Friday, October 25, 2019

Political Optima And The Possibility Of Stable Political Systems, Part 1

     Quite a title, eh? It probably says something about my habit of rising at 4:00 AM despite any objective need to do so. All the same, that’s what’s on my mind this morning. The seed was planted many years ago, when I first took an interest in political organizations and orientations. It germinated somewhat later, after I’d disassociated myself from the Libertarian Party. It was watered this morning by this article about a rising trend toward separatism in the western Canadian provinces. And when I reflected on the many connections between such trends and the sociodynamics I wrote about in these books, it flowered into something for which I could think of no more appropriate introduction.


     Have a snippet from the Foreword to Freedom’s Fury:

     I shan’t attempt to deceive or misdirect you: I’m horrified by politics and all its fruits. I consider the use of coercive force against innocent men the greatest of all the evils we know. But I try, most sincerely, to be realistic about the world around us. In that world, peopled by men such as ourselves, anarchism—the complete abjuration and avoidance of the State—is unstable. In time, it will always give way to politics. Hammer it to the earth as many times as you may, you will never succeed in killing it permanently. The State will rise again.
     However, as we’ve learned to our sorrow these past few centuries, the State is unstable, too. It always deteriorates and falls, though not always swiftly. What follows it varies from place to place and era to era.
     As one who passionately loves freedom, I’ve striven to understand the processes involved, and to unearth a path to a stable free society. I’ve failed to find one.

     Any number of intelligent analysts and commentators would demur at the above. Political stability is possible, they would say. Moreover, a stable polity would indeed be based on freedom. Some would point to Robert Nozick’s “night-watchman state.” Other would prefer Vernor Vinge’s techno-anarchism, or the semi-pastoral anarchism of the Spoonerites of Hope. And of course we have Robert A. Heinlein’s world state in which only military veterans can vote or hold office. Tom Kratman, who likes that vision, calls it “timocratic minarchism.”

     These are all attractive ideas. But would they be stable – that is, would they endure over a long stretch of time, or would there arise dynamic processes that would compel them to change in a dramatic way?

     Over the years I’ve come, albeit reluctantly, to the conclusion that political stability is an impossible goal. We can have periods in which we’ve seemingly achieved an arrangement that’s both liberty-based and sociodynamically stable; we can’t have the condition itself. Social, economic, and political dynamics cannot be halted. Moreover, there are certain pesky laws of nature that get in the way, and there’s nothing to be done about them.

     I could be wrong. Indeed, I’d like to be. But I don’t think I am.


     First, a few thoughts about political optima. An optimum is a condition that cannot be improved upon according to stated criteria. The criteria, of course, are what really matter. A political optimum is one in which some socio-economic-political criterion, or basket thereof, have been achieved to the maximum possible extent, such that further alterations in the rules would produce a deterioration in those criteria.

     On the subject of multi-criterion optimizations, no one has ever written more insightfully than the late Herman Kahn:

     [E]ven conceptually it may be nonsense to talk of the most important objective, the most probable circumstance, or the optimum strategy, when “important,” “probable,” or “optimum” refer to a committee’s utility function or estimate. If we are working for a committee, we have to design satisfactory systems (including military systems) in the same way that legislators satisfy people as part of a political process. We have to have something in the chosen system for everyone who is “reasonable,” and even something for some of the unreasonable people too.....

     [The following table] illustrates the problem. A, B, and C are either different circumstances or objectives; systems I, II, and III are designed to grapple with A, B, and C respectively. The table gives a hypothetical scoring for how each of these systems might work in three different circumstances or objectives, with a score of 100 for “best.” While each of the three systems does admirably at the job for which it was designed, they all perform miserably at off-design points. If the problem were to choose between the given alternatives—that is, systems I, II, or III—both the analyst and the military planner would have a hopeless task, as far as analysis goes—they could act as advocates, but not as objective students of the problem.

System I System II System III System IV System V System VI
Objective A 100 50 20 90 85 75
Objective B 30 100 40 80 95 80
Objective C 10 30 100 85 75 95

     Fortunately, the situation is not so bad. It is usually possible to redesign systems I, II, and III into systems IV, V, and VI, which have appreciable off-design capabilities, without spectacular loss of performance in the highest-priority position. Because the most extreme supporters of systems IV, V, and VI will still differ among themselves as to whether A, B, or C is most important, the argument may still be bitter....However, any who are not severely partisan will not care much which system is chosen, so long as it is one of the collection of IV, V, and VI, and not one of the collection of I, II, and III....

     It is clear that we should prefer IV to I even if we do not happen to care much about B or C, because we understand that we are human and may be wrong. Even a fanatic about A will pretend to prefer IV to I because he does not want to look like a fanatic. Only a fanatic’s fanatic is not willing to yield a little on his most cherished objective or worry in order to be able to give a lot to other people’s cherished objectives or worries.

     [Emphasis added by FWP.]

     Kahn, a supergenius, was largely ignored in his day, because he wrote about an unpleasant subject. Yet he was impeccably correct – and his thinking applies much more widely than to strategic planning alone.

     There cannot be stability in a political system in which a great many people – an appreciable fraction of the population of the polity – believe themselves to have been ignored and their most important concerns dismissed. Moreover, it doesn’t matter what those concerns are. So even a freedom fanatic such as myself must acknowledge the need to accommodate those with other criteria...at least, if it seems they might be willing to riot over their marginalization. Can’t have corpses in the gutters; they make the Sunday morning walk to church unpleasant.


     Alongside this matter of differing – sometimes clashing – criteria for goodness in a political system, we must take account of the distribution of motives among men. In every place and time there have been men whose strongest desire was for power over others. It appears that, like the poor, such men will always be among us. A political system that cannot cope with the presence of power-seekers would be unstable by its very nature.

     Needless to say, those who cherish freedom will regard the power-seekers as the greatest imaginable threat. However, any political system, regardless of its fundamental principles, will possess niches from which men who want power over others can achieve it. That includes a complete anarchy such as the Spoonerites wanted to establish on Hope. For like it or not, power doesn't flow exclusively from the barrel of a gun.

     If Smith can get Jones and Davis to agree to accept his decisions as binding upon them, Smith has achieved a kind of power over them. He need not be able to enforce his decisions; he merely needs Jones's and Davis's deference, whatever their reasons may be for granting it to him. Such situations have occurred many times in nominally non-governmental contexts. They arise from differences in ability, family relations, public prestige, acknowledged expertise, financial, commercial, and technological influence, and the misty if not quite invisible hand of a network effect. Though they're not coercive power of the sort political analysts are most comfortable in discussing, they are quite real.

     What matters most to political stability in a regime founded on freedom is whether those who aspire to coercive power can achieve it by leveraging one of the other sorts. I cannot imagine a society in which such leverage does not exist at least in potential.


     Finally for today's introduction to this subject – you didn't really think I was going to exhaust a subject worthy of a few dozen doctoral dissertations in a single essay, did you? — consider the existence or non-existence of a frontier. During the frontier years of the United States, persons unhappy with conditions in the population centers of the East could liberate themselves by moving westward. Even after the West Coast began to populate and develop political structures, there remained large amounts of land to which the freedom seeker could withdraw, should he deem coping with the hazards and difficulties of life in the wild preferable to dealing with the power structures of "civilization."

     While a frontier exists and can be accessed, political systems possess an incentive to restrain their oppressions and their rapacity. In the absence of a frontier, the choice of self-liberation is unavailable; political systems compete only with one another. Notably, polities have often used one another as threats with which to mulct and subjugate their own peoples, e.g.: "If you don't give us what we need to defend you, the Soviets will get you." Moreover, even when a frontier exists, its gradual increases in population and wealth – the natural consequence of men's labors when not drained or constrained by a government – will cause the nearest polities to move toward it with intent to absorb it. So retaining an accessible frontier becomes an ever more difficult problem.


     We've reached the point at which even a dedicated Gentle Reader's eyes will have started to glaze over. Yet there is still much to discuss. I can only hope that the above has ploughed a furrow in which further thoughts about the inherent dynamics of politics in a human society might take root and flourish. In other words:

     More anon.

2 comments:

Ron Olson said...

I've always enjoyed your pieces on government. I like you have pondered the problem of stable and free systems. Recently it came to my attention a proposed system based on the principles of well defined reciprocity,property, and justice. Its proponents call it propertarianism one who is John Mark. John has several videos and blog explaining many details. He is not the founder of this budding movement. I would love to see your thoughts on this sometime if youre interested. As always thank you for what you do.

Dystopic said...

Freedom is strongest on the frontier - it's a concept I discuss frequently. Sometimes I think that humans were designed to operate this way. Oppressive regimes force out the freedom-minded folks, expanding the range of the human species.

Only now as the frontier has become largely extinct have we run into a serious species-wide problem. Now the freedom-minded have their backs to the wall and nowhere to escape the reach of the totalitarian-minded busybodies.

Perhaps this is why we've not yet encountered intelligent life out in the universe. They all self-destruct in the period between which they have conquered their home planet's frontiers, but before they are able to effectively colonize space.

Food for thought.