Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Button C Option

As I've been forced to contemplate recently, otherwise sensible people in America love democracy. They'll look at the ridiculous farce that is the way government actually runs, and agree that it's a total goat rodeo. They'll reflect that their interactions with government are usually maddening, kafka-esque exercises in surrealism. And boy howdy will they vent at long length about the apotheosis of the US voting system, the current occupant of the White House.

And yet, when all that's done, they'll be genuinely shocked when you tell them you didn't vote, on principle, and that the whole idea strikes you as stupid.

In many ways, the tragedy is not just that people have such a misplaced, sentimental attachment to the current system.

Rather, the tragedy is a lazy form of status quo bias, where people can't conceive of any alternative to the status quo, unless it's already been tried. They fall back on that maddeningly stupid Churchill quote about democracy being the worst system of government except for all the rest.

As a side bar, whenever people say this, I like to remind them of what else Churchill said on the subject of democracy. He wrote an imagined conversation with his late father, Sir Randolph Churchill, which he only wanted to be published posthumously.

"War", he [Randolph] said, sitting up with a startled air. "War, do you say? Has there been a war?"
"We have had nothing else but wars since democracy took charge."
"You mean real wars, not just frontier expeditions? Wars where tens of thousands of men lose their lives?"
"Yes, indeed, Papa,", I said. "That's what has happened all the time. Wars and rumours of war ever since you died."
"Tell me about them."
"Well, first there was the Boer War."
"Ah, I would have stopped that. I never agreed with 'Avenge Majuba'.
It must have taken a lot of soldiers. How many? Forty thousand?'
"No, over a quarter of a million."
"But what happened in the Boer War?"
"We conquered the Transvaal and the Orange Free State."
"England never should have done that. To strike down two independent republics must have lowered our whole position in the world. It must have stirred up all sorts of things."
"What flag flies in Strasbourg now?"
"The Tricolor flies there."
"Ah, so they won. They had their revanche. That must have been a great triumph for them."
"It cost them their life blood", I said.
"But wars like these must have cost a million lives. They must have been as bloody as the American Civil War."
"Papa,", I said, "in each of them about thirty million men were killed in battle. In the last one seven million were murdered in cold blood, mainly by the Germans. They made human slaughterhouse pens like the Chicago stockyards. Europe is a ruin. Many of her cities have been blown to pieces by bombs. Ten capitals in Eastern Europe are now in Russian hands. They are Communists now, you know - Karl Marx and all that. It may well be that an even worse war is drawing near. A war of the East against the West. A war of liberal civilisation against the Mongol Hordes. Far gone are the days of Queen Victoria and a settled world order. But having gone through so much, we do not despair."
He seemed stupefied, and fumbled with his matchbox for what seemed a minute or more. Then he said:
"Winston, you have told me a terrible tale. I would never have believed that such things could happen. I am glad I did not live to see them."

Tell me, dear reader, when you compare the above passage to his celebrated one-line quip, which one seems closer to a raw, honest assessment of the matter? And which one sounds like a punch line to gin up the rubes?

The most important starting point, which I'm always trying to find different ways to impart, is to dislodge the idea that we've exhausted all possible alternatives in the search space of types of government.

Suppose we have an evolutionary process, where different places find different types of government, and the more successful ones reproduce and crowd out the weaker ones.

If we had that, then perhaps we would observe what we find today - the seemingly richest places tend to all love voting.

But to be convinced that you're at an optimum, you need to have faith that there actually is a genuine search process across the range of governments. That the prevalence of democracy is the result of a genuine optimisation, not just military imposition.

To my mind, I see shockingly little experimentation with genuinely different forms of government, even at small scales.

And when one does find stuff that seems pretty good, and doesn't fit the modern narrative of how to produce strong governance (British Hong Kong, Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore, the late Austrian Empire), for some reason that doesn't raise any curiosity as to whether these might work in the modern west, or what other variants might be possible.

So along those lines, here's a Holmes thought experiment that I find works quite well to at least get people thinking.Take a generally educated person, liberal or conservative, and present them with the following.

Suppose we have an election, and there are several buttons you can pick.

Button A gets you Hillary Clinton as president.

Button B gets you Donald Trump as president.

Button C randomly selects a CEO of an S&P 500 company, and (assuming they're willing), makes them president, with another similarly chosen CEO as vice-president. (If you want to be be more stringent, require that their firm's stock return has beaten the S&P 500 Total Return Index for the past 5 years)

Button D is the same as Button C, except it also gives the new CEO-president essentially dictatorial powers - they have a fixed term of office, but they can do everything they could do as a corporate CEO, including setting budgets, firing anyone they want, determining organizational policy - the whole lot.

These are the options on offer.

Me? I'm a Button D guy.

I can definitely see the argument for Button C.

But I'm utterly mystified as to why anyone would pick Button A or Button B.

Actually, this is not quite true - most major companies are chock full of pozz and stupidity, as hilariously documented by the twitter feed Woke Capital. So maybe a CEO would be more leftist, and if someone wanted to argue strongly for Trump instead of Button C, I could understand.

Nonetheless, I think we can agree that to most people, Buttons C and D present as fairly compelling possibilities.

Meanwhile, the Holmes experiment is a very minimal modification to the current one. Take the options from the last presidential election, which everyone was so jazzed up over. And just add a few more. Nobody likes them? Nobody votes for them! Problem solved. As the economists say, what we have is simply a degenerate case of the Holmes plan (for both meanings of the term "degenerate", as it turns out).

But both Buttons C and D select for several very good things.

First, competence. The person is actually able to run a major corporation.

Second, they don't actually want the job. Anyone desperate enough to go through the total farce that is the years long presidential selection process is probably so narcissistic and desperate that I don't think I want them to actually be in charge. It's a variant on the Groucho Marx quip - the club shouldn't let in anyone too desperate to be in the club.

Third, (and this is something that the right probably has to grudgingly admit) gravitas. This is something always worth emphasising to Dems. Whether you like Trump or hate Trump, it is hard not to see him as a significant step down the road towards President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho from the movie Idiocracy. The guy appeared on WWE, for crying out loud. Meanwhile, Marcus Aurelius wrote one of the classics of stoic philosophy as a personal journal that he didn't intend anyone to see, while leading active Roman military campaigns. I'm just saying, it wouldn't hurt to aim a little higher in terms of kingliness.

And fourth, (this is more Button D specific), simply having unified authority and responsibility would be such an improvement on the current debacle that I'd be willing to roll the dice (literally) on which competent executive gets to run it.

But if you decide Button D is too risky - hey, I understand! That's why I'm willing to compromise on something moderate and reasonable, like Button C.

And in my experience, a surprisingly large fraction of educated people will agree that Button C would be a superior technology to our current system.

Which gets to the point, that I like to drive home.

We could actually have Button C if we wanted to.

There's no technological obstacle. I'll write the code that scrapes the list of names and draws from the Excel random number generator. It won't take take me long.

And if you're willing to seriously contemplate Button C, why are you so attached to the nonsense that we have now? Why do you keep unthinkingly repeating that democracy is the best system of government possible?

In case it wasn't obvious, I don't at all think that either Button C or Button D is anywhere near the best we can do.

But they're not crazy. And if they spur people to think of better variations... mission accomplished.


  1. We choose button A or button B because those are the only true options.

    We "could" have a lot of things IF we wanted. We, the American people, do not want those things.

    You see a lot of this type of thinking in libertarian circles, IF we do this, IF we get enough people to x, IF.

    Also, personally, I'm not convinced some random C suite psychopath is going to be an improvement over Trump. I'm also fairly convinced he'll at least be a fachidiot who's qualified for his demanding job and not much else outside of that sphere. Competence isn't a universal quality, it's competence for what and at what level. And I'm sure these type A nutjobs wouldn't be hostile to being chosen to be president; wealth and success can beget some severe narcissism.

    To be good at governing requires a guy who actually has the wisdom and temperament to perform that very specific task. There is no "system" that will make things work. There is no calculus that can be performed that will guarantee good government. It is all down to the character and wisdom of the people involved top to bottom. We have bad government because these things are in short supply. That is always and everywhere the only problem.

    1. >We choose button A or button B because those are the only true options.

      Of course. Every counterfactual has an element of unreality about it, otherwise it would already have happened. I don't think it's even vaguely likely that these will happen. The point here is just to get people to ponder their unthinking support for what we currently have.

      > Also, personally, I'm not convinced some random C suite psychopath is going to be an improvement over Trump.

      Maybe. But I think there are plenty of people who would find the option compelling. Especially among the educated part of Clinton supporter crowd. They're really the target audience here.

      > It is all down to the character and wisdom of the people involved top to bottom. We have bad government because these things are in short supply. That is always and everywhere the only problem.

      Agreed. That these things might be in shorter supply than historically is likely true. But I think they were *always* in fairly short supply. The success of a governing system is at least partly its ability to find those men from among the crowd.

    2. Fair enough.

      The educated Clinton supporter is caught in kind of a social climbing bind though, they will support whoever doesn't get them kicked off the social ladder. I think even as late as 10 years ago there was some back and forth where they might have been thinking about actual policies and government, but now I think it's all pure social signaling for that part of the crowd. That's just my thought though.

  2. Let me tell you what Option C is:

    Mike Bloomberg

    Enough said.

    1. Bloomberg was actually a reasonably competent administrator, despite the swathes of interest groups and institutions he had to deal with in NYC. Sure he had some bizarre pet peeves like soda ban, but then again so did LKY (chewing gum). A small price to pay for competence.

      With total power he'd be lightyears ahead of what we have, with some annoying negatives. Shylock's point stands: it's better than most presidents we actually ended up with in the past 80 years.

    2. >With total power he'd be lightyears ahead of what we have, with some annoying negatives.

      Exactly. There's no doubt that giving him absolute power comes with higher risks, but it's definitely the higher expected return option. Not just relative to Bloomberg the Mayor, but relative to the distribution of what we have.

      I'd definitely want to try out Button D on a small scale first, not all at once for the USA, but in many ways it's the far more interesting option.

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  4. I believe C is the Moldbug position.

    I have zero issues with the absolute authority part of D(contrary to modern propaganda and fear-mongering, in reality its far from absolute anyway).

    However, I think there is more to a nation/community/civilization/tradition than its economy, and more to a leader than the management of such. That's awful close to a Marxist view of history and human beings. There's far more to human happiness than material prosperity, and far more cause to human misery than its absence.

    I'm not sure we have any such candidates at the moment, but I want a Philosopher-King a la Plato.

    Incidentally, Plato does agree with you on one major point - the first disqualification for leadership is wanting the role. Anyone competent enough to take that position would also be wise enough not to want the burden of it. Or Tolkien - "not one in a million is fit for it [social leadership], and least of all those who seek the opportunity".

    The basis for idolization of 'Democracy' or 'Equality' is little more than ignorance and envy.

    1. Agreed that the ideal leader is more than just a CEO. My personal version of the platonic ideal is Marcus Aurelius. Leading the empire in battle while also writing classics of stoic philosophy. You can't get much better than that. His only big screw-up was appointing his worthless son as his successor. But you can get around that with neocameralism - once you split out cash flow rights from management, commodus can just live off the proceeds as a worthless playboy while an actually competent successor runs the operation itself.