05 January 2009

Politics and Metapolitics

Jacob Lyles at Distributed Republic is concerned about the contradiction between advocating policies of individual freedom, at the same time as political structures such as federalism which are likely, in some instances, to produce outcomes which are extremely hostile to freedom.

The problem is not new - since Lenin arrived at the Finland Station, politicians have announced simultaneously policies that should be followed, and structures by which other people should determine what policies are to be adopted.

If I was absolute ruler of the world, all I would have to decide would be policies. As it stands, any practical proposals any of us make are conditional on getting sufficient agreement to practically implement them. That is true whether we acquiesce in the current political structure, or whether we seek to change it.

When we evaluate a proposed political structure, we have three things to consider:

Is it achievable?

Is it stable?

Is it good?

A total autocracy ruled by me has a lot to recommend it, policy-wise, but fails on achievability. We might be aiming at the long term, but there has to be some possibility of bringing our structure about for it to be worth discussing.

Stability is the other side of that. Even if we have established our new order, others will seek to change it. If it was worth creating, it is worth protecting, but protecting the political structure without doing severe damage to freedom is always very difficult. This is where I think our current, deeply unsatisfactory, political systems score. Bad as their policies are, they are cheaper to protect than most alternatives - cheaper both in material and in human freedom. I think that is true even when you count most of the bad policies as part of the cost, in that they consist of building up blocs of society who are tied to maintaining the system. I am hoping to be convinced otherwise on this point, however.

The third question is whether the structure tends to produce good policies. Some would want other things from the political structure, such as fair or just allocation of power, but I am indifferent to that provided the structure can stably produce good policies. That is not to deny that there are arguments that a "just" political order is quite likely to be more achievable and stable than an "unjust" one.

As to what constitutes good policies, that is the other half of the question - politics as opposed to metapolitics. They may be separate domains, but as Lyles' previous article demonstrated, it is hard to talk about radical political ideas without straying into the issue of what structures might be more likely to allow them than the status quo. Policies also must meet an achievablility criterion, and they may be more achievable within an alternative political structure than in the currently dominant one.

Addressing the original post in this context, what federalism has going for it, arguably, is that (a) while allowing bad policies in some localities, it will allow good ones in others, possibly better overall, and (b) it may be more stable, in terms of not evolving into an overlarge megastate, than a central political authority. The point that oppressive government is harder to prevent where everyone actually wants it is not a justification of the oppression, but a recognition of the achievability and stability constraints on any political structure.

In fact, both federalism and Patri Friedman's seasteading are in a sense meta-meta-political ideas, since they have the advantage that by exposing multiple different political structures, they may cause better political structures to come about.

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