07 September 2016

Unchecked Power

In my previous post, I explained why Neocameralism is not a division of power in Montesquieu's sense, but rather a special case by which the benefits of power can be divided without dissolving responsibility.

However, while dividing power is not desirable, there is no Ring of Fnargl, and power is never perfectly concentrated. A real sovereign still has to deal with forces beyond his control, most obviously those beyond his borders; the loyalty of his subjects is always a real issue. Sufficient incompetence can destroy anything.

The reason that division of power is undesirable is that it erodes responsibility. Government is responsible if whoever has the power benefits from exercising it well and is harmed by exercising it badly. If the single absolute sovereign owns all the extractable product of his realm forever into the future, then it is in his interest to make it a successful, functional, realm. His interests may not be perfectly aligned with those of his subjects, but they are not all that far away. It is better to live under a secure sovereign who rules in his own interest than under a chaotic parliament which attempts to rule in yours. This is an analogous argument to the superiority of for-profit services to government-provided services in other spheres.

If power over the corp is divided, each individual with power now has two sets of incentives: to maximise the value of the corp and its product, as for an absolute ruler, but also to maximise their power over and benefit from the corp. Division of power is harmful to the extent that the second set of incentives exist and contradict the first.

The two largest classes of undesirable incentives are to extract value from the corp for oneself, and to increase one's power over the corp at the expense of one's rivals. The first is more obvious, and the second, in historical experience, more extensive and more damaging. Conversion can be restricted if the number of participants in power is reasonably limited, as it tends to be obvious. However, if power is distributed flexibly, then it is easy to provide rationalisations for a change in policy that is actually directed at increasing the power of one participant.

The fundamental problem is that power, whether formal or informal, is fungible. As I wrote in 2011:
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.

If making power formal doesn't help, then what is "formalism"? Formalism is Neocameralism. Formalism's solution to persons with practical but informal influence over the government is not to formally define and legitimise their influence, it is to buy them out. It is to put a value on their influence, and to have them give up that influence in exchange for dividend-bearing securities.

As described in my previous post, the point of that is to take away their incentive to steer management in one particular direction or another, and to give them instead an incentive to have the management maximise shareholder value.

Clearly, then that is not a perfect solution to all problems of politics. It only works to the extent that a participant's power, whether formal or tacit, is seen as legitimate. If a participant's power is informal but legitimate (which is a common situation in the Modern Structure), it should indeed be made formal, but only as a preliminary to removing it.

It follows that formalism does not solve the problem of necessary division of power: the fact that however legitimate power is defined, there are those outside it who have influence over those inside it. It doesn't solve, in general, the principal–agent problem. (The CDCC is designed to partially solve one particular instance of the principal–agent problem, of the armed forces openly defying rightful instructions; by providing a specific solution it implies that there is no general solution).

What formalism does is to leave the fundamental problem unsolved, and then insist that it is the fundamental unsolved problem, and that as a matter of day-to-day competence it must be limited at all costs. Take a moment to see how far that is from the conventional wisdom, which celebrates and actively encourages all division and distribution of power.

If any slope is slippery, it is the division of power. Division proceeds from division. Complete power is inviolable, small allowances of outside influence can be monitored, limited and reclaimed, but once substantial centres of power become strong enough to defend themselves, the remaining power will be shredded in the inevitable conflict.

The problems of people trying to influence a near-absolute ruler are not a different kind of problem to those we are used to. They are the normal problems; the exact same problems that utterly cripple any kind of competent government of modern states, only much smaller and more manageable.

There is no magic formula which will make good government out of an unviable realm. The possibility of concentrating power sufficiently for stability is the sine qua non of independent government.  What is the ideal form of government for Mauritania? What is the ideal form of government for Marsh Farm? In both cases, it is for them to be ruled by outside forces that are strong enough to be secure.

Compromising the integrity of the structure of centralised power is to be avoided. Take for example, the hypothetical case I raised when I discussed the issue before, in Aretae's day: the Pineapple Computer Co who want the King to appoint a judge under their control, to get them out of a PR problem.

By the logic above, the worst thing the King could do would be to agree to Pineapple's request. That is giving away power, and there is a danger of not ever getting it back. Telling them to go fuck themselves would be better. Offering to match Queen Tamsin's duty-free zone would be better.

A formalist answer, if instead of a King there was a Neocameralist CEO, would be to hold merger talks: if the sovcorp buys out Pineapple in a stock-for-stock transaction, then the interests of the sovcorp and the factory are henceforward aligned. I'm not convinced it's a good idea for a sovcorp to own too many nationalised industries, but if the factory is genuinely essential to the wellbeing of the state, that is a reasonable solution.

(If the King is really a King, but the Pineapple company is privately owned, the same end could perhaps be achieved by having the owner of Pineapple marry the King's daughter).

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