Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Evolution of Shylock Holmes on Democracy, Part 2

(...continued from Part 1)

The aftermath of the financial crisis saw the election of Obama, and the resulting stimulus bill was basically just the laundry list of every wasteful pork barrel project that was waiting for a crisis to ram it through. Predictably, this resulted in an increase in the size of government that was (as always) promised to be temporary, but which ended up being (as always) permanent. Obamacare saw the takeover of the US healthcare system with ever more regulation and deceptive hiding of costs (every ‘child’ insured until 26! ‘Free’ coverage of pre-existing conditions), resulting in something that was likely to be worse even than a fully socialised model. The ever-expanding bureaucracy of federal, state and local governments in the west was choking and relentless, showing no sign of stopping. The contraction of the private sector in the recession only served to highlight how the only expanding sector was government paper pushers, passing laws to burden private business.

Not only that, but the longer things went on, even the legislative achievements of Republicans became harder to see the benefit of. George Bush’s most impactful domestic policies were increasing seen to be another permanent expansion of the bloated entitlement state with Medicare Part D prescription drugs for seniors, the creation of the repulsive and loathsome TSA, and No Child Left Behind. The latter actually seemed like a good idea under standard conservative thought that the problem with bad schools was the teachers unions. The more you read, it seemed like the problem was really just bad students, and the whole idea was that standardized testing would make all students above average. Which, of course, didn’t happen. The 2012 Republican candidate had passed the same damn healthcare policy that conservatives were now complaining about. If this was the practical difference between the two parties, what was the point?

This was mostly just grumbling and disillusionment about domestic policy, but the view that Republicans probably wouldn't do much to reverse things was dispiriting  The election of Obama probably had a larger effect on the perception of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which was perhaps more central to the question. Once the administration of the wars was no longer being carried out by “our guys” (as increasingly tenuous as that label was becoming), conservatives, myself included, were able to view the whole affair without nearly as much instinctive partisan support of the decisions made up to now. You started to hear well-reasoned paleo-conservative  voices on the right making sound and persuasive arguments about the folly of trying to turn these places into Switzerland – what the hell were we still doing there, almost a decade on? Sure, it was important to attack Al Qaeda and maybe even send a message to third world dictators to deter them from acquiring weapons of mass destruction (though opinions on the last one varied). But why did that involve trying to run the places in a really half-assed way for years on end, resulting only in the deaths of the most honorable and courageous soldiers the US was producing? If we wanted to kill terrorists, why not just blow up the place and leave?

The Arab spring managed to destroy the last of my faith that democracy might have even neutral effects on third world countries, let alone that it was going to foster economic development and liberty. The cathartic satisfaction of seeing the architect of the Lockerbie bombings getting his just desserts made way for social chaos and the attack on the Benghazi embassy. Meanwhile, Mubarak, who was not nearly as bad as Gaddafi, got the boot and it was quickly apparent that he wasn’t going to be replaced being a western-leaning liberal like the Sandmonkey, but instead by the Muslim brotherhood. That may be the last time I let my optimism about getting rid of the devil you know cloud my better judgment.

And then came along Moldbug, to put a lot of this stuff in a new perspective. With a longer time frame, reactionaries were seen to have been losing slowly but inevitably for the last several hundred years. Not only that, but it was only when one was willing to remove the sentimental attachment to the idea of suffrage did it seem obvious that the rise of democracy and the rise of socialism were unlikely to be a coincidence. Rather, they were viewed as one of the likely (if not the only) stable Nash equilibria of the voting game: 51% will always get together to expropriate the remaining 49%. I’d always known that this was a possibility. These days, I tend to think that it’s probably an near-inevitable result of democratic systems – sometimes you get there slower, sometimes you get there faster, but socialism is where it ends up. At last, you had a very parsimonious explanation of both why conservatives kept losing and why they kept being surprised about this fact – they were wedded to a romance about universal suffrage that blinded them to the fact that this was the likely cause of the ruin of the things they valued. To say that the 49% deserve to be eaten because they’re not the 51% tends to undermine the ‘getting the government you deserve’ argument.

To the extent that democracy is thus the means by which you empower the many to expropriate the few, it is no longer a moral neutral, it is in fact a moral bad. In this setup, the west works despite democracy. It doesn’t work without regard to democracy, and it certainly doesn’t work because of it. Even democratic boosters must occasionally look at the story of Greece in recent years and wonder about the ability of western democracies to correct course, particularly if there isn’t some superior not-really-democratic body like the EU to force their hand.

All this raised the larger question : what if the same thing was true in the West that you’d previously identified in the Arab spring and the third world? That in the long run you could either be free to vote, or free in the other aspects of your life, but not both?

I’m not certain of this conclusion. An awful lot hinges upon what you think about the relationship between democracy and the widespread technological improvement and associated economic growth of the 20th century. If you think that this was tied to democratic systems of government, you’d very likely stick with it. But the evidence on this is hard to interpret. There’s a big time-series trend, for sure, and the US was probably the most innovative country of the 20th century. But the Soviets had a space program too, and the Nazis weren’t short on good physicists either. It’s hard to know what to think on this one.

The small-c conservative in me, however, is still skeptical of grand schemes for change. This is not based so much on the idea of needing to preserve the world as it is, but rather on the imperfectability of human knowledge. Most elaborate theories of government, including appealing ideas like neocameralism, may suffer from the same problem as No Child Left Behind – they sound great in theory, but the seductiveness of a given theory as being intellectually consistent nonetheless fails for reasons that you hadn’t thought about in advance. In other words, part of the problem of the communists was that they had an unrealistic view of human nature. The other part, however, was that they had excessive hubris about their ability to remake the world into some alternative utopia. To somewhat correct the first but retain the second may lead to disaster almost as surely, if your understanding of human nature turns out to be better but still incomplete.

So Shylock of 2013 is skeptical about our current governing arrangements, but unclear of what to replace them with. At a minimum, I’m much less certain that government in the west is carried out in anything like an optimal fashion. It’s striking how little experimentation there actually is in different methods of government. This makes me suspicious of claims that we’re at some kind of global maximum. Frankly, I’m not even sure we’re at a local maximum. You may think there’s a lot unresolved questions about something like a sovereign corporation. But honestly, what makes you so confident that it would work worse than the State of California? How about just less suffrage? If voting isn’t a moral right, would government work better if voting were limited to net taxpayers or property owners?

Moldbug once wrote that to not believe in democracy in the 21st century is a little like not believing in God in the 17th century. In this regard, I guess I’m a democratic agnostic, leaning skeptical. I find myself uncertain where most people are sure.

We’ll see what I think in 5 years time. Not many who lose their faith tend to regain it, however.

No comments:

Post a Comment