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April 22, 2007

The Mencius Vision

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Like many people who visit these parts, I've been fascinated and amused by the comments-fest contributions of the visitor who calls himself Mencius. What a buzzy brain! What a cheery -- if cheerily bleak -- spirit! Threading my way through his comments, I feel both bewildered and exhilarated, a little like I do when I read the offbeat sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick.

When someone's on this kind of high, why not find out a bit more about him? So I contacted Mencius and coaxed out of him first some personal info, and then a blog-contribution.

The personal details first: He goes by the complete handle Mencius Moldbug. Having made a score in a recent dot-com boom -- though "I only made out like a thief, not like a bandit," he writes -- he has been treating himself to a sabbatical, reading, thinking, and writing. He confesses that his monthly book bill is around $500.

In his own words:

Mencius Moldbug lives in San Francisco, where he is temporarily retired from the software industry. His principal occupations are feeding ravens, reading old books, and working on his programming language, which will be done any year now. You can contact him at

And what a distinctive point of view Mencius has cooked up for himself. Neither right nor left, it's its own out-of-the-mainstream thing. Everything seems to connect and make sense. Yet it's sense of such a -- to me, anyway -- unfamiliar kind. I recognize a lot of Ludwig von Mises in there. And -- since I happen to have read a bit of the actual Mencius, a big star in the Confucian tradition -- I assume that there's some concern-for-social-order Confucianism a-boil in the background too. But as for the rest ...

I asked Mencius if he'd like to spell his point of view out a bit more clearly for me and for our interested audience. Bingo. He responded very generously.

By popular demand, here's Mencius:

A Formalist Manifesto

The other day I was tinkering around in my garage and I decided to build a new ideology.

What? I mean, am I crazy or something? First of all, you can't just build an ideology. They're handed down across the centuries, like lasagna recipes. They need to age, like bourbon. You can't just drink it straight out of the radiator.

And look what happens if you try. What causes all the problems of the world? Ideology, that's what. What do Bush and Osama have in common? They're both ideological nutcases. We're supposed to need more of this?

Furthermore, it's simply not possible to build a new ideology. People have been talking about ideology since Jesus was a little boy. At least! And I'm supposedly going to improve on this? Some random person on the Internet, who flunked out of grad school, who doesn't know Greek or Latin? Who do I think I am, Wallace Shawn?

All excellent objections. Let's answer them and then we'll talk about formalism.

First, of course, there are a couple of beautifully aged traditional ideologies which the Internet now brings us in glorious detail. They go by lots of names, but let's call them progressivism and conservatism.

My beef with progressivism is that for at least the last 100 years, the vast majority of writers and thinkers and smart people in general have been progressives. Therefore, any intellectual in 2007, which unless there has been some kind of Internet space warp and my words are being carried live on Fox News, is anyone reading this, is basically marinated in progressive ideology.

Perhaps this might slightly impair one's ability to see any problems that may exist in the progressive worldview.

As for conservatism, not all Muslims are terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslims. Similarly, not all conservatives are cretins, but most cretins are conservatives. The modern American conservative movement - which is paradoxically much younger than the progressive movement, if only because it had to be reinvented after the Roosevelt dictatorship - has been distinctly affected by this audience. It also suffers from the electoral coincidence that it has to despise everything that progressivism adores, a bizarre birth defect which does not appear to be treatable.

Most people who don't consider themselves "progressives" or "conservatives" are one of two things. Either they're "moderates," or they're "libertarians."

In my experience, most sensible people consider themselves "moderate," "centrist," "independent," "unideological," "pragmatic," "apolitical," etc. Considering the vast tragedies wrought by 20th-century politics, this attitude is quite understandable. It is also, in my opinion, responsible for most of the death and destruction in the world today.

Moderation is not an ideology. It is not an opinion. It is not a thought. It is an absence of thought. If you believe the status quo of 2007 is basically righteous, then you should believe the same thing if a time machine transported you to Vienna in 1907. But if you went around Vienna in 1907 saying that there should be a European Union, that Africans and Arabs should rule their own countries and even colonize Europe, that any form of government except parliamentary democracy is evil, that paper money is good for business, that all doctors should work for the State, etc, etc - well, you could probably find people who agreed with you. They wouldn't call themselves "moderates," and nor would anyone else.

No, if you were a moderate in Vienna in 1907, you thought Franz Josef I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. So which is it? Hapsburgs, or Eurocrats? Pretty hard to split the difference on that one.

In other words, the problem with moderation is that the "center" is not fixed. It moves. And since it moves, and people being people, people will try to move it. This creates an incentive for violence - something we formalists try to avoid. More on this in a bit.

That leaves libertarians. Now, I love libertarians to death. My CPU practically has a permanent open socket to the Mises Institute. In my opinion, anyone who has intentionally chosen to remain ignorant of libertarian (and, in particular, Misesian-Rothbardian) thought, in an era when a couple of mouse clicks will feed you enough high-test libertarianism to drown a moose, is not an intellectually serious person. Furthermore, I am a computer programmer who has read far too much science fiction - two major risk factors for libertarianism. So I could just say, "read Rothbard," and call it a day.

On the other hand, it is hard to avoid noticing two basic facts about the universe. One is that libertarianism is an extremely obvious idea. The other is that it has never been successfully implemented.

This does not prove anything. But what it suggests is that libertarianism is, as its detractors are always quick to claim, an essentially impractical ideology. I would love to live in a libertarian society. The question is: is there a path from here to there? And if we get there, will we stay there? If your answer to both questions is obviously "yes," perhaps your definition of "obvious" is not the same as mine.

So this is why I decided to build my own ideology - "formalism."

Of course, there is nothing new in formalism. Progressives, conservatives, moderates, and libertarians will all recognize large chunks of their own undigested realities. Even the word "formalism" is borrowed from legal formalism, which is basically the same idea in more modest attire.

I am not Vizzini. I am just some dude who buys a lot of obscure used books, and is not afraid to grind them down, add flavor, and rebrand the result as a kind of political surimi. Most everything I have to say is available, with better writing, more detail and much more erudition, in Jouvenel, Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leoni, Burnham, Nock, etc, etc.

If you've never heard of any of these people, neither had I until I started the procedure. If that scares you, it should. Replacing your own ideology is a lot like do-it-yourself brain surgery. It requires patience, tolerance, a high pain threshold, and very steady hands. Whoever you are, you already have an ideology in there, and if it wanted to come out it would have done so on its own.

There is no point in starting this messy experiment only to install some other ideology that's the way it is just because someone said so. Formalism, as we'll see, is an ideology designed by geeks for other geeks. It's not a kit. It doesn't come with batteries. You can't just pop it in. At best, it's a rough starting point to help you build your own DIY ideology. If you're not comfortable working with a table saw, an oscilloscope and an autoclave, formalism is not for you.

That said:

The basic idea of formalism is just that the main problem in human affairs is violence. The goal is to design a way for humans to interact, on a planet of remarkably limited size, without violence.

Especially organized violence. Next to organized human-on-human violence, a good formalist believes, all other problems - Poverty, Global Warming, Moral Decay, etc, etc, etc - are basically insignificant. Perhaps once we get rid of violence we can worry a little about Moral Decay, but given that organized violence killed a couple of hundred million people in the last century, whereas Moral Decay gave us "American Idol," I think the priorities are pretty clear.

The key is to look at this not as a moral problem, but as an engineering problem. Any solution that solves the problem is acceptable. Any solution that does not solve the problem is not acceptable.

For example, there is an existing idea called pacifism, part of the general progressive suite, which claims to be a solution for violence. As I understand it, the idea of pacifism is that if you and I can not be violent, everyone else will not be violent, too.

There's no doubt in my mind that pacifism is effective in some cases. In Northern Ireland, for example, it seems to be just the thing. But there is a kind of "hundredth-monkey" logic to it that consistently eludes my linear, Western mind. It strikes me that if everyone is a pacifist and then one person decides not to be a pacifist, he will wind up ruling the world. Hmm.

A further difficulty is that the definition of "violence" isn't so obvious. If I gently relieve you of your wallet, and you chase after me with your Glock and make me beg to be allowed to give it back, which of us is being violent? Suppose I say, well, it was your wallet - but it's my wallet now?

This suggests, at the very least, that we need a rule that tells us whose wallet is whose. Violence, then, is anything that breaks the rule, or replaces it with a different rule. If the rule is clear and everyone follows it, there is no violence.

In other words, violence equals conflict plus uncertainty. While there are wallets in the world, conflict will exist. But if we can eliminate uncertainty - if there is an unambiguous, unbreakable rule that tells us, in advance, who gets the wallet - I have no reason to sneak my hand into your pocket, and you have no reason to run after me shooting wildly into the air. Neither of our actions, by definition, can affect the outcome of the conflict.

Violence of any size makes no sense without uncertainty. Consider a war. If one army knows it will lose the war, perhaps on the advice of some infallible oracle, it has no reason to fight. Why not surrender and get it over with?

But this has only multiplied our difficulties. Where do all these rules come from? Who makes them unbreakable? Who gets to be the oracle? Why is the wallet "yours," rather than "mine"? What happens if we disagree on this? If there's one rule for every wallet, how can everyone remember them all? And suppose it's not you, but me, who's got the Glock?

Fortunately, great philosophers have spent many long hours pondering these details. The answers I give you are theirs, not mine.

First, one sensible way to make rules is that you're bound by a rule if, and only if, you agree to it. We don't have rules that are made by the gods somewhere. What we have is actually not rules at all, but agreements. Surely, agreeing to something and then, at your own convenience, un-agreeing to it, is the act of a cad. In fact, when you make an agreement, the agreement itself may well include the consequences of this kind of irresponsible behavior.

If you're a wild man and you agree to nothing - not even that you won't just kill people randomly on the street - this is fine. Go and live in the jungle, or something. Don't expect anyone to let you walk around on their street, any more than they would tolerate, say, a polar bear. There is no absolute moral principle that says that polar bears are evil, but their presence is just not compatible with modern urban living.

We are starting to see two kinds of agreements here. There are agreements made with other specific individuals - I agree to paint your house, you agree to pay me. And there are agreements like, "I won't kill anyone on the street."

But are these agreements really different? I don't think so. I think the second kind of agreement is just your agreement with whoever owns the street.

If wallets have owners, why shouldn't streets have owners? Wallets have to have owners, obviously, because ultimately someone has to decide what happens with the wallet. Does it ride off in your pocket, or mine? Streets stay put, but there are still a lot of decisions that have to be taken - who paves the street? When and why? Are people allowed to kill people on the street, or is it one of those special no-killing streets? What about street vendors? And so on.

Obviously, if I own 44th Street and you own 45th and 43rd, the possibility of a complex relationship between us becomes nontrivial. And complexity is next to ambiguity, which is next to uncertainty, and the Glocks come out again. So, realistically, we are probably talking more about owning not streets, but larger, more clearly-defined units - blocks, maybe, or even cities.

Owning a city! Now that would be pretty cool. But it gets us back to an issue that we've completely skipped, which is who owns what. How do we decide? Do I deserve to own a city? Am I so meritorious? I think I am. Maybe you could keep your wallet, and I could get, say, Baltimore.

There is this idea called social justice that a lot of people believe in. The notion is, in fact, fairly universal as of this writing. What it tells us is that Earth is small and has a limited set of resources, such as cities, which we all want as much of as possible. But we can't all have a city, or even a street, so we should share equally. Because all of us people are equal and no one is more equal than anyone else.

Social justice sounds very nice. But there are three problems with it.

One is that many of these nice things are not directly comparable. If I get an apple and you get an orange, are we equal? One could debate the subject - with Glocks, perhaps.

Two is that even if everyone starts with equal everything, people being different, having different needs and skills and so on, and the concept of ownership implying that if you own something you can give it to someone else, all is not likely to stay equal. In fact, it's basically impossible to combine a system in which agreements stay agreed with one in which equality stays equal.

This tells us that if we try to enforce permanent equality, we can probably expect permanent violence. I am not a big fan of "empirical evidence," but I think this prediction corresponds pretty well to reality.

But three, which is the real killer - so to speak - is that we are not, in fact, designing an abstract utopia here. We are trying to fix the real world, which in case you hadn't noticed, is extremely screwed up. In many cases, there is no clear agreement on who owns what (Palestine, anyone?), but most of the good things in the world do seem to have a rather definite chain of control.

If we have to start by equalizing the distribution of goods, or in fact by changing this distribution at all, we are putting ourselves quite unnecessarily behind the 8-ball. We are saying, we come in peace, we believe all should be free and equal, let us embrace. Put your arms around me. Feel that lump in my back pocket? Yup, that's what you think it is. And it's loaded. Now hand over your city / wallet / apple / orange, because I know someone who needs it more than you.

The goal of formalism is to avoid this unpleasant little detour. Formalism says: let's figure out exactly who has what, now, and give them a little fancy certificate. Let's not get into who should

have what. Because, like it or not, this is simply a recipe for more violence. It is very hard to come up with a rule that explains why the Palestinians should get Haifa back, and doesn't explain why the Welsh should get London back.

So far this probably sounds a lot like libertarianism. But there's a big difference.

Libertarians may think the Welsh should get London back. Or not. I am still not sure I can interpret Rothbard on this one - which is, as we've seen, in itself a problem.

But if there is one thing all libertarians do believe, it's that the Americans should get America back. In other words, libertarians (at least, real libertarians) believe the US is basically an illegitimate and usurping authority, that taxation is theft, that they are essentially being treated as fur-bearing animals by this weird, officious armed mafia, which has somehow convinced everyone else in the country to worship it like it was the Church of God or something, not just a bunch of guys with fancy badges and big guns.

A good formalist will have none of this.

Because to a formalist, the fact that the US can determine what happens on the North American continent between the 49th parallel and the Rio Grande, AK and HI, etc, means that it is the entity which owns that territory. And the fact that the US extracts regular payments from the aforementioned fur-bearing critters means no more than that it owns that right. The various maneuvers and pseudo-legalities by which it acquired these properties are all just history. What matters is that it has them now and it doesn't want to give them over, any more than you want to give me your wallet.

So if the responsibility to fork over some cut of your paycheck makes you a serf (a reasonable reuse of the word, surely, for our less agricultural age), that's what Americans are - serfs.

Corporate serfs, to be exact, because the US is nothing but a corporation. That is, it is a formal structure by which a group of individuals agree to act collectively to achieve some result.

The modern distinction between "private" corporations and "governments" is actually a rather recent development. The US is certainly different from, say, Microsoft, in that the US handles its own security. On the other hand, just as Microsoft depends on the US for most of its security, the US depends on Microsoft for most of its software. It's not clear why this should make one of these corporations special, and the other not-special.

Of course, the purpose of Microsoft is not to write software, but to make money for its shareholders. The American Cancer Society is a corporation, too, and it has a purpose as well - to cure cancer. I have lost a lot of work on account of Microsoft's so-called "software," and its stock, frankly, is going nowhere. And cancer still seems to be around.

In case the CEO of either MSFT or the ACS is reading this, though, I don't really have a message for you guys. You know what you're trying to do and your people are probably doing as good a job of it as they can. And if not, fire the bastards.

But I have no idea what the purpose of the US is.

I have heard that there's someone who supposedly runs it. But he doesn't appear to even be able to fire his own employees, which is probably good, because I hear he's not exactly Jack Welch, if you know what I mean. In fact, if anyone can identify one significant event that has occurred in North America because Bush and not Kerry was elected in 2004, I'd be delighted to hear of it. Because my impression is that basically the President has about as much effect on the actions of the US as the Heavenly Sovereign Emperor, the Divine Mikado, has on the actions of Japan. Which is pretty much none.

Obviously, the US exists. Obviously, it does stuff. But the way in which it decides what stuff it's going to do is so opaque that, as far as anyone outside the Beltway is concerned, it might as well be consulting ox entrails.

So this is the formalist manifesto: that the US is just a corporation. It is not a mystic trust consigned to us by the generations. It is not the repository of our hopes and fears, the voice of conscience and the avenging sword of justice. It is just an big old company that holds a huge pile of assets, has no clear idea of what it's trying to do with them, and is thrashing around like a ten-gallon shark in a five-gallon bucket, red ink spouting from each of its bazillion gills.

To a formalist, the way to fix the US is to dispense with the ancient mystical horseradish, the corporate prayers and war chants, figure out who owns this monstrosity, and let them decide what in the heck they are going to do with it. I don't think it's too crazy to say that all options - including restructuring and liquidation - should be on the table.

Whether we're talking about the US, Baltimore, or your wallet, a formalist is only happy when ownership and control are one and the same. To reformalize, therefore, we need to figure out who has actual power in the US, and assign shares in such a way as to reproduce this distribution as closely as possible.

Of course, if you believe in the mystical horseradish, you'll probably say that every citizen should get one share. But this is a rather starry-eyed view of the US's actual power structure. Remember, our goal is not to figure out who should have what, but to figure out who does have what.

For example, if the New York Times was to endorse our reformalization plan, it would be much more likely to happen. This suggests that the New York Times has quite a bit of power, and therefore that it should get quite a few shares.

But wait. We haven't answered the question. What is the purpose of the US? Suppose, solely for illustration, we give all the shares to the New York Times. What will "Punch" Sulzberger do with his shiny new country?

Many people, probably including Mr. Sulzberger, seem to think of the US as a charitable venture. Like the American Cancer Society, just with a broader mission. Perhaps the purpose of the US is simply to do good in the world.

This is a very understandable perspective. Surely, if anything ungood remains in the world, it can be vanquished by a gigantic, heavily armed mega-charity, with H-bombs, a flag, and 250 million serfs. In fact, it's actually rather astounding that, considering the prodigious endowments of this great philanthropic institution, it seems to do so little good.

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that it's run so efficiently that it hasn't balanced its budget since the 1830s. Perhaps, if you reformalized the US, ran it like an actual business, and distributed its shares among a large set of separate charities, each presumably with some specific charter for some actual specific purpose, more good might occur.

Of course, the US doesn't just have assets. Sadly, it also has debts. Some of these debts, such as T-bills, are already very well-formalized. Others, such as Social Security and Medicare, are informal and subject to political uncertainties. If these obligations were reformalized, their recipients could only benefit. Of course, they would thus become negotiable instruments and could be, for example, sold. Perhaps in exchange for crack. Reformalization thus requires us to distinguish between property and charity, a hard problem but an important one.

All this fails to answer the question: are nation-states, such as the US, even useful? If you reformalized the US, the question would be left to its shareholders. Perhaps cities work the best when they're independently owned and operated. If so, they should probably be spun off as separate corporations.

The existence of successful city-states such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai certainly suggests an answer to this question. Whatever we call them, these places are remarkable for their prosperity and their relative absence of politics. In fact, perhaps the only way to make them more stable and secure would be to transform them from effectively family-owned (Singapore and Dubai) or subsidiary (Hong Kong) corporations, to anonymous public ownership, thus eliminating the long-term risk that political violence might develop.

Certainly, the absence of democracy in these city-states has not made them comparable in any way to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Any restrictions on personal freedom that they do maintain seem primarily aimed at preventing the development of democracy - an understandable concern given the history of rule by the People. In fact, both the Third Reich and the Communist world often claimed to represent the true spirit of democracy.

As Dubai in particular shows, a government (like any corporation) can deliver excellent customer service without either owning or being owned by its customers. Most of Dubai's residents are not even citizens. If Sheik al-Maktoum has a cunning plan to seize them all, chain them and make them work in the salt mines, he's doing it in a very devious way.

Dubai, as a place, has almost nothing to recommend it. The weather is horrible, the sights are nonexistent, and the neighborhood is atrocious. It's tiny, in the the middle of nowhere, and surrounded by Allah-crazed maniacs with a suspicious affinity for high-speed centrifuges. Nonetheless it has a quarter of the world's cranes and is growing like a weed. If we let the Maktoums run, say, Baltimore, what would happen?

One conclusion of formalism is that democracy is - as most writers before the 19th century agreed - an ineffective and destructive system of government. The concept of democracy without politics makes no sense at all, and as we've seen, politics and war are a continuum. Democratic politics is best understood as a sort of symbolic violence, like deciding who wins the battle by how many troops they brought.

Formalists attribute the success of Europe, Japan and the US after World War II not to democracy, but its absence. While retaining the symbolic structures of democracy, much as the Roman Principate retained the Senate, the postwar Western system has assigned almost all actual decision-making power to its civil servants and judges, who are "apolitical" and "nonpartisan," ie, nondemocratic.

Because in the absence of effective external control, these civil services more or less manage themselves, like any unmanaged enterprise they often seem to exist and expand for the sake of existing and expanding. But they avoid the spoils system which invariably develops when the tribunes of the people have actual power. And they do a reasonable, if hardly stellar, job of maintaining some semblance of law.

In other words, "democracy" appears to work because it is not in fact democracy, but a mediocre implementation of formalism. This relationship between symbolism and reality has received an educational if depressing test in the form of Iraq, where there is no law at all, but which we have endowed with the purest and most elegant form of democracy (proportional representation), and ministers who actually seem to run their ministries. While history does no controlled experiments, surely the comparison of Iraq to Dubai makes a fine case for formalism over democracy.

And with that, having insulted everything you could possibly hold sacred, I welcome your comments and questions...

I pestered Mencius for links to some of the people whose thinking he has gotten the most out of. Here's what he sent back:

Funny: When I took a sabbatical some years back, I certainly didn't get around to reconceptualizing the world from the ground up. In fact, what I mostly did was sleep late.

What Mencius has got me thinking about is the difference between my own day-to-day political point of view (avoid big projects, don't screw things up, don't invest hopes and dreams in political movements, always distrust all politicians), and my deeper feelings and thoughts about social-organization matters. I'm not generally prone to letting my brain run along "if I could have things entirely my way" lines. But if I could ...

Well, If I could have things entirely my own way, my ideal way of arranging political matters would have a strong eco-anarchy/bioregional flavor. Lots of mini-Switzerlands, basically. Oh, and inhabited by sexy Indians, sexy hippies, and sexy rednecks. As for myself, I'd be doing yoga and smoking locoweed on some remote beach, and not giving the rest of the world too much thought. I'd be living a life like the one evoked in this great Fred Reed column, come to think of it.

What has Mencius got you thinking about? What's your own favorite ideal political system, or way-of-organizing-life?

Please do leave questions and comments: Mencius promises to respond. And please do remember too that you can email him at moldbug at gmail.



posted by Michael at April 22, 2007


I used to find these "tear the entire world up and subject it to the cold hard light of reason" essays compelling. I don't anymore.

Tradition exists for a reason. We often don't know what this reason might be. The past 50 years, we have shredded the traditional fabric of society and assumed that this always leads to something better. I no longer believe this. While we are incredibly wealthy and technologically sophisticated, we have created a society or crudeness and stupidity.

Yes, there is a reason for the U.S. to exist. The people who won the wars and the elections deserve to possess the power. Yes, patriarchy is the right way for society to be organized, because God is the father. Hetero men are morally superior to gay men because they take responsibility for the future by heading families, protecting women and fathering children. As a citizen of the U.S., you owe obedience to the Commander in Chief when he decides to go to war, whether or not you agree with his reasoning. Yes, abuses and failures occur within this system of tradition. Tell me any system that does not suffer abuses and failure. The "question everything" outlook has become a compulsive cliche, a new form of tyranny and mindlessness.

Even violence has its place. I have become extremely suspicious of people who tell me that facets of human nature should be eliminated. I watched the Planet Earth special for hours last night. We can easily see the dignity and purpose of violence in the animal kingdom. We are animals.

As the social fabric has fallen apart and rudeness and stupidity have become the rule, I can see that there was a good reason for taking miscreants out behind the barn and kicking their behinds. We have gone from a tyranny of the strong to a tyranny of the weak and sick.

How is this better?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 23, 2007 8:21 AM

I won't dare quibble with much of what Menicus says, he clearly knows more than me about... everything. But I'd agree with Michael on the bioregional eco thing. I prefer Tolkienish conservatism (encompassing respect for the environment, tradition, animals etc) to flagless slash and burn libertarianism. But politics should always, always be as local as possible.

Posted by: adrian on April 23, 2007 8:50 AM

"The goal of formalism is to avoid this unpleasant little detour. Formalism says: let's figure out exactly who has what, now, and give them a little fancy certificate. "

Formalism seems to represent a strong desire for stasis.

Quick question: can you offer a real-world example of a social order that you prefer to the one we are currently in? Can you offer even a well-formed imaginary example that will stand up to initial criticisim?

Posted by: Mike on April 23, 2007 10:14 AM

This was probably very interesting.

Posted by: the patriarch on April 23, 2007 10:39 AM

Also, on a meta note, long posts like this really benefit from a "Read More >>" type of link. Let me know if you want help setting something like that up, it's pretty easy.

Posted by: the patriarch on April 23, 2007 10:41 AM

It's early and the coffee I just drank hasn't kicked in ... so I must have missed where Mencius explained the mechanism by which the monopoly of violence (key for government) is determined and enforced in the Formalist society.

He says "To reformalize, therefore, we need to figure out who has actual power in the US, and assign shares in such a way as to reproduce this distribution as closely as possible." Well, if all this is "actual" then why bother trying to "figure out" the thing. Go with the existing flow, folks.

As for Dubai and mini-states both actual and hypothetical (the "Free Republic of Baltimore," anyone?), these necessarily exist on the good will of world or regional powers. To me this is analogous to Italy in Macchiavelli's day -- contentious city-states that easily fell to the French.

Solving the violence problem is key, provided the Progressives can't do it by genetically manipulating humans into a race of Vegan sheep.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 23, 2007 12:06 PM

As admirable as it is to attempt to form a world view from scratch, I agree with S. Thomas' one point about things are the way they are now for a reason. I disagree with his somewhat sour view that somehow the social fabric has fallen apart. The social fabric is always falling apart. And the social fabric is always being mended at the same time. Once in a while, things go down the tubes, but we build back up again.

I'll go a step further and say that I think how we're doing it now, how America is currently governed, is probably the best that can be achieved in a complex society like ours. (Btw, I'm not talking about the Currant Occupant. He's a tool.) We need to reign in the executive branch, get the balance of power restored, repair the damage done to individual rights, and address the health care issue, but those are coming in time. Anyway, that's my answer to Michael's question. I think what we have is the best any society's had thus far. We need look no further.

My primary problem with what Mencius presented is how innocent it is.

It makes no real attempt to deal with the problem of evil. (And by evil, I mean actions that are knowingly and purposely done that bring chaos, terror, and loss to others for either no reason or very dubious reasons. Think mass shootings or 9/11.) I would go so far as to say that it isn't even cognizant of evil at all.

There's an underlying presumption in the treatise that everything's about ownership and purpose. It's just not that simple. There are a lot of evil bastards out there who want to own it all for the purpose of power and so YOU don't have it. There are even more depraved motivations than that.

While I lean towards some facets of libertarianism (when it comes to rights and freedoms), both it and "formalism" as defined here are based a rather limited world view that comes from being: 1) moderately wealthy, 2) single (or with an SO, but no serious commitment), 3) childless, and most importantly 4) never having faced true adversity. Another way of saying it is: it's advantageous only to those who already have most advantages and no real dependants. The old, the crippled, the very young, and so forth are not considered in these sorts of philosophies. That's why the biggest group of people that hold these views are sitting in front of a few thousand dollars worth of computer equipment, in a comfortable home, a stocked fridge, and not many worries. (Oh, and as an aside, they have the western view of the individual, which neither most of Asia, India or the Middle East share.)

Now, you can't go so far as to build everything around those who need extra care, or take everyone's money in taxes merely to serve the "weak" and those who need a leg up. You can go too far, as some European countries have discovered (and as some Indigenous Americans have discovered). There has to be balance, there, too. Also, some folks are beyond help. Most bums you walk by on the street are either nuts or so addicted that their fate is determined by the next cold snap. It would be nice if we could sort out the nuts and house them somehow, but there is a limit to what can be done. Which brings me to being a moderate....

I've grown weary of folks who call out being a moderate as a fault or a lapse - a non-stance, if you will. (Sam Harris, for instance, lays all the evils of world at the door of the Christian moderate, much like gender feminists blame men for the evils of the world. Both views are those of a crackpot.) It shows they have no grasp of subtlety or the ability to envision embracing divergent views at the same time; they view everything as binary (a tendency in engineers, some scientists, and programmers). A moderate stance means you recognize something useful or practical in the elements found in both sides, and you construct your views, a new view, from those elements. It's a complex, nuanced view, not a non-view.

For instance, my stance on abortion. I believe that abortion at any time past implantation is essentially killing a child. I do not believe that birth control or the morning-after pill are wrong, they are great things to have available. I also believe that abortion should stay legal, because it should not be up to the state to make such a decision. And, not everyone views the start of life like I do. I can see how some would feel that before the brain develops beyond a certain point, or if the heart hasn't started beating, then it's just tissue. I don't agree, but there you are. That said, if my wife and I were going to have a deformed child that would have nothing but pain (a reality I've seen in a few people's lives), it'd bring us great sorrow, but we'd end that pregnancy to spare the child pain. Yes, we'd kill a child to save it from a life of misery.

Our current laws allow that sort of complex, non-binary sort of viewpoint and reality. I'd hate to live in a world where every unborn child is just tissue to be removed for convenience or a world where the life of the child can't be considered. Thankfully, we don't live in that world. Yet.

Back to the issue of crazy homeless people, many folks demand a binary view of that. Either screw'em and let'em die in their filth, or make nice sanitarium for them to play checkers and scream at game shows all day. The answer is somewhere in the middle. For those who can and will stay in those places, yeah, we as a society should pony up some cash for them. Should they be luxury apts with saunas? Hell no. Should they be comfortable and safe? Of course.

I'd love to see someone who's going to try to float a new philosophy on societal organization address all the complexities of humanity: good, evil, depravity, the needy, children, the rich, the poor, the bullies, the nerds, and so on. We don't need another theory that just envisions a happy happy joy joy fun time for those who have the luxury of sitting in a clean well-lighted place and assume that's all there is. Marx already made that mistake, thank you very much.

Posted by: yahmdallah on April 23, 2007 12:37 PM

It may well be that not only is violence not the root of all that is wrong with the world, it is the method of last resort used to overturn terrible wrongs, when all other methods have been tried and found wanting. In other words, war is not the most terrible thing facing us; slavery is. And slavery is the direct result of cowardice, the cowardice not to violently oppose terrible oppressive wrong. The anointed would have us believe that "the bomb" is so terrible that war must be outlawed. Hubris. The earth, and the human race are both much too tough to be undone by even a nuclear war. But Man can be undone, as Man, by cowardice in the face of that which would enslave him. Too abstract? What do you think is facing us right now?! Wanna be a dhimmi? God protect us from the sophisticates, whose every clever theory is offered in the interest of turning us into eunichs.

Posted by: ricpic on April 23, 2007 12:43 PM


Very insightful questions!

The reason to find and formalize the actual power structure in a preformalist society, such as the US, is that in informal power structures people put a lot of effort into struggling for power.

Think of all the people you know who want to "create social change." I'm sure most of these people are genuinely wonderful. They are also obeying their little hominid command module that tells them to achieve reproductive success by telling other hominids what to do.

Since the 1960s, most young people with talent and energy have poured most of their lives into this power struggle, while holding down "day jobs." Meanwhile, productive industry has largely evaporated, and most of the population seems to survive by making dodgy real-estate loans to each other. I exaggerate - slightly.

Your mention of the demise of the Italian city-states is similarly insightful. What's changed? Three things, I would say: military reality, economic reality, and political reality.

Dubai today does get free security from the United States. If the US was a business, it would charge. But how expensive is real security, as opposed to misconceived missionary ventures? Dubai could easily build its own H-bombs and gin up its own equivalent of Blackwater.

In Machiavelli's day, security was very labor-intensive. Artillery was changing the balance of power in favor of the attacker. Nuclear weapons have returned this balance to the defender, and made the era of "mobilizing the people" history.

Also, you can't have a war unless someone actually attacks. And what use is a demolished Dubai? War, at least against any well-organized adversary, is unlikely to be profitable for a corporate city-state. It was probably not even profitable for the French regime as a whole - but it strengthened the power of the King and of Paris.

In other words, aggressive war tends to be a product of malstructured government, which formalism tries to eliminate, if more by competition than by invasion. A world consisting entirely of corporate-Dubai-Disneylands should be stable. A world with some of these and some Irans will still need firepower, as it does today. But hopefully the rulers of the latter will realize that "selling out" is the way to go.

Finally, people have changed. They are a lot less violent than they used to be. Presumably this is mostly cultural, but it may also be partly genetic. Whatever the reason, Americans no longer seem to feel any excitement about the possibility of invading Canada. This can only be regarded as a good thing.

But I'm surprised that you didn't mention the most interesting question of all, and the hardest: how a formalist government protects its sovereign property from its own customers.

The demise of the Greek city-states at the hands of the Persians and Macedonians, or the Italian city-states at the hands of the Valois, is a relatively distant and minor concern, when compared to the demise of liberal 19th-century Europe at the hands of the mob. More on this, perhaps, in future...

Posted by: Mencius on April 23, 2007 12:50 PM


The big secret, which I can reveal only here in the comments section, is that if you engineer a government the way I've described, as long as it's populated with even a small number of people who think like you, it's quite likely to result in the society you've described. There's a reason so many of my intellectual heroes have "de" or "von" in their names!

Basically, I think Burke put the cart before the horse. Conservatism is the product of society, not of social engineering. When you try to engineer a conservative society from the top down the result is imperfect and unstable. This has been tried repeatedly for the last 200 years, and even when it has won out locally it hasn't lasted. Look at Spain today.

All I am trying to do is reformulate the ancient principle of pacta sunt servanda in a modern cultural context. The mistake of reactionaries from the Holy Alliance to Karl Rove, I think, has been to think that they can build a traditional society without restoring this principle, which has been the legal "operating system" of all the traditional societies either of us can name.

Posted by: Mencius on April 23, 2007 1:02 PM


I think MBlowhard's bioregionalist vision answers your question quite well.

Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia is another decentralist view of the world which is quite similar to formalism, although Nozick still regards states as partnerships rather than as property.

Posted by: Mencius on April 23, 2007 1:06 PM

Just the sort of conversation one would expect from the citizens of a creaking empire. My one comment on the above article is that libertarians, like other political animals, exist on a continuum. Some are quite anarchistic, others are happy with a certain amount of government in situ. I think local control and a sense of community corporatism are vital. That seems to be lost on our current leadership. Mencius is always good for stirring a few brain cells out of dormancy.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 23, 2007 1:33 PM

Thanks for providing an interesting and unique viewpoint. I believe, however, that you misunderstand the relationship of Democracy and violence. Democracy, in practice, appears to act as the only large-scale check on violence yet discovered.

As you point out, the U.S. has an immense ability to use violence, but we've hardly used it at all compared to what's possible. I think this is entirely due to Democracy. Wars not in the people's interest simply can't happen very often, or for very long, in a functioning Democracy.

You write that "violence equals conflict plus uncertainty." I think violence equals power minus checks. In all of human history, people who could conquer did conquer, almost without exception. If you have an apple and I want an apple... and I have a Glock and there are no laws, why I could just take your apple. I might rationalize it to myself by saying God commanded me to take your apple or that you already had an apple this morning, but ultimately it comes down to power without checks.

In a Democracy, the people are the ultimate check. On a historical scale, Bush's war is a trifle, with deaths only in the thousands and no large-scale societal transformations. But even that is too much for the American people and, 6 years into his term, he's essentially impotent, able to maintain the status quo, but no more.

Your philosophy appears to be based on the idea that stockholders/owners would be better at holding CEOs accountable than voters, or being better CEOs themselves. I don't see why this should be the case. Dictators all over the world essentially own their countries, or at least large parts thereof, and as a rule, they are terrible managers.

I still think there is a truth at the center of what you write and that is that it's not democracy per se which makes the free world what it is. It has something to do with, as you point out, the stability of nonpartisan civil servants. But saying that's undemocratic is sort of a straw man. Nobody believes that 100% pure democracy would work. That's why we have a Constitution with enduring checks and balances. The majority of people could vote tomorrow that gays should be jailed and Bush could even go along with it, but the Courts would strike it down before the weekend. Short of a military coup, there's no quick way for a single person or group -- even a majority of the country -- to make serious changes to our government. That is why it works.

Posted by: JewishAtheist on April 23, 2007 2:06 PM


Evil, in my opinion, is a result rather than an intention. There is no Evil Club. I have never heard of a bunch of people getting together and deciding to be evil.

You have a lot of thoughts on what a good society should be. I have seen a lot of different visions of the good society in my time. I would not presume to decide which of those is best. There seem to be a lot of people who want to duplicate 7th-century Islamic society somewhere on earth. Why not? Why shouldn't they be able to give it a try? Just don't ask me to live in their Talibanistan.

The planet is big enough for governments to be like restaurants. The word "we" is not generally employed when talking about restaurant menus. "We" don't have to make a collective decision about whether we want steak or pad thai for dinner. If you prefer to live in a city where abortion is illegal, there should be such a place - move there. If you prefer to live in a city where you can kill your own children, as an ancient Roman could, ditto.

Posted by: Mencius on April 23, 2007 2:30 PM


Actually, dictators don't own their countries at all.

These days people are taught to see dictatorship and monarchy as basically the same thing. I would argue that dictatorship is more a variant of democracy. All 20th dictatorships have rested on at least the perception of massive popular support, which is why they have all ruled in the name of the People, Volk, etc, and they have all "flooded the zone" with propaganda.

In a stable monarchy, or in a formalist corporate city-state, the government doesn't need to care what people print in the newspapers. It is not at risk of being overthrown by a mob or by a coup - the primary existential concern of all dictatorships. The al-Maktoums need not saturate their with al-Maktoumist propaganda, the way, say, the Assads or the Kims must operate in Syria or North Korea.

Read Sebag-Montefiore's Court of the Red Tsar. Stalin was the most insecure world leader ever. All his subordinates were terrified of him, and presumably vice versa. When Beria tried to take over the Stalin role, he was shot immediately.

Step back a second and look at the claims you're making. The last two centuries have been by far the most democratic, and by far the most violent, in Western history. How would you try to convince an alien that "all power to the People" is, in fact, the cure for violence? Have you ever seen the pictures of crowds celebrating war at the outset of WWI?

It is true that representative democracy of the sort you favor is associated with a long period of (relative) peace, at least in the Third World, after WWII. But this simply means it is the faction that won the war. If Nazism or Communism had come out on top, it certainly would have made the same claim.

Posted by: Mencius on April 23, 2007 2:44 PM

The United States safeguards citizens. I don't know if the addition of this efficacy changes the structure of formalism at all but I think it's at least worth noticing that the US indeed has a function, maybe the application of this concept in a certain junction Mencius can identify himself will further what seems to me a perfectly reasonable and well-intentioned system--if burgeoning only.

Posted by: Brian Hadd on April 23, 2007 2:44 PM

It's nice that Mencius has worked his way up out of libertarianism far enough to see that the state exists for a reason (if it didn't exist, we'd invent it, and sooner rather than later). Beyond that, I didn't find this very helpful. The problem is getting the benefits of state organization while at the same time checking the power of the state. Figuring out the specific set of arrangements necessary to do this is perhaps the core problem of political theory, and there's a long tradition of thinking on it. I didn't find any good or fresh thinking on this central problem. Comparisons to Dubai (2.5 million people sitting on top of the world's fifth largest oil supplies!) are not very helpful. Neither are corporate comparisons -- corporations can be divided into "shares" because they exist purely for profit, and profit can be subdivided. States manage and control violence, and when you subdivide that power you get anarchy.

Also, saying for an American to say that the American state has not functioned successfully or beneficially is very odd. Compared to what? Compared to an ideal, possibly not. Compared to most other countries on earth, we have been highly successful so far.

I agree with MB that greater decentralization would be a good way to get state benefits while limiting state power. The pressures in our system toward ever greater centralization at the Federal level are really problematic. At the same time, it is unrealistic to suppose we are going to support our current population without massive amounts of trade and exchange on a very broad geographical scale. That requires supra-local governing institutions, and then those institutions become hard to control.

One thing I did like about Mencius, though: the focus on violence is the right way to go. That is the central problem. Waving it aside by pointing to the animal kingdom, like the increasingly unhinged Shouting Thomas, is truly silly. Animals do not have nuclear weapons. What's more, they don't generally have armies -- for animals, the individual violence instigator bears the costs of his decision. This is not true in our world of fat, middle-aged, draft-dodging Fox commentators calling for young men to go to war. I'd be fine with a system where anyone voting for a war had to bear all the costs of their decision themselves; I suspect we'd suddenly become much more peaceful.

If violence is the central problem, and the state the central institution, the relationship between the state and violence is key. The problem is that successful states have generally reduced "retail", personal-level violence within state boundaries, while at the same time massively increasing the level of violence in periodic intra-state wars. The state is so effective at managing violence that it has increased our technological and organizational capacity for violence manyfold, to the point where state violence can threaten the survival of human life on earth. It is misleading to try to divide this threat into "bad" states that cannot be trusted and "good" states that can. The U.S. has killed many millions of innocent civilians in foreign wars over the past century. Our record mainly looks good by comparison with the Hitlers etc. of the world.

In my optimistic moments, I think that wealth can make us more peaceful and lessen our love affair with violence. In my more pessimistic ones, I think we're basically screwed.

Posted by: MQ on April 23, 2007 2:47 PM

P.S> I agree completely with JewishAtheists focus on checks and balances. I'm not as sanguine as he is about the ability of democracy to check violent warfare though -- I agree that it provides some check, but we've signed away far too much power to make war to the Executive. This was something that the Founders specifically tried to avoid, but since WWII the checks against arbitrary use of military force by the Executive branch have crumbled. To our misfortune.

Posted by: MQ on April 23, 2007 2:50 PM


I am actually very sympathetic to the forces of anti-dhimmitude. As I mention, I am not a pacifist at all.

My "manifesto" uses the rather cheap trick of redefining "violence," a word which has negative connotations for everyone, to mean "everything that I think is evil." If I was to write it again I would probably find a way to avoid this.

My general view on the subject of Islam is pretty much the same as, say, Larry Auster's. I don't think the US should be trying to rule Muslim countries, and I don't think that - at least with our present political system - Muslim immigration is a good idea.

A formalist foreign policy is based on creating clear and rational disincentives to potential attackers. Violence - by which I mean, again, the violation of property rights - should not be rewarded.

For example, I think the Israeli-Palestinian problem would be over pretty fast if every time the Palestinians fired a randomly targeted rocket at Israeli civilians, the Israelis dropped five or ten randomly targeted artillery shells on Gaza City. This is a controversial opinion and it probably deserves its own discussion, but I don't think it qualifies as pacifist or dhimmitudinous...

Posted by: Mencius on April 23, 2007 2:54 PM


Actually, oil contributes less than 3% of Dubai's GNP. They used to have more but it has been largely exhausted.

If the present US system doesn't subdivide power, I don't know what does! Certainly, all property is a convention and can be abolished by violence.

My point is that the checks-and-balances system taught in civics classes, and originally designed by Montesquieu, does not in fact correspond at all to the real distribution of power in the US today. The Federalist Papers, for example, for the most part are simply describing a different country with a different system of government.

The idea of dividing power into formal shares, and separating the roles of owner, employee and customer, seems to scale pretty well in the world of productive enterprise. There is certainly a lot of tension between the interests owners, employees, and customers, but the joint-stock structure seems to resolve that tension in a way that generally works well.

Of course, the question always is: what if the employees or customers take over the company, expropriate the owners and run it for their own benefit? In a corporation that is chartered within a sovereign state, the state provides this security. When the corporation is a state, it cannot.

But the answer to this is simply the same as the answer to the question: why doesn't President Bush use the military, which he commands, to establish himself as Supreme Leaderissimo?

The answer is that the military is aware that its ultimate master is not President Bush, but the Constitution. In other words, in a formalist sense, it works not for the CEO, but for the shareholders. If a CEO starts to tinker with this, he will get booted before he gets anywhere at all - much as President Bush would be.

Posted by: Mencius on April 23, 2007 3:09 PM

I think Mencius got a little heavy on the hooptedoodle. Leonard's rules of writing could be applied to "rules of manifestos." My ideal way of organizing the world is that if anybody else wants to organize the world they must do it in six paragraphs or less. If it takes longer, it is not "organized" at all. And Shouting Thomas doesn't get to play. But I must agree with jewishaetheist.

Posted by: annette on April 23, 2007 3:40 PM

"Some of these debts, such as T-bills, are already very well-formalized. Others, such as Social Security and Medicare, are informal and subject to political uncertainties."

Um, the Social Security "debt" (i.e., Trust Fund) *is* in T-bills, as required by federal law.

Remind me why I should pay any attention to this guy?

Posted by: Steve on April 23, 2007 4:40 PM

There's much overlap between Mencius's worldview and mine. I agree that violence is the key problem in human affairs, just as in health, infections and cancers are more dangerous than poisons (because if unchecked, they tend to multiply). I also agree that property rights are crucial.

I would emphasize, however, the role of family relationships endlessly complicates the question of who owns what. Consider the Holy Land. Much of the dispute goes back to what happened to land ownership claims involving your grandparents and parents, whether Jewish or Arab, in 1947-48, and the outcome will determine much about the lives lived by your children and grandchildren. Mencius still has some of the libertarian tunnel vision focus on the individual, but when you notice that people behave in more extreme fashions when family is involved, the world gets more complicated.

Proudhon said that "property is theft," and there's a bit of truth at the bottom of that. The original sin of property rights in land is almost always that current property rights are based on some form of successful theft far enough back in time. It's not surprising that the Haves think its time to draw the veil and forget about how their ancestors got the land, while the Have Nots think it's still up for dispute. There doesn't seem to be a solution for this.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on April 23, 2007 6:03 PM

Governement is an engineering problem? Never ask a barber if you need a haircut!

People are not completely predictable, nor completely random, and there are six billion of them and counting. Good luck with that engineering problem.

Violence will go out of style when people lose the fear of pain and the fear of death. On the other hand, those who have no fear of pain and death tend not to be the most peaceful people, are they? Fear works. Punishment works.

The purpose of a country is to protect the property and promote the well-being of of the citizens, regardless of the government. The purpose of a government is to grow and consolidate power. When function #2 runs afoul of function #1, the citizens tend to revolution or emigration. The functions of country are amenable to economies of scale, I.e., bigger is usually better. The function of government is not. After a certain point, function #2 erodes and destroys function #1.

The horror of the 20th century is Faith in Governement. Large governments always oppress their people, and if they become powerful enough, pose a threat to their neighboring countries as they try to establish empire. Government is a necessary evil. Small is best. Divided is best. Non-vertical is best. but what is sacrificed is function #1. That's why Franklin said those who would choose security over liberty will eventually have neither.

The Faith in Government is that Life Can Be Improved. Not technologically, but socially. This will be done by overturning the Natural Order. But the attempt to overturns the Natural Order results in totalitarianism, the greatest evil of government in world history.

What we are tending to in the West, and why we are dying, is that we are trying to overturn the Natural Order, and to do so, we are employing the means of totalitarianism, step by step. Unless we overthrow it and re-establish country, and dissassemble government, we are doomed to repeat all the mistakes of the past.

The easiest way to avoid conflict is to assemble people in relatively homogenous groups, which means borders, race, culture, language, and social order. To not do so is to invite conflict. I'm sure that some exceprtions to this are to be found, especially amongst economic vagabonds and those like Fred Reed who have rejected their own culture, but it is the exception rather than the rule. Break the rules at your own risk.

Posted by: BIOH on April 23, 2007 6:44 PM

Hi Mencius,

Michael knows me form a different blog and I only stop by on rare occasions, but I got bewildered after reading this! To say the least, there are many points of contention. This will be a long comment, for which I apologize in advance.

I would dispute the notion that conservative or progressive ideologies are simply bad in themselves. It is the extremes of these ideologies combined with military and police power that are bad. If that is the case, moderation is the navigation between these extremes based on the current context for each society. It is certainly not a valid counterexample to go hopping through history and geography to show inconsistency.

I do mostly agree with the primary thesis that violence is the main problem in human affairs. You sort of hint at the corollary to that problem, which is that this is a planet of remarkably limited size. Exponential population growth will invariably start chaotic behavior, it becomes a case of expand or adopt much lower standards of living. The other main element which leads to violence is what Orwell noted, "...the object of war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact." This is clearly true for rigid dogmas like theocracies, Nazism, and Communism, where they really do make a formal Church out of the State.

I also agree with your criticism of pacifism, but the critique applies equally well to formalism. Sure, the hundredth monkey is a cad, but he also happens to control all the resources. Your system requires a social contract, which is good, but then it has no institutions that can enforce the contract or prevent it from being corrupted. For example, someone gets to own a city but he already has ten others. He can just decide one day that he does not give a hoot about that city and lets it fall into disrepair. People may try to leave if they can, but if they cannot they are getting a raw deal and nobody can do anything to change it. The problem with formalism, as with all other political systems, is that the spirit can be violated long before the technical details are.

As always, I am amazed by the taxation as theft meme. Surely a thief would not intentionally put any of your stolen goods towards your benefit. Surely a thief would not allow you to vote him out of his job. Surely a thief would not have laws that allow you to examine what he does with your money. If we are serfs, owned in total by the government, it seems to me that this brand of libertarianism does nothing to prevent that. It does not prevent people from selling all of their property and thereby their means of production in exchange for a promise of lifetime servitude.

"Democratic politics is best understood as a sort of symbolic violence, like deciding who wins the battle by how many troops they brought." Well, yes. Symbolic violence is somehow worse than real violence? This ideal of each community as an island unaffected by its neighbors is contrary to how a dynamic and mobile society functions.

Posted by: Step2 on April 23, 2007 6:51 PM

Steve (not Sailer),

By Social Security "debt" I meant not the debt that the US owes itself (the "trust fund", a rather Enronlike concept), but the payments that many people expect to receive from the US when they retire.

As the Supreme Court ruled in Flemming v. Nestor, these payments are entirely discretionary, ie, informal.

Posted by: Mencius on April 23, 2007 6:54 PM

Steve (Sailer),

Thanks - I'm a huge fan. I know this stains me irretrievably in the minds of many, but I don't care!

Formalizing property rights in terms of the status quo isn't so much a matter of individualism, as of adverse possession.

While the family-property connection is certainly quite emotionally loaded, people will behave in an aggrieved and generally violent fashion if they think they have any right that's being violated. Witness the Serbs and Kosovo.

For the obligatory evolutionary remark, humans clearly have an inherent sense of right and wrong. They also clearly have a mechanism which makes this moral sense almost always correspond to their interests. The mental ballet that implements this mechanism can be quite remarkable.

For example, when I was a renter living in San Francisco, the hypocrisy of the "open space" movement used to fill me with righteous rage. Yeah, sure, I thought, you care about the environment. What's the environment in San Francisco? Pigeons? How many zillion hectares of rainforest could you save if you sold Golden Gate Park to developers, and used the profits to buy, like, all of Borneo, or something? How many people do I hear proposing this? I know what this is about. It's about your inflated property values. More supply = less demand. Just the usual moralistic hypocrisy.

But after I cashed in my backdated, wildly inflated options, reducing some poor Holocaust survivor in Florida, whose only sin was believing in the Promise of the Wireless Internet, to a cold grey future of Social Security and cat food, and exchanged the result for a condo in the Castro, I saw the light. You see, real estate in a city is like a kind of currency - its value is defined by its scarcity. This makes developers the equivalent of counterfeiters. Through their shady political deals, they're debasing the savings I worked those 100-hour weeks for. Now I fume with indignation every time I see a new building going up.

What's worse, San Francisco is currently building boatloads of new condos, as the result of electing its green, neo-Maoist "Bay Guardian" faction. When our present supervisors were out of power, they would never have endorsed this kind of Earthrape. But now that they're in power, they've realized that developers aren't so bad at all. They care about social justice, too. Not only do they generate substantial fees that can be used for good works, but they're happy to allocate a substantial fraction of their units at below-market rates to be distributed to needy individuals. In addition, the new buildings are often "green" - which is good for local sustainable industries. Etc, etc. So just as I've cured myself of envy and greed, others have succumbed. It's terrible how these things work...

Posted by: Mencius on April 23, 2007 7:28 PM


If men were completely predictable or completely random, government would be a science problem, not an engineering problem. Engineering, at least to me, is about solving problems that can't be completely understood.

Dubai isn't homogeneous at all. It still seems to work, pretty much. Homogeneity certainly makes it easier to build a working society, and I think I agree with you that it is essential for anything like a democracy. But that's one of the reasons I don't like democracy.

Posted by: Mencius on April 23, 2007 7:33 PM


Thanks for your comments!

Moderation, as you've shown, basically resolves to the tautology that the status quo is good for itself. The problem is that as well as moderate Eurocrats and moderate Hapsburgs, history shows us plenty of cases of moderate Communists, moderate Nazis, etc.

For example, Michael Burleigh's excellent history of the Third Reich is full of cases in which some moderate Nazi would write a letter like "Sure, Jews are bad, but do we have to..." Perhaps this was simply the most effective way to protest at the time. But I suspect that a lot of people actually believed it. Hazlitt's remark about splitting the difference between right and wrong comes to mind.

My point about moderation, therefore, is just that it's basically impossible to judge the righteousness of the status quo by taking the status quo as a starting point.

As for "someone gets to own a city but he already has ten others. He can just decide one day that he does not give a hoot about that city and lets it fall into disrepair," this is a good example of why impersonal public shareholding is a good idea. I can sort of imagine this happening for, say, an apartment building, like in the Bronx or something. I have never heard of it happening to a public corporation - I would be quite surprised. History doesn't really have any cases of joint-stock cities, but it doesn't have any cases of monarchical or oligarchical proprietors carelessly abandoning their cities, either.

People are very used to the idea that the democratic power to replace bad governments is essential to good "customer service." But every day they patronize businesses whose management is completely unaccountable to them, and expect (in general) much better customer service than they get at the post office.

Taxation is not theft. It's more like rent. Why do you send a rent check to your landlord every month? What does he do in exchange for this service? Typically not much at all. Why does he own the building? Why should it matter to you?. Libertarians, for some reason, are perfectly happy with this relationship on a small scale, but offended by it on a large scale.

Symbolic violence is much, much better than physical violence. But it still exhibits the same combination of conflict and uncertainty, and - as Iraq, or the Weimar Republic, shows - it degenerates very easily into physical violence. The agreement not to get physical is fragile. It is mainly dependent on cultural taboos.

It so happens that it is not politically advantageous, at present, to either the Democrats or the Republicans to have an armed youth wing. But if it was so advantageous, it would happen. In Weimar, even the Social Democrats had a paramilitary division (the Reichsbanner).

In the US, a Democratic armed wing could easily arise out of the inner-city gangs, and a Republican one can be seen in embryo in the militia and Minutemen movements. One certainly does notice some desire, on both sides, to tolerate or overlook criminal acts committed by those who are righteously aligned, much as Weimar judges gave SA-men slaps on the wrist.

Politics is never healthy. Our present preference for "apolitical" and "nonpartisan" government is very sensible, and is quite incompatible with the reverence for "democracy." The only problem with headless civil-service government is that there is no institutional pressure for efficiency. Its interests are not ours. This is why governments deliver better service when their ownership structure is more clearly defined.

Posted by: Mencius on April 23, 2007 8:00 PM

I'd love to have a conversation over drinks with Mencius. I'd hate for him to be in a position of power, but then again, the extreme detachment on display in his post probably makes that a moot point.

Anyway, interesting reading.

Posted by: the patriarch on April 23, 2007 8:05 PM

Dubai is a subdivision of the United Arab Emirates, which has had a heavily oil-based economy. Dubai is just the part where non oil/gas type industries are concentrated. The ability to expand as they have has been pretty dependent on funding from the national level. Agreed that the UAE has seemed to manage its oil wealth better than e.g. Saudi Arabia.

I'm still mystified by the corporate comparison, or really where you're going with the whole thing. Corporations control the flow of money within a competitive market where both investors and customers have many choices of other corporations to either patronize or invest in. States control the ability to coerce or compel obedience within a defined geographical space that it is often very difficult to leave because of e.g. language, cultural, or other barriers. Because of their frequent monopoly position and control of coercion, states are much more powerful than corporations. Hence the problem of controlling state managers is much trickier than controlling corporate boards of directors. You are not going to get away from this fundamental distinction and problem by waving your hands around and calling citizens shareholders.

The truth is, corporate boards often abuse shareholder rights, but the ability of shareholders to easily sell their holdings and invest elsewhere (and of customers to patronize other firms) puts a limit on this. There is little comparable limit on states -- for some small states, it is possible to easily relocate to another country, but for most of us it is very hard to move.

It is true that in the U.S. (as part of our checks and balances system, which still does have a powerful though weakened influence on how things are done here), does subdivide the use of violence and coercion out to many different authorities (local, state, Federal, police, army, etc.). However, this is done through strict legal channels and it is certainly not handed out to individual citizens like stock certificates in a corporation. It seems to me that would be totally impractical -- I can't even imagine how it would work.

If you haven't read it already, I recommend "Exit, Voice, and Loyalty", by Hirsch, and also check out something called the Tiebout theory in economics. Tiebout formalizes the conditions under which exit possibilities lead to states becoming similar to corporations. Weber is also quite valuable, but it's hard to know where to start with him.

Posted by: MQ on April 23, 2007 8:22 PM

If for one minute you think the rest of the world wants to be a hodge podge like Dubai, you are crazy. Dubai is comprised of a great many economic and cultural vagabonds. It doesn't need a standing army because the US protects it. Want to see corruption and abuse by the state? Get a perpetual standing army. Dubai is an historical oddball. Not representative at all.

Democracy? Do you think we actually have a democracy? I don't advocate a direct democracy, not only because its impractical, but most people don't want to be bothered by voting on government business every day. It doesn't exist. But you don't have to be in a democracy to have public representation. Public representation is not a the problem. The fight of the government against public representation is, and the centralizing function of the government is too, because it dilutes and marginalizes much of the public for the benefit of itself and other insiders. Break the tyrant into pieces.

Property rights have to be secured by violence or the threat of violence, because if not, they can be taken away by someone willing to use violence. If you throw away violence as a means of quelling thieves or sadists, it means that violence will be rewarded. People must fear wrongdoing and stealing. Thus, the threat and use of violence.

Engineering is most definitely about solving understandable problems. If you don't understand what the problem is, how can you solve it? One of the fist things you did was define the greatest problem as violence, and built a philosophy around getting rid of it.

Posted by: BIOH on April 23, 2007 8:51 PM


My impression is that Dubai is pretty profitable on its own - I didn't know it was subsidized by the UAE at large. Do you have a reference for this?

I think you're confusing two different kinds of "exit" - shareholders selling and customers leaving. Both are applicable to both states and commercial businesses.

It really should not be that hard to explain how a state is like a business. The state owns a lot of land and collects fees from the people who use it. The word "landlord" expresses this historical continuity well. If prostitution is the oldest profession, surely renting out land is the oldest business.

There is a qualitative difference between Disneyland and Dubai, which is that Dubai is at least nominally sovereign. That is, Disneyland is "secondary" property - Disney's title to it is secured by the US, California, etc. Dubai is "primary" property - the al-Maktoums' ownership is secured by their power to hold it.

What this does mean is that the problem the al-Maktoums face in retaining control over Dubai, or the problem that its public shareholders would face if Dubai was listed on, say, the Nasdaq, is precisely analogous to constitutional government in the US. There is no external force that enforces the Constitution.

A constitution for a publicly traded sovereign state would just set out the procedures by which shareholders select managers. Managers, or other employees, who chose not to respect this law, would find themselves greatly outnumbered by employees who did. This is the same security mechanism which keeps the US Army from seizing power. It is not infallible, but it has worked pretty well for almost 150 years.

I have not read Hirschman, but I am pretty sure I know what I think of it, because I don't regard either "Voice" or "Loyalty" as particularly effective engineering principles even in nonsovereign corporations. Building a sovereign state on them is like building a suspension bridge out of saltwater taffy. My impression is that Hirschman has a case of the democracy bug.

Tiebout I had not heard of. As an Austrian I am not a big fan of subfields in economics. His point appears to be that communities are like businesses, which I obviously agree with.

Posted by: Mencius on April 23, 2007 9:04 PM

I truly just don't understand what you are getting at. If you want to change the name of voters to "shareholders" and politicians to "managers", that's fine, but you haven't explained a thing by doing so. You've just switched some words around. If you want to say the U.S. really is just like the Disney corporation, then you are just wrong, because Disney gains its power as a secondary grant from a state which uses force to enforce Disney's property rights, whereas the U.S. is itself a state. The difference is not minor, it is fundamental.

The question is the source of the state's power. Tradition, contract, the consent of the governed, raw violence? People have been thinking about this for thousands of years. No offense, but unless you make clear what actual new thing you are saying by analogizing the state to a corporation, I don't see how you are making much headway on it.

The point on exit is that if one can genuinely exit a state freely and easily and choose to live in another state, then the power of the state to compel obedience within its borders becomes comparatively unimportant, because people will just leave. But since those conditions rarely if ever obtain, a state's power to compel remains a significant difference from corporations. Therefore you are stuck with "voice" or "loyalty" in a state context, whether Mencius likes it or not. Facts remain whether or not we denounce them.

It also sounds at times like you are struggling to reinvent social contract theory, the 17th-18th century theory which had a huge influence on Anglo-American corporate and constitutional law (those common intellectual roots are perhaps one source of the similarity you see between states and corporations). If so, that's great, but not too original.

Posted by: MQ on April 23, 2007 11:13 PM


These are excellent questions.

The difference between shareholders and voters is considerable, as is the difference between politicians and managers.

A voter's right to vote is inalienable. It is a moral right rather than a piece of property. To speak of buying or selling it is sacrilege. To speak of foreigners voting - unspeakable.

A share is negotiable. Whoever owns it can vote it, or sell it. Anyone, anyone on the planet, can hold any block of shares.

But the biggest difference is the fundamental principle of corporate governance - all shareholders must benefit equally, of course per share, from the actions of the corporation. Benefits are paid as cash dividends, or (all too common in this dark age of lousy corporate governance) retained as "earnings."

Voters, on the other hand, are constantly squabbling to maximize their benefit from the enormous revenue the government generates. And they are also squabbling to give themselves special breaks as its customers.

These are conflicts with uncertain outcomes. They are always sources of symbolic violence (politics), and all too frequently the cause of physical violence. In fact, as oil-producing countries (such as Iraq) have seen, the more profitable the state is, the more violence it produces.

Under a formalist government, these uncertainties don't exist. The rule is simple and precise: shareholders receive no benefit as customers. Zero, zilch, squat. If I go to Starbucks and tell them I hold Starbucks shares (which I don't), even if I owned 5% of the company, I would get 0% off on my latte.

Because of this absence of violence, corporate "democracy" can be absolute. While the US's present proxy voting system leaves a heck of a lot to be desired, in theory, anything that 50.1% of the shareholders approve of, at any time, can and will happen. There is no need for any small-r republican checks-and-balances.

Therefore, unless the corporate governance system is badly designed (as our 1930s-era system is), managers are just tools. They have no power. If they act up or underperform, they are out, lickety-split.

So my point is that, whatever the source of security, efficient management practices which eliminate uncertainties and control conflicts of interest are what they are, whether the corporation is sovereign or dependent. An employee who tries to capture a sovereign corporation is underperforming by definition, and it shouldn't be hard to fire him before he does any real damage, just as it isn't hard for the US to keep its military forces from even thinking about violating the Constitution.

Now you raise another interesting and excellent point, which is: what if there is no actual competition between states? Clearly, the ideal is a planet of ten or twenty thousand competing city-states, in which "exit" is always just a matter of calling U-Haul.

But it's worthwhile examining a worst-case scenario as well, which is the case in which the entire planet is controlled by a single nightmarish global corporate conglomerate. This is Leviathan for real. (I'm surprised that no one so far has accused me of being a "neo-Hobbesian.")

Economically this is very different from the competing case, because the uni-mega-state gets to charge "monopoly rents." In other words, the price this state is able to charge is determined solely by its desire to maximize revenue, rather than (as in the competing case) by the cost, including capital costs, of providing the service.

But not to despair. We actually live in this worst-case world now, in a sense, and it's not all that bad. All major Western governments design their tax policy in order to maximize revenue. Even the Republican supply-siders have their "Laffer curve," which makes exactly that point.

Furthermore, a monopoly state will still have many of the advantages of formalist government. It will have no incentive to waste money, to pointlessly torment its citizens, to pump their brains full of official lies, etc, etc. It will still try to pursue policies that maximize freedom and prosperity, because this will maximize its revenue. Customers will pay more in taxes, shareholders will receive more in benefits.

Posted by: Mencius on April 24, 2007 12:43 AM

If you're going to talk about states as organizations with limited monopolies of force and as aggregations of contracts, you should spend a little time with the economists and econ historians who've been working on these ideas for decades.

I recommend:

Power and Prosperity by Mancur Olson
Structure and Change in Economic History by Douglass North
A Theory of the State by Yoram Barzel
Of Rule and Revenue by Margaret Levi
Organization Theory by Oliver Williamson
as well as the most recent work -- not yet in book form -- by North, Wallis and Weingast

Posted by: poul on April 24, 2007 10:30 AM

"By Social Security "debt" I meant not the debt that the US owes itself (the "trust fund", a rather Enronlike concept), but the payments that many people expect to receive from the US when they retire. As the Supreme Court ruled in Flemming v. Nestor, these payments are entirely discretionary, ie, informal."

But in that sense, of course, the entire Federal government is "discretionary, ie, informal" -- that is, we're not legally guaranteed adequate future funding for national defense or anything else. To apply this concept *only* to Social Security is simply dishonest.

And there is of course a reason that the Social Security Trust Fund puts its money into T-bills, backed by the "full faith and credit" of the US government. It makes it very difficult to default on that obligation without creating a monetary crisis.

Funny how people who don't like Social Security continually try to bamboozle people as to the exact nature of the program in order to make it sound more unstable than it really is.

Posted by: Steve on April 24, 2007 11:07 AM


Thanks for the links.

I am not a big fan of 20th-century political "science." The principal consequence of this strange scientism, which future generations will surely regard with amusement, is bad writing. And its Weberian emphasis on descriptive rather than normative analysis, while sensible in principle and of course well-intentioned, is often in practice indistinguishable from normative bias in favor of the status quo.

And as for economics, don't even start me. The Western university system in the 20th century is fatally compromised by its involvement with power. It makes no more sense to extend implicit trust to state-directed institutions which study economics and politics, than to ask oil companies to fund our study of climate change.

It is not that democratic agendas corrupt academia. It is that the academic agenda defines the "nonpartisan" agenda, which is the line from which democratic deviations are increasingly symbolic. Power can corrupt by repression, or by seduction. 20th-century intellectuals wring their hands endlessly at any case of the former, while they revel in the latter.

But there are little gems hidden here and there. Olson and North are justly famous. The Barzel and Levi books both look good. It's hard for me to see, though, what any of these writers is saying that wasn't in Franz Oppenheimer.

It is actually rather tragic that the view of the historical state as an essentially mercenary institution, which I believe is quite well understood in political science departments, is locked inside this hermetic container, that all of these extremely intelligent people make no effort at all to use their communications skills to help the taxpayers who fund their institutions to escape from the "political formulas" (Mosca) that hold them in thrall. That, in fact, to do anything of the sort would be a major faux pas. Surely this is a much more effective mechanism of control than simply locking these people up.

If you've been educated in the mainstream university tradition, you might find it interesting to read Mises and Rothbard, as well as the authors I've linked above. Most of their work is online. Hans-Hermann Hoppe is also good for a more up-to-date Rothbardian view. I would start with Jouvenel and Kuehnelt-Leddihn, though - in some ways even the libertarians are conventional next to these great monarchist writers.

I think it's important for every intellectual to consider the fate of the vast expanse of scholarship produced in the Marxist-Leninist system. The Eastern bloc cultivated its scholars just as assiduously as the West, and certainly in quantitative terms they were remarkably productive. The result molders in basements to this day. No doubt there are some gems there, too, but I envy no one the task of finding them.

Posted by: Mencius on April 24, 2007 11:38 AM


Payments on T-bills, as you've mentioned, are legal obligations. They are not informal in any way, shape or form. Of course the US can still default on them, but there is still some rule of law in this country, however sadly degraded.

The US has a legal obligation to someone who holds a T-bill. It has no legal obligation to someone who has paid Social Security tax.

In the form of the "Trust Fund" it has a legal obligation to itself. Under most accounting principles a debt to oneself is considered meaningless. It simply cancels out on the balance sheet.

Posted by: Mencius on April 24, 2007 11:45 AM

On the Social Security topic, and why not, this thread is pretty far-reaching, here's an interesting bit about a recent Wall Street Journal piece that stated SS tax would need to be raised 16% to keep it solvent, when in fact, the tax is currently at 12.5%, to which we citizens contribute half and the gov't the rest, and so to raise the mark to 16%, our share would only increase 1.95%.

Now, I know little to nothing about how SS works, so I can't vouch for those numbers. Perhaps someone with a little (read: a lot) more expertise than I can look it over.

Posted by: the patriarch on April 24, 2007 11:48 AM

We citizens contribute all of Social Security, of course.

(The idea that half of the tax is paid by "you" and half by "your employer" is a typically nonsensical bit of Depression-era economic astrology. If it was all paid by you or all by your employer, the supply-and-demand relationship that sets your salary would not change.)

The main problem with both the WSJ and Baker's coverage is this "75-year planning period," which is of course completely arbitrary. The US got where it is today by pushing problems into the distant and unimaginable future.

Annenberg's FactCheck is very fond of the 75-year idea, but their actual facts are right. Note also that at current growth rates Medicare and Medicaid are the real problem. For the real bad news, see here.

In general, Social Security is a good case study in what happens when you decide to worship a corporation. It makes a great deal of sense if you attribute divine powers to the United States, and not much otherwise.

Posted by: Mencius on April 24, 2007 12:47 PM

Menicus, my point is that Social Security is no different in any of the respects you mention than any other government program--i.e., there's no *legal* obligation for the US to fund the Defense Department, the EPA, HUD, NASA, or anything else. Social Security is no more secure or insecure in this regard than the entire Federal government.

Yet you and others seem to want to imply that somehow it *is* more insecure, that somehow it can't "pay for itself" or as some kind of unique government entity it is going to run out of money because its funding is somehow more "discretionary and informal" than the rest of the Federal Government. It isn't.

And yet, as political matter, in a certain key respect Social Security *is* different than the rest of the Federal Government in that it has a dedicated tax designed to fund only it. This was designed as way of assuring people that, whatever else your tax money may be going toward, this portion of it will be guaranteed as a social safety net, providing you a minimum cushion in your retirement years that, as a U.S. citizen, you can't fall below. No, it's not a legal obligation, but it's a political and social contract nonetheless. And as we've seen, attempts by (mostly Republican) politicians to tamper with or hint at reneging on that social contract do so at their peril.

The other point is that Patriarch is right -- in fact, the dedicated Social Security tax and the Trust Fund it pays into currently comfortably fund Social Security as it now stands into the foreseeable future (and by foreseeable I mean the next 15-25 years; claiming to see beyond that is sheer folly). Personally, I feel that the SS tax as it now stands is far too regressive (the current formula was after all engineered by Alan Greenspan during the Reagan Administration), but in terms of the dedicated funding arrangement it set up it has worked out extremely well.

Posted by: Steve on April 24, 2007 1:48 PM

Hi Mencius,

Thanks for your gracious responses.

Enron seems to me to be a fairly good example of a large corporate enterprise that self-destructed in spectacular fashion. History has plenty of examples of regions and cities being handed over to incompetent royalty.

People patronize non-government services because they know that the owner has to make a profit to stay in business, and reporting on bad service to potential customers is a very powerful method of accountability that each of them wields.

I don't feel it is wise to conflate Iraq with any type of democracy. From what I recall, the voters did not even know the names of the people they voted for, much less their policy positions. It requires some degree of being an open society for democratic accountability to have any chance of working.

If the Democrats or Republicans ever openly aligned themselves with an armed outlaw group, it would be the end of them as a political force for generations. The reason nonviolent protests have worked so well for the progressive movement was because the other side went so far over the line in violent suppression. This was the actual legal authorities being brutal, if gangs or militia members did this as part of an organized political campaign the public outcry would be overwhelming.

Posted by: Step2 on April 24, 2007 3:13 PM


Again, I am talking about the obligations of the Federal government to holders of its notes. Federal bond payments have a contractual status that none of the programs you mention have.

Similarly, the SS tax has no legal connection to Social Security payments.

Now, of course, politically, these programs are very well-protected, as is the Defense Department, NASA, etc. But this is my entire point: informal is different from formal.

Posted by: Mencius on April 24, 2007 7:02 PM


One of the wonderful things about corporations is that when they're mismanaged, they fail. This does not destroy their assets. Enron's power plants survived intact. Its CEO did not.

Iraq used proportional representation - voters were voting for parties, not individuals. This is the normal European system. By all accounts the result represents the voters' preferences quite accurately.

Democracy can never lose. This is simply achieved by defining "democracy" as "democracy that works."
So when it doesn't work, it isn't democracy.

Democracy that does work always seems to have quite a large element of the rule of law, aka formalism. Perhaps this is the active ingredient.

"Openly" is the key. I'm not sure you're aware how close the historical connections between the black gangs and the Democrats are. Read Wolfe's _Radical Chic_. This connection was rapidly disowned, but its effects are still being felt.

By "public outcry" I assume you mean "stories in the press." But the press covers what it wants to cover, in the way that it wants to cover it. See Michael's latest post!

Posted by: Mencius on April 24, 2007 7:08 PM

Menicus, of course you're right that the SS tax has no legal connection to Social Security payments. But my point is that the concept of "Social Security debt" that you floated earlier is as nonsensical as "Defense Department debt" or "NASA debt" would be. In fact, calling it Defense Department debt makes a lot *more* sense because there's no defense tax or Trust Fund.

Posted by: Steve on April 25, 2007 12:31 AM

Hi Mencius,

One of the unfortunate things about countries is that when they are badly mismanaged, they fail. This results in civil war, forced migrations, and other campaigns of violence. So unless you can insure competent management from the formalist system, you are not stopping violence.

The European system does allow voters to do research on who would become their representative if the party is elected, right? There is not a total vacuum of information. It would be like saying that I am voting for the Cinnamon party, even though I don't have any idea who they are.

Democracy is not perfect, and it can lose. As someone born and raised in democracy, I would think that prospect should motivate people to try to make it work better, not to replace it.

Are you suggesting that informal arrangements, even dangerous ones, are impossible under this new system? Because that would be a difficult task.

Corruption of the press is a significant detriment to any open society. Our press corps has a very strange perspective. It covers most social issues with a liberal bent, but in the case of Iraq it was unanimous in supporting an invasion. Glenn Greenwald is now doing what Rush Limbaugh always does, which is discrediting the mainstream press on issues that liberals care about.

Posted by: Step2 on April 25, 2007 10:43 AM

If Mencius ever gets tired of feeding ravens, he could move on to teaching them to fly underwater.

Posted by: Brian on April 25, 2007 12:20 PM

Interesting, and how wonderful of you to search out a commenter like this, and for the commenter to respond.

I'm afraid I stopped at the paragraph saying that *both* Bush and Osama have being "ideological nutcases..." in common.

I live in the mother of all college towns. I get quite enough of this from the undergraduates.

Posted by: MD on April 25, 2007 4:17 PM

Oh dear. That last comment came out unintentionally harshly, which I really did not mean it to. Basically, I'm too stupid to follow all of it.

Really. You guys need emoticons. I can't put a smiley on everything, can I?

Posted by: MD on April 25, 2007 4:23 PM


If NASA or DoD receives some service from some vendor, they have to pay the vendor, and they owe a debt just as a private company would. Social Security owes its contributors in the same way and for the same reason - it has taken their money.

Brian, actually, I've long since moved on from the underwater thing. I am now trying to persuade the little buggers to fly underground. And hard work it is too! Also, I am no longer eighty-three, but a hundred and seventeen. But otherwise the tape is quite accurate.

Step2, perfection is impossible - if the whole world is infected by the "28 Days Later" virus and decides to go berserk, no political system can stop them.

The idea with formalism is that it tries to give everyone an incentive to be sane and nonviolent, as much if not more so than they have today. If Wal-Mart was sovereign, its greeters could randomly Mace the customers, hit them over the head and take their purses. But my guess is that Wal-Mart would be much like it is now, because its goal would still be to make money for its shareholders, and abusing your customers doesn't do that.

Granted, I don't shop at Wal-Mart (I prefer Target), and I find it very easy to imagine various kinds of formalist regimes that make a lot of money but that I wouldn't want to live under. Give me Michael's vision any day. This is why diversity matters.

I find Glenn Greenwald's ideological peregrinations very interesting. I wonder where he'll be in five or ten years. I disagree with a lot of his thinking, but you can't say he doesn't think for himself.

Posted by: Mencius on April 25, 2007 11:17 PM

I don't really understand how "Mencius" could have read and digested so much, and still make outrageously nonsensical statements about history.

In Vienna in 1907:

Parliamentary democracy (or president/congress republic) was the default system of government for just about every political flavor.

Most everybody who bothered to think about it (colonialism was not a hot issue in Austria) would agree that non-whites were entitled to self-rule. Not right then, or course, but eventually.

Asians and Africans "colonizing" Europe? Not square centimeter of Europe is ruled by an outside country. Immigration is not colonization.

"Roosevelt dictatorship"? We are serfs because we pay taxes? (enacted by representatives chosen by us). This isn't sensible; this is libertarian crankery.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on April 26, 2007 3:03 AM

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