04 October 2009

The End

I've been on holiday for a couple of weeks, and I expected to write quite a lot here in that time.
The reason I didn't is that my political thinking has pretty much come to a conclusion. I don't like it at all, but it's a conclusion for all that.

When Adam Smith was writing, there were many theories, public and private, about what a business ought to do. Smith pointed out, [drawing from Darwin and Malthus] (edit, yes I really wrote that, oops), that whatever theory they believed, the businesses that survived would be those which aimed at maximising profit, or those that, by coincidence, behaved as if that was what they aimed at.
The situation in politics is that, while there are many theories about what politicians should do, those politicians will succeed that behave as if their aim is to achieve power at any cost. Perhaps historically many politicians had other aims, and the successful ones were those who happened to act as a pure power-seeker would, but now there is sufficient understanding of what path will gain and hold power that those who consciously diverge from the path least will be those who win.
To be clear, I'm not simply talking about electoral politics here. I'm talking about all politics, in non-democratic systems, in the electoral process, and in the wider and more important politics beyond elections, where power lives in media, civil service, educational, trade union and other centres outside the formal government.
The trivial fact - that power will go to those that want it - is reinforced by the more effective co-operation that pure power-seekers can achieve than ideologues. A large number of power-seekers, although rivals, will co-operate on the basis of exchanges of power. The result is a market in power, and that is the most effective basis for large-scale collective action. Those attempting to achieve specific, different but related aims will find it much more difficult to organise and co-operate on the same scale.

Is it not possible, then, to have significant influence, not by competing directly with politicians but by competing with the media/educational branches of the establishment by promoting ideas? The metacontext, as the folks at Samizdata say. It is indeed possible to influence politics by doing that, and that is what libertarians have done for the last half century or so. But I'm not sure it's possible to have good influence. Certainly some good things have happened because libertarians have changed the metacontext to the point where the things have appealed to power-seekers. But some bad things have happened that way too. The fact is that while the "background" beliefs of the electorate and other participants in politics does have an effect, there is no reason to assume that correct background beliefs cause better policies than incorrect background beliefs.
One of the most depressing aspects of activism is that on the very few occasions when you get someone onto your side, either by persuading them or just finding them, more often than not they're still wrong. They're persuaded by bad arguments rather than good arguments. Activism would appeal to me on the idea that I will win out in the end because my arguments are good, but in fact not only do my good arguments not win against my opponents' bad arguments, my good arguments do not even win against my allies' bad arguments. The idea that truth is a secret weapon that is destined to win out once assorted exceptional obstacles have been overcome is an utter fantasy.
As a result, even if you do achieve marginal influence by working for policies or ideas that would be widely beneficial, your success is likely to backfire. The other players in the game are working for the narrow interest of identifiable groups and, as such, are able to mobilise far greater resources. They also are willing to trade with other power seekers, which improves their effectiveness further. The idealist is not able to do that, because the idealist obtains only the particular powers he wants to keep, whereas the politician grabs whatever power he can, even if it is of no use to him, and that which is of no use to him, he trades. The only way to do that is to get whatever power you can, which is my definition of a politician.
It still feels like there is something noble in working for better government, even if the project appears doomed. But there isn't. After all, most utopians from anarchist to fascist to Marxist are working for better government, but we oppose them because their utopias are unachievable and their attempts to get there are harmful. Your ideas don't work because they're flawed, my ideas don't work because politics is flawed. Hmmm. Why are my ideas better than yours, again?
And that is the final straw. In truth, I have never been an activist. I have neither appetite or aptitude for practical politics, which after all is basically a people business, but I used to believe it was interesting to look in isolation at the question of what those with political power ought to do with it, so as to make the government as good as possible, in a vaguely utilitarian way. What brings my political efforts to an end is the realisation that that is meaningless. A political theory based on the assumption that a government will act in the general interest once it understands how to do so is as useful as a theory based on the assumption that the world is flat and carried by elephants. Politics has given me some entertainment over the years, but not as much as Terry Pratchett has.
If I am going to assume that governments work in the general interest, once they understand how to do it, I might just as well assume that industrialists work in the general interest, in which case all my clever arguments about the value of private property rights for resolving opposing private interests are completely irrelevant.
It's amusing that of all the posts on this blog, one of the most important turns out to be one that I thought at the time was unimportant: this one, originally driven by my musings on Newcombe's Paradox.
Almost all significant propositions are, implicitly or explicitly, of the form IF {some hypothetical state of the world} THEN {something will result}. In politics, the hypothetical frequently involves some person making some decision. The proposition therefore needs to take into account whatever is necessary for that person to actually make that decision - and the other effects of those necessary conditions may well be more significant than the stated result.
I came very close to making all the connections back then, even raising the significance of my facetious "if I were Führer" form of putting political propositions. I am not Führer, and never will be, and neither will anyone like me, and all my political logic collapses on that just like any other proof premised on a falsehood.
Where does that leave me? I am no longer a libertarian - I find libertarian arguments just as correct as I always did, but they are of no relevance to the real world. I could continue to comment here on the stupidities that people accept from various politicians, but I would be doing it in the same spirit as if I were judging the team selection of a football club - in full awareness of my own impotence and irrelevance. Maybe I will. It would make more sense to take up something useful, like gardening.
I can also attempt to benefit humanity by encouraging others to detach from politics as I am doing. Someone has to have power, and if you think you can get it and you would be good at it, by all means go for it. If not, then leave well alone. Be one of the ruled, and pursue whatever aims you choose without the illusion that you have the right, the duty or the capability to change the policies of the rulers. Embrace passivism.

1 comment:

Mark Wadsworth said...

Ho hum.

If I had to update 1984 to a modern context, I'd suggest that we are run by a philosophy called "Home-owner-ism", which, like in 1984, restricts the economy to well below its optimum, whereby wealth would be redistributed according to effort/ability.

The aim of this is to preserve a heirarchical society, so that the 'insiders' (Inner Party members, aka landowners) have a huge advantage against 'acolytes (Outer Party members aka home-owners in a 3-bed house), who in turn have a modest advantage compared to 'outsiders' (proles, aka tenants).

The fact that we could easily all afford to live in 4-bed houses (assuming we wanted to) is irrelevant, because that way Outer Party members would not be at a visible material advantage compared to outsiders.

Thus the outsiders commit half their life time earnings to becoming home-owners, who wage an eternal battle against a wider spread of home-ownership (aka NIMBYism).

Instead of excess production capacity being diverted into permanent warfare (like in 1984), the fruits of excess capacity and economic progress are constantly swallowed up by the land market.