11 February 2012

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.


sconzey said...

The whole point of aligning power, responsibility and renumeration is to ensure it is always rational to work with the regime, rather than against it.

So the internet comes along, and the great King Anomaly has tweeted that he is generally in favour of free pornography and captioned cats. Mupert Rurdoch thinks: "Well, if I let it go, I might loose a significant amount of money from my old-media networks. On the other hand if I threaten to withdraw support from the King and build my own political base I will definitely loose the great income he gives me, and I may stand a chance of being shot. It's a no-brainer, lol."

As to the internet, on the one hand it's a great way for dissidents and malcontents to communicate with eachother. On the other hand, it's a great way for your security services to monitor the communications of the dissidents and malcontents!

In the past, if the government wanted a database of the names, ages, likes, dislikes, martial statuses and political affiliations of it's subjects, not to mention networks of friends, it would be incredibly expensive to collect and there would be incredible public outcry. Facebook does it at a profit.

Leonard said...

Do not underestimate the machinegun. Or, perhaps in the future the somewhat kinder and gentler options for mob control that technology offers: tear gas, rubber bullets, subsonics, and tasers to disperse any mob that does not disperse after being read the riot act. (And no uncertainty that such actions will be ordered.) Followed by public trials featuring whippings for all participants convicted failing to disperse when ordered. (It will be easy to determine who they are because the entire mob will have been videographed in high definition from many angles. And any recidivists are probably already wearing a tracking anklet.) A few stripes on the callow back will be a tremendous learning experience.

And yes: "mob", "riot", etc. are the words that will be used. It does get back to ruling formula. As you say, in democracy there really is no such thing as a "mob"; there are only righteous demonstrations where the heroic people "speak truth to power". How can the people, who are supposedly sovereign, be in the wrong? In democracy there is only barely such thing as a "riot"; to be a "riot" a mob's actions must be so flagrantly illegal and destructive that there is no possible way that anyone even on the furthest left can spin them as a justified response to oppression.

In neocameralism, we expect a very different political formula. All political formula have "we" and "them". In democracy, the masses are "we"; the "them" are any individuals who stand outside the mass for any salient reason, of which possession of wealth is the most obvious. Because the rulers are always a minority, they can always be spun as part of "them", too; thus the source of democracy's famous instability. In neocameralism, "we" are the rulers and the law-abiding. The "them" are the rabble, including people that would challenge the state, which is seen as the source of order from which the blessing of liberty flows. To be against the state is to be against society, or at least, the middle and upper classes. It is to be an anarchist in the most negative sense; a wrecker.

It is certainly possible to use the internet to organize wreckers, just as anyone else. But organization is not what matters; it is mass. Can you get enough men with guns together to beat the police and army? In neocameralism, democratic ideology should be roughly as popular as smoking is now, for same reason: when the ruling elite makes X a condition of entry, people come to realize that not-X is a bad idea. And this is the reason why you won't have to buy off any Mupert Rurdochs.

candide3 said...

@Leonard: And no uncertainty that such actions will be ordered — and executed. That's exactly where the problem is. Trotsky's "History of the Russian Revolution" (which I recommend whole-heartedly) deals extensively with this issue. Besides, mob control is only effective against a mob. To protect the state, one has to study coup-d'-etat techniques as well — October 1917 revolution was no riot. This issue will continue to be relevant until we have viable robot armies.

@AMcGuinn: your description of a successful formalist sovereign sounds very much like Russia and other ex-USSR republics, except the Baltic states and possibly Georgia. The sovereignty is most pronounced in the Central Asian 'republics' which are basically shitholes, but other states are not that much better off and smart people have been leaving in droves for the last 20-25 years. Of course, this might just be an indication that the rulers are not sufficiently enlightened.

Leonard said...

candide, yes, execution of orders is always an issue. However, again advanced tech will make things much easier. You suggest robot armies, but you can achieve nearly the same level of fidelity with mere humans. You just have to make sure that they are powerful when loyal, and weak when traitorous.

The neocameral state will impose the requirement for permissive action links on all heavy weapons. (We already have crude ones in many cars.) Soldiers who attempt a coup find their tanks, heavy machineguns, mortars, etc. don't work. Loyalists are not similarly encumbered. They can therefore easily defeat the coup. The rebels hang. But they know this ahead of time, and probably just don't even try it.

Right now, cryplocking all handguns seems expensive, and it would be somewhat inconvenient (since they'd need batteries and batteries need charging). But I think even with modern tech, we could design an assault rifle with a built-in iPhone equivalent (radio + battery + CPU + memory + video camera), that would run the gun including disabling it on command. It would seem quite useful for the state if there were high-def video captured and uploaded automatically every time any of its weapons had the safety off.

And Moore's law keeps more-ing. In 10 years, iPhone-level power will be 1/30 the price and half the size, with 10x the battery life. So putting an iPhone in every pistol will have a modest overhead.

candide3 said...

@Leonard: personally I think the whole 'cryptlock all arms' idea is silly. Small arms (including mortars) are highly effective but very simple machinery. In fact, they are explicitly designed to be that way. They are easy enough to manufacture (even Pakistan's tribal areas turn out AK-47 ripoffs) and there are vast quantities of them in circulation. The owner actually has to strip down (as in, take apart almost completely) and service his weapons every day, and it's not exactly rocket science — one doesn't even need to be literate (tribal areas again). On top of this, many everyday objects we are surrounded with can be weaponized, and the daily flow of goods and traffic on our roads is so huge that sneaking in a couple of truck-mounted nuclear bombs (HT War Nerd) or howitzers is a cinch. You would have to set up a very, very thorough surveillance system to have decent chances of deterrence. Such a system would have to be almost 100% automated too, as hiring sufficient numbers of reliable human operators would be hardly possible logistically or economically. Sure, techno-geekery is fun, but consider for yourself how practical it is.

candide3 said...

Now consider the situation when the sovereign does have the technology for robot armies, automated surveillance systems etc. I ask, what would the sovereign need humans for? Why concern oneself with humans and their needs? They can't defeat you (by construction) and your robots etc. can do almost anything better than a human. Humans are inefficient, expensive and difficult to manage. Just let them live in stone age.

Anomaly UK said...

@sconzey - The internet was a random example: any new technology which has large economic effect will undermine the currently-powerful and strengthen someone else. The trick is not to be too dependent on the currently-powerful

@Candide - I'm not too worried about battles between the security forces and terrorists with home-made guns. Imported guns are a bigger risk, but my issue is with the PAL itself. The theory is sound, but many broken crypto implementations are built on sound theory.

I think Putin aspires to Formalism, and I did have his relationship with the oligarchs in mind when I wrote the "Honour" post. He's a very long way from achieving it -- there are many strong independent power centres, and so the deals he has to do with them are much less one-sided than would be ideal. He even has to have elections. I think he suffers very badly from the threat of disruptive change, and has to work hard and do a lot of damage to defend the economic status quo that supports his key allies. Even so, you could claim he's the best ruler Russia's had in a century.

candide3 said...

@AMcGuinn: well, I guess we agree on the silliness of weapon PALs even if our reasons are a bit different.
he's the best ruler Russia's had in a century
Maybe you're right, but seeing as in the XX century Russia was blessed with such luminaries of good government as Nicholas II, Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev... that is not a high bar to jump.
As for Putin's relationship with the oligarchs, these days he has them around his little finger. Witness the farce of Prokhorov's presidential candidacy, for instance. Other than the oligarchs, what 'strong (!) independent (!) power centers' did you have in mind? Security services? Putin is the security services (modulo Aretae's objections). Kadyrov, Tatarstan, other national republics? Meh. OSCE, EU, Germany?
In actuality Putin does not even need 90% of the Russian people. His economy is the extractive industries, other stuff is just extra. Thatcher was reported to have said that a population of more than 10-15 million in Russia is economically infeasible, mainly because vast overland distances and harsh climate make production uncompetitive compared to more southern locations; Putin would probably agree.
Anyway, even if Putin is trying to implement formalism (i.e. alignment between notional and real power structures), his particular brand of it is unappetizing.

Leonard said...

Candide, assuming strong AI puts us beyond the singularity, and in such circumstances it is rather strained to be debating the form of government. We currently can build weapons locks. Designed a gun with a permissive action link with radio control is doable today.

I am aware that many weapons are relatively low tech. Yes, old weapons (including all those AK47s and handguns) do not just cease to exist in my scenario. And many types of weapons are easy to manufacture, if crudely. However, at the very least the state can control which weapons its own forces use; it simply does not supply them with any other kind. Any group may attempt to coup using crude bombs and simple guns, maybe including crude mortars. But this won't succeed against a group with modern tanks, aircraft, and artillery.

I do think it would be quite easy for the state to forbid the private possession of tanks, armed aircraft, and artillery.

I see no reason why a cryplocked assault rifle cannot be stripped and cleaned. The obvious design is fire-by-wire -- that is, there is only an electronic connection between the trigger and the firing mechanism. This does not preclude taking the barrel and chamber apart and cleaning them. The state can easily monitor the status of its guns if it needs to.

I doubt the sovcorp would really need to ban old guns, but yes, I do think that they could if they wanted to. We're not talking about a limited state here. The way to get rid of guns is not so much law and enforcement, but social pressure. On the top end, make gun use unfashionable; on the low end, put a stop to rampant crime so that gun use is not necessary. Even today you can see this in progressives: they loathe guns and would never possess one themselves because that is low class. And that despite living in a society where guns are fairly useful due to the high crime.

candide3 said...

But this won't succeed against a group with modern tanks, aircraft, and artillery.
USA had all this and more in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pakistan has this and more, but for some reason puts up with the tribal areas which prevents minerals extraction. Looking with a wider eye, though, your argument misses the point. A modern developed country's wealth is in its people, i.e. in the cities and industrial zones. And modern cities are extremely vulnerable to assault by a small, highly organized opponent who knows what he's doing. Cripple the infrastructure and in less than a week the city will be a totally ungovernable mess. Thus our imaginary opponent has no need for tanks and aircraft. On the contrary, these things are easy to detect and so dangerous rather than useful. What he needs is small arms, mortars, explosives, maybe small artillery and, crucially, good organization and good technical knowledge.
permissive action link with radio control
Suppose the opponent uses radio jammers on the battlefield? Jammers are small and fairly low-tech. Or portable EMI devices... anyway I don't see these technical objections as truly decisive, see above and below.
I see no reason why a cryplocked assault rifle cannot be stripped and cleaned. The obvious design is fire-by-wire -- that is, there is only an electronic connection between the trigger and the firing mechanism.
Have you stripped a handgun or an assault rifle? I have. The firing mechanism needs to be cleaned and oiled as well, and it has to be simple, otherwise water and dirt will soon put it out of commission. And even if technical difficulties are overcome (with $5-10K/unit rifles being the likely result), as you correctly note, this does not solve the problem of imported or home-made weapons anyway, so you are reduced to social sanctions and persuasion.

Leonard said...

We're talking about different things. The point of cryplocking guns is not to defeat guerrillas, but to defeat coups.

I do not regard a guerrilla army as a serious threat to the state. It can be a threat, of sorts, to a state which is divided. As in our case, where we pit the State Department and its revolutionary allies versus the DoD on remote battlefields. There, the "enemy" can win -- because the enemy is us.

A unified state does not have that problem. When State and War work together, as was the case in WWII, they win, and there is no guerrilla resistance. The key element is to make clear to the subjugated people that the ruling state plans to rule them indefinitely, and it is prepared to deliver any level of violence necessary to that end. Men do not fight when they know they will lose. The sort of problems that USG has are of its own making. I assume you are familiar with Mencius Moldbug's writing on the subject?

Back to the specifics of cryplocking guns, which is somewhat incidental, but nonetheless of great interest to me:

I am sure jamming would be an issue, but it is an obvious attack so you should design to it. For example, my immediate idea (made up here after 30 seconds of thought) is to make guns turn themselves off if they cannot contact the net after, say, 8 hours. Maybe 24 hours. And also to build in an ethernet port, and to build working ethernet in key places. Loyalist forces would thus not be able to operate in the distant field for long periods of time. But this problem could be overcome via any working method of network access.

I have not stripped an assault rifle. However, I have a hard time believing that it would be impossible or even difficult to design a mechanism that triggers off a small movement of an actuator. Indeed, in a sense this is already the case. A small movement of the "actuating" finger on the trigger fires the weapon. So if nothing better is possible, have the actuator push an internal trigger, which then does exactly what it does now.

Another way to go is to remove the firing mechanism entirely. Electronically fired rifles already exist. I see no reason this technology could not be developed. It is of modest interest right now because the existing technology is well-honed to existing needs.

I don't think any of this tech needs to be anywhere near $5K. An iPhone is $500; a fancy firing mechanism might be another $100 or so. The first price is going to plunge due to Moore's law. The second would be addressed via mass production. But even if a secure rifle did cost $5K, the state has plenty of cash to afford them.

candide3 said...

The point of cryplocking guns is not to defeat guerrillas, but to defeat coups.
Your idea of coups seems to be based on African and Latin American ones, where the regular army or other militarized branches of the state topple the government by brute force. Doubtless many coups are like that, but other coups in more important countries were not like that. You really should read Trotsky and Malaparte, not just Luttwak.
Regarding rifles, it is certainly possible to design such a mechanism, use electronic firing etc. However, technology is a tug-of-war and the more complicated it is, the less reliable and more vulnerable it is. Anyway I'm not out to knock holes in particular technological solutions. Technology being technology, there will always be holes to knock. My point is that a solution that overwhelmingly relies on technology is doomed to fail sooner rather than later.

Leonard said...

The solution does not overwhelmingly rely on tech. It mostly relies on the same things that all human governments do: loyalty, greed, powerlust; leadership, dominance and submission. The tech is there to deal with some important edge cases.

candide3 said...

@Leonard: if your solution mostly relies on the same things that all human governments do, it is bound to have mostly the same failure modes, and in modern states a violent uprising of the armed forces isn't an important failure mode. Considering just mutiny of the armed forces, soldiers throwing down their weapons and fraternizing with the revolutionary people has historically been a much more important failure mode, and PALs are completely ineffective against it.

Leonard said...

(1) coup by the armed forces is not a problem for Cathedral states. It is a large problem for most kinds of states, historically speaking -- states that used loyalty, etc. just as modern ones do. The Cathedral has evolved specific memes against it. One reason for keeping around a neutered opposition is to create a outlet for military discontents.

(2) Soldiers without arms are just people. As such, they are a mob, and can be machinegunned if nothing else. PALs prevent them from using heavy arms, at least, and possibly also lesser arms. As such, they can only degrade their revolutionary potential.

candide3 said...

@Leonard: France in the XVIII and XIX centuries, Russia in 1905 and in 1917, Germany in 1918 and in 1933, were hardly Cathedral states. In all these cases desertion and inaction of troops, or anticipation and fear of the same, was a much more important factor than armed mutiny. In the post-WWI cases above, even machine guns were available (and before machine guns there was grapeshot and shrapnel). Didn't help much.