In the context of my writing concerning division of power, I want to make a distinction between personal power and collective power.
That is not the same as the distinction between absolute power and limited power. Absolute power can be collective, for example if a state is under the control of a committee, and limited power can be personal, if an individual has control over a particular department or aspect of policy.
There is a continuum of collective power, depending on the amount of personal influence. At one extreme there is a situation where a group of two or three people who know each other can make decisions by discussion; at the other is the ordinary voter, whose opinion is aggregated with those of millions of strangers.
Towards the latter extreme, collective power is no power at all. A collective does not reach decisions the same way an individual does. An individual can change his mind, but that has small chance of altering the action of the collective. To change the action of a collective, some more significant force than an individual impulse normally has to act on it. That’s why, when we attempt to predict the action of a collective, we do not talk about states of mind, we talk about outside forces: media, economics, events.
In many cases, we can predict the action of the collective with virtual certainty. The current US presidential election is finely balanced, but we can be sure Gary Johnson will not win.
This feature of collective power has implications for the consideration of divided power, because in the right circumstances a collective power can be completely neutralised. An absolute ruler is not omnipotent, in that he depends on the cooperation of many others, most importantly his underlings and armed forces. But as a rule they do not have personal power; they have collective power. Any one of them can be replaced. An individual can turn against the sovereign, but if he would just be dismissed (or killed) and replaced, that is not a realistic power. If too many of them do not act as the sovereign orders, he would be helpless, but that requires a collective decision, and one which with a bit of work can be made effectively impossible.
There are exceptions to this. If the sovereign is utterly dependent on a single particular individual, that individual has personal power. There have been historical cases of sovereigns in that position, and it is observed that that constitutes a serious qualitative change in the nature of the government.
Where a person can covertly act against the sovereign’s power, that is a personal power. Competent institutional design is largely a matter of making sure that rogue individuals cannot exercise power undetected by anyone. As long as there are any others who can detect this abuse, then the power once again becomes collective power, held by the individual and those placed to stop him. Again, where collectives do act in this way, it is a sign of a breakdown of government institutions. As an example, see this article describing the upper ranks of the army working together to deceive the president. If the president had absolute power and a moderate amount of sense, this sort of conspiracy would be suicidally dangerous. Once power is formally divided, then the capability to prevent this kind of ad-hoc assumption of power is massively eroded.
That is the fundamental reason why division of power is bad: whatever division of power is formally made, these gaps for further informal division will tend to be opened up by it, because limited power denies the power to enforce necessary limits on others. If anyone has power to punish those who take powers they are not formally entitled to, then that person effectively is absolute. If nobody has that power to punish, then any ambitious crooks can run wild.
If there is no single person other than the sovereign who has personal power, then I would call the sovereign absolute. His power is not infinite: he has to maintain control over the collectives which necessarily have power, but that is a lesser constraint than having to cope with personal power held in other hands. It is more akin to the other constraints on his power imposed by such things as the laws of physics and the existence of foreigners and wild animals.
Note that the nature of feudalism is that feudal aristocrats are not replaceable, and do have personal power—limited, but not collective. Feudalism is thus not a system of absolute power even under my refined definition.
The great significance of collective power is that it is subject to coordination problems. Or, since from the point of view of the sovereign, the problems of coordinating a collective can be an advantage, I will call them coordination obstacles. That is why it is not voters who have power, it is those who mediate the coordination of the voters: parties and media. A change in the way that voters can be coordinated is a thoroughly material change in what I have called the Structure of the state. The US does not have the Structure that it had 25 years ago, because (among other reasons) social media is part of the current Structure. That is an actual revolution, and why the fights over use of social media for political coordination are so significant. Note that since the Constitution doesn’t say anything about social media, the constitution in itself obviously does not define the Structure.
It also means that for a formally absolute ruler, obstructing collectives from coordinating is an important tool. In the period of formally absolute monarchy, any attempt by people of importance to coordinate in confidence was suspect: prima facie treason. The most basic right claimed by parliaments was the right to meet: simply allowing aristocrats and city leaders to meet together and discuss their interests was giving them a power that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
This is the problem with the formalism that Urielo advocates: formally establishing any power that anyone in a given Structure happens to have. Power that is held collectively and is not legitimate is often neutralised by coordination obstacles. If you make that power legitimate, that goes some way to dissolving the coordination obstacles, and thereby increases the effective collective power.
Modern political thought does not generally respect the idea that coordination by those with informal power is not legitimate (though we retain the historical unfavourable associations of the word “conspiracy”) but it went without saying for most of history. Organisations that have existed in England for hundreds of years, such as guilds and the older schools and colleges, generally have royal charters: the charter is their permission to exist.
There are a couple of interesting exceptions to the modern toleration of conspiracy: one is anti-trust law, and another is insider trading law. Those both deal with economic activities.
They do show, however, that legal obstacles to coordination are not obsoleted by technological effects. Indeed, modern communication doesn’t mean that coordination obstacles are easily overcome, especially if the obstacles are considered legitimate. No matter what messaging options are available, if you need to identify yourself for the communication to be useful, and you cannot trust the other party not to expose your attempt to conspire, then attempting to conspire is dangerous.
Here is another example: in investment banks, it is generally not permitted for employees to coordinate on pay. It is a disciplinary offence to tell anyone how much you are paid. This is taken seriously, and is, in my experience, effective. That is an example of an obstacle to coordination imposed as part of a power structure.
Legal obstacles to treasonous coordination were removed for ideological reasons, because division of power and competition for power were considered legitimate. Effectively, “freedom of association” was one more way to undermine the ancien régime and unleash the mob. As with the other historical destabilising demands of progressives, things are starting to change now that the progressives have taken permanent control of the central power structures.
You no longer need a Royal Charter for your golf club or trade association, but that doesn’t mean you are free to coordinate: if you don’t have sufficient female or minority members, you may need to account for yourself in the modern Star Chamber. The Mannerbund is the same kind of threat to today’s status quo as a trade union was to that of 1799.
The useful point is that it is not proved that you can run a stable society with complete freedom of association. That makes it more acceptable for me to recommend my form of absolutism, where people other than the sovereign inevitably have the capability to act against his policy by acting collectively, but such collective action is both illegitimate and made difficult by deliberate obstacles put in their way.
Update: just come across this 2004 piece from Nick Szabo, where he talks about dividing power to produce “the strategy of required conspiracy, since abusing the power requires two or more of the separated entities to collude”. However, as I see it doing that is only half the job: the other half is actually preventing the separated entities from colluding.
This is quite an interesting bit of detail about the Labour Party before this year’s election.
What strikes me about it is that Miliband was not in any kind of control of his immediate colleagues.
In a sane system, the chief ability of a leader, of government or of something intending to become the goverrnment, would be the ability to get a small group of people to work with him. In business, that is the most vital ability of a manager. Ed Miliband seems to have been greatly lacking in that ability.
The reason, obviously, is that he was not chosen for his ability to lead. He was chosen for his appeal to outsiders—party members, unions, voters. None of those groups would even be aware of his actual managerial competence.
People talk about the lack of “real world” experience of politicians, with backgrounds in think tanks or as assistants to other assistants. My assumption has been that the valuable experience is of the hard problems of keeping a business solvent, or whatever. But that’s much less relevant to a politicians job than the ability to take control of a meeting.
Of course, as with Nick Clegg, the fact that those around him are “rivals and enemies” makes the task much harder than it might be. All the more reason to demand exceptional ability at it.
Reading Jonathan Rauch on party machines (still free!), this was the main ability that politics selected for in the age of strong parties. The incompetence of Miliband and the like is a new thing.
celebrated blog post
of April 2013, neoreaction has been seen as a trinity, or “trichotomy”
of three principles: the Ethno-Nationalist principle, the
Techno-Commercial principle, and the Religious-Traditionalist
At a shallow level, neoreaction might appear nothing more than a
fragile aggregation of advocates of the three very distinct
principles—a coalition of rejectionists of the modern consensus. Most
outsiders, and some insiders, have seen it that way, leading to an
undercurrent of “fissionism”, of splitting up into three factions.
In spite of that there has always been at the core a dim awareness
that the three principles make up one whole, that neoreaction is more
than the aggregation of its parts. For all that, it has been unclear
whether that is meant as one agenda that embraces the three
principles, or rather one movement that encompasses three factions.
We talk about three, but in Spandrell’s original statement, the
Religious–traditional element is only grudgingly mentioned as a
possible third stream, and not examined. He is eloquent in his account
of being torn between the two other principles:
“If I had to say where I am, is the nationalist branch. But I used to
be more on the capitalist camp. The capitalist argument is quite
powerful: ethnic kinship is cool but the necessary corollary of it is
National-socialism. Or socialism itself. We used to have more
asabiyyah than now, but we also had no economic growth. For all the
nostalgia for the Victorian age, who wants to go back there? Who
prefers ethnic solidarity and purpose to modern medicine and
technology? Reaction is based on a fear of where we are headed,
certainly not on a dislike of how life is right now. Yes the proles
have become barbarians, but they never were that pleasant
anyway. Ethnic solidarity by itself is not necessarily conducing of
scientific progress and economic growth. And those I agree are good
“But the capitalism argument is to allow the market to do its
bidding. But what is its bidding right now? In the last decades it has
been towards a re-concentration of wealth. Plutocracy is coming back
with force. And yeah the plutocrats have made a lot of good stuff. The
argument goes that they might do even better stuff if the government
wasn’t messing with their ambitions through socialistic
regulations. Imagine all the economic growth they might unleash if
they were allowed to employ the proles for peanuts! What’s wrong with
slave camps if you get cheap cotton, huh?”
This argument is really the heart of neoreaction. In more recent
months we have employed the language of Gnon—the God of Nature or
Nature, reality which cannot be defied. In terms of Gnon, Spandrell’s
conflict is vivid.
Gnon requires creative destruction. There are more effective ways of
manipulating the physical world than those we currently employ. The
future belongs to those who find and employ those more effective
ways. Anything that ties us to the current ways, that prevents us from
trying new ways and using them if they are better, will incur the
wrath of Gnon.
The Techno-Commercial principle of Neoreaction is aligment with
creative destruction, with bankruptcy and the elimination of the
failed and the false.
That political identification with creative destruction—markets,
competition, freedom to innovate is where Moldbug came from, where I
came from, where, according to the extract above, Spandrell came
from. But it is not adequate. Gnon is not satisfied with creative
destruction alone. Gnon requires power.
A system can be designed, by libertarians or anarcho-capitalists, to
maximise creative destruction. But it cannot live. The society which
creates it might eschew power, leaving the forces of competition to
find the optimum solutions to problems. Others, however, will defect
from this view, and occupy the power vacuum. They might come from
outside, or from within, but they will come, and they will either
succeed, and reshape the society according to their particular group
interests, or the attacked will organise themselves to resist, forming
their own power centre, which will itself reshape society according to
its particular group interests. The potential of loyalty to a
succesful group is in human nature, it is given by Gnon. A society of
those who deny it will come to be ruled by those who do not.
If Creative Destruction is made concrete in technology and commerce,
group loyalty is made concrete in ethnic solidarity and
nationalism. They are not the only group loyalties possible, indeed
they are not the dominant ones in today’s West, but they are probably
in the long run the most stable and reliable. The neoreactionary study
of thedes is the science of this principle of Gnon.
The true neoreactionary, following Spandrell, attempts to balance the
creativity of techno-commercialism with the stability of
ethno-nationalism. Really, that is the whole problem. It being the
whole problem, nobody should expect it to be easy, and it is not. In
practical application, embodied in the culture of a society,
Techno-commercialism is in deadly conflict with
Ethno-nationalism. Markets undermine stable positions of power, blur
boundaries between in-group and out-group, invite cosmopolitanism and
compete away loyalty. National loyalties obstruct trade, splinter
markets, paralyse innovation, preserve the unfit in defiance of
Gnon. There is no equilibrium to be reached between the two, no
dividing line between where each one can act. In a thousand decisions,
the choice must be made again and again between the right
techno-commercial answer and the right ethno-nationalist answer.
This unstable mix can, when the proportions are right, survive and
prosper. But the long-run danger is always that one will overpower the
other completely, collapsing the society into unproductive socialist
nationalism or into hostile memetic capture by an acquisitive
thede. It could even be argued, that in today’s West, the principle of
balance has survived, but we have the worst of both worlds: a society
ruled by a minority thede, in which the point of compromise is to
suppress creative destruction. The ruling thede is not a nation or an
ethnicity, but a fluid ideologically-based club whose members must
endlessly and destructively compete against each other to retain their
membership. Competition in the ruling thede, stagnation in the market.
What then is the neoreactionary solution to the hard problem of
getting the benefit of both techno-commercialism and thede loyalty at
the same time in the same society? There must be an active management
of the competing needs. That management cannot be built on either
principle, or there can be no balance. It must come from outside
both. But, since both have the force of Gnon between them, it must
have some power of its own, some authority independent of both
commerce and thede, which can impose on either or both as the
What can fill this role is, frankly, still an open question for
me. The most promising possibilities so far suggested are the
authority of tradition and the authority of religion. Either one can,
in the right cultural setting, empower a judge to rule for competition
or for loyalty as necessary for the long-term good of the
society. This is the role of the third principle of the neoreactionary
trichotomy: to be the respected arbiter between the first two.
The trichotomy therefore in its most general form consists of creative
destruction, thede loyalty, and authority, but makes most immediate
sense as techno-commercialism, ethno-nationalism and
On this framework, a huge amount of very productive earth becomes
available for working. What have the effects been of thede alignments
divorced from ethnicity? (I only touched on that above in the barest
sense). How, and how effectively, have present and past societies
achieved balance between the competitive and stabilising forces? Has
such success as they have achieved been accidental, or is it
repeatable? How have conflicts within each of the three elements
affected the overall balance: church and state, nation and region,
corporation and entrepreneur? The value in my analysis lies in the
degree to which these questions can be answered usefully.
While pondering the tricky questions that have come to be debated
within the reaction — such things as the
conservation of sovereignty,
I was struck by
in a series of Harvard’s online learning that I’ve been working
through on Chinese history.
This lecture, covering the Han dynasty, raises a lot of the questions
that we’ve already been looking at about how power should be organised
in a reactionary state.
(It doesn’t provide answers, which doesn’t matter since I’m not all
that concerned with what Harvard thinks the right answers are, but
it’s a good look at the questions).
The key slide is 25:
- centralization versus regionalism
- feudalism versus bureaucracy
- hereditary right versus merit
- military versus civil interests
- inner court versus outer court
The lecturer says, “None of these institutional tensions … is ever
stabilized perfectly in Chinese history”
As important as these tensions are, I don’t think there are clear-cut
answers to them, even to the closely-related second and third tensions
which I’ve previously written about in some detail. I didn’t do more
than critique the progressive position which is unequivocally in
favour of bureaucracy over feudalism and meritocracy over hereditary
right. In attacking that position I did not establish that the
reactionary state should adopt the wholly opposite position.
In the absence of simple answers, we can nevertheless talk sensibly
about how a reactionary state would handle the tensions.
This whole discussion exists in the context of the long comment chain
at Outside In which considered the nature of limitations on power or
sovereignty. Crucially, we do not believe we can design a solution
to the problems of government. We are not writing a legal constitution
for a supreme court to enforce. What I am hoping to produce is
constitutional writing in an older sense: a description of how a good
government works, that influential people can point to when a question
that it addresses becomes relevant, and say, “as described in the
collected writings of AnomalyUK, this development which seems to be
happening is harmful and should be resisted; rather, the current
problems should be addressed in this other way”. It’s not guaranteed
to work, but nothing else possibly can. It’s what I mean when I talk
the war of ideas.
To demonstrate, consider yet again the tension between feudalism and
The reactionary argument for bureaucracy is the Moldbuggian one that
power should be undivided. If subordinates serve at the whim of the
sovereign, there is no struggle for power between the subordinates and
the sovereign, and therefore no policies adopted for their effect on
the balance of power between the two, rather than for their overall
effect on the realm. Establishing powers of subordinates that can be
exercised in defiance of the sovereign historically tends to lead to
civil wars between barons and the crown, and to stripping of assets by
aristocracies who get all the benefits of seizures, while the
long-term benefits of respecting private property of commoners accrue
The reactionary argument for feudalism is that undivided power is an
unrealistic aim; that underlings will in fact be able to exercise
power in private interests, since limitations of knowledge and time
mean they can never be supervised sufficiently, and therefore, on
formalist principles, their powers should be established and exercised
openly. This actually reduces the conflict over the extent of their
powers compared to the case where the powers are informal and
exercised surreptitiously. Further, establishing a formal class of
aristocrats stabilises the system by giving a large body of powerful
people an interest in preserving it. It breaks the link between
educational institutions and political patronage that defines today’s
There’s a lot more that can be said on both sides, and it’s worth
doing, but for now that serves as an example of how to look at the
tensions. In teasing out the arguments, we can link them to
circumstances, and show what circumstances favour particular
approaches and solutions.
It is easy to see how a state can move between bureaucracy and
feudalism. Starting from bureaucracy, if the sovereign is unwilling or
unable to overrule his officials, they will consolidate their power,
and collectively take control over selection of entrants to their
ranks, eventually reaching the stage of being able to hold offices
within families. Conversely, a stronger sovereign will bypass
established families and institutions, and divert influence to
appointed officials of his own choosing, loyal to him personally. Both
of these courses are familiar.
I have argued for most recently
is a formally established but weak aristocracy. That would not be
immune from either being bypassed or growing more powerful, subject to
circumstances and personalities. The justifications for it are:
- It provides a pool of officials under higher than normal
expectations of loyalty and good behaviour
- Hereditary privileges are a reward for loyalty and achievement
- It prevents some other institution with an important purpose from
becoming a de facto aristocracy
If a strong king can rule well without relying on the aristocracy,
that is probably a good thing, but the three justifications above
become three dangers. His successors may not have his advantages, and
therefore may struggle to find trustworthy underlings either among a
disgruntled aristocracy or a competitive and anonymous commons. The
powerful may scheme to find ways to privilege their descendants if
there is no approved path to do so. Other institutions (educational,
media, military) could acquire aristocratic pretensions and compromise
their proper function in doing so. If these things start to happen,
the cause should not be a mystery.
Referring to my 2037 piece, I said:
when it comes to any kind of power, loyalty is more important than exceptional ability. That’s not to say that incompetence is OK, but if your system of government depends on having people of exceptional ability, then it’s broken. Instead take the most competent people from the pool of those brought up to privilege and loyalty, and if they’re not good enough to, say, run a car company, the solution is not to have a government car company… The motto of the civil service should be “Good Enough for Government Work”
Commenter newt0311 objected that “real power always ends up with the exceptional”, and that if the elite is no longer composed of the exceptional, the civilisation dies. My immediate response was that the elite might need the best people, but the government doesn’t.
That’s what I had in mind when I wrote “good enough for government work”; that the middle management of the state administration should not be sucking up top talent that would contribute more to the common good in the productive sector. That’s only half the argument, though; my initial point was that the most senior people had to be trustworthy, and it is better to compromise on ability than bring in people who cannot be counted on to be loyal.
The loyalty factor does not necessarily go away outside the government itself. I wrote that “If you have real power, you will be expected to positively show loyalty”, and that includes those outside the state.
(In itself, that is admittedly a questionable idea: the problem is that market competition could be corrupted by participants attempting to get their competitors into trouble. I think that’s a small risk compared to the massive rent-seeking that goes on under democracy, but it’s a worry).
So, is newt0311 right; does civilisation require that exception people be in control? I don’t see it. If the elite systematically excluded those of exceptional ability, that would leave a superior “shadow elite” with an argument for, and the ability to, replace the ruling elite. That would be a bad situation. I’m not arguing for excluding the exceptional, nor for ignoring the value of ability. I am only claiming that there are other important factors to balance it.
To put my case in the simplest form, the single hardest thing for civilisation to achieve is to coordinate people effectively. Doing so does require individuals of great ability, but more than that, it requires trust. That, as I wrote before, is the solution to the “lobotomised by activity” problem that we see in both Nick Clegg and Barack Obama. Thus I advocate that the elite select first on the basis of insiders — people who have a stake in the system and can be trusted, and then choose for ability within that.
(An aside: “being from a good family”, which is more or less what I mean by “insider”, is not in itself a sufficient guarantee of loyalty. For more sensitive positions, more evidence than that will be needed. But it’s a good start, and it also provides a way to get other evidence: the employer will know people who know the candidate, and be much better able to gauge their character than in a meritocratic system.)
Our current form of government is effectively the opposite. We are ruled by people of exceptional ability, in the public and private sectors; every position is open to anyone, and the winners are those who have beaten their rivals in the most demanding contest. However, they then represent themselves, with varying degrees of credibility, as ordinary people. Also, because they have all come through highly selective processes, they have no connections to each other, and are still competing and fighting each other at the highest level of government.
This leads to the “arrogance and recklessness” problem I discussed some time ago: not only is each individual selected for ability over reliability, but they are in a peer group that is immersed in the idea that second-best is a disgrace. That produces the “champion or bust” attitude that has caused so many of our recent disasters. A soupçon of meritocracy is a manageable thing when added into a culture of in-group loyalty. When meritocracy becomes the culture, it is time to head for the bunker.
(The other problem, of course, is what their exceptional ability actually is. They’re not necessarily the best people for doing their jobs; they are the best at getting their jobs. But the premise of the discussion is that ability is ability; these are exceptional people.)
Per my earlier post, I think one of the major changes of the last couple of hundred years is that the previously normal role of subordinate has become denigrated and almost eliminated, and the previously exceptional role of loner has become idealised and made normal.
The force behind this epoch-making change is liberalism’s love of system. In the enlightenment view, there is no need for a hierarchy of authority such as was believed to be necessary from Aristotle to Charles I. Rather, there are just rules, and if everyone follows them order will result.
Classical liberalism is the purest and simplest form of this. If non-aggression and private property are protected, then everyone can be free and the emergent phenomena of economics will provide security and prosperity. It is an exquisitely beautiful theory, concentric spheres in Ptolemaic perfection.
However, between difficulties eliminating the last vestiges of hierarchy, and widespread dissatisfaction with some of the results, the beautiful theory has never succeeded entirely. The mainstream liberal response has been to lump epicycles onto it. Collective defence, clean air, fair contract terms, anti-drunkenness, poverty relief. By now, the system has epicycles on its epicycles: it provides patent monopolies to encourage innovation, then competition law to restrain the monopolies. The self-evident beauty of the original liberal conception is entirely gone.
To complete the analogy, I should now propose a Copernican alternative. Alas, if there is such a thing, I have not found it. All I can offer is going back to the order of being, to the sun rising in the morning because some dung-beetle god has rolled it around the sky. Scrap the system, the Civil Procedure (Amendment No.2) Rules 2012 that will finally make the orbits work out: let’s just pick someone and put them in charge.
The astronomical analogy is important though, because that, by many accounts, is how the enlightenment came about. Natural Philosophy showed that an interfering deity was not necessary to explain the world, and that a system of impersonal natural law did a better job. By analogy, the natural philosophers felt that the King and his minions were not necessary to order human society, and a few impersonal laws would work better.
The flaw was they did not ask where the idea of the interfering deity came from in the first place. I suspect that the analogy first went in the other direction: men assumed that the ordering of nature mirrored the ordering of a well-functioning human society: that because men need to have a ruler in charge, and followers loyal to him, the natural world also must be obeying the directions of some ruling consciousness.
I say a solar system and a human civilisation are just different. No God is needed to make the sun rise, but a King is needed to make a civilisation function successfully.
In the ancestral environment, there were probably three basic strategies a man could follow. He could be a leader, a follower, or an outsider.
The most desirable role is that of leader. The leader tells other men what to do, and impresses the girls in the process. There can’t be all that many leaders, but the “Genghis Khan effect” suggests we are all disproportionately descended from those few.
Leaders have followers, and followers can have descendants too. I think simple observation is quite sufficient to show that many men are easily persuaded to follow a leader. The tendency towards governments which emphasise the personality of a leader suggests it is easier to get people to follow a leader than to follow an ideology or a set of abstract rules.
Not everyone is a leader or a follower though. There is a third role as someone who does not seek to lead others, but tries to avoid being led. I would guess that in the ancestral environment there was frequently an option of leaving the band, either with a woman or managing to retain access to one or more. It is a risky strategy, but potentially a very successful one.
In the modern environment, heading for the frontier is rarely an option, but it is easier than ever to reject all authority in society without being geographically separate from it. In medieval society, the only “outsider” roles were beggar or hermit, but today, in addition, we have freelancers, independent businessmen, the unemployed; indeed, even in employment the norm is to deny any personal authority belonging to employers or hierarchical superiors. Being under personal authority, as opposed to some rulebook, is seen as demeaning and inferior.
So we have a strange reversal: in political activity, people are nominally supposed to be adherents to some theory or ideology, but tend instead to offer loyalty to a leader. In productive activity, most people are nominally answerable to some superior, but bridle at that and prefer to see themselves rather as performing an abstract function.
What could explain this contradiction? I have a couple of ideas. First, the statesman on the television is likely to be a far more charismatic figure than the pointy-haired boss in the office next to the cubicles. He is selected from a large pool mainly for that value. In other words, large-scale media distorts our perception of what is a worthy leader in the same way that some argue it distorts our perception of what is a worthy mate. Also, loyalty to a political figure is a fake kind of followership: unlike the office General Manager, the politician isn’t going to directly tell you what to do. By analogy, the charismatic TV politician is to our innate sense of loyalty what a cupcake is to our innate sense of nutrition. The status of entertainment celebrities may be another aspect of the same tendency.
Alternatively, it may simply be that leadership was always something relevant to warfare and politics, while productive activity was more a matter of men acting independently or in voluntary cooperation. When we slot into the “follower” role, we expect to be led in raiding the next band, but we look for food on our own and hunt to display our own skill and courage. (Note I’m following the mainstream methodology of anthropology here, which is a technique I call “making shit up”).
Still with the making shit up, while a precivilised band probably followed a leader, at least for political purposes, I doubt it had middle management. The role of follower of one but leader of others may be an innovation driven by larger social groups in the last few millennia, and an awkward compromise in terms of our social instincts.
The replacement of direct personal loyalty with celebrity-worship is a very modern phenomenon, but at the same time the culmination of a centuries-long process. That is worth another post.
The most significant effect of the coalition has been to bring into the highest level of government people who have little investment in maintaining the pretences about the way the system works.
This is because, as with the Liberals 35 years ago, the merest contact with the reality of government has made the Liberal Democrats unelectable for a generation. Nick Clegg’s importance will hit zero on the day that the date of the next election is announced.
I’ve commented about this before, when Clegg forgot to pretend that as “Deputy Prime Minister” he was supposed to be “running the country” when Cameron was away.
His comments on being “lobotomised” by the demands of his position are familiar to anyone who reads politicians’ memoirs, but the impact has always been lessened by the passage of time between the experience and its publication. “Things are different now”, “he’s just bitter, every political career ends in failure” etc.
Here is a man still not only at the peak of his achievement, but at the peak of what he could ever reasonably imagined he would achieve, all but saying that it is worthless, that responding to events so dominates activity that whatever he actually believes, whatever he was elected to do, is irrelevant.
This is no accident. One of the most overlooked facts in modern life is the time that it takes for a person in authority to understand a question and decide on an answer. (This is as true of business as it is of politics). The only way for a leader to function is by delegation, and it only works if he can delegate to people he trusts. There are two ways to do it. Either you choose someone to deal with an issue who you believe is the best person to understand and decide on that issue, in which case your power is fully exercised in making that appointment, or you choose someone who you believe will honestly and accurately inform you of the most salient elements of the situation so that you can make the decision that you would have made had you time to do it all yourself.
The first of these paths is never possible for a democratic politician. The appointment of subordinates cannot be made on the basis of their effectiveness in their position, because keeping power requires trading favours, and positions of subordinate power are the most important favours that the politician has to offer. Positions must be awarded primarily on the basis of who is to be favoured, not on who is best for the job.
The second path is rarely achievable either, for the same reason. Occupiers of subordinate offices are potential rivals, and can be expected to act in their own interests, not in yours. The normal expectation is that they will use their greater knowledge of the issue in question to manipulate you to the decision they want, rather than help you to the decision you would want.
This is the SNAFU principle. It says that hierarchy doesn’t work, because “Communication is only possible between equals”.
I do not say that the second path is impossible, though, because I do not believe the SNAFU principle is completely true. There is a phenomenon so unfamiliar to the 1970s Discordians who formulated the SNAFU principle that, radically open-minded as they were, they failed to take it into account. That is personal loyalty.
If a leader has followers who are personally loyal to him, and do not have independent ambitions for themselves, they can be trusted to assist his decision-making. Such loyalty is scarce, but the most effective political leaders have managed one or two loyal followers among their tail. Blair had Alistair Campbell. Thatcher had, I think, Keith Joseph, Willie Whitelaw, possibly Norman Tebbit. They both were able to have substantially more effect on government as a result.
Clegg, of course, has no such effect. There is nobody in the entire world who is personally loyal to Nick Clegg, with the possible exception of his wife – and he would not be allowed to make her a minister. For that matter, I rather doubt that Cameron has anyone either.
I don’t want to overstate or oversimplify: such personal loyalty is never total or unconditional, and cannot be perfectly verified. It is not a magic formula that will result in effective organisation. But it is real, and it helps, and it is reasonable to conclude that we could have a lot more of it if we were to respect it as something useful and admirable. Instead, there is a tendency to see it as questionable or even corrupt. We hear that executives (in the public or private sector) should be selected for intrinsic personal qualities, rather than for their external relationship with their superiors.
The end result is that Nick Clegg is made helpless by being surrounded by rivals and enemies, and doesn’t even see that as the root of his problem, because that is how politics is supposed to be.
This is the flip side of this post from February, where I looked at the relationship of personal loyalty from the follower side. There, I argued that having a personal tie to a superior had a beneficial effect on the long-term, moral behaviour of a subordinate. Here I claim that having a loyal subordinate increases the effectiveness of a leader.
This has been sitting in my drafts directory for three months, since I read this Ross Douthat column on Corazine. But it goes with some of what I was writing yesterday, so I’ve dusted it off.
Douthat points out, I think rightly, that the defining features of our modern elite are its arrogance and its recklessness.
Arrogance is perhaps an inevitable weakness of any elite, but I think he is right to identify the recklessness as something new since the days of a hereditary upper class.
For one thing, someone who has been elevated from a humble background wholly or mostly by their own efforts and ability is likely to have a very high opinion of that ability. that again seems almost an inevitable side-effect of having the most able people in positions of power.
I think it’s more significant that a large number of people in positions of serious power have absolutely no-one above them. If you are Governor of a state, or CEO of a company, you are theoretically responsible to voters or shareholders, but they do not play the role of a superior in a social or psychological sense, they are more the material a politician or manager works with than the patron he works for.
If the most significant person you know of is yourself, then the brutal one-sided logic of excessive risk-taking kicks in. You’re already successful, you’ve got a well-upholstered safety net, so when you take a big gamble, if it comes off you’re a hero and move up to the next level of achievement, and if it doesn’t you take a break for a bit to play golf and then try something new.
That unbalanced incentive is widely recognised now, but in itself it is not what’s new. Limited Liability has been around a good while, as have the country houses of disastrous politicians. What is new is the end of loyalty. In the past, the bulk of those wielding power were tied not just by their rolling contacts but by bonds of loyalty to superiors. A failed gamble would impact not merely a crowd of insignficiant peasants, voters or shareholders, but would hit the status and reputation of those whose approval or disapproval actually matters.
Obviously there were always a few who were beyond any such limitations, but think about how many there are now who have no practical superiors. It would have been hard to have made a list that would have included “CEO of MF Global”.
Nor is the concept limited to business. To whom does Hillary Clinton, or the head of an agency, look up as a superior? To the President who appointed them? I don’t think so. He’s just another punter. What about Paul Krugman, or some pressure-group head?
The distinction I’m getting at, between a technical superior and a psychological superior, is whether the superior’s opinion matters beyond the immediate game being played. If you’re a department head in a company or a government agency, your boss can fire you. But that’s all he can do, and that’s the only risk you’re taking. Once he’s done that, he’s not your boss any more. On the other hand, if your boss is your lifelong mentor, then he’s a psychological superior. Even if he fires you, he doesn’t stop being your superior; you still need his approval at some level. I think such relationships were once the norm, and have been becoming steadily less common for a few hundred years.
A response has been to try to build up abstracts to which powerful people feel loyalty. Many companies try hard to impress on their people the idea of being part of something bigger than themselves, but that’s a tall order for an institution which itself is required to operate by cold logic.
The replacement of mentor-protégé relationships by meritocracy has had two drivers: first, modern communications, record-keeping, and the broadening of trust up to recent times have meant that positions are being filled from much wider pools of candidates than before, while at the same time, as I described yesterday, the concepts of personal loyalty and rewards for loyalty have become seen as suspect, even corrupt.
I therefore propose a two-pronged response to the problem of meritocratic recklessness: First, personal loyalty to a mentor should be recognised as something moral and admirable, and secondly, the most senior positions should be held by individuals on a longer-term schedule, to encourage the maintenance of such relationships.
It would be neat in a literary way to show that these three withdrawn honours are part of the same thing, but it’s more interesting, and more true, to see how they’re all different.
Going in reverse chronogical order, Huhne is in some ways the most straightforward. He was in a position of trust, and he is accused of criminal dishonesty.
On more detailed reflection, oddities emerge. For one thing, while it would be nice to think that laws and policies are being made by people who are honest and trustworthy, the idea that any of his rivals or colleagues are honest enough to admit their mistakes or crimes is laughable.
For another thing, why is it the decision of the police to prosecute that triggers his resignation? The facts are not really any better known than they were before.
I suspect that what forced him out was the media deciding to claim that he must be forced out. That doesn’t necessarily indicate any particular animus to him on behalf of the media; a cabinet resignation is worth pushing for just for story value. It might be that earlier, there were reasons for the press not to try to do him in, but those are now gone.
I could suggest a couple of possible reasons: one is that the media seemed somewhat invested in the coalition, but is now more soured on it. (The 2010 story of David Laws tells against that theory somewhat, but he might have been more specifically unpopular to the media). Another theory might be that Huhne’s activity on climate change protected him, but that has mysteriously become less of a concern.
Ultimately, I don’t think we can know what’s really going on, and that’s why day-to-day party politics isn’t worth paying attention to.
On to Goodwin then. On the one hand, if Goodwin was rewarded for benefiting British Banking, it is fair to say that the any benefit he bestowed was more than undone. On the other, the whole process did not seem to have much to do with either justice or wise decision-making; rather it had all the appearance of a stampede.
Whatever knighthoods are for these days, it can’t be what they were originally for. It’s a bit murky. Interestingly, knighthoods would fit well into a formalist system, as a treatment of the coalition problems I just wrote about. It could serve as a formalisation of informal power: a recognition that the recipient has some power, is loyal to the sovereign, and is being rewarded for that loyalty. If that were the basis of honours, they would not be withdrawn for incompetence, or even for criminality, but only for disloyalty. It would mean that that person ought not be permitted to obtain any power again.
Finally Hester. Hester is CEO of a bank which is making modest profits in a difficult market. As such, he would normally expect a substantial bonus. The same stampede which took away his predecessor’s knighthood took that as well.
There are legitimate questions about the amount of money made by banks and their employees, which I am not going to address — anyone worth reading on the issue would be either more knowledgable or less personally interested than me.
The question of bonuses per se is a separate one, though. What it amounts to is that companies that award large bonuses (relative to salary) are run in a more formalist manner than most other corporations. In many organisations, valuable employees are rewarded with more responsibilities, or better job security. Arnold Kling recently raised the point that this can produce bad outcomes. These companies avoid that, giving responsibilies as tasks rather than rewards, and rewarding valuable employees more directly with cash. This is the appropriate response to the sort of issue that Arnold Kling raised, and which Aretae picked up on as a widely applicable example of bad governance.
The fact that this formalist measure to improve governance arouses such opposition (again, independently of the actual sums involved; Hester’s salary for 2011 was over a million pounds, and attracted little attention), says a lot about what is wrong with modern political culture.
So, three very different honours: a minor position in our corrupted and ineffective system of government, an anachronism that might once have been a formalist recoginition of power and reward for loyalty, and a straightforward, honest payment for value. All removed, for better or worse, in the same way, by an unthinking popular stampede, triggered by a media driven not primarily by ideology but by a need for drama.