Try understanding the government we’ve got

While I was gone, Devin, Aretae and AMcGuinn had some interesting formalist/libertarian exchanges (see here, here, here, here, here and hereAlrenous also had some thoughts related to one of Devin’s posts).

This is all interesting stuff, but I’ve become much less interested in describing the ideal system of government lately. I find it more interesting to try to figure out what sort of government system we currently have.

Let’s be honest. If the rest of this post included a detailed blueprint of the best form of government the world has ever seen, only about 1,000 people would read it and, the next time you wen to the airport, you’d still have to drive through virtually lawless areas of your city to have your balls fondled by TSA. Also, it’s a purely speculative exercise. History is our only guide and there just aren’t that many people that know enough about various historical periods to make the discussion interesting. I’ve read enough old books to know that: 1) people who used to write books were really smart and 2) it’s almost impossible for me to learn to think like someone who lived 500 years ago.

Let’s be honest about our own government as well. We have a pretty poor understanding of how it actually works. For example, most people would tell you that the US is a democracy. However, prior to 50 years ago, basically no one who thought about politics believed that democracy was a stable form of government. So, you’re left with two propositions 1) everyone who thought seriously about politics from Plato to 1960 was wrong about democracy or 2) the US is currently not really a democracy. My money is on door 2).

Who predicted that under our new President, the USG would make the TSA touch your balls, start a war in a Muslim country and treat big banks exactly the same way they were treated under the old President? Not very many people, yet very few people have changed their ideas about how USG works. We have basically no understanding of how the USG post New Deal actually functions. Given this state of affairs, talking about modern politics is impossible. You simply cannot have a reasonable discussion about Rome post-Caesar if you try to analyze it as a Republic, but that’s basically what we’re doing with the current USG.

How many people have an understandable, non-crazy working theory of the current USG that can occasionally predict its actions?

Not many.


18 Responses to Try understanding the government we’ve got

  1. aretae says:

    And this is your comparative advantage. More of this from you rocks.

  2. aretae says:

    I’ve been moving to argue that BBdM implies that the US is not a democracy for some time now….I’m glad to see we agree.

  3. Nadporučík Lukáš says:

    The best introduction to the comparative science of government as it really is (rather than the air castles of dreamers) comes from Samuel Finer, in his “History of Government from Earliest Times.” It is a magnificent book; at 1,700 pages, tackling it is a project. I’ve read it once and I’m eyeing it cautiously again, preparing for a rematch.

    After reading him the first time, I realized that the common classification of government (based mainly on how the man on top is selected) doesn’t mean much. The character of the bureaucracy matters a lot more. Why did Tokugawa Japan, with bureaucrats representing 5-10% of the population (huge number by pre-modern standards), avoid the plague of widespread corruption that was common to all Chinese regimes regardless of dynasty? How did the totalitarianism of Sumerian priest-states get reinvented under Communist regimes? Why do certain features of government recur over and over under all kinds of regimes, while others are one-offs?

    I cannot recommend the book enough. It doesn’t contain answers – it raises a lot of questions. But it makes today’s mainstream political discussion sound like babbling of 3 year olds.

  4. Stephen says:

    Americans should keep learning the standard Constitutional law in their civics courses, in order to find out what America used to be like. But, they should learn administrative law, in order to find out what America is like now.

  5. Handle says:

    There a whole field of “public choice” study that attempts to describe some of this, but the only people I’ve met who even come close to understanding the nature of the government we have now are not academics but are folks who are in the government, and have been for a while.

    The problem is that 95-99% of government employees don’t have both the opposing counsel-like antagonistic inquisitiveness and adversarial perspective and inclination needed to fully get a grasp on how deeply perverse the whole byzantine system is.

    This is why pundits on both the left and right are often so worthless when it comes to talking about anything involving the bureaucracy – and why even bureaucrats aren’t necessarily reliable. You basically need an enemy mole in the belly of the beast to tell you how it all fails to correspond to the mythological narrative.

  6. CTD says:

    I think we can at least identify the main forces consistently at play in the various departments:
    1) Self-justification
    2) Competition against other dept’s for more money and turf
    3) Ass-covering
    4) Kickbacks

    Against these, but occasionally for these, is only Popular Whim.

  7. asdf says:

    One of the most important things will be visual depictions of the failure modes of a bureaucracy.

    We all know how a corporation can go bad. We know this because we see evil greedy businessmen all the time in movies.

    We don’t know how a bureaucracy can go bad, not in the same way, because we don’t see evil power-mad bureaucracies in movies.

    Imagine an alternate reality in which the nefarious arch-villain pulling the strings was a power-hungry bureaucrat. You don’t need to look too far. Look at Robert Moses or David Kessler or the guys who run Section 8.

    Foseti: scripting such a movie (or set of movies) would be an invaluable public service. Show us how absolute power corrupts absolutely, with storylines ripped from the headlines.

    • sconzey says:

      I like this. Allegedly my fiction isn’t half bad, so I’ll stew on this and see what I can come up with.

      Might need Foseti to outline me a plot though 😛 — I know nothing about bureaucracy aside from the very narrow wedge I glimpse in my day-job (which, because of the sector, involves a lot of government contracts).

      • Foseti says:

        I’d love to write something like this. Actually, I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I’ll start something if I can come up with a good idea. The problem is that bureaucratic work is – by nature – pretty boring. I can’t figure out a way to make it sound interesting enough for a book.

      • sconzey says:

        I’m not so sure. Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister were both incredibly popular shows which were — essentially — about the conflict between bureaucracy and democracy. They were also — according to Maggie Thatcher at least — pretty accurate.

        I can see the pitch now: “Yes Minister meets the Bourne Identity”

        On the theme of TV shows/movies, you could do something like Office Space or The Green Wing — a darkish comedy about the different characters you get in a bureaucracy.

      • Foseti says:

        I agree. I’ve also come to the conclusion that comedy is the only appropriate vehicle. Unfortunately, I’m not very funny.

      • Handle says:

        This is kinda-sorta what David Foster Wallace was working on with The Pale King which he failed to complete before he committed suicide.

        But his take-on bureaucracy is its grinding boredom and so he chooses the IRS and somehow I think he depressed himself to death with his own literary skills.

        One wonders how few good books are completed about bureaucratic life because the authors can’t bear to finish them. That’s why they always end up dystopian (1984, Brazil) or simply zany comic (The Office), but to my knowledge, the Great American Bureaucracy Novel has yet to be written.

  8. sconzey says:

    If the rest of this post included a detailed blueprint of the best form of government the world has ever seen, only about 1,000 people would read it and, the next time you wen to the airport, you’d still have to drive through virtually lawless areas of your city to have your balls fondled by TSA.


    The problem I always had when I was an ancap is that people would ask me “so how would your political system ensure X, Y and Z;” and I’d have to say “well, if enough people want X, Y and Z then someone could make a lot of money starting a business to provide them.” What Moldbug’s Fnargl gedankenexperiment taught me is that the same is true of governments. If you hand the Rod of Fnargl to someone rational and self-interested then good government is inevitable.

    What is important, as you say, is the theory of government; both the praxeological description of rational human behaviour in various roles in various governments, but also a kind of biological study of extant governments. The UK and the US make good test subjects because FoI permits vivisection.

  9. Obviously, the people in government who cannot lose their jobs, have more power than the people in government who can lose their jobs. Therefore, Bush/Obama and the rest are PR guys for the permanent government.

    But how then does the permanent government hold cohesion, how does it act as one? Is there a secret president, appointed by the elders of zion perhaps? No there is not. And the permanent government lacks cohesion, which is part of the reason that it leaks money like a sieve.

  10. retiredguy says:

    We roll along searching for the lowest common demoninator which is a threshold set by people who are not real bright and who have personel goals not public goals.

  11. Alrenous says:

    That the government would clamp down on transport at some point was, probably, predictable. That it would do so through sexual harassment probably isn’t. Well, maybe with reference to progressive psychology, you could do it.

    The thing is that what most benefits the real people in power is very obtuse – more so because who those people are is obtuse, often even to themselves. Sometimes there’s thing that would benefit all possible power-holders, and these things are predictable. However…

    In this case, along with progressive psychology, it was probably someone with friends in Homeland Security who wanted their own jurisdiction to play around in – very like a teenager getting their own apartment. To predict this, however, you have to know who actually had that power and that they had friends in DHS, and that those friends were feeling teenage-like rebellion against DHS.

    I thought it was obvious we don’t live in a democracy. At first it was just because it was easy for me to come up with things I want that will never occur – regardless of how I vote. Apparently, I either not part of ‘the people’ or else this isn’t a democracy.

    It became more obvious when the government was able to continue doing things that more than 50% of the people opposed, instead of just me. (More generally you could divide the number of things that get done that the people want by the number of things that get done, and get a decent democracy metric. I’m betting on above zero but below 10%.)

    Put together, modern ‘democracies’ are extremely sophisticated power-obfuscating structures. For example, there’s incredibly advanced methods of pretending that heresy and lese majeste don’t exist anymore, pretending not to have a one-party state, pretending to follow the constitution, pretending to be a democracy at all, etc…

    Working out who had real jurisdiction over what in a Monarchy isn’t straightforward because various power-holders are deluded about what power they hold, and it isn’t what they formally hold. Similarly, they may have some residual formal power that depends on the illusion they do actually hold it, and will tell every lie to retain that residual.

    Working out who has real jurisdiction in our system is at least two orders of magnitude more difficult.

    Though it can be fairly easy to work out who doesn’t have power. To first order approximation, the president has no power. To second order, the senate has no power.* Does the house? I’ve never heard of any actual result coming from the house, but that just means I’ve never tried to evaluate if it actually came from the house.

    *(I understand committees have some, but it seems DC fashion determines committee outcome rather than member politics – so who are the fashion leaders?)

    Similarly, front-line bureaucrats have very little power. As you’ve shown, top-level bureaucrats have no power. So it must be someone in the middle. But who? Over what?

    Beyond approximation, what changes can the president actually effect? If the president and the senate fought over something, who would win?

    Must journalists toe an unofficial official line to keep their jobs, or are their delusions of ‘making a difference’ actually partially grounded in fact?

    If the universities opposed the papers, who would win? Is this arrangement even possible, or are papers entirely subordinate?

    Does public choice dictate university positions, or do professors dictate public choices?

    The whole system is intentionally designed – or at least selected – to misdirect and obscure where the buck stops. It’s not at all surprising that ignorance is rampant and nobody can predict what will happen next.

  12. […] the comments, Alrenous has some thoughts on government: Put together, modern ‘democracies’ are extremely sophisticated power-obfuscating […]

  13. […] – “Try Understanding the Government We’ve Got“, “Basic Finance for People Not Worried About the […]

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