Adam Gurri Is A Mensch

(UPDATE: Adam responds at The Ümlaut, I really wasn’t trying to be bruising.)

Adam Gurri has written what I regard as the best and fairest post about neoreaction that has yet come out.  But more important than the content of his composition is the honorable and gentlemanly process by which he drafted his piece.  Adam demonstrated a truly remarkable amount of balanced intellectual discipline; if only that were more common!  He researched his subject thoroughly, reached out to the primary-source author-subjects of his investigation, invited commentary and draft-review by other members of the DEC (including yours-truly) and comported himself in an unceasingly friendly, respectful, open-minded, and civil manner.  For all this, he has earned my admiration and justifiably deserves our esteem.

During the course of our dialogue I made several amicable criticisms of a few of his points, and Gurri has told me he has written a follow-up to those points that will appear next Monday.  I have not seen a draft of that piece, but I can try to anticipate some of its content.  I asked Adam if he would permit me to post my criticisms in a response post on this blog, and he not only approved by invited me to do so as soon as possible (in time for that next article).

The first category criticism is something I’ll concede is a bit trivial, but worth mentioning because I think it characterizes the kind of coverage NR/DEC is likely to get.

Despite what it may seem, most coverage of NR is not actually designed to denigrate this particular idea-community per se, but mostly to repeat the same theme and tribal-signaling the ‘journalist’ usually pursues.  If they are a lefty progressive and worship democratic universalist absolutist-egalitarianism (or occasionally even a Libertarian sympathetic to some of those ideals), then the theme is to denigrate any anti-egalitarian (genetic-realist) and anti-democratic (political-realist) ideology as creepy, evil, racist, etc. and then to make sure your readers know how opposed to racism you still are – you know the drill.  But they always say everyone non-progressive is like this, whether overt or covert, whether as an inchoate or fully-manifested hazard, and so they haven’t bothered to make or acknowledge any distinction between NR and the rest of their usual targets.

This is to say that they have no interest in acquiring or presenting an accurate picture or taking it seriously as a matter to be assessed on its own merits which could be weighed in an agenda-free and disinterested manner.  Gurri, it seems to me, is about as close as an outsider will ever get to that ideal, though, as a hyper-federalist, he may be closer than he thinks.

The other ‘journalists’ are like the professional antigen-presenting cells that digest this dangerous foreign matter and present it to the immune system in a way that triggers the psychological allergic-reaction.  The way these journalists make their money is to start these allergic reactions (audience-tailored ‘sensationalism’ compatible with, and merely serving to reinforce, the readership’s biases).

And so it’s naïve to expect they would ever care about reading or learning anything new, just jump at the first rat-trap, hair-trigger sign of ‘offensiveness’ – the bare minimum to be able to paint the same picture on the tent canvases of whatever enemy camp is being assailed this week.  In this way, NR is just a Rorschach test – your typical hack sees just enough of what he wants to see to make the same point he’s always making – just another pile-drive from the same jackhammer.  That’s why reading so much political journalism these days is like being submitted to industrial-strength Chinese water torture, except with acid.

And Adam Gurri is definitely no hack, but the opus of his writing does display a common thread which has a particular purpose, and he uses his excellent article on neoreaction as much as an opportunity to pursue his theme as one to merely provide ‘coverage’.  And that’s perfectly fine – I can’t emphasize enough how much a realistic individual should appreciate his work as close to the ideal as can possibly be expected.  It’s especially commendable that Adam is completely forthright about this in that he announces this theme – his understanding of the science of social order and institutions – and restricts his commentary to it.

There is a minor problem with this approach, and again, I admit I’m nitpicking here. But that focus severely constricts the scope of his coverage of NR.  It overly focuses on the positive proposals from ‘the three kings’ of Moldbug, Land, and Anissimov (Neocameralism, Technocracy, Monarchy), and less on the negative critique of Egalitarian Democracy that, in my view, is the bulk of the core consensus and community-organizing principle of NR-affiliated individuals.

Ok, with that trivial amuse-bouche out of the way, let’s get to the meat-and-potatoes criticisms.

I. Order must be Discovered, Not Designed / There is no such thing as Political Engineering.

This is a Burkean-Hayekian (with also some Oakeshott and even Chesterton) line of thought, often deployed in defense of market ‘order’ against Socialist central economic planning.  This is where the logic of the infamous ‘calculation problem’ applies just as well to the structures of governance established by over-optimistic rationalist constructivists.

And I’m generally sympathetic to that notion.  However, the main problem with rational constructivists is almost always in the use of false premises about the nature of their subjects – human beings – (deriving from delusional ideology and not reality, ‘Rousseau-disease’) and leaping over the limits of what knowledge they do possess.

As an analogy, there is nothing wrong with a civil engineer using rational principles and scientific evidence to build a suspension bridge.  But if they extend the principles outside their operating envelope – if they assume the rules for smaller bridges in calm environments will always work for larger ones in windy settings and forget to account for resonances – then they’ll occasionally build a galloping gertie.  And they can learn from that experience and build a better Tacoma Narrow Bridge.

If you were to look at that history and say ‘Bridges cannot be designed, only discovered’ or ‘There is no such thing as civil engineering’, well, there may be some kernels of truth in those statements – there’s a lot of trial and error and learning by small steps – but mostly it would seem ridiculous.

Let’s take the analogy into the political arena to consider the American founding.  Following the revolutionary war and independence from Great Britain, the American colonies established themselves under the infamous Articles of Confederation.  The arrangement – despite the fact that it unsettled the absolute minimum of the underlying order and organic institutions of the states – was recognized almost immediately as an unstable failure in terms of building a viable nation, and so only 6 years later they were making plans for the constitutional convention.

What emerged with the US Constitution was inarguably both more radical and more stable.  If you can read the Federalist Papers and say that that the founders themselves didn’t think they were involved in a project of rational political-order engineering, then I’m sorry but we just have different systems of interpretation.  Consider, for example, these words from Charles Murray’s “American Exceptionalism

…you are watching the beginning of an experiment in governance unlike any in the history of the world. Four million people, spread out over thirteen colonies stretching from New England to Georgia, have separated themselves from the world’s greatest power and then invented a new nation from

That all by itself makes the United States unique and also makes it impossible to predict what might happen next.

It isn’t just the newness of the nation that makes its future so imponderable. … instead the founders of the United States have created a form of government that will attempt all sorts of things that are widely thought to be impossible.

Republican government itself is widely thought to be impracticable and unstable. No country in continental Europe has a constitutional monarchy, let alone a republic in which all power ultimately resides in the citizens. Even Britain, Europe’s most politically liberal nation, still expects the sovereign to play a major role in the governance of the nation and shudders at the memory of its own brief experiment as a republic.

It is widely thought to be impossible for a nation to function with a head of state elected for a limited term. How can the Americans realistically expect a successful, popular president who is chief executive, head of state, and commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces to retire voluntarily? Every lesson of history teaches that transmission of power through an electoral system doesn’t work for long.

Surely it is impossible that a piece of paper, the Constitution, can command the allegiance— indeed, the reverence—that the American system will require. The consensus at the Constitutional Convention and in the debates over ratification of
the Constitution is that the new Supreme Court has the power to strike down laws already passed by the legislature and implemented by the executive power— an unprecedented level of judicial independence. …

Now, in the alternative, if one says that the Constitution just wasn’t ‘radical enough of a change’ from the pre-existing institutions of social-order, then one is making one’s assertion unfalsifiable.  Unless one can define a precise metric for ‘radical’ (which I’d say one cannot), then if a new system persists, it wasn’t ‘radical enough’, and if it fails, it was ‘too radical’ by definition.  I can’t possibly disprove the order-discovery thesis under those definitions.

One could say, “Well, there is a difference between ‘designing’ and ‘offering a flexible, adaptable plan’ that you expect to both evolve organically and over which you hope to exert some influence.”  But where does the ‘plan’ come from if not design?  Is ‘design’ now defined as the hubris that one’s political plan will be implemented exactly as written and self-sustained with perfect fidelity and rigidity?  That’s a strawman argument in which no one actually believes anymore.  People may be overconfident at times, but that degree of enthusiastic naivete in the perfection of one’s own utopian scheme is thankfully rare.

One can also say that successful designers ‘flatter’ themselves, because their principled systems only worked because they were coincidentally in accord with discoverable order.  But all human systems are ‘unnatural’ (imposing constraints on human impulses) and thus friction-forming to some extent by necessity.  But often those frictions are absorbable and survivable – ‘there is a lot of ruin in a nation’.  If you define every failure as ‘too much distance between design and discovery’, then what you have a tautology, not an insight of political science.

And the constitution was hardly the only successful effort at creating a political order.  There are plenty of constitutions out there, as well as genuinely radical new laws, regulations, or Supreme Court opinions ordering an upheaval of the existing social order.  It would be a stunning statement to assert that the Court has never moved against the tide but dragged the society to a new, deliberately designed and intended, destination if by nothing else than the force of law and passage of time.

And, in truth, institutions are designed everyday.  Think about new corporate organization, or the invention of bureaucracies with genuinely novel structures.  There is lots of innovation in governance out there is you expand your focus.  Think about how wikileaks or anonymous works, or those ‘radically flat’ programming collectives or cooperative internet opinion-journalist outlets.  You can define ‘discovery’ as ‘what works vs what doesn’t’, but Gurri’s actual claim reduces to one in which there can be no systematic difference detectable between the design-phases of the ‘order of delegated authorities’ in systems that work vs. systems that failed.  I find that to be highly implausible.

Also, consider the problem of multiple-equilibria.  That is to say, there is no single order to ‘discover’ at all.  Indeed, how can one see the variety of stable systems in History, or around the world – or in the multiplicity of successful organization arrangements – without some inkling of the fact that there are probably many different kinds of functional orders, with some clearly better than others depending on one’s goals and preferences.

If each of these ‘equilibria’ is a path dependent evolving order, then it seems to me it could be possible to ‘design’ a discontinuous leap from the current system to a superior model – even if that model is as-yet untried, hypothetical and speculative (as was the proposed Constitutional order, and, as Moldbug says, the highly influential Napoleonic Civil Code).  Gurri is right about the ‘how do we get from here to there’ problem, but I think he errs whenever he disparages any ‘there’ that seems remote from ‘here’ as a priori infeasible.

II. ‘Dictatorship’ vs. ‘Monarchy’

Gurri says:

For better or for worse, modern radical regime change means either democratization or dictatorship …  any revolution with an articulated desire to set up a monarchy of the sort that existed during the Enlightenment is much more likely to end up with just another 20th century style dictatorship.

I wish Gurri has gone into slightly more detail to explain what he means, and how we he proposes we distinguish between the two.  If he means Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, etc… well … that seemed a bit far-fetched.  He focuses somewhat on military junta / coup-leaders like Pinochet, Franco, or Papadopoulos, so maybe that’s what he’s talking about.  But what about Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – King (constitutional monarch) of Dubai, or more illustratively,  Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore?  Are these 20th century style ‘dictatorships’?  If so, they’re not so bad.  If not, then Gurri needs to explain how they bucked his thesis.

Also, what exactly is ‘modern’?  I would argue that the New Deal was a ‘modern radical regime change’ (its abruptness certainly argues against the notion that it was a ‘discovered order’) that didn’t mean either democratization or dictatorship.

III. Democracy As a Political ‘Tragedy of the Commons’

I’ll admit I can’t remember reading any of the three authors ever using this analogy in their critiques of democracy, but I could be wrong, so please feel free to enlighten me with sources in the comments sections.  Nick Land apparently thinks this is a clever setup, but I think it requires some more specificity.

Let’s define the issue and see it if fits.

A tragedy of the commons is an economic phenomenon that emerges whenever there is some valuable and durable (or self-regenerative) resource in which the property right to exclude others either does not exist or is not enforced.  If the resource were made subject to a lawful title of exclusive property, it would tend to be managed in a market-efficient manner, maximizing the net present value of expected production, which usually implies sustainable levels of utilization into the long-term.

But without these property-rights, each user of the resource can gain more expected utility from each marginal increase in utilization, regardless of the decreases in utility to the collective whole, and even when the collective detriment is greater than the individual benefit.  This leads to an intense race which in turn causes premature and inefficient over-utilization, exhaustion, and depletion (even extinction) of the resource.  The classic examples are common pastures for livestock, or the stock of fish populations in the open seas.  And the classic remedies are proprietization (e.g. for land) or regulation (e.g. for fish)

Ok, can we now, mutatis mutandis, fit this analogy with the authors’ critiques of democracy?  It doesn’t seem to make sense for the resource to be ‘sovereignty’ itself.  No individual or politician can vote as many times as they want without someone stopping them.

However, it seems to me there are two possible ways to make this analogy fit.

III.A. Redistrubution

Two quotes:

George Bernard Shaw: “A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”

Alexis de Tocqueville: “The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money.”

So, if the ‘resource’ is ‘tax revenue’, then the citizens of democracy can vote themselves benefits out of a public burden, and will tend to do so whenever they believe (usually incoherently) that the advantage they will receive will be larger than their expected increase in taxes.   And one can be more abstract to accommodate cases of rent-seeking (e.g. quotas and unjustifiable barriers to entry for licensed professions) or regulatory party-to-counterparty transfers that lie outside of taxation (e.g. minimum wage laws).

So perhaps the real ‘resource’ is the overall underlying economy, and the ‘overuse’ of that resource is the use of necessity for politicians to direct sovereign power towards the enabling self-destructive levels of mutual predation in their pursuit of votes and legal bribery campaign financing.

And while all fits the tragedy of the commons analogy, it’s certainly not a new claim – it constitutes one of the most classic criticisms of democracy – and it hardly makes sense to call ‘sovereignty’ itself the commons.

And more to the point, Gurri actually makes what I regard as a claim that is both incredible and which contradicts this line of criticism, “The ballooning of the relative size of governments is unlikely to be caused by democracy … ”  If this is the way democracy creates a tragedy of the commons, it can only work to the effect of ballooning the size of government.

Consider, and while it is an imperfect measure because of outsourcing and contracting, there are hardly more executive branch civilians (and over a million fewer military personnel) than there were half a century ago, and in a much larger country.  What has expanded tremendously, however, are redistributive transfers which now constitute the vast majority of the federal budget.  If that ballooning is not a democratic tragedy of the commons at work, then what is it?  Perhaps Gurri is talking about pre-60’s ballooning, but that’s not continuing expansion which people have been complaining about for the last 50 years.

III.B. Zero Sum Game of Influence In A Winner-Take-All Demotist Content.

Another classic criticism of non-proportional-representation democracy is that since power depends on public opinion, and in any particular contest the result is either 100% or 0% power, then political opponents (and their culturally-influential allies) will expend more than the ‘efficient’ (however defined) amount of resources (and really do almost any sleezy thing) to influence public opinion in their direction.  That includes everything from campaign ads to biased ‘journalism’ to … in the most extreme cases such as totalitarian states which perceive themselves vulnerable to popular upheaval, establishing an apparatus of suppression and thought-control.

All this is definitely tragic, however, it is even harder to map to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ analogy.  I invite people to weigh in on the topic in the comments.

Gurri very much wants to use this topic to launch a brief mention of the work of Elinor Ostrom, but it seems out of place.  Is it really all that insightful to say that individuals in particular trades with deep experience in the hazards and tensions of conflicting interests over limited resources don’t always need laws or full-proprietization of resources to self-regulate and develop community customs to keep the peace?

One of the problems with Ostrom’s work, however, is that it turns out many of these pragmatic and spontaneous arrangements have all the economic efficiently of a cartel involved in a conspiracy against trade.  ‘Avoiding overuse’ is not distinguishable from ‘anything less than maximum use’ and is distinct from the market ideal sustainable use.  And some of the institutions that accomplish this are far from genteel.  Established Lobstermen, for example, have been known to settle their differences by surreptitiously sinking the newest entrant’s boats or cutting away his traps’ buoys.  As Adam Smith said:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty or justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.

So, for example, the members of OPEC have certainly developed their own customs, practices, and institutions to manage the market price for their resources.  That’s a real ‘tragedy of the commons’ all right, a single user could make a little extra marginal profit at the cost of expanding supply, which would lower prices according to the elasticity of demand and thus hurt the total revenues of all the suppliers by lowering profits below monopoly-levels and down to the prevailing market margin.  And usually we call such a situation the markets working as they should – as we consumers want them to!

And many professionals are guild-like and can effectively restrict supply – even outside a state-licensing framework – at the cost of consumers and potential new entrants.  Indeed, that is precisely how many professions ‘self-regulated’ even prior to state-licensing.

We often don’t want markets to develop Ostrom-like institutions outside law and markets, and weather states or markets are ‘uniformly successful’ or not, they are often preferable to the alternatives, whether spontaneous or not.  If democracy is a tragedy of the commons in any way, it doesn’t help matter if two dominant parties cooperate, despite their competition, to ensure they can always divide whatever spoils there are between them.

IV.  Neocameralism

Gurri chides Moldbug for rhetorical hypocrisy when Moldbug criticizes Hoppe for entertaining the possibility of a functional anarchy (though one has never existed), when at the same time Moldbug proposes a joint-stock corporation model of governance which is – according to Gurri – likewise ahistorical.

I think the difference between the ahistoricity (really utter implausibility) of ‘no government’ vs. a merely innovative form of government is a vast chasm that kills the attempt at equivocation.  After all, the JSC-like structures of authority are found in many governmental organizations such as the military and certain departments of the bureaucracy, which is part of the reason why transitioning from the government to the corporate world is often so easy and seamless.  Also, many of the world’s non-democracies utilize corporate-style organizational schemes.  Historically, certain colonial-governments (sometimes also ‘companies’) were run on the basis of corporate charters (and sometimes also explicitly for profit).

But furthermore, even the formal political level of the U.S. Government was designed to function in a corporate-like way, with the House representing by proxy the ‘shareholders’ of the citizens (each with one vote), The Senate acting as a kind of Board of Directors, and the President functioning as the CEO.  Here is Judge Posner in a recent and related post which definitely indicates he shares the opinion that corporate authorities would yield more effective governance.

The point is that ‘anarchy’ and ‘a form of organizational governance discovered by market and trial-and-error processes to be the most effective at managing large enterprises’ are simply worlds apart as political innovations, and Gurri’s accusation erroneously ignores that distance.

V. On Military Coups and Political Formulas

Gurri present an interesting hypothesis that attempts to explain the absence of America military coups.  To explore this thesis, I’ll use a term from Gaetano Mosca (one of Moldbug’s favorites) the ‘political formula’ which he defined as:

Those abstract principles through which the political élite justifies its own power, building around it a moral and legal structure.

Near-Religious Worship of Democracy is America’s political formula, and Gurri says that our society’s inculcation (one could just as easily say ‘indoctrination’ or ‘brainwashing’) of respect for the established form of democratic governance (regardless of its actual merits) is what keeps military leaders from attempting takeovers.

There are a few obvious problems with this thesis.

The first problem is that the U.S. military itself does not actually do much of this ‘inculcation’ in favor of Democracy – certainly not with any effectiveness or genuine motivation – and when it does, it mostly centers around the abstract idea of personal freedom and liberty.

On the contrary, military experience itself is demonstrative of the strengths of hierarchy, the necessity of a unity of command, the folly of dispersed authority and responsibility (if you’ve ever participated in an interagency consensus-requiring committee, you never want to do so again) and it emphasizes the martial virtues of duty, obedience, conformity, and self-sacrifice.  In short – it is about as undemocratic / reactionary an institution as exists within the government (not in terms of the political sentiments of its members, but in its structure).  It is somewhat ironic then that when Gurri chastises Anissimov for ignoring that, “… there exists today, in America, an institution that looks a lot like Anissimov’s ideal picture of an oak. It’s the US military,” he is specifically identifying the least democratic institution.

I also think Gurri’s implicit theory of the cause of military coups – a lack of special ideological affection for the existing system – is flawed in two ways.

First, it ignores the history of coups (a woefully understudied topic, but I’d recommend Luttwak’s Coup d’Etat)  Coups often originate in social chaos and/or pending collapse in the midst of an impotent, flailing, and unpopular regime, or in very weak, small, and primitive governments where a single well-planned assault can capture the palace.  Fortunately, these conditions have not characterized American history.

Second, all nations and systems have political formulas which justify the existing power structure, whatever it is, and Soldiers have fought and died obediently without thought of coup-plotting for all kinds of regimes, democratic or otherwise, and some quite nasty.  There’s nothing special, I submit, about democratic legitimacy vs. any other kind of legitimacy.

Finally, even assuming Gurri is right about the benefits of inculcation, that indoctrination actually occurs at the general-population levels and begins practically at infancy.  Is Gurri in favor of legitimacy-creating, manipulative constructed social narratives in general – that is, effective political formulas – so long as they prevent coups?  And is he so sure that’s he is immune to those democracy-worship messages that he’s been receiving since childhood?

VI.  Survivorship Bias

Gurri leans heavily on the very conservative notion that we should give the presumption of respect to institutions that have lasted with longevity.  In general I agree, but I think American Democracy makes a bad example for two reasons.

First, I think there is a good argument that American Democracy did not in fact, in the actual day-to-day operation of government, survive intact at all.  The transformation of American government after the New Deal into one dominated by an administrative-bureaucracy largely insulated from democratic considerations is the best example.  Moldbug would argue that actual distribution of power and responsibility for writing and enforcing laws and regulations bears increasingly little resemblance to the ‘formal’ democratic dictates of the Constitution, and that to think we have preserved institutions is to buy into the facade instead of looking behind the veil.

And Second, respect for any system cannot derive from longevity.   Some very nasty systems (e.g. North Korea) have lasted a very long time all things considered.  And if a system is decaying, you will go on respecting it until it’s dying day.

Gurri is saying, “You must give respect to this system because it is old.”  But the three authors would say, “No, this thing is a rotting oak, or better yet, a cancer.  It started out as one mutant cell, and all its age means is that its mechanisms of growth are slow by steady, and it has taken this long to grow as large and threatening as it has – more dangerous every single day.  You don’t look at a big tumor and say, ‘It must be benign because it is old’.  You say, ‘Good grief!  We need to cut this thing out right away or we’ll lose all the things we really care about.  If we would have known ages ago that we would be led inexorably to this sad state of affairs, then we would have cut it out from the start!”

That is their argument, that democracy is reaching its terminal, stage-IV phase, that we are declining as a culture, (in a way masked by technological advance) and that decline was baked into the cake from the very beginning.  And how long it took to get to this stage is fairly irrelevant when it comes to prescribing a remedial course of action.

VII.  Conclusion

The truth is, I regard all the above criticisms as minor corrections, or even just volleys in a friendly conversation.  None seem at all fatal to Gurri’s presentation or seriously detract from its excellent quality.  Again, I can’t emphasize enough how impressed I am with Gurri’s fairness and nobility, and I greatly look forward to his next piece.  In a way, it’s a bit sad, because I can guess that Gurri’s article will be the zenith and high-water mark of coverage of neoreaction which means it will only get worse from here on in.  But everyone expects bad-faith, and so it was a refreshing experience to be pleasantly surprised with the opposite.

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33 Responses to Adam Gurri Is A Mensch

  1. peppermint says:

    You’re counting executive branch civilians as the size of the government? Remember, the reason NGOs are called NGOs is so people will remember they are not part of the government. The ballooning education establishment is officially local and sometimes non-governmental. The EBT program is run by a major bank – their employees, not the government’s. Catholic Charities, which is certainly not the government, runs a large chunk of the government’s “refugee resettlement” program.

    People who run the government have been outsourcing and privatizing government functions for at least the past 20 years directly to avoid counting executive branch civilians.

    Steve Sailer conjectures that the true purpose of Head Start is pork.

    • Handle says:

      Yes, I’m fully aware of all this, and I mentioned it and couldn’t have been clearer about it in the very opening to that sentence! Furthermore, I then specifically identified transfers (in this case, not in cash but in kind – produced by contractors or grantees, obamacare being king of them all) as the actual ballooning part of the budget, for which democracy is fairly accountable. Give it another read.

  2. Jefferson says:

    My primary gripe with *all* of the criticism of NR so far is poor comprehension. Slate Star Codex, as well as this, seem to not fully grok some of the simpler concepts. You’ve done a great job here of noting some of the more egregious errors, which often amount to the author trying to force NR ideas into his narrower framework. The nice thing about Gurri’s critique is that it seems like he is a NR in his core, but can’t get past his faith to make the leap.

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  4. Alrenous says:

    Democracy is close enough to a commons tragedy. I was going to agree that it lacks the depletion aspect, but it doesn’t.

    In an Atlantic cod fishery, the fish are supposed to be available to all. But in practice one small group grabs almost all the fish, leaving none for anyone else. (Even the other fish.) This means that group won’t have any fish either, next year.

    In a democracy, it is supposed to be legitimate for anyone to rule. (Caveats apply, but close enough.) But in practice one small group grabs all the leadership opportunities. This harms the legitimacy of the formula, making it more and more difficult to rule at all.

    Or put it this way: in a democracy, anyone can legitimately make a law, provided they convince their representative, whose job it is to be so convinced. Or in latter days, a regulation. This means everyone does. Which means the system of laws and regulations becomes more and more burdensome on everyone until the economy grinds to a halt entirely.

  5. VXXC says:

    Great Post.

    I think that it’s still sacred in the Military that the Military does not interfere in US domestic politics. This is what is taught, reinforced, sacred. Not “democracy” per se. Then there’s that Sacred Oath matter. Our non-interference in politics.

    Now Gentlemen, he who fires on the Constitution is firing on Sumter, Pearl Harbor, Manhattan in one volley and turns over the largest Hornets nest on earth.

    Let those who wish to tweak or experiment consider the size of the Hornets Nest and the Butchers Bill they will bear the Sin if not the actual payment for…if this does not dissuade the eager and the callow to bloodshed they may consider the consequences of failure. There are a great many in our merry assembly who have never had to get a lawyer for a serious matter, never mind the possibility of the matter being beyond Lawyers entirely.

    Again great post.

    • This says what I was trying to say, but better. It’s the non-interference that’s the key.

      In my mind, institutions are tightly bound so that attempting to mess with any one of them can have big unanticipated side effects, much like how attempts to create radical life extension has often resulted in much higher cancer incidence in lab rats. Sadly, there are no lab rats for governance, and for all we know any attempt to extract a big component of our current institutional setup could just as likely result in the military abandoning its non-interference policy, if they no longer consider the regime legitimate.

  6. “The first problem is that the U.S. military itself does not actually do much of this ‘inculcation’ in favor of Democracy – certainly not with any effectiveness or genuine motivation”

    In the British military this is true but they do indoctrinate “just war theory” and against “war crimes”, which is just as bad. So it’s still unlikely that the British military would be able to defeat British democracy a la Moldbug’s Canadian Guantanamo, or indeed win wars…

  7. Let me take a stab at clarifying my point about the commons, which I clearly did not do justice in the original post.

    In my little corner of econ-wonky libertarian land, I have encountered the following perspective a lot:

    Tax revenue and policy-created rents are a commons. Steelworkers get tariffs and the cost of higher steel is diffused across the citizenry, but when everyone does this it becomes negative sum. The dynamic resembles overfishing and overharvesting and overgrazing, so typical of a common-pool resource. The short time horizon of politicians exacerbates this.

    I had read Land’s metaphor of democracy as a cannibal feeding frenzy as being a poetic version of this argument.

    I brought Ostrom into the mix because I believe that this problem is never and was never overcome through the logic of _either_ residual claimants _or_ private property. It’s not really about the _formal_ rules of the game at all, but about something lower level (see this logic explored in more detail here:

    My argument is consistently that it isn’t democracy that creates this dynamic—we’ve got one (less than perfect) Ostromesque arrangement today, monarchs were merely another sort. When I speak of “modern” as opposed to historical, I’m talking the onset of the Industrial Revolution, which made it possible (through both technology and dramatically increased population density) to finance proportionately larger governments. Since we’ve seen government size balloon across every category of regime-selection-process in the 20th century, I think laying it at the feet of democracy is a misdiagnosis.

    Hope this makes sense.

    • Handle says:

      Yes, that is a helpful clarification.

      Tariffs are ‘rents’ that don’t necessarily rely on rent-seeking, what I called party-couterparty regulatory transfers, and as such aren’t distinguishable in principle from the major government-intermediated transfers in which money is taken from the tax-revenue filled public fisc and then delivered to identified classes of entitled beneficiaries either in-cash (e.g. Social Security, EITC) or in-kind (e.g food stamps, medicaid). The tax code exists in its current inaccessible and gargantuan form only because it is used a the grand codification of countless instances of these transfers.

      Yes, everybody wants to leverage the coercive power of government so that power can be abused on their personal behalf at everyone else’s expense, and this is very hard to prevent in a democracy, especially when you can kick-back a portion of the benefits to bribe donate to politicians (other kickback schemes are illegal, but this particular one is standard practice for most unions). That is a very old criticism, and it is completely accurate.

      The flip-side to this coin that I neglected to mention is the common practice of ‘juicing’ – a campaign-finance version of extortion (Kaus mentions it a lot, it’s a common feature of California politics). Positive juicing is dangling the carrot of benefit-delivering legislation in front of your prospective donors. Negative juicing is threatening warning them that the benefit they currently enjoy is pretty swell, and it’d be a shame if anything were to happen to it, and by the way there’s been talk of a bill circulating …

      The question is how one can prevent it and keep universal suffrage democracy. The answer is ‘you can’t’ – they go together like peas and carrots. The incentives are simply too great – no law, custom, institution, or constitution can sustain the restraint needed to hold out forever against these kinds of temptations. If you want to get rid of this universal mutual predation, you also need to get rid of what makes it inevitable.

      • I would say if you want to understand the crux of what distinguishes my position from a lot of other social sciency folks, it’s my disagreement with your phrase “The incentives are simply too great”.

        My belief (perhaps foolish) is that whether or not a country surrenders to the feeding frenzy or reaches a level is determined not by the rules of the game or by mere incentives, but by lower level, unarticulated knowledge/norms embedded in the particular system.

        • Anthony says:

          but by lower level, unarticulated knowledge/norms embedded in the particular system

          Those norms need reinforcement or they will eventually be overcome by the incentive to “cheat”. There has to be an incentive to follow those norms, which can a political body which won’t vote for people who violate the norms, or ostracism by other political actors, making the cheater ineffective, but there has to be some sort of sustainable counter-incentive, or the norms will fail eventually. It took a long time in the United States, and perhaps even longer in Britain, but the failure is there.

          • Handle says:

            I think this says it well. ‘Institutional Norms are more fragile than you think. Just because they have lasted for a long time and were almost ubiquitous doesn’t mean you understand the foundational mechanisms that kept them intact and functional, or what seemingly minor, innocent, or ‘harmless’ changes could cause a sudden erosion and collapse.’

            For example, what about norms related to sexuality, marriage, and family?

          • I disagree with this. Economists have built a wonderful theoretical edifice, but as a result it’s very hard for anyone persuaded by that line of thinking to think in terms of anything BUT incentives. Incentives are not everything. In fact, it is usually norms which determine how we respond to incentives, not the other way around.

            To Handle I say: norms aren’t fragile, but rather change over time. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

          • Handle says:

            That really clarifies the essence of the disagreement.

            Are civilizational and cultural norms fragile or robust? Is there a constant struggle against entropy and temptation or strong spontaneous reinforcement? Does it depend which norm we’re talking about?

            It’s critical that you tell me how can I tell the difference between a strict standard that is ‘fragile’ and ‘something that changed over time for the worse’ (for example, lowering the standard). If standards aren’t fragile but can loosen abruptly, do they only change under immense pressure then?

            I side with entropy and say the problem is highly asymmetric. This is precisely what one witnesses in military units, good and bad (as I mentioned here).

            It takes immense amounts of time, effort, and excellent leadership to get a group to start reflexively and unthinkingly adopt higher standards, mutual trustworthiness, reciprocal expectations, and interactional norms in their social dynamics. Even the best commanders struggle to repair a broken unit, or create one from scratch out of new recruits. One the other hand, one toxic leader can destroy all that work in the blink of an eye and ruin both the unit and the men within it.

            It’s the opposite of the Anna Karenina principle. Good leadership all looks alike, but bad leaders are all bad in their own way. There are a million possible scrambled eggs, but only one path to unscrambling, which accounts for time’s arrow.

            I don’t see why observation and experience of the fragility of norms in actual social organizations should be disregarded so quickly. I definitely think the burden of proof should be properly placed on you to demonstrate the logic and empirical validity of the ‘norms are robust’ thesis.

          • Again you get to the heart of the matter and make the ground I’m standing on, which seemed like solid bedrock a moment ago, suddenly feel rickety. I’m going to resist the temptation to get the last word in and take your comments as more food for thought, in addition to your excellent post above.

  8. Anthony says:

    There is no such creature as “political engineering”.

    Yes, yes there is. Many of the institutions, formal and informal which shape political and social structures, were deliberately designed. Look at the U.S. military. There are four clauses in the Constitution which keeps the military under civilian control, and they’re a pretty thin reed – there’s no explicit bar on military officers “electing” themselves to Congress and the Presidency. But as VXXC mentions above, the U.S. military has made sacred the idea that it does not interfere in politics. That, too, was a deliberate bit of political engineering, started by Washington and reinforced ever since.

    The regulatory apparatus which does most of the governing of the U.S. these days was deliberately built in order to do just that. However, most political engineering is of a similar quality to software “engineering” – piling up of bricks rather than designing a bridge.

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  10. Rasputin says:

    “III. Democracy As a Political ‘Tragedy of the Commons’
    I’ll admit I can’t remember reading any of the three authors ever using this analogy in their critiques of democracy, but I could be wrong, so please feel free to enlighten me with sources in the comments sections”:

    “First, let’s describe the fundamental engineering flaw in the MS. This bug is so easy to see that even the New York Times can see it. Of course, our columnist is addressing the governance of fish, not hominids, but note that nothing in his logic depends on scales, gills, or fins:
    Since the mid-’50s, economists who study fisheries have basically understood the fate that has befallen these waters. They call it the tragedy of the commons.

    If a fish population is controlled by a single, perfectly rational agent — an idealized entity economists refer to as “the sole owner” — he or she will manage it to maximize its total value over time. For almost every population, that means leaving a lot of fish in the water, where they can continue to make young fish. The sole owner, then, will cautiously withdraw the biological equivalent of interest, without reducing the capital — the healthy population that remains in the sea.

    But if the fish population is available to many independent parties, competition becomes a driving concern. If I don’t extract as much as I can today, there’s no guarantee you won’t take everything tomorrow. Sure, in a perfect world, you and I would trust each other, exercise restraint, and in the long run, grow wealthier for it, but I’d better just play it safe and get those fish before you do. The race for fish ensues, and soon, the tragedy of the commons has struck.
    Ie: if you are a fish, you want all fish to be owned by a King of Fishermen. So long as our fisher king is rational, this “single owner” will govern his fisheries with a strong and kindly hand, maximizing returns over an infinite time horizon, bringing peace, freedom and prosperity to cod, pollock, and sea-bass alike.

    But if we fracture this coherent authority into two competing authorities, each can gain by stealing fish from the other. The more authority is fractured, the more predatory it becomes. Thus, the infallible recipe for a sadistic and predatory state: internal competition for power. (Hominids, unlike fish, respond well to fences, so geographical fragmentation is not inconsistent with coherent authority – the ocean partitioned, as it were, into artificial lakes.)

    Congratulations. You’ve just rediscovered the logic of Sir Robert Filmer – just 321 years too late”

    From GI part 5.

    • Handle says:

      Thanks! Moldbug seems to be using an argument is favor of my case III.B (the weaker case, actually) – that in zero-sum games for power, competition for larger slices of a limited whole (of votes / influence / authority) causes the competitors to over-invest resources not in producing but competing with rivals.

      Well, there’s some truth to this theory, and as Moldbug shows – it’s hardly a new one.

      It reminds me somewhat of a common argument maybe of the New Deal-era central planners / socialists / proto-Keynesians made about the ‘inefficiency’ of market competition. With multiple corporations producing ‘needless variety’, one loses both the potentially significant economies of scale as well as whatever marketing / advertising budget companies ‘waste’ on merely convincing people to switch loyalties between indistinguishable brands. They also said that advertising is too powerful and psychologically manipulative and corporations can’t be trusted to use their increasingly sophisticated abilities to influence the public without protective regulation.

      So then, consider the following very similar situation: The ‘disposable income of consumers in your economy’ is also a kind of approximately fixed resource to whom no producer has any title and all the suppliers are desperately competing with each other as hard as they can in a zero-sum game, both in terms of value and marketing (and the occasional dirty trick) to get shoppers to re-allocate as much as their spending in the direction of their company’s products.

      And, mostly, we don’t care about those old central planners’ ‘inefficiency’ arguments after all, and we tolerate a wide-open marketing market-place. They were arguing for ‘one giant monopoly’ too (for economic production, if not necessarily in politics), but we usually thing their arguments were wrong.

      Yes, it’s hard to produce things quite as cheaply as some giant Chinese State-Owned Enterprise Monopoly, but we also recognize that those types of organizations are good at copying but very poor at innovating.

      If this if ‘Democracy’s tragedy of the commons’ then one has to distinguish between how it’s a bad argument in the commercial, capitalist realm, but a good argument in the political realm.

      Two such distinctions immediately come to my mind.

      First, corporate marketing is just another kind of investment with diminishing returns. You spend money to make money (the exchange rate is always exactly equal to 1), and so as soon as marginal revenue equals marginal cost you stop escalating your advertising, and the market tends to settle into an steady-ish ‘equilibrium’ that is dynamic but slowly evolving. But there is no such fixed exchange rate between material resources and power. Some people value power much more than others, but more to the point, the ability to translate one’s power, once grasped, back into resources in incredibly uncertain.

      Wars happen when at least one party to a conflict over-estimates the net-outcome (expected odds of winning and benefit of victory vs. cost of a loss). And we know from history that the logic of conflict often drives adversaries to increasingly nasty-escalations and total-commitments with fighting that lasts until the bitter end of utter exhaustion or annihilation. Something similar can happen with non-commercial combat for political power.

      Second, corporate marketing is regulated by law and almost always operates within a few tolerated channels (there is always some emotional protest when marketing attempts to press against norms and expand into previously ad-free areas).

      But in a Democracy, the influence game grow and spreads into every areas of life until it becomes a Cathedral of an influence industry – state and schoolhouse, news and entertainment, womb to the tomb.

      • Rasputin says:

        I just wrote a really long response to this – but my tablet ate it and I am now too cross to write another!!

        But two things:

        I see the TOTC as a key part of MM’s critique of democracy, so would question positioning it as a ‘weak’ claim – but I need to spend more time with both yours and Gurri’s arguments to check I fully understand where you are coming from.

        I think that the question you raise visa vis how TOTC operates in both the state and commercial sectors is interesting and needs to be explored further. In one it seems to lead to productive competition, even if much of the profit is spent down on marketing etc, in the other the entropy of sovereignty – unless I am misunderstanding you?

        • Handle says:

          Tablets are ideal for reading blogs, and horrible for writing or commenting on them. Typing is an ordeal without a mouse or arrow keys (and especially so on smartphones), and there always seem to be problems with losing what has been written. I’m convinced the comments-to-page-views ratio has declined significantly as a result. Somebody definitely needs to invent a better mousetrap. Well, I can only say that I hope you recover your composure, bearing, and calm and reconstruct your comment – I value your contributions.

          Social questions reduce to an inquiry of how things work out collectively when individual actors respond to incentives and the regulatory environment and pursue their own interests. People are in competition for things characterizable as ‘resource’, and they act strategically, so we can analyze these situations with intellectual tools from Game Theory and Economics.

          The policy question we are usually trying to answer is ‘Can we alter current regulation (or influence cultural norms) in a way that will improve the collective outcome?” The Positivist (as opposed to ‘natural’) theory of property rights is that they are merely an attempt at developing an optimized solution to this problem. Wiser governments will recognize that they should pre-commit to alter them only slightly and gradually to preserve actor’s reliance interests if they want to encourage entrepreneurial risk-taking and long-term investment and efficient allocation of capital over short-term consumption and instant-gratification.

          Sometimes that means increasing restrictions (to prevent anti-social or personally-harmful force, fraud, and predation), and sometimes that means decreasing them and increasing liberty. Adam Smith’s insight into capitalism understood that, under certain circumstances and conditions, allowing actors to competitively pursue their own self-interest in a lightly-regulated environment was coincidentally pro-social. This is because mutually-beneficial (‘Pareto Improving’) trade is a positive-sum game, and competition creates incentives for innovation and lowers excess profits to the market-margins which generates lots of consumer surplus.

          The key difference in conditions between capitalist competition for commercial market-share (which is usually pro-social) and democratic competition for votes and influential market-share (which is anti-social) is that (1) Corporations don’t have access to coercion (can’t charge whatever they want and force you to buy whatever they want you to) and must rely on voluntary, welfare-improving exchanges, so activity is channeled strictly into the pro-social realm, and (2) Corporate agents do not depend on popularity and have nothing to gain (except a trivial amount of good will) by giving things away in ways that hurt the bottom line.

          Even in a perfectly non-corrupt setting this is highly inefficient – consider Friedman’s ‘four ways to spend money‘ – specifically the most inefficient case of spending other people’s money on other people. Companies usually have to sell to people spending their own money on themselves (because they cannot coerce), whereas the government lies at the other extreme (because it can).

          But not all game are positive-sum, and with regards to TTOTC, there are in fact many possible outcomes of which ‘successful capitalism’ is only one type. There is even a tragedy of the anticommons where property rights are anti-social because too strong. So, for example, the government has eminent domain to deal with the holdouts problem.

          And there are also Zero Sum (strictly competitive) Games (like cake-cutting), and even ‘Negative Sum’ games, where the efforts to win the zero-sum game itself reduce the size of the pot (as if competitors had to destroy some cake – no one gets to consume it – in their efforts to cut larger slices for themselves.

          As I explained, a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is a Commonize Costs–Privatize Profits Game in which the public costs exceed the private profits. The situation will end up in a vicious cycle race and inefficient-over-utilization unless there is some institutional restraint on behavior (property rights, state regulation, or cultural norms) that deters the temptation to respond to the incentives.

          I think the two classic criticisms of Democracy I mentioned are better analogized by the coercion-enabled negative-sum cake-cutting game than by TTOTC.

          Let’s see how it works out.

          It is possible to use the coercive, sovereign power of the state to extract resources from the wealth and economic activity of those subject to its jurisdiction, and then spend those resources – or cause them to be transferred directly without a state intermediary – in ways that have other than perfectly public benefits. It is also possible to use this power to regulate human activity and relations in a way that produces and rearranges the more intangible, social, and non-monetary values for particular individuals (status, esteem, fame, power, influence, etc.)

          When this power delivers private benefits at public cost (in a way that is not a fair-market-value exchange – not efficiently wealth-creating), then those benefits are called ‘rents’ in Economics, and their pursuit by means of attempting to influence sovereign decision making is ‘rent-seeking‘.

          The second-order version of rent-seeking in a Democracy is lobbying the voters themselves and attempting to shape and influence public opinions. Maybe a third-order (and most sophisticated) version is such deep control over a society’s marketplace of ideas that policy-makers and bureacrats are spontaneously pursuing an agenda that benefits particular private parties, even without bribes of campaign money or job-offers, and even without voter pressure.

          So – the ‘tragedy’ here has two aspects.

          The first is the classic public-choice problem – that everyone is trying to use some sovereign power cut themselves a slice of cake at public expense. It would be a purely zero-sum game, except, that because, if such transfers become significant, they distort policy far away from the ‘optimal’ regulatory management of the enterprise, and the the deadweight-losses imposed constitute the ‘tragic’ element.

          But the second aspect is the wasteful rent-seeking scramble for all levels of influence. Directly with the politicians and government decision-makers, indirectly with the voters, and pandemically with the whole prevailing ideological environment.

          Both of these wasteful and anti-social tragedies – the deadweight loss and the rent-seeking – are baked in the Democratic cake. It must be emphasized that these activities are not just economically inefficient, but that they are fundamentally corrosive of social capital and cohesion, as well as tolerance and liberty, because they create a clear way to prosper personally (or as a class or identity group) at someone else’s coerced-expense, as well as generating the incentives to generate an apparatus of thought-control.

          So, in principle, the sovereign power could be worth as much as the whole economy society is worth, though obviously there will be plenty of countervailing forces which push-back, so it’s a question of a kind of politically-practical Laffer-curve optimum.

          You almost see this in corporations, except they are subject to laws which demand equal dividends per classes of share. But imagine if the shareholder with 51% of the vote in a class also got to control the outcome on who received all that class’ dividends. Since 51% is worth 100%, the expense to which parties will go to achieve it will cost more than the fundamental underlying value of the resource, which necessarily involves a lot of waste.

          Now imagine there are three shareholders, two with 49%, and one with 2% of the vote. The bidding war between the two giants for the 2% share will value it greater than 2% of the enterprise, because they could each win an additional 51% of the profits. You can imagine the perverse dynamics (which is why corporations have developed ways to avoid such scenarios, the predictable fairness of which makes them more valuable). Now, if you think of two dominant ideologies or parties constantly parrying to win over a small slice of swayable moderates through government funded bidding-wars then you have a situation in which the public cost but private benefit becomes absolutely necessary to generate a loyal electoral constituency or ‘votebank‘, and you can see what dynamics will result.

          And it should be obvious that the party less squeamish about state-sector expansion and with the dispersing public-funded benefits to voters is going to win most of those bidding wars, resulting in a Democratic ratchet effect to ‘the left’. The founders saw the potential for this kind of tragedy, and tried to establish laws and customs to avoid it, but they didn’t last, because they couldn’t possibly last – it’s just an impossible goal to achieve in a Democracy.

          But, if sovereign power is vested in one sophisticated entity as a form of ‘owned property’ then it will be used to manage the underlying resource (the society and economy) to maximize its value, because that is proportional to its ability to generate taxes.

          A sophisticated corporate-landlord is very much like a ‘government’ and manages a large apartment complex in the same way. They have total authority to set up almost any kind of ‘community rules’ they want to, but if they are too restrictive they won’t win and keep tenants. They are trying to collect as much rent as possible, but to do so they must reinvest a hefty portion of their revenues into maintenance, capital improvements, services and amenities (to include security). But they are just trying to keep their consumers happy and loyal in a competitive environment for both tenants and investment capital – not trying to bribe them to gain popularity. If each of the tenants gets a vote on the distributions of rents, the allocation of services, and who gets the choicest administrative jobs, then … the war begins.

          To move from both destructive effects of ‘the tragedy of the commons’ to ‘successful capitalism’ requires a government design that is less common and more private – that is to say – less Democratic and more Singular.

          • Rasputin says:

            This is extremely helpful and clarifying, and obviously much better than my aborted comment deserved – thanks!

            I won’t try to reconstruct it now because your response has moved the discussion forward substantially without it. The Friedman link was a great example of something I have been arguing for over at Land’s place: clear, succinct, persuasive dissection of reality, which could go viral to rebut progressive myths/arguments.

            Your next post has convinced me to put aside some time and write my own ‘sick journey’, which was aborted some time ago, but could perhaps be resurrected.

  11. Rasputin says:


    “My favorite analogy for official authority is the stellar cycle. If the authority of government is the temperature of the star, and the size of government is the size of the star, Washington is easily identifiable as a red giant, like Betelgeuse – enormous and cool.

    For former libertarians, such as myself, this inverse relationship is critical. The paradox is that weakening government makes it larger. At least, to a libertarian, this seems like a paradox. Once it seems quite natural, you may no longer be a libertarian.

    Perhaps the most significant fallacious principle in the Anglo-American democratic mind is the principle of division of authority – immortalized by Montesquieu as the separation of powers. Montesquieu, of course, was an Anglophile, and he was head-over-heels in love with the supposed balance of powers created by the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688. To refute this principle, it should be sufficient to note that in the Britain of 2009, only one – at most – of Montesquieu’s three powers still has any power at all.

    The division of authority is simply the destruction of order. The Romans knew it as the political solecism of imperium in imperio, and Harvard Business School dreads it no less. There is no conceivable balance between competing authorities; they will fight until one kills the others, and even when they collaborate it is in the fashion of partners in crime.

    Of course, divided authority tends to be quite popular among those who divide the authority. Power is fun, and power shared three ways creates more total fun than power held by one. Note also the entropic quality of division: it is much easier to divide than to reunify. The stellar cycle is entropic, of course, as well.

    Democracy is a classic case of division of authority. It purports to dole out microscopic slivers of power equally to all subjects of the government. In fact this power is simply transferred to those who form, instruct, and organize large bodies of voters, whose average thoughts are unsophisticated by definition. Carlyle and others of his ilk called these men wire-pullers, and did not regard their growing importance as a good omen for the British polity. Surely the disaster of Great Britain in the democratic era evinces of some prescience in this regard.

    We must not be too harsh on the the advocates of divided authority, however. The principle is easily recognizable as what it is: a bad, but not completely ineffective, attempt to produce accountability. Lacking anything like the shareholder structure of the joint-stock republic – which is categorically distinct from democracy, most notably because the interests of all shareholders are identical, whereas the interests of democratic voters differ and conflict – division of authority seems like a decent compromise. That it weakens the State is obvious, but the more people you have in a room the more likely they are to agree on something sane.

    The great error of libertarians, as well as many liberals, progressives, etc, is to suppose that the weaker the State is, the freer its subjects are. The opposite is very nearly true. A weak government is a large government – and the smaller the State, the freer its subjects are. Every time you weaken your government, you give it another excuse to become larger.

    Essentially, big government is big because it is constantly competing with itself. Restore unified authority, clean the Augean stables, and the great dungheaps which exist only for the sake of themselves are washed out with the Orontes. Ideally, the dungheaps exist only for themselves, but in order to justify their existence they often put quite a bit of energy into molesting the poor customer.

    We can see this easily by looking at a level of weakness the US has not quite achieved: personal corruption. In a country where government officials take bribes, the principle of divided authority has reached the individual level. The bribetaker is personally sovereign, in a sense. His actions are not in the interest of the State as a whole, but the State as a whole did not just pull you over for driving 50 in a 55 zone. He did, and he wants a 500-peso note along with your driver’s license.

    In the US, not individuals but agencies of the State compete for power and importance. Each seeks to expand its own impact, budget, and personnel. If USG, tomorrow, were to find itself operated as a single authority, it would set quite a number of live coals under quite a number of superfluous agencies.”

    GI part 4

  12. spandrell says:

    David Friedman said that libertarians are divided in 2: those who say the culture is important, those who say the laws are important. I wrote about it here, and he came himself to participate.

    Seems Mr. Gurri is the former and others are doing the latter. It’s an old debate and we aren’t going to solve it here. What we need is synthesis.

    • I would definitely put myself in the former, and would say that the latter is more popular (even among non-libertarians).

      I think Deirdre McCloskey has, or at minimum is working on, the best synthesis here.

      • spandrell says:

        Care to summarize it?

        • I’m afraid of putting words in her mouth, but I’ll give a summary of my best approximation.

          There’s incentives; that is, rules with fairly whose effects are fairly well understood by economics, ceteris paribus.

          However, the things that must be held equal are ground level cultural/institutional variables on the one hand, and rhetoric and persuasion on the other. McCloskey’s vision—I think—is that these factors must be balanced to get an accurate picture of the overview. I’m fuzzy on her distinction between culture/institutions on the one hand and rhetoric/persuasion on the other, but in Bourgeois Dignity she repeatedly emphasizes that they are different. Her upcoming book, the third in the series, is supposed to focus on the rhetoric part, so I’m hoping that’ll develop the difference in more detail.

          In any case, I’m hopeful with what I’ve read so far. I’m currently reading an old one of hers, The Rhetoric of Economics, hoping it’ll provide some more insight.

  13. Pingback: Institutional norms and incentives | Beta+

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