Thursday, February 16, 2017

Carlyle Considered

After a shameful delay, at last I have joined the Froude Society! Previous installments covered Froude's "The Bow of Ulysses: The English in the West Indies" and Maine's "Popular Government". Today's subject is Thomas Carlyle, the grand old man of reaction, and his "Latter-day Pamphlets".

Reading Carlyle is often quite surprising, because while he is indubitably reactionary, it's not always in ways that one might expect. For instance, Carlyle places a lot of emphasis on the great men theory of both history and government.
Indisputably enough the meaning of all reform-movement, electing and electioneering, of popular agitation, parliamentary eloquence, and all political effort whatsoever, is that you may get the ten Ablest Men in England put to preside over your ten principal departments of affairs.
This emphasis means that there is relatively less discussion of detailed policy positions on particular issues of the day. Good government, to Carlyle, is a long way from a set of conservative talking points. It arises by appointing the most competent men to power, and giving them the authority to actually rule.

Carlyle wants, in other words, an aristocracy. But this is an aristocracy of talent and character, not one of inherited class. Men of low birth but noble character are singled out for praise, Robert Burns being a prominent example.
Choose well your Governor;—not from this or that poor section of the Aristocracy, military, naval, or redtapist; wherever there are born kings of men, you had better seek them out, and breed them to this work. All sections of the British Population will be open to you.
To the modern mind, one is more apt to evaluate governments by whether they their preferences accord with our own (and hence whether we want the same things implemented as the leaders do ) and whether they have the competence to actually carry the plans out. In this reckoning, a competent leader carrying out plans we hate is considerably worse than an incompetent leader trying and failing to carry out plans we hate.

But to Carlyle, competence involves the ability to understand the decrees of Nature or Nature's God, and thus know what will cause justice to be done. As a result, the distinction between competent government and just government is not of primary significance:
To prosper in this world, to gain felicity, victory and improvement, either for a man or a nation, there is but one thing requisite, That the man or nation can discern what the true regulations of the Universe are in regard to him and his pursuit, and can faithfully and steadfastly follow these. These will lead him to victory; whoever it may be that sets him in the way of these, —were it Russian Autocrat, Chartist Parliament, Grand Lama, Force of Public Opinion, Archbishop of Canterbury, M'Croudy the Seraphic Doctor with his Last-evangel of Political Economy,—sets him in the sure way to please the Author of this Universe, and is his friend of friends. And again, whoever does the contrary is, for a like reason, his enemy of enemies. This may be taken as fixed.
Perhaps the reason that we no longer talk this way is that most of us no longer believe in God (or anything else), and hence don't think of the aim of politics as being to implement his justice on earth. As a result, there's just preferences.

The above quote also illustrates that the focus on competent leaders making competent decisions takes precedence over designing mechanical schemes to implement decisions. As I noted in the discussion of Maine, early Moldbug (in the form of ideas like neocameralism) is a scientist of government, seeking the truth of optimal arrangements. Maine is an engineer of government, grappling with the messy practicalities of what produces generally stable outcomes. But in this taxonomy, Carlyle is an artist of government. Governing is a skill to be learned by able men, appropriately apprenticed to their trade. The only interest in systems and mechanisms is in the extent to which they correctly select the right men, and elevate them to power.

For this reason, Carlyle is generally scathing about the modern implementation of democracy, but not because it is impossible to implement well. The main problem is the fact that the world is full of fools, most of whom know nothing about either government policy or selecting able men. The Laws of the Universe are not easily given up to every Tom, Dick and Harry, so averaging out their opinion with those of the wise is a recipe for disaster:
Your ship cannot double Cape Horn by its excellent plans of voting. The ship may vote this and that, above decks and below, in the most harmonious exquisitely constitutional manner: the ship, to get round Cape Horn, will find a set of conditions already voted for, and fixed with adamantine rigour by the ancient Elemental Powers, who are entirely careless how you vote. If you can, by voting or without voting, ascertain these conditions, and valiantly conform to them, you will get round the Cape: if you cannot,—the ruffian Winds will blow you ever back again; the inexorable Icebergs, dumb privy-councillors from Chaos, will nudge you with most chaotic 'admonition'; you will be flung half-frozen on the Patagonian cliffs, or admonished into shivers by your iceberg councillors, and sent sheer down to Davy Jones, and will never get round Cape Horn at all!
Ships accordingly do not use the ballot-box at all; and they reject the Phantasm species of Captains: one wishes much some other Entities,—since all entities lie under the same rigorous set of laws,—could be brought to show as much wisdom, and sense at least of self-preservation, the first command of Nature.
For democracy skeptics like me, there is much to enjoy. But Carlyle is not easily reduced to slogans, and gives a quite nuanced view on when voting will work better or worse. Latter Day Pamphlets is not wedded to a particular governing system.

For instance, the biggest surprise of the book was that Carlyle is relatively positive about Oliver Cromwell. To me, I had always thought of Cromwell as a disaster, the beginning of where things went badly wrong in English history, and the destruction of genuine monarchy in England. But this isn't how Carlyle portrays it. Cromwell's strong Christian belief is implicitly praised, as is competence in leadership. Remember, the key is greatness of leadership, not forms of government! In this respect, I part company with Carlyle in the importance of institutions and norms. Even if Cromwell were more competent than Charles I, the successor to Charles I would have been a much better bet than the successor to Cromwell. Institutions are not an idea that has much prominence in Latter-day Pamphlets, and the subject of Cromwell and Charles I is not covered in enough detail for me to fully understand the appeal or the implied argument, But the overarching point is still correct - having a crown does not make one a real king, and fake kings are a source of particular disgust to Carlyle. While he does not elaborate much on Charles I, he accurately predicts that constitutional monarchs will not be stable arrangement, nor should we wish them to be:
Imposture, be it known then,—known it must and shall be,—is hateful, unendurable to God and man. Let it understand this everywhere; and swiftly make ready for departure, wherever it yet lingers; and let it learn never to return, if possible!
The Kings were Sham-Kings, playacting as at Drury Lane;—and what were the people withal that took them for real? It is probably the hugest disclosure of falsity in human things that was ever at one time made.
...[The Common Englishman] has been used to decent forms long since fallen empty of meaning, to plausible modes, solemnities grown ceremonial,—what you in your iconoclast humour call shams,—all his life long; never heard that there was any harm in them, that there was any getting-on without them. Did not cotton spin itself, beef grow, and groceries and spiceries come in from the East and the West, quite comfortably by the side of shams? Kings reigned, what they were pleased to call reigning; lawyers pleaded, bishops preached, and honourable members perorated; and to crown the whole, as if it were all real and no sham there, did not scrip continue saleable, and the banker pay in bullion, or paper with a metallic basis ?"
Carlyle predicts, in other words, what I have mentioned before - that political arrangements which are no longer actively defended, which persist out of institutional habit and inertia, will not survive. The unprincipled exceptions, if not actively insisted on, will be made into principled disasters. My guess as to the big elephant in the room on this front is citizenship. With Politics as with life -  nature has made up her mind that what cannot defend itself shall not be defended, as Mr Emerson put it.

By contrast, Oliver Cromwell and the members of the Long Parliament were deadly serious. And Carlyle gives an outstanding Chesterton's Fence justification of what role Parliament actually used to fill (much better than my own poor efforts)

Reading in Eadmerus and the dim old Books, one finds gradually that the Parliament was at first a most simple Assemblage, quite cognate to the situation; that Red William, or whoever had taken on him the terrible task of being King in England, was wont to invite, oftenest about Christmas time, his subordinate Kinglets, Barons as he called them, to give him the pleasure of their company for a week or two: there, in earnest conference all morning, in freer talk over Christmas cheer all evening, in some big royal Hall of Westminster, Winchester, or wherever it might be, with log-fires, huge rounds of roast and boiled, not lacking malmsey and other generous liquor, they took counsel concerning the arduous matters of the kingdom.
...So likewise in the time of the Edwards, when Parliament gradually split itself into Two Houses; and Borough Members and Knights of the Shire were summoned up to answer, Whether they could stand such and such an impost? and took upon them to answer, "Yes, your Majesty; but we have such and such grievances greatly in need of redress first,"—nothing could be more natural and human than such a Parliament still was.
...For, in fine, the tragic experience is dimly but irrepressibly forcing itself on all the world, that our British Parliament does not shine as Sovereign Ruler of the British Nation; that it was excellent only as Adviser of the Sovereign Ruler; and has not, somehow or other, the art of getting work done
In the Carlyle telling, the Parliament worked for two reasons. Firstly, it was composed of men who were themselves Nobles and Rulers, and thus competent to advise on such matters. And secondly, it filled the role of discussing policy choices when there were few avenues available for this. As Carlyle notes, this task is much more competently carried out in modern times (both his and ours) in the press. But the presence of the press makes Parliament not only superfluous, but contemptible, as it turns Parliamentary speeches into performances marketed to the rubes, not serious policy debates. Parliaments, at best, make good advisers but bad sovereigns. Modern parliaments are bad at both. 

There are some parts of Latter Day Pamphlets, especially those that describe the actual workings of government, that read as eerily prophetic. One is forced to do a double-take when one reads the descriptions of how government in England actually worked at the time. For instance:

[I]t is felt that 'reform' in that Downing-Street department of affairs is precisely the reform which were worth all others; that those administrative establishments in Downing Street are really the Government of this huge ungoverned Empire
Much has been done in the way of reforming Parliament in late years; but that of itself seems to avail nothing, or almost less. The men that sit in Downing Street, governing us, are not abler men since the Reform Bill than were those before it.
The civil service, in the form of the Home Office, Foreign Office and Colonial Office was already thoroughly in charge of 1850. Not only that, but the civil service was also fast turning into a sclerotic mess of incompetent bureaucrats badly doing work that didn't really need to be done in the first place. Pause and let that sink in when you hear conservatives talking about how we need to scale back the size of bureaucracy. 

As a consequence, it doesn't matter much who is the Prime Minister, since the civil service makes all the important decisions anyway, and the election and political process is so chaotic and time-consuming that there isn't scope for much else for a leader to do. This is a point that Moldbug emphasises a lot, but the average democracy adherent simply cannot believe. The memorable description of being Prime Minister is that of trying to stay atop a wild bucking horse, with the effort towards not being thrown off crowding out any hope of controlling the direction:
[T]he Right Honourable Zero is to be the man. That we firmly settle; Zero, all shivering with rapture and with terror, mounts into the high saddle; cramps himself on, with knees, heels, hands and feet; and the horse gallops—whither it lists. That the Right Honourable Zero should attempt controlling the horse—Alas, alas, he, sticking on with beak and claws, is too happy if the horse will only gallop anywhither, and not throw him. ... This is what we call a Government in England, for nearly two centuries now.
...Really it is unimportant which of them ride it. Going upon past experience long continued now, I should say with brevity, "Either of them—Neither of them." If our Government is to be a No-Government, what is the matter who administers it? Fling an orange-skin into St. James's Street; let the man it hits be your man.
This has been the government ... for nearly two centuries before 1850.  If you think Carlyle might be right, rolling things back to the 1950's isn't going to cut it.

Yet despite these similarities in description of some parts of the world, one sees that Moldbug's description of Carlyle as a reactionary is entirely correct:
A reactionary is not a Republican, a Democrat, or even a libertarian. It is not even a communist, a fascist, or a monarchist. It is something much older, stranger, and more powerful. But if you can describe it as anything, you can describe it as the pure opposite of progressivism. True reaction is long since extinct in the wild, but it lives in Carlyle.
Indeed, reading through Latter Day Pamphlets, one continues to be struck by statements that defy description on the standard modern political spectrum. Authority is not only necessary, but wise and just:
I say, it is the everlasting privilege of the foolish to be governed by the wise
Carve it in stone. This is so far outside the Overton Window that we barely have words to describe it.

But if you were hoping for a defense of mainstream capitalist economics, you will not find it here. Carlyle is shocked and appalled by the level of poverty evident in Ireland. But unlike the left, he is appalled not only because of the suffering, but mostly because the indigence and misery is a sign of a catastrophic failure of governance. The problem with poverty is not ultimately the money, but the wasted lives.
The Idle Workhouse, now about to burst of overfilling, what is it but the scandalous poison-tank of drainage from the universal Stygian quagmire of our affairs? Workhouse Paupers; immortal sons of Adam rotted into that scandalous condition, subter-slavish, demanding that you would make slaves of them as an unattainable blessing! My friends, I perceive the quagmire must be drained, or we cannot live.
If our Chancellor of the Exchequer had a Fortunatus' purse, and miraculous sacks of Indian meal that would stand scooping from forever,—I say, even on these terms Pauperism could not be endured; and it would vitally concern all British Citizens to abate Pauperism, and never rest till they had ended it again. Pauperism is the general leakage through every joint of the ship that is rotten. 
Carlyle is decidedly cool on the ability of markets, not only to solve these problems, but also to generate wise decisions in general. His scathing essay on the possibility of making a statue of railway baron George Hudson, who is presented as a seller of worthless scrip and dubious economic schemes, makes clear why. A democracy of dollars is not much more likely to recognise genuine human worth than a democracy of votes, for much the same reasons. This is not a matter Carlyle takes lightly:
If the world were not properly anarchic, this question 'Who shall have a Statue?' would be one of the greatest and most solemn for it. Who is to have a Statue? means, Whom shall we consecrate and set apart as one of our sacred men?
And he walked the walk too, founding the National Portrait Gallery to make sure that great men were properly commemorated too. 

One is also reminded in odd ways that the world itself was very different in 1850, and not just in the ways that get frequently remarked on. For instance, in an essay discussing the enormous prominence given to people who had the gift of good speech, Carlyle states the following:
Our English careers to born genius are twofold. There is the silent or unlearned career of the Industrialisms, which are very many among us ; and there is the articulate or learned career of the three professions, Medicine, Law (under which we may include Politics), and the Church. Your born genius, therefore, will first have to ask himself, Whether he can hold his tongue or cannot ?
Two questions arise, both linked. Firstly, what criteria do we now use to evaluate truth, apart from rhetoric, which gets little discussion in the essay? And secondly, what is the large class of learned careers not discussed in the above list?

The answer to both is: science. One can see that the intellectual impact of the scientific method had not yet permeated much of society, and that science itself was practiced by a small number of mostly independently wealthy people like Lord Kelvin. The rest of innovation was merely lumped in with industrialism, and not at all considered to be an important or primary method of understanding the universe. If you were actually transported back to the world of 1850, it would almost certainly strike you as utterly alien in far more ways than you imagine. As Moldbug said of Larry Auster, it is equally true of Carlyle - he is gone, and so is the country he was born in. To complain of either would be as superfluous.

But the underlying truth of his words still remains. To those of us skeptical about modernity, Carlyle speaks across the ages, addressing our misgivings and pointing a way forward through the morass:
My friends, across these fogs of murky twaddle and philanthropism, in spite of sad decadent 'world-trees,' with their rookeries of foul creatures,—the silent stars, and all the eternal luminaries of the world, shine even now to him that has an eye. In this day as in all days, around and in every man, are voices from the gods, imperative to all, if obeyed by even none, which say audibly, "Arise, thou son of Adam, son of Time; make this thing more divine, and that thing,—and thyself, of all things; and work, and sleep not; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work!" He that has an ear may still hear.
Just so.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Conservation of Group Conflict

While I find watching sports generally boring, the psychology of why people watch sports is fascinating.

Not so much the fact that people want to watch exciting athletic endeavors, which doesn’t need much explanation. Watching the X-games or parkour is simply pleasure at athletic skill. But the most ubiquitous sporting events have a strong aspect of tribal loyalty to them. People don’t just like watching football in general, they mostly like supporting a particular team. You might say that this is just local civic pride, and to a certain extent this is true (though it still raises the question of why civic pride is invested in a sports team in the first place).

But the cleanest psychological natural experiment comes from foreigners who move to a city. I had an Australian friend who moved to the US, and wanted to watch American football. Since he didn’t have a team already, he picked one, literally at random. Now he’s a Green Bay Packers fan, and watches all their games. His choice is arbitrary, but I think he’s just more honest about what he wants. The underlying choice of who to support is always arbitrary. What people really want is the thrill of battle, of tribal allegiance and the raw passion of shared purpose. The only real reason to organize this along city or country lines is that it’s more fun to be part of a shared tribe with your friends, who usually happen to be the people living near you.

Sports tribalism is to actual tribalism what masturbation is to sex. The act being simulated is that of tribal battle. Of course, real tribal battle is generally frightening. You’ve got a high chance of being killed or maimed, and lots of people are too old, fat or weak to be usefully involved. So we’ve innovated ways to produce the same feeling by turning up and screaming for men to do ritualized battle on our behalf. There is a reason that live sports games are so much more exciting than televised games, and why televised games in a pub are more exciting than televised games in your home, and why televised games in your home with friends are more exciting than televised games in your home alone. The main attraction is the tribal shared purpose. The more visceral, the better. It’s no surprise that in Europe, soccer hooliganism takes the simulated version to its logical real-life conclusion.

It might be tempting to view this as a critique of sports, as being vulgar and base. Which is partly true. But there’s another, bigger angle at play.

The rise of mass audience participation in sports came after World War II, coinciding with a) the decrease in actual mass involvement in armed conflict, and b) the increased demonization of any racial or ethnic allegiance by western whites.

As the average young western male had less opportunity to actually engage in martial combat, and had no other tribe with which to bond, his appetite had to be sated with ritual simulated combat and arbitrary tribal sports loyalty.

In other words, when tribal allegiance and conflict did not exist, someone had to invent them. Because they fill a very primal need in the average psyche.

You can see this pattern operating in wider conflicts. There seems to be something approximating a conservation of group conflict. Obviously, there's periods of high and low average levels, so it's not a strict conservation. But there does seem to be a rough equilibrium, created by forced pushing in opposite directions. When the background level of tribal conflict gets too low, people seek it out. But when there threatens to be too much, some of the people who were previously tribal enemies become acceptable again.

In terms of the first, there are some wars in history that are simply difficult to explain, even in hindsight. For instance, the War of 1812 between Britain and America. Be honest, have you ever read a succinct account of what the hell it was all about? Here’s Wikipedia:
The United States declared war for several reasons, including trade restrictions brought about by the British war with France, the impressment of as many as 10,000 American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy, British support for Native American tribes fighting European American settlers on the frontier, outrage over insults to national honor during the Chesapeake–Leopard Affair, and interest in the United States in expanding its borders west.
 Ooookay. That sounds totally incoherent. Compare it to the far more compelling account from The War Nerd's excellent series 'The 12 Days of 1812'
So why go to war with a great power when you know it’s in a bad mood? And Britain was in a very, very bad mood in the early 19th century, scared out of its wits by France, creeping democracy, disrespectful servants, and the whole revolutionary trend.
Mostly because the US was in a good mood--too good for its own good. We had a big birthrate—rich families were bigger than poor families in those days, partly because more of their kids made it to adulthood—and that made for a lot of young, ambitious “gentlemen” who wanted to add “officer” to their resumes, and “wartime officer” at that.
We went to war because we (meaning, as the academics would say, “a handful of wealthy white males, bla bla bla”) wanted to. The happiest memories anybody had were the stories—not always totally factual, naturally—of how we kicked British ass in Washington’s day. Most of the elite still had a vaguely pro-French feeling, thanks to the French saving our ass in the Revolution, and not in the mood to excuse all the Royal Navy’s high-handed behavior. America knew it was much bigger and stronger than it had been in 1780, and wanted everybody to know it. Nothing like a war to make an impression.
Lastly, the factor you won’t see mentioned in any of the standard list: War envy. You see this a lot when a war goes big: everybody wants to get in on it. Later, they usually want to get out, but it’s too late then. War meant much more to most upper-class Americans in 1812 than it does now. Decent families were supposed to produce officers, and officers wanted battle creds. Everybody in Europe was getting them; they’d been at it for 20 years, in fact. It was just plain time for another war. The Brits were overextended and impolite; Canada was there for the taking, or looked to be; and a whole new generation of Americans who’d had to listen to dad’s and granddad’s stories about Lexington and Saratoga wanted some material of their own, to bore their grandkids with, the way God intended.
Brecher, who knows more about the psychology of these matters than the vast majority of writers on the subject, is dead right. It's not that the listed casus belli weren't somewhat involved. It's just that they don't add up to a coherent explanation without a significant component that basically amounts to 'people just wanted it to happen'.

And on the flip side, among the odd if largely unremarked developments of the second half of the 20th Century is the enormous decline in military antagonism between European nations. Contra the bureaucrats in Brussels, the prospect of a war between the major European powers is incredibly remote, EU or no EU. There simply isn't the anger for it any more.

As the rising tide of diversity brought more and more minorities into Europe, the primary tribal conflict was completely transformed. The nativists who might have previously been agitating for war with France or Germany, who were the traditional tribal enemies, now had their entire focus absorbed by third world populations in their midst. Correspondingly, the globalist left was far more concerned with destroying nativist opposition at home than with fighting other countries. As the progressive elites pushed further and further into continent-wide alliances to advance the EU idea, the conservatives and nationalists realised that they actually had a lot in common with the nationalists from other countries.

Partly this is just a matter of tactics - if you try to fight everyone at once, you inevitably lose. But still, the idea that nativists in lots of European countries would be all allied with each other, rather than agitating for wars against each other, would be highly surprising to Europeans 100 years ago. As indeed would the currency of the idea 'European' itself. One might be British or German or Polish, but nobody was just 'European'. You can only do so when there is a real, non-European group against which to distinguish yourself.

And this suggests something puzzling about the pan-European nationalism of people like Richard Spencer. Specifically, suppose Spencer et al actually get their way, and the European nations revert to being comprised mostly of people ethnically associated with that region - Anglo-Saxons in Britan, Teutons in Germany, etc. Don't ask me how this happens, but just assume it. What do you think would happen next?

My guess is that there's a good chance that the pan-European sentiment would quickly dissolve without the glue of intra-country conflict to hold it together. The European countries would soon end up a lot more antagonistic to each other than they are now. We had a period where Europe was filled with only white people, and 'pan-European nationalism' sure isn't the way to describe the prevailing mood at the time'. Maybe it would be different this time around, but would you bet on it? And if so, why?

At heart, starting up another tribal conflict it would be the only way to keep the game going. Nativists want to fight other tribes. Globalists want to fight nativists, and feel virtuous by defusing the nativist/outgroup conflict (as they see it). But everyone involved needs there to be a tribal enemy in order to be able to enjoy playing their part in the game, which is the only thing they all agree on.

The economists will tell you that we can't have world peace and disarmament because it creates massive incentives for one country to defect and invade everyone else.

But the psychologists might add another reason. We can't have world peace and disarmament because people would get bored and start conflicts up again.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Birth Control Basilisk

An ongoing question I've talked about a few times before is that at least some of our toughest social problems are really technology problems. That is, not problems of a lack of technology, but of a surfeit of neutral or even beneficial technology which is having unexpected negative side effects. Mass illegal immigration is mostly a problem of cheap transport, for instance.

I mostly think about the declining birthrates in much the same way as I think about the increase in obesity (which deserves its own post for sure). Specifically, that technology has produced an environment so unlike that to which we’re evolutionarily adapted that people’s instincts no longer produce reliably good outcomes.

In other words, reliable contraception and abortion has been like a basilisk. It short circuits what had previously been a very successful evolutionary adaption which used to have high reproductive fitness. It leaves humans like the moth circling the light bulb, thinking it is the moon and flying in circles until it drops of exhaustion.

What are the instincts that people have with respect to children and reproduction?

1. People have a very strong, uncomplicated and concrete desire to have sex, ideally right now. They don't need marketing campaigns to make them want to do this. Oddities like Japan aside, people seem to have no problem getting laid.

2. People have a somewhat strong, but quite complicated, abstract and malleable, desire to have children, at some point in time.

3. People have a very strong, uncomplicated desire to love and care for the children they have.

#2 and #3 are deliberately split into two parts. As the great Gary Becker put it, you don't love your children as much as you learn to love your children once they arrive. There was usually the option to have one more child, which you chose not to do, often as part of a quite sensible cost/benefit tradeoff. Of course, if people had an unplanned pregnancy and had another child anyway, they'd still love and care for the child. But the fact that each child gets loved intensely once it arrives doesn't cause people to want as many children as possible. The love only kicks in after they arrive, and the prospect of loving another child in the abstract does not exert nearly the same overwhelming pull.

In other words, traditional reproduction worked primarily through #1 and #3. A strong desire to have sex ensures children are produced with fairly high regularity, because birth control is either non-existent or unreliable. A strong desire to care for children once they arrive ensures they live to adulthood if resources allow. #2 served mostly as a general background reinforcement. This is the environment we all lived in from 10 million BC until the 1950's or so.

The whole idea of it being a contentious question whether you chose to have kids or not is, as far as I can tell, a shockingly recent question. If the only way you could so choose would be to either a) not get laid, or b) rely on methods that require practice, discipline in the heat of coital moment, forward planning and/or health risks, the discussion would be largely moot.

With birth control, childbirth has been largely disconnected from being a necessary consequence of getting laid. It seems that most unplanned pregnancies are teenagers who are still learning the ropes of birth control, the very poor who simply can't afford it, or people with very low forward planning skills. But regardless of how you cut it, in the modern era it is very easy to take precautions that mean you can have sex for an extended period and not get pregnant.

As a result, we’re now expecting the second, weaker desire to do the job where previously the heavy lifting was done by the first. You have to choose to have children. Is it a wonder that this doesn’t wholly succeed?

This doesn't mean that the problem is impossible - social pressure can be a powerful force, if the right motivations and incentives are set up. But make no mistake, we're expecting new social engineering to reproduce a result that was previously done just by our evolutionary adaptions.

I suspect that we are only recently finding out that the majority of human survival and reproduction was actually driven by unplanned or unwanted pregnancies. We now suffer from a want of unwanted pregnancies, and we don't know how to make up the difference.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Leader as King, the Leader as CEO

Of all the ideas in Unqualified Reservations, perhaps the one I found most compelling is the comparison of the state with a corporation.

In the Moldbug view, the state, in any meaningful sense, already is a corporation - a group of individuals working for a shared purpose under an agreed-upon structure. It's just that the modern democratic state is a very oddly run corporation. This was satirised very well in the Moldbug theory of rotary management, where he described how bewildering democratic governance would look if applied to a regular company.

But behind the parody was a serious, and brilliant, point. Most educated people in the west think that the way we run corporations is approximately optimal, given their tasks. That is, being run with dispersed shareholders separate from the customer base, elections of board members who appoint an all-powerful CEO who is subject to board dismissal, and a share price to monitor performance. And most educated people in the west similarly think that the way we run governments is approximately optimal, given their tasks - that is, with democratic elections, a permanent civil service, judicial review etc.

But it is not at all clear that the tasks of the two organisations are that different. And since they are governed in such totally different ways, if you think that they are both optimal, it is incumbent upon you to explain what specifically about the differences between the organisational tasks requires such totally different structures.

The Moldbug answer is quite simple - there is no difference. Companies fill essentially similar functions to countries, and we can thus judge the expected success of difference governing structures by the relative success of different company structures. Sovereign corporations would likely outcompete sovereign democracies, in much the same way that regular corporations outcompete co-operatives (which is approximately what democracies are, but with more dysfunction). They just haven't been tried.

But there is another aspect to this metaphor that gets less emphasis.

Suppose we have a family-owned firm. All the shares are owned in their entirety by the male head of the family, the father. The father is both the sole shareholder and the CEO. He passes both the CEO position and his equity stake, simultaneously, to his eldest son upon his death. In this corporation, the two roles are inextricably linked by company by-laws - if at any point the father ceases his role as CEO and transfers it to someone else, then the shares and any cash flow rights are transferred to his successor, except those periodic payments given as a gratuity by the new CEO who may keep him on as an informal adviser. This has some beneficial effects, since the principal-agent problem is basically solved - the CEO now has the strongest possible incentives to maximise the value of his shares.

The father does not have to make every single decision - as CEO, he can hire advisers and delegate certain decisions, but ultimate authority must remain with him in order for him to retain his ability to reap the profits of the company. As both CEO and sole shareholder, there is no board to either evaluate his performance as CEO, or provide external opinions - the only opinions he will hear are those of subordinates directly employed by him, and who may be fired by him at any moment. Indeed, as CEO he is wary of delegating too much, lest people misinterpret these actions under the company by-laws as meaning that his delegate is actually the new CEO and shareholder. As a result, it is hard for him to reap the profits of the company without actively managing it. At first this works okay, but he has to keep doing this even when he is old and feeble - retirement means losing his equity stake.

Because the CEO must hold all the shares, he is prevented from raising outside equity. If he wants to raise capital for a project, only debt financing is available. As a result, if the CEO has a firm that is short in pledgeable assets, he may find it difficult to raise external funds for capital projects. This occasionally makes it difficult for him to ward off competitor firms.

While the father naturally has affection for his son and successor, he loves his other children too, and ideally would like to arrange to transfer his shares to a formal trust to provide for all of them. Unfortunately, company by-laws prevent the shares from being transferred to a trust. Most of the time, he can rely on his oldest son to treat the rest of the family fairly well, but it's always a gamble. In addition, he occasionally suspects that the total profits would be greater if he transferred power to his smarter, younger son, rather than his oldest wastrel son. But the by-laws are fairly strict on that point.

Every so often in the corporate history, the father becomes completely evil, incompetent, or mad. Since this threatens not only the value of his shares, but the livelihoods of his senior employees and the welfare of the customers, they occasionally take drastic action. But since the by-laws don't allow for the removal of a bad CEO, and since there's no way for the CEO to transfer control without impoverishing himself, this usually means that the current CEO has to be killed. Since this is a risky move, which the current CEO has the highest conceivable incentives to prevent, it's only attempted in the most dire circumstances.

There are other unscheduled transfers of power. Sometimes, the eldest son gets impatient, and kills off the father. Sometimes, a junior son will kill off the eldest in a deniable manner, in order to be further in line for the CEO job. You'd think that the by-laws would explicitly preclude someone from benefiting in this manner, and the shares and CEO job would be taken away, but oddly this isn't the case.

Because the parallels are more straightforward, and because I lack the cleverness and imagination of Moldbug, it's probably quite apparent that I'm describing a simplified version of absolute monarchy. I have defended absolute monarchy before, and think that it probably worked a lot better than people today tend to think. But like before with democracy, we can use the history of corporate governance to judge the merits of monarchy versus neocameralism, or sovereign corporations.

Reader, suppose that we unleashed our monarchical corporation into the world, to compete with the firms in the S&P 500. Do you suppose it would succeed? True, it has its advantages. If it started in office with a great CEO, it might do quite well for a while, since it wouldn't suffer from the standard principal agent problems of managers empire-building, or enriching themselves at the expense of shareholders. But how long do you think such an arrangement would last, especially past the first CEO? Most CEOs, even good ones, are only at the top of their game for a short number of years, and when they screw up, they have to get replaced by someone else, who is picked from among the top managers across the whole planet. The advantages here are fairly plain.

It seems quite apparent that our monarchical firm would struggle to compete. Most of the world's successful coprorations have structures that are nothing like the one we describe above. They look more like our regular, familiar public firms.

"But," you may protest, "there are successful family firms too!"

This is true. In the world today, there are large, successful family-run firms. But they tend look more like regular public companies than our monarchical corporation. Many of them are publicly traded as well, like Wal-Mart, with the family retaining only a controlling stake. Out of the rest, the shares can be distributed across family members or held a trust. The CEO job can be kept within the family, or transferred to an outsider (even if the outsider is "adopted" into the family, like in Japan). The firm can raise equity financing.

And for the families that own such firms, they don't seem to be in a huge hurry to change their corporate by-laws to those of a monarchical corporation. By revealed preference, they seem to prefer more modern arrangements.

Out of the various aspects of an absolute king, it seems beneficial that the executive has absolute authority over personnel, budget, operations, and other kinds of organisational decisions. Divided power in this regard mostly just causes problems and inefficiencies. But the linking of absolute organisational authority (which both the King and CEO share) with sole inalienable equity ownership (which only the King has) is not nearly so obviously beneficial. And the process of removing a bad CEO seems far preferable to the process of removing a bad king.

Moreover, if the CEO is not to be the sole shareholder, then it seems misguided to make the CEO the sole judge of his own performance. Having a board, who lacks any major organisational authority except the power to appoint and remove the CEO, along with other major structural changes, seems fairly benign as far as divided power goes, and is very beneficial in the event that you need to change the CEO. It's possible that the board might become meddlesome, but most of the charges against boards made by economists are that they rubber stamp the CEO's decisions too much, not that they're overly combative.

And finally, dispersed shareholders also go a decent way to combating the problem of an owner with perverse or evil preferences. When the sole shareholder in a country is the king, it's possible that the king just has preferences for evil, nasty stuff. Sure, he'd like more profit, but perhaps he's more interested in droit du seigneur, even though it's value-destroying and the citizens hate it.

But if we take the preferences of a multitude of shareholders, and ask what set of preferences can they agree upon, it's typically to just get paid more. In other words, maximise dividends, and let each shareholder buy whatever he wants. There's not usually cross-subsidisation of shareholders in their purchases from the company. It's possible that shareholder citizens in a sovereign corporation might also vote for droit du seigneur, but it seems easier and cheaper to just get hookers or groupies with the extra dividends.

Sovereign corporations have their problems, no doubt. But if your plan for how you'd like a government to be run varies wildly from how you'd like a regular corporation to be run, then you at least want to know the specific reasons why, lest the ghost of William of Occam haunts your country's fortunes.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

On Power and Coordination

Occasionally, as Paul Samuelson once noted, one is tempted to write something that one can’t decide whether it’s something important, or something completely obvious. So it is here – if in doubt, go with humility and bet on the latter.

Power, in general, is the ability to impose one’s own preferences on somebody else, overriding whatever the person’s own preferences are.

So how does that come about?

It seems that there are two main ways.

The most straightforward way is to have some attribute that the other person lacks – in other words, there can be inherent differences between people. You can be stronger, or smarter, or better looking, or trained in a specific skill. This is the simplest form of power – the bully. I am stronger than you, therefore I can impose my will upon you. This kind of power is readily apparent, and understandable instinctively even to small children.

But this only gets you so far. Think about Hillary Clinton. She came close to having the ability to annihilate most of the human race with nuclear weapons. On what personal attributes did this arise? She has a certain wily cynicism, and a will to power. But she is so frail that she could barely stand up. She is so unlikable that even those voting for her now admit that nobody really liked her. She’s above average intelligence, but you could take a randomly chosen math professor from a top 200 college in the US and they’d be considerably smarter. So something is missing.

Indeed, there is a second, and broader way.

Most power comes from coordination.

Coordination at heart, is the power of other people’s beliefs. The belief among the members of a group that they will all act together, or all act at the command of a leader. The belief of the dominated group that they will be punished severely for any resistance.

The simplest form is cooperation – an explicit agreement to help each other out. This can create power even if everyone is otherwise equal. A criminal gang combined creates much more power for each of its members than they would have if they were acting alone. Four people together can gang up on another person while taking much less damage than one quarter of what they’d sustain in a one on one fight. So they have a force multiplier –the gang of four can win more than four uneven fights.

With basic co-ordination, the equivalent of ‘having inherent strength’ is having the power of numbers –inherent attributes and coordination are complements, as people generally want to coordinate with the strongest person. But co-ordination can outstrip inherent differences in numbers quite easily. Four bullies in a schoolyard can terrorize the entire rest of the student body, even though the latter are much more numerous, and their combined strength is greater. This is just another way of saying that if everyone else could coordinate, they would actually hold the power. How do they do that? How do they agree to a plan, and get everyone to stick to it? It seems like such a trivial thing to surmount, but it is in fact the entire thing.

Or if that’s trite, how did the ~35% Sunni population of Iraq rule over the ~65% Shiite population for so long? It could be that the Sunnis are better fighters, but the subsequent developments don’t seem to immediately support this – the Iraqi government may or may not survive American withdrawal, but the Shiites successfully expelled the Sunni from Baghdad, and I doubt that ISIS car bombs are sufficient to reverse this.

Beliefs often create self-fulfilling prophesies. When everyone knows that Saddam is in charge, and that dissent is ruthlessly punished, it becomes very difficult for the Shiite to all know when and how to rise up at once (even the first American arrival in 1991 wasn’t enough to generate this). The army will always be co-ordinated in their response, but the mob lacks the discipline and certainty to know that actions will be followed through. So everyone wonders if they start lobbing Molotov cocktails at the police, will the rest of the people join them, or abandon them to the tender mercies of Saddam and his industrial shredders? This uncertainty greatly benefits the incumbent government – that is to say, the better co-ordinated group.

As a result of this, smart leaders worry a lot about preventing opposition groups from organizing. Gary King’s research about Chinese internet censorship reveals that the ChiComs understand this principle very well. Most people seem to think that it’s risky to criticize the government, but this isn’t what actually gets you censored. You can say that a governor is worthless, or corrupt, or a crook. You can say that he’s having an affair, and give the name of his mistress. This kind of information is actually quite useful to the Communist party. Like any organization, they have to measure the performance of their subordinates, and promote the competent. Finding out which local officials are pissing off lots of citizens is something you’d like to know.

What you can’t say, however, is “…and so let’s go protest”. That is what gets you censored. And it turns out this holds true even for positive statements that involve collective action. “Let’s have a rally in support of the new environmental policy” also gets you censored. When lots of people turn up in the streets at once, moods can change very quickly. Remember, co-ordination (where we all think and do the same thing) doesn’t need to be co-operation, where we all explicitly agree to help each other. It’s enough if a single event makes a mob all get angry at once, there doesn’t need to be a central controlling figure or an organized plan.

This paper finally explained to me why the Chinese government was so paranoid about Falun Gong. Aren’t they just a meditation group? Probably, but it turns out it doesn’t matter. If you can get 10,000 people to all turn up at once in Tienanmen Square, you are a potential existential threat to the government, even if all you’re doing is meditating.

This is also the story of the Gulen movement in Turkey. As a mutual advancement society and cult of personality, they had strong loyalty to Gulen and each other. But so did Erdogan’s supporters, and they had the advantage of both the incumbency of government, and a superiority of numbers. So how did the Gulenists come close to pulling off a coup? They held one considerable co-ordination advantage over Erdogan – they knew who all the key Erdogan supporters were, but Erdogan didn’t know who the Gulenists were. This meant that even though Erdogan knew he was being undermined, and had the numbers to crush them, he didn’t know who to strike. So he was strong, but blind.

The story I heard (though all such stories out of Turkey are speculation) was that the key development that took place earlier in the year was that Erodgan had finally cracked the communication system by which the Gulenists were able to communicate with each other. And suddenly the game changed very quickly. Once he knew who they were, the Gulenists were in a tight spot. The story goes that they had to rush forward plans for the coup, because they knew that Erdogan was planning a big purge of them. In some sense, this was obvious – why in God’s name would you start a coup on a Friday night, rather than at 4am? Subsequent events bear this out too – within days of the coup’s failure, there were long lists of people fired or imprisoned. This means that they had at least some of the lists in advance.

But even so, it was a near thing. Because beliefs are fragile, if one can decisively change everyone else’s opinions, the Gulenists could have turned into the Baathists of Iraq, ruling over a much larger population. The key moment, as I wrote about before, was Erdogan’s facetime press conference. By getting the message out to lots of people to take to the streets, suddenly the Gulenists had a much harder time, because the government supporters now had both numbers and co-ordination – the self-fulfilling prophesy of the coup succeeding starts to turn around, people desert, and you end up dead or in prison. Until the last few months, the Gulenists looked like a very savvy model of how to build power to subvert and overthrow a government with a smaller force. Usually, guerrilla movements appeal to the numbers of the people, and their discontent. Almost pulling off a coup without popular support, and without being the army itself, is quite an impressive feat, even if they ultimately failed.

Viewed from this angle, we can suddenly see why formal systems of government are so difficult to achieve, whether this is in the form of an all-powerful king or an all-powerful constitution. Saying that the king will have absolute authority is presuming the conclusion you’re trying to reach. The king doesn’t fight off armies single-handedly, he rules because his subjects believe that it’s in their interests to follow his orders. Does this hold true for every possible order? If the order hasn’t been given yet, it might be hard to say. But if orders stop being obeyed, either he stops being an all powerful king and becomes merely one center of power in the system of government, or stops being king altogether, most likely killed by the general who disobeyed him.

We thus have a basis for Maine’s striking observation about the British crown – that some of its powers were probably lost through lack of use. If the nature of power is people’s beliefs, these are hard to measure. And while past history is a good guide to what people think now, how do you know the world hasn’t changed in the interim? Even the ruling flag must continue to be run up the flagpole from time to time in order to know that people will continue to salute.

Because cooperation requires us to agree upon a plan, it usually requires hierarchy. Somebody is at the top, and gives orders. This way, everyone knows what they need to do. And so gangs nearly always have a leader.

As I noted before, the first king is the king because he is a great leader of men, and able to upset the old order. And these traits get passed on to subsequent generations, giving them a fundamental advantage over other men. But still, subsequent monarchs are primarily the king simply because they are the son of the old king, and everyone believes that this is the basis for government, so orders get obeyed. In this regard, succession planning and institutional rules are very important in maintaining power. Monarchies make this process very simple, as rules of succession are familial and well-laid out. If they create bad incentives, it’s for potential offspring of the king to kill each other, but at least the general populace is relatively well insulated from such issues. One-party states, like the Chinese Communists, sometimes are able to manage the process pretty well. But this usually involves handing over power before the leader dies. Otherwise there’s uncertainty about who will take over, which can lead to infighting and difficulties when the leader dies, or mass purges in the leadup.

Moreover, the orderly handing over of power becomes incredibly important in getting leaders to step aside when the time is right. If there is a strong tradition of treating past rulers fairly, then current rulers will be more willing to step down when they get old and frail. If there is a history that rulers get killed and replaced, the incentive is a to pull a Mugabe, and hang on until they carry you out in a box. In this regard, the most important development of the American revolution was George Washington’s decision to step down after two terms, as it encouraged the other leaders to follow suit, rather than setting up a dictatorship because they knew that if they didn’t, the next guy would do it.

And finally, we have part of an answer to the puzzling fact that major political developments are often entirely unpredicted even a short period beforehand – World War I sweeping away the monarchies, for instance, or the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hemingway's observation about bankruptcy 0 that it happens gradually, then suddenly - is especially true of governments. It turns out that both ‘The government is stable’ and ‘the government has collapsed’ are self-fulfilling beliefs. As a result, discontent builds slowly, but can stay at a high level for quite a long time, because of the incumbency advantage of the self-fulfilling belief in stable government. These kinds of shifts will likely have a substantial degree of randomness to them –an East German official mistakenly announces that the border with West Berlin will be opened immediately, and this sets off an avalanche that brings down the whole system.

In other words, you could be years or months away from a seismic shift in government, and you probably wouldn’t know it.

Change beliefs and you change the power structure, because beliefs are the power structure.

Friday, December 2, 2016

An Economist's Cautionary Note on Free Trade

Among most economists (among whom I count myself as one), free trade is a pretty strongly favoured policy.

The reasons for this are fairly good, and fairly straightforward, in the standard case for free trade.

Under the standard theory, the main basis for the benefits of free trade is comparative advantage. If Australia is relatively more efficient in producing iron ore (that is, if it has a comparative advantage in iron ore), and China is more efficient at producing manufactured goods, then at the country level both Australia and China are better off if Australia specialises in iron ore, China specialises in manufactured goods, and the two countries trade with each other. Then both countries are able to obtain more consumption of each good than they would alone, given whatever initial resources they have. This is an economic benefit, understood since David Ricardo wrote about it in 1817.

If one thinks of the economic units in terms of countries, free trade between China and Australia is Pareto improving. Both countries are made better off, and no one (in this limited model) is made worse off. This is the Holy Grail of economic policy. The optimal level of tariffs is thus zero, as restrictions on free trade harm both countries.

But if one thinks instead at the level of individuals within a country, then free trade is no longer Pareto improving relative to tariffs. In the example above, if I'm a worker in an Australian manufacturing firm which was previously protected by tariffs, and these get eliminated, then I really do get screwed. It's not just complaining - as my firm goes broke, I lose my job, and the previous skills I have are no longer economically useful in my country. Even if I get another job, I likely will have a lower future wage for quite a while, if not permanently.

The steel workers in Ohio complaining about free trade aren't just making it up. Things really did get a lot crappier when tariffs were eliminated.

But economics has an answer here. Free trade isn't Pareto improving, but it is Kaldor Hicks improving. In other words, the total gains to the economy are sufficiently large that the beneficiaries could organise a transfer payment to those who lost their jobs which would made the Ohio steel workers also better off. 

As a matter of political economy, this transfer doesn't actually happen. You'd have to pay the losers from free trade a very large sum of money if they have to transition to years of unemployment, or a permanently lower future income. 

Of course, this isn't really a problem of economics, more just politics. Is it the economist's fault that his prescriptions don't get followed?

So much for the standard theory. It's actually pretty good, as far as it goes. Like good economic proofs, it flows from assumptions to conclusions. If it's wrong, it's because there's something in the model that's being left out, or one of the assumptions is questionable.

There are a number of possible extensions one can make, like depreciating human capital. But to me, it's the base assumptions that are the most interesting. What are they?

We have the following:

1. Consumption is a good. You're better off consuming more goods and services than fewer goods and services, all else equal.

2a. Leisure is a good, or equivalently


2b. Work is a bad.

In other words, for any given level of consumption, you'd rather work less than work more. 

These are not terrible assumptions. #1 seems probably true. You may hit a point of satiation with consumption, but over most ranges of wealth that people operate on, having more stuff beats having less stuff, unless the stuff poses other costs (like screwing up your children, in which case all else isn't equal).

But what about #2?

Going from a 14 hour work day to a 10 hour work day, with the same wages and consumption, is surely an improvement in welfare.

Going from a 10 hour work day to a 6 hour work day, with the same wages and consumption, is also almost surely an improvement in welfare. 

But the big question is the following: is it still an improvement in welfare to go from a 6 hour work day, to a zero hour work day in perpetuity?

In other words, if your consumption stayed exactly the same, would you prefer to have some sort of job, or no job, ever?

You may think work sucks, but be careful what you wish for.

What if it turns out that people actually need some sense of purpose, some reason to get up in the morning?

Admittedly, having a job isn't always a fun purpose. But it's a structure, and a discipline, and a set of people you can interact with, and a routine that, if it works well, results in the satisfaction of providing for yourself.

What would life look like if you had basic consumption needs provided for you, no strings attached, without any need to work?

Well, as it turns out, we have many decades of data on that question. They're on display in a housing estate or ghetto near you. And the results ain't pretty. Ask Theodore Dalrymple, who wrote about this extensively

Every few months, doctors from countries like the Philippines and India arrive fresh from the airport to work for a year's stint at my hospital. It is fascinating to observe their evolving response to British squalor.
At the start, they are uniformly enthusiastic about the care that we unsparingly and unhesitatingly give to everyone, regardless of economic status. For a couple of weeks, they think this all represents the acme of civilization, especially when they recall the horrors at home. Poverty—as they know it— has been abolished.
Before very long, though, they start to feel a vague unease. A Filipina doctor, for example, asked me why so few people seemed grateful for what was done for them. What prompted her question was an addict who, having collapsed from an accidental overdose of heroin, was brought to our hospital. He required intensive care to revive him, with doctors and nurses tending him all night. His first words to the doctor when he suddenly regained consciousness were, "Get me a fucking roll-up" (a hand-rolled cigarette). His imperious rudeness didn't arise from mere confusion: he continued to treat the staff as if they had kidnapped him and held him in the hospital against his will to perform experiments upon him. "Get me the fuck out of here!" 
My doctors from Bombay, Madras, or Manila observe this kind of conduct open- mouthed. At first they assume that the cases they see are a statistical quirk, a kind of sampling error, and that given time they will encounter a better, more representative cross section of the population. Gradually, however, it dawns upon them that what they have seen is representative. When every benefit received is a right, there is no place for good manners, let alone for gratitude.
By the end of three months my doctors have, without exception, reversed their original opinion that the welfare state, as exemplified by England, represents the acme of civilization. On the contrary, they see it now as creating a miasma of subsidized apathy that blights the lives of its supposed beneficiaries. They come to realize that a system of welfare that makes no moral judgments in allocating economic rewards promotes antisocial egotism. The spiritual impoverishment of the population seems to them worse than anything they have ever known in their own countries. And what they see is all the worse, of course, because it should be so much better. The wealth that enables everyone effortlessly to have enough food should be liberating, not imprisoning. Instead, it has created a large caste of people for whom life is, in effect, a limbo in which they have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It is a life emptied of meaning.
"On the whole," said one Filipino doctor to me, "life is preferable in the slums of Manila." He said it without any illusions as to the quality of life in Manila.

I skipped the most striking descriptions of the problem, because if I started, I'd end up quoting the whole thing. Read it all, if you haven't before.

A question, dear reader.

Do you think the problems of the people described above stem from a lack of consumption? They don't have to do any work, so in a standard model, the only problem left is that they must be consuming too little.

Suppose that Dalrymple is describing his subjects in the above article honestly, and you have two policy choices to consider for the above recipients.

Option A - Increase their welfare payments by 50%

Option B - Find them a not unpleasant job for 6 hours per day, and require them to do honest work in order to receive the same welfare payments as before.

Which of these two policies would result in a larger improvement in human welfare for such people?

In the standard model, the answer is obvious. Given our assumptions, Option A is far preferable. Do you believe that?

Would it change your mind to find out that lower class whites in America (especially in rust belt parts of the US that have been worst hit by job losses from free trade) in recent decades have been so despondent that their life expectancy has actually been dropping as they kill themselves with alcohol, opiates, and suicide?

The standard answer to this is that we have an opiate problem. And a drinking problem. These are "substance abuse" issues. But why now? Alcohol was always there. Why is it only now that people decide there is no other purpose or hope in their lives, and start drinking themselves to death?

To turn these concerns back into the language of economics, the Holmes conjecture is that if leisure is not always a good, and work is not always a bad, then it is no longer obvious that the optimal level of tariffs is zero.

Sometimes, you might prefer to have some restrictions on trade in order to keep jobs in America.

But you have to be honest about why you're doing this.

Targeted tariffs won't raise consumption. They won't spur economic growth. They will lead to more expensive goods, and less consumption. David Ricardo was right on all that. Comparative advantage still exists, and be very wary of anyone who talks about free trade without acknowledging this.

But they might also lead to more employment. And this may well be worth it in terms of the quantity that the economist's social planner is meant to care about, namely total welfare.

It might lead to fewer rust belt whites killing themselves with opiates, because their communities are totally hollowed out with everybody sitting around on welfare without any purpose in their lives.

If steel products cost slightly more as a result, personally that doesn't strike me as the end of the world.

Of course, this is a cautionary note, not a case for tariffs-a-go-go. To say that the optimal level is not zero does not imply that the optimal levels is high, or across-the-board. And it's also not clear that tariffs versus free trade is the only solution to this, or even the best one.

I personally think that automation is a much bigger worry in this regard than free trade. I have similar questions about automation, which also doesn't strike me as everywhere and always welfare improving.

These aren't straightforward questions. If you ban the automobile, we get stuck with horses and carts forever.

And yet... and yet...

The Deaton and Case finding seems to me to be one of the most important findings in social science in recent years, and portends an enormous and growing problem. There are lots of workers who simply do not seem to be economically useful anymore, and in communities where lots of these people have ended up on welfare as a result of the endless grind towards replacement by robots, life is purposeless and miserable.

There are many other purposes that can be fostered - community, charity, art, religion, family.

But until we have a handle on how to solve the torrent of lives being sucked into the abyss of misery, as large as the AIDS epidemic, I remain open to a range of different policies in response.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Chesterton’s Fence and Democracy

Among those passages that resonate with those of a conservative temperament, one of my favourites has to be Chesterton’s Fence.
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

Do not, in other words, argue from a position of ignorance. It is not enough to know what you dislike about some existing arrangement. You have to know its strengths, especially those which might have justified the policy’s existence. This is the engineer’s version of the Ideological Turing Test. You need to be able to make the best case possible for the existence of the status quo. Only then will you know what is being given up.

As I have written about in these pages before, I find the democratic process to be ridiculous. It seems incredibly unlikely that this is the optimal way to govern a country, but since it’s been imbued with a religious and moral sheen, not many people are able to think seriously about the possibility of getting rid of it, let alone what might replace it (other than braindead answers like ‘tyranny’). As a result, there is extraordinarily little experimentation with genuinely different forms of government.

So we know what we don’t like. But we have to pass the Chesterton Critique. Do we know why democracy, at least in its modern incarnation of the civil service state, works as well as it does? Do we know what aspects we might be losing? This is especially important, because we need to know what kind of traits to try to include in a replacement system. Or if it’s not possible to include all the benefits, we need to know what should be included in the costs column of any reform.

Now, this is different from the Ideological Turing Test, because we are not asked to give the answer that its supporters will give. This is likely to be faulty and delusional. Rather, we want the engineer’s answer, like Maine. We want to know what defense Machiavelli might make. We want to know, in other words, not the democrat's defense of democracy in America. We want to know the reactionary’s defense of democracy.

Here is one answer. I propose to make another.

Democracy holds out the fig leaf of minor, token power to all citizens. Individually, you have a voice. “Your voice matters!”, it cries out. Of course, everyone knows that individually their voice doesn’t matter, but collectively perhaps their voices do matter.

That is the fiction. I, and Moldbug, suspect that the people’s voices collectively don’t matter that much. The permanent civil service and the rest of the cathedral hold most of the levers of power. We are, of course, about to see this idea tested in the Trump Presidency. I forget who exactly wrote this (apologies!), but if Trump wins and proceeds to rule, then Moldbug was wrong. It’s entirely possible, and something on which I’m agnostic (though my best guess is that it won’t happen).

But let’s take the Moldbug hypothesis for now. Voting collectively doesn’t matter. Why might it be useful to keep this mechanism in place?

One trick that the makes of air conditioners for office buildings figured out a while ago is that people have endless fights about the temperature of offices. At almost any temperature, some people find it intolerably cold, and others are roasting. But oddly, people got much happier when they had entirely fake thermostats installed. My office has one. There’s a temperature dial you can fiddle with, and even a button you can press that causes a light to come on for 30 seconds, just to show that it’s hooked up to something, if not actually the air conditioner. On further reflection, it's preposterous. What exactly is this button meant to do? Is it an 'on' button? If so, do I need to press it every 30 seconds, because it keeps going off.

But having these buttons and thermostats there makes people feel like they’re able to do something. It channels their complaints and rage, which previous would have been directed at each other, management, facilities and whoever else, into fiddling with a harmless switch, which they never quite know if it actually does anything or not. Even if they suspect it doesn’t, periodically they’ll fiddle with it, because why not try anyway? Maybe it's the mysterious button, perhaps I need to press it in addition to fiddling with the thermostat. Your voice matters for office temperature!

Voting for candidates in an election is the fake air conditioner switch of the political world. Instead of throwing rocks at the police, or burning down the capital, or plotting a coup, people keep fiddling with their individual political thermostat. This channels their energy into harmless pursuits. But it also increases actual satisfaction, even given the current policies! Often, people aren’t able to accurately perceive the world around them, so may not even know exactly if things have changed. But if they can do something, and see some minor visible effect in the world around them, such as the thermostat being higher or one of “their guys” in charge, they feel happier.

But viewed in this light, it’s easy to see that not all forms of voting will be equally successful at generating this pattern. A key part is that the choice space of actions must be fairly crude, and the measurement of consequences rather difficult. Direct democracy, such as through ballot initiatives, is very destabilizing in this regard. When citizens can form their own specific formulations, firstly they demand quite specific things (“No gay marriage in California”), which are easy to tell if they’re not being implemented. As a result, when the powers that be decide that the peasants’ games have gone too far, they must be explicitly cracked down on, when judges remind people who is actually in charge. Do that too often, and people might figure out that the thermostat isn’t actually connected to anything.

But if you only give people a periodic choice every four years, and they only get one single ‘A or B’ choice placed in front of them, AND their choice is only to launder what they want done through the will of a president or prime minister, who may or may not have been sincere, may or may not have just changed his mind after voting, may or may not have had enough support from within his own party… well, it suddenly becomes very hard to show definitively that the voting didn’t make any difference.

And so the system is stable. Dissent is channeled into harmless outlets, and it stays there because nobody can every quite prove that the outlets are indeed harmless.

But even more than that, there’s a genius that comes from the nature of voting itself. Specifically, it’s a participatory act. And not only that, it’s costly. You have to get off your butt, drive to the primary school, and fill in the damn form.

Cognitive dissonance being what it is, people who have wasted their time filling out a form will convince themselves that the form is actually a really important practical and moral act. Otherwise, why have I been doing it for so long, wasting my time on it? In other words, by making the action slightly costly, people are even more likely to tell themselves absurd stories about how voting can actually change the world.

Now, this is something that is harder to achieve in a monarchy. The King explicitly wants it known that he is in charge. If you dislike the King, stiff $*** – he’s the King, and you’re a peasant. Now, with a sufficiently stable power structure, this is okay. But it means that the peasants have to obey out of either a) inherent loyalty and love for the ruler, and/or b) fear of punishment. Do these right, and they should be enough. But there’s an extra insurance policy of having a system that fools some fraction of the potential mob into thinking that they either ARE already in charge, or can be if they just sit patiently and keep pressing the right button every four years.

Sovereign corporations offer people a different bargain – you can’t choose how the country is run, but you can choose if you want to stay. This may well be fine too.

Again, none of this means that we shouldn’t ditch democracy. We just should know what we’ll be losing, and ponder if there's any way to replicate it in what we'd like to create.

The second large benefit I can see is what I think of in my crude financial terms as the analysts consensus forecast problem, or the wisdom of crowds. Suppose every analyst observes the true earnings estimate with some independent error term. Then the average of many analysts will be more accurate than any individual analyst.

Now, you might think that I am arguing that the average person will be wise in what policies to implement, but that is not my purpose at all. Unlike the analysts version above, not all electors are equally informed about policy. If many of your analysts are morons, you probably want to exclude them entirely.

So what are voters actually good at knowing? Pretty much only one thing – whether their life has gotten crappy recently, or whether it’s improving. They may know something of the specific cause, or they may not. They are unlikely to have much useful to add about how things need to change. But if you just want to find out how the overall realm is going, a vote is not a bad option.

Think of voting it as a button labeled ‘Throw the Bums Out’. By voting for the incumbent, they’re saying they’re happy. By voting for the other guy, they’re not. Not only do you get information about the aggregate answer to this question, but with exit polling, you can approximately figure out who was unhappy, which might tell you why.

The problem for a king is that this kind of knowledge is dispersed over the whole kingdom. It’s the standard central planner’s problem, and why you want to rely on prices. Think of voting as like a very crude version of average opinion for the ‘Do things need changing?’ question.

Of course, viewed from this angle, what we really want is just an opinion poll. And ideally we'd like to ask a lot more detailed questions, rather than just one. Perhaps something more like the census. But if there’s one thing the Trump election showed, it’s that people sometimes falsify opinions to pollsters, especially when they have to answer in person. The trusted anonymity of the polling both means you get a) genuine answers, even if they’re misguided, and b) avoid the sampling error from limited polling.

Now, you definitely don’t want this kind of voting mechanism hooked up to the actual levers of power. But it’s the kind of information that a genuinely benevolent leader would want to collect in some form or another. It doesn’t need to look like voting, but something to achieve a similar effect is probably useful. It helps solve the hubris that comes along with absolute power – when you feel you’re a genius, and all your underlings are sycophants, how will you actually find out if your policies aren’t having the intended effect? Turns out it’s not so easy, until one day you're on the palace balcony giving a speech, the peasants start jeering, and suddenly the jig is up. Woe be to the leader who forgets to find out the real opinions of his peasantry.

These are surely not an exhaustive list. Out of the two broad classes, I think the ‘harmless outlet for dissent’ is considerably more important. But it’s a problem worth pondering.

‘Tear Down This Wall!’ makes for great rhetoric. But it should be the last stage of a lot of reasoning.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The purgatory of eternal twilight

In the strange no man's land between sleep and wakefulness, I sat on the plane. I had only gotten four hours of sleep the night before, but, unusually for me, sleep would not come now. I turned on my laptop, felt tired, turned it off again, but still couldn’t sleep.

And as my mind eventually turned to introspection on my situation, a meandering thought drifted towards a strange meeting I had last week.

It was an office visit, with a casual work friend at another company. I hadn’t seen him in perhaps a year or so. When I got to the door, he seemed scattered and disheveled. He was dressed in an unusually casual manner – an oversized army jacket that didn’t fit properly, and a black t-shirt advertising some business or other. The man who had escorted me there commented that it looked like my friend had just woken up. “I had, actually”, my friend replied. When our escort left, my friend still seemed out of sorts, fiddling with his phone, rubbing his eyes, looking in odd directions.

I expected him to regain his composure and for us to talk business, but he still seemed distracted after a minute or two. His conversation had odd extended pauses, halting as if he were constantly losing his train of thought in mid-sentence, and he didn't make much eye contact.

At some point, he said ‘I actually have an alarm that requires me to answer arithmetic puzzles before it turns off’. He showed it to me. I cheerfully made conversation by asking him if he used the snooze button, and he said he did. ‘I found that I actually had a lot of success by giving it up altogether’, I continued. ‘Once you get into the habit of always getting up immediately at the first alarm, it becomes almost a Pavlovian response, no matter how tired you are.’

As if my words only partially registered, he rambled about how a friend of his had an alarm clock that would walk around when it went off, and you had to get up to switch it off. ‘The effect’, he said, ‘was that he just got really adept at picking up objects and throwing them at the alarm.’ The motion he made while he did this was to dramatically pick up his keys and turn towards the wall, pretending to throw them. It was the only display of alertness the whole time, and jarring in contrast to the general struggle and sluggishness he had displayed otherwise.

By this point, the conversation had started to go on past the point where we would have been expecting to move on to substantive matters, but instead we had been on a single topic of smalltalk the whole time, which had started to feel like it had lingered too long. ‘I really wanted to come in and meet you, even though I was really tired. I’ve only gotten about 12 hours of sleep this week.’

It was Thursday.

And suddenly, the penny dropped. He was suffering from crippling insomnia.

I felt absurd, wishing to take back my self-satisfied stories about the benefits of willpower in avoiding the snooze button. My friend was drowning, for lack of sleep. He talked about it so much, for the reason that old war memoirs talk about food much more than fighting – because they were starving and wretched, and it was the only pleasure they sought in life. At a certain point of hunger, getting food becomes all consuming, and mere prospect of getting a bullet at some stage in the future becomes much more distant.

Embarrassed at myself, I heard him talk more. ‘Things got a bit worse when my wife got a job in a distant town, which means she has to get up at around 6. I’ll try to get up to give her a kiss before she goes, and…’

I don’t actually remember the way that sentence drifted off, but I was struck with an immense sadness. Suddenly the enormity of the problem became apparent. I could see him, struggling to maintain a functioning relationship with his wife in his zombie-like state, and tenderly giving up precious minutes of rest to show her affection. His work must surely be suffering too. We were halfway through our meeting time and hadn’t even begun to talk business. I cannot imagine that things got better without me there.

At last, as he started to slowly become more coherent, the conversation finally turned more towards our main productive endeavors, and he seemed to slowly approach proper functioning. When we first walked in, it was as if he were literally drunk. By this point, he seemed to be merely tipsy, slowly sobering up.

I found my eye drawn towards the odd shape of his car keys. The top of the remote was all covered with a strange uneven rubbery plastic substance, leaving only a small hole for the button. As events started to make sense, I wondered if he had dropped them a lot in his haze.

As I write these words, I wonder if he himself was the “friend” in the story with the walking alarm. The keys were quite possibly broken from being thrown in exactly the manner that he pretended. He had developed a Pavlovian response, alright. It was a visceral rage at whatever was denying him the thing his body wanted most in the world.

I wanted to say something about his plight, but as is the introvert’s curse when dealing with unfamiliar situations, the words didn’t come. His life looked like it was falling apart from tiredness, and to comment on it, even if wholeheartedly sympathetically, would risk emphasizing just how obvious that was. The only consolation was that he was probably so distracted that this might not register. I was struck by a very strange urge to give him a hug, not because it would have made things better, but out of a primal desire to offer some sort of comfort, even if wholly ineffectual, even if wholly inappropriate.

As I write these words, I can think of what I should have said. “I’m sorry to hear you’re not sleeping well, mate. I really appreciate you coming in just to see me today, given it seems tough right now.” The sympathy of the staircase, so to speak.

Sometimes, the cross that the unafflicted must bear is seeing the pain of those whose welfare one desires, knowing there’s nothing one can do.

Sometimes, even the standard consolations for this don’t work. There is no one to get angry at. There is no constructive solution you can offer. There is no hope of even finding a remotely satisfying explanation for why things are the way they are.

And in this suffering, one can only console oneself with the fact that one’s own reflected misery is a tiny problem to bear by comparison, and one should strive for compassion for others in this unsatisfactory world.

Existence is suffering, as the sage put it.

Ponder this, and wisely reflect.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

On Maine and Moldbug

Continuing my foray into the illustrious brotherhood of the Froude Society, I’ve been reading Popular Government by Sir Henry Sumner Maine.

To read these books is to see the genesis of Unqualified Reservations – not that these books exactly mirror Moldbug, but one can see where some of the ideas come from. Of course, part of what makes Moldbug so fascinating for most people to read is that the ideas are so radically different to what one normally comes across. One of the meta points of Unqualified Reservations, encapsulated in the dictum to ‘Read Old Books’, is that if one reads the same thing as everyone else, one is likely to think the same thing as everyone else. Sufficiently old ideas when sincerely expressed are apt to strike you as more shocking and new than anything else you will encounter.

And the strongest all-pervading sense wherein Maine (writing in 1885) departs from modernity is his willingness to view democracy with the cold eyes of a political engineer. In the starkest terms possible, Maine writes as if the entire democratic process has no moral component whatsoever, either positive or negative. Voting is not a sacred duty, a fundamental right, an ennobling and dignifying symbol of equality, or any of the other hoary notions that today have been attached to the term. So what is it then?
Political liberty, said Hobbes, is political power. When a man burns to be free, he is not longing for the "desolate freedom of the wild ass" ; what he wants is a share of political government.

Can you imagine a more bracing tonic than that? When you say “I want to be free” or wear your “I voted” sticker, you are really saying “I covet political power”. Not so ennobling when phrased that way, is it? There is nothing wrong with power, of course. Someone has to have it. But the pursuit of it is hardly considered a morally virtuous cause.

Democracy, then, is merely one of a number of possible ways of governing the state, whose outcomes should be judged solely on those terms:
There is no word about which a denser mist of vague language, and a larger heap of loose metaphors, has collected. Yet, although Democracy does signify something indeterminate, there is nothing vague about it. It is simply and solely a form of government. It is the government of the State by the Many, as opposed, according to the old Greek analysis, to its government by the Few, and to its government by One. … Democracy is best described as inverted Monarchy.

We have grown up viewing democracy with a diet of rhetoric that resembles the way that a love poem describes a human body. And here, for the first time, is an anatomy textbook. To a modern western audience, this is a somewhat jarring perspective.

Maine is also unsparing in pointing out where the democratic principle, when analysed, fails to make sense. Firstly, if the people are actually wise in their judgments, why do their judgments have to be laundered through the process of first electing representatives, to whom are delegated general decision-making authority? This argument becomes even more forceful as the possibility of online elections makes frequent plebiscites cheaper and more practical. As Maine notes
The arguments of the French Liberal party against the Plebiscite, during the twenty years of stern despotism which it entailed upon France, have always appeared to me to be arguments in reality against the very principle of democracy.


Similar important questions get raised by the existence of second legislative chambers, such as Senates, which have different electoral rules to the lower Houses.
Nothing brings out so clearly as does this class of contrivances a fundamental doubt afflicting the whole Democratic theory. It is taken for granted that a popular electorate will be animated by a different spirit according as it is grouped; but why should there be any connection between the grouping of the People and the Voice of the People? The truth is, that as soon as we begin to reflect seriously on modes of practically applying the democratic principle, we find that some vital preliminary questions have never been settled. Granting that the People is entitled of right to govern, how is it to give its decisions and orders? …
Vox Populi may be Vox Dei, but very little attention shows that there never has been any agreement as to what Vox means or as to what Populus means. 

Maine also has some brilliant analyses of the flaws of direct democracy, though a powerful comparison to the jury system. It is a long passage, but one worth quoting in full:
We have in England a relic of the ancient Popular Justice in the functions of the Jury. The Jury-technically known as the "country"-is the old adjudicating Democracy, limited, modified, and improved, in accordance with the principles suggested by the experience of centuries, so as to bring it into harmony with modern ideas of judicial efficiency. The change which has had to be made in it is in the highest degree instructive. The Jurors are twelve, instead of a multitude. Their main business is to say "Aye" or "No" on questions which are doubtless important, but which turn on facts arising in the transactions of everyday life. In order that they may reach a conclusion, they are assisted by a system of contrivances and rules of the highest artificiality and elaboration. An expert presides over their investigations-the Judge, the representative of the rival and royal justice-and an entire literature is concerned with the conditions under which evidence on the facts in dispute may be laid before them. There is a rigid exclusion of all testimony which has a tendency to bias them unfairly. They are addressed, as of old, by the litigants or their advocates, but their inquiry concludes with a security unknown to antiquity, the summing-up of the expert President, who is bound by all the rules of his profession to the sternest impartiality. If he errs, or if they flagrantly err, the proceedings may be quashed by a superior Court of experts. Such is Popular Justice, after ages of cultivation. 
Now it happens that the oldest Greek poet has left us a picture, certainly copied from reality, of what Popular Justice was in its infancy. The primitive Court is sitting; the question is"guilty" or "not guilty." The old men of the community give their opinions in turn; the adjudicating Democracy, the commons standing round about, applaud the opinion which strikes them most, and the applause determines the decision. The Popular Justice of the ancient republics was essentially of the same character The adjudicating Democracy simply followed the opinion which most impressed them in the speech of the advocate or litigant.
Nor is it in the least doubtful that, but for the sternly repressive authority of the presiding Judge, the modern English Jury would, in the majority of cases, blindly surrender its verdict to the persuasiveness of one or other of the counsel who have been retained to address it.
A modern governing democracy is the old adjudicating democracy very slightly changed.

This is one of the great damning critiques of the modern democratic process. It is obvious to all contemporary readers what a travesty of justice it would be to substitute the modern jury system for the old one. It is also quite apparent that Maine’s final point is right – modern voting for the president looks a lot like ancient Greek justice. Is the fate of an entire people less important than the fate of a single defendant?

It is the interest in these kinds of possible modifications that makes the engineering side of Maine most apparent. While Maine is highly skeptical of democracy by the standards of modernity, by the standards of Moldbug he is actually an optimist. He thinks that democracy can be improved, and its weaknesses at least tempered by good design. For instance, he is optimistic about representative government relative to direct democracy – as he notes, “the effect was to diminish the difficulties of popular government, in exact proportion to the diminution in the number of persons who had to decide public questions.” Similarly, Maine is also enthusiastic about US State constitutions which specify formal procedures for their amendment. This is viewed as being a superior process to the ambiguity of the British process.

With the benefit of 130 years of hindsight, of course, it is easier to observe the failure modes that Maine didn’t foresee. What if, instead of formally amending the constitution, legislatures simply passed laws that exceeded the initial bounds, and then further appointed compliant judges who were on board with the ruling ideology and believed in things like ‘living constitutions’?

Or, more radically, what if the ruling party simply decided to replace the electorate through mass immigration? This has been the story of the latter half of the 20th Century. Maine understood the incentives to modify the franchise, but modifying the population itself was a leap of imagination that even he didn’t consider.

And this is where the comparison with Moldbug becomes instructive. Moldbug is a pessimist about the entire democratic process. Cthulu swims left, as the now famous expression goes. Democracy is, in other words, a fundamentally left wing phenomenon that will sooner or later produce left wing outcomes. As a result, the failure modes themselves are inevitable (according to Moldbug), not merely possible. The franchise will never be stable, as the incentives to expand it will always be present. Maine, for instance, speaks with some praise about Belgian suffrage restrictions that limit the vote to those with an education. That this would be desirable seems highly likely. But would it be stable, even if it were passed? This is the crucial question which Maine doesn’t address, and which Moldbug does quite forcefully in the negative. And when suffrage gets expanded, the decisions will shift to the lowest common denominator, or be usurped by the constant meddling with public opinion. On this last point, Maine agrees – with the mass franchise, leadership will be by “the wire-pullers”, a wonderful description of modern democratic leaders and political operatives. But Maine doesn’t get to the point of outright condemnation. To an engineer, the building that is the American constitution has survived a lot longer than what would have been predicted, and so must have something going for it. In the later stages of the US Empire, this may strike us as optimistic, but we can’t fault Maine for not foreseeing the entire future.

But the comparison with Moldbug is not universally to Moldbug’s advantage. Because, despite the large overlap between their worldviews, the two writers have one important philosophical difference. If Maine is an engineer of government, then Moldbug is more like a scientist of government. A scientist aims to develop a theory that will help him understand the world, from which practical results can then be deduced. An engineer views scientific knowledge as a means to constructing something durable, but it is only a means to an end. Kludges and rules of thumb are acceptable to engineers, but are anathema to scientists, to whom they represent only incomplete understanding.

The engineering side of Maine, which overlaps with the historian side of Froude, depicts political power as something not entirely subject to formula. One can shape it and set rules, but, like an engineer’s buildings, governing structures will eventually collapse, despite the best of intentions. In particular, the question of who holds true power in Maine's descriptions is often difficult to ascertain at any point in time, and there can be considerable ambiguity on that point. For instance, consider Maine’s description of the history of the powers of the English King:
The powers over legislation which the law recognizes in the Crown are its power to veto Bills which have passed both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and its power to dissolve Parliament. The first of these powers has probably been lost through disuse. There is not, at the same time, the smallest reason for supposing that it was abandoned through any inconsistency with popular government. It was not employed, because there was no occasion for employing it.
As to the right to dissolve Parliament by an independent exercise of the royal will, it cannot be quite confidently asserted to have become obsolete. The question has been much discussed in the Colonies which attempt to follow the British Constitutional procedure, and it seems to be generally allowed that a representative of the Crown cannot be blamed for insisting on a dissolution of the Legislature, though his Ministers are opposed to it. It is probable, however, that in this country the object would be practically attained in a different way.

This is a very different world from the world of absolute power, or even absolute certainty about the distribution of power. Even if a King starts with a given set of powers, according to Maine, he may lose them simply through lack of use. And the most shocking word here is ‘probably’. Maine is implying that because the right to dismiss Parliament hasn’t been tested in a while, we actually don’t know if it still would be followed. His descriptions of how the Cabinet ended up arising out of nothing to effectively set the legislative agenda, while the House of Commons mostly ended up questioning the executive branch, is similarly fascinating and nuanced. You can set up a system in a way, and it can actually work in that way for a while, but then at some point things might change in practice, even as the same nominal roles are all there.

This kind of real world ambiguity and nuance is sometimes missing in Moldbug’s writing. The CEO of a neocameral state is described as being all powerful, subject to the possibility of board dismissal. Presumably he can order half the population shot if he wants, unless the board fires him before it gets carried out. He won’t have incentives to do this, of course, and Moldbug makes a convincing argument that this is the only real bulwark against abuses of authority. But if our CEO deems it to be value-maximising, the power is there. Of course, at the moment our neocameral CEO is only a hypothetical figure, and so it's easy to grant him hypothetical absolute power. But how do we know that things will actually work out that way? The critique of neocameralism that usually gets leveled is 'Do we want this to happen, or will it lead to undesirable outcomes?'. But there's a second possible question - 'Even if we do want this, can we actually create it?'. I don't mean rhetorically that it's obvious that we can't, merely that it isn't a given.

In other words, when the rubber hits the road, if the CEO gives the order to fire on the crowd at the football game because he thinks it will increase shareholder value, do the security forces actually shoot? And what happens next if they don't? Until you're a CEO commanding a drone army, there’s only human beings all the way down, and either they follow, or they don’t. Sometimes, you just won’t know until you give the order. And this is a problem that, no matter how much we might like it, I suspect we can’t simply engineer away with cryptographically locked weapons. Moldbug is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, and his imagination of how different forms of government might work is second to none. But there is sometimes an absolutism in his descriptions of how governing arrangements might work that doesn’t seem to fit Maine’s descriptions of the nuances of actual power.

Of course, with the extra century's knowledge to guide us, Maine sometimes falls victim to the same trap, he’s just enamored of different restrictions. In particular, his praise for the way that the US Federal Constitution sets out specific enumerated powers and structures (relative to the ambiguity of the British system) seems to have been optimistic even at the time. If he'd written the book after FDR, I suspect there's a few sections that might read quite differently.

And if there is a general delineation of where Maine seems to be more optimistic about how formal arrangements can limit and define government structures, it is regarding America. His analysis of Britain notes much of the deterioration of democratic governance, and he hadn't yet witnessed the full decline of the previous American governing structures (other than the Civil War, which he addresses relatively briefly, and seems oddly to think of as merely a temporary disruption to the same basic structure). Noting the big difference between the two countries, Maine attributes the relative success and consistency of American governing arrangements to the fact that its powers and structures were formalised, while Britain's were mostly established through tradition and tacit understanding. With the benefit of hindsight, this makes Maine overestimate how much the formal structures actually prevented the same trends, as opposed to perhaps just delaying them somewhat, or maybe even not achieving that. It turns out the piece of paper didn’t restrict government power after all, as Moldbug has been at pains to point out.

But doubt not that Maine is brilliant, and his depictions of the folly and stupidity of the democratic process are incisive and illuminating. Skip the travesty of election coverage these next two weeks and read some Maine instead.