Formalism Recap

Aretae responds, with the other prong of his anti-formalism.

To clarify, there are two possible weaknesses to formalism. The first is that it might simply fail to achieve its purpose: it is supposed to free us from the destructiveness of power used to maintain or increase power, by unifying power into a single sovereign — but even a de jure absolute sovereign may still have to compromise, with the popular, the wealthy, the well-armed, and those compromises might lead to just as damaging internal conflict as the more explicitly dispersed power structures we are familiar with.

The second possible weakness is that whoever is in power might resist beneficial innovation in technology or social organisation, for fear of the unpredictable results.

Strictly speaking, the second is just an instance of the first: if a ruler has absolutely no fear of being usurped, he has no reason to resist disruptive innovation. So if I perfectly dispose of the first problem, I can go home.

My previous post was a response to the first weakness: that even if de jure absolute, the sovereign would have to face threats, and if he feels he needs to deal with a threat by compromising on policy, we are back in coalitional government.

In the original statement of formalism, Mencius Moldbug had one solution for these weaknesses: the machine-gun. If that really works, great, but I'm not totally convinced.

So my recent posts were to say: if the sovereign really has to compromise, giving away power is bad, but giving away money and status is not so bad. I've actually made the same point before, on Over-Mighty Subjects.

Bear in mind that what I'm trying to create here is not a future written constitution or a handbook for princes, but a political formula which will support good government.

The machine-gun solution sounds far-fetched, because we assume that use of excessive force against popular insurrection will turn neutrals against the sovereign and make the problem worse. But we live with a political formula of popular sovereignty, which says the ruler has a duty to listen to and to appease the mob. There is therefore a presumption that the mob is right and the government is wrong. In my formula, the duty of the ruler is to prevent faction by keeping his sovereignty intact and undivided. The common presumption would be that the mob is wrong and the rulers right. I don't think this is far-fetched — on the contrary there is ample precedent for such a popular attitute.

So, I'm the sovereign (this argument applies to formalism generally, so it doesn't matter right now whether I'm the hereditary king, or the SovCorp CEO, or the ruler under some other formalist system). I have absolute power, but there are a few guys who if they really wanted to, could cause me trouble. Let's say Alrenous, who asked me how one gets latent power, is running a TV broadcaster: if he started using that to build a political base — well, I could have him shot, but he might already have so much support that that would start to undermine the political formula. Or if I had him shot too soon, before he'd really made a move, I'd be creating a whole lot of paranoia.

Alrenous gets invited to head office/royal palace, and we have a chat. I explain that I have no wish to interfere in his business, so long as he doesn't challenge my rule or my exclusive competence over law and policy. The Honorable Sir Alrenous leaves the palace and goes back to work, with official marks of status and a pension for life, and makes no move towards politics. Other TV magnates get the same treatment. If one rogue does try to build a political movement, well, that's treason and he should have taken the deal. The guys who did take the deal will stay onside.

That's not a perfect solution to Formalist Weakness #1, but it's adequate: I leave business mostly alone, because I want the economy to flourish and pay me taxes, but I don't tolerate active opposition, and because the virtue of loyalty, the key part of the political formula, is popularly established, that stance is understood and respected. I collect taxes and become stupendously rich: the optimium level of taxation over the long term is probably around 30% of GDP, a bit less than governments collect now, but while current governments waste 50-90% of it, I spend a third to a half on essential state services, and the rest is mine.

(I assume you would probably prefer not to spend 20% of your income on making the sovereign or SovCorp shareholders stupendously rich, but it's still a better deal than you get now.)

As an aside, those riches are necessary: we are used to the idea that successful businesses can influence government, but the main consequence of the separation of powers is that government influence can be bought incredibly cheaply. Steve Sailer marvelled recently at the concept that it seems to be cheaper to buy the presidency of the USA than to buy the college football championship. In Britain, the cost of buying policies is a couple of orders of magnitude lower still — entire 5-year general election cycles are fought with single-figure millions of pounds, total. If the ruler actually had control of the money the government currently wastes, he would be utterly immune to the influence of a few piddling millions here or there. It seems weird to write, as I did above, about governments bribing businessmen, but it shouldn't.

Back to the main point: buying off the latently powerful with status and money is not perfect, but it's an adequate response to the danger of internal factions arriving and skewing policy away from effective government, and towards strengthening one faction or another. But not being perfect, it does not eliminate Formalist Weakness #2. I've bribed the TV broadcasters, they get their pensions and their knighthoods and they swank around, but meanwhile someone's invented the internet, and these TV guys could be on the way out.

Sure, I can do the same again with the internet crew. But, there's always some risk, while I know exactly where I stand with the TV lot. Also, if the TV companies as a group realise where things are headed, my deals with them might start to break down. The safest thing for me to do is to strangle this internet crap in the cradle. I make policy, I'm unchallenged, it's central to the culture that nobody interferes with my rule, so if I say many-to-many publishing is a threat to state stability and is not allowed, that's the end of that. And so it goes: the economic and social structure is frozen, because the one we have is the one that keeps me in power. This is Aretae's point in his latest piece: "The coalitional nature of government is therefore primarily interested (in effect) at stopping innovation." 

If states are small and in competition, the threat of falling behind economically balances the threat of internal instability. It's ambitious enough, though, to be trying to engineer how one state should work. We're not realistically going to get to choose how big states are — that depends largely on military aspects that are beyond my expertise, and in the long run subject to change. Moldbug's Patchwork of city-states would be great, but all we can do is hope.

All I can really say is, If you knows of a better 'ole, Go to it. An aversion to disruptive innovation is likely to be a feature of any stable government at all, and I don't accept that unstable government is a price worth paying to avoid it. Note that our current governments, behind the curtain, are  moderately stable, and indeed we have the aversion to innovation that goes with that. In the mid 19th century, power fell into the hands of factory owners, and for a hundred years we had all the innovation that could benefit mass manufacturing industry. That was very good for economic growth, but don't be fooled for a moment into thinking it was perfect: I think if you look at the mutualists and agorists, they have substantial evidence that policy over that period was specifically pro-mass-industry, not generally pro-growth.

Aretae says small states and hyper-federalism will protect disruptive innovation, but the ruling coalitions of those small states, however concentrated or dispersed, will have exactly the same interest in preventing disruption, and what's to stop them cooperating to achieve that? Hasn't that been the dominant mode of international relations for the last half century? Small states become federations, federations become large states. All in the name of peace, trade and internationalism, of course, but what is the end result? ACTA.

The problem is real, I don't have a solution, but the more secure the sovereign is in his power, the more the risk-benefit balance tilts towards growth rather than stability.