Friction in theory and practice

In my first post I defined “violence” as the combination of conflict and uncertainty.

This was a mistake. Not that the analysis was wrong, but the practice of redefining words like “violence,” with their inalienable emotional connotations, is rhetorically foul. It makes me think of the egregious George Lakoff, who wrote a whole book to define “freedom” as everything that is sweet and good and true, at least in George Lakoff’s opinion. And then of course there’s Barack Obama. And so on.

So let me work back over this idea, as bloggers always must (who reads archives, anyway? A blog is not a book), and use a different word: friction.

(I figure “friction” is fair game, because I don’t think anyone has any strong feelings good or bad about friction in the abstract. It is true that many of us have suffered from friction – for example, through chafing. On the other hand, it makes our brakes work and keeps us from falling on our asses, and the prospect of eradicating it from the earth seems both improbable and unappealing. Therefore we can, I hope, regard it with some small calm.)

Conflict exists whenever two men (or women) want the same thing, but only one can have it. Economists call this a scarce resource. Scarce resources are everywhere. My car, for example, is a scarce resource.

Uncertainty exists whenever it is difficult to predict the outcome of a conflict. For example, you might want my car. (This is only because you haven’t seen it.) But it has an ignition lock and I have the title, and the full military power of the United States is on my side. (This is only because it doesn’t know me.) So it’s easy for both of us to predict that your chance of obtaining my car without my consent is quite small.

But if we lived in, say, Gaza City, things might be different. For example, suppose you were an adherent of the People’s Front of Gaza, an extremist terrorist gang, whereas I paid dues only to the peaceful, moderate and democratic Gazan Popular Front. If the former rose up and drove the latter into the sea, it’s certainly possible that there might be someone you could speak to on the subject of “my” car.

And it’s quite possible that I would feel the need to accept this fait accompli. In which case, although there was friction between the PFG and the GPF, there is none between us. The car is now yours, as once it was mine. Nothing says we can’t be perfectly civil about it.

However, it’s also possible that I might have a cousin – or two – in the PFG. And if any such uncertainty exists, the result is friction: we both expend effort toward resolving the conflict in our respective directions. We may expend some ammunition as well. Or we may just expend time, vocal cords, bribes, and innumerable cups of tea. In any case, this labor is unproductive by any conceivable definition of productivity.

In theory, it’s important to distinguish between uncertainty, which is incalculable risk, and probability, which is calculable. For example, if both of us could agree on a probability of the car’s eventual disposition – let’s say 70% for me, 30% for you – we’d find it easy to compromise. 30% of a car is not so useful, but we could agree to have it appraised and I could give you 30% of the market price. (Of course, this would be a contribution to the victorious people of Gaza, not a mere bribe, kickback or shakedown.)

But calculable probabilities are pretty rare in practice. (Prediction markets can help with this, but bear in mind that a market price is just an average opinion, not a magic 8-ball. Nonetheless, I always wonder why some brave soul hasn’t set up prediction markets for judicial decisions.)

In a frictional conflict, both sides may estimate a probability. But since uncertainty exists, there is no reason for their calculations to match, and so no reason for their respective estimates of success to sum to 100%. It’s only human nature to overstate one’s own chances. And in conflicts between organizations – such as states, companies, or even People’s Fronts – it is almost inevitable. So the joint expected value can be, and typically is, 150%, 180%, etc. Leaving a lot of room for noble sacrifice.

Note that this is a very different theory of “violence” than the prevailing progressive-idealist or ultracalvinist view, which of course is basically Christian, and attributes all violence and other bad behavior to the fact that not everyone is Christian enough. Of course our ultracalvinists generally do not put it this way, being not Christians but crypto-Christians.

But “violence” in the philosophy of the New York Times, Obama, Lakoff and the like seems to always be the result of one of three things: (a) violations of the Golden Rule, ie the “cycle of violence” theory; (b) justified violence, a natural response to poverty etc, as in Obama’s Quiet Riot Theory (“I bring not peace, but a sword”); and (c) any other psychological aberrations, inexplicable failures to be enlightened, and other forms of medieval ignorance, all of which would vanish at once if we could just get an NPR station in Gaza City.

The point of the friction model is that friction is rational. Therefore, it cannot be eradicated by missionaries, no matter how many Bibles they have discarded. In terms of its intellectual parentage – or, as doubters may prefer, pathology – the frictional model of violence is best seen as a case of Misesian praxeology, falling in Rothbard’s categories B2b-c, C and D (basically, politics, war and game theory).

(It’s important to note that praxeology does not assume “rationality” in the dumbed-down Homo oeconomicus form sometimes peddled by university economists. It does not attempt to construct any objective definition of utility. It defines subjective rational preference as the consequence of any intentional act. Action reveals a preferred state of the world. For example, to a Misesian, a suicide bomber in a Starbucks can be rational, if the fact that he presses his little red button is the result of the fact that he wants to turn a world that contains a man in a cafe, into one that contains a mess of ball bearings, blood and charred Frappucinos. However, if he has Down’s syndrome and is whacked out on magic mushrooms, and has no idea what will be the result of pressing the button or why he should care, he is not rational. Nonrational acts certainly cause problems – there will always be an undiagnosed schizophrenic or two, lurking behind you in the subway. But most suicide bombers, I believe, are of the former variety.)

In case all this theory is too dry, let’s look at some actual forms that friction takes in the real world today. As Clausewitz for one observed, the lines between these flavors are never sharp. Nonetheless they are different enough to deserve their own terms.

Friction in the general case can be defined as war. In war, we use any means that may be effective to achieve our objectives. For example, you want my car? I want to shoot you. Bang. Before, problem. Now, no problem. Maybe I get my cousins together and we shoot your family, too, pour encourager les autres.

Of course, this is the Gaza City scenario. In San Francisco, these means would not only be ineffective – they would be counterproductive. (This, I feel, is one of the reasons these places, with such similar Mediterranean climates, seem so different.) Instead, if we could construct any kind of uncertainty as to who owned the car, we’d probably settle it with a lawsuit, which takes our friction into the realm of politics. In politics, we use nonforceful methods to pursue our claims, but the effect at least as it pertains to the car is the same – one of us gets it, and there is no way to tell in advance which one of us it will be.

Politics can be defined as limited warfare. For example, you can see a democratic election as a form of civil war, in which both sides agree to settle the conflict by simply counting soldiers. While this is a long way from a war in which tank battles are legitimate but poison gas is not, the principle is the same, and no qualitative line can be drawn between the two. You cannot separate force from non-force, militants from civilians, etc, etc.

It would be iconoclastic of me to stand up for poison gas, but this would be taking il gran rifiuto slightly too far. While arms limitation is not my favorite mechanism for controlling friction (I prefer the rule of law), it certainly works, and there is much to be said for it. The trick is making sure that there is no incentive to escalate.

For example, despite the barbaric and pointless attacks on civilians perpetrated by both sides in World War II, poison gas was never used in combat, which I attribute to the fact that each side was prepared to deploy it almost instantly if the other did. So no advantage but a very temporary surprise could be obtained by resorting to this measure, and even that advantage would be more than canceled by the political consequences. (The story may be apocryphal, but apparently chemical warfare was almost initiated as a result of German interceptions of American signals ordering vast quantities of “GAS,” ie, of course, petrol, to North Africa.)

A fascinating species of friction, quite popular in the current era, is something called asymmetrical warfare. In asymmetrical warfare, the two sides play by different rules, which often lends a remarkable uncertainty to a conflict whose outcome would otherwise be clear. For example, in extreme cases of asymmetrical warfare, one side has to obey rules that are essentially those of a police department, whereas the other is almost perfectly laissez-faire.

A fellow by the name of Carl Schmitt, whose main claim to fame is that he was a Nazi, wrote an interesting if frustrating essay called Theory of the Partisan, inflicted on the world in 1962. The piece is full of bizarre Teutonic mysticisms (you can take the boy out of Prussia, but you can’t take Prussia out of the boy), and not really readable as such. But it is a peek at the modern era from a very non-modern perspective. Such things may not interest others, but for some reason they always fascinate me.

One of Schmitt’s concepts (which he attributes to the far more obscure Rolf Schroers) is the “interested third party.” The interested third party is basically whoever it is that is keeping your asymmetric (or “partisan”) war asymmetric. In other words, it is the political ally of the weaker, laissez-faire force, which ensures that its escalations are not rewarded with corresponding counter-escalations which would nullify the advantages they provide.

This is such a sensitive topic (notice that I’m not mentioning any examples – not that I fear the subject, but it deserves its own post) that even the word “ally” is contentious. When most people think of an “alliance,” they think of two sides openly and knowingly cooperating to implement one vision of a result, like the US and Britain in WWII, or two sides agreeing on a limited set of interests, like the US and Russia in WWII. (As Churchill said in 1941, “if Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”)

However, as long as the actions of two parties advance each others’ interests, they can be considered allies, even if their philosophies of the world are so utterly opposed that they cannot afford the luxury of any such favorable reference. The enemy of your enemy is your friend, and the same goes for the political opponent of your enemy, the enemy of your political opponent, etc, etc. Perhaps we can venture a neologism and define this kind of hands-off alliance as a paralliance. Partners in a paralliance will often cooperate quite unconsciously, without any institutional realization that their success is due to their odd bedfellow.

Another flavor of friction is, of course, crime. The distinguishing feature of crime is that it has no vision of establishing a monopoly of power – unlike politics and war, it does not aspire to create a new status quo in which it is the dominant order. Instead, it is opportunistic and local. However, it is quite good at reappropriating vehicles, livestock, and other movables.

Again, there are no clear lines between any two forms of friction, and crime is often indistinguishable from guerrilla warfare. Many criminals in many societies have thought of themselves as quasi-warriors. In an ideal society, all crime would be committed by psychopaths, ie, people with no objective theory of right and wrong, but this has seldom been the case. When crime is motivated by political aspirations, let’s call it paracrime.

As with its cousin, asymmetric warfare, paracrime generally cannot exist without an interested third party, which shields it from the repressive, escalating response that its political opponents would otherwise inflict. This situation bears some resemblance to what the late Sam Francis described as anarcho-tyranny, although I’m not sure Francis had a very clear conception of the forces that create and stabilize this species of paralliance. (Although I share his admiration for James Burnham, and am sympathetic to many of his diagnoses, I find few if any of Francis’s prescriptions to be of any use.)

Finally, the last important form of friction is pure tyranny, that is, repressive government in the vein of Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong Il, the wartime Third Reich, etc. This is sometimes called “totalitarian” government, though I think that term, strictly on the basis of its linguistic roots, should be extended to any state which exercises legislative omnipotence, or omnipotence with a few carved-out exceptions as with a “bill of rights.”

Tyranny is often misunderstood, which is not surprising, as few of us have lived in tyrannical states. Even the Soviet Union of Khrushchev and Brezhnev is far closer to present-day Western forms of government than to the murderous system of Stalin. A common error, for example made by Ayn Rand, is to identify tyranny and monarchy, which in fact are quite unrelated political forms – all they share is the coincidence of personal rule. We may not all know it, but we’d almost all rather live under the “autocratic” and “absolutist” tsars than under Stalin.

In my opinion, tyranny is best seen as a sort of static civil war. The tyrant’s office differs from the monarch’s in that the latter’s legitimacy is assured by law, whereas the former’s is a matter of personal power and prestige. Every servant of a tyrant is a potential usurper – the military tyranny of the late Roman Empire, in which no emperor was safe from his own bodyguard, is an excellent example.

Tyrants may repress their subjects out of sadism. It is certainly easy for them to acquire this taste. But they also do so out of necessity, because if they relax their grip for a minute they will be overthrown. Stalin had excellent rational reasons for purging the Old Bolsheviks, as Hitler did for purging the SA. A tyrant cannot allow any center of opposition to develop.

Tyranny, in other words, is essentially informal and unstable. At least in the modern era, they tend to evolve into juntas, which tend to evolve into oligarchies, which tend to evolve into democracies. The paths of Russia and China after Communism are good examples. With each of these steps, legitimacy and internal security increase, and the state becomes stronger and harder to overthrow. Unless Gaza is your idea of fun, a strong and secure state is a good thing.

(Perhaps the principal error of modern libertarians is their failure to distinguish between weak government and small government. My ideal government is extremely small, extremely efficient, and extremely strong – its authority cannot be challenged. It does not repress its citizens not because it is physically incapable of repression, but because repression is, far from being in its interests, directly opposed to them. But this too is a separate post.)

In future posts I’ll look more at some of these forms of friction, and ways to resolve them.


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