Monday, March 27, 2017

The Problem Of Irrelevant Perspectives

     Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely – John Edward Emmerich Dalberg, a.k.a. Lord Acton

     The central problem of all political systems is the perverse distribution of decision-making authority. No matter what scheme is attempted – direct-democratic, federal, parliamentary, oligarchic, autocratic – authority will always come to rest with persons who, for whatever reason, won’t have to bear the consequences of their decisions.

     The great Robert Townsend, author of Further Up the Organization, was adamant that decision-making authority belongs with those to whom it will mean the most: i.e., those who would bear the consequences of the decision. A worker needs tools? Very well: give him a budget and let him select them. A supervisor needs another subordinate? Very well: Let him do the interviewing and hiring, and since his other subordinates will have to work with the new hire, encourage him to seek their input. It’s an entirely reasonable approach, and yet virtually no company actually uses it. Concerning political systems, the thing is quite literally impossible.

     In a quasi-parliamentary system such as ours, legislative authority rests with legislators (surprise, surprise) most of whom can exempt themselves from the consequences of their enactments. Their principal considerations are electoral: How would this affect my prospects in the upcoming election? Among those, the most prominent ones are the special interests who purport to command substantial funds and blocs of votes. Those who captain the special interests are often wealthy enough, influential enough, or both to avert the consequences of the legislation they lobby for. Then there’s the rest of us, who have virtually no recourse when our tax rates rise, our medical insurance is perverted, or our neighborhoods are flooded with Third Worlders who have no interest in assimilating to American norms and standards of conduct.

     To the legislator, our perspectives on such things are nearly irrelevant. If asked, we would express the same view of his perspective...but we have little capability for changing the distribution of decision making power.

     So it is, and so it will always be.

     It is said the ancient Greeks used a simple method to stop the multiplication of "laws." Perhaps we should try it on our Congress. Anyone wishing to propose a new law had to do so while standing on a platform with a rope around his neck. If the law was passed, the rope was removed. If the law was voted down, the platform was removed. – “John Galt,” Dreams Come Due: Government and Economics As If Freedom Mattered, First Edition.

     The problem is insoluble. Even the mechanism suggested in the semi-facetious quote above would fail. Only in the complete absence of government is it completely absent...but as I’ve written before, anarchy is as unstable as government. Every anarchy eventually births a State, through the same process that gives rise to the problem of irrelevant perspectives: delegation.

     Let there be an anarchic society that enacts a law in some fashion. Let it be one upon which every decent person would agree: perhaps a law against murder. Very well: we outlaw murder, fix a punishment for it, and deem ourselves done and well done. The problem is that we aren’t:

  • Who is to decide when a murder might have been committed?
  • Who is to pursue the alleged murderer?
  • Who is to determine whether he will be punished?
  • Who is to arrange for and carry out the punishment?

     The impulse to delegate each of those functions is irresistible. Though we might insist that the authority actually inheres in the law itself – the de jure authority certainly does – we have granted the de facto authority to particular persons. Those persons have acquired, willy-nilly on our part, an automatic and irremediable discretion over their realms of authority.

     Perhaps our delegates will exercise their authority responsibly for a time. But all men are mortal, all men grow weary, and so in the fullness of time they will be replaced. By whom? Who is likely to want those authorities? Among them, who is most likely to succeed in acquiring them?

     I’ve written about this before. So has Friedrich Hayek, most particularly in the chapter “Why The Worst Get On Top.”

     Strain as we might, over six millennia of recorded history we’ve found no escape route. The impulse to delegate the arduous and unpleasant tasks attached to any law whatsoever has never been successfully resisted. The dynamic that takes over at that point is inexorable. It’s why I maintain that just as every government eventually decays to an unsustainable absolutism and collapses, every anarchism eventually gives birth to a government.

     God grant that I’m wrong...but I don’t think I am.

     In the Foreword to Freedom’s Fury, I wrote:

     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.

     I haven’t ceased to look. Nor will I say a priori that one cannot be found. But the central problem is the process of delegation, which embeds the automatic production of perverse incentives via the creation of irrelevant perspectives. Averting the delegation of authority and responsibility is the key...but who has proposed a way to do that?

     I yield the floor to my Gentle Readers.


xmaddad1 said...

Fran, perhaps if we could get the 17th Amendment repealed and ensure that all elected .gov positions were term limited that would be the end of the 'influence pedaling' as that would end the re-election chase.

Another thought would be to ensure all legislation also had a 'term limit' equal to the term of the person who sponsors the bill and each would have to quote the passage of the constitution that authorized the new law.

Anonymous said...

Sadly our Constitution needs to be amended to stipulate that all three branches of .gov are subject to any law passed the same as individual private citizens are. I suspect the Founders never thought of this because being generally moral/ethical men who just fought a revolution to stop this sort of thing did not think such a clause necessary. They probably all roll in their graves each time a 'law for them but not us' is passed. Just one more 'unintended consequence' of removing religion from the public sphere.

The Hammertoss said...

I'm pretty sure you are correct, there is no path to be had, in this existence. Perhaps we just have to accept and embrace the cycle, try as best we can to minimize the excesses, and work through our lot, wherever in the cycle our civilization is right now.

Though I struggle with my own religious impulses, I strive to follow Stonewall Jackson's advice to "feel as safe in battle as in bed".

Dystopic said...

Heinlein's method has some merit here. Go forth and serve, or you get no power to select the agents/delegates. That is a form of forcing some kind of investment, some skin in the game, on the part of the voter himself.

It's not infallible though (no agency of mortal man will ever be), it just may be somewhat preferable to the current mess.

Anonymous said...

Averting the delegation of authority and responsibility is the key...but who has proposed a way to do that? John Philpot Curran's statement, "The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.

Every week you have to banish or hang the nuts who are planning organized crime. Often these nuts are prominent in the community, that's why they are getting traction with their lies.