31 December 2011

Not Much

I've still been a bit too busy/distracted/unwell to produce very much here, but I am following the discussions. (Here's an interesting one at Isegoria). I have unformed thoughts that need more work.

Nydwracu is a young man with a fair bit to say, mostly on twitter, and only some of it incomprehensible to those of us not au fait with Japanese cartoons and whatever popular beat combos the kids are listening to these days.  I've stuck him in the sidebar now that I've bitten the bullet of moving to the new Blogger renderer.  "Why I am not" seems to have gone dark these last 6 months.

I've ploughed through a lot of Breivik's rant/manifesto/whatever, without being very impressed.  He could have done with paying more attention to what sort of society he wants to live in, and less to what medals the Knights Templar should be handing out to terrorists.

I'm pondering whether I should reconsider my attitude to feudalism; I've maintained that the drive to appropriate feudal privileges to the crown up to the 1600s was a good thing, enabled by better communication and administration, but Buckethead makes the point that military technology was a key driver of the process, in the form of the shift of power from mounted knights to massed pikemen/musketeers.  Is current military technology compatible with unitary power? Something to think about.

I'm still concerned about the viability of an atheist reactionary movement. Since I'm opposed to political activism, I see the only reactionary possibility being a cultural development laying the basis for a future reactionary regime. I'm not sure it's realistic for us to advance a reactionary culture outside of the churches. It may be the most we can be is cheerleaders for Christian reactionaries.  But their struggle is initially and primarily against progressives within their own churches, and there's little we can do to help them from outside.

Does Arnold Kling's vision of a Diamond Age style emergence of traditionalism offer an alternative? The problem is surely that the progressive regime does not permit such traditionalist groups to live within it. In Stephenson's version, I think the old order collapsed first, and "Vicky" society originated within the political vacuum.

04 December 2011

Detaching from politics

I do not read a newspaper. The only television I watch is "Doctor Who", "Strictly Come Dancing", snooker, and occasionally "Mythbusters" if I'm around when the kids are watching it. I used to to watch "Have I Got News For You", but now I find it too unpleasant to watch anything that takes politics as seriously as it does. I cannot remember ever being able to watch "Question Time" or any serious political reporting without descending into a screaming rage.

Should you be like me? Absolutely not. I am not nearly detached enough from politics. I look at Google News. I follow people on Twitter who talk about current affairs. I see the headlines on the newsstands.  All these are things that should be avoided as if they were heroin or crystal meth. Maybe a better analogy would be that they are ritually unclean and one should be cleansed or purged after exposure to them.

An example of my contaminated, junkie state is that I became aware, somehow, that Jeremy Clarkson had said that striking public sector workers should be shot. O, for a mode of living by which I could have avoided knowing such a thing!

Now I find out, from Language Log, that when he made those remarks, not only was he joking, as everybody already knows, but he was explicitly, in so many words, parodying himself and his "BBC token right-wing nutjob" persona.

With the proper perspective, this makes no difference. Whether he was making a joke about the strikers, making a joke about his other jokes, or even if he was completely serious, it still wouldn't be important enough for any intelligent person to give it a moment's thought. But for those without the proper perspective; for those, like myself, who are far too wrapped up in the political process, in that we look at the headlines on Google News a couple of times a day and know who the Prime Minister is, it is a vital reminder. This thing, which was obviously a pointless fuss about something of absolutely no importance, was actually a pointless fuss about nothing at all.

And every other story is the same."Nick Clegg has committed the government to a crackdown on excessive executive pay". What does that mean? It means nothing. It means no more than that Jeremy Clarkson wants to shoot strikers. It means less than that Holly Valance's paso doble was better than Chelsee Healey's jive. Nick Clegg is a meaningless figurehead of a meaningless junior coalition partner involved in meaningless posturing, while the decisions actually being made, which have an effect somewhere between nothing and negligible, are being made elsewhere. That sounds like I am positing some hidden conspiracy—if only! The real decisions are being made essentially at random, swayed by forces that are as large and as ill-understood as the climate, and by whoever by accident happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, for reasons that are as remote from anything we might care about as a butterfly's wings in Brazil.

Teach us to care and not to care.

Teach us to sit still.

28 October 2011

Queens and Kings

It has been agreed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that the laws governing the succession of the British Monarchy will be changed to give older sisters priority over their younger brothers.

There are pros and cons to this decision, but on balance I think it is probably for the best.

The drawbacks: first, making any change at all weakens the authority of tradition. If this can be changed because fashion requires it, what will be changed next? I'm not too disturbed by this argument, because a couple of hundred years at least of tradition will have to be upended when we restore the monarchy as the government and get rid of parliament and elections and the rest of it.

Second, I would prefer to have a King than a Queen. I worry that a woman is more likely to be dominated by an outside establishment than a man is. Note that the considerations are quite different than when drawing up requirements for a job. When appointing someone to a position, the reasonable thing is to evaluate their qualities as an individual. If the best man for the job happens to be a woman, that's perfectly fine. But a monarch is a different matter: nobody is making the appointment, the whole point is that we get who we get, and individual qualities don't come into it. Given that, we want the best odds of getting a sufficiently strong personality, and the odds seem better with a law that disproportionately selects males. A restoration is likely to need exceptionally strong characters for at least a couple of reigns.

The conventional wisdom is that of the last four ruling queens, three at least were very successful. In the cases of Victoria and Elizabeth II, I have my doubts: I think their reputations rest more on their acquiescence towards the ruling establishment than anything else. Elizabeth I kicked serious arse, though, which goes a long way towards alleviating my worries on this score.

So much for the disadvantages. The advantages are clear. The monarch must have as strong a claim to his title as possible. If this step is not taken now, it will always be floating around as a possibility, and can be used as a weapon against any King with an older sister. If we are going to have the potential uncertainty settled for good, it can only be settled in this direction.

And, as a more minor point, it is satisfying that this is being treated as significant. We are talking about which of the Queen's great-grandchildren will become monarch; the implication is that that monarchy will be with us for another three generations. A lot will happen in that time, and through all of it, the option will be there in the background to write off the demagogues and the apparatchiks and take another path.

It is also satsfying that this has not, so far, been a matter for public consultation or debate. I'm expressing an opinion here, but I don't want the decision to be based on popular opinion — much better that it be announced by a ruling clique, even if that be our current shower of politicians.

Into the bargain, they're allowing a monarch to marry a Catholic. Again, I'm unsure. I can think of no direct problem with having a monarch who is married to a Catholic. But have I thought of everything?

23 October 2011

Nothing To Envy

I've started to take more interest in North Korea. The reason for this is an embarrassment: I have argued that a possible route to a form of government closer to what I want to see is that a one-party state comes under the control of a single strong leader who is able to convert it into a hereditary monarchy, by concentrating power to himself so strongly that he is able to leave it to his heir. It later occurred to me that the country which has come closest to doing that is North Korea, now anticipating the succession of the third generation of the Kim dynasty.

Like I said, an embarrassment. Probably the one-party-state to hereditary monarchy thing isn't such a good idea. But I'm amusing myself by studying my own reaction to this inconvenience to my theories. It's interesting to play at being rather more attached to the theory than I really am, and look for cynical ways to rebut arguments based on the evidence of North Korea.

The most fun approach would be to argue that North Korea is actually really well governed, and the problems it is perceived to have are either falsified by the media, or are the results of steps taken against it by jealous republicans abroad.

It is the sheer ludicrousness of that argument that has induced me to look at the question at this "meta" level. North Korea is pretty much the poorest and most backward country in the entire world, while the part of Korea given a different form of government by an arbitrary line of latitute has become one of the dozen or so richest and most advanced. If North Korea had been merely bad, I might have seriously attempted a defence of its system, but as things are it is impossible to do so with a straight face. That situation makes some degree of self-examination inevitable: exactly how stupid does an argument have to be for me to reject it as I have the "North Korea is actually really well governed" line. And what does that say about me?

(This interesting point from Nathan Bashaw seems relevant).

Part of the question is how easy it is to dodge the problem. And here I can really do it. For one thing, we don't really know who has the power in North Korea — for all we can tell, Kim may be an empty figurehead entirely under the control of military and party officials. In any case, the problem in North Korea is not who is in charge, it is that it is attached to a collectivist economic system. Kim is legitimate not because he is the annointed heir of Kim Il-Sung, but because he is the carrier of the flame of communism.

That gives us another data point: North Korea does not in fact convince me that hereditary government is a bad idea. Despite the problem that everywhere else in the world has dumped NK-style collectivism, with the possible exception of Cuba, which... is ruled by the brother of the previous leader. Hmmm.

I don't think I can really draw conclusions about attachment to ideology here. But the question's still open: I'm going to keep an eye on the process of my adapting judgement to ideology and vice versa. I'm well placed to do that, because I am not in a social group united by my ideology — other than a few other bloggers. Also the fact that I've recently abandoned ideological positions I held for most of my adult life gives me an extra reserve of cynicism to draw on.

I already started with yesterday's post, where I deliberately went through the motions of drawing ideological conclusions from the undercover policing scandal.

Aretae has also been writing along these lines recently. One of his most important points is that there is no basis for anyone to be certain or even nearly certain about these difficult ideological issues. When he puts forward ideas, it's all 60% this and 70% that.

That's very sound. But is that the way anyone really sees things? The reason I'm able to take this detached approach to my royalist ideology is that I genuinely do have doubts. Again, that's probably because it's fairly new to me, and it's out beyond the lunatic fringe in the public debate.

For a comparison, take the issue of climate change. I am persuaded by the evidence, and have written here, that there is considerable room for doubt of the pronouncements of the climate science experts. I claim that the evidence tends to support the position that dangerous climate change is not happening and will not happen.

That's fine. But what I haven't said in so many words is that I have a deep inner certainty that anthropogenic global warming is all rubbish. That certainty cannot be justified by a reasoned analysis of the evidence: in no way do I have sufficient knowledge or understanding of the science to achieve such confidence in any conclusion. Where does this certainty come from?

If it is simply overconfidence, that's almost the least bad possibility. At least in that case, the direction of my conclusion is based on reason. What's more worrying is the possibility that the inner certainty is totally independent of my reason, and the reasoned conclusions I have drawn are only rationalisations of my faith.

If that's the case, where did the faith come from? I would have to have made some kind of intuitive, rather than rational, judgement on one side of a very complex issue. What is the source of that intuition? I don't know, though I could take a few guesses. Is that intuition to be trusted? In general, absolutely not. There are too many cases of people reaching opposite certainty on the basis of intuition, and there is no basis for judging one person's intuition against another.

Now maybe my intuition, unlike yours, is reliable. It does have a fairly decent track record. Also, I'm not in the habit of being certain: of all the other things I have written about on this blog, I don't think there are any that I have the same inner certainty about that I have about AGW.


In The Guardian, a journalist tells of her experience of having her email account hacked.

"The realisation dawns that the email account is the nexus of the modern world. It's connected to just about every part of our daily life, and if something goes wrong, it spreads. But the biggest effect is psychological. On some level, your identity is being held hostage.

"The company that presents itself as the friendly face of the web doesn't have a single human being to talk to in these circumstances."

I love free stuff. I use free blog services and free email services, and I see it as a double advantage that, as well as not costing me anything, these services are somewhat at arms length from my identity. Possession of a few keys and passwords are what make me "anomalyuk", nothing more than that.

My real-world identity is another matter. My personal email accounts, with which I support my personal relationships and business relationships, are provided to me — here's a novelty — as a paying customer. The providers' customer services may be good or bad, but at least they exist and I can use them. It makes no difference to a Gmail user how good Google's customer service is, because Ms Davis and other Gmail users are not Google's customers at all.

I actually pay a couple of quid a month just for my email service, but that isn't necessary. Like you, Rowena Davis has an ISP — possibly more than one, if she gets her mobile separate from her home internet. They will provide her an email address, as part of the service she is paying for. They know it belongs to her, because she pays the bill, and if, as the bill-payer, she phones up and needs it reset, they will do it for her. However, for this service which she correctly observes is the nexus of her life, she has chosen to rely instead on a handed-out-on-the-street freebie instead.

I hereby declare that to be a Bad Idea.

Davis's story links to another recent one, of a 79-year-old charity volunteer who went through the same ordeal. Twice. The police told her: don't use free email services. Her conclusion at the end of the article: the police need to devote more resources. Not her — she's sticking with free.

There is one drawback with using your ISP's email service, which is that you may lose it if you want to change ISPs. As it happens, two generations of free services have come and pretty much gone (remember bigfoot? rocketmail?) in the time I've been with my current ISP, but that may be a fluke. And in any case, the old addresses are still supported.

If that concerns you, then do what I do and pay for it. One leading provider charges 69p a month for email hosting, plus £2.99 a year for domain registration — giving you an address that is transferable across providers and that looks more professional than a vodaphone or gmail address. And they have 24x7 telephone support. Alternatively, Yahoo! do an email service for $19.99 a year. Bigfoot, it emerges, are still around, and charge $19.95 a quarter. Is £1 or £3 a month really not worth paying for "the nexus of the modern world"? I should emphasize: it's not just that paying for the email makes it feasible for the provider to offer you some level of support: the mere fact of there being a payment makes it enormously easier for them to identify you, and therefore to clear up these fraud issues.

The surprising thing is that they're not marketing this more aggressively. The problems Davies had have been common for a few years: everyone in her position should be paying for decent email, but the providers aren't advertising on that basis. Google don't offer a premium service like Yahoo's, Microsoft charge $9.95 a month, which is a bit steep, and the services just aren't marketed.

ISPs could offer domain and mail hosting as an extra, but the consumer-oriented ones don't, or don't push it.

Possibly the providers are worried about adverse selection: if they advertise on the basis of being able to handle hacking incidents, they're offering hostages to fortune in terms of the inevitable dissatisfied customers undermining their name with complaints.

As a disinterested (and irresponsible) third party, I will do it for them: Do not use Gmail. Do not use MSN Hotmail, unless you are paying the $9.95 a month for premium (which I don't recommend, because it's too much). Use your ISP's email account if you're not planning to move or switch in the next five years. Otherwise get a personal domain and get a basic email service from the likes of 1and1, or, if that's too complicated (and it is a bit complicated), get Yahoo! Plus for $19.95 a year. I'm not recommending these through experience, just through looking for email services that cost a little money and offer telephone support.

If you're not willing to pay, or you're not willing to give up Gmail (which, I admit, is a very nicely done service), then remember that you have nobody to whine to if your Gmail is hacked. You have other options, and you have chosen to trust your email to a company you have no commercial relationship with. I have nothing against Google, but if you want a company to have responsibilities towards you, you have to pay them.

20 October 2011

Who has the power to authorise perjury?

One of the most striking things about the last few decades is that relatively low-ranking elements of the state apparatus have arrogated power to themselves without any legal or legislative basis, and that this has been calmly accepted by the public at large.

Because these seizures of power are technically illegal, they can be challenged in the courts, and occasionally are. See for instance Neil Herron's campaign against imposition of arbitrary parking rules by local councils.

While the courts can, and technically should, rule in favour of eccentrics such as Herron, they sometimes exhibit reluctance to contradict the common assumptions of society, which are that someone who works for the council or the police or a government department can do whatever they decide within the area relevant to their job.

Because it is so accepted, it is not easy to spot, and only becomes really obvious when they overreach. What is interesting about the police decision to "authorize" an undercover officer to give false personal and identity details under oath in a criminal prosecution is not whether they will actually get away with it this time (I assume they won't), but that they ever imagined they could.

The same effect was evident with the MP expenses affair: I quoted at length Nadine Dorries' insistence that a group of party whips and civil servants had encouraged MPs to make false expenses claims, and that that actually made it OK.

A more significant example is the Foot and Mouth cull back in 2001, in which, it is widely argued, the culling of healthy cattle was done without any legal authority.

At this stage in the post, I should turn these observations into a neat argument in favour of whatever broad political position I am in favour of at the moment (formalism, monarchy, etc.) I suppose I just about could manage it: lines of authority are unclear, nobody ultimately admits to being responsible for anything, so people on the spot feel obliged to just assume responsibility, blah, blah, blah. If I thought about it and worked on it for a while, I might really come to take it seriously as an argument, but right now it feels a little dishonest, so I'd rather just put the whole thing forward as an observation and a point for further consideration.

15 September 2011


One issue that comes up when you declare that the last 400 years of political "progress" are a bad thing is slavery. Lobbyists, the International Olympic Committee, sustainability facilitators, interior design licensing, bank bailouts, the Milk Marketing Board, these are indeed changes for the worse, but are you saying you want to bring back slavery?

There are a couple of answers to that. One is to argue that the lot of many in the modern world is no better than slavery, so that, even if slavery is bad, it's not necessarily worse than what we have now.

In "The Servile State", Hiliaire Belloc predicted that capitalism would necessarily lead ultimately to nationalised slavery, as the state would be forced to take responsibility for the poor landless, and would still need them to work.

That things haven't evolved quite as Belloc predicted is due only to the decline in the social usefulness of unskilled work. When, from time to time, the question comes up of forcing the unemployed to do some kind of government-organised work in exchange for their handouts, there is only a little opposition premised on the basis that it is unfair to inhumane to the slaves themselves. The idea fails on the grounds that it will cost more than paying them not to work, and that it will constitute cheap competition against those that are in jobs. The fact that the unemployable are in essence slaves of the state is not widely disputed.

(Of course, the distributivists did not themselves intend this argument as a defence of older forms of slavery; they sought a compromise between feudalism and capitalism)

The true argument for slavery is this: that those who are not able to support themselves are necessarily slaves, and abolition ultimately amounts to an exercise in creative linguistics.

A liberal will object, correctly, that ability to support oneself is a can of worms. The 'inability' of the propertyless is an artificial condition. None of us are able to support ourselves if every hand is against us, and very few would manage in the hypothetical, and impossible, state where neigbours neither helped nor hindered us. The ability of a particular person to support himself is a social fact as much as a physical one.

Even so, given any social arrangement, there are those who can, in and with that society, support themselves, and those who cannot. The distributivists aimed, admirably, for a society of smallholders in which all could live free, but even if their plans were implemented there would still be some failures.

The natural arrangement for such failures has been demonstrated for us by the Irish travellers of Leighton Buzzard. If a person cannot live independently, someone must take charge of him, and if they can profit by doing so, then a solution has been found.

It is alleged that the workers in the charge of the travellers were not looked after at all well. That may be so, though a significant proportion of those "rescued" appear willing to go back. But when this natural arrangement is illegal, and therefore carried out only among that section of the population which cannot be policed without the UN getting involved, it is not reasonable to expect it to be done very impressively.

The conditions of slavery are a matter of compromise: legitimately a matter of public policy. The bulk importation and inhumane handling of captured tribesmen from a remote continent quite understandably gave slavery a bad name. I am not here to argue for any and all forms of slavery. However, drawing the line of what is unacceptable to include all forms of coercion is clearly an error when so many cannot actually live adequately without being coerced somehow. There have been many varieties of slavery, and I will use the term serfdom to emphasise a distinction from the form of slavery most familiar to us from history and fiction, but not to pretend that I am not talking about a form of slavery.

Back to those conditions: ideally, all those capable of freedom would be free, and the incapable should be given the best chance of becoming both capable and free. But there needs to be some compromise here. The welfare state is geared to the capable but unfortunate, is grossly unsuitable for the most incapable, while at the same time dragging far too many of the marginally capable down into dependency. There seems ample room to improve on it with a system of humane serfdom under which a serf is subject to a lord who his responsible for his support and humane treatment. Such an arrangement would probably require a long-term commitment on both sides, in order to work adequately. The lord has insufficient motivation to improve the serf's knowledge and behaviour if he can wander out onto the job market as soon as he has learned enough skill and discipline to do so. I think it is essential that such a step would require some compensation to the lord, or a minimum period, or both. At the same time, every capable person who is not free is a cost of the sytem, so there should be some calibration to minimise that cost. It is worth bearing in mind that assisting those who would most benefit from exiting serfdom - by raising the necessary compensation - would be an obvious and worthy aim of charity.

All this really only leaves one question to answer; one which has probably occured to the reader, which is, "are you actually serious you mad loony???!??"

My answer is, "kind of". The argument above is not presented to convince: I am not convinced by it myself. Rather, as I intimated initially, I am exploring the limits of the reactionary position.

If slavery is unthinkably evil, then the political wisdom of most historical civilisations is basically disqualified by it. If it is defensible, even in some limited way, then that wisdom becomes relevant again, not as infallible authority, but as something to be taken into account. Do I want to reintroduce medieval serfdom? It's not high on my to-do list. But I refuse to accept that political thought begins in the 1780s.

20 August 2011

Public Order

Distractions have prevented me from writing recently, which is a shame. This tweet of Old Holborn's is worth a book, as I believe it, bizarre as it sounds, to be true, but it is over a month old, and I haven't got round to it.

On the other hand, my silence has at least prevented me from embarrassing myself over the riots, since they look very different with hindsight than they did at the time. The one public comment I made was this, which is not too bad.

The riots lasted two nights in London, with a third in Birmingham and Manchester. They were in no way out of the ordinary; just something that happens every few years in the warm bit of summer.

The police response was initially hesitant and inadequate, but, within 48 hours, that was corrected. My theory was that the police originally thought that these were good rioters, like the anti-cuts riots in March. Good rioters have to be allowed to riot: it is just part of their duty as citizens.

However, as Wikipedia tells us, the 2011 London anti-cuts protest is Not to be confused with 2011 England riots. Those are bad riots, and the police must keep order in the streets, whatever it takes. "Kettling" of good rioters is an infringement of their civil liberties, but when bad rioters are running around, the police must find excuses for not having water cannon and baton rounds to hand.

I don't think they can be blamed for their confusion. I'm not sure if they weren't aware of the distinction between good and bad rioters, or if, like Jody McIntyre, they mistakenly thought that these were good rioters. In any case, once the police understood the distinction, the trouble was cleared up pretty quickly.

23 July 2011

Weak leaders and bad leaders

Chris Dillow brings up the well-known puzzle that inconsistency is far more damaging to leaders than it ought to be: politicians are so terrified of being seen to change their positions that it is almost impossible to make a reasoned change.

Their fear is not unjustified; it is forced on them by the voters, who prize "strong" character in a candidate above good decision-making.

The puzzle is why this should be, when the quality of government so obviously suffers as a result.

I imagine it is a holdover from days of stable leadership. As I discussed last year: in the days of monarchies, the worst thing that could happen was that the King would be weak and the state would come to be dominated by competing factions seeking to control him. A strong but stupid or immoral monarch would do less damage. It is very explicit in histories written before the present era, that weak king equals bad king, and strong king equals good king.

It seems that the danger of weak leaders is so deeply ingrained that it survives in the popular mind to this day — even though the demise of monarchy has made it irrelevant. (It may even be innate, but that is speculation). With democracy, you get all the disadvantages of a weak king whether the individual politicians are weak or strong, so there is no good reason to prefer a strong personality over one that is open to reasoned argument.

21 July 2011

Behind the Phone Hacking story

The story about the News of the World illicitly obtaining mobile phone voicemail messages for use in their stories has been around for years, but in the last couple of weeks it has gone stratospheric.

The sudden jump in perceived importance has looked suspicious to some — I was out of the country at the time, but it seems to have started up around the 4th of July, and none of the allegations involved were actually new, though possibly they were better substantiated than previously. (It is a hazard that faces every Private Eye subscriber that stories get mainstream attention only after one is bored of reading about them for years).

On the other hand the timing may be in significant part due to long delays in the criminal investigation; delays that are plausibly suspected to be due to the offenders' close links to senior politicians in all parties and to the police.

There is a air of fake outrage about the whole thing. The facts of the case are reasonably clear, but the attitudes struck don't quite ring true.

Every fictional investigative journalist has his contacts in the police to supply information, often in exchange for gifts. Telephone company contacts are a staple also. Further, the duo of the reporter and the private investigator/hacker describes the protagonists of the epochal Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

That probably isn't the point though. Journalists get a lot of leeway when researching stories about the powerful that is denied them when dredging up sex scandals about celebrities and sob stories from crime victims — the sort of muck-raking that has been the News of the World's core business for a century. The fictional journalists generally resort to the illegal acquisition of information at the dramatic stage in the story where they know roughly what they are going to print but just need a little more, which they can't get any other way. They don't usually just fish for dirt in celebrities' voicemails because it's less work than going outside, as their real-life counterparts seem to have been doing.

All the same, I am far from convinced that what has been going on was restricted to the News International stable, or that it is substantially different from what has happened for decades. Someone else must remember "Benji the Binman", even if bribing servants for gossip is not as widespread an activity today as it was in the 1920s.

Obviously the most important questions are about the political power of the press — the power to topple governments, thwart investigations, shape the public perception of events. And I think that is source of the fakeness, because that is a subject which it is impossible to address rationally in public.

The reason is that even asking the question undermines the assumptions on which the rationale for democracy rests. Citizens have votes because they are autonomous. If voters can be swayed in large numbers by newspapers (as everyone knows is the case), then they are not autonomous at all. To ask who should be able to decide how other people vote, and under what conditions and restrictions, is to produce cognitive dissonance in any democrat.

The trick is to get outraged by the political power the press has, without admitting where that power actually comes from — the malleability of the irresponsible voter. Only when actual malpractice by the press is found can the suppressed outrage be expressed, and then it is multiplied, since at other times the evil of the press is just as real, but cannot be articulated without admitting the basic flaw in democracy. Vince Cable's demise exemplified the previous situation: he could "declare war" on Rupert Murdoch, but he could not satisfactorily explain why. Everyone knew why, but it could not be put into words, and so he was sacked.

Hence the situation today. The malpractice was real, and deplorable, but the outrage is out of proportion, because the true crimes of the press are entirely respectable, and nobody can imagine a way to put a stop to them.

14 June 2011

Froude on Democratic War

The newspapers and popular orators, accustomed to canvass and criticise the actions of statesmen at home, forgot that prudence suggested reticence about the affairs of others with whom we had no right to interfere. The army was master of France, and to speak of its chief in such terms as those in which historians describe a Sylla or a Marius was not the way to maintain peaceful relations with dangerous neighbours. Neither the writers nor the speakers wished for war with France. They wished only for popularity as the friends of justice and humanity; but war might easily have been the consequence unless pen and tongue could be taught caution.

- "The Earl of Beaconsfield", J. A. Froude, Chapter X

I have a half-written post on Amina Arraf, but that about covers it.

On the next page, an echo of Mogadishu and Manhattan:

The indirect consequences of fatuities are sometimes worse than their immediate effects. It was known over the world that England, France, Turkey, and Italy had combined to endeavour to crush Russia, and had succeeded only in capturing half of a single Russian city. The sepoy army heard of our failures, and the centenary of the battle of Plassy was signalised by the Great Mutiny.

22 May 2011

Left and Right

A commenter accuses me of "basing the whole of my political philosophy on the seating plan of the French Revolutionary Parliament" because I described someone as "not a lefty".

Twenty years ago, I was happily drawing Nolan charts, representing social liberalism and economic liberalism as orthogonal, and all sorts of other issues as being capable of being decided independently.

Back then, I saw politics as an intellectual pursuit, and policy positions as the result of analysing the justifications and effects of policies.

Meanwhile, on Planet Earth, actual politics was going on. Politics is about who has power, and you don't get power by being on the fringe. You do it as part of a dominant coalition. If you are serious about politics, you support all the positions your coalition holds, whether you really believe the arguments or not. Anyone who is not with the party is against it.

Therefore whether any given idea is placed on the left wing or the right wing may well be arbitrary from an intellectual point of view, but it is an ineluctable necessity from the point of view of a politician. If you are a left-winger in Britain or America today, you'd better support renewable energy and oppose nuclear. Maybe in a couple of decades today's left-wing policy will be a right-wing position, but that doesn't matter today. Also, you must only take as strong a position as the main left coalition does, because if you take a stronger position than them, you're an extremist, which is always bad. Again, an extreme position today may be moderate in ten years, or vice versa, but there is a moderate-left and a moderate-right position on any issue, defined by the two coalitions competing for power.

If you really have strong policy views of your own on a particular issue, you can try to change your coalition's position on that issue, but if you don't hold with your coalition, you're not doing real politics.

For that reason, there always are just two sides that matter, and those two sides each have a position on everything. So it makes perfect sense to describe politics in terms of "left" and "right", in the eighteenth century, the twenty-first century, or arguably even, as Alison Plowden does, in the sixteenth. Any given policy position might be left-wing in one country or one generation and right-wing in another, and the main axis of left-right opposition might be social policy, economic policy, or foreign policy, but there have to be two sides.

Related: Fascism: Right or Left

07 May 2011

What a Shame

Well, this is embarrassing.

Only weeks after explaining that I didn't care about the AV referendum, I now find that I'm really pissed off with the result.

I haven't actually changed my position, that "I think AV would give voters slightly more influence than they have now. I am quite unsure as to whether that's a good thing or a bad thing". I think what really has me upset is that it would have have been so interesting to see how party politics would have developed under AV.

Would any of the major parties have split? Would we have got a lot of independents running, and some of them winning? Would the total vote of the three main parties have dropped to about 50%, with several outsiders each picking up 10-20% of 1st preference votes in most constituencies? Now we'll never know. It's like having a favourite TV programme cancelled half way through.

In case that sounds shallow, I should point to a few old posts, where I developed the case that the entertainment value of voting actually outweighs any political value. Because this was back in 2007-8, it applies even if, unlike me today, you do believe that voting has some political value.

04 May 2011

One Man One Vote

Sometimes the way to get to a good explanation is to start with a bad one.

The opponents of AV make the claim that it means that voters for fringe parties get their vote counted more than voters for major parties. This seemed a stupid objection, but I couldn't quite explain why, clearly and simply.

Yesterday I read John Humphrys' complete failure to explain why (via Matt Ridley), and it became obvious:

Yes, in AV, your vote can be counted more than once — whether you vote for a fringe party or a winner or runner-up. If there are only two rounds of counting in a particular example, then the person A who votes for the eliminated candidate gets their vote counted twice: for their first choice in the first round, and for their second choice in the second round.

The voter B for any other candidate also gets their vote counted twice, for their first choice both times.

So in the last round, the one that actually decides the winner, voter A gets counted for their second choice and voter B for their first.

That doesn't settle the larger argument of course: you can still argue whether AV has a tendency to produce centrist coalitions and whether that is a bad thing. But there should be no argument claiming that AV is less fair than FPTP, for what that's worth.

(Disclaimer: I argue about this out of habit, not because I think it matters)

02 May 2011

Goings-on in Kakul

Guess I picked the right day to write about extrajudicial state violence...

In fact, yesterday's principles apply very easily. The rule of law is a good thing, but it is an instrumental good, not a transcendental imperative. Every state will defend itself from enemies, and if that applies to the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, it applies also to the United States of America. And if the line beyond which the government needs to abandon the rule of law and impose order winds through Stokes Croft, then there is no doubt which side of it Bin Laden was on.

As it happens, I do not advocate an immediate Jacobite rising to replace the rotten Whig parliament and restore God's anointed. But if I did, David Cameron would be quite justified in launching a cruise missile at my house.

Update: In the comments, newt0311 suggests "All sovereign entities are above the law". Above, yes, but I would like to see the sovereign choose to act according to law. That's closer to law in the scientific sense than the political sense, in that the essence is that society works better if the state's actions can be predicted, rather than the sovereign being answerable to some oxymoronic super-sovereign body.

But in comparison to keeping order on the streets, that's a luxury, as I described here in 2009.

01 May 2011

Charlie Veitch

There are accusations that the police illegally detained various malcontents who were intending to carry on public demonstrations of various kinds in London on the day of the Royal Wedding.

That seems on the face of it to be a good thing. If the police can't keep the peace for a Royal ceremony, then there really isn't much point in having them.

Having said that, the rule of law is actually important. If the police are acting with impunity beyond their legal powers, relying instead on popular support, then they are indeed, as the malcontents claim, moving in the direction of fascism. And I am on record as being opposed to fascism, even in comparison to our crappy democracy.

While as a matter of principle I think opposition to any given regime ought not to be tolerated, because such opposition serves to encourage politics, within a democracy like ours the existence of legitimate public protest is a key part of the political formula which maintains the valuable but illusory legitimacy of the regime.

The problem with illegally suppressing protest, therefore, is that it is self-defeating: it undermines the justification for the existence of the regime itself.

There have to be limits, though. It is of little value that the rule of law is observed by the authorities, if there is violence on the streets. If the choice is between order and law, we must have order first.

Really we should have both. The inability of the authorities to lawfully keep the peace, in Stokes Croft or Soho Square, is one sign among many, that our system of law is broken, strangled, like so many things, by bureaucracy and empty ritual, most importantly in the sheer inefficiency of the legal process.

Charlie Veitch ought to have been legally arrested, tried, convicted, and fined a couple of hundred quid. It may be that there was no law that actually applied, or it may be that it was simply too much work to go through that whole process; either way, the practical alternative was to arrest him (possibly illegally), hold him for 23 hours and 45 minutes, then release him. Any attempt to act against the possibly illegal arrest is subject to the same handicap of the unusable legal system. This situation benefits nobody.

Peter Hitchens blames the Scarman Report. That may indeed be the most significant step in the hobbling of the legal system, but it is just an example of the senescence of our institutions, which mean that ultimately, even with its bullshit "democratic legitimacy", the present system of government cannot last. And when it falls, it will probably, as Charlie Veitch has seen, decay into fascism rather than being replaced by something better.

29 April 2011

On Pageantry

Watching the festivities today, I heard from several directions, that Pageantry is something very British, and something that Britain can be especially proud of.

I can only assume that the people saying these things have been in very few foreign countries. On the whole, pageantry is something Britain does exceptionally little of.

In the USA, every high school has a marching band, and public celebrations on the scale of a Royal Wedding are fixtures in the calendar, taking months of preparation every year. The New Year Tournament of Roses typically draws a live attendance of a million; the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade gets an annual TV audience not much smaller than the population of England. Attempts in Britain to hold comparable events are tiny, amateurish, and attract only bemusement from spectators.

So let's hear no more of the "British love of pageantry". Are their conclusions to draw instead from the relative lack of public celebration in Britain?

One point is that parades such as Mardi Gras and Saint Patrick's day are Roman Catholic in origin, and were suppressed in Britain by the Reformation. The untrustworthiness of the weather here is perhaps of some significance also; we were very lucky today with weather, since there is now a thunderstorm here in Luton.

The most conventional observation would be that the Britain's Royal events are elitist, while American festivals are inclusive. Or, to put it another way, what's the point of having a Royal Family if you have to organise your own parades? That would be almost as stupid as having a Royal Family and electing a government.

17 April 2011

Theology of the Arab Spring

A few thoughts arise from whyiamnot's latest.

The first is to restate the huge benefits that Western democratic governments get from the illusion that the people are actually in control. People can go out in the street, change politicians, and think they've achieved something, while at the same time accepting that the establishment will carry on ruling with a passivity and fatalism that is the envy of every generalissimo-turned-president-for-life.

But it is the comparison with the demonstrations of the "Arab Spring" which really got me thinking.

There are two kinds of mob, and at first it's sometimes hard to tell which kind one is.

First is the real revolutionary mob. It is a simple fact that if a large number of people are allowed to congregate in a capital city, they can physically overthrow the government. The government is, after all, right there. All they have to do is break the doors down and take it.

The second kind are demonstrators. If the same number of people just wave banners, they can cause traffic delays, but that's about it. They can only get rid of the government if they choose to, by becoming the first kind. That can happen, because just demonstrating does prove that the government hasn't got the will to stop them, and that indicates that a revolution is possible where previously it was assumed not to be. That was largely the mechanism in Eastern Europe twenty-five years ago. In some cases the mob actually happened (Romania), in most as far as I recall the proof that it was possible was enough for the regime to quit before any actual lynchings started.

In a state ruled by fear, then, the fact of a mob in the street is the end. Everyone knows that, if allowed, the mob will remove the government, so proving it to be possible makes it inevitable. If the state has wider support, though, a demonstration can be a bluff. Mubarrak seemed quite willing to just let the demonstrators hang about Tahir Square, and they showed no signs of actually taking advantage of their position.

They won anyway though. That is because they were playing a different game altogether. Their banners were not for Egyptians, either in their houses, in the army, or in the ministries. The banners were in English -- they were for Americans to read.

The democratic religion says that all governments everywhere ought to be subject to the will of the people. Given a clear demonstration that the people oppose a government, democrats have a religious duty to assist them, even if they themselves actually like the government in question.

The actions of the US and EU in Egypt and Libya only make the slightest bit of sense when seen as the fulfilling of an unwelcome religious obligation. Mubarrak was shoved out easily enough, but Gadaffi required a bit more action. However, it is obvious that nobody's heart is really in Libyan regime change. Reluctantly, a few planes were flown over, a few missiles shot off. The Americans have apparently now done their bit and gone home. There was never a plan for victory, because there was never a desire for victory, only a duty to "help", fulfilled with the same enthusiasm as dropping a fiver into the collection plate at the end of the service.

14 April 2011


Bonald of Throne and Altar is aiming to produce a "neofeudalism", which should be interesting. He opens with the challenging line, "We shall never truly defeat socialism until we abolish private property."

To be clear, my own view is different: the problem is not that we got rid of feudalism, it's that the one last obsolete feudal institution that needed to be destroyed unfortunately remains.

I don't think feudalism works at all outside a primarily agricultural economy. If the government is made up of landowners who have the bulk of economic power, then their interests are both fairly uniform, and fairly consistent. Compare with the present day, where the interests of civil servants, bankers, professors, property developers, union leaders, arms manufacturers and media providers are all at odds, and vary rapidly, meaning that government made up of those groups is mostly concerned with internal disputes rather than overall effectiveness.

11 April 2011

Authority and Anarchy

Aretae has a problem with authority.
I've never been able to understand authority as anything other than thugs with bigger sticks
Well, sure. That goes without saying. But thugs with bigger sticks are a fact of life, unless you set out yourself to be the biggest thug of all. Which, despite his having "chosen reason over authority", does not seem to have been Aretae's plan (I'm not sure exactly how to go about it, but I doubt it would leave much time for cookery).

This is a step back from our previous discussion, because it's not about formalism versus democracy, or monarchy versus neocameralism, it's about law versus anarchy.

The metaphor I would prefer, though, is not a "step back", but a step down. Morality, or "Right Conduct", like system architectures, has layers*.

The base layer is absolute imperatives. These pretty much have to be supernatural, or else non-existent. Aretae believes that nobody can give him an order that he absolutely must obey. I agree. At that layer, I am an anarchist:
There is no God but Man
Man has the right to live by his own law
blah blah blah...
Man has the right to kill those who would thwart those rights.
Having deified my own reason and my own appetites above all alleged authority, I can now follow them to get what I want.

The technology risk/governance types in a large organisation come up with rules about what a programmer on the coalface is allowed to do to the company's precious systems. They frequently come up with rules for application code, and rules for configuration. If they're not careful, or not expert, they end up with definitions that either classify java bytecode as configuration for the jvm, or else classify users' spreadsheets as application code. Code and configuration really aren't different things, they're just different layers. They smell the same.

If Aretae starts to construct rules of thumb for how to act by his own reason for his own appetites, those rules will smell a lot like morality. They may not actually be ultimate imperatives that he has to obey, but then java bytecode isn't actually machine instructions that are executed by a CPU.

So when I argue for authority, I do so not on the basis of ultimate morality, but on the basis of what works better for me. I don't shy away from the words, however, because of the remarkable resemblance between what I reason to be the most utilitarian form of government, and what was once believed to have been imposed by supernatural forces. It is too close to be coincidental — I think for most people, they would be better off accepting the old morality and getting on with their cooking.

Further, the "no authority" attitude is not antithetical to formalism. The real opponents of formalism are those who do believe that some forms of government have an ultimate moral legitimacy that others lack. Aretae and I believe that all governments are ultimately "thugs with bigger sticks", and the argument is not about which has more moral authority, but about which works better for us. That argument of course remains unresolved, but that's because TSID, not because of different fundamental assumptions.

* Also like onions. And ogres. Both of which smell.

10 April 2011

Secular Reaction

My musings on religion and authority from last week have gone round Vladimir to Foseti to Aretae.

There are two ways to look at the historical relationship between the reformation, the enlightenment, and the unfortunate rise of the concept of popular sovereignty.

One is that privilege can only be tolerated if it is seen as having divine sanction: that if man denies God, he denies that anyone can have rightful authority over him. The reason popular sovereignty followed atheism is that it naturally follows from atheism. I thought it was worth throwing that idea out there because it's plausible and some serious thinkers have proposed it.

There is an alternative view, however, that the old order had used religion to bolster itself, and when rationalism started to show religious beliefs to be questionable, the political system associated with it came under immediate suspicion. According to this narrative, the reactionary case must be made on a rationalist foundation, or else it is always in danger of being undercut again.

That's my own view; since I have been persuaded by the secular argument for authority, it's evidently possible.

The dangerous factor is that what I call "the secular argument for authority" is non-obvious. If you start from scratch to produce a political theory from philosophical foundations, you're not likely to hit it — it really helps to have the evidence of the results of a naive rationalist political system in front of you to lead in the right direction.

03 April 2011

Political Formula

I wrote the other day that you cannot just create a state of any particular design. Why even discuss designs of states, then?

What I am hoping to take part in is the building of a political formula that will eventually produce a better form of government. To borrow the metaphor used by biologists to explain the role of genes in development, it's not a blueprint, it's a recipe.

Political formulae were brought up by Mencius Moldbug in his post Democracy as an Adaptive Fiction. "A political formula is a belief that makes the ruled accept their rulers". But Moldbug understates just how adaptive the fiction is. He says, "An adaptive fiction is a misperception of reality that, unlike most such misperceptions, manages to outcompete the truth". But it is more than that. A democratic state survives because of the adaptive fiction that democracy is a desirable form of government. But if that fiction were to collapse, so would the state — and it would be messy. In the short run, the false belief that democracy is the best form of government is adaptive not just for the government, but for the believers themselves.

And vice versa. While the political formula of democracy lasts, no undemocratic form of government will work very well. One might be imposed by force, but the force will cause at least as much damage as our democracy does today.

Therefore what I am pushing is not a program of monarchism or any other formalism, but rather the political formula that will support it and make it work well. The formula comes first, and the government later.

The key element of the political formula is that governing is a task, and, other things being equal, those doing that task will do it better if they are not interfered with. I then go further and claim that this is a vital principle that it is worth making sacrifices to maintain — that even if the current ruler is blatantly making a mess of things, in all but the most extreme circumstances it is better in the long run to let it happen and hope for better weather than to act to sort things out and set a precedent that in the long run will lead all the way back to democracy.

There are a handful of minor ideas that go with it, like belief in the value of the virtues of personal loyalty, family loyalty and patriotism. They are not essential, but they help.

We could throw in the divine right of kings, but I'd rather not. I don't actually believe it's true, and the problem with a false premiss of that sort is that, even if its first order effects are beneficial, the most able reasoners will reason from it to ever more lunatic conclusions. While our democracy actually works moderately well, many of its worst effects are due to the absurd theorems derived correctly from its political formula.

It is argued by some — Bruce Charlton, for instance — that it is not possible to create respect for authority in a culture which is secular and largely atheist. They could be right. Atheism and Democracy came in as partners and reinforced each other, and now I am trying to keep the atheism and lose the democracy.

I have reasons for thinking it possible. As the old order died, there were those who tried to retain it who had a very cynical view of the religious angle. I found a lovely quote recently:

he allowed, indeed, of the necessity and legality of Resistance in some extraordinary cases ... [he] was of opinion that this ought to be kept from the knowledge of the people, who are naturally too apt to resist. That the Revolution was not to be boasted of and made a precedent, but we ought to throw a mantle over it, and rather call it Vacancy or Abdication.

That is Bishop Hooper (I think this one), described in "Tudor England" by Barry Coward. "Resistance" here means opposing the rightful ruler, and "the Revolution" is the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. Consistent with my formula, Hooper believed the revolution was a good move but a bad precedent. Note that, though a bishop, he is reasoning on entirely secular grounds.

He and the other Tories of the time hoped to restore the form of monarchic government with new personnel. They lost, but I don't believe their loss was inevitable. They had majority support in the country, but lacked the intellectual elite (again, I recommend The Kit-Cat Club by Ophelia Field). However, as usual, Left and Right in this debate had differing visions of what the results of "progress" would be, and those on the Right were proved much more correct by history. That is why I do not believe I am attempting to reassemble an exploded bomb back to the moment before explosion. If the Whigs had known then what we know now, most of them would not have been Whigs.

Aretae's A-G

Aretae lists 7 points of disagreement, but in the main for me, I don't disagree with them, they're mostly "yes, but..."

Autonomy. Among the top values people seek, indeed. But the state is very rarely the biggest limiter of autonomy. Where it is, something has gone very wrong. On the other hand, I have little patience with those who happen to exercise their autonomy in attempting to overthrow the state, and then get all indignant when the state runs them over with a tank.

Bad government, and the purpose of the state. States don't need purposes, they happen without one. The nearest thing to a purpose any state has for me is the purpose of preventing a worse state arising.

Chaos. This is one where we agree. Instability succumbs to stability, but too much stability fails in the long run. The question is which is more stable: a broad-based state to which every change is a threat, or a narrow-based state which is more independent of the society it rules, but less limited in what interventions it can make.

Design. Again, agreed. But the exercise of central power is not the same as the existence of central power. Central power is exercised to excess today because each element of the large ruling coalition can exercise only a tiny fraction or the central power, and gains power within the coalition by exercising that fraction. The holders of central power collectively do not benefit from its exercise, but that collective interest is not expressed by constituent individual interests.

Ethics. Ideas of what is ethical are very malleable over a timescale of generations. I suspect that the currently mainstream ethical positions of western societies are incompatible with good government, and I am trying to change them, more than trying to change government directly.

Font of power. The most difficult for me. What enables a narrow coalition to retain power? One answer is the Ethics. For most of history, loyalty to superiors and acceptance of one's desginated place were high virtues. Today, possession of any unearned privilege is unethical. If a move back towards the older ideas could be achieved, would that enable an under-strength coalition to rule peacefully? Or am I idealising a mythical old morality that never really existed?

Game theory. We go full circle. Yes, a narrow based coalition will be more acquisitive, but is that a bigger problem than that of Design above: that the goodies that a broad-based coalition distributes will be distributed on the basis of BDUF? I resent what the state spends for my alleged benefit far more than what its members steal for themselves.

Practical Matters

Clarifications from Aretae and Whyiamnot show, I think, that we are all seeking the same things. The "rules" that Aretae wishes to preserve are not political rules but the rules of private property and economic freedom that actually benefit non-politicians, while Why emphasises that he supports voting not as a right, but as a practical method for ensuring better government, and argues that the vote should be taken away from state dependents (and he says he is not a reactionary!)

But perhaps I am not a reactionary. The aim of this theoretical discussion is not to form a movement that will overthrow David Cameron and install an absolute monarchy, either of Stuarts or of Battenburgs. Our tangled old democracy has its benefits (not least that the random shocks of technological change, which I mentioned recently, are less likely to tear it apart).

Its resistance to shocks, however, is also a resistance to improvement. Why wishes to restrict the franchise, but I can find no example of that ever happening: though there is usually opposition to any given extension of the franchise, once it is won, it is won for ever*. There are many other ratchets operating. Even what we are left with today would be worth preserving, if it could be preserved — but our societies contain an ever higher proportion of people with no expectation of working, ever more entrenched tax-eating agglomerations with diminishing value to anyone, ever more expensive government.

It can't be turned round. Thatcher got rid of the miners and the steelworkers, but only because new, stronger public-sector bodies were taking their place. The teachers and the social workers and the environmental consultants and the privatisation IPO advisers didn't need the miners, so they let them go, but the total payroll never went down.

What we have is not too bad, but it cannot stop getting worse, — Why clearly scores a point when he turns my "realistically oppose progressivism" demand back on reactionaries — the question my theoretical pieces are addressing is what we do next.

When is "next"? I haven't the foggiest. Democracy has lasted a hundred years in Britain, somewhat less across Western Europe, and rather more in the United States. As the quality of government has gone down, the quality of life has gone up, improvements in technology and private organisation disguising the increasing damage done by the state.

I don't rule out a total collapse in the near future, from hyperinflation, terrorism, or some black swan, but it's not what I expect. My guess (and it really is no more than that) is that democracy can struggle on another 50-100 years, with decreasing growth rates and more bumps along the road. China could either collapse or join the club, eventually becoming an old democracy of sorts, probably a bit more corrupt and nastier than what we have now.

But it's not going to get better, and someday it's going to have to be renewed. Most likely it will go back round the cycle of a young democracy, waves of Jacobin terror and fascism, until some new establishment can bring things under control behind the facade of a re-established limited** democracy.

But I think a wrong turn was taken in 17th century England and 18th century France, and I expect a similar choice will be presented again in the 21st century. Someone will force order onto the chaos of a disintegrated state, and will then either consolidate personal power or hand it over to some revived or newly-designed constituent assembly. I am hoping for the former.

My blogging is not keeping pace with Aretae or Devin Finbarr, and there are recent points from both to be responded to, with luck later today.

* In comments at his place, Why suggests the Test and Corporation acts as reductions in the franchise. I believe they were restrictions on holding office rather than on voting.

** That analogy to our recent monarchy discussions may be a better terminology than my "old versus new democracy". Old democracy is limited democracy, New democracy is absolute democracy. The only point of confusion is that the limitation is probably not explicit or legalistic, but only practical. An absolute democracy can have a constitution tightly circumscribing its powers, and a limited democracy can have theoretically complete power but work through a practically unreformable civil service or military with independent views.

02 April 2011

The AV vote

I've discussed some of the arguments about the AV referendum, but not really drawn a conclusion (beyond "whatever")

The main valid argument for AV is that it isn't as sensitive as FPTP to which candidate people think is going to win. It may get rid of the truly inane feature that I reported on at the last general election, where the parties argued more about who was likely to win than about who ought to win.

A second valid argument for AV is that it encourages the expression of non-mainstream views, by not penalising voters for unpopular parties. It doesn't actually give unpopular parties any more representation, as PR does, but it gives them more visibility.

The main valid argument against AV is that it is likely to produce centrist coalitions, whatever the changes in views of the voters.

Putting the three points together, I have to be in favour. In my theory, the value of democracy is that it has perceived legitimacy, reducing the amount that the ruling establishment hsa to do to protect itself. The one anti argument actually helps in this regard, as it makes the establishment even more secure.

However, the pro arguments are still applicable, as it is valuable to make the unconventional more visible, as that will aid thinking about what we should do when and if the current establishment does fail.

The Fukushima Dissenter

There is a very strong consensus among the sort of people I read (reg, Tim, Neil, isegoria) that the reporting about the nuclear reactor problems at Fukushima is a typical hysterical overreaction by ignorant greens, lefty ideologues, and sensationalist media.

I threw my own rotten tomatoes at the target, when I looked at deaths from other kinds of power stations.

There is just one voice among my hundred or so blogroll subscriptions saying that in fact a major disaster has occurred that will seriously affect Tokyo.

Well, it's hard to score 100%, isn't it? So one guy happened to fall for the bullshit. Big deal.

The thing is that the one guy isn't a green, a lefty, or a journalist. He isn't as a rule overly trusting of the MSM. And he knows a good bit about nuclear reactors. I'm talking about M Simon of the blog Power and Control.

He could still be wrong. I'm not bringing the question up now to guess at whether he is or not: I don't have to do anything different either way, and we'll know in due course.

I'm interested, though, in the shape of the argument. We know we're surrounded by ignorant greens, lefty ideologues and sensationalist media. But what if, by coincidence, this time they're right?

The situation reminds me of the Anthropogenic Global Warming argument in reverse. Mainstream western scientists know that "science is under attack from a well-organized, politically well-connected and, above all, well-financed opposition", and that "The real war is between rationalism and superstition", and if a small proportion of Richard Lindzens and Freeman Dysons are mysteriously on the wrong side, well, weird stuff happens in politics.

Mr Simon is so keen on fusion that he wants to get rid of fission generation. And he doesn't like the Japanese. (I knew an old guy who was in the US Navy, and he didn't like the Japanese. Stands to reason). Yeah, that will cover it, I don't need to bother with his extremely detailed arguments.

Easy to do, easy to do... As I said, it doesn't matter this time, because we'll know one way or the other soon enough anyway. But I'm fascinated by how the story plays out.

01 April 2011

On Over-Mighty Subjects

Even a king has to negotiate, Aretae says. Doesn't that mean that every government is a coalition, with all the nasty effects that entails?

Certainly a monarch will make deals — with customers and suppliers. Nike threatens to move its factory unless it gets a better tax rate? That sounds like it might be a good deal. Reducing tax is, for the monarch, giving away cash out of his own pocket, but if he's getting value for money, why not? That doesn't mean that Nike are suddenly insiders in the coalition, or threats to royal power.

Ah, but now the CEO of Pineapple Computer Co is on the phone. He has a bit of a problem with a foreign journalist who has been investigating worker suicides in the Pineapple factory. Has Your Majesty heard that Queen Tamsin of Lower Congo has just created a duty-free enterprise zone for technology industries? Of course, that's of no real interest to him, given Pineapple's close relationship with Your Majesty. It's not as if he could trust Queen Tamsin to make an awkward media problem just go away...

Yes indeed, it's only natural that Your Majesty wouldn't want to interfere in details like that. It's a matter for the provincial judge, after all. Although, he is getting a bit old... these personnel matters are such a drag. For instance, Pineapple's local legal affairs director is looking for a career change, says he wants to do "public service" of some kind. I bet he'd love to become a judge here. He would handle investigations of industrial accidents, to either workers or visiting journalists, with all the
appropriate diligence.

Now is there a coalition?

It looks like the king is starting to give away power, rather than just discounts. In principle, he could dismiss the company's chosen judge at any time, but he'd be starting a fight that he started out trying to avoid. And the longer the company's foothold in power lasts, the more it will come to seem like an established right.

On top of that, he's opening himself to blackmail; he may not have voters to pander to, but there's a level of bad publicity that can be seriously damaging to his interests.

It is conceivable that such compromises could accumulate to the point where the king is just one player among several jostling for control. Such things have happened historically, though usually from a point where the monarch is much less than absolute to begin with (as most historical monarchs were).

It's also obviously the case that a state needs some minimum level of power to be able to resist outside influences. A backward, penniless third world country simply cannot be independent, under a monarchy or under any other structure of government.

I think it's the case, though, that a very large concentration of power is much more stable than a more even division. It is when your power is weak that you find you need to give away more of it, and outside influences can play one element of the coalition against another; on the other hand, for a strong ruler, small delegations of authority really can be taken back if the delegate shows signs of having ideas beyond his station*. Historical monarchs, though mainly less powerful than I am hoping future monarchs will be, were jealous of their power as a matter of principle, and reluctant to tolerate extensions of rivals' scope.

That retention of power does not come for free, of course. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, rapid economic and technological change is disruptive to any political order. Any political system is likely to try to restrain change that is threatening to those currently in power. Otherwise, it will swing power in a somewhat random direction.

I would prefer to have unrestrained technological change, but I don't think it's on offer. Where it has been allowed in the past, I think that has been where an interest group has come to power on the back of a technological change, and has had to support the principle at least temporarily to justify their own position, or where the group in power has simply not recognised the threat that technology holds to them.

In this as in other matters, the more secure the regime, the more confident it will be of being able to benefit from technology while riding the shocks.

And once again, note that the chief value of our current arrangements come, not directly from the division of powers, or from the accountability of elections, but from the security that the regime as a whole has, due to its universally respected right to be in charge. The ruling establishment, large and diffuse as it is, has nevertheless imposed gradually a whole lot of changes that would have been unthinkable when my parents were the age I am now. If they are restrained at all, it is only in the pace of what they can do, not in its limits.

Aretae could argue that the very size of the establishment means that more lunatic ideas are ruled out by a process of averaging. On the other hand, that is counteracted by the effect of groupthink, and the sincere belief among members of the establishment that they really are the only people who matter. Megalomania is an occupational hazard of rulers, but a lone king is likely to notice when he is in a small minority — our rulers seem genuinely oblivious.

* It's not relevant to the question, but I'm actually curious about ideas like that "beyond his station"; in Britain, at least, the moral principles that go with aristocracy are old-fashioned, slightly comical to most, and violently detested by some, but they are still very familiar. It was essential to the old system that only the right sort of people could hold influential positions. It was never a closed caste, but you had to at least show that you respected the hierarchy and were committed to it before you could be allowed into it. It is very important to the stability of the system that actual power stays where it belongs; outsiders can live and prosper, but they must stay outsiders. The worst case is when the proper authorities are secretly under the control of outsiders, as in G. K. Chesterton's "The Man Who Knew Too Much".

31 March 2011

Robert Heinlein

Steve Sailer wrote yesterday about the unique author Robert Heinlein

Heinlein was a huge influence on me: my near 20-year libertarian phase might not have happened had I not read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Time Enough for Love.

But as Sailer notes, Heinlein himself was not an ideologue. And lately I've been thinking less about the relatively easy question, of what you should do should you happen to find yourself in control of a computer that is powerful enough to give you effective rule over your society, and more about the difficult questions of the interaction of reason, courage, leadership, personal loyalty, loyalty to abstractions — the stuff of what I always thought of as his unsatisfactory later novels like Number of the Beast and Friday.

The unsatisfactoriness comes from the lack of coherent answers to the questions. But if I get round to putting up a new strapline for Anomaly UK, it will be "This shit is difficult". I have come to thoroughly distrust easy answers. Not that I don't believe there are right answers, just that I accept that they aren't easy to find or easy to recognise. Also, they are quite likely to be contingent on all sorts of details we would rather abstract away.

27 March 2011

Kinds of Monarchy

Devin Finbarr asks in the comments whether I'm talking about hereditary or elective monarchy.

The answer is that it is hereditary monarchy that I have in mind. The problems with elective monarchy are, firstly, that it introduces politics to determine the succession. The electors can demand commitments from the candidate that would divide his power. Secondly, it reinforces the damaging idea that the monarch is a "Servant of the people"

The monarch is not a servant, not quite. A monarch is responsible for the well-being of his people, but he is not responsible to his people, or any subset of them.

Rather, I follow Filmer in seeing kingship as an extension of fatherhood. It is clear that a father is responsible for the well-being of his children, but he is not their servant and he is not answerable to them.

Exactly what he is responsible to is not clear — to his ancestors, to his descendants not yet born, to both (to his genes, perhaps, in a modern view of that). Maybe just to himself or to his conscience or to God. (Inevitably, the modern state makes parents responsible to the bureaucracy for their children, with predictably horrific results).

Back to succession, there is a case for giving the monarch the right to choose his heir, rather than going strictly next-of-kin. That involves no division of power, and seems to be a way of weeding out some of the less capable specimens. Against that you have the danger of weak elderly kings being pressured, or of ambiguity.

In any case, it is important to remember, when talking about whether monarchy should be like this or like that, not to miss the point. If we could sit around a table and design a constitution that would be magically enforced, we could do a lot better than monarchy. Monarchy is a natural phenomenon that happens to a society, not something we engineer. The reason for discussing it now is to encourage people to accept it, if and when it happens, rather than to fight against it as modern fashion would dictate. The small print will have to take care of itself.

Incidentally, the "perpetual motion machine" analogy that Devin liked, like so much else here, is due to Mencius Moldbug. I like it chiefly for the resemblance between the designs attempted by enthusiasts to achieve either perpetual motion or separation of powers.

26 March 2011

Justice and Fairness

What is justice?

That's a notoriously difficult question. For what it's worth, I think justice is an emergent property of a well-functioning society, but that's not important right now.

It is not the same thing as fairness. Fairness is a more limited but less ambiguous concept, resting on equality of treatment. If there's no good reason to prefer A over B, then A and B should be treated the same.

If A and B have a dispute, the fair thing is to split the disputed entity evenly, or to toss a coin. That may not be the just thing however — but justice is difficult and might depend on all the details of the dispute.

(Fairness can extend a bit further than that. If A and B made an agreement, and A has complied with it, then B should too, even if the agreement imposed different demands on each of them. It is not fair for the agreement to be enforced on one party but not the other).

Games and sports, in particular, should be fair. The reason we want them to be fair, is that it makes the result less predictable, which is more exciting. People will neither play or watch sports where the outcome is not in doubt. And the authors of the sport's rules want people to play the sport.

War is the same. If it is made fair, then people will be more willing to play. There is a difference, though, which is that in general we do not want to encourage people to play war.

Which takes me finally to this tweet from "end of tyranny":
#NFZ levels the battle field, which ain't in #Qaddafi's favor. Here's to a free #Libya
The level battlefield. The only thing that nobody should want.

There are three reasonable positions one could have toward the conflict in Libya. One could want Gadaffi to win. One could want the opposition to win. Or one could want peace.

A "level battle field" is not a means to any of those ends. It is a means only to encouraging war for its own sake. To create it on humanitarian grounds is insane.

I think Aretae makes a similar, if less blatant, error in the post I discussed earlier.

He says, in the context of politics:
Manipulating the rules of the game has a high likelihood of having SUBSTANTIALLY higher returns than competing on a fair playing field
Politics, like war to which it is closely related, does not take place on a playing field. Making politics more fair will not necessarily make the outcome more just, but will make participation more attractive, which is a bad thing.

Politics or Rules-Manipulation?

Aretae believes that politics is inevitable, and looks to reduce the damage that it can do.

I should clarify what I mean by politics, because I've perhaps warped the meaning of the word a little. I feel a bit like I'm a fish trying to invent a word for water.

The exercise of power is not, in itself, politics. Politics is the process of attempting to gain or retain power. I am concerned with state power, but other forms of power (such as in an organisation) also can produce politics. A company department manager trying to make the department more profitable is not politics; trying to make his department larger is politics.

The actions of a person with power, if he is rational, will be motivated in his actions by one or more of the following three concerns:

  1. To increase the value of those things he has power over ("improve")
  2. To increase the share of that value that comes to him ("appropriate")
  3. To increase or maintain the power that he has ("win")

Improving is positive-sum. The more a ruler acts succesfully towards aim 1, the more I would call what he is doing "good government".

Appropriating is nearly zero-sum. The ruler gains, but whoever would otherwise have received the value loses. Appropriating can be in conflict with Improving, because rearranging resources is likely to reduce efficiency.

Winning can be strongly negative-sum. Whatever resources are diverted to aim 3 are not available for other purposes. A policy of Winning at all costs can be so destructive as to appear insane.

Conventional attitudes to political systems are shaped primarily by fear of Appropriating. Mechanisms are intended to set Appropriating and Winning in opposition, so that rulers avoid taking a large share for themselves as that risks their power. They work.

However, the mechanisms that do this have to legitimise Winning: rulers acting under these mechanisms openly seek to extend their power, because that is "how the system works".

Worse, for the system to work, it has to also legitimise threats to the ruler's power ("Losing"). If the ruler's power is not threatened, Winning is not operative, and Appropriating is unchecked.

Introducing these mechanisms works, and improves government. Introducing a threat to a ruler's power that will become stronger the more he appropriates will discourage him from appropriating.

But for attempts to cause the ruler to Lose to be affect him, they must have a realistic chance of succeeding. A realistic chance of power is power in itself. It can be traded, borrowed against, threatened with. A "politician" is one who holds "Virtual Power", and tries to increase it, just as a fund manager tries to increase the assets he holds.

But since the ruler, by the design of the system, is held responsible for the condition of his realm, and gains power by making it successful, his opponents the politicians gain only by making the realm less successful.

Democracy is a method of producing a group of people with both the capability and the motivation to make government worse.

There is a way around the problem, which is to make authority clear and simple enough that it is obvious when problems are the fault of the opposition rather than of the government.

Aretae says, "One huge component of increasing the net welfare of the citizenry is to decrease the ROI on manipulating the rules of the game. How can you do that?"

Why put such emphasis on manipulating the rules? I would only worry about that if I thought the rules were any good to begin with. You can — and we do — have hugely destructive politics entirely within the rules of the game, as opposing parties quite legitimately divert resources to one favoured group or another in order to acquire and retain supporters. That isn't either a manipulation or a breach of the rules: it's democracy working as designed. Opposition politicans, with their virtual power, also make threats and promise favours, some openly and some in secret.

Notably, the ruler and the opposition have one area of shared interest — one direction in which the power and the virtual power can be united. And that is to keep out of the power system anyone who isn't already in. That needn't even require "manipulating the rules", though that is the obvious way. Threatening those who support outsiders is effective enough. Threats need not be direct. For any identifiable group, there are policies that harm it.

Of course, the outsiders can't be protected, because giving someone any kind of protection from reprisals by the combined forces of politicians means giving them yet another lump of unaccountable power.

Aretae's next solution is to limit the ability of the ruler to do anything — the less power he has, the less his power is worth fighting for.

There are several problems with that. The first is that limited government implies that someone is doing the limiting (the "political perpetual motion machine"). They must have power too. It is therefore not just the power of the nominal ruler that is being fought over, but also the power that belongs to whoever the limiter is. That goes also for any attempt to protect outsider groups from politicians — the result is they become independent power centres.

The track record of limitations on government is possibly even worse than that of monarchs' lack of rivals.

The second problem is that power is always worth fighting for, because power is status. It is worse messing up a country in order to keep power over it, even if the power is limited, and it is worth fighting to increase your power, even if there's nothing particularly useful you could do with more power.

The scale question is difficult too. Small states can be very effective, but they usually require some level of cooperation between each other, at least for defense. That means a division of power between national and supernational authorities, and that division is another variable which can be fought over. The EU is the prime example; for everyone in European-level government, the primary question is what the extent of EU power is. Any ideas as to what would be good or bad to do with that power are entirely secondary to retaining and extending it.

International politics are a problem for my vision too, of course. I mentioned the Sun King in my previous post, without mentioning the fact that his reign was a period of continual war. Will an absolute ruler always lean towards conquest? I need to address that.

Mencius like Aretae preferred the city-state scale, which he called "Patchwork". However, his explanation for why this would be peaceful rested on the rulers of each patch being rational, which itself rested on neocameralism, which rests on our old friends the cryptographic weapon locks in which I do not believe.

My Westphalian World of Monarchies is not going to be as peaceful as Moldbug's Patchwork, because my kings will not be as rational as his chief executives. Some kings are going to succumb to the lure of conquest as a source of excitement and challenge, even if it is clearly not optimal in return-on-investment terms.

Therefore external security will be a much larger consideration in the design of the countries themselves. City-states may turn out impractical on defensive grounds, while very large states have to devolve power for practical reasons, which tends to produce serious internal politics. (If there is a way of managing a very large operation without devolving power, the commercial world has not yet found it.) Maybe there is some sweet spot of size that is large enough to be defensible, but small enough to be managed without compromising centralism. Obviously doing as little active management as possible is a key technique.