Moldbug vs. the Progressives

Posted on 2014 February 20


%22moldbug vs. the progressives%22 liftarn_Crown_of_Saint_Edward

If it were easy to move from one country to another — just hire a U-Haul and go — governments would change from overlords to supplicants, trying to please people so they don’t leave. Sure, there’d still be sufficient military power to guard the borders (which is why, in reality, it is hard to move between them), but governments’ new goal would be to attract taxpayers. To that end, they’d make sure their territories were safe, stable, and prosperous. People wouldn’t have to worry about rights, voting, or protesting: bureaucrats would be motivated to serve citizens, not the other way around. Like living in a hotel, people would simply pay the going (tax) rate and enjoy the amenities.

Along comes the blogger Mencius Moldbug to argue for just such a change. An elegantly wordy essayist with a day job in high tech, Moldbug has posted online a book-length essay arguing that democracy is a failed system that should be replaced with governments run as stock companies and helmed by leaders in the aristocratic mold.

Stop laughing. He’s serious. If you read his entire Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives, you’ll fall straight down the rabbit hole, and you won’t come out the same. His theory is to liberal democracies what the Red Pill is to The Matrix. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Moldbug’s nom de plume descends from the eighteenth century tradition of penning controversial political documents under pseudonyms — much as Hamilton, Madison and John Jay produced The Federalist Papers under the false name “Publius”. Moldbug has been called a “neo-reactionary” for his love of technological innovation combined with a disdain for modern political systems. He seems, in fact, to believe that good governance became threatened with extinction precisely at the start of the American Revolution. Moldbug thinks the Framers had good intentions but that their hatred of the British Crown crossed into paranoia, and the new country they created has ever since suffered from an overzealous emphasis on the voting rights of The People

Moldbug’s First Cause in this slow-simmering disaster lies with the Whigs — British followers of John Locke’s ideas about liberty, property, natural human rights, and the corruption of kings — who overthrew the Crown and established in America a government based on democratic rule. This experiment took the world by storm (and war), so that many, if not most, countries now use the American template. But democracy, says Moldbug, is a terrible way to run a country: it leads to corruption and bloated bureaucracies, where politicians pander to the lowest values of their constituents instead of quietly managing the state for maximum stability and prosperity. He considers this movement not an advance but a costly detour, and calls it “Whiggery”. 

The problem with Whiggery, apparently, is that it leads to over-reliance on the voting whims of a populace that simply doesn’t have the time or expertise to consider carefully all the issues — or all the candidates — on a typical ballot. Worse, individual citizens are statistically powerless when hundreds of thousands or millions of votes are cast, so they can easily toss away their suffrage on whims: Who cares? We’re angry! Let’s have fun! 

Furthermore, the much-vaunted concept of civil liberties became perverted when, in the 20th century, politicians whipped up the masses with the idea that their liberties included not just the political protections enshrined in the Bill of Rights, but also economic entitlements, which has led to a race to see which group can extort the most from fellow taxpayers. Soon the wealthy, once admired and emulated, become targets of resentment and easy pickings for voters steeped in Progressivism’s ideas about economic equality.

Even worse, Moldbug charges, is that — beginning in the 1930s with the “Brain Trust” of President Franklin Roosevelt — the universities have taken power in America, instructing the government on its operations while using the media to propagandize to the masses, who then go along with the latest schemes. 

The principal belief system espoused by the Academy is Progressivism, which — says Moldbug — amounts to Quakerism without the Jesus part. Academicians have infected peoples’ minds, Moldbug asserts, with the attitude that Progressivism is simply a logical evolution toward a modern, scientific society instead of the secular religion it has become, with professors as the high priests of a new “Cathedral”. We’re taught that all other forms of governance are evil.

Intellectuals’ job security is assured because their advice to government invariably causes more problems, whereupon they blame the problems and conjure up new ways to solve them, in a continuing cycle that leads to “red giant” governments (i.e., hugely bloated and ready to explode).

This Cathedral contains, not just Democrats, but Republicans as well. Moldbug suggests Progressivism is so pervasive that it has become invisible. Therefore we all subscribe to the same political theories but disagree on details while believing these picayune distinctions really matter. We are, most of us, asleep inside The Matrix.

…Yep, it’s a conspiracy theory. But it’s a good one, controversial while being subtle and sophisticated, which opens up opportunities for lively discussion instead of closing them off, as with so many other outlier ideas. 

Moldbug suggests it would be far better to base a government on the profit motive, whereby bureaucrats seek to raise the value of the land they rule, increasing their own profits by maintaining an attractive, stable country where people are free to do as they please as long as they don’t attack each other or the government itself. In this way, the incentives of the bureaucrats would be aligned with those of their subjects. Residents would effectively pay “rent”, in the form of taxes, for the right to “enjoy the amenities”.

The net result would be that citizens come to regard government operations as none of their concern while remaining keenly interested in the results, much the way we don’t really care how the Apple Corporation does its thing as long as it keeps producing beautiful mobile devices we like to own. (And if Apple can’t please us, Samsung will step in.) Moldbug cites Singapore, Dubai, and Liechtenstein as worthy exemplars of private governments already in play. 

He symbolizes these ideas by calling himself, half in jest, a “Jacobite”. (The Scottish Jacobites longed to return their beloved King James II to the throne, so they fought against a newly powerful English Parliament that had overthrown James and the Stuarts in 1688.) “Jacobite” sounds much more intriguing than “favors rule by CEO-style manager instead of plebiscite”.

Moldbug’s strategy is to convince enough smart people to rally behind his plan so that the vast majority of citizens — who normally have other skill sets than governance — would rise up and call for an amendment to disband the U.S. Constitution and sell off the property and debts of the current government in a gigantic bankruptcy proceeding. The resulting equity could be freely traded, so that the replacement government would become, in effect, a stock company. People who disliked this new regime for any reason would be free to move elsewhere, in a world where governments had become like competing businesses.

(You’re still laughing. Please, give the guy a chance. You may chortle among yourselves after class.)

He freely admits there are serious problems with this approach. (Duh!) Firstly, the public has become so accustomed to the notion of its own rights that it would never sit still for a government that might forswear them. Another huge problem is that a national government is what he calls an “unauthority” that answers to no one but itself and whose promises of fair play can never be trusted. In this regard, he can muster only weak arguments against the possibility that profit-based governments wouldn’t fall into the hands of Hitlers or Stalins, who might harness the anger of the masses to achieve their dictatorial ends.

My concern is that many countries have been ruled by dictators who “profit” by appropriating outright their citizens’ money, impoverishing them through a form of organized banditry — billionaires Marcos, Mugabe, and Mobutu come to mind — so why should they care if the people are displeased? This leads to my next problem with Moldbug’s theory, that emigration is difficult because countries restrict it to prevent loss of control. This leads to my third objection, that any form of government, no matter how nobly conceived, is based on force, and such force tends to get used by the powerful against those without power.

Still, for me there is value in perusing Moldbug’s “Open Letter”:

• It has shifted my attitude about governments in general, cleaning out many of the “moral” issues that had so plagued my thinking. After all, governments rule by force, and moral theories that defend their actions often amount to little more than excuses for naked power. The arguments for democratic institutions are, themselves, essentially moral ones and therefore unfalsifiable (which is to say, unscientific). Our belief in the virtue of liberal democracy is essentially religious.

Millions of immigrants testify to the power each of us has to deal with despots, not by fighting for a set of virtues we wish to impress upon our governments, but simply by moving to a better country. As human mobility increases in this modern high-tech age, perhaps moral arguments will be replaced by practical ones, and people will select their governance in much the same way they choose an apartment or a cellphone contract.

• It greatly simplifies political discussions to consider most Americans as belonging to a “state religion”, the Cathedral. Already I’m noticing how big-city media outlets gently ridicule third-party beliefs, give short shrift to conservatives, and glorify weirdness. I’m all for weirdos, but not at the expense of the normals. 

One downside is that there’s almost no one who won’t dismiss these ideas out of hand, so discussions tend to grind to a halt. On the plus side, there’s no real need to argue politics at all, since governments never behave the way we wish, and our individual arguments tend to get drowned in a sea of others’ opinions.

…Anyway: democracy or stock company? Our votes count for almost nothing, but our feet work just fine. Already we pick up and move from state to state; perhaps one day people will be in the habit of exercising their “consumer power” to affect governments merely by crossing national boundaries the way they change cable-TV providers.

Nah. Couldn’t happen.

…Could it?


(Thanks to Larry Wilson for his input.)

* * * *

UPDATE: From the foreword to the book Kindly Inquisitors:

“Hard historicism teaches four things. First, it warns that history — actually, History (it becomes a proper noun) — is going to have its way. It will because its ‘iron laws’ are just that: unbending. Second, it demonstrates that humanity’s only rational course is to get in step with the ‘march of history.’ That resistance is reactionary is less a moral judgment than a scientific fact, because resistance to progress must be ultimately futile. Progress is, by definition, whatever is history’s destination. Third, hard historicism holds that the laws of history’s development are not equally clear to all. History’s path is not optional, but the smoothness of the path and the pace of progress on it can be influenced by a minority who understand what is happening. To this clerisy of the discerning few falls the high and solemn task of conveying to others a proper consciousness of the reality that history is dictating. Fourth, historicism assigns to a vanguard of discerning intellectuals the task of purging society of ‘false consciousness.’

“In the past half century or so, the intelligentsia, especially its academic portion, has adopted an increasingly adversarial stance toward the surrounding society. This position is not because the intelligentsia has uniformly embraced historicism, hard or soft or in between. It is, however, because a substantial portion of the intelligentsia has adopted two assumptions. One is that this portion has a unique understanding of what constitutes progress, meaning what history has in mind for humanity. The other is that most Americans do not understand and that they need their consciousnesses raised.”

* * * *

UPDATE: Government competition and Polycentric law