11 September 2016

Constitutions

At last I have set the necessary prerequisites to discuss Urielo / @cyborg_nomade's discussion of constitutions.

It is possible I could have been more concise about the prerequisites: what it really amounts to is:

  • Division of power is dangerous and to be avoided
  • It's better to have less division than more
  • Sometimes that isn't possible

Within the context set by those propositions, the difficult parts of "neocameralism and constitutions", as well as Land's "A Republic, If You Can Keep It", start to appear at least relevant. So too the considerations of control and property in Land's "Quibbles with Moldbug".

Let's say that in some given situation, it is impossible to effectively unify power. The next best thing is to nearly unify power. Some small number of people have some small amounts of power, but the main power-holder can set rules about how they are allowed to use that power, and threaten to crush them like a bug if they break them. That's workable too, provided the mechanisms of supervision and bug-crushing are adequate.

However, that's not always the case. Sometimes, power is too divided, and crushing like a bug isn't on the table. That's when the hard bit starts.

What you need to do is find a pattern of division of power that is stable, and compatible with effective government. The second implies the first: if the pattern of division of power is unstable, then those in power will be incentivised to protect and expand their power, rather than to govern effectively.

Part of setting up this stable pattern might be to write a lot of rules on a long sheet of paper. I can't see, though, how you could ever start with the paper and get to the actual division of power.

"Actual division of power" is such a mouthful. The word I wanted to use for this is "constitution", but I suppose I will have to give in and call it something else. (I had this idea that the original sense of "constitution" meant  what I mean, and the idea of a constitution as a higher set of laws was derived from that. But it seems my idea was completely wrong). Let's just call it the "Structure".

So how should one design a Structure? You have to start from where you are. If at t=0 one power is effectively unchallenged, then they should just keep it that way. You don't need a Structure.

Urielo really hits the nail on the head here:

eventually, a constitution always arise out of a multiplayer game, because conflict eventually ends with an agreement - @cyborg_nomade

A non-autocratic Structure is the the result of a peace settlement between potential or actual rivals, and a Constitution represents the terms of that peace settlement.

The aims of the settlement should be that it will last, that those who came into the settlement with power are willing to accept it, and will be incentivised to maintain it into the future and to preserve those things that incentivise the others to maintain it into the future.

The simplest peace settlements consist of a line on a map. What happens on one side is the responsibility of one party, and on the other is the responsiblity of another. The two (or more) sides invest appropriately in either defensive or retaliatory weaponry, to provide incentive to each other to keep to the agreement.

This is not normally what we think of as a Structure within a society, though it is an option. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Partition_(politics) . If the powers of the participants cannot be easily separated by a line on a map, a more detailed agreement is necessary.

Another of Urielo's tweets:
pretty much all working societies recognized some sort of power division. the estates of the realm being the European version - @cyborg_nomade

I've written before about the vital elements of feudalism as I see them: It resembles somewhat the "line on the map" kind of settlement: each feudal vassal had practical authority over a defined region, subject to certain duties he owed to his Lord. The Lord would spend his time travelling between his vassals, resolving disputes between them, collecting his share of the loot, and checking that they weren't betraying him.

This worked practically, most of the time. As I wrote before, the crucial fact that necessitated a settlement between the King and his vassals was that he wasn't physically able to administer the whole kingdom, because of limitations of communication and transport. Whoever he sent to run them, would in fact have considerable autonomy (whether the constitution gave it to them or not), and so the Structure had to accommodate that fact.

I say it worked most of the time, but it didn't work all the time, or even nearly all the time. Conflict between King and nobles was pretty common.

If we're talking estates of the realm, of course, then there's more than nobles. The Medieval English Structure basically treated the church as a sort of noble. Bishops and Abbots had similar rights to Barons, but fewer duties. (That meant it would be a problem if their power increased relative to nobles.) The other group to be recognised with power within the Structure were the small landholders. At a guess, I'd put their claim to power as follows:

Fighting enemies was the responsibility of the King, and in the King's interest. His vassals were required to supply men and/or funds to him to do this. The actual fighting would be done by Knights and men known to and under the direct control of Knights. It was therefore in the King's interest that the Knights be incentivised to fight effectively, and would see honour and/or profit in doing so. However, to the Lords the Knights were just farmers and taxpayers; it was not in the Lord's interest to have his Knights flourishing and strong. Therefore, the King had an interest in defending the status of Knights against their Lords.

That's kind of a just-so story; I'm open to disagreement on specifics. In any case, this Medieval English Structure obviously depends on an agricultural economy, and military technology that relies on a relatively small number of expensively-equipped, skilled soldiers. It's not coming back.

The commoners and serfs basically have no power recognised by the Structure. That's probably an oversimplification, at least after the Black Death when their economic power became more significant (and serfdom faded out). But in any case, the point of the Structure is not some abstract fairness, it's stability and efficiency.

The Structure was quite flexible and changed significantly over time. Burghers were accepted into it once trade became economically significant enough for their power to need to be preserved. But even there the simple fix was geographic: towns were made Boroughs, lines were drawn around them on the map, and the Burghers were allowed to run the towns, with a limited and transparent set of rights and duties with regard to goings-on outside the borough.

The King, Nobles and Knights form a triangle: that's popularly considered to be stable, for the reason that if any one of the three starts to get too strong (or weak), the other two can see it and attempt to correct it with superiority. With two or more than three large power centres, it's too easy for a theoretically weaker coalition to unexpectedly show itself strong enough to reconfigure the Structure. That's a guideline of Structure Design that one might expect to be durable. One wonders whether Structures that are designed to have many powers (Neocameralism, bitcoin) might coalesce into three. Just a thought.

Now we come to Parliament. I don't see the medieval English parliament as "part of government" in the sense that the modern UK Parliament is. It wasn't responsible for law, or for any routine act of government. Its role seems to me to have been the constitutional watchdog, checking on behalf of the Lords and Knights (and later Burghers too) that the King was sticking to the constitution. Running the country was the job of the nobles, within their lines-on-the-map, and of the King, regarding defence. The power of parliament didn't come from any constitution; it came from the fact that it could reach an agreement, and then go to the country and say "The King is infringing on his subjects' rights". (Or, conversely, it could say "Lord Splodgeberry has defied the King and the King is justified in going and kicking his arse"). It makes sense as a transparency mechanism rather than as a power in its own right.

Transparency, even more than Triangles, seems like a durable guideline for Structure Design. You want people with power to be working for good government, not for enhancing their own power, and you need to be able to see that that's what they're doing.

Having said that, I don't think there are many general principles for Structure Design. I've spent this piece looking in detail on one historical Structure, to say why it was they way it was and why it worked. I think that's what you have to do: Structure Design is a boundary value problem. You have to start from where you are.

But then again, Structure Design is a thing. Where two or more powers come together, reaching an agreement is more than just recognising their existing position. It may mean one or both giving up some power that they really hold to cement a durable deal. The establishment of rights of Knights I described above follows that pattern: the King needed it to happen so it was added to the Structure by negotiation. (That may be a stylised version of what really happened, but it could have gone that way).

So I think you can say a bit more than this:
the estates of the realm don't arise from nowhere. they were supposed 2 formalize the *actual* structure of power that underlied sovereignty - @cyborg_nomade

What you can't do is just dream up some "constitution" and assume that anyone will follow it. The half-life of a Structure designed that way is generally measured in weeks. Even a constitution that worked somewhere else will fail immediately if the power on the ground doesn't match the Structure that the constitution is designed to support.

Decolonisation of Africa produced a number of experiments to demonstrate that process.

Once the holders of actual power have been identified, "constitutional design" can take place to create an arrangement by which they are incentivised to participate in an efficient government. However, "constitutional design" in a vacuum is worthless. Democracies with deviations from "one-man-one-vote" have been moderately successful in the past, but I do not think this example is rooted in any realistic assessment of power.

Similarly, various people from time to time (including even myself, long ago) have suggested random jury-type selection of decision-makers. This has attractive efficiency features, but nobody with vested power would have a clear interest in keeping it running fairly, and the scope for corrupting it would be enormous.

The way to think of creating a stable government Structure where there is intractable division of power is midway between diplomats negotiating a peace and lawyers negotiating a contract. Neither of those are trivial or negligible occupations. (At the completely rigorous level, Structure Design is a matter of game theory, but I doubt real-world situations are tractable to mathematics).

Constitutions need to resemble contracts in that they have to cover detailed interactions unambiguously, but they need to resemble peace treaties in that they need to provide for their own enforcement.

The whole Godel amending process is a bit of a red herring. In the words of Taylor Swift, nothing lasts for ever. Circumstances change, and new Structures have to accommodate them. A new Structure can be built out of an old one--such as representatives of Boroughs being included in the House of Commons alongside Knights--if the parties with power agree they are necessary. Making a constitution change is not the hard bit; making the Structure stay the same from one year to the next is the hard bit.

Sometimes a Structure has to go. Gnon has the last word.

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