Archive for December, 2007

Benazir Bhutto: mob hit in Pakistan

December 27, 2007

I usually avoid mentioning current events. It attracts too many readers. However, Benazir Bhutto has just been whacked in Pakistan, and since I have discussed Pakistan in the past, I thought I’d say a few words.

Memo to Washington: this is what happens when you let the Times run your foreign policy.

According to some early reports, which may of course be wrong, Ms. Bhutto was actually assassinated twice. First she was shot in the head by a sniper, and then a little later her whole entourage was blown up by a suicide bomber. You can’t say these people aren’t thorough. Of course, using multiple assassins isn’t exactly a new idea, but it’s always impressive when more than one gets through. You might say it sends something of a message.

Who whacked Benazir Bhutto? And why? Obviously, I have no idea at all. (All rumors that I, or the select group of international arms executives, oil sheiks and gold speculators I advise, are involved in any clandestine activities, are unsubstantiated.*)

Let me start, however, by explaining the power dynamics of Pakistan. You probably already know this and if you don’t I discussed it earlier, but it is certainly worth refreshing.

Political power in Pakistan is shared among a huge variety of parties, gangs, cliques, alliances, mafias, liberation fronts, Islamic sects, human-rights groups, military units, and the like. All of them have one goal: to maximize their capture of the economic production of the Indus River basin. You may think of this area as a shithole, and it would be going too far to say that you are utterly wrong, but it is also a traditionally prosperous and influential region. It continues to be inhabited by many productive and civilized individuals. And anyone who owns or commands any share in its government or revenue can become almost arbitrarily wealthy.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the Pakistani movements are presently aligned in three major factions. None of these factions has yet been able to defeat either of the others. However, each has its own vision of a Pakistan in which it prevails totally, and any of them could win.

The first and simplest faction is the Pakistani military. Call it PakMil. PakMil’s assets are a (relatively) cohesive command structure, military superiority in all conventional conflicts, and a fat-walleted, well-muscled Western patron in the US DoD.

In PakMil’s vision of the future, Pakistan looks a lot like Singapore or Dubai. It is a peaceful, wealthy country with strong internal order and as little politics as possible. PakMil retains many organizational traditions from the British Empire, which had it survived would surely have maintained the Indus River basin in just this manner.

Unfortunately, PakMil is the weakest faction in Pakistan. At least, I think it’s the least likely to win. PakMil’s problem is that its American patron is on the Republican side of the fence (ie, it is a client of the Red Empire), and historically this is not a stable position. Ask Ngo Dinh Diem, Ferdinand Marcos or Fulgencio Batista how well that one worked out. To be identified as a client of the Red Empire, a horrible dictatorship etc, and survive, your regime pretty much needs to be sitting on a trillion barrels of oil. Which PakMil ain’t. (See my advice for PakMil, which I think is still pretty much valid.)

PakMil is of course losing strength because of the decline of the Bush Administration, which is now completely moribund and nonoperational. George W. Bush has about as much influence in Washington these days as the Pope. If not a little less. (Certainly less than Bono.)

The second faction in Pakistan, intermediate in power (ie, probability of victory) is the Westernist faction: journalists, human-rights groups, lawyers, professors, and other well-heeled, well-educated mouth-flappers. Let’s call the Westernist polity NGOstan.

In the vision of NGOstan, Pakistan turns into New Jersey. That is, it becomes a normal Third World country with a lot of corruption, but a government that is basically stable and secure, and has no significant enemies foreign or domestic. Such as, for example, India or Sri Lanka. While this state of affairs is by no means as profitable as the Dubai state of affairs, it still provides plenty of cash for all kinds of people. It also generates more government jobs, which is not an insignificant factor in that part of the world. (Or any part of the world.)

NGOstan is (or was) of course Bhutto’s faction. Its chief claim to fame is that it is sponsored by the Western establishment, ie the State Department, the Times, etc, etc. It is clean and sweet and true. At least, relatively clean and sweet and true.

Obviously, it is not a secret that Bhutto herself was a mob queen, at least that many of her associates were gangsters, but the Westernists had an easy solution for this. If they needed to come across as especially clean and sweet and true, they could just condemn Bhutto as a mob queen. She was not offended, at least not unusually offended. You think she didn’t know she was a gangster? So, for example, this article by Jemima Khan did not terminate the membership of Imran Khan as a leading capo in NGOstan. If Musharraf goes down, there will be plenty for everyone to eat.

The main disadvantage of the Westernists – as we’ve just seen – is that they have no significant military or paramilitary arm. They have loose connections to a wide variety of small-time gangsters, and they have a powerful base in the feudal Pakistani political parties. I’m sure Bhutto knew people who knew people who could get somebody whacked, but a really sustained campaign of terror and murder was just beyond her.

Since no one will ever be able to capture and hold Pakistan without some real muscle, the NGOstanis have only two options. One is to capture the military, the other to depend on the Islamists. Since they weren’t born yesterday, they work both angles. Obviously, this is a dangerous strategy, and obviously it has not worked out for the best.

Capturing and commanding PakMil is the only viable exit strategy for NGOstan. It is never a good idea to assume that powerful people are stupid, and I’m sure the human-rights groups recognize that if it’s them against the mullahs, the mullahs will kick their asses. We are talking about a country which is next door to Iran, after all.

However, NGOstan needs the Islamists, because it cannot succeed without causing trouble, and the only people who can cause trouble in Pakistan are the Islamists. If there is no trouble in Pakistan, Pakistan gets no press in the West. People forget about it. And if Pakistan gets no press in the West, all of its human-rights groups and journalists and lawyers and other people who are good and clean and true might as well be on the dark side of Uranus for all the good their fancy Harvard and Oxford connections will do.

Obviously, the Islamists are our third faction. Call them Talibstan. There is very little to say about the Talibstanis, but my guess is that they will win in the end. Probably after an intermediate victory by the Westernists, exactly as in Iran.

The Islamists are the natural winners because, as today’s events proved, they are the baddest motherfuckers between the Hindu Kush, the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean. These niggaz make the Russian mob look like the Catholic Church. They are to the Crips as the Crips are to the Salvation Army. To MS-13 as MS-13 is to the Moose Lodge. We’re talking about some stone cold thug killaz, and the smart money has to be on them.

The Islamists were suspicious of Bhutto because of the possibility that she might ally with Musharraf, and NGOstan and PakMil would get together and hunt them both down. Clearly, this is Washington’s official, bipartisan, centrist plan. It has little chance of working, because NGOstan has no incentive to eradicate Talibstan unless it attains full and permanent control over PakMil, and PakMil can frustrate this objective simply by refusing to fight Talibstan whenever civilian politicians seem to be gaining control over the Pakistani military.

But this alliance between State, Defense, Bhutto and Musharraf, while about as durable as a pile of eggs, was obviously serious enough to worry some people. And, as we’ve seen, these people are not exactly given to restraint. So Bhutto was walking a very delicate tightrope. She had to ride to power on the wave of Islamic terror. This is a very funky wave, full of logs, dead hogs and used tires, and you certainly don’t want to wipe out on it.

It’s essential to remember that within the Pakistani opposition to Musharraf, that there is no precise division between Westernist and Islamists. For example, Nawaz Sharif has ties to Westernist forces and ties to Islamist forces. There are people who have positioned themselves between Sharif and Bhutto, people who are between Sharif and Mullah Omar, etc, etc.

There is also a continuum between Musharraf and the Islamists, Musharraf and Bhutto, etc, etc. All of these allegiances can shift with the tides of fate. When affairs of state are decided by factions organized on the basis of opinion, opinions become remarkably flexible. This is not to say that there are no genuine convictions at all in Pakistan, but it is more or less impossible for an outside observer to distinguish them with any degree of confidence. What is very clear is that no two of the three groups can truly share power, and once one of them collapses either another will follow, or the conflict between the remaining two will become even more violent.

My guess is that Benazir Bhutto’s death makes some people in the Islamist movement happy, and some people unhappy. I suspect that the same can be said for the Pakistani military. Since these feelings are relatively private, you will probably not be able to read about them in the New York Times, or at UR for that matter. All will feign sadness. But some will be laughing, deep down inside. If you are under some illusion that modern politics, let alone modern Pakistani politics, is anything like a fit occupation for honorable gentlemen or ladies, I fear you are setting yourself up for nothing but disappointment.

When this whole idea of Bhutto returning to Pakistan started to crop up, I exchanged some emails on the subject with a friend of mine who is from Pakistan via Dubai. While my correspondent is 100% Westernized, his parents are not. And right up until Bhutto actually got off the plane, by his report, they were confident that no such thing could happen. Because the people at the State Department could not possibly be so stupid.

One interesting way to review these events is to read a series of articles on Pakistan that have appeared in the Times since my first post on the crisis. I am not going to go into as much detail this time. I think the general concept ought to be clear.

First, on November 6, we have this op-ed by (or supposedly by) Bhutto herself, Musharraf’s Martial Plan:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/07/opinion/07bhutto.html

In this piece, Pinkie, or at least Pinkie’s people, make the standard demands. Surrender or be crushed. Etc, etc. And they roll out the standard argument, which is that suspending habeas corpus is not only an ineffective way to fight a civil war, but actually counterproductive:

The United States can promote democracy — which is the only way to truly contain extremism and terrorism — by telling General Musharraf that it does not accept martial law, and that it expects him to conduct free, fair, impartial and internationally monitored elections within 60 days under a reconstituted election commission.

Tell it to Seward’s little bell, kids. But no, Pinkie’s love for Pakistan is so great that she has no concern for her personal safety:

Very conveniently, the assassination attempt against me last month that resulted in the deaths of at least 140 people is being used as the rationale to stop the democratic process by which my party would most likely have swept parliamentary elections.

Ya think? In a best-case scenario, I imagine Benazir Bhutto as a sort of Pakistani Carmela Soprano, kind of semi-consciously turning a blind eye to her husband‘s profession. In that case, I suppose I should feel a little sympathy, and my real anger should be at the power brokers behind her pointless and astoundingly dangerous career as a political mafia queen.

Okay. So we move on to November 17, and this equally meretricious piece by David Rohde, Envoy Elicits No New Promises. Note that this is not an op-ed or even “news analysis.” This here is hard news:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/17/world/asia/17cnd-pakistan.html

I am particularly fond of the detail that Ambassador Negroponte met with General Kaylani alone. It’s sort of as if Little Carmine had dispatched Johnny Sack to meet privately with Paulie Walnuts. After which, Tony would have the privilege of a meeting with both of them.

I’m also enchanted with this sentence:

The move — which General Musharraf has said is an effort to curb terrorism — is widely seen by Pakistanis as an effort by the increasingly unpopular ruler to cling to power.

I am quite confident that whoever is the next leader of Pakistan, he or she will not be clinging to power, like a rat on a floating board. Rather, I would like to think that Pakistan will experience a period of actual political stability. Somehow, I’m not sure Mr. Rohde’s efforts (I momentarily mistyped his name, and started to wonder if he was also responsible for the Jameson raid) have made that more likely.

I also wonder: there is such a thing as a mob lawyer. Is there such a thing as a mob journalist? The mind boggles.

Despite the promising headline above, in the month after Ambassador Sacrimoni’s visit, Musharraf and/or his people caved. He promised to step down as army chief and did. He promised elections, and banned Sharif while allowing Bhutto to run. He ended the state of emergency. The only steps he refused to take were those that obviously would have signaled the end of his regime and of PakMil as an independent power, such as restoring the suspended judges.

We quickly saw the truth of the matter on the alliance between Pinkie and the Islamists. On December 12, Carlotta Gall, who is well-named indeed, recounted a truly tear-jerking tale, Picture of Secret Detentions Emerges in Pakistan:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/19/world/asia/19disappeared.html

No more Fort McHenry for the little Sewards of the Hindu Kush! I’m afraid that these days, if Pakistan wants to detain people like the murderers of Daniel Pearl – whom Carlotta Gall may well have known in person – it won’t just be able to starve them to death and toss them on a garbage heap. It will have to give them a five-star, gold-plated trial, with enough lawyers to invade Nepal. I’m sure Angelina Jolie will be happy to pay for all this.

So why not just let your prisoners go instead? If you have to play by these rules, why play at all? Just sit tight, things will go to hell, and the rules will change back again. They have to. If they don’t, it’s definitely time to buy those Emirates tickets.

Oh, I’m sure a few of these detainees are “innocent.” But frankly, the Romans had it right when they said that the law is silent in time of war. If your country is invaded by an enemy army, you can’t arrest every soldier wearing the wrong uniform, and charge them with trespassing. And the same applies even if the enemy adopts an urban guerrilla strategy.

What’s going on in Pakistan is war, and the concept of “guilt” and “innocence” is not even meaningful in war. Your enemies are not criminals. They are enemies. The criminalization of war, the move to redefine every war as a police action, creates nasty, interminable and recurring conflicts that cannot be won.

As Edward Luttwak points out, all guerrilla wars, urban or rural (urban guerrilla is a common euphemism, meaning terrorist) can be won by detaining every human being who might possibly be an enemy, holding them securely until the war is over and the winner is clear, and then releasing them without punishment. Like, duh, man. Which has more negative impact on innocent civilians: internment in a civilized detention center, or involvement in a civil war?

As Trinquier wrote in Modern War, the service that the Westernists are performing on behalf of the Islamists is an absolute military necessity:

Modern warfare is a new experience for the majority of our fellow citizens. Even among our friends, the systematic conduct of raids will run into opposition, resulting generally from a total lack of understanding of the enemy and his methods of warfare. This will often be very difficult to overcome.

For example, the fact that the enemy’s warfare organization in a single city may consist of several thousand men will come as a surprise even to the majority of high administrative functionaries, who thought sincerely that they were dealing with only a few isolated criminals.

One of the first problems encountered, that of lodging the individuals arrested, will generally not have been anticipated. Prisons, designed essentially to accommodate offenders against common law, will rapidly become inadequate and will not meet our needs. We will be compelled to intern the prisoners under improvised, often deplorable conditions, which will lead to justifiable criticism our adversaries will exploit. From the beginning of hostilities, prison camps should be set up according to the conditions laid down by the Geneva Convention. They should be sufficiently large to take care of all prisoners until the end of the war.

By every means – and this is a quite legitimate tactic – our opponents will seek to slow down and, if possible, put an end to our operations. The fact that a state of war will generally not have been declared will be, as we have already indicated, one of their most effective means of achieving this. In particular, they will attempt to have arrested terrorists treated as ordinary criminals and to have members of their organization considered as minor peacetime offenders.

On this subject, the files of the Algiers terrorist organization divulged some particularly interesting documents. “We are no longer protected by legality,” wrote the chief of the Algiers F.L.N. in 1957, when the army had taken over the functions of the police. “We ask all our friends to do the impossible to have legality re-established; otherwise we are lost.”

Actually, the peacetime laws gave our enemies maximum opportunities for evading pursuit; it was vital to them that legality be strictly applied. The appeal was not launched in vain. Shortly thereafter, a violent press campaign was unleashed, both in France and abroad, demanding that peacetime laws be strictly adhered to in the course of police operations.

That’s life in the big city, kids. If your spectacles were more rosy, I am sorry to have to break it to you. Please do not blame the bearer of bad news.

Next, we have the anonymous and stentorian voice of the Times editors themselves (could even Pinch have taken an interest?), on December 22, in an aptly-titled editorial – Weakening Pakistan:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/22/opinion/22sat1.html

This is the pure voice of power. When it has its dudgeon up, the Times does not ask. It tells. When it is displeased, it says so frankly. One does not make little jokes with the Times.

But perhaps someone there does have a sense of humor. On Christmas Eve, a whole gaggle of Timesmen and Timeswomen – perhaps already salivating about the Pulitzers to come – suggest that perhaps Mushie’s revenue stream from the US taxpayer should be cut off, in U.S. Officials See Waste in Billions Sent to Pakistan (sometimes you just can’t make these headlines up):

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/24/world/asia/24military.html

I think this makes the relationship pretty clear, wouldn’t you say?

And finally, we have the Times obituary for Pinkie, obviously written well in advance, and not bad at all – Benazir Bhutto, 54, Lived in Eye of Pakistan Storm:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/28/world/asia/28bhuttocnd.html

I love the bit about Zardari being the “Nelson Mandela of Pakistan.” Perhaps more the Jacob Zuma of Pakistan. But might the label be more apt than it seems? Surely a topic for another day.

(* – No, I do not really advise a select group of international arms executives, oil sheiks and gold speculators. Although perhaps it’s not too late to start! If you are reading UR and you happen to be an international arms executive, oil sheik, or gold speculator…)

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An explanation of democratic centrism

December 27, 2007

The political belief system of most normal people in the Western world is well-described, I think, by the phrase democratic centrism.

This belief system is democratic because it assigns unconditional positive valence to the word democracy. A rule of the modern world is that anything which can get away with describing itself as democratic will do so. The fewer Kevin Bacon steps between you and democracy, the better. Granted, I have never seen any breakfast cereal, personal hygiene product or mobile phone which managed to associate itself with democracy, but I’m sure it’s not for lack of trying.

For example, most people today would agree with, or at least take no offense at, the suggestion that in a democratic country, it’s important for corporations to be socially responsible. Perhaps we can allow this wonderful phrase, socially responsible, to hang in the air for a moment. It certainly has earned its delicious, bacony odor of democracy.

Obviously, neither the word democracy nor any of its multitudinous declensions, conjugations, and obfuscations can convey any information in any reasonable discussion between civilized and intelligent people. To define something as democratic is to define it as good, leaving us face to face with Hume’s ought – the ultimate rhetorical dead end. At this point, one might as well just have it out with cavalry swords. (The only practical use I can imagine for democracy is as an ingredient of fun, contrarian labels, such as antidemocratist.)

So we are left with centrism. What is centrism? And why do so many people believe in it?

A centrist is anyone who believes in the concept of objective public policy. Another way to say this is that a centrist is someone who believes in the science of government.

To the centrist, government is not just one thing. It has a kind of metaphysical binary structure. Its staff is divided into two classes, elected officials and career professionals. Or if you prefer to be negative, politicians and bureaucrats. The gap between these tracks is about as bridgeable as the gap between vanilla ice-cream and Mongolian beef. And the two have completely separate responsibilities: elected officials make political decisions, career professionals set public policy.

Isn’t this weird? I mean, does anyone who holds any position in this entire system ever stop to think about how bizarre this situation is? If by some wild off-chance you ever happen to have been employed in the actual productive economy, can you imagine working in a company whose organizational hierarchy was divided into political and professional categories? Surely if it was any way to run a railroad, at least one railroad in history would have been run this way. Perhaps one of our readers is familiar with some such animal.

(If you read the New York Times regularly, you will note that decisions which are driven by politics are often bad ones. Whereas policies formulated by experts tend to be good. Isn’t this interesting? Is the New York Times generally right about this, or generally wrong?)

Anyway, it’s easy to explain why centrism is a fallacy.

First, there is no conceivable categorical distinction between political and apolitical actions or decisions. Since the real world cannot be controlled or predicted, since we never step in the same river twice, every decision made by every organization which operates successfuly on the real world is a judgment call by definition. All decisions are executive and discretionary.

In particular, there is no such thing as scientific public policy. Public policy and science have no more in common than lawn tennis and animal husbandry. It is impractical to conduct any controlled experiment on the real world, human or natural. Economic remedies cannot be tested, diplomatic strategies cannot be modeled, military tactics cannot be verified, ecological outcomes cannot be predicted. At least not in any way that can claim Popperian falsifiability – and thus immunity to the tides of groupthink and general human folly.

Ergo, there is no “objective” or “nonpartisan” or “apolitical” basis for any public policy – even in departments often regarded as “scientific.” Perhaps it is possible to define any policy whose motivation does not depend on pseudoscience (pseudoscience being anything that claims to be science, but ain’t) as “scientific.” But this is (a) hardly a high bar, and (b) yields results with no relationship to the conventional concept of “scientific” public policy.

For example, the absorption spectrum of CO2 is a matter of physics. The concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere is a matter of chemistry. But absent infinite computer time or other magic superpowers, the climate sensitivity of the Earth cannot be calculated by any falsifiable procedure. Moreover, it is impossible to construct any conceivable objective conclusion as to why it should be “good” or “bad” for Earth, or even just for us poor schmucks who happen to live on it, to be warmer or colder than it is now, whether as a result of geoengineering by CO2 release or aerosol emissions, or variations in solar output, or UFO exhaust, or whatever. Therefore, climate policy is a value judgment of an unforecastable outcome, and any suggestion that it can be formulated “objectively” is comical at best. Reasonable people can disagree on the subject, and will always be able to.

So why is this belief in apolitical government – especially, of all things, apolitical democracy – so prevalent? There are several interesting answers to this interesting question.

We can start by observing that the illusion of objective policy creates an objective center for any system of government built around it. If you are a democratic centrist, you believe that an intelligent visitor from Saturn, knowing no more and no less about Earth history than we do, would come up with exactly the same structure of government as that we see in Washington today. Perhaps our Saturnian would withdraw from Iraq, perhaps there would be a few tweaks to energy policy, perhaps he would revitalize the Department of Health and Human Services with new performance-oriented metrics for a more efficient budget process. But, basically, he would look on what he saw and find it good.

In other words, his political perspective is essentially that of Dr. Pangloss. Our democratic centrist is no more than a believer in the status quo. His arguments are not arguments. They are excuses. Perhaps they are valid excuses. But we have no reason at all to assume so.

To the democratic centrist, the burden of proof always rests on whoever disagrees with him. (For example, anyone with proof of racial equality should forward it at once to Jim Goad.) There is no reason to even bother debating under such conditions. All attempts at rational conversation terminate in the democratic equivalent of “but Brawndo has electrolytes.”

The rest of us, who due to some cosmic computer fuckup have retained our compos mentis, can see quite easily that the democratic center is not absolute or objective. Because, above all, if it was absolute or objective, you would kind of expect it would stay in the same place. And, um, it, um, doesn’t.

In other words, if our Saturnian’s political philosophies remained unchanged, he could not be a centrist on his first visit in 1907, and remain a centrist on his second visit in 2007. The centrist ideas of 2007 were held only by dangerous extremists in 1907. The centrist ideas of 1907 are held only by dangerous extremists in 2007. This does not preclude the possibility that either the 1907 center or the 2007 center is right, but it does preclude the possibility that both are. And they could just as well both be drifting way out in head-case space.

For example, as Peter Hitchens writes in his fascinating if somewhat mistitled Brief History of Crime:

So, before showing that something enormous and damaging has happened to English society since the Second World War, it is worth quoting an astonishing footnote from Jose Harris’s social history of Britain before the First World War, Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914:

A very high proportion of Edwardian convicts were in prison for offences that would have been much more lightly treated or wholly disregarded by law enforcers in the late twentieth century. In 1912-13, for example, one quarter of males aged 16 to 21 who were imprisoned in the metropolitan area of London were serving seven-day sentences for offences which included drunkenness, ‘playing games in the street,’ riding a bicycle without lights, gaming, obscene language and sleeping rough. If late twentieth-century standards of policing and sentencing had been applied in Edwardian Britain, the prisons would have been virtually empty; conversely, if Edwardian standards were applied in the 1990s then most of the youth of Britain would be in gaol.

As it happens, 1913 was a fairly bad year by the standards of the time, with 98,000 serious offences recorded. This level would not be surpassed again until 1920 when the total rose to 101,000 after a wartime truce during which annual crime tallies sank to as low as 78,000 in 1915. Even convicts were reported to be showing patriotic zeal as they broke their rocks. Measure this against the figure of 2,521,000 recorded in 1980 and, even when you grant that the population had risen from 36 million to 49 million, the figures could be from different planets as well as from different eras.

Now, since I am a child of the late 20th century, the idea of a prison term for saying “fuck” does not strike me as sensible. On the other hand, one can scarcely regard a 2000% increase in crime as evidence of effective, scientific public policy. Surely the aficionados of scientific government in 1907 did not preface their promises with the caveat that, while the New Jerusalem that was to come would have this and that and the other thing, it would also come with, oh, 20 times as much crime. (Even setting aside the defining-down of “crime.”)

Democratic centrism draws a sort of N-dimensional bullseye on policy space. Everything that the State does now, the center of the eye, is bipartisan, centrist, apolitical public policy. As we drift away from this magic vertex, our policies become first politicized, then radical or extremist. And when we see that this bullseye moves over time, that we have no reason to believe it is in any way correlated with reality, that in fact we have quite a bit of evidence that at least in the past it has been thoroughly delusional, we realize that we are dealing with a very weird, scary thing.

So, if we reject the self-framing of democratic centrism, if we refuse to accept this phenomenon on its own terms, we need to find another explanation of the movement that is simpler and makes more sense. Democratic centrism exists. It may not tell us anything useful about the world, but it is a part of reality and its existence at least can be explained.

One straightforward question is “where did it come from?” In American politics, the concept of centrism dates at least to the Greeleyite Liberal Republicans of 1872. (It’s a little difficult to detect before then – perhaps there is some Prussian heritage, as many American intellectuals of the period studied in Germany.)

Perhaps the founding achievement of American democratic centrism was the Pendleton Act of 1883, which ended the spoils system and established a civil service which was effectively independent of democracy – excuse me, I mean, “politics.” Another important milestone was Walter Lippmann‘s Public Opinion (1922), which perhaps best represents the birth of objective journalism – ie, of our present regime in which journalists consider themselves civil servants, responsible to “the public” rather than to their readers.

But this does not explain why we have democratic centrism, rather than nothing, or rather than something else.

One interesting clue is that, while this center does not appear to remain continuously in the same place, it does not appear to wander unpredictably, either. Over the last century at least, the American political center (and thus the US Federal Government) has moved in a direction which can be generally described as progressive. There have been occasional mild reversals of the trend – for example, in the 1920s, the 1950s and the 1980s – but even across these nadirs, we see the secular (no pun intended) curve. The same ideas that were centrist in the 1980s tended to be progressive in the 1950s, and radical in the 1920s.

Readers of UR are, of course, quite familiar with this trend. But what could explain it? I have talked quite a bit about what happened, but much less about why it happened.

First, we should never disregard the possibility that the progressive migration of the center is simply a passage out of darkness and into light, a gradual escape from delusion. This narrative is sometimes described as Whig history. By definition, to be a Whig is to believe in Whig history, and here at UR we do try to respect the reader’s beliefs.

Moreover, it is easy to see how Whig history could be true. The truth has an obvious advantage over any delusion: everyone wants to believe the truth, no one wants to be deluded. So perhaps people were deluded in the past, and are just now getting over it.

If Whig history is true, this does not validate the fallacious, Panglossian philosophy of absolute centrism. But it suggests that the center of today just happens to either have arrived at an accurate perception of reality, or is in the process of arriving at it.

The latter possibility is especially interesting. It suggests the interpretation that an accurate view of reality is, if anything, far more progressive than today’s worldview. If the causal motor of Whig history is simply best described as progress, there is no reason to believe that this process should stop in the present.

Indeed, it would be surprising if the relationship between increasing progressivism and general enlightenment had a nonmonotonic maximum precisely at the center point of contemporary American politics. The whole strange journey from Teddy Roosevelt to Nancy Pelosi was, as per Pangloss, for the best, but any continuation into Dennis Kucinich land would be a sad story of decline. Is it possible? Sure. But it seems unlikely. So many sensible people, having grown up on Whig history, extrapolate logically and end up as progressives in today’s sense of the word. (It’s worth noting that my father’s parents, who were in fact card-carrying Communists, described themselves as progressive for their entire adult life.)

But is there an alternative to Whig history? There is. I’m not aware that the phrase “Tory history” is much used, but surely it would not displease the likes of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. (I have recommended this book before, but it’s been a while. It really is essential reading. Although perhaps I should worry that after you read K-L, UR will seem like a cheap plastic imitation.)

Finding a way to convey the Gestalt of Tory history to readers in our uber-Whiggish age is definitely a bete noire of this blog. I don’t believe I have done it. Perhaps it is simply impossible for a modern reader to simply grok Tory history, in one tremendous mental flash. However, the possibility is so seductive that I can’t stop myself from trying.

One possible flash can be obtained by reading this LA Times article about Vladimir Putin’s pet youth group, Nashi. (For registration, I use and recommend BugMeNot.)

Russia today is actually an independent country, which is pretty cool. I don’t get the impression that it is particularly well-governed, but it could be a lot worse. Ideally, the mafias which run Russia today will coalesce into a more coherent entity, less like the New York mob and more like Singapore or China, and neocameralist incentives for good government will start to replace informal incentives for corrupt government. I wouldn’t necessarily bet on this happening, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet against it, either.

And Nashi is a fascinating phenomenon. It is best categorized as a pro-government activist group. Somehow, members of Nashi manage to be simultaneously rebellious and official. Does this remind you of anything? Anything at all?

We have many reasons to be thankful for Russia. Chekhov, Bulgakov and Brodsky are three. But one great reason to love Russia is that Russian history so often mirrors the political tropes of the West, but in a particularly crude, obvious and Russian way that makes their true nature especially apparent.

From the perspective of Tory history, progressivism is to Nashi as you and I are to the benthic and vagile California sea hare, Aplysia. Aplysia has something like ten neurons, each the size of a large asparagus stalk. I exaggerate, slightly. But just as Aplysia is the perfect research organism in which to develop a basic understanding of the neuron, Nashi is a perfect way to understand the fascinating phenomenon of pro-government activism.

It’s especially helpful that Nashi, being basically a fascist movement, is aligned directly against Western progressivism. (Nashi’s perception of the US State Department as its primary natural enemy strikes me as quite accurate.) So, for example, we hear:

Talking to Nashi members offers a sample of the kaleidoscope of fears that swirl in Putin’s Russia. An alleged U.S. plot to infiltrate politics, get hold of natural resources and shatter mighty Russia into smaller, more easily managed countries is a recurring theme.

As a resident of San Francisco, perhaps the world’s most progressive city, I find the phrase “kaleidoscope of fears” quite evocative. Especially when it comes to “swirling.” San Franciscans have no swirling fears of the US State Department, but they certainly compensate in some other departments.

And then we have the money quote:

Nashi, the largest and most prominent of the youth groups, is heavily wrapped up in the concept of upward mobility. Many of the youths have been lured to Moscow with promises of yuppie dreams; they view Nashi as an investment in their careers, akin to joining the right fraternity at a U.S. university.

Of course, progressivism has nothing at all to do with upward mobility. The other day I was at a Christmas Eve dinner party, where all the other guests (except of course Mrs. Moldbug, whose agility at Ketman is unrivaled) were hardcore progressives, and someone was wondering out loud how Angelina Jolie manages to be involved in so many good causes. “Because she’s obviously just so… shallow.”

“Perhaps it has something to do with her PR people,” I suggested. “I mean, they’re not exactly going to tell her to endorse the Burmese junta, for their energetic maintenance of public order, are they?” Ketman is not exactly my strong point.

“I guess.” I really did get the impression that this woman believed supporting progressive causes was some great sacrifice on the part of Brangelina. But why wouldn’t she? I’m sure Brad and Angelina believe it, as well.

Of course, progressives also think of themselves as anything but pro-government. And how is this neat trick accomplished?

Welcome to our old friend, objective public policy. Progressives can think of themselves as bravely resisting an oppressive regime, because they oppose the Bush administration, which is political, and support the Federal civil service, which is professional and scientific. When they think of “the government,” they think exclusively of the former, which seems to invest a considerable amount of its energy on frustrating the efforts of the latter. Needless to say, this is nothing but a vicious attack on democracy. At a certain point, all ya can say is wow.

The parallel between Nashi and progressivism gets even tighter when we realize that, although progressives are not acting in the service of any present leader whose personality cult can be compared to Putin’s (for one thing, you can’t really have a personality cult unless you have a personality, which pretty much disqualifies all living American politicians), we get a far better signal when we compare the American past to the Russian present.

In case it’s not obvious who I’m talking about, try these four links: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Note that there is a discrepancy between Wikipedia’s version of the Greer incident and the Nazi version – according to the Nazis, the Greer had dropped depth charges before the U-boat fired a torpedo. With all due respect to Dr. Goebbels, I think I’ll go with La Wik on this one.

But when we look at the overall exchange, I don’t think the picture leaves us feeling too good about Whig history. What’s astounding about the American side of this exchange (there is nothing surprising in the fact that the Nazis, having truth on their side, could just stick to it) is not just the sheer volume of blatantly fraudulent inventions, not just the almost perfect inversion of reality, not just the incredibly crude and paranoid tone of the speech (doesn’t it make Rush Limbaugh sound like Adlai Stevenson?), but the fact that the intended audience was the American electorate. And, by all historical evidence, this was exactly the sort of material they lapped up. (If this period interests you, there is more here.)

Imagine a Russia 70 years from now in which all significant intellectual movements are descended from Nashi. All teachers, professors and journalists grew up on the Nashi definition of reality. For most of them, their parents probably did as well. In fact, the Nashism of 2007 is remarkably tame compared to the Nashism of 2077. Anyone in 2077 who even begins to question that Putin saved Russia from disaster at the hands of George Soros and the State Department is simply a nut, a crank, an extremist.

Do I think Nashi and Putinism will actually survive until 2077? Of course not. It’s Russia, after all. On the other hand, we still have the New Deal to kick around.

So here is our brief explanation of democratic centrism. First, centrism is a misnomer, because when we examine the movement over time we see that it moves gradually in a progressive direction. What we are looking at is democratic progressivism. The “center” is just the center of its shifting window at the present time.

Second, progressivism is a form of pro-government activism. Unlike Nashi, progressivism does not revere any living ruler. Its faith in the State is given entirely to the professional civil service. The mechanism by which it delegates this faith is the strange concept of apolitical government, which makes about as much sense as a cheeseburger without the cheese.

Third, democratic progressivism is not “democratic” in the classic sense of representative democracy, ie, wherein the government is managed by elected politicians. As we’ve seen, democratic progressives despise politics and all its works, unless of course the political process produces “leaders” who nourish and support the civil service, in which case they are wise and visionary statesmen.

The trick is that progressives are absolutely right about this. Political democracy is a disastrous system. As James Madison wrote:

Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Madison was referring to direct democracy, Athenian style. His judgment of this form was indeed shared by his contemporaries, who could hardly avoid noticing the rather striking connection between the destruction of Athens and its adoption of democracy. But in the rest of Federalist 10, Madison goes on to explain how representative or indirect democracy will not suffer the same consequences:

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

You will frequently hear people, often otherwise very perceptive people, telling us that “the US is not a democracy, but a republic.” Next time you hear this, ask the wise sage who is speaking what exactly a “republic” is. Perhaps he will explain that republic is from the Latin res publica, ie, government. Ask him to give you an example of a government which is not a republic. Perhaps he will come up with a monarchy. In this case, thank him politely for explaining that the US has no king, ideally without revealing that you knew that already.

Here we have it straight from James Madison: a republic is different from a democracy because the former (a) has elected representatives, and (b) is bigger. This will have the following effects:

The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.

Elected politicians will be wise and noble.

Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

At least, wiser and nobler than the people who elected them.

On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.

Ya think?

The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal; and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter by two obvious considerations:

Isn’t it funny how bigger always turns out to be better?

In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice.

The more people you have, the more wise and noble people you have. Duh. World elections now! What are we waiting for?

In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.

I’m afraid we’ve learned a lot about the “vicious arts” since then.

The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

If we adopt the Constitution, there will be no national political parties. The country is just too big. Besides, even if there are national parties, they will be weak and disorganized.

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

“Duh-huh, duh-huh. He said Confederacy. Duh-huh.”

So much for Little Jimmy Madison, political sage. With geniuses like this, who needs fools? It’s obvious why Ron Paul wants to restore the Constitution. Because it worked out so well!

As I explained last week, the actual form of government in the US at present is a massarchy, ie, a state whose legitimacy is dependent on the mass of public support. Democratic centrism is the ideology that legitimizes the state. Of course, one of the main activities of said state is to teach its free, independent citizens how great democratic centrism is. Everyone loves a self-licking ice-cream cone.

Electoral politics is quite vestigial in a modern massarchy. Polling is a far more efficient and reliable way to measure support. The EU, in which politics plays an even more negligible part, is a perfect example. It is quite tricky to convince people that they can have democracy without politics, but most of the work has already been done and the project is clearly practical.

One easy way to understand how the US power structure actually works is to adopt the hypothesis that the strongest institutions are the most stable and permanent. For example, in a conflict between Microsoft and the New York Times, who would win? One can imagine a situation in which the NYT triumphed and Microsoft was no more. Whereas it is impossible to imagine any force, short of the US military if its patience somehow turns out to be less than eternal, which could destroy the Times.

(People who talk about declining newspaper revenue have no clue. The NYT is an NGO which happens, for reasons that are basically historical, to be sponsored by a publishing corporation. If said corporation were to disappear from the face of the earth and Times reporters had to be supported by grants and foundations, like every other NGO in the world, do you really think they’d have trouble raising money?)

When we forget NGOs (they’re called “NGOs” because of how easy it is to forget that they’re not part of the State) and look only at the US government proper, stability is easy to find. The civil service and the judiciary cannot be replaced by any force short of God. Ergo, we would expect to see that they have most of the power, and I believe this is indeed the case.

What remains is largely in the hands of Congress. And it is not distributed evenly across the members of that august body. It is in the hands of the committee staffs and the committee chairmen. Congresspersons are technically politicians and can be replaced, but they also have a 98% incumbency rate, and I don’t believe this is lower for committee chairs. Furthermore, when a chair dies or (theoretically) loses an election, his or her replacement is chosen not by lottery but by seniority, preserving general institutional continuity.

By changing the majority party, voters can also replace all the committee chairs en bloc. This has been known to happen, most recently in the ’90s. It is these changes of party that really show us how close to the “center” both Republicans and Democrats are. To judge by their actions, the incentives affecting the Republican Congress did not seem to differ particularly from the incentives affecting the Democratic Congress. I think a few minor programs were abolished or restructured. But I could be wrong.

For obvious reasons, voter interest in Congressional elections tends to be negligible. In fact, by 19th-century standards, voter interest in all elections is negligible. There is simply no modern counterpart to the great mob upheavals that were 19th-century elections. Perhaps this has something to do with the depoliticization of government. However, to the extent that Americans care about elections at all these days, they care about Presidential elections.

The President is nominally the chief executive of the Federal government. But a real chief executive controls three levers of management: budget, policy, and personnel. The White House has no budgetary power other than the veto. Domestic policy is generally prescribed by law, or what at least is called “law,” which is written in very vague terms by Congress and refined by judges and agency experts. Civil servants are completely insulated from political selection or promotion. The White House does select political appointees who are nominally the senior officers in their various departments, but their ability to steer the civil service ship is minimal and their temptation to “go native” is unending.

As late as the 1860s, as the debate over the Tenure of Office Act shows, the President was believed to have unchallengeable power to hire and fire all Federal officials. This did not work out well, and it shortly disappeared. Even in the ’30s, FDR could promote a political general like George Marshall directly from brigadier to Chief of Staff. Like so many of FDR’s executive decisions, this would be unthinkable today.

The Presidency today is perhaps best compared to the British monarchy as of 100 years ago. It is gradually becoming an entirely symbolic institution. Today there are still substantial exceptions to this pattern, but the pattern is clear.

The influence of politics is probably doomed to decrease over time, because politics sucks. Electoral politics is a disastrous way to run a railroad. Any politicization of government tends to have immediate negative effects on its performance. As anyone who recalls Sir Humphrey can testify, the permanent government has the motive, the opportunity, and the propensity to exacerbate these effects, and so the cycle continues.

So this is what it means to be a democratic centrist: it means you support, cherish and revel in your loyalty to a permanent government which is immune to electoral politics. Like Mary’s little lamb, you follow it wherever it goes. Because you are a centrist, you believe the decisions of this Beamtenstaat are scientific and objective, whereas really it is just a bunch of people playing their usual hominid power games.

And why is democratic centrism so popular? Because as in Russia, all the State has to do to persuade large numbers of young, energetic people to support it is to create a situation in which pro-government activists are more likely to succeed – professionally, socially, and financially. In Russia, its methods are conspiratorial, heavy-handed and crude. In the West, they are anything but. But perhaps this is a discussion for another week.

I hope everyone out there is having a happy Winterval. I suppose it behooves me to report that, last Thursday, Mrs. Moldbug and I went to City Hall and made it official. This is not really an excuse for the large pile of unanswered email that still towers oppressively over my inbox, or the large number of highly perspicacious comments that deserve a response. But perhaps it will serve as some sort of lame excuse.

Neocameralism and the escalator of massarchy

December 20, 2007

It is very hard to show that any new form of government is superior to that practiced now. It is even harder to show that any new form of government is superior to any practiced ever.

Nonetheless, unless these problems are not just hard but actually unsolvable, innovation in the form of government is possible. It is worth noting that government in history has ever encouraged its subjects to believe that it could be innovated away. Which is a rather straightforward explanation of the fact that few have ever believed it possible. Which does not make the proposition true, but does suggest one way in which it could be true.

Certainly, the very idea of innovation in government should not frighten you. If it does, there is no point at all in thinking about government. This is conservatism to the point of mental disorder. I simply cannot contend with it, and I refuse to try. If you cannot set yourself outside your own beliefs and prejudices, you are not capable of normal civilized discourse.

Today’s post, despite its precious, neologistic title, is about one of our favorite subjects here at UR, democracy. Most people are conservatives with respect to democracy. They like it, they want to conserve it, they consider it sacred and holy and good.

And perhaps, of course, it is. I mean, even Churchill – hardly history’s picture of a democrat – said, “democracy is the worst possible form of government, except for all the others.”

Of course, Churchill also drank a fifth of Scotch every day. Perhaps he was drunk. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps he was lying. Perhaps he was both wrong and lying. Perhaps he was so lying, so wrong, and so drunk that he actually turned out to be right. Perhaps he was an Armenian. Perhaps…

As Jimmy Cliff put it in The Harder They Come, who can know this thing? So why shouldn’t we take a minute or two, and actually think about it? (Google Analytics, which I certainly trust no more than I trust Churchill, informs me that the average time per page on UR is four minutes. Which means either that our average reader is a faster reader than me, or that a lot of people are going “Hm,” and then skimming. Or both.)

Surprising as it may seem, there’s actually is an easy way to show that any new form of government Y is superior to today’s brand X. Simply present a convincing picture of Y, then present an egregious escalator by which Y devolves into X. An egregious escalator is a sequence of historical events, each of which is in some way egregious – demented, fraudulent, retarded, barbaric, predatory, psychopathic, or otherwise nasty – by which one thing turns into the other. Since no number of wrongs can make a right, X must be more egregious than Y, which makes Y superior to X.

Of course, we are making large, broad judgments here. It is impossible to entirely eliminate all forms of nastiness from every human affair. On the other hand, if you can’t just agree that Nazism and Communism were nasty, you must get water on the brain every time it rains. Any fool can keep an open mind. UR’s readers do not strike me as nonjudgmental people.

Also, the procedure above is a bit too direct for me. To avoid pressing political hotbuttons, and to make the argument more modular, I prefer to show that Y can devolve into Z, and Z is equivalent to X.

So we’ll start by showing that neocameralism can devolve, through a series of nasty steps, into a system called massarchy. Massarchy is of course our Z. But we will not spoil our suspense by considering it further.

Note that the steps in an egregious escalator need not be inevitable, or even plausible. They just need to be undesirable, ie, egregious. The only axiomatic assumption we have made so far is that nastiness obeys a total order – if B is more nasty than A and C is more nasty than B, C must be even more nasty than A. If you differ on this, we have different definitions of nasty – to say the least. And I must ask you to take with your nasty, and somewhere else click.

So, for example, if an egregious step is absolutely physically impossible, we don’t care at all. We can just introduce aliens into our Gedankenexperiment. They can fly in on their big silver Frisbees and fuck all kinds of random shit up.

Let’s start with my ideal world – the world of thousands, preferably even tens of thousands, of neocameralist city-states and ministates, or neostates. The organizations which own and operate these neostates are for-profit sovereign corporations, or sovcorps. For the moment, let’s assume a one-to-one mapping between sovcorp and neostate.

Let’s pin down the neocameralist dramatis personae by identifying the people who work for a sovcorp as its agents, the people or organizations which collectively own it as its subscribers, and the people who live in its neostate as its residents. Secondary corporations which it sponsors are its subcorps. Nonprofit organizations which operate with its permission are its suborgs. Illegal organizations are illorgs.

Residents fit into two classes: patron and dependent. Dependents are not legally responsible, and are under the authority of their patrons. There is no dependent without patron, although subcorps or suborgs may act as patrons. The neocameralist state is not a charitable organization, but it has no reason not to tolerate a genuinely apolitical charity.

Since patrons generally act in place of their dependents, we need not consider the latter from a political perspective. So any politically relevant person P, with respect to any sovcorp S, can be marked or unmarked with three bits of state: subscriber, agent, patron.

For example, it is generally unhealthy to have a large quantity of patron-subscriber overlap. When a sovcorp’s patrons and subscribers are the same people, the conflict of interest is inherent. Actions which harm most or all subscribers may turn out to benefit some or many patrons. Do you want to go there? You don’t. (But perhaps we’ll see what happens if you do.)

Every patch of land on the planet has a primary owner, which is its sovcorp. Typically, these owners will be large, impersonal corporations. We call them sovcorps because they’re sovereign. You are sovereign if you have the power to render any plausible attack on your primary property, by any other sovereign power, unprofitable. In other words, you maintain general deterrence.

(Sovereignty is a flat, peer-to-peer relationship by definition. The concept of hierarchical sovereignty is a contradiction in terms. More on this in a minute.)

The business of a sovcorp is to make money by deterring aggression. Since human aggression is a serious problem, preventing it should be a good business. Moreover, the existence of unprofitable governments in your vicinity is serious cause for concern, because unprofitable governments tend to have strange decision structures and do weird, dangerous things.

(Nuclear deterrence (mutual assured destruction) is only one small class of deterrent designs. To deter is to render predictably unprofitable. Predictably unprofitable violence is irrational. Irrational violence is certainly not unheard of. But it is much, much rarer than you may think. Most of the violence in the world today is quite rational, IMHO.)

General deterrence is a complex topic which deserves its own post. For the moment, assume that every square inch of the planet’s surface is formally owned by some sovcorp, that no one disagrees on the borders, and that deterrence between sovcorps is absolute.

This does not solve the problem of constructing a stable sovcorp. The central problem of governance is the old Latin riddle: who guards the guardians? The joint-stock corporate design solves the central problem by entrusting guardianship in the collective decisions of the corporation’s owners, voting not by head but by percentage of profit received.

The joint-stock model is hundreds of years old. It is as proven as proven can be. Anyone who questions its potency in producing profit and annihilating waste and graft might as well believe in the international Jewish conspiracy while they’re at it. (I mean, anyone can be a world socialist. Isn’t it much cooler to be a National Socialist? Did you ever know anyone who got kicked out of high school for believing in the UN?)

However, in the sovereign context, the corporate joint-stock ownership and decision structure faces serious challenges which do not exist for a conventional secondary corporation.

In the conventional secondary corporation, the control of the owners is unchallenged and unchallengeable, at least as long as the sovereign’s rule of corporate law is functioning properly. The corporation is incorporated under the oversight of a sovereign protector, or sponsor. This is what makes it a secondary corporation.

The sponsor of a secondary corporation manages the relationship between owners and directors, and directors and managers. The ideal sponsor does not tolerate any hanky-panky in these relationships, and nor does it insert its own weird ideas about how the company ought to be run. The owners are in absolute control of the directors, the directors are in absolute control of the managers, period.

In a properly sponsored corporation, whatever the details of its organizational structure, authority flows in one direction. It does not go around and around in a big tangle, it does not reverse its course like a tidal river or a broken sewage valve, it certainly does not ferment in big lagoons like industrial pig waste.

No. Not just in a properly sponsored corporation, but in any healthy corporation, primary or secondary, power flows down and profit flows up, and this flow never stops in either direction. Think of the two paths as xylem and phloem, arteries and veins, water and sewer, etc, etc.

As Bernard Bailyn points out in one of his footnotes, classical political thought concurred in considering imperio in imperium, ie, internal subauthorities powerful enough to resist or even control the center, a political solecism. In case you are not too special to have ever worked in a cube, you are probably aware that imperio in imperium is a solecism in Powerpointia as well. One small difficulty, however, is that imperio in imperium means basically the same thing as separation of powers. Hm.

Internal management in modern Western corporations is pretty good. At least by the standards of modern government, imperio in imperium is nonexistent. (It should not be confused with the normal practice of internal accounting, which does not in any way conflict with an absolute central authority and a single set of books.)

In a secondary corporation, external management – the top two layers, shareholder to director and director to executive – are and must be regulated, or at least overseen, by the sovereign sponsor. As one might expect, external management these days is not as healthy as its internal counterpart. Boards are infested with inside directors, voting is intentionally obfuscated, CEOs and CFOs often manage to cheat shareholders. While I am hardly an expert in the subject, from my casual standpoint it doesn’t look like American corporate law and governance deserves any grade above a C. Perhaps some commenters will beg to differ.

Still, the US is almost certainly the most efficient, least corrupt sovereign sponsor in the world today. Wall Street has one regulatory mechanism which actually works, and forces managers to act in the interest of investors. This is the takeover. One can separate sponsors into those which generally allow takeovers, and those which generally don’t. As a very broad statement, the latter are not to be trusted. And America is the original home of the takeover.

In the context of sovcorps, the idea of a takeover starts to sound suspiciously like violence. Which we thought we had eradicated, permanently, for good. But violence is hard to eradicate. If you suspect that you may not have gotten rid of it, you probably haven’t. So it’s worth taking another look at the fascinating problem of sovereign corporate governance.

Briefly, there are two options for sovcorp governance on a neocameralist patchwork planet. One is cross-listing and the other is cryptogovernance. In cross-listing, sovcorps list on each other’s secondary exchanges, taking great care to select only the most reputable sponsors, and demanding a backdoor in which they can switch sponsors at the slightest hint of weirdness.

Cross-listing can probably be made to work. However, it is dangerous as a single line of defence. For an ideal sovcorp, it should be combined with some degree of cryptogovernance.

Cryptogovernance is any system of corporate government in which all formal decisions are endorsed and verified cryptographically. A sponsor can still be very useful for cryptogovernance, but it is not required. Shareholders in a cryptogoverned corporation – known as subscribers – use private keys to sign their contributions to its governance. They may or may not be anonymous, depending on the corporation’s rules.

If you are an American, have you ever wondered what the letters SA, or similar, which you see all the time in the names of European companies, mean? They mean “anonymous society.” If this strikes you as weird, it shouldn’t.

(Unfortunately, in the wonderful real world of today, anything even remotely resembling anonymous cryptogovernance is known as “money laundering” by our friends in Washington. Therefore, I do not recommend you run out and try it. If you do, you certainly should not use real money. The first rule of the successful reactionary: never annoy authority.)

The neat thing about cryptographic government (which is actually much easier than it sounds – we’re talking a few thousand lines of code, max) is that it can be connected directly to the sovcorp’s second line of defense: a cryptographically-controlled military.

Cryptographic weapons control, in the form of permissive action links, is already used for the world’s most powerful weapons. However, there is nothing in principle preventing it from being extended down to small arms – for example, with a radio activation code transmitted over a mesh network. Military formations loyal to the CEO will find that their weapons work. Rebel formations will find that theirs don’t. The outcome is obvious. Moreover, the neocameralist state has no incentive to deal kindly with traitors, so there is no way for an attacker to repeatedly probe the system’s weaknesses.

The one difficulty with cryptographic weapons control is that it fails, and devolves into simple military rule, if the authorization keys are kept anywhere near the weapons. Weaponholders can gather unlocked or noncryptographic weapons secretly, and use them to arrest the keyholders – for example, the directors of the sovcorp.

The solution is simple: keep the sovcorp’s directors, or whoever has ultimate control of the highest grade of military keys, outside the sovcorp’s neostate. Even if the CEO himself rebels, along with all of his subordinates, any formation loyal to the directors can defeat them. The result is internal military stability.

This result does depend on the planetary neocameralist patchwork. If this degrades, perhaps thanks to mergers and acquisitions, into a few giant megasovcorps, it will be at risk. How does the neocameralist patchwork avoid this horrendous fate?

One way is for subscriber covenants to prohibit chain states, or suspicious combinations of shares that might result in a chain state. However, since in a cryptogoverned state the subscribers hold absolute power, they cannot be forced to obey these covenants. They can sell every share in the sovcorp to Google if they like. Leading to a terrifying new era of permanent global Googocracy. Yikes! Me not like so much.

The solution here is the patrons. The key is that the less monopoly power a sovcorp holds, the more it has to fear competition, and the lower its primary rents (“taxes”) will be. In other words, if its patrons do not have the practical option of switching to a competitor, it will be possible to extract more money from them.

(A rational monopoly neostate still has no motivation to personally abuse its patrons. It would always rather tax than abuse, and why not just forget the abuse altogether? And once you do this, all you have is a baroque tax structure, which is abusive in itself. So this will go as well. Of course, if some patron is causing a security problem, abuse is assured.)

Therefore, just as patrons prefer a neostate which maintains the rule of law and does not make sudden, unexpected demands on their person, they will prefer a neostate that requires its subscribers to show that they are individual private investors who are not residents. If the sovcorp fails to enforce this restriction, it will be treated like any neostate in which a breach of legality occurs – instant real-estate price collapse. (No, not every resident needs to flee with children and suitcases for the sovcorp’s subscribers to taste the pain. There is pretty much no way to spin a collapse in the price of your only capital asset as management success.)

This covenant effectively acts as a poison-pill defense, preventing acquisitions friendly or hostile. A truly hostile attacker, who uses fronts to purchase shares, will find that the value of the purchased business is much lower than the price paid, because the acquisition is illegal by the neostate’s own internal law. So the mechanism requires no external enforcement. It works by deterrence, like any other effective defense.

The cost of the covenant is that, since it eliminates the takeover as a guarantee of effective governance, it requires active participation of the subscribers in corporate control. Of course, the subscribers will probably find it desirable to nominate independent proxies. Aside from takeovers, proxy voting does not really work in any corporate governance system in the world today, but I feel this just reflects incompetent regulation on the part of sponsors. It could work, it should work, and in the absence of takeovers, subscribers will have an incentive to make it work.

So we have constructed what I think is a reasonably convincing stable sovcorp, and by extension a stable design for a planetary patchwork of sovcorps. There are still a few little loopholes we have not covered, but hopefully the commenters can describe them.

Now let’s break one of our neostates – call it “New Frisco” – and try to make it into a massarchy. Whatever that is.

The first step is simple. The CEO of New Frisco’s sovcorp, Friscorp, manages to find some way to hack the directors’ keys. As a result, she becomes an absolute monarch – not CEO, but Queen of New Frisco. Friscorp, it is her. She unifies ownership and control in a single person. No leader in the English-speaking tradition has been this powerful since Elizabeth I. At least.

If the Queen is acting in her own best interest, she will end the experiment here. She is now the sole subscriber of her own sovcorp. She is also the sole director. The original subscribers have been thoroughly pwned by her egregious hack, whatever that may be (perhaps the aliens helped). They now have no role to play. They can curl up in a ball and cry. Waah.

Therefore, the Queen’s best decision is to sell New Frisco to a new set of subscribers, using the usual IPO process. As part of any such IPO, she will almost certainly have to resign. She is not exactly what you’d call trustworthy. Would you hire her? I wouldn’t hire her. And hopefully this new sovcorp, which to honor the utter blandness of government in the neocameralist era we’ll call Nextcorp, will come with a new set of encryption routines.

However, she does not do this. This is not because she is acting in her own best financial interest. This is because she is an ironclad bitch and she loves power, and no amount of cash can substitute, in her own personal opinion, for the sheer awesomeness of being Queen of New Frisco. I mean, it’s not like she’s short of money, anyway.

However, the Queen fails to notice something else, which is that the encryption keys that control her military are compromised. Just as she hacked the directors, her generals hack her. They cannot obtain the keys, but they can break the system so that no keys are needed to operate their weapons. While no other neostate in the world will allow the sale of more weapons to a failed neostate whose military control framework has broken down, the generals of New Frisco have all the weapons they need for the moment. They certainly have enough to arrest the Queen and have her shot at once, which they do. New Frisco is getting ugly.

The generals are now in command. New Frisco becomes a classical military despotism. Probably at this point it becomes difficult for patrons to leave New Frisco. It certainly becomes difficult for them to leave with all their assets.

In theory, it is possible for normal social existence and economic activity to continue in a basically normal way under a classical military despotism. Portugal under Salazar, Spain under Franco, Mexico in the Porfiriato are all good examples. Military rule, or militarchy, is still one of the closest governmental forms to neocameralism, and if there was such a thing as a stable militarchy it would be quite satisfactory.

However, militarchy is not stable. The problem is that the generals can only rule for as long as the soldiers are willing to follow them. And also there is the question: which generals?

The difference between militarchy and neocameralism is that militarchy is informal. The only way to know who the soldiers will follow is to have a coup and see what happens. Ambiguity of power raises its ugly, ugly head.

If they are acting in their best interests, therefore, the generals will do what the Queen should have done, and get out while the getting is good. They should construct a new subscriber structure by issuing shares, probably pro-rated by rank, to the entire military. The military can then sell those shares, probably gradually over time, and neocameralism reasserts itself.

However, they do not do this. Perhaps they are ignorant, or pigheaded, or something. These conditions have certainly been noted in military men. So the egregiousness continues.

The generals therefore take the second best option, and convert their militarchy into an oligarchy. The present government of China is an excellent example of an oligarchy. An oligarchy is an informal system of government in which militarchy has broadened to include all influential individuals in the state. When soldiers govern, the distinction between soldiers and administrators disappear. The oligarchical system of sovereignty works by convincing potential leaders that they are more likely to succeed by staying in the tent, rather than outside of it. Any one-party state is essentially an oligarchy.

In its modern form, at least, an oligarchy tends to take the form of a hierarchical pyramid with not one leader, but a committee, council or parliament, at the top. Like all governments, it distributes its profits in the form of power and money. Some people like power, some prefer money. You certainly cannot buy the former with the latter – at least, it is never a simple transaction.

Everyone in a oligarchy is always jockeying for position. The informal personal conflicts within an oligarchy can often be poisonous, but at least they are political only in the sense of “office politics.” That is, they do not involve the banner-waving tropes of mass politics. So oligarchies, too, can be quite satisfactory places to live and work.

All of today’s governments, whether proto-neocameralist such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai, or post-democratic as in the US and Europe, contain significant oligarchical elements. That is, their decisions are affected by many people who often have no formal decision-making position, or whose formal position inadequately describes their real influence.

For example, the Western bureaucratic system operates under the delusion that there is some distinction between “political” and “nonpartisan” government. The latter can therefore be conducted by permanent officials who are unaffected by elections, as well as by NGOs which are not even formally part of the state. As long as the system can sustain the illusion that the political officials are making all the real decisions, and the nonpartisan ones are only carrying out technical directives, the present Western model combines some of the political advantages of massarchy with some of the administrative advantages of oligarchy.

Massarchy becomes necessary because oligarchy is unstable. Once we enter the oligarchical phase, it become clear to everyone anywhere near New Frisco that its power base (which would be its subscriber base, if formality had not broken down) is expanding at a rapid and uncontrollable speed. Therefore, the patrons start to get in on the action. They are, after all, right there. And they are no more noble than anyone else.

Massarchy is any system of government in which those who hold power are confirmed by the allegiance of the masses, or at least some segment of them. Political power is always hierarchical, and political leaders and factions always gain power by building a critical mass of supporters, or clients. The rise of massarchy under the Gracchi marked the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic.

An interesting question is why, considering the ineffectiveness of unprofessional mobs in combat against professional soldiers – especially in the modern military era, but the profession of soldier is hardly new – popular mass is at all relevant. Why does it matter who has the biggest mob? Doesn’t it just boil down to who has more divisions?

It doesn’t. And the reason it doesn’t is that soldiers don’t just follow their generals. They tend to have personal connections in one mob faction or another. Thus, the size of the mob indicates the number of divisions who are likely to agree with it. Soldiers, like everyone else, want to be on the winning team, so the headcount of the mob becomes a Schelling point.

Massarchy is best defined as a system of government in which the opinions of residents are captured and controlled by one or more political factions. One easy way to capture a resident’s opinion is to dangle the possibility of plunder generated by political cooperation. Especially when said plunder is distributed in the form of both power and wealth – for example, in the form of government jobs – opinion, responding to the great human capacity for flexible self-interest, will swing in its favor.

The inevitable consequence of massarchy, therefore, is a strange systematic distortion of popular opinion, in which residents (perhaps at this point we had better call them citizens) adopt not those theories of government and society which are most accurate, but those which are most likely to win power. These tend to be those theories which tend toward expanding the State, increasing its revenue and authority, etc.

In a massarchy, expansive theories of the State tend to prevail over contractive theories, through the natural process of political entrepreneurship. If you are a leading supporter of an an expansive theory of government and your faction gains power, you are likely to get a job out of it. If your faction holds contractive theories and it wins, there are more likely to be layoffs. Thus, if the probability of victory is equal, you are always better off joining the expansive forces. Thus expansive forces tend to win, another good reason to join them.

Remarkable as this may sound, massarchy demands that every adult citizen of a state support some political faction and maintain some theory of government. You can eat cheese, you can even be a connoisseur of cheese, without knowing anything about how cheese is made, having some opinion of who should and should not be making your cheese, etc, etc. In a massarchy, everyone is expected to be a cheesemeister. If they fail at this task, the result is bad cheese. Fortunately, most of today’s massarchies do not actually inflict government cheese on most of their citizens, but the fate is not difficult to imagine.

It is only natural that in a massarchy the most influential individuals become those who influence public opinion. The course of future decisions in a massarchy will be set by its journalists and professors. Those who wish to “change the world,” ie, exercise power, will aspire most to these roles.

The aphorism that academic politics is “so bitter, because the stakes are so small” is an easy misapprehension of this situation. Actually, academic politics is the most important thing in the world. In policy debates in a massarchy, the only card that trumps Popular Opinion is Science, and this card is not infrequently played. Massarchy corrupts science just as it corrupts popular opinion: by favoring the victory of views which lead to more expansive programs of government, regardless of their accuracy.

Massarchies also seem to develop large extra-governmental agencies which are not formally part of the State, but nonetheless are influential in setting policy. In the early phases of a massarchy, formal administrators can exercise enormous amounts of power. However, this attracts the jealousy of other administrators. The compromise is often to adopt a formal process by which decisions are made. The result of the process is typically determined by extra-governmental players which succeed in presenting themselves as impartial experts.

The modern massarchy senses public opinion largely through the mechanism of polling, ie, random sampling of its residents’ opinions. Before polling was technically practical, it relied on the more primitive system of periodic elections. Officials produced by these elections still exist, and are often still relatively influential. However, for obvious reasons, they are only in a position to influence policy for such time as polls confirm their popularity.

In future, periodically elected politicians in a massarchy will probably become completely symbolic, as they largely have in the EU. Polling is quite sufficient for a stable massarchy, and much less subject to strange feedback effects. The State simply has to be able to track the polls and not deviate too far from them, or its security will be at risk.

Fortunately, since the State controls its citizens’ education in a massarchy, its risk of losing control over public opinion is minimal. Massarchies can thus be relatively stable for long periods of time. However, they tend to deteriorate over time, due to the permanent “leftward” bias that favors expansive over contractive theories of government. And if the State does lose control over the mass mind, an accident which can happen due to the extremely low and continually degenerating quality of government that massarchy provides, it can degenerate into the only worse form of government, brutarchy.

A brutarchy is a massarchy in which public opinion is not merely molded by “education,” but actually compelled by brute force. In this extremely nasty and unstable structure, public opinion turns against the State, and its system of indoctrination is not sufficient to turn it back. The residents are permanently disenchanted.

However, because violence prevents them from expressing their actual opinion on the nature of the State, residents of a brutarchy can never be absolutely sure that most other residents of the brutarchy agree with them. Their collective opinion remains unknown and cannot be verified. It is thus of no military significance. The security forces, which typically include a substantial plainclothes contingent, remain in power. When this situation breaks down (one recalls the East German crowds chanting Wir sind das Volk!), the brutarchy falls.

Note the considerable difference between a militarchy and a brutarchy. It is easy to confuse these forms, but it is also unforgivable. A militarchy, whose political power is unquestionably rooted in the barrel of the gun, need not bother itself with propaganda. It need not care what its residents think. As the Duke of Wellington put it: pour la canaille, il faut la mitraille. (Note that mitraille means grapeshot – a machine gun is la mitrailleuse, a later invention, but one which I’m sure would have delighted the Duke even more.)

A brutarchy knows that if its soldiers ever learn that its residents despise it, they will refuse to shoot into the mob and instead overthrow the regime. Thus, the difference between militarchy and brutarchy is the loyalty of the army. In a militarchy, the army’s loyalty is to the regime, the Leader, the junta, or even just the military itself. In a brutarchy, the army is loyal to the People – a cult which your average militarchy works very, very hard to discourage.

Brutarchy is nasty not only because it does nasty things, but also because it is very difficult for anyone in a brutarchy – even the nominal leader or leaders – to defuse and rewind back toward a healthy neocameralist model. The trope in which more expansive theories of the State tend to defeat less expansive ones does not lose its power with the transition from massarchy to brutarchy. These theories tend to simply detach from reality, and the mental world of a brutarchy is a world of lies and delusions, even more than in a massarchy. Returning to stable government without some kind of violent upheaval becomes almost impossible.

To me, at least, the most perverse fact about massarchies (including brutarchies) is simply that the first distortion they must bring their residents to believe, whether by “education” or by compulsion, is that massarchy is the optimal form of government. A massarchy which fails in this task is not stable. It remains after all a massarchy, and its residents will terminate it.

We have yet to demonstrate that this “massarchy” thing is the same form of government that most of us were brought up to call democracy. But this post is getting long. And perhaps readers find the point obvious and uncontroversial. If not, I hope they will say so…

Why I am not a libertarian

December 13, 2007

Fear not, gentle reader. Perhaps you have been linked to this essay quite casually, purely on the basis of its catchy title, and you are expecting one of those little chatty NPRish pieces that explain quite patiently to you, as to a retarded child, that libertarians are evil and the New Deal was the best thing since sliced bread.

This is not one of those essays. UR is, in fact, an extremist blog. Here at UR, we do our damnedest to have no concern whatsoever for the political fashions of 2007. One easy way to “overcome” this bias is to compare one’s opinions not only to the fashions of 2007, but also of 1907. Or even 1807. Or even perhaps 1707. Or, what the heck, 7.

This ancient algorithm, once known by the cute Latin name of sub specie aeternitatis, is guaranteed to produce extremist results. If our views conformed perfectly to the fashions of 2007, they would strike the fashionable citizens of any of these other timepoints as crazed. (Of course, the same is true for 1907, or 1707, or 7.)

If you are a libertarian, you are already resigned to the fact that most fashionable people think of you as a nutcase. Today we are going to ask you to crawl a little farther out on that limb, and suggest that you replace your libertarian views with thoughts that are even more extreme.

If you are not a libertarian, and if this sub specie aeternitatis thing strikes you as somehow dubious or shady, I feel no hesitation in informing you with absolute confidence that the common concept of progress, which perhaps you are operating under, is a lie and a delusion and a snare. At least inasmuch as that term applies to the problem of human government, and not physics, oil painting, or backgammon. There is no reason to think the political designs of 2007 are any better than those of 1907, 1807, or 7. In fact, there is quite a bit of reason to think that the truth is just the opposite.

If you really do believe in progress, I’m sorry to have to inform you that your brain is full of little pockets of stringy black mycelium stuff, which will probably have to be cleaned out with the heavy brush. I do sympathize with your condition. It is one we have all suffered from. In fact, we probably all still have it. However, you have a very serious case and you will probably not be able to enjoy this here essay. Please feel free to browse elsewhere on the site.

In other words, today’s post is for people who either are, or at least have been, or at least have been tempted to become, libertarians. To be a libertarian is to at least suspect that progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, because it is obvious to any twelve-year-old who can read Robert A. Heinlein that the world was once much more libertarian than it is now, and that it easily could become so again. Both of these conditions demonstrate nonmonotonic political change, invalidating the delusional concept of progress.

Surely only one such disproof is required before we feel motivated to perform a thorough mental audit of all historical changes in social and political systems which come to us tagged with this fascinating if deadly label.

One concept often associated with progress is revolution. Various fashionable opinions of 2007 assign various moral valences to various instances of revolution. The word is clearly extremely general. However, if we are to rid ourselves of these fashions, one simple way to start is with a simple default: all revolutions are bad.

Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found this default oddly compelling. So, for example, I see the French Revolution as a criminal outrage of the mob, led by leaders who were either unscrupulous, deluded, or both. I see the Russian Revolution as a criminal outrage of the mob, led by leaders who were either unscrupulous, deluded, or both. Perhaps you agree with only one of these conclusions. Perhaps you agree with both. But if you had to add a third revolution to this set, which one would it be?

And this is the first reason I am not a libertarian. Libertarianism is, more or less, basically, the ideology of the American Revolution. And the American Revolution was, in my own personal opinion, more or less, basically, a criminal outrage of the mob – led by leaders who were either unscrupulous, deluded, or both.

(I will grant that if I had to pick any mob leaders in history, I would probably pick Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton, although Caesar, Cicero and either Cato would certainly earn a draft choice somewhere. However, a politician is a politician. The profession is a fundamentally criminal one. (I’m sure James Gandolfini would do a perfectly good job at it.))

If you have trouble swallowing this ubercynical picture of the American Revolution, let me recommend two books. The first is Murray Rothbard’s great four-volume Conceived in Liberty, now available online. (It is really a tragedy that the fifth volume, which would have taken us to the Constitution, was never finished.) The second is Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which sadly is only sold in stores.

Rothbard is surely one of the ten top philosophers of the twentieth century. Besides being more or less the founder of modern American political libertarianism, besides being the acknowledged dean of the Austrian School of economics, he was also a world-class historian, trained under Joseph Dorfman at Columbia. Conceived in Liberty is full of primary research and original interpretations. Its portrait of George Washington as a bumbling buffoon, for example, may be challenged. But it is neither unsupported nor unmemorable.

And one thing you will see in Rothbard – though Rothbard tends to paint incidents such as Leisler’s Rebellion in a suspiciously golden light – is the importance of mob violence and paramilitary armed gangs in American political history. Not just in the Revolution, but throughout the colonial period.

My general view of CIL, achievement though it is, is that it works a little too hard to emphasize the prevalence of colonial ideas which approximate modern libertarianism, understating strands that are more clearly ancestral to socialism and other statisms. But when you combine Rothbard with Bailyn, a mainstream historian of considerable renown, the result is damning.

Ideological Origins, which appeared in 1967, won both the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes. It is absolutely impossible to infer any opinions that Bailyn may hold from this carefully crafted book, a feat I consider perverse but still must admire. Its history, however, is beyond reproach and it is generally considered seminal.

What Bailyn shows us is that the rebels in the American Revolution were motivated by an ideology that was utterly deluded, that amounted to no more than a wacky conspiracy theory. The point is not even slightly arguable. Their interpretation of British politics simply had no basis in reality.

Since this delusional interpretation was the linchpin of their argument for rebellion, and since their reliance on street violence and paramilitary formations is indisputable, they can fairly be classed as unscrupulous or deluded mob leaders – regardless of any classification in the scruples department, a historical task which often verges on the impossible. (Especially diligent readers may enjoy Frederick Scott Oliver’s Alexander Hamilton: An Essay on American Union, with its wonderful portrait of Thomas Jefferson as a scoundrel.)

I’ll let Bailyn tell the story. From his foreword:

This book has developed from a study that was first undertaken a number of years ago, when Howard Mumford Jones, then Editor-in-Chief of the John Harvard Library, invited me to prepare a collection of pamphlets of the American Revolution for publication in that series. Like all students of American history I knew well perhaps a half dozen of the most famous pamphlets of the Revolution, obviously worth republication, and I knew also of others, another half dozen or so, that would probably be worth considering. The project was attractive to me, it did not appear to be particularly burdensome, and since in addition it was related to a book I was then preparing on eighteenth-century politics, I agreed to undertake it.

The starting point of the work was the compilation of a complete bibliography of the pamphlets. This alone proved to be a considerable task, and it was in assembling this list that I discovered the magnitude of the project I had embarked on. The full bibliography of pamphlets relating to the Anglo-American struggle published in the colonies through the year 1776 contains not a dozen or so items but over four hundred; in the end I concluded that no fewer than seventy-two of them ought to be republished. But sheer numbers were not the most important measure of the magnitude of the project. The pamphlets include all sorts of writings – treatises on political theory, essays on history, political arguments, sermons, correspondence, poems – and they display all sorts of literary devices. But for all their variety they have in common one distinctive characteristic: they are, to an unusual degree, explanatory. They reveal not merely positions but the reasons why positions were taken; they reveal motive and understanding: the assumptions, beliefs and ideas – the articulated world view – that lay behind the manifest events of the time. As a result I found myself, as I read through these many documents, studying not simply a particular medium of publication but, through these documents, nothing less than the ideological origins of the American Revolution. And I found myself viewing these origins with surprise, for the “interior” view, from the vantage point of the pamphlets, was different from what I had expected. The task, consequently, took on increasing excitement, for much of the history of the American Revolution has fallen into the condition that overtakes so many of the great events of the past; it is, as Professor Trevor-Roper has written in another connection, taken for granted: “By our explanations, interpretations, assumptions we gradually make it seem automatic, natural, inevitable; we remove from it the sense of wonder, the unpredictability, and therefore the freshness it ought to have.”
[…]
The pamphlets do reveal the influence of Enlightenment thought, and they do show the effective force of certain religious ideas, of the common law, and also of classical literature; but they reveal most significantly the close integration of these elements in a pattern of, to me at least, surprising design – surprising because of the prominence in it of still another tradition, interwoven with, yet still distinct from, these more familiar strands of thought. This distinctive influence had been transmitted most directly to the colonists by a group of early eighteenth-century radical publicists and opposition politicians in England who carried forth into the eighteenth century and applied to the politics of the age of Walpole the peculiar strain of anti-authoritarianism bred in the upheaval of the English Civil War.
[…]
I began to see a new meaning in phrases that I, like most historians, had readily dismissed as mere rhetoric and propaganda: “slavery,” “corruption,” “conspiracy.” These inflammatory words were used so forcefully by writers of so great a variety of social statuses, political positions, and religious persuasions; they fitted so logically into the pattern of radical and opposition thought; and they reflected so clearly the realities of an age in which monarchical autocracy flourished, in which the stability and freedom of England’s “mixed” constitution was a recent and remarkable achievement, and in which the fear of conspiracy against constituted authority was built into the very structure of politics, that I began to suspect that they meant something very real to both the writers and their readers; that there were real fears, real anxieties, a sense of real danger behind these phrases, and not merely the desire to influence by rhetoric and propaganda the inert minds of an otherwise passive populace. The more I read, the less useful, it seemed to me, was the whole idea of propaganda in its modern meaning when applied to the writings of the American Revolution – a view that I hope to develop at length on another occasion. In the end I was convinced that the fear of a comprehensive conspiracy against liberty throughout the English-speaking world – a conspiracy believed to have been nourished in corruption, and of which, it was felt, oppression in America was only the most immediately visible part – lay at the heart of the Revolutionary movement.

Note how gracefully Bailyn skates over the fact that (indisputably) no such conspiracy existed. In other words, our Founding Fathers were more or less the Troofers of their day. Or, to put it differently, America obtained its independence because of a war that was started by people who were genuinely terrified of the 18th-century equivalent of black helicopters.

From a later chapter (p. 94):

It is the meaning imparted to the events after 1763 by this integrated group of attitudes and ideas that lies behind the colonists’ rebellion. In the context of these ideas, the controversial issues centering on the question of Parliament’s jurisdiction in America acquired as a group new and overwhelming significance. The colonists believed they saw emerging from the welter of events during the decade after the Stamp Act a pattern whose meaning was unmistakable. They saw in the measures taken by the British government and in the actions of officials in the colonies something which their peculiar inheritance of thought had prepared them for only too well, something they had long conceived to be a possibility in view of the known tendencies of history and of the present state of affairs in England. They saw about them, with increasing clarity, not merely mistaken, or even evil, policies violating the principles on which freedom rested, but what appeared to be evidence of nothing less than a deliberate assault launched surreptitiously by plotters against liberty both in England and in America. The danger to America, it was believed, was in fact only the small, immediately visible part of the greater whole whose ultimate manifestation would be the destruction of the English constitution, with all the rights and privileges embedded in it.

This belief transformed the meaning of the colonists’ struggle, and it added an inner accelerator to the movement of opposition. For, once assumed, it could not be easily dispelled: denial only confirmed it, since what conspirators profess is not what they believe; the ostensible is not the real; and the real is deliberately malign.

It was this – the overwhelming evidence, as they saw it, that they were faced with conspirators against liberty determined at all costs to gain ends which their words dissembled – that was signalled to the colonists after 1763, and it was this above all else that in the end propelled them into Revolution.

Suspicion that the ever-present, latent danger of an active conspiracy of power against liberty was becoming manifest within the British Empire, assuming specific form and developing in coordinated phases, rose in the consciousness of a large segment of the American people before any of the famous political events of the struggle with England took place. No adherent of a nonconformist church or sect in the eighteenth century was free from suspicion that the Church of England, an arm of the English state, was working to bring all subjects of the crown into the community of the Church; and since toleration was official and nonconformist influence in English politics formidable, it was doing so by stealth, disguising its efforts, turning to improper uses devices that had been created for benign purposes. In particular, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in English Parts, an arm of the Church created in 1701 to aid in bringing the Gospel to the pagan Indians, was said by 1763 to have “long had a formal design to root out Presbyterianism, etc., and to establishing both episcopacy and bishops.”

This suspicion, which had smoldered in the breasts of New Englanders and nonconformists throughout the colonies for half a century or more, had burst into flame repeatedly, but never so violently as in 1763, in the Mayhew-Apthorp controversy which climaxed years of growing anxiety that plans were being made secretly to establish an American episcopate. To Mayhew, as to Presbyterian and Congregational leaders throughout the colonies, there could be little doubt that the threat was real. Many of the facts were known, facts concerning maneuvers in London and in America. Anglican leaders in New York and New Jersey had met almost publicly to petition England for an American episcopate, and there could be little doubt also of the role of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in this undercover operation. For if the ostensible goal of the Society was the gospelizing of the pagan Indians and Negroes, its true goal was manifestly revealed when it established missions in places like Cambridge, Massachusetts, which had not had a resident Indian since the seventeenth century and was well equipped with “orthodox” preachers. Such missions, Mayhew wrote, have “all the appearance of entering wedges… carrying on the crusade, or spiritual siege of our churches, with the hope that they will one day submit to to an episcopal sovereign.” Bishops, he wrote unblinkingly in reply to the Archbishop of Canterbury, have commonly been instruments in arbitrary reigns of “establishing a tyranny over the bodies and souls of men,” and their establishment in America would mark the end of liberty in Massachusetts and elsewhere. By 1765, when the final exchanges in this pamphlet war were published, it was commonly understood in New England and elsewhere that “the stamping and episcopizing [of] our colonies were… only different branches of the same plan of power.”

Etc, etc, etc. And this is only the beginning – the plot goes far beyond “episcopizing.” If you enjoy this sort of badinage, the book is available cheaply. It’s really quite a study in abnormal political psychology.

Here is a diary entry from someone who didn’t buy it:

That this was the issue, for thoughtful and informed people, on which decisions of loyalty to the government turned is nowhere so clearly and sensitively revealed as in the record Peter van Schaack left of his tormented meditations of January, 1776. A wellborn, scholarly and articulate New Yorker of 29 who prepared himself for deciding the question of his personal loyalty by undertaking in seclusion a critical examination of the works of Locke, Vattel, Montesquieu, Grotius, Beccaria, and Pufendorf, he noted first his fear of the destructive consequences of conceding Parliament’s right to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever. That danger, he wrote, was perfectly clear. “But my difficulty arises from this,” he said:

that taking the whole of the acts complained of together, they do not, I think, manifest a system of slavery, but may fairly be imputed to human frailty and the difficulty of the subject. Most of them seem to have sprung out of particular occasions, and are unconnected with each other… In sort, I think those acts may have been passed without a preconceived plan of enslaving us, and it appears to me that the more favorable construction ought to ever to be put in the conduct of our rulers.

(I feel the same way about the Jews, myself.)

Now van Schaack was, of course, a Tory. Or as he no doubt would have preferred, Loyalist. Now, if we update the conflict between Patriots and Loyalist to 2007 and look at our present bilaterally-symmetric political system, which side is the descendant of the Patriots, and which is the descendant of the Loyalists?

It’s a trick question, of course. The Loyalists have no political descendant. There is no American alive today whose loyalty to the British Crown was passed down to him in an unbroken chain from 18th-century Loyalists. You would be about as likely to find a native speaker of Etruscan. Both Democrats and Republicans are factions of Patriot.

And yet: the Loyalists were right. At least on this one rather important question. Britain was not on a path to a weird, 1984-like future with gold braids and epaulets, crushed under the iron heel of the King, the Church of England and the Lords. Rather, the power of throne and altar and fief in Britain had been dwindling almost monotonically since Mary Tudor – a process which of course has continued to this day.

(With a ridiculous figurehead Queen and an utterly gormless Prince of Wales, a True Leveller and soi-disant Druid as Archbishop of Canterbury, and a PM who apparently (I still have a hard time believing this one) has the power to arbitrarily hire and fire peers of the realm. What could be more humiliating for the lion and the unicorn? I’m afraid they have both been getting it in the ass from Uncle Sam. And not just since September 11, either.)

The Loyalists were right. And yet they have no intellectual descendants at all, not in the US and not anywhere else. At least from the point of view of their political DNA, they were simply obliterated – not unlike the Cavaliers, to whom their resemblance is more than passing. And in what folder does almost everyone alive file this event? I’m afraid that folder is progress.

For a libertarian, especially a paleolibertarian, correcting this historically-received fallacy of moral valence should be an obviously attractive option, because it allows us to assign all three of the great revolutions of the last 250 years to the same category: that of crazed, lawless violence. But unfortunately, once we reject the American Revolution, we must also disown the label of libertarian, as simply confusing. (I will suggest a couple of replacement labels in a moment. In the meantime, please feel free to just wander around with nothing on your shirt.)

Rejecting the American Revolution is especially problematic for a libertarian, because the great libertarian writers of the twentieth century – Rothbard, Rand and Nozick – all defined libertarianism as an ethical ideal. Probably the best rigorous one-book definition of the mainstream libertarian (or “anarcho-capitalist,” a term which has always struck me as utterly dorky) perspective is Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty.

EOL works very hard to define the moral principles that make libertarianism philosophically ineluctable. Needless to say, these principles are none other than the Lockean natural rights of the American Revolution. The theological roots of these “rights” are obvious (Rothbard may not have been a Christian, but Locke certainly was), and any suggestion that they are in some sense philosophically universal violates Hume’s is-ought principle.

Thus, libertarian principles cannot be logically justified except an appeal to the historical traditions that have descended to all Americans as received wisdom via the Patriot branch of the evolutionary tree. A libertarian, therefore, is fundamentally a conservative.

And if you admit that the Loyalists may have been right and the Patriots may have been a bunch of asshats, conservatism takes a heavy slash to the neck from Occam’s razor. Because a so-called “conservative” who is a Patriot – or even a supporter of the “Glorious Revolution” – is someone who believes in progress up to a certain point, but no further.

While such a position may indeed prove correct, there is certainly no reason to give it the benefit of the doubt. In fact, considering the length of time for which it has held that benefit, it probably should be treated as if it were a boiling radioactive vial of Ebola.

And this is the second reason I am not a libertarian: because, by defining libertarianism as an ethical imperative, libertarians assign themselves an unsolvable problem and proceed not to solve it. As the miracle of 1787 spirals into the abyss, as the need for some sane alternative grows ever more obvious, libertarianism as a political force has proved itself only slightly more effective than the Maharishi. And that’s in the US. In Europe, the situation is even worse. Perhaps there is a reason for this.

In my opinion, the practical problem with grounding libertarianism in the ideals of the American Revolution is that Americans no longer hold those ideals, and Europeans never did. Both, today, follow a moral code which is essentially socialist. It is true that this is the natural consequence of “education” at the hands of a government which is essentially socialist. It is also irrelevant. The consequence is the reality. You cannot explain to people that they ought to believe in, say, freedom of contract as a fundamental human right, when in fact they don’t. As Hume, again, pointed out, ethical axioms are not debatable.

The response of many libertarians, especially those who for some awful, unimaginable reason seem to have congregated in the watershed of the Potomac, is often to borrow a trick from the Fabian Society, and try to steer Washington gradually and moderately in the direction of smaller and freer government.

They should know better. As we’ll see shortly, the monotonic growth pattern of the State is not a coincidence. It is one thing to surf that wave. It is another to paddle out through the breaker. When we look at the results of 25 years of Beltway libertarianism, we see hardly any substantive policy achievements. I’m sure there are some. But I can’t think of any.

And when we compare even their most aggressive visions to the set of changes that a return to the literal text of the Constitution, let alone a Rothbardian anarchy, would involve, we see the essentially decorative nature of the Beltway libertarians. I’m sure they have a lot of fun trying. But inevitable failure is no service to any cause.

I mean, why in God’s name would anyone come to the conclusion that the US political system is in some sense reformable? Talk about the triumph of hope over experience. And all the energy, and money, and time, that the Beltway libertarians put into trying to apply a single smudge of lipstick to some flap of flesh in the remote vicinity of this hog’s maw is energy, and money, and time uninvested in putting the beast to sleep. Moreover, since the official story of Washington is that it represents everyone, it fits all sizes, it contains multitudes, a few decorative pseudolibertarians may be just the right camouflage for it to weather another century’s storms.

A quick question for fans of the Cato Institute, the George Mason economists, Reason, and the like: if you could vote on a proposition to abolish the US Federal Government, would you vote yes or no? If the latter, which side are you on? If the former, have you ever thought of mentioning this opinion?

So we arrive at an impasse. We find libertarianism attractive in a general sort of way. We feel, vaguely, that there is something fishy and awful about government, at least government as it is today. However, real libertarianism has no prospect of gaining a political foothold, and watered-down pseudolibertarianism defeats the purpose.

Perhaps I have dug deep enough in this rich seam of defeat and despair. But in case I haven’t, let’s observe that the United States once had a healthy and functioning libertarian Constitution, with Ninth and Tenth Amendments that were anything but inkblots. 220 years later, we have… what we have now. Does this inspire you with great confidence in limited government as a durable and effective engineering principle? Suppose, by some miracle, libertarians elect Ron Paul, and he actually succeeds in reforming Washington and restoring the 1787 interpretation of the Constitution. And how many years would this last? Why would we expect different results on the second go?

Unlike so many of their political heirs, the American Founders were (I believe) extremely thoughtful, discerning and scrupulous men. Their paranoid misunderstandings of British politics are best ascribed to cultural rather than personal factors. The engine they designed was a good effort, and it deserves at least some respect. But it was operating wildly outside their design envelope – consider the fate of the Electoral College – by at least 1800. The situation has hardly improved since then. And we want to go back to this?

The US, like Britain, has an unwritten constitution enforced by precedent and custom. The difference is that the US also has a written Constitution, which we pretend is identical to the actual thing. But to call the historically-accreted transformation from 1787 Constitution to 2007 constitutional law nontrivial is like saying it hurts when an elephant fucks you in the ass. It would be a fascinating exercise to actually write down what the Constitution would say if it actually described the structure of the US government today.

(Perhaps some law student should try it. Because this disparity between the written law and the judicially constructed reality certainly does no service to anyone, and it strikes me as much more straightforward to recognize the latter than to return to the former. If nothing else, formalization of the present reality is an excellent starting point for any kind of reform.)

So I hope I have presented a reasonable case that, while history is never to be disregarded, the dream of a return to the ideals or laws or values of late 18th-century postcolonial America is neither logically sound, historically justified, politically achievable, nor stably efficacious. Libertarianism, at least libertarianism as we know it, does not solve the problem it purports to address. Ergo, it is political Laetrile, different from all the other quack political remedies of the 20th century only in the sophistication of its appeal and the harmlessness of its efforts.

And this is the third reason I’m not a libertarian: because I’m an engineer. I find libertarian government an extremely desirable outcome. In just a second, we will look at other ways to achieve this outcome. However, as a moral imperative, or a political design, or a historical tradition, libertarianism does not strike me as an effective means to this end.

In this we can compare libertarianism to the peace movement. Both have buzzwords – liberty, peace – with incontestable positive valence. No one can be against liberty or against peace. However, what the actual “peace movement” has done is to associate this movement with a certain set of policies, which in practice translate (eg, in the Middle East) to a fairly aggressive brand of irredentism. They claim that if this irredentist program is fully and properly applied, the result will be peace. Obviously it has not been so applied, and no peace has resulted. And I don’t believe that, after 60 years of this, my belief that the “peace process” is in fact the cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict can be considered prima facie absurd.

Similarly, libertarians want liberty. As do we all – I hope. But does the actual political program of libertarianism advance the prospect of liberty?

All schools of libertarianism, whether Rothbardian or Randian or (nearly-stillborn) Nozickian, rest on the idea of limited government. Note the intrinsic absurdity of this concept. If some government is limited by its own volition, it can abandon these limits at any time. (Historical experience suggests that the “sacred-document” trick is of extremely limited utility in preventing it from doing so.) If the government is limited by some external power, it is not a government in the usual sense of the word, and we should direct our attention to the limiting power.

It is at this point that the libertarian typically reveals his inner democrat, and suggests that the sovereign power of the People will preserve liberty. First, this hasn’t exactly worked in practice. Second, true sovereignty demands actual military superiority, which may have existed in 1787 but has certainly gone missing since then. If the military of any modern country faced off against the rest of its population, each side being united, the former would win every time. And third, the State can escape this check quite easily, because it can indoctrinate its subjects to despise rebellion and love its motherly care.

So I really see no value at all in libertarianism as we now know it. Therefore, please allow me to suggest an alternative. This should not be new to UR readers, but let’s see if I can summarize it in a few paragraphs, without cheating by linking to old posts.

The essential characteristic of libertarianism is its respect for property. To a libertarian, property is an inalienable human right and an ethical absolute. Rothbard invests many chapters, such as this one and this one, on the question of when property titles or transfers are morally legitimate and binding. As Nozick points out, the standard libertarian logic on these points is frequently blurry and often completely circular.

For example, here is Rothbard on why you can’t sell yourself into slavery:

Hence, the unenforceability, in libertarian theory, of voluntary slave contracts. Suppose that Smith makes the following agreement with the Jones Corporation: Smith, for the rest of his life, will obey all orders, under whatever conditions, that the Jones Corporation wishes to lay down. Now, in libertarian theory there is nothing to prevent Smith from making this agreement, and from serving the Jones Corporation and from obeying the latter’s orders indefinitely. The problem comes when, at some later date, Smith changes his mind and decides to leave. Shall he be held to his former voluntary promise? Our contention—and one that is fortunately upheld under present law—is that Smith’s promise was not a valid (i.e., not an enforceable) contract. There is no transfer of title in Smith’s agreement, because Smith’s control over his own body and will are inalienable. Since that control cannot be alienated, the agreement was not a valid contract, and therefore should not be enforceable. Smith’s agreement was a mere promise, which it might be held he is morally obligated to keep, but which should not be legally obligatory.

Ie, you can’t sell yourself into slavery because your control over your own body and will are inalienable. Ie, you can’t alienate them, because if you could you could – sell yourself into slavery. A masterpiece of circular reasoning orbiting around a Humean ought.

If we abandon these kinds of ethical claims for property right, we are left with property as a principle of social engineering. What is it, and how can it be used?

Property is any stable structure of monopoly control. You own something if you alone control it. Your control is stable if no one else will take it away from you. This control may be assured by your own powers of violence, or it may be delegated by a higher power. If the former, it is secondary property. If the latter, it is primary or sovereign property.

The key observation about primary and secondary property is that the two are much more similar than they may seem.

If the structure of property is stable and all transfers are voluntary exchanges, there is no praxeological distinction between primary and secondary property. If it is impossible for an aggressor to profit by unilaterally adjusting property rights in her favor, it does not matter why it is impossible. The aggressor could be prevented because her aggression is physically impractical, because it will be reversed by a police authority, because it will be punished by a nuclear strike, etc, etc. The important distinction is between a system in which aggression occurs, and a system in which no aggression occurs. The means is unimportant.

The principle of formalism, which is my own private libertarian heresy, suggests that the purpose of property is to prevent violence. The formalist is completely unconcerned with the moral legitimacy of property rights. She is entirely concerned with their stability. To a formalist, a system in which no involuntary property transfers occur is always ideal – at both the primary and secondary levels.

Obviously, the distribution of property affects many people in meaningful ways. An ethical preference for more egalitarian distributions is certainly valid. However, this goal can only be achieved at the expense of violence – especially if equalization is a continuous process, rather than a one-time redistribution. Since most people who consider equalization ethical also seem to express an even stronger aversion to violence, this moral contradiction is theirs to resolve. (Perhaps they will get back to me on this.)

To a formalist, violence always has two prerequisites: tension and ambiguity. Tension exists when more than one party desires some limited good. This is basically always. So the only way to eliminate violence is to eliminate ambiguity, the condition in which multiple contending parties reach different conclusions about who will prevail in a tussle. Without ambiguity, the loser will concede and the winner will win without a fight.

Again, these principles apply at both levels of property, primary and secondary. The problem of eliminating ambiguity in secondary property is the problem of law enforcement. The problem of eliminating ambiguity in primary property is the problem of external security.

History shows us that an effective government can solve both of these problems. And an ineffective one can fail at both. For example, in the lifetime of those now living, the number of robberies in Britain has increased by over two orders of magnitude. Nonetheless, the borders between Britain and her neighbors have remained stable over this same time period. This indicates an interesting, and not uncommon, pattern of effective external security and ineffective law enforcement. Perhaps there is a reason for this? But I digress.

This model of property sheds an interesting light on libertarianism, which I believe reflects its dubious revolutionary ancestry. From the perspective of a formalist, the reason that libertarianism fails is simple. It fails because libertarianism is an antipropertarian ideology, and all antipropertarian ideologies fail.

Socialism is the classic antipropertarian ideology. Socialists believe that systems of property in which some are very rich, and others are very poor, are ethically illegitimate. So they advocate forcible redistribution to correct this injustice.

Libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, while they ascribe unquestionable spiritual validity to the existing distribution of secondary property, completely reject the existing distribution of primary property. In fact, a true anarcho-capitalist rejects even the concept of primary property, strange though this may seem. In its place, there is an almost mystical ideal of self-enforcing law that strikes me as quite unjustified by reality.

The libertarian revolutionaries of the 1770s, using the Lockean theory of “homesteading” that Rothbard inherits, believed that only those who worked land could truly own it. The British Crown and its Loyalist followers essentially believed that the Crown exercised primary or sovereign ownership over the American colonies, although complications of British history perhaps prevented them from expressing this opinion as clearly as today we might prefer. The question was put to arms and the former prevailed, creating a new distribution of property.

The US government today has no king. On the other hand, it is certainly a distinct entity, and we can regard it as a corporation, that is, a virtual person with a single identity. Under libertarian theory, this corporation is illegitimate, since it has no true property right in the land it controls, having never done any farming or tree-cutting or whatever. Any fees it charges are no more than extortion and stationary banditry.

Under formalist theory, this corporation (which here at UR, we call “Washcorp”) is a normal primary or sovereign property holder. Washcorp is thus a sovereign corporation, or sovcorp. Its primary ownership of its swath of North America, which to avoid confusion with political entities we call “Plainland,” is an absolutely normal relationship. The validity of Washcorp’s ownership of Plainland does not depend on the Constitution, the last elections, or any other magical rite, but simply on the stable and exclusive military control it exercises over the territory. As for the fees that Plainlanders pay to Washcorp, they are the normal cost of property rental.

My preference, as a resident of Plainland, is for simple, libertarian or minarchist government. I notice that Washcorp does not provide this service. My question is: why not?

Note how distant this engineering approach is from Rothbardian ethical libertarianism. We treat liberty as a goal, rather than an ideal. We ask: how can we design a system that will achieve this goal, and maintain it sustainably?

The puzzle is that Washcorp has every incentive to provide libertarian government – except, of course, for the usual libertarian ideal of low taxes. Revenue maximization is Washcorp’s bread and butter, as with most primary property owners in history. Like all corporations, Washcorp’s financial goal must be to maximize the value of its equity, ie, its property.

Because violations of liberty, except inasmuch as they are necessary to secure Washcorp’s ownership of Plainland against its residents – hardly an onerous task with modern military technology – do not profit Washcorp, and since by definition they conflict with the desires of its residents, they reduce the demand for secondary rights to Washcorp’s property, and thus reduce its equity value. Ie, stock price.

For example, one obvious component of libertarian government is absolute freedom of medicine, or AFM. Under AFM, you (or, if you are incompetent, your guardian) have absolute control over your own body, what chemicals you put into it, what experts or so-called experts you consult to advise you on maintaining it, etc, etc, etc.

Washcorp certainly does not provide this service. The puzzle is: why not? Any prohibition is equivalent to a prohibitively high tax, so high that no one chooses to pay it. Washcorp can thus increase its revenue by reducing the tax, allowing you AFM if you pay the AFM tax. Needless to say, no such proposition is on the Washcorp policy menu.

The inescapable conclusion is that Washcorp is a very, very badly-mismanaged sovcorp. This is not at all surprising, because its management structures bear no relation to any of the very successful designs we see used in our normal, secondary corporations.

For example, Washcorp has no discernible shareholders. Instead, it appears to be run for the benefit of its employees. The 1990s in the Soviet Union provided many examples of what happens when a large company, especially one that controls a monopoly, is run by and for its employees. The result is corruption, featherbedding and patronage bloat. These phenomena will certainly be different in a sovcorp, at least in detail, but the basic syndrome is really quite recognizable.

Corporations controlled by their employees do not produce good customer service, as a general rule, because they have no capacity for unitary financial or managerial planning. If the customer is king, he is king only because his decisions are felt by the CFO, and the CFO is king. To put it differently, employees, unlike shareholders, have no local incentive to steward the equity of the entire operation. Thus they feel no compunction in abusing customers for their own personal jollies, like an Aeroflot stewardess in days of yore.

And this is how formalism leads us to neocameralism. Neocameralism is the idea that a sovereign state or primary corporation is not organizationally distinct from a secondary or private corporation. Thus we can achieve good management, and thus libertarian government, by converting sovcorps to the same management design that works well in today’s private sector – the joint-stock corporation.

One way to approach neocameralism is to see it as a refinement of royalism, an ancient system in which the sovcorp is a sort of family business. Under neocameralism, the biological quirks of royalism are eliminated and the State “goes public,” hiring the best executives regardless of their bloodline or even nationality.

Or you can just see neocameralism as part of the usual capitalist pattern in which services are optimized by aligning the interests of the service provider and the service consumer. If this works for groceries, why shouldn’t it work for government? I have a hard time in accepting the possibility that democratic constitutionalism would generate either lower prices or better produce at Safeway, although it is certainly fun to imagine the elections.

If it strikes you as farfetched to imagine the US Government as a corporation with a stock symbol, you might find it easier to start by thinking in terms of private city-states. While none of them comes anywhere near the neocameralist ideal, the city-states of Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong certainly provide a very high quality of customer service. Note that none of them has any concept of constitutional, limited, or democratic government.

An easy thought-experiment for comparing forms of government is to imagine two competing side-by-side cities with identical geography, A and B, in which anyone can migrate from A to B or B to A by mutual consent of migrant and destination. (A common objection to neocameralism is the suggestion that a well-managed sovcorp might restrict not immigration but emigration, converting itself into a sort of large open-air prison or slave camp. I invite the reader to imagine the effect that this decision might have on property values, or to think about how profitable it has proven for North Korea – South Korea can be your B.)

We can reasonably say that A has achieved better government than B if there is a net migration flow from B to A, especially if the kind of people who are flowing from B to A are the same kind of people as whoever decides what “better” means. Now, imagine that A and B are both copies of San Francisco, but A is managed by Donald Trump or Lee Kuan Yew or Elizabeth I, whereas B is managed by the present arrangement of city, state and Federal governments. The results? While SF is a beautiful city, so was Detroit.

Note that this hypothesis is entirely testable. It is perfectly practical to create private cities. The step from special economic zones, which are often new cities (see, for example, Saudi Arabia’s forthcoming entry in the game) to sovcorps is quite short. Again, once property rights are stabilized, the difference between primary and secondary property are organizationally irrelevant. Government is management, good government is good management, and bad government is bad management.

In conclusion, let’s compare formalist neocameralism to libertarianism.

The advantage of libertarianism, from a practical political perspective, is that it has deep roots in the American value system, and it is hypothetically possible to persuade American voters to return to the values that their ancestors held in the 18th century. If they do this, they will become libertarians, vote for Ron Paul, return us to the gold standard, etc.

The disadvantage of libertarianism is (if I am right) that it is unsound as a principle of political engineering, that its historical roots are largely mythical and fantastic, and that there is no reason to think it is easy to change anyone’s value system, let alone resurrect values held by distant ancestors.

The disadvantage of neocameralism is that it is completely alien to American voters, that it has no connection at all to any American value system, that no one has even heard of it at all, that it represents a complete rejection of the sacred American principle of democracy, and that it could be described, not utterly without grain of truth, as “corporate fascism” or some such similar epithet.

The advantage of neocameralism is (if I am right) that, unless you have a very perverse ethical system that glorifies violence, it can be justified logically in a few pages of text without reference to any Humean ought. It can be tested empirically, and arguably it already has been. In other words, neocameralism has no advantage except that it is a value-free proposition which is consistent with reality. Often, historically, this has been sufficient.

One way to illustrate neocameralism is to outline a strategy for restructuring Washcorp as an efficient, shareholder-owned operation. I am aware that I have promised an answer to this question before. However, this post is far too long already. Perhaps next week.

[Of course, on my vacation I produced no email whatsoever. But I will rectify this, shortly. I swear.]

Short administrative note

December 7, 2007

I will be offline for a few days, but I am bringing my computer, and I fully intend to answer all of the gigantic pile of unanswered email in my inbox. Caveat interlocutor!

Matthew Yglesias: anatomy of an intellectual crackhead

December 6, 2007

I hasten to say that I have nothing against Matthew Yglesias, though I have picked on him before. Perhaps my real problem with the man is just that he’s younger than me, but also more prominent and accomplished. In any case, I’m sure Yglesias is perfectly pleasant in person, although if he reads this he may want to at least fantasize about Macing me. (Let’s just hope he doesn’t team up with Tryfon Tolides.)

Needless to say, this crack thing will come as a surprise to him. It goes without saying that a successful blogger such as Yglesias, especially one with the skills to get hired by a genuine party organ such as the Atlantic, does not think of himself as being a crackhead, a crack dealer, a crackpot, or in any way, shape or form involved with the crack industry, the crack-rights lobby, grassroots crack organizations, etc, etc, etc. Intellectual, or otherwise. Oh, no! Yglesias is a fully-paid member of the reality-based community.

Of course, if you or I were good friends of Yglesias, people he met at an art opening or a reception for frequent NPR guests or a cocktail party for the Obama campaign, and we had all had a few drinks or toked up a little or whatever, at least enough to consider ourselves past the usual public decorum of pas d’ ennemis a gauche, we could probably identify a few individuals and institutions, with names you would recognize, who while being very much a gauche, really impeccably a gauche, not even gauchely a gauche like Al Sharpton or something, do strike Yglesias as a bit acquainted with the Cocaine Badger. Or at least its progressive equivalent. (The Social-Justice Badger, perhaps?)

But Yglesias is a moderate, darn it. He’s not one of these Kos Kidz. He knows there’s crack on his side of town. He just believes that he’s not one of the ones ingesting. Of course, how he can maintain this belief while steam-shoveling these piles of snow up his beak is open to question. And indeed, it is this very question we shall answer today.

(Do you imagine a Yglesias in a sort of NPR-Malibu-Marin hot-tub dreamworld, doing organic lines off a naturally-finished sustainable redwood cokeplank, while beautiful interns from Yale caress his shoulders and tell him about their goals for environmental justice? Regardless of the actual facts, I feel this is exactly how we must see him. As Camus said: one must imagine Sisyphus happy. Yglesias’ work as a shill for the State will never be complete, any more than Sisyphus’ will, and if said State isn’t compensating him according to his actual talents it darned well should be. The man is a top-notch writer, for cripes’ sake.)

No – I have no information at all about Yglesias’ personal lifestyle. (And I’m not sure he’d indulge in this sort of puerile, pejorative drug humor.) But Yglesias definitely knows there is such a thing as a progressive moonbat. And he definitely doesn’t consider himself one.

And there is certainly no possibility that Yglesias has just drawn the line between pragmatic centrist and progressive moonbat in the wrong place. That not only he, but also almost all his so-called conservative opponents, are best defined as progressive moonbats and intellectual crackheads. Why, there is no possibility of such a thing! The line always goes down the middle! And as long as you’re in the middle, you’re sane by definition, not to mention sober. Right?

Well, okay, maybe not right. But I’m sure Yglesias has duly considered and rejected this interpretation of his pragmatic centrism. After all, he’s a very intelligent and obviously thoughtful young man. I exaggerate, of course. There really is no possibility that he is an intellectual crackhead. We are just going to run a few tests. Just to be sure.

First, a definition. An intellectual crackhead is anyone who happens to be engaged in the generation, incubation, or dissemination of intellectual crack. Intellectual crack is any nonsense that is widely and confidently believed by a large population of full-grown adults. Perhaps we can take this book as the original bible of intellectual crackology, in which case “intellectual crack” is just a snappy way to say “extraordinary popular delusion.”

There is only one procedure for dealing with an intellectual crackhead. First, identify him. Second, ignore him. Third, persuade others to ignore him. Fourth, if all these precautions fail, see if you can “borrow” some of his crack. Because it must be awfully good stuff.

Being an intellectual crackhead is sort of like being a zombie. When the zombie uprising happens, you stop worrying about zombie profiling. If someone displays the first sign of zombism – exposed muscle tissue, oozing eyes, partial amputations, etc, etc – you assume he or she is a zombie, and react accordingly. You have two categories: zombie and non-zombie. There is no point scale, for degree of zombie-nature or whatever. It’s a binary flag.

Note that this is exactly how normal, sensible, educated people today think of the Nazis. Either you are a neo-Nazi, or you are not. If you allow as to any doubt about the matter, if you denounce the Holocaust but have a few good words for Hitler’s environmental vision, etc, etc, you are a neo-Nazi.

In other words, Nazism is a classic specimen of intellectual crack. This does not mean that every intellectual crackhead is a Nazi. It does mean that every Nazi is an intellectual crackhead. I really hope this is not an overly recondite distinction.

Using the example of Nazis, here is how normal, intelligent people avoid being categorized as intellectual crackheads. They simply use their normal social grasp of good manners, and take normal, sensible precautions to avoid allowing others to get the impression that they may, in fact, be Nazis.

They don’t plant tulips in their yard in the shape of a big red, white and black swastika. Even if they think it’s a very attractive geometric pattern. They don’t grow a mustache shorter than their upper lip. Even if they know it’d be dynamite in the back room at the Manhole. When they start startup companies, they don’t pick Nazi names, like Reinhard-Heydrich LLC, Iron Cross Linux, or Dr. Morell’s Fanatical Energy Juice. Even if the last would really stand out on the beverage rack. Etc, etc, etc.

They take these precautions, which may not even be justified by any actual moral imperative (is there really this community of young, tender-minded Holocaust survivors, whose fragile minds may be scarred for life at the sight of a swastika?), not because they are unusually good or moral people (any sufficiently large majority being average by definition), but because they happen to live in a society that considers Nazism, or anything even remotely like Nazism, shameful and embarrassing.

Which, in Theodore Dalrymple‘s definition of the word, is a prejudice. And quite a sane and healthy one at that. (Of course, any prejudice can be taken too far – as we’ll see.)

Our Dalrymplean prejudice against Nazism is a sensible response to a well-known strain of intellectual crack. Nazism is especially dangerous because it can affect basically the whole population, even in a modern and civilized society, and cause them to set up a Crackhead Reich which is crazy and behaves in ways dangerous to itself and others. We know this because it happened. We may not be sure exactly how it happened, because any such understanding would require us to think hard enough about Nazism that it might accidentally unfreeze the virus, and cause a worldwide nuclear Nazi death plague heavy-metal holocaust, basic fourth-grade history informs us that Nazism did in fact happen and is therefore scary and dangerous. QED.

Of course, what’s odd is that the 20th century had another brand of 200-proof intellectual crack. Its name was Communism. And our society is not prejudiced against Communism, or anything even remotely like Communism, in anything like the way it’s prejudiced against Nazism. Unless you are reading this through some kind of 1950 Internet time warp, neither you nor I nor Yglesias finds any association with Communism shameful and embarrassing.

And yet life, somehow, goes on. Now isn’t that interesting? Why do you suppose that would be? How could one prejudice be necessary and the other not, and yet the difference between Communism and Nazism, at least as far as anyone in 2007 is concerned, is basically a matter of graphic design? I exaggerate, of course. Slightly.

I am by no means the first person to discover this weird crease in our moral reference frame. However, the good folks at GNXP have given it a sharp name: the blank-slate asymmetry.

I must stress that it’s entirely possible that the BSA is just a normal, benign moral asymmetry. That it has some sensible explanation that for some reason has eluded me and everyone else in the world. I have also seen plenty of non-sensible explanations for it. And I have seen plenty of people try to argue that it doesn’t need explaining at all. (I worry about this last bunch.)

But here is the interesting thing. People who are on intellectual crack do not know they’re on intellectual crack. (Eliezer Yudkowsky has a good bit on this.) Rather, they think they are perfectly normal. It is always you who are on crack. (If you doubt, try this movie.)

So – perhaps if you find a little, unexplained crease like this – how can you test whether you yourself are an intellectual crackhead? Obviously, if there was some trivial test, there would be no such thing as intellectual crack. Everyone would learn the test and remember it, and apply it to any doubtful intellectual material that seems to be headed in the direction of their nose. Perhaps it would be a liquid test, carried in a little eyedropper. “Wait!” you’d say. “I can’t snort this! The paper turned pink! It must be crack!”

No. In the real world, we are everywhere surrounded by crack. It’s in the water supply. (As the BMJ recently put it, “it does seem that Base Commander Ripper may have had a point.”) And in newspapers and on TV and in magazines and on the sides of buses and on everyone’s lips. (Spend a little quality time over at fightglobalwarming.com, then read this discussion. Crack, gentlemen, pure intellectual crack.)

Escaping from intellectual crack is almost impossible in general. With the purity of our modern neuropharmaceuticals, it’s basically inconceivable. As Tolstoy put it:

I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.

However, we can always give it a shot. And one way to practice is to try out your algorithm not on yourself, but on some hack intellectual for rent, some deputy-assistant wormtongue, some apparatchik NGO-blogger of the official press, some Yglesias. If we can’t explain to this man, in one post, that he is an intellectual crackhead, our litmus drops need some work.

An fun way to start the crack detection process is to find these little creases in the fabric, these small inconsistencies in commonly accepted reality, whose meaning is by no means obvious and which may just be natural color variations. Like the BSA, like water fluoridation, like overfitted circulation models and bogus paleoclimate series.

These kinds of mistakes are like continuity errors in a movie. They could mean nothing. Nothing at all. But, at least if your little neurological Truman Show detector is in proper working order, they should at least initiate a complete philosophical self-test. “Hey, wait a minute,” you should say. “Am I on crack? Maybe I’m just on crack here.”

If you’ve never had this reaction, let alone come to the conclusion that you actually were on crack, you must be an exceptionally dogmatic and stubborn person.

Which does not mean you are wrong about anything. On the other hand, nor does it make you right, and all I can give you is Cromwell. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” Note that Christ lived in the Middle East, not a region known for its friendliness to the bowel.

On the other hand, while noticing these inconsistencies is a fun game, it is not really an effective approach toward addressing your crack problem. The trouble is that once you notice any such inconsistency, by definition you are no longer deluded by it. You can still investigate this little piece of rock in your hand, which is basically dead crack, and surmise that similar crystals, still pulsing with delicious cocaine vibrations, are embedded in the brains of those around you. But you yourself are cured – at least of this particular strain.

If the inconsistency is commonly suspected, after all, it must have skeptics and defenders, who are very likely to be on different sides of some political line. If you are a defender, and you are wrong, you probably have some tribal emotion wrapped up in your bizarre and indefensible explanation of this little piece of crack. Faced with the inconsistency, you will simply deny it.

No, what always gets you is the things you know that ain’t so. And on that: back to Yglesias.

I thought of running a crack test on Yglesias when I saw this post of his. It was linked from this Julian Sanchez post. Please read both. Then read this post – including the comments.

Since Yglesias is a progressive whereas Sanchez is a libertarian, their approaches diverge a little. Yglesias is a little more articulate, at least on this subject. But I like Sanchez’s term, Care Bear Stare, and I’ll take the liberty of identifying it with Yglesias’ Green Lantern Theory.

And that other thing? Oh. That was just to remind us that while it’s wonderful to bandy slurs with libertarians and progressives on the Internet, there is a real world out there. And ideas do have consequences. And yes, there is a connection to the Care Bear Stare, but I’ll have to leave you hanging on that one. (Perhaps when the Care Bear Stare won’t do the job, the Care Bears have to resort to their pangas.)

What we’re going to do is dive into this Care Bear Stare issue. Give it a really solid historical working-over. We’re going to test it for crack, the little drop will be pink, indicating crack, and then we’ll decide what to do next.

We are not going to discuss any other beliefs or opinions that Yglesias may hold. We are going to focus entirely on this one issue. If we find crack, we will declare Yglesias a crackhead. If he wishes to argue that he is “only chipping,” or “only does it on weekends and holidays,” or “stays away from that brown shit,” he certainly has a platform from which to make that case.

Now, what’s interesting about this Care Bear Stare contretemps is that Yglesias and Sanchez are accusing their political opponents – in this case, Reuel Marc Gerecht – of being on crack. Without accepting or refuting this accusation (it’s certainly interesting to compare Gerecht’s style of thought to those of Sanchez and Yglesias), let’s try to abstract it slightly, separate it from its immediate political context, and construct a more general description of this strain of crack.

The Care Bear Stare or Green Lantern Theory is what a less hip writer might call an invincibility myth. An invincibility myth is a belief that, in any conflict, some faction is invincible and will prevail regardless of any material evidence. For example, said faction might have God on its side. Or it might have the Green Lantern. Or the Care Bears could show up and deliver their Stare. Or perhaps it just has a blessed +7 rustproof panga.

Regardless of the purported mechanism (this is crack we’re talking about here, after all), an invincibility myth is of tremendous military usefulness. After all, if you really are invincible, it’s obviously a pretty bad idea to oppose you. If your enemies are acting in their own best interests, they will surrender now, and get the best deal they can. And your allies certainly have no incentive to waver.

For example, let’s consider the faction that Gerecht represents: the Pentagon. (Yglesias talks about “American military might,” but we here at UR are sly and know that Washcorp is not exactly a single unitary actor.)

If the Pentagon’s adversaries believed that it was invincible, they would not even consider opposing it. They would just give up now, to avoid the trouble. Similarly, those of us whose attitude toward the Pentagon can best be described as “wavering” would find it profitable to overcome our doubts, and jump on the bandwagon while it’s still uncrowded. As Osama bin Laden once put it, everyone likes a strong horse.

So the situation seems quite uncomplicated. Gerecht is clearly a follower of the Pentagon. He is promoting, through the usual nefarious device of assuming it implicitly and then making an argument based on it, the idea that the Pentagon is invincible. Who does this benefit? The Pentagon. No surprises at all.

This is about the level of thinking you’d expect from the reality-based community. I’ve worked through it at some length to demonstrate that it is, indeed, thinking. (This may not be obvious to all UR readers.) So where is the crack?

The problem is that there is actually such a thing as invincibility. There are many conceivable conflicts whose outcome involves negligible uncertainty.

For example, the other day I was walking down 16th Street in San Francisco when I was confronted by a typical “only in San Francisco” scene: a large group of policemen, firefighters, and other public safety personnel, trying to convince a man to come down from a tree. (It was not a large tree, either.) It was not clear to me why the fellow was in the tree, but he was a full-grown adult male who even appeared to have had a shower in the last few days. Apparently he had been there since 2am. At the rate things were going, it seemed that he might remain until 2am again.

Doubtless Tree Man was thinking something. Perhaps he thought he could remain ensconced indefinitely. But you and I are aware that, in a conflict between the SFPD and a temporarily arboreal neohominid, the SFPD is effectively invincible.

So when reasoning about invincibility, we can make either of two errors. We can (a) detect invincibility where no invincibility is present. Or we can (b) fail to detect invincibility when invincibility is indeed present. Yglesias accuses Gerecht of (a). I suspect Tree Man of (b).

The only way to see who is right is to look at the actual facts of the matter. In other words: in a military conflict between the Pentagon and Iran, what will happen?

In case we are insufficiently armed against Pentagon propaganda, let’s select as our expert judge the world’s leading theorist of war. I refer, of course, to Major-General Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz, director of the Prussian Kriegsakademie and author of the great On War. Not only does Clausewitz predate the Pentagon by a clean century, this paladin of the Hohenzollern state would have nothing but contempt for George W. Bush’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy.

So, General von Clausewitz, what is war?

We shall not enter into any of the abstruse definitions of war used by publicists. We shall keep to the element of the thing itself, to a duel. War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale. If we would conceive as a unit the countless number of duels which make up a war, we shall do so best by supposing to ourselves two wrestlers. Each strives by physical force to compel the other to submit to his will: his first object is to throw his adversary, and thus to render him incapable of further resistance.

War therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.

Violence arms itself with the inventions of Art and Science in order to contend against violence. Self-imposed restrictions, almost imperceptible and hardly worth mentioning, termed usages of International Law, accompany it without essentially impairing its power. Violence, that is to say physical force (for there is no moral force without the conception of states and law), is therefore the means; the compulsory submission of the enemy to our will is the ultimate object.

Excellent, dude. Couldn’t have put it better myself. So – how exactly do you compel the enemy to submit to your will? What’s the procedure, man?

Now, philanthropists may easily imagine there is a skillful method of disarming and overcoming an enemy without causing great bloodshed, and that this is the proper tendency of the art of War. However plausible this may appear, still it is an error which must be extirpated; for in such dangerous things as war, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are just the worst. As the use of physical power to the utmost extent by no means excludes the co-operation of the intelligence, it follows that he who uses force unsparingly, without reference to the quantity of bloodshed, must obtain a superiority if his adversary does not act likewise. By such means the former dictates the law to the latter, and both proceed to extremities, to which the only limitations are those imposed by the amount of counteracting force on each side.
[…]
If our opponent is to be made to comply with our will, we must place him in a situation which is more oppressive to him than the sacrifice which we demand; but the disadvantages of this position must naturally not be of a transitory nature, at least in appearance, otherwise the enemy, instead of yielding, will hold out, in the prospect of a change for the better. Every change in this position which is produced by a continuation of the war, should therefore be a change for the worse, at least, in idea. The worst position in which a belligerent can be placed is that of being completely disarmed. If, therefore, the enemy is to be reduced to submission by an act of war, he must either be positively disarmed or placed in such a position that he is threatened with it according to probability. From this it follows that the disarming or overthrow of the enemy, whichever we call it, must always be the aim of warfare.

Cool. And what determines the strength of each side? Who will disarm or overthrow who?

If we desire to defeat the enemy, we must proportion our efforts to his powers of resistance. This is expressed by the product of two factors which cannot be separated, namely, the sum of available means and the strength of the will. The sum of the available means may be estimated in a measure, as it depends (although not entirely) upon numbers; but the strength of volition, is more difficult to determine, and can only be estimated to a certain extent by the strength of the motives.

Thank you, General von Clausewitz. “The sum of available means and the strength of the will.” That’s exactly what I was looking for.

You’re welcome, Mencius. Please feel free to pitch me softballs any time.

Now, let’s compare these factors in the case of Pentagon vs. Iran. First, the available means.

The Pentagon can produce an explosion at any point in Iran, any time it likes, as often as it likes, with no fear of retaliation. It can of course completely devastate the entire country. It has substantial ground forces, perfectly positioned for an invasion, which have twice defeated the ground forces of a country which defeated Iran.

Is it even worth discussing Iran’s “available means”? Barely. It is simply impossible to imagine a situation in which Iran survived for more than a month in a war with the Pentagon. At least if we are comparing only the “available means.”

Does the Pentagon really need the Care Bear Stare, when it has three carrier battle groups and a couple of armored divisions? Not to mention JDAMs? Against Iran? I mean, suppose we used our Ouija board to contact, say, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Against Iran? “Young man…”

But then there’s the will. Ah, the will. But this is precisely what both Gerecht and Yglesias are talking about.

Yglesias mocks Gerecht for thinking that, if the Pentagon had the will (for example, imagine if Congress actually – horrors! – declared war on Iran), it could dictate the law to Iran, just as the SFPD dictated the law to Tree Man, and compel it arbitrarily.

(This is definitely a caricature of Gerecht’s views. But no matter – even the caricature is more reality-based than Yglesias. It may even be more reality-based than Gerecht.)

Yglesias would probably do better to just mock Clausewitz. All hail, Major-General Matt von Yglesias, director of the Blogakademie! “Caesar. Napoleon. Clausewitz. Morons!
Because if you have the will and the means, what don’t you have? Nothing. According to Clausewitz. But not, apparently, according to Yglesias. Perhaps he should elaborate on these interesting military theories of his. Can we expect an On War, Part Deux? Perhaps we can.

Now let’s examine this fascinating strain of crack we’ve isolated. The truth is that I’m not terribly interested in Yglesias, who is the sort of cheap, fashionable writer every age produces in scads, or in the conflict between the Pentagon and Iran, which will presumably end in one of the usual military clusterfucks. What I’m interested in is crack, and how it works.

This variety is what might be called a counterintuitive mindfuck. Basically, you have a simple intuitive reality, which is that the Pentagon is way, way more studly than Iran and can turn it into Farsi-flavored mulch any time it manages to get the urge and sustain it. This reality is so obvious that it can be understood by a six-year-old boy with Down’s syndrome.

The counterintuitive mindfuck operates by constructing weird, Byzantine theories which explain why this obvious reality is “simplistic” and should be ignored. For example, in this case, it tells us that anyone who believes that the Pentagon can just kick Iran’s ass, any time, any how, in any kind of war, must be a victim of Pentagon propaganda.

Counterintuitive mindfucks are very common in the general progressive complex. The essential attraction of progressivism is that most smart, educated people are progressives. Therefore, any theory that posits that non-progressive people are simply too dumb or deluded to understand it, especially if the theory actually is hard to understand, has an open door to the progressive heart – a situation that lends itself perfectly to the mindfuck.

We treated this particular mindfuck by actually making a conscious effort to put aside all propaganda, from either side, and looking at actual military reality. Didn’t George Orwell say something about the front of your nose?

Now, interestingly enough, googling that Orwell quote produces this fascinating Paul Krugman column from 2004. (Aren’t we all happy to say goodbye to the NYT’s memory hole?) Krugman really goes beyond smugness. Searing arrogance is more like it. I am reminded of the tone of the famous Soviet humor magazine, Krokodil, which loved to parody the buffoonish, corrupt doings of the hooligan dissidents. Alas, Krokodil is no more. But perhaps we can remember the entire trope in which the smug and powerful mock the hooligans, peasants and barbarians as crocodile humor.

Yglesias is also a master of crocodile humor. In fact, I can’t think of a better example than his Green Lantern post. Which you’ve already read, but let me just quote the end again:

But a lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.

What’s more, this theory can’t be empirically demonstrated to be wrong. Things that you or I might take as demonstrating the limited utility of military power to accomplish certain kinds of things are, instead, taken as evidence of lack of will. Thus we see that problems in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t reasons to avoid new military ventures, but reasons why we must embark upon them: “Add a failure in Iran to a failure in Iraq to a failure in Afghanistan, and we could supercharge Islamic radicalism in a way never before seen. The widespread and lethal impression of American weakness under the Clinton administration, which did so much to energize bin Ladenism in the 1990s, could look like the glory years of American power compared to what the Bush administration may leave in its wake.”

I don’t even know what else to say about this business. It’s just a bizarre way of looking at the world. The wreakage that the Bush administration is leaving in its wake is a direct consequence of this will-o-centric view of the world and Gerecht takes it as a reason to deploy more willpower.

I love this passage. It is just a miracle of progressive crack. It displays the entire worldview in three paragraphs. There is no shame whatsoever, no belief that there is anything to conceal.

Now we know exactly what Yglesias is thinking when he says that it will take the Green Lantern or the Care Bear Stare for the Pentagon to defeat Iran. This is not really thinking in the sense that we normally use the word. It is more a series of semiconscious associations. But we can try to analyze it anyway.

The first association is with the Pentagon’s experiences in occupying Afghanistan, Iraq and of course Vietnam. I think we can agree with Yglesias – and probably also with Gerecht – that these experiences cannot be characterized as successful. The question is: why?

But let’s step back a second. Note that nowhere in his essay does Gerecht propose that the Pentagon occupy Iran and turn it into New Jersey. In fact, I read a lot of neocon material, and I have never seen anyone propose the occupation of Iran.

If you want a sensible, militarily plausible plan in which the Pentagon exercises Clausewitzian compellance over Iran (note that Safire’s plan was followed for Serbia, to a T, and regardless of your opinion of that conflict, it worked perfectly), try this approach by Arthur Herman. Note that this is far more aggressive than Gerecht’s “Osirak II” bombing strategy.

Note that Herman’s strategy is on the extreme militaristic wing of neoconservative opinion, which is on the extreme militaristic wing of American public opinion in general, which is on the extreme militaristic wing of world public opinion. On the other hand, by 19th-century standards, Herman is a pussy. In fact, by World War II standards, Herman is a pussy.

So Yglesias has constructed a completely fictitious strawman which involves occupying Iran, and trying to convert it into a normal, civilized Western state. He then sneers at this strawman in the grand old crocodile-humor style. Is this fair? Is a crocodile ever fair?

And you have to understand where Yglesias is coming from. Yglesias is a follower of the political movement which has ruled the US for the last 75 years, and the world for the last 60: the New Deal.

A New Dealer, or at least a postwar New Dealer, does not really see a place like Iran as an independent country, in the sense that that word was used in the 19th century. He sees it as a village in the new global community. He feels responsible for it. There is not a single spot on the planet which does not command the attention of a substantial number of officials in Washington whose job it is to feel responsible for it. The fact that American officials are elected only by American citizens often strikes them as a sort of anachronism, like the fact that DC itself has no senators or representatives. Policymakers in Washington feel the same basic paternal concern for Australians, Iranians, or Zimbabweans that they feel for Americans. It is not fiduciary responsibility, it is simply noblesse oblige. People with power always feel this way. It’s part of the human tribal instinct, and a damn good instinct it is, too.

So the thought of just bombing Iran, as if it was some kind of enemy, is deeply horrifying to a Yglesias. It’s a step away from the global community, from the Parliament of Man. These instincts are old, and they go deep.

When Woodrow Wilson stated that the US was at war with the German government, not the German people, he set the tone for the entire experience of American internationalism. The message was: German people, your true masters are in Washington, not Berlin. The Kaiser is a criminal who has kidnapped and enslaved you. Submit to our tender, fatherly care, and we will make you free and prosperous. It took a couple of wars – nasty wars, with real bombing and stuff – to get this message through, but in the end it worked quite well.

Obviously, I feel American internationalism is well past its sell-by date and needs to be taken out and shot like a rabid, fecally-incontinent dog. But let’s play along with it. I cannot find a single neoconservative hawk who proposes the occupation of Iran. Which is pretty pathetic if you ask me – given what Wilson did at Veracruz. But, okay, fine. I propose the occupation of Iran.

True, it is not consistent with my Carlylean foreign-policy instincts. True, I am no fan of the Pentagon or of Washcorp, and have no desire to see them expand – I would rather see them dissolved. True, I dislike violence in general, and while Iran’s government is obviously awful, it is not so awful that I would volunteer my life or even my pocketbook to improve it.

But I have no patience at all for the idea that it’s militarily impossible. Because that’s just BS. It’s crack, pure crack. I mean, for how many centuries have hominid tribes been conquering hominid tribes? If the Pentagon can’t conquer Iraq, how in the name of holy Jesus could William I conquer England? Perhaps I’m not reading the Bayeux Tapestry right, but I don’t recall as the Normans brought along any flying laser beams of instant death. They were, on the other hand, pretty “will-o-centric.”

This is the real mental problem with a Yglesias. He really has no interest at all in any area of history that cannot be used to attack his enemies. For most progressives, history seems to start with the Kennedy assassination. Or maybe World War II. The idea that any analogy outside the postwar American period is at all relevant to current affairs strikes them as just plain wacky. Unless, of course, it implies something bad about conservatives.

But wait. Are we being reality-based? Isn’t the reality that the Pentagon, despite its laser beams or whatever, failed in Vietnam, and has at the very least struggled immensely in Iraq and Afghanistan?

I encourage you to read this fascinating little piece by one Edward Luttwak, who comes about as close as 2007 comes to a Clausewitz. If you are short on patience for some reason, just skip to the section labeled “The Easy And Reliable Way Of Defeating All Insurgencies Everywhere.”

Luttwak, of course, pulls his punches. “It is enough to consider these methods to see why the armed forces of the United States or of any other democratic country cannot possibly use them.” While I am not a fan of democracy, the contradiction between democratic election and effective martial law in an occupied territory is entirely beyond me.

Lincoln’s Unionist regime, which was not only a democratic country but fought its entire war under the banner of democracy, used Luttwakian techniques to a T and was marvellously effective. If you think the surprising paucity of Confederate insurgency and terrorism, and their near-complete cessation after Appomattox, is entirely a reflection of Confederate nobility, you may need to think again.

American forces also used Luttwakian techniques in the Philippines, where again they were remarkably effective. Between the Philippine Insurrection and the end of World War II, the Philippines were ruled as an American possession whose loyalty was proverbial. Note that the Lieber Code, under which both the South and the Philippines were governed, authorized (according to the traditional rules of war; see also Vattel) soldiers to shoot non-uniformed combatants on sight. Take that, Guantanamo-phobes. Furthermore, Americans were quite prepared to do the same in Germany and Japan.

And finally, for a complete and up-to-date instruction manual in how to defeat a modern insurgency, there is no better teacher than Roger Trinquier. Note that France, at the time that it defeated the FLN, was most certainly a democracy – for better or for worse. Probably the latter.

What’s fascinating is that here again, we detect our old friend – intellectual crack. Pentagon forces today operate by what are certainly the most strict rules of engagement in military history. Official doctrine is constantly informing Pentagon soldiers that any violation of these rules will endanger the mission by causing civilians to turn against them. And yet, the missions only seem to get less and less effective. Perhaps human nature has simply changed since the Norman Conquest, or at least the Philippine Insurrection? The results would seem to argue that it has not.

Let’s analyze this particular strain of crack with our usual attention to detail, taking Trinquier as a guide. (Remember also what Clausewitz said about philanthropic warfare. And I seem to recall old Billy Sherman had some thoughts on the matter.)

The goal of all counterinsurgency warfare is to capture and retain the support of the population. Counterinsurgency warfare can be seen as a sort of sedentary slave raid on a Wagnerian scale. The normal relationship between sovereign and subject, which applies in every stable country regardless of its formalities of government, is that the latter complies with all demands of the former and does not support or condone violence against it. In other words, whatever nice words you want to cloak it in, the relationship between government and citizen is the relationship between master and slave. Again, this is just the definition of government.

When this relationship breaks down, there are only two approaches to restoring sovereignty: massacre or deport the population, or recapture it. Stalin was a big fan of the former, and carried it out with impressive effect. However, as a sovereign, your subjects are your capital, and abusing them wantonly is seldom the best way to generate positive return on investment.

So. as Trinquier puts it:

We know that the sine qua non of victory in modern [ie, guerrilla] warfare is the unconditional support of a population. According to Mao Tse-tung, it is as essential to the combatant as water to the fish.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Everyone believes this. In today’s Pentagon circles, the task of gaining popular support is generally known as winning hearts and minds.

But look at what Trinquier says next:

Such support may be spontaneous, although that is quite rare and probably a temporary condition. If it doesn’t exist, it must be secured by every possible means, the most effective of which is terrorism.

Yikes! Note, however, that Trinquier’s definition of terrorism is a little different from 2007’s. Please allow me to translate.

What Trinquier is saying is that winning hearts (“spontaneous” or emotional support) is really a secondary objective. The critical task of counterinsurgency is winning minds, ie, persuading the population that it is in their rational interest to support you, rather than the enemy. As in any war, any technique that will lead to victory is effective.

Since reading Trinquier, I have been noticing this little phrase, winning hearts and minds. Almost every time I hear it, it turns out to be in the context of winning hearts.

What a contemptuous view of the natives this implies! The winning-hearts approach treats them like six-year-olds, for whom affection is everything and rational decisions are impossible. Whereas if you or I were civilians caught in a war zone, who would we support? Whoever was most likely to win, and least likely to kill us in the process.

Now, you might think that the Trinquierian approach, while possibly more effective than “winning hearts,” is less moral. Of course, we cannot derive “ought” from “is,” and if you truly believe it is immoral for a government to handle its subjects using procedures that are not compatible with the US Bill of Rights, nothing I can say can change your mind.

When I think about morality, however, I think not about one alternative, but two. Suppose, for example, that the Pentagon had preemptively applied a Luttwakian or Trinquierian approach in Iraq, not in 2007 but in 2003. If Luttwak and Trinquier are right about their field of work – and I suspect few of my readers have the expertise to disagree – this would have saved thousands of lives and eliminated all kinds of mayhem. On the other hand, Iraqis would have been issued ID cards, organized in a pyramidal structure which reported to the Pentagon, and subjected in general to a system of fascist totalitarian control. And some, some of whom were probably innocent, would even have received electrical shocks to the nipples. Better, or worse, than massacre, mayhem and war? Only you, dear reader, can make the call.

But we have a further puzzle to unravel. After all, if I, whose closest connection to the Pentagon is that I get my car insurance from USAA, can understand these things, how can they be lost on the Pentagon itself? Wasn’t that Trinquier book hosted on a Pentagon site?

The answer is that the Pentagon is tactically right to do everything it can to avoid collateral damage. Moreover, its enemies are tactically right to do everything they can to try to trick the Pentagon into causing collateral damage (ie, via the use of human shields).

But the reason that human shields work has nothing to do with winning hearts. In fact, the very existence of human shields completely negates the winning-hearts hypothesis, because it’s obvious that anyone hurt while serving (by definition, involuntarily) as a human shield will blame whoever put him in the way of the bomb, not whoever dropped it.

In fact, winning hearts is crack, pure and simple. As Trinquier points out, every successful “liberation movement” in the 20th century has terrorized the population into submission. Even Pentagon attacks on civilians in South Vietnam – with far more liberal rules of engagement than apply today in Iraq – were generally accidental and uncoordinated, whereas massacring their civilian opponents was standard operating procedure for the VC.

Explaining that Americans need to win hearts because they are white imperialists, whereas Taliban or Viet Cong or FLN guerrillas can cut them out and eat them because they are swarthy indigenous peoples, requires falling back on hoary nationalist cliches that really shouldn’t require an answer. I’m sorry, people – if you genuinely believe it is unnatural and impossible for a foreign military occupation to become a stable government and eventually an ethnically-distinct ruling caste, you know no more about human history than a cat knows about tennis. Go read about, say, India, sometime.

So the puzzle remains: why worry about civilian casualties? Isn’t collateral damage just the Air Force’s way of telling you not to hang out within the blast radius of insurgents? Didn’t we do a lot of collateral damage to Germany and Japan? And where are their insurgents?

The answer, which Trinquier would certainly have understood, although it would have appalled him and struck him as disastrous, is that the Pentagon does suffer as a result of civilian casualties, because any such event strengthens the Pentagon’s true enemies. Who tend to live not in Kabul, but in Bethesda or Silver Spring or maybe Manhattan.

Furthermore, all of the Pentagon’s adversaries in recent years have understood that their most effective strategy is to defeat the Pentagon politically, not militarily. Clausewitz would be proud, because of course the two are the same thing.

And finally, the ugliest trope of all is that everyone on the battlefield – Pentagon soldiers, their native adversaries, journalists, and even the local civilians whose support is so crucial – understands this perfectly. It’s war, after all. If you’re involved in war, you understand it.

The result is that even local civilians see civilian casualties as a point scored for the insurgents. So human-shield tactics, which cannot possibly do anything to win hearts, are winners nonetheless. Every time a human shield gets fragged and the fact gets to the press, the Pentagon’s chances of winning decrease. Every time the Pentagon’s chances of winning decrease, the insurgents’ chances of winning increase. Every time the insurgents’ chances of winning increase, rational civilians have more motivation to join the insurgency.

I assure you that although this seems complicated to you, it is not at all complicated to those in a war zone. Moreover, human instincts for collective action are deeply rooted (even chimpanzees have tribes which fight wars), and the human ability to construct a moral rationale for the decision to side with the strong horse is always impressive. In other words, martyrs are martyrs, even if someone forced them to be martyrs. As long as martyrdom is a militarily effective strategy, we will continue to see more of it.

One way to see this is to look at insurgent or terrorist movements which have no possibility of gaining the support of Western human-rights activists. A good example is the OAS in Algeria, founded by colleagues of Trinquier who knew exactly how to run an insurgency, and had a substantial local support base. It went nowhere, because it only alienated its supporters in France. The fate of the AWB in South Africa is even more pathetic – it had no foreign sponsors at all. Insurgency simply does not work without political protection.

If this analysis is correct, these Third World insurgent wars exist only because of Western human-rights activism. So why don’t Western human-rights activists recognize this? Why don’t they notice that they are creating violence and destruction, rather than suppressing it?

A simple explanation of this phenomenon is that Western human-rights activists are in fact political activists, seeking power by the only means that are available to them. It is not that opposing the Pentagon is a necessary method of their human-rights activism. It is that their human-rights activism is a necessary method of their opposing the Pentagon. The US military is as necessary to these people as drugs are to anti-drug warriors.

Thus, it is inconceivable that they would conclude that the best way to end the war in Iraq is for the US to impose martial law, dismiss the Iraqi government and suspend all civil liberties. We saw exactly how much Western human-rights activists cared about their swarthy mascots in the ’70s, when they finally managed to force South Vietnam to surrender to the North. As tens of thousands of Vietnamese were shot, hundreds of thousands imprisoned without trial, and millions fled on boats, these watchdogs of humanity uttered not even a meow. I’m sure most of the “peace” protesters of the ’60s sincerely believed that they loved their little brown brothers, but the real political motor of their movement was their hatred of their American enemies, and their desire to achieve power by defeating them. Same old, same old.

No, what’s truly amazing about these “liberations” is their assiduous avoidance of every technique for governing foreign populations that might, actually, possibly, work. This is because all of these techniques were practiced under “colonialism,” and we know colonialism is bad. Because we heard it in school.

For example, the Pentagon may not dissolve the corrupt, murderous, and dangerously ineffective “democratic” government it has installed in Iraq. It may not declare that democracy has failed in Iraq, and hand the place over to a Hashemite, Saudi or other Gulf prince, or even better split it into UAE-like emirates. Because that would be just too British Empire.

For example, the Pentagon may not under any circumstances create hybrid organizations, military or political, in which the leaders are foreign and the front-line employees are native.

Britain governed half the world, at costs which are negligible compared to the Iraq bill, by creating military forces with British officers and native troops. To call this a no-brainer would be an insult to the brainless. Yet it has not been done, nor can anything like it be done. Similarly, it is absolutely verboten to create an Iraqi government run by foreign executives with Iraqi personnel. That would be colonialism, and colonialism is wrong.

In fact, to the extent that the Pentagon has achieved any success in Iraq, it has been the almost accidental success of the Awakening movement. It is very unclear whose idea this was, although it may be traced to the late Capt. Travis Patriquin. It certainly did not come from Washington, and its inspiration may well owe as much to Iraqis as Americans.

And, most important, it’s a stone-cold ripoff of a classic colonialist technique. It worked immediately as soon as it was tried. Basically, indirect rule was to the Iraq war as penicillin was to gangrene. Unfortunately, because it is the only such technique the Pentagon is allowed to use, I suspect it will prove fruitless in the end. But whose fault is that? It is yours, my dear progressive friends, my lovers of humanity everywhere.

So here is my short proposal for a successful occupation of Iran:

  1. Invade Iran. Impose martial law.
  2. Declare Iran a United States territory. Use the Philippines as a model.
  3. Disband all Iranian military forces and governmental structures.
  4. Create a new military and government with Western officers and managers.
  5. Profit!

Is this bizarre? I’m sure Yglesias would find it bizarre. I’m sure Lord Cromer would find it perfectly normal and sensible. One of these two gentlemen is on crack, surely. And it’s a pity the other is not with us to make his case.

If we can summarize this hellacious strain of crack in one sentence, it might come down to the declaration that a people can only be stably, peacefully and lawfully governed with their own consent.

Note the complete meaninglessness, and in fact ungrammatical nature, of the word “a people.” What defines a set of individuals as “a people”? Are all the people whose names start with M “a people?” Where is my President of M? Or should we use geographical boundaries, and birth coordinates? Or linguistic boundaries? But what makes either of these divisions meaningful? And we haven’t even gotten into the definition of “consent.”

Remember, this statement is firmly within the boundaries of Hume’s is. It is not a moral assertion. It is a statement of military reality. Or rather, it would be a statement of military reality. If it wasn’t 100%-pure Andean high-test blue-powder crack, that is.

So here is a question for the reader: what does this brand of crack have to do with some poor woman in South Africa, whose face is hopefully starting to resemble a face again? If anything?

And if the answer is anything, can we associate this crime – which is certainly not unique, or even unusual – with Yglesias and his smug ilk, just as we associate the Holocaust with neo-Nazis? What a prejudice this would be! Would it be a good one, or a bad one?