Month: March 2013
Further to my previous post on how I can call myself a reactionary while supporting the dangerous new-fangled innovation of absolute monarchy, let’s look at feudalism.
There have been various forms of aristocracy. When I started to advocate monarchy as a practical from of formalism, “Degenerate Formalism”, I saw no reason to include aristocracy. The monarch should have complete sovereignty, so there is no reason to privilege some subjects over others.
I was setting myself primarily against the feudalist position of Nick Szabo, who makes a case for the medieval structure of “interlocking property rights”
Once I tried to describe a future monarchical regime in detail, I found myself edging back towards an aristocracy, though not in a full-blown medieval form.
Unsurprisingly, given the emphasis of my blog over the last year, the key issue is loyalty.
The medieval noble vassal was supposed to be loyal to his lord. However, the practical implications of this loyalty were limited by transport and communication capabilities. From year to year, he had full authority over his demesne. The major requirements on him were to provide resources to the King when he turned up, to provide armed force when required, and to withold support from the King’s enemies. Beyond that, he wasn’t required to follow the King’s policies, because the King didn’t have any policies for him to follow — he was too far away.
Once the King could be in regular contact by mail or by regular visitors, the situation changed. With regular and reliable information from provinces, the King would inevitably form a view of how they should be managed in detail. This caused conflict with local nobles who had had virtually complete autonomy for centuries. Even if the King recognised a noble’s claim to that autonomy as an established right, the fact of his defying the King’s wishes weakened the relationship betwen them.
If we were to return to a medieval technology level, feudalism could work well. Otherwise, we are forced to this contradiction of the baron professing loyalty to his sovereign while claiming the right to obstruct his policy. That is what I see no point in.
However, I do see a need for the monarch to have a class of subjects from whom he expects positive loyalty, but who do not have independent partial sovereignty. Their position represents not a right to any political power, but rather an eligibility for political power. This is the arrangement I put forward in “Kingdom 2037”. Born aristocrats would be expected (but not required) to move in the direction of royal service, and their behaviour and associations from an early age would be judged with that in mind. If you spend your first twenty years cultivating an image of being loyal and conscientious, you are likely to end up somewhat loyal and conscientious. If you grow up in an elite community, and are stupid, reckless, or crooked, the elite community is going to know. As in elitist societies like today’s Hollywood, noble birth wouldn’t get you into the government, but it would get you looked at.
Such a system might also produce pressure towards mediocrity and excessive conformism. That is why a wise king will build a court mainly from the aristocracy, but including some others. The vital point is that the values of the ruling institutions will be maintained, and the outsiders coming in will acculturate to them, rather than replacing the culture with their own.
What are the drawbacks of this arrangement? There chief danger seems to be that the aristocratic class forms a power block in its own right. If set in competition with the King himself, it would inevitably become rapacious, in the way that a secure ruler is not, because resources plundered from the population would enable it to strengthen its position versus the crown. There is considerable precedent for aristocracies behaving in that way.
My feeling is that the problem is fundamentally one of feudal aristocracies, and there is no reason why a post-feudal monarch would want to tolerate it. That possibly means that, while having something like an aristocracy is useful, it should be symbolically distinct from the old aristocracy which continues to exist in present-day constitutional monarchies. Possibly it should not exist formally at first. The useful features are that the King appoints those he knows and trusts, and that senior Royal appointees are given some kind of permanent status that ties their long-term interest to the regime.
One-line summary: Aristocrats are not better than everybody else, but we can have a better idea of how good they are than we can of everybody else.
Hertzlinger points out, accurately, that absolute monarchy is a recent innovation. He also calls it “regrettable”. In a comment, I put forward the “history of liberalism in a nutshell”. It’s nothing I haven’t put here before, but it’s been spread over posts on a lot of different subjects, so I’m pasting my comment here (with minor editing) as a post:
Absolute monarchy was an innovation made possible by new technologies of transport and communication. When subordinates could not be supervised because of the difficulty of travel, it made sense to give them a large degree of independence, and ensure that they, like the Monarch himself, had permanent power and therefore a long-term view. When the Monarch became able to supervise subordinates closely, it made more sense for him to delegate to temporary appointees instead.
Monarchy died out because the enlightenment political philosophy, along with the propaganda pumped out by the English Whigs, became so intellectually dominant that even the monarchs believed it. By the end of the 18th Century, European monarchs were deliberately acting like democratic leaders, which hastened their end.
As Moldbug put it the other day, while technological competence is certainly an indicator of a successful civilization, it is also a lagging indicator. The story of the growth of demotism as I see it goes like this:
- As above, technology (roads, literacy) improves, very gradually over hundreds of years, to the point where a King can actually control his realm and his armed forces without delegating permanent power to feudal vassals.
- This creates a stable economic basis which produces an enormous boom of technological development and prosperity.
- Scientific discoveries undermine the religious world-view which is the traditional justification of the political regime.
- At the same time, many small landowners obtain, as a result of the economic boom, a degree of wealth previously associated with actual political power in the form of major feudal rights. They saw political power as a necessary accompaniment to their wealth.
- Those two developments led to the overthrow of the absolute monarchy that had triggered them, and to the first liberal regimes.
- The intellectual, technological and economic boom continued. It was erroneously seen as the result of the liberal political order, rather than of the absolutist political order that had initially caused it.
The Office of Fair Trading has identified poor practice by payday lenders. It seems they “fail to work out whether people can pay” the loans they make to them, and therefore people unwisely take on loans they cannot pay back.
The theory, presumably, is that even though the customers know they will have to pay substantial fees and interest some weeks in the future, they still sign up, because they think the future problems won’t be as bad as the current problems which are solved by getting the money up front. The OFT is claiming that it is irresponsible to put people in that position.
They may well have a point. Many people do seem to dismiss from consideration adverse consequences that are a long way off: even if they are told that a debt will double in size over six months if they don’t pay it back promptly, they either don’t care, or assume something will come up, or assume they can somehow get away without paying.
But if the Office of Fair Trading takes this view, which I think is a reasonable one, I wonder what they think about the way the criminal justice system works in this country?
Let’s say you feel a taxi-driver has disrespected you in some way. Beating him unconscious might be one way to resolve the situation. However, if you do that, you could be tried and sentenced to some kind of punishment.
Given the OFT’s assessment of the capabilities of Wonga’s clientèle to judge whether they should take on a debt payable in a month or so, how much difference does it make whether you are sentenced for GBH next week or in twelve months’ time? If the prospect of having to pay £2,000 in a year isn’t putting people off borrowing £250 for a new phone today, is it going to put them off grabbing the same phone off a passer-by?
I found the taxi-driver story because it got slightly more reporting than usual, the culprit being a player on the local football team. I don’t think a new signing to Luton Town is actually a celebrity in any way that would have made his treatment different, but I needed the extra reporting, because when the local press report convictions and sentences, they don’t generally say when the offence was committed. And while the papers do contain a handful of reports of crimes committed, I have not been able to match up any crime reports with any court reports, outside of major crimes like murders. It’s the treatment of the routine minor violent crimes that I am interested in.
My twitter stream tells me that three hundred odd years of a free press are at an end, that blogs like this one are going to be regulated by the government.
It might even be true. The establishment is quite capable of riding a popular wave and then doing something completely unrelated when they actually get around to acting. After the Dunblane massacre, the government banned crossbows. After the World Trade Centre bombing, the government passed a law giving itself the power to seize the assets of Icelandic banks. It is perfectly plausible that the government would respond to the News of the World accessing Milly Dowler’s voicemail by silencing bloggers.
On the other hand, the cross-party negotiations that produced the agreement yesterday appear to be the usual symbolic battle about nothing at all, this time in the form of a pointless distinction between “statutory” and “non-statutory” regulatory frameworks. Some some of the commentary takes that argument seriously, making me doubt whether the commentators concerned are actually paying attention.
I don’t know. I’m perfectly fine with not knowing. If this new thing really is going to restrict my blogging, I’ll find out soon enough. The only case in which I would need to know now would be if I could actually do something useful about it. It is that illusion that causes all the ignorant flapping speculation about something that will be perfectly obvious within a few months.
In any case I can’t get too worked up because, while I believe that basic freedom of communication is an important freedom which governments should respect if they want the society and economy to function smoothly, I don’t believe in the “political right” of free speech as a way of opposing the government. I don’t believe in any political rights, and if the government tries to shut me up, it is making my own argument for me.
Effectively, my ignorance is doubled. As well as not knowing whether the government is or isn’t going to seriously clamp down on the press and/or blogs, I do not know, in the full context, whether that would be a bad thing or a good thing. I might be fairly sure that, other things being equal, it would be a bad thing, but other things are not equal. The end of press freedom might cause a major reactionary swing, which might hasten the downfall of the democratic regime and the restoration of Royalism, which might be a good thing. It might cause a major liberal swing, which might preserve the democratic regime longer than otherwise, which might cause a better successor regime to replace it than would otherwise be the case, which might be a good thing. Not only can I not judge how likely these outcomes are, I can’t imagine the depth and breadth of knowledge that would make it possible to judge how likely those outcomes are. It’s preposterous for me to sit here and claim to know whether this is good or bad.
Finally, of course, and looking only at the short term effects that it is actually possible to estimate, the government is far too incompetent to actually be able to suppress opposition media. Not only that, Western governments have gone to great lengths to provide mechanisms for dissidents in non-democratic countries to publish electronically without effective control. Either we can use those, or the non-democratic governments themselves will provide a mirror-image in order to show up the incoherence of the West. Imagine the UK trying to lean on China to shut down websites used by British dissidents — they would laugh their arses off.
The real suppression we face is by society refusing employment or otherwise acting informally against those who hold unfashionable opinion. That is the reason I write anonymously. But that exists already, and we are coping with that — I don’t think the law will produce nearly as much oppression as exists already in the form of unwritten liberal blasphemy law.
Last year, Aretae wrote an interesting post and I commented. I’ve been meaning to drag that comment into a post here, but didn’t get round to it.
Aretae’s post was interesting — I’m tempted to paste it all here, but that’s a bit off, so you should read it there. The part that inspired me is this:
There is massive pre-rational discrimination that occurs at a subconscious level in many people, that is visible in interacting with them, which comprises the reality of a lot of discrimination claims that are reflexively dismissed by a lot of observationally biased folks on the right.
Aretae’s main point is that this is independent of, and so not in contradiction with, HBD. But that’s not the interesting aspect for me.
For me, the implications of that one factual assertion were the important thing. The relevant bit of my comment in reply to it was this:
Sure, the first thing that follows from it is: “this applies to me. If I take conscious steps to overrule this pre-rational subconscious discrimination, then I will perceive the world more accurately, and will be able to draw better conclusions.”
That’s a good start. But what about everybody else? I do not by any means share your extreme anti-authoritarianism, but the power to dictate how other people see each other is not something I expect to have, want to have, or want anybody else to have, either. So this “pre-rational subconscious discrimination” can be taken to be a fact of life going forward for all mixed societies.
And what follows from that? Bluntly, that, when the chips are down, I want to be surrounded by people who have a positive pre-rational subconscious reaction towards me, not a negative one. Further, I can assume other people think the same way, and will rationally act accordingly, wanting power for their in-group.
To the degree that I live in a society that is stable, peaceful, and populated by the unusually rational — that is, to the degree that the chips stay up — these considerations hold minor importance. If those conditions weaken, or look like they might weaken in the future, the considerations grow in importance.
My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.
I propose that the best way for leftists to get themselves in a rightist frame of mind is to imagine there is a zombie apocalypse tomorrow.
There’s a lot more. This isn’t a response to Scott Alexander’s post — I haven’t really begun to think about that, but there’s a clear need before I start to show the degree to which I’m already looking at things the same way.
(Somehow, my argument now makes me think of this. But I stand by it anyway.)