Month: February 2011


Blogroll


I’ve dared to face the chaotic tangle of html that is my template, to update the blogroll on the left. My general focus has moved from the British libertarian fringe, of LPUK and UKIP types, to the all-out, mainly North American reactionary movement. Accordingly, Isegoria, Foseti, Aretae and Whyiamnot have taken the places of the likes of The Devil and Tim Worstall, though I haven’t stopped reading the latter. Mangan and Joseph Fouche should probably be in there too.

Degenerate Formalism


Aretae has responded to my defence of formalism:

My major objection is not North Korea, but china from 1000BC to 1900AD or Japan ~1500-1850. Stable society with stable-ish rulers stagnate hard. In neither case was maintaining rule a big deal…but in both cases, you had enormous periods of malthusian stagnation. That’s what scares the shit out of me about the formalist prescription is that the Game theory seems to guarantee that path.

This time the criticism is not that the leader untrammeled by democracy will be too rapacious, but instead too unambitious — happily sitting at the top of a stable but stagnating civilisation.

Once again, true formalism has an easy answer: as in any underperforming enterprise, the CEO of a stagnating sovcorp will draw the attention of investors who believe that by changing management they can get an improved return. They will buy the shares, call an emergency general meeting, and have the management replaced. Their fully-legal hostile takeover will be bloodless, as the share-purchasing crypto protocols ultimately give them control over the keys that activate the guns.

And again, I don’t buy all that. Mencius described the joint-stock sovcorp as an advance on the “family business” sovcorp, or hereditary absolute monarchy. Formalism without magic guns is just royalism — perhaps we could call it “degenerate Formalism”, as there is just one share of voting stock and it is indivisible.

So, is Formalism in its degenerate form susceptible to this kind of stagnation? I do not feel able to discourse adequately on three millenia of Chinese history. My impression of the last thousand is not of permanent stagnation, but of a complacency that set in after some centuries of being more technically and economically advanced than any neighbour. Success always carries a danger of such complacency, but success is nevertheless worth aiming for.

Japan, similarly, being sufficiently strong and advanced to be quite safe from its only neighbours, made a conscious decision to rest on its laurels, which only ceased to work when the world shrank around it.

No European country made any such abdication of striving for greater wealth and power, not because of different political arrangements, but because the competition between powers never waned.

Malthusian, is, I think, a red herring. Malthus was right about a world where agriculture was the main activity. Adding more people to the same agricultural land produced diminishing returns. It is conceivable that similar contstraints could return, but it does not seem imminent. Again, forms of government are not the determining factor.

On the other hand, it must be recognised that for any government, rapid growth, and particularly growth driven by technological change, is potentially destabilising. The key is that it unpredictably makes different groups in society more and less powerful, so that any coalition is in danger of rival groups rapidly gaining enough power to overwhelm it. Back with Malthus, if one group of families owns land, you can predict that they will continue to own land for many generations. But if another group is powerful because of trade, or manufacturing, or entertainment, they might be bust in ten years’ time. That is why the stability of feudalism is unlikely to return.

There are two circumstances in which the natural tendency of government to restrain technological advance is avoided. One is if it is as easy as possible for the newly rich to take power. That way, whatever the new technology is, those who benefit from it are in charge, and they will drive it on. The other is to totally detach power from wealth creation. Then the ruler will not care who is doing well, provided the country is wealthy enough for him to take a generous cut. The aim of formalism is to achieve the second situation. The ruler should be secure enough that he does not fear growing wealth of any interest group. The question is whether such security is possible.

The best government is one that nobody is trying to overthrow. Western democracy works as well as it does not because of any virtue it has, but because of the virtue people imagine it has, which false belief induces them to leave the government unmolested. If people were to understand that government is better when it is unchallenged, they would largely cease to challenge it.

I believe this was generally the case in late-medieval Europe. People did respect the anointed King, not primarily out of superstition, but because they understood that politics would only make things worse, as they were worse in the days of feudalism. This happy state of affairs was undone by the Stuarts’ idiotic fumbling of the religion question in England, and the return of politics in England triggered copycats around the world, in just the same way as Tunisia has triggered waves of politics across the Middle East. The world has yet to recover from the English Civil War.


Immigration Poll


The Englishman points at a Guardian article on attitudes to race and immigration in Britain. Apparently, “Huge numbers of Britons would support an anti-immigration English nationalist party if it was not associated with violence and fascist imagery”, according to a new poll.

Taken at face value, that supports the claim I made recently, that “if fascism had appeared twenty years ago, without the baggage of history, it would now be popular enough across Europe that it would probably have taken over most of it”.

It is also, in practical terms, meaningless. Any anti-immigration party is automatically associated with violence and fascist imagery, whatever the views of its founders and supporters, so there is no possibility of such a party becoming genuinely popular.

Taking any opinion poll at face value, however, is unwise. This poll was commissioned by Searchlight Educational Trust, and is the basis of a report to be published in full tomorrow. Whether the report’s primary aim is to directly discredit anti-immigrationists, or else to rally support to the anti-fascist cause, is not immediately clear. It may become more obvious when the report is published.

Incidentally, the language of the summary is revealing; Searchlight is nominally anti-fascist, but it highlights as dangerous the finding that 48% of the population would support a non-fascist anti-immigration party. If they were genuinely anti-fascist, rather than just pro-immigration, that would be good news.

On the Interests of Absolute Rulers


Aretae raises the question with respect to formalism: Doesn’t it depend on the interests of the ruler and the ruled being aligned?

The justification of democracy is that by making the rulers answerable to the population, it prevents the rulers from acting in a manner that is good for them and bad for the population — such as spending all the money on themselves.

Formalism in the true Moldbuggian sense has an answer to that: If a voter has actual influence over the government, that should be recognized alongside whatever other actual influences exist, and turned into a shareholding in the government. That makes the value of the influence more predictable, which makes everything more efficient. Every share in the government is the same as every other, so there is no more need for battle between newspapers and civil service departments, unions and universities, to make one group’s influence more than another’s. Everything runs much more smoothly, and everyone is better off.

I am not a true formalist, however. I see the joint-stock sovcorp as highly desirable but quite impossible. The enforcement of shareholder rights depends on the cryptographic protocols which link shareholdings to the ability to activate or deactivate the security force’s weapons. Without disputing the existence of protocols with the correct theoretical properties, I am utterly unable to imagine them being implemented successfully. It is amusing to contemplate control of the world’s armaments falling into the hands of Anonymous, but nobody is ever really going to risk it.

So, without formalism, what is my own response to the conflict of interest between ruler and ruled? It is to live with it. An absolute ruler will rule in his interest and not mine, and will raise money from taxes for his own use.

The ruler will be in the position of the proprietor of a firm; he is in a position to take any spare cash in the economy for himself. Like any government, he can levy taxes on anything he wants, and like any proprietor he can use the revenue raised to invest in the firm, or withdraw it from the firm as a dividend.

That brings us to the Laffer Curve. Everyone but the dimmest of left-wingers accepts that at some point, increasing a rate of tax decreases the revenue raised by the tax. However, the normal discussions of this miss a whole dimension, of time. Tax rates today affect not only the size of the tax base today, but also the size of the tax base tomorrow and into the future. The tax rate that maximises tax receipts over the next 12 months will not be the same as the tax rates that maximises receipts over the next 10 years, or the next 25 years.

In an idealised model of a proprietor of a state, with perfect foresight and perfect security, any extraction of tax that reduces economic growth would reduce the NPV of the proprietor’s interest. In more realistic situations, that would not hold; the rational proprietor would seek to diversify by taking profits out of the state and moving them into other investments, even at the cost of some impact on the profitability of the state.

My support for the idea of a secure, absolute ruler is motivated by the expectation that the cost of what the ruler takes would be smaller than the cost of the deadweight loss imposed by a government in which nobody has a significant interest in overall long-term growth, but which depends for short-term survival on appeasing large and changing interest groups — whether organised voter blocs, civil service departments, the military, or any other party on which an insecure government relies for survival.

I am much less worried about a proprietor’s extraction of profit from a country than I am about how much he will have to do to stay in power. That is the most important divergence of interest: he has an overwhelming interest in preserving his rule, whereas I am much less concerned.

All but one of Aretae’s examples of bad rulers caused damage not to gain wealth from the country, but in the course of maintaining power. The exception is King Leopold’s rule of the Belgian Congo, which was not in any sense a productive economy, but merely a pile of valuable ivory over which ran wild animals and (in the circumstances) uncivilisable natives — the experience does not extend to any country which is not a backward colony of a more advanced civilisation.

The example that is most troubling for me is not Stalin or Leopold but Kim Jong-Il. The same family has ruled there for 60 years, and secure rule in my theory should have produced good government. My assumption is that, while Kim Il-Sung and his successor have succeeded in retaining power, the power of the ruler is neither complete nor secure, and they are in a constant struggle with rivals within the regime. However, the lack of information about the internal politics of North Korea means that there is little evidence for or against this assumption.


Nick Clegg Forgets to Pretend

27th February 2011

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Nick Clegg is in the papers, appearing not only vague but unconcerned about “who is running the country” while Cameron is away. (Nick Clegg ‘forgot’ he was in charge of the Government this week)

One of the most interesting things about politics in the last decade or so is that the fictions are breaking down. That is also the theme of Mencius’ latest post, where he wonders if he is being made redundant by the openness of the USG’s intervention in Egypt, and by Wikileaks.

The notion that the government of Britain is “run” by a handful of well-known politicans has over the last hundred years gone from being somewhat true, to being something often deviated from in practice, to being an earnest pretence, and finally a flimsy charade.

Now Clegg, who as a Liberal Democrat is somewhat more isolated from the continuity of political office than his predecessors in cabinet, seems to be unaware of the tradition of paying lip-service to the idea. If someone really needs for some bizarre reason to ask the Prime Minister something, they have his phone number, and anyway Clegg is thinking of taking a day or two off.

Jeremy Paxman in his book “The Political Animal” quotes an unnamed Tory ex-minister:

‘Once we lost the 1997 election,’ one of the best-known Conservatives of the 1980s and 1990s told me, ‘I knew it was over for me. What was the point of standing up in parliament and lambasting the Labour government, when I knew exactly how limited the options open to them were? It was all empty and pointless.’

It’s a very interesting book. While its aim is to look at the character of politicians, in the process it has to show the environment in which they act in more detail than we normally see.

As an opponent of democracy, I am constantly irritated by the suggestion that there are no practical alternatives. The book reminds us that mass democracy as we understand it today is something that appeared in Britain within living memory:

“In April 1925, for example, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, announced that Britain was to return to the Gold Standard, whereby the value of sterling was guaranteed by allowing pounds to be exchanged for gold. This momentous (if ultimately unsuccessful) decision had been two months in preparation, involving heartfelt arguments on both sides of the debate. Yet not a word of it appeared in the newspapers. Indeed, it was hardly heard outside the confines of the Treasury.”

Decisions were being made by an establishment, and if ministers were part of the process, that was because they, coincidentally, were also members of that establishment. Paxman also describes what happened when ministers were elected from outside the establishment, quoting from the diaries of Hugh Dalton, from the period of the Labour administration of 1929-31.

The Cabinet is full of overworked men, growing older; more tired and more timid with each passing week. Pressure from below and from without is utterly ineffectual. High hopes are falling like last autumn’s leaves. There is a whisper of spring in the air, but none in the political air. One funks the public platform, and one wishes we had never come in. We have forgotten our Programme, or been bamboozled out of it by the officials. One almost longs for an early and crushing defeat.

We have there an explanation for why Britain has got off so lightly from democracy: the parliament of 1925 was elected under a restricted franchise (women under 30 did not get the vote until the 1929 election), and as we saw above major policy debates occurred without reference to the press. Once outsiders started to be elected, they were largely powerless in the face of the establishment. Dalton presumably became more influential in later administrations, but I suspect that was due not so much to the power of the establishment waning, as to the establishment moving closer to the Labour party’s views.

This is the important but subtle point I’ve made before — elections are not what they are claimed to be, but neither are they irrelevant. The establishment rules, but it is not unanimous, and politicans are able to exert crude broad-brush influence where the establishment is divided. Because the politicians are motivated by elections, the influence they exert tends always to be in the same direction. In the period before politicians were answerable to the mass media, the influence of the electorate was lessened.


Anonymous versus HBGary

17th February 2011

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I don’t think the HBGary story has had the amount of attention it deserves from the mainstream.

It’s worth reading just as drama: Security researcher takes on the “Anonymous” hacker group, and loses so spectacularly it almost defies description.

It’s important for what it says about any organisation’s IT choices and their security implications. HBGary used Google Apps. Cloud services are enormously convenient, particularly for an organisation that does not really have a physical “home”, but using them means losing perimiter security altogether.

Perimiter security has a bad name, because in the old days it was all there was, and today it is not enough. But the things that are possible even if you try to protect your perimiter are much easier if you don’t even have one.

A basic IT risk assessment question for anybody is, “how much damage can an attacker do with one password?”. With one password, Anonymous downloaded all of HBGary’s corporate email from Google and posted it on the internet. They did more than that — the highlight for security commentators was the social-engineering attack on rootkit.org via a Nokia engineer — but the email was enough by itself, as well as enabling the other attacks. They got the email admin password from an ad-hoc CMS with a SQL-injection vulnerability, as it happens, but if your whole company can be destroyed with one password then you’re doing it wrong. (Damn, it’s so hard to avoid lapsing into dialect on this story).

And the third interesting angle is what is to be found in the data Anonymous posted. The company was proposing to feed fake data to WikiLeaks to discredit it, and to pressure journalists who defended WikiLeaks. There is chatter about government involvement in this, but I haven’t seen that actually substantiated. It may be in there somewhere. The HBGary Federal projects aimed at government clients seem to be standard network monitoring / intrusion detection stuff.

In case anyone gets confused, I’m not here to defend Anonymous, or for that matter to attack them. They exist. If they get caught they’ll get the book thrown at them, which is understandable, but I’m more interested in what the world looks like with them in it. Whereas Assange attempts to define his aims, and appeals for support, Anonymous claim only to be “in it for the lulz”, which is not open to disputation.

Update: Intriguing piece on HBGary government work on rootkits and penetration tools. In principle this should be verifiable from the email dumps, but I haven’t checked.


Fascism and Democracy


Since I’ve been discussing fascism, and since it is topical, at least round here, because of the imminent arrival in Luton of the English Defense League, I will look at it in more detail.

I don’t mean to imply that the EDL actually are fascists — I don’t know what they are, and it really doesn’t matter at all. Their enemies, who control the media, all political parties, and every arm of government, will call them fascist, so any discussion of them is a discussion of fascism, whatever it is that they really believe.

I side with the fascists against many liberals in that I don’t see dispersed political power as a desirable end. It’s not that I’m in favour of concentrated political power as an end — I would happily accept dispersed power as a means if it advanced good ends, but I don’t think it does. Concentrated power, for me, is a means towards government that will protect peace, prosperity, security, freedom etc.

I think many fascists, possibly including Schmitt, would not have listed peace as a good end, as I have done. So on that score I oppose the fascists: other things being equal, peace is better than war.

The bad things associated with fascism are excessively aggressive foreign policy, persecution of selected minorities, economic collectivism, omnipresent dishonest propaganda, and a clampdown on opposition.

The belligerence, persecution, collectivism and propaganda all derive from the requirement for a broad popular base. This differs slightly from a democracy: democracy requires the acquiescence of a large majority, fascism requires the active support of at least a large minority. The similarities are close enough, however, that in the last 60 years the democracies have taken on levels of collectivism and propaganda that are indistinguishable from those of 1930s fascism. (George Street is still strewn with the purple streamers of “Luton in Harmony“, a fairly typical government propaganda exercise). Collectivism is part of the mix because it enables the government, by controlling economic activity, to reward support and punish dissent in a subtle but sustainable way that a laissez-faire government cannot.

The direction of the democratic propaganda is of course opposite to that of fascism; this reflects the difference between the popularity requirements of democracy and fascism. Luton in Harmony is supposed to generate a diffuse low-level hostility to opponents of the regime across as wide a base as possible, whereas Fascists need to stir active fear and hatred among a a smaller group who will maintain the regime in power — what Dsquared elegantly paints as “arseholes”. That is the reason why democracies are generally less unpleasant to live under than fascist parties. The ability of the regime to survive on no more than passive acquiescence of the population is the real advantage of democracy, though it only exists because people believe other good things about democracy that aren’t true. It is the feature of democracy that needs to be held onto through a transition to a better system.

Comparisons between democracy and fascism on the foreign policy side are interesting. Britain has operated an aggressive foreign policy over the last decade, but that appears on the face of it to have arisen despite the demands of democracy rather than because of them — it does appear to have been driven by the personal convictions of Tony Blair. But just possibly that is missing the point. The link between war and popularity is not necessarily that war is popular; it is that the people are more inspired by a leadership personality who displays the characteristics that are likely to lead him to war. Hitler and Blair, then, were popular not because they had war policies, but because they had the conviction and charisma of crusaders. That conviction is what then produced the war policies.

Or maybe Blair was just weird. After all, many other democracies are less belligerent. I’m not really convinced either way on this question.

As for the curbing of opposition, I have no problem with it. The reason why it is generally considered proper for a government to tolerate opposition is that it is generally believed that the need to compromise and satisfy opponents pushes government policy in a beneficial direction. I believe the exact opposite: that nearly all governments, good or bad, are made worse by opposition. All competent governments treat sedition as a crime. Politics in the real world is a matter of life and death, and those who perpetrate it must accept the risks.

That is not to say that opposition to any government is bad: even if all governments become worse when they are opposed, they may be replaced by something better if they are actually overthrown. But I don’t expect bad governments to cooperate in their own overthrow.

Concretely, if the current events in Egypt result in regime change, that could possibly be beneficial (though I would be surprised). But if they don’t, any “reforms” that the current regime is driven to will make things worse. True revolutionaries understand this — they want concessions not for their own value, but because concessions further weaken the regime, bringing its fall nearer.

So to strengthen my earlier post, which was slightly equivocal, I reject fascism. It relies on mass popularity, and therefore fails to improve on democracy, but going further, because it has to win more positive support from the population than democracy does, it has the problems of democracy in a stronger and more dangerous form. One of the worst things that can be said about democracy is that, particularly in it’s young form, it has a tendency to devolve into fascism. A young democracy is little more than a battle between competing fascisms — each party is the active street-fighting kind, rather than the passive tick-in-the-box democratic kind.

That actually explains a mystery that troubled me in the past: why it is that there is such an exaggerated fear of fascist or near-fascist organisations like the BNP, despite their appearing laughably weak and incompetent. At some level, the regime must recognise that in intellectual terms fascism is the obvious response to democracy, however irrelevant a particular party might be. I think it’s fair to say that if fascism had newly appeared twenty years ago, without the baggage of history, it would by by now be popular enough across Europe that it would probably have taken over most of it.


Carl Schmitt

4th February 2011

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Tyler Cowen linked to a New Republic article about political thought in China

The first point is that the Chinese take politics really seriously — something that looks strange to those of us who live in democracies, where politics is mostly fantasy, and goes some way to explaining the Chinese regime’s unnecessarily serious take on such idiocies as the Nobel Peace Prize.

More interesting, to me, is the summary of the thinking of Carl Schmitt.

“Schmitt assumed the priority of conflict: Man is a political creature, in the sense that his most defining characteristic is the ability to distinguish friend and adversary… If you have nothing to say about war, you have nothing to say about politics. There is, he wrote, ‘absolutely no liberal politics, only a liberal critique of politics'”

That last point is what tore me away, finally, from classical liberalism. You can establish, as the libertarians have done, that politics is basically harmful — that it would be better if it did not exist. That is true, and it gives useful insights. But by itself, it doesn’t actually get rid of politics, any more than declaring any other crime to be a crime gets rid of it. Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. We would be better off without politics, but classical liberalism offers no way to achieve that, and I suspect it is not possible. If I am resigned to living in a world with politics, the question of what form of politics is least bad presents itself, and classical liberalism supplies no answers.

Schmitt, who I was not previously aware of, did not merely point out the problem with liberalism. He did something about it. Specifically, he joined the Nazi party.

Fascism is a fairly obvious answer to the problems of liberal democracy. Get rid of the liars, the elections, the corrupt influences of guild, agency and business, and lets just have a Leader who makes the decisions and is answerable to nobody but God and history. That’s pretty much what I’ve been saying for a while — am I a fascist?

That’s a tough enough question that I’ve been sitting on this draft for several weeks while I work it out. Clearly, I’m not far away — certainly not far enough to be respectable. I want quite a few of the things the Fascists want. But then, when people sit around spouting political theories, they frequently want much the same things: prosperity, security, personal freedom… it’s means, rather than ends, that cause most disagreements.

The easy answer is “No, fascism is way too democratic for me”, because fascism relies on a mass party, which is a form of demotism even if there aren’t necessarily regular fair elections. But that’s a bit glib, given that I don’t have a clear path forward, and it’s possible that in some circumstances fascism could be a path to something I would approve of.

The real answer is that arguing about theories of government in the abstract is meaningless and irrelevant. If I did not believe that, I would still be a libertarian. I am not likely to actively support any real fascist movement, because I am a passivist, not an activist. If I supported fascism I would be committing politics, and becoming part of the problem. When the time is right for a responsible government to exist, there will be no need for a movement with supporters, because the people will acquiesce in the new regime as they now acquiesce in democracy. The new order will not be imposed by an ideological struggle, but by a straightforward business transaction, which at the time will seem inevitable and even minor.

I am not saying the new order is inevitable — just that if it happens it will become inevitable first. Any order that is installed by a struggle is obviously political, and therefore doomed.

[Update: fixed link, corrected source to New Republic, not National Review. Thanks Kalim Kassam]






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