (in this matter) by these individual human beings. I suspect he sees himself as ruled by an abstraction, in this case Science. Who wouldn’t want to be governed by Science? Again we see Maine’s law in action—consider the number of monarchies that have convinced their subjects that they are not ruled by a man, but governed by God. God, of course, listens only to prayers. Science hears open letters, especially when sent by a scientist. And so on.
But in fact, these human beings are what they are—bureaucrats. Their stated reason for killing genetic testing is a deep, sincere concern for the health of Americans. But it’s curious, isn’t it? If they are reasonable and motivated by this concern—Scott Alexander’s points aren’t exactly recondite. Surely the King, oops, the Commissioner, has thought about this matter? What could possibly impede Margaret Hamburg, Jeffrey Shuren and Alberto Gutierrez from noticing these obvious arguments? Can it be… that they haven’t been reading Less Wrong?
Of course not. Actually, the most parsimonious explanation is that since they’re bureaucrats, they care about the one thing almost all bureaucrats care about: power. By acting effectively, by smashing something and getting away with it, they display their power and their testicles (or ovaries) expand. It’s basic chimpanzee ethology, also applied to our strange mutant human clade.
If we have to ask (in the real world, where we are ruled by human beings, not the imaginary world where we are ruled by Reason itself) why FDA killed 23, the answer might well be quite familiar to the court of Versailles. Namely, Sergey Brin (no relation to David), has found something younger to boff, and 23 has found itself deprived of its krysha. I don’t know. It could be true. Or not. I’m just speculating.
But in the real world where we actually live, what is the easiest way to get rid of Messrs. Hamburg, Shuren and Gutierrez? Is it… an election? Um, these are permanent civil servants. “We the People” don’t have the power to fire them. Or to elect anyone who can fire them. Or… really any power at all, when it comes down to it. So, if USG is abusing its power—what? What is your real-world course of action? What can USG be replaced with?
I have an answer, actually. Alas, Pontus doesn’t seem to like my answer. Fine! Let Pontus be happy, therefore, with the barbarian chieftains it serves. Live more rationally, with less wrongthink. Write fewer open letters, and learn to love USG. Be satisfied with power as it is. Augustus is a son of a bitch, no doubt. But he’s better than the Augusti that will follow. Sit back, relax, stay out of the ZUS or your local equivalent, and learn to enjoy the decline…