(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’
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.
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.
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.
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.