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.


  1. Moldbug and the whole "let's have a King" business are foolish nonsense. We could go back to a perfectly good system where there were literacy and/or property requirements and get a reasonably functioning state.

    It bothers me that all the negative talk is about representative government while not acknowledging that some Kings are stupid oaths and drive their countries into the ground.

    It's a fairly well know fact that the wisdom of crowds (we have to assume that the crowds are not complete idiots, hence property requirements)effect is fairly good at guessing optimal solutions for problems. Isn't that what Capitalism is? The wisdom of crowds. While the way of the King corresponds to Communism run by committee.

    I add that if Kingship evolves to Democracy then what good is the King in the first place?

    1. I think a property or literacy requirement for voting would be a big improvement, but the question is, even if you could roll back universal suffrage, would that be stable? It wasn't last time. Admittedly neither was monarchy in the long run, but it lasted a lot longer than restricted suffrage democracies.

      I agree that there's definite value in average opinion. My guess is that a sovereign, either a monarch or CEO, would probably have use for things like opinion polls, censuses etc. The average person is definitely good at knowing if their life has gotten better recently, which is something that a leader would want to know. The question is, does the average person know what policies will best fix problems? Or who to select as leader? To me, that's far less obvious.

      On the problem of stupid kings, I have some thoughts here.

    2. We had a system where literate, male property owners could vote, and they gave the franchise to everyone else. What would prevent that from occurring again? Hence the assertion that democracy inherently leads to leftist outcomes.

  2. Wonderful post.

    One thing that struck me on the last chapter (which was, to be honest, quite difficult to read) is that the relative success of the US government in the 19th century is not due to the fact that it was so democratic and managed to pull away from it's horrible monarchical ancestry, but quite the opposite - the only reason the US did not sink into chaos and anarchy is that it's institutions were slightly adjusted versions of the long existing UK institutions.


    1. Thanks.

      You're exactly right - I think Maine's comparison of the success of the US constitution up to that point (which he characterises as essentially a continuation of Britain) with the disaster of the French constitution is very instructive on this point. But the other interesting contrast is that while the President and the King shared the same powers in 1788, by 1885 the King had lost a lot of them, while the President still retained them. I guess this shows that Maine's point about the value of writing down the powers is true, just overstated. As in, it probably helps matters to have an agreed upon list that people can co-ordinate on when trying to preserve a system. But in the end, there's only so much that formalisation can do.