The Moment of Impending Crisis

For Throwback Thursday, a lightly revised dialogue from 2011.

“I’ve begun to suspect that our delusions tend strongly to return us to the same moment in time,” said the Academic.

“When would that be?” asked the Stoic.

“The moment of impending crisis,” said the Academic. “Whenever there isn’t a plausible crisis, delusion makes up the difference. This author basically gets it right, except whenever he writes ‘comfort,’ we should substitute the more accurate word ‘panic.’ And yet — a fine solid take just the same.” The Academic read:

[M]ost folks derive far too much spiritual comfort from living withing a familiar, fixed worldview that has calcified around them over time. In order to satisfy and cultivate this comfort, these people actively avoid any news, opinion, facts or studies to the contrary. Far too many people have been conditioned to derive a sick sort of pleasure from seeing themselves as wounded victims. Regardless of the root cause, this sort of sociological persecution complex all too often leads these spiritual masochists to seek out fear-peddling outlets like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck because they provide an easy channel of self-validating anxiety.

Are the New Black Panthers going to come to Podunk, USA and harass my virginal 18-year-old daughter? Of course they are.

“There’s more,” said the Academic. “People seem to think terrorism is very likely. And that it’s on the increase. But by the numbers, neither one is true. The same can be said of divorce. It’s less likely than people think, and it too is in decline. It peaked in the early 80s. Violent crime peaked in the early 90s. But the worries about increase live on, seemingly forever.”

“Perhaps it’s best to err on the side of caution,” said the Stoic. “From a public policy perspective.”

“It’s not about policy at all,” said the Capitalist. “It’s about signaling. If people don’t have the data readily at hand, they’re going to err on the side of things getting worse. That way they signal that they’re concerned, and everyone thinks them a serious person.”

“Let’s not forget ignorance,” said the Cynic. “Because most people are aware, I think, that they don’t know as much as they let on. So they play a game, and here are the payoffs to overestimating any bad thing at all: If they’re wrong, it’s good news, and if they’re right – hey, wow, they’re right!

“They sure as hell won’t say ‘I don’t know,’” said the Academic. “Even if that’s what a more honest person would do. Failing that, a good citizen is a concerned citizen.”

“If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention,” said the Cynic. “But even if you are outraged, the odds don’t look too good.”

“In any case,” said the Capitalist, “I agree that it would be mortifying to signal unconcern. People would drop dead of embarrassment if they underestimated the amount of crime.”

“Tempting though your theory is,” said the Academic, “I don’t think mere embarrassment is the source of the problem. If people really were afraid of embarrassment, they wouldn’t commit howlers like these, made by college econ students: On average, they declared that our economy is propped up by little more than welfare, price controls, and minimum wage laws. Meanwhile, many of them pegged average corporate profit margins at 60%.”

“Sixty percent!” replied the Capitalist. “That sounds like it has to be a scam.”

The Academic continued. “As Dorothy Parker once said, this isn’t just plain terrible. It’s fancy terrible. It’s terrible with raisins in it. Here’s why. First, I think we can all agree that, on the level of signaling, these students’ numbers are meant to signal concern about inequality. The rich have too much, and it comes to them too easily. The poor — who are very many in number — depend on the government, which has to help them. A lot more. Or they will die. That’s what they’re using their numbers to signal. Agreed?”

The council nodded.

“However,” said the Academic, “that’s not remotely the story these numbers tell. What they really say is that we live in a land of endless plenty — for everyone! If profit margins really were around 60%, then the owner of a cornershop could look forward to retiring as a quadrillionaire. The big mystery would not be how Bill Gates got so rich, but why he’s so damned poor. Assuming even modest reinvestment, capital gains and corporate income taxes could pay off the national debt in the second year or so. After that, we could set up a dole that would leave everyone farting through silk, even if we all worked only a few days per lifetime.

“No doubt this scenario is offered as one of panic, but if I could push a button and make it happen, I would. And then I’d retire to a chateau. Made of platinum ingots. On Alpha Centauri.”

“By contrast,” said the Capitalist, “my crowing about a 4% annual profit looks downright reasonable. So how do people get so crazy? Have they no shame at all?”

“It’s television,” said the Malthusian. “Have you ever seen the TV news? The typical TV news program has a level of subtlety and nuance that would appall in an episode of Dora the Explorer. At least Dora is somewhat perkier. If you don’t watch TV —at least once or twice a year — you can’t hope to understand why people think the way they do. Watch TV more often than that, though, and you’ll risk winding up like them.”

“Panic gets eyes on the screen,” said the Cynic. “There’s no denying it. But which came first, the desire to be panicked, or the opportunists of panic?”

“I couldn’t say,” said the Epicurean. “But it obscures some real problems. While you all mocked the econ students and dreamed of castles in space, I was just thinking — economic equality really has suffered lately, and even actual free-market economists are worried. The ‘panic’ response seems to be to tax the very wealthiest more, but that just makes the government marginally more dependent on the continued existence of a problem that I thought we wanted to solve.”

“But what is the problem?” asked the Malthusian.

“Professor Cowen has his theories,” answered the Epicurean. “They may well be right, but I don’t know. Macro was never my strong suit. To be honest, I’m not even sure I believe in it. Particularly not when other explanations abound.”

“You’re sounding panicked,” said the Capitalist.

“Perhaps I am,” said the Epicurean. “But at least it’s an interesting panic. Isn’t it?”

On Second-Rate Thinkers

You’ve probably never heard of Donato Giannotti (1492-1573). The only place I recall encountering him is in J. G. A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment, which I’m now rereading.

In Pocock’s phrase, Giannotti was “not a genius, as Machiavelli and Guicciardini both were.” And yet Pocock quotes him as follows:

You are to understand that in every republic there are many institutions (costituzioni) for which one can give no probable reason, let alone the true one. And this is to be found not only in those cities where the form of government has changed, but in those which have long been ruled and governed by the same laws. For although the usages have been kept up, their causes are none the less lost in antiquity.

Simply noticing these things, rather than regarding them as dross, is significant, particularly for the time. Again, as Pocock would have it: “There are political phenomena which usage may justify, but cannot explain.” It is a cautious approach to political theory, and I think a wise one. There are many things that we cannot explain even today. Our actions always outrun our ability to account for them.

If only this were what passed for first-rate thinking. But to be deemed first rate, it would seem that one must almost always sing the praises of unlimited state power. The success or failure of the particular projects that one champions along the way is all but immaterial: Write with unlimited confidence, worship something big and brutal, and your chances of making the canon improve dramatically.

We remember Plato’s eternal, crystalline totalitarianisms; we forget his fawning over the bloody tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse. Everyone reads The Prince in college at the latest — and yet what was there to commend about Cesare Borgia? Hegel believed he had solved the riddle of history itself, and yet what he views as history’s culmination in the real world seems to us not even like a plausible step along the way. (Which it might seem, if Hegel were correct both about the process of history in general and about his fitting of particulars to the pattern.)

Had these errors been made by thinkers who counseled modesty, I suspect they would have been fatal. Hegel’s great critic, Schopenhauer, was perhaps wise to avoid writing about politics entirely.

Libertinage and Heteroticism

I’ve gotten some interesting and important pushback on this post, on social conservatism and libertarianism. This may be the most important exchange of the lot:

I always find this a strange place to be, discursively: I start talking about free markets, and the free flow of ideas and people, and – yes – sexual freedoms too – and whenever I do this, it seems like someone always worries that I’m coming after their hatred. Gotta keep that hatred, no matter what!

Why is this the first thing people want to preserve?

A libertarian society will certainly preserve your opportunities to express hatred, to associate with other hateful people, and to proselytize for hate. You’ll still get all of that, even when libertarians (decline to) rule the world.

But opportunities to express hatred are not, for me, the reason why I value liberty. In all I’d much rather be friends. Or even just leave you alone. Or heck, I might actively dislike you, but if we can strike a deal, and if it leaves both of us better off, and if I know that our mutual dislike will be kept in check by good laws and institutions… If we can do all that, then we can do business. And business is a wonderful thing.

We would live in a horribly impoverished world if everyone had to gin up some love before they traded. As a less than fully sympathetic individual, I only live at all by the kind of sheer, blissful indifference that we find in the market. The same, though, may be said of you, even if it’s a lot less obvious: We all depend on largely anonymous trading networks for the specializations and the gains from trade that make modern abundance possible.

Keeping them possible is the first thing that I would ask about, when presented with a new way of looking at the world. Not – “How am I going to preserve my parochial hatreds?” – but rather: “How am I going to preserve the extended, largely anonymous economic order that somehow manages to feed us?”

After that, I’d ask about the way up. How are we going to build the future? How are we going to grow stronger? How are we going to become healthier, more intelligent, more cultured, more peaceful, and more robust to natural disasters? How are we going to make life better for the least well-off?

I strongly suspect that a big part of the answer in all of these is “Get better at recognizing and honoring individual liberties.” So if it seems like I don’t care sufficiently for your hatreds, well, it’s probably because I don’t. They just aren’t what motivates me.

I also strongly suspect that one of the things that has held us back throughout human history is our too-great concern for demonstrating solidarity with our in-groups. Evolutionary psychology seems to suggest that evolution prepared us for living in small hunter-gatherer bands, composed of no more than a few dozen to a few hundred people. Most of us seem to find it difficult to trust beyond that many. And yet one thing modern economics demonstrates is that comparative advantage and gains from trade are limited by the extent of the market, regardless of what our monkey minds may be telling us. Building mechanisms of trust across larger and larger expanses – this is how we get wealthy, even if at first it feels wrong.

We get wealthy in particular when we share ideas across what would otherwise be our evolutionarily natural communities. Mastering and improving upon the ideas of those who are different from us is a key to building a better culture, and this is a process best had in a relatively free society, where people come and go, and where those who try new things are not persecuted. Hybrid vigor – heteroticism – usually works in genetics, and it almost always works in matters of culture. Successful cultures borrow, adapt, and improve upon the ideas of others. Not only that, they don’t care where the ideas come from. Only that they are available, and that they work.

So keep your hatreds, if you must. But I’d rather be friends. Or just trading partners. Either will do.

Next up: Some writing about war and foreign policy, another area that divides libertarians from conservatives.

But of Course I’m a Libertine.

We’re in a libertarian moment. As a full-time libertarian, I know this because lots of nonlibertarians suddenly have all kinds of ideas about what libertarianism really means. At times they can dredge up the darnedest things, and this is a post about one of them.

In the bad old days of the Cold War, a troubled marriage was formed. A marriage between social conservatives and libertarians. Between the trads and the rads. A marriage of necessity, as the bad old days would have it.

It never was a happy marriage. But with the welfare state rampant at home and the Soviets rampant abroad, rad-trad fusionism seemed ​to make sense: Libertarians gave a moral defense of the free market, one that explained why communism was worth opposing. Social conservatives reminded Americans that not every new experiment was good, and that – just as in architecture -​ high modernism was​ lousy in government, too.

As Brian Doherty observed in his great book Radicals for Capitalism, the marriage may have begun with Ayn Rand. But it ended with an angry mob of social conservatives shouting “Kill the lazy fairies” on the floor of the 1969 Young Americans for Freedom convention (Doherty, 353).

Fairies? Welllll… perhaps. Not like I haven’t heard that one before. But lazy, good sirs? There… well, there you cut me. As the bad old days would have had it, cruelty is grounds for divorce.

Doherty writes that the 1969 YAF floor fight was for many libertarians the start of the modern, independent libertarian movement – a movement that didn’t need social conservatism anymore, if it ever did. Henceforth libertarians would have their own activism, their own institutions, and their own ideas, and they would be much the stronger for it. They would be free, in other words, to criticize social conservatives whenever the trads weren’t actually advocating liberty. ​Libertarians welcomed gay people, whom the trads disdained. Libertarians patiently endured the trads’ ridicule. ​And libertarians watched them lose, again and again and again.

​And just now​, of all times, ​come calls for a revival of rad-trad fusionism. Like here:

If small-government advocacy is to be successful, it must be combined with energetic and self-conscious efforts at cultural reform. We need young conservatives to understand that liberty is meant to enable virtue, not vice, and that virtue is essential to protecting liberty over the long term.

And here:

Behavior that was once judged harshly in explicitly moral terms (and often penalized by law) is increasingly viewed in explicitly amoral terms. Or rather, a wide range of moral judgments has been reduced to a single one: individual consent….

You like promiscuity, technologically facilitated hookups with strangers, threesomes, homoerotic experimentation, partner swapping, BDSM, and polyamory? Provided everyone involved has freely chosen to participate, have fun!

This moral libertarianism even extends to pornography — not just watching it, but “acting” in it, too.

And here, from Phyllis Schlafly, who seems not to understand what she is getting into:

The New York Times has proclaimed the “libertarian moment” has arrived, by which it seems to mean libertarian ideas about marriage and the family.

We hear people say the libertarian view is to “get the government out of marriage.” But where did that slogan come from? There is simply no basis for that notion in the works of classic libertarian writers…

[Murray] Rothbard wanted to privatize nearly everything, but he never suggested privatizing marriage.

Schlafly is all kinds of wrong here. From the radical Voltairine de Cleyre to the mainstream John Stuart Mill, classical liberals most certainly understood that marriage and the state had had a troubled… um… marriage. And Murray Rothbard was an anarchist. He wanted to privatize everything; marriage was included simply as a matter of course. (It would be news indeed to the Rothbardians to learn that their mentor had wanted to keep the state’s lights on, but only to run marriage.)

Anyway. The trads these days mostly disavow the unlibertarian methods of the older generation, though sometimes grudgingly. Yet the sentiment remains the same: If you don’t share our morality, then you’re doing freedom wrong, and bad things will happen.

That’s a startling claim, because by the lights of a 1960s traditionalist, the rads have won a total victory. Not just in our little intra-factional fight, but in the nation as a whole: We got exactly what we wanted on questions of vice, as much as anyone ever does in politics. Obscenity laws are moribund. Divorce is easily had, with or without a cause. I dare to hope that we are​ in the midst of a full-scale surrender in the War on Drugs. Sodomy is no crime, and the last person who called me a fairy to my face at a libertarian gathering… well, gosh, I don’t want to tell stories. But let’s just say it was a long time ago, and it didn’t end well for the person in question.

How’s it all working out for us? Pretty well, I’d have to say. Let’s imagine some victory conditions: How about massively falling crime rates? Check. Also falling abortion rates? Check. A whole lot less teen pregnancy? Check. Falling divorce rate? Yep, got that one too!

No traditionalist would ever have predicted the present moment. On every single one of these matters, if the numbers had gone the other way, the so-called libertines would be taking every bit of the blame. Perhaps reasonably. But over here in the real world, we have a paradox: It begins to look as if the way to get almost every item on the social conservatives’ wish list is to give us libertines what we wanted.

And that’s a big problem for social conservatives as they try to convince us to come back to them. On all of these matters, we’ve got the wind at our heels. No one, least of all us, wants to go back to a time in which the state savagely and arbitrarily repressed people whose morality was not up to snuff. If we’re being fair to them, not even most of the ​so-called ​social conservatives want that.

It may therefore be appropriate to ask what’s at stake here. ​It could be nothing, in the public policy arena. But then again, you can certainly make a young gay man’s life completely miserable even without the law on your side. And I can still think you’re a bigot and a horrible person for wanting to do so. And nearly everyone nowadays would agree with me. You can still hector porn stars if you want, I guess. Or teen moms. But this does begin to say more about you than it does about them, does it not? Is this, my friends, all that you mean by tradition?

If so, it’ll be a tough road from here on out for the traditionalists. Consider that by the rules of virtually any other age, and by those of our own country until the late 1960s at the earliest, I would pass not merely for a libertine, but for a degenerate. So would nearly everyone else: I think birth control is ​awesome. I don’t believe that sex outside of marriage is necessarily immoral. I have enjoyed pornography without feeling any guilt at all. I think some version of feminism is plainly, unarguably correct. And yes, I’m gay. I stopped keeping it a secret back when I was still a teenager. And I wouldn’t inflict that particular hell on anyone, ever. ​

On all of these points, the past would condemn me. It would probably condemn you, too, for these and for many other lifestyle crimes that I haven’t named.

In a sense, then, we are all libertines, if that’s what a libertine really is. But in another sense, none of us are libertines – if by that word we mean foregoing all moral judgment. Essentially nobody does ​​that​​. We give a very false picture of developments since the 1960s if we suggest that it’s all been a matter of things disappearing from our moral radar. We have added many new norms as well, and we are clearly better off for having them. Norms against drunk driving, smoking, racism, and sexism are stronger than ever, and those are certainly better than the norm that permits you to disown your son if you find him having gay sex.

Finally, it is a maxim that cannot be repeated often enough: To allow the freedom to do something is not necessarily to approve of that thing. It is simply to find that the alternative – repression – is worse. As Montesquieu wrote:

It is very odd that these three crimes, witchcraft, heresy, and that against nature, of which the first might easily be proved not to exist; the second to be susceptible of an infinite number of distinctions, interpretations, and limitations; the third to be often obscure and uncertain — it is very odd, I say, that these three crimes should amongst us be punished with fire.”

Montesquieu was no friend to us sodomites. But he knew all too well that certain types of laws are especially open to abuse, and that bad laws are the mainsprings of arbitrary power. Even today in some countries, sodomy laws are ​still ​at work, not at preventing vice, which they have never done successfully, but at suppressing political dissent, because they’re great at that. Make punishment contingent on obscure and uncertain behaviors, and you get arbitrary enforcement – which is simply another term for arbitrary power.

Much traditionalist social conservative legislation falls into the same category. We need not endorse whoredom to find that laws against it are a remedy that are much worse than the disease. And yet I will say this in defense of whores: Unlike social conservatives, I have never seen them lobby the government to force others to live their lifestyle. ​While I have never made use of their services, not one of them has ​so much as called me names for it. To borrow a quip from Dan Savage, prostitutes ​don’t go pounding on the doors of private homes to see if the residents are having sex the wrong way. And this is greatly to their credit.

In that context, the answer to the hour’s burning question – what if your daughter were a porn star? – is easy: Better a porn star than a vice cop. Both have their dangers, but only one of them is unfailingly disgusting.

Government Spending and Liberty

[A lightly revised version of this earlier essay.]

Suppose I had a budget of $100 million per year and the power to coerce with impunity. In other words, I have the full power of the state, but a very, very modest budget by state standards.

How much damage could I do to your liberties? Probably a whole lot, if I put my mind to it. I could set up a secret police force. I could assassinate. Rape rooms are notoriously cheap, as are most other forms of torture. The Soviets did wonders with just sleep deprivation, forced standing, and unheated rooms. So, for that matter, did we.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds us, a pencil crushed between the digits — the “Chekist’s handshake” — is more than sufficient, when time presses, to produce a confession of almost any crime that one can imagine. Although horrible to the victim, it’s also absurdly cheap, which is why the Soviets used it in the first place.

Many of the freedoms that you and I value the most are easily and inexpensively stomped upon. I mean stuff like public worship, the free press, or the right to independent political association. Arbitrary government often actually costs less than the rule of law, if only because codifying the law and running a court system properly can be expensive. Other things being equal, secret laws are cheaper than published ones, and the cheapest laws of all are the ones that the guard dogs make up right there on the spot.

That’s because “government spending” and “losing your liberty” are two very different things. I could use that same $100 million to run libraries, of course, and these are entirely benign. Yay libraries! Or I could pad the wallets of corporate executives, even if it might not be enough for them to notice. Or I could use the money to occupy foreign countries (I might need a bit more than $100 million, but you get the idea). Or I could spend that money on the DEA. Or I could spend it on the gulag.

I could buy a whole lot of gulag for $100 million.

Some of these things are worth opposing in the political arena. Some are worth opposing in the streets, to the death, in a bloody revolution. But some of these things literally aren’t worth a quarter to me — which is roughly per capita what $100 million in federal revenue amounts to.

In looking at most forms of state action, there is almost no relationship between the amount of money spent and the amount of freedom that is taken away. While taxation is indeed a loss of freedom along one dimension, and while that dimension can get pretty constraining on the tail end, the degree that taxation-and-spending constrains freedoms along the other, non-monetary dimensions depends almost entirely on how that tax money is spent. If you’re taxed a quarter, you’ve lost a quarter’s worth of choices, and that’s not a hell of a lot. But that quarter could buy a Chekist’s handshake, and then we’re facing a very different set of questions.

Or that quarter might even be spent on things that enhance your freedoms, things for which we don’t have any other plausible means of funding, like properly constituted courts, a well-regulated police, and the defense of civil liberties. If so, then it’s a quarter well spent, and we ought not to mind admitting it.

Where I’m going with all of this is very simple. If you have a burning ambition to increase human liberty, the marginal returns to the enterprise are very unevenly distributed in terms of government finance. Take on the DEA, because it is horrible. Fight the erosion of our civil liberties. Fight police abuse and brutality. Shorten prison terms, which are clearly out of control. Cut military spending, and with it the temptation to war: in every single war, ever, we always lose a bit of our liberty, and often, it doesn’t come back. Fight eminent domain, even though a world where the government takes private property more easily possibly means you pay a bit less in taxes. When a man’s home is his castle, liberty does pretty well, and that’s worth paying for.

We could go on, but the point is simple — don’t imagine that lowering spending is always the best way to preserve or increase liberty. We could become a vastly freer country while paying only a little less in taxes, if the cuts came in the right places. And we could become a very, very unfree country with only a pittance in extra spending.

Greedy Reductionism in the Social Sciences and Humanities

Robin Hanson writes:

I’m an economic theorist, and the sociology theorists I’ve read just don’t seem very good at thinking about what theory can or should be. If you see a social pattern your first hypothesis to explain it should not be that this is the one and only thing anyone really wants, with all else being practical constraints. Instead you might consider that it is one of many things people fundamentally want, and then try to study the tradeoffs people make to sometimes get more of this thing, and sometimes get more of other things.

I think this is true of a good deal of the social sciences outside of economics, and it’s almost always true of the humanities. Frequently someone in these fields finds something truly interesting – and then immediately they or their followers seek to boil all of human life down to it. Marxism comes to mind as the most glaring example, but I also knew quite a few in grad school who were so addicted to Foucault that they hardly thought along with any other thinkers. And this story is a great parody of the tendency, as found in structural anthropology. Daniel Dennett has dubbed it greedy reductionism:

[B.F.] Skinner proclaimed that one simple iteration of… operant conditioning… could account for all mentality, all learning, not just in pigeons but in human beings. When critics insisted that thinking and learning were much, much more complicated than that, he (and his followers)… wrote off the critics of behaviorism as dualists, mentalists, antiscientific know-nothings. This was a misperception; the critics – at least the best of them – were simply insisting that the mind was composed of a lot more… than Skinner imagined.

Skinner was a greedy reductionist, trying to explain all the design (and design power) in a single stroke. The proper response to him should have been: “Nice try – but it turns out to be much more complicated than you think!” And one should have said it without sarcasm, for Skinner’s was a nice try. It was a great idea, which inspired (or provoked) a half-century of hardheaded experimentation and model-building from which a great deal was learned. (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p 395.)

A better way to think about ideas in the social sciences and humanities is that they are part of a toolkit – an armamentarium, to use a lovely word. We should add tools to our armamentarium with wild abandon, and we should discard them very rarely. The cost of maintaining such tools is very low. The benefits are unknown, but they may be high.

It’s certainly tempting to think of a new discovery – a mental process, a behavior pattern, or a conceptualized social practice – as the only tool you will ever need to understand all of human life. It would be amazing if we had a tool like that. It would be even more amazing if you, personally, had found it. (G.W.F. Hegel, I’m looking at you.) But it’s almost certainly not the case, and the probability that it isn’t the case grows with each new discovery.

On Natural Hierarchy

Hierarchy is natural, say many neoreactionaries.[1] It’s a striking slogan, in part because it runs forthrightly against the conventional wisdom.

Bully for that, I say. But like all striking slogans, its full implications are undrawn. Here are three areas of ambiguity:

  • Which orders are the natural ones?
  • What do these orders entail? Authority? Status or respect? Material possessions? Who gets how much? By what mechanism?
  • What work does the word “natural” do here, and which theory of nature is behind it?

I’ll go through these one at a time.

On the first ambiguity: Of course not all abstract ordinal arrays of persons or groups can be equally natural. Perverse hierarchies are easy to imagine. Indeed, they emerge as a possibility the moment that anyone posits the naturalness of any particular hierarchy: if it’s natural for me to be crushed underfoot, then it would be un-natural for me to be anywhere else.

To posit the naturalness of a given hierarchy, then, is always to posit the unnaturalness of certain other hierarchies that we might easily imagine. Very few possible hierarchies can be natural at the same time, while most of the others – which are merely variants of the good hierarchies with their elements rearranged – can’t be.

Which kinds of hierarchy do neoreactionaries have in mind? Here is where the movement, never terribly unified, breaks apart a bit. Different answers emerge, and they aren’t necessarily compatible. “Hierarchy is natural” may hide at least as much as it expresses.

But might it be that any hierarchy is better than no hierarchy at all? We can easily name scenarios where this holds true, above all in hierarchies of command. These can be found in everything from the military to MMOs, and in none of them would egalitarianism work very well. When commands must issue without time for consensus or even fact-finding, a command hierarchy is indispensable. Even if our guy at the top is a certified incompetent, we will probably do better than if we had no guy at the top: The other side’s guy may be even worse than ours. If so, we win.

Still, though, I don’t believe that command hierarchies should be extended into more areas of society. Knowledge problems will proliferate, and no amount of personal talent or fitness can make up the difference. The degree of competence that neoreactionaries seemingly ascribe to past (and perhaps to some future) governments is startling and appears unsubstantiated, even if democracies are incompetent, which, yes, they commonly are.

So am I against hierarchy? No. It seems clear to me that nearly all societies are to some degree hierarchical. As such, being against hierarchy is like being against the weather. Indeed, those societies that have most strongly committed to egalitarianism as an ideology have had some of the starkest and most brutal hierarchies in practice.

It may not be in our power, then, to abolish hierarchy. But if not, then “hierarchy is natural” becomes a truism; it cannot be the articulation of a program. The question becomes not so much whether one is for or against hierarchy as which sorts of hierarchy will emerge, and with what effects, given various ideological and institutional frameworks. We know which sorts of hierarchy emerge from the frameworks of radical egalitarianism, and they are horrible. We need to try something else.

And that’s where all the hard work begins: If hierarchy is natural in this sense, its specific manifestations are pure artifice. They are all products of the institutions that we set up for ourselves.

This leads to our second ambiguity: What do our hierarchies entail?

I take a hierarchy to be a social system represented by set of individuals or groups, all of whom may be arranged in an ordered list without ambiguity or incoherence. Authority, respect, status, or material possessions are distributed accordingly, more or less in ranked order. Because I’m really stuck for unifying terms here, I’m going to use the highly approximate “rule” and “suck” as the opposite directions on the y-axis of a population pyramid. David Brin famously argued that traditional social status hierarchies looked a lot like this when plotted on a population pyramid:

triangleI think he is basically right. One thing that Brin left out of the picture, though, is exactly where the x-axis falls – that is, where rule turns into suck. I believe he’d agree with me when I say it looked something like this: rulers Everyone above the line rules. Everyone below it experiences varying degrees of suck: Domination. Disease. Hunger. Ignorance. Filth. Not necessarily through any fault of their own, either. Brin writes:

For every Lorenzo de Medici or Henry Plantagenet there were hundreds, thousands of fools who let flatterers talk them into believing ego-stroking stories — that they were lords because of their own genius, or inherent superiority, or God-given right. As I have said many times, this is human nature. We are all descended from the harems of guys who pulled off this trick. Voluptuous delusions run through our veins, so strongly that it’s amazing the Enlightenment Miracle was ever tried at all, let alone that it lasted as long as it has.

Brin praises modern, post-Enlightenment society for changing the shape of our still-hierarchical society into something that looks a lot more like this:

 diamond

A few still rule. But there’s a lot less suck to go around. How much do the rulers control? How does today compare to, say, Old Regime France? These questions aren’t easily answered, but we can try. Although total government spending is today around 35% of gdp, government spending is not a good measure of liberty.

Measuring liberty is hard. Old Regime restrictions on religious practice, print and speech, entry into professions, and free trade in goods and land were all tremendous burdens. All have been substantially abated or even abolished, and we are better off without them. Even if we are taxed exorbitantly. (Note, too, that in the Old Regime, most who were above the x-axis – that is, most people in that tiny little triangle who ruled – enjoyed substantial immunity from taxation. In the Old Regime, the classes who could typically least afford it paid the taxes.)

In all, it’s hard to argue with things not sucking quite so badly for quite so many people. Where the x-axis falls on our diamond is a good question, but it’s plausibly a lot closer to the middle. And yes, a more flattened diamondoid might be preferable, but still: well done, Enlightenment. Well done indeed.[2]

At this point we need to pause and recognize that we’ve been dealing with some exceptionally fuzzy terms. Rule – that is, rising on the y-axis – may consist of many different things, morally weighted or not, just or unjust. I’ve left them aside for now, but not because they are irrelevant. They complicate the picture tremendously, in ways that anyone who claims the naturalness of hierarchy will have to contend with. But I, for my purposes, do not.

Note finally that while hierarchy may be natural – in that nonhierarchical societies barely even exist – various individuals’ endowments (with material goods, power, and respect) will frequently depend almost entirely on technological development, population, environmental factors, elective choice, and happenstance. These all present challenges to claims of the form “Hierarchy is natural, and therefore X deserves Y.” It may therefore be advisable to keep such claims few in number, even if this does push “hierarchy is natural” still further toward being merely a truism.

And now for the third ambiguity: the question of what we mean by naturalness.

It’s a common move to hold that natural means something a lot like normative: We should strive to be whatever it is that nature made us to be. The natural is the potential within us, and the good consists of living up to it.

There’s a big problem with this, though: Humans would appear to have by nature no particular goals at all outside of biological reproduction. And yet we are unprepared to remake our morals around this claim. It is exceedingly doubtful to say that all the rest – art, literature, culture, ethics, science, religion – has value only in proportion to its fitness for furthering biological reproduction. As a matter of ideology, some may claim to reason this way. But as a practical matter, almost no one judges other people or their beliefs accordingly. As I like to point out, it’s almost impossible to argue that Jesus, Queen Elizabeth I, or George Washington had worthless lives. Yet none of them bore children. The Wright brothers never married or as far as I know had any kids. The Buddha had one child, whom he persuaded to become a monk. Failures, all of them?

Finally, hierarchy might be “natural” in a purely non-normative sense: natural not in the sense of “natural law,” then, but more like “natural selection,” which doesn’t give a damn about morals. If that’s the case, we can easily imagine a normative order radically opposed to natural hierarchy: We find ourselves faced with the task of eradicating this aspect of nature, because nature is often malevolent, and we must struggle against it when it is. Smallpox was natural, but we killed it, and no one should regret it. Might some forms of hierarchy be like that? Or many of them? And if so, what are the odds that we’ve found the right ones, rather than seizing on some wrong ones?

 

Notes

[1] Yes, I’m still carrying on about them. I believe they are wrong about all kinds of things, but they are wrong in interesting and useful ways. That’s more than can be said of a lot of the political mainstream. They also share with me a fundamental assumption, one that almost no one else seems to share: We have never really left the Enlightenment. We’re still in it, for better and for worse.

[2] Neoreactionaries who imply that others must share their anomie and disillusionment without somehow quite realizing it remind me a bit of those libertarians who insist – despite all evidence to the contrary – that nonlibertarians must also experience taxation as theft, when clearly they do not. These nonlibertarians may be unable to account for taxation as anything other than theft, or to do so in a consistent and satisfying manner. But this asks people usually untrained in political theory to perform a fairly adept trick within the discipline, and it shouldn’t surprise when they can’t. Explaining why the modern world is preferable to traditional European societies is likewise not a task that everyone will be prepared to undertake.