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Searching For the Golden Mean of Government

Direct democracy is mob rule.  It is so unviable and volatile that no polity has ever had a completely direct democracy.  At best, popular referendums are used sparingly and mostly in local government.
The Ancient Athenian democracy was a disaster and it was even limited to an elite class of citizens.

The founders of the United States took note of history and used the Roman Republic as their model instead of Athens.  
Separation of powers and the use of representatives was far more stable because it could moderate the whims of the crowd and favor the power of one faction over another.

There are those who argue that having a King or Emperor is the best and most natural government.  Monarchy after all has been the most common and stable government for thousands of years.
Monarchists have a good argument that monarchs are effective executives able to make quick decisions when it matters most.  Because their entire lives and family are invested in the state  they have a built-in incentive to care about long-term problems whereas elected representatives just care to get re-elected.
In practice, of course, history has countless examples of incompetent monarchs.  A system that depends so heavily on one person can seesaw between being very well run to a complete nightmare.  

When power is more focused, major changes in policy can occur immediately. But those changes might prove to be disastrous and even bring about the collapse of the state.  
Republican government makes sudden changes in policy difficult to safeguard against any single person making fatal decisions.  It also avoids the ancient problem of being just 1 heartbeat away from wars of succession.  
However, problems that need to be boldly addressed tend to fester when there are safety rails everywhere.

So can we find some kind of balance between autocracy and the republic?
The USA in its current form has nearly universal suffrage and slips into the disaster of mob rule.  The early US republic had limited franchise.  Moderners obsess about suffrage being limited to evil white males but the important part was land ownership requirements.  This may not be exactly what we’d want now, but it gives us a useful principle.  

The idea behind this restriction was that voters had to have skin in the game and safeguard them against people with nothing to lose simply using the state to plunder everyone else.

There was a clear idea that some people were more invested in society as shareholders than others, an idea that’s totally alien to modern concepts of democracy where every warm body has a “right” to vote. 

We also ought to go all the way back to the principles of merit from Plato’s Republic.  Like any other job, those best qualified to rule should be the rulers.  In a republic that would mean we dismiss handwringing over “rights” and worry only about what results we get from bestowing the ballot.

We’d refine the electorate like consultants brought in to trim down a company.  Did we end up fighting wars for no reason?  Were there tax breaks for the rich while peasants starved?  Who voted for these things?  Does someone have the civic knowledge, basic literacy, and intelligence to competently wield the power of the vote? Do they have skin in the game and a reason to care about where society is 100 years from now or does it make no difference to them if they plunder the treasury now?

This is of course an imperfect process. Imagine if we had simply made the top 20% most educated people the only ones with the vote in the US.  Out-of-touch SWPL total rule would have been a disaster for everyone.  So clearly a formula for who gets ballots has to be worked out very carefully.

-Those with special knowledge on an issue get a more heavily weighted vote. (The challenge is this might end up benefiting parasitic insiders.  We’ve all seen where rule by “experts” has gotten us.)
-The whole society gets divided into castes based on capabilities and neurological temperament.  The best(with skin in the game) get to vote.

The basic idea is to use a republican or other system for collective decision-making to limit the potential for a single fool to destroy an empire or for one untimely heart attack to plunge the nation into a war of succession.
Yet there are also far fewer voters making decisions.  Enough so that nothing depends on just one person but so that major decisions and changes are possible.

The Roman Republic gradually fell apart as power had to be “temporarily” granted in crisis situations where political gridlock was simply not an option.  This inevitably led to generals who were more powerful than the state.  When a collective decision making system cannot adapt in real time, it is forced to gradually dismantle itself.

So the successful system of government has to walk a tightrope.
The trick is to benefit as much as possible from the acumen of great men while preventing and blunting the depredations of the worst.
And to benefit from the “wisdom of crowds” from the best crowds rather than an indiscriminate mob.
The use of computers and statistics would play a prominent role in figuring out what works best.

Look up strategies for any online game and we see the experiences of thousands of competent people who played countless hours compiled into build orders timed down to the second, or item builds categorized by victory percentage across an entire server.  It would take more than one person’s whole lifetime to figure all that out by themselves!

Surely these kinds of tools would help a republican oligarchy figure out who has the best judgment to run a health system and who is full of bullshit.

Strategic Laziness

Our universe tends towards entropy and chaos.  As complexity of organization increases, resistance rises exponentially, like trying to force two opposing magnets together. (It’s always megafauna, T Rex or Mammoths that go extinct, not E. coli)  Looking at the natural world here on earth it’s quickly clear that every living thing expends as little energy as possible to persist.  Lions with full stomachs sleep most of the time, desert toads hibernate for years in between rains, birds with no predators lose the ability to fly over time. Nothing works harder than it must.  The more complex and energy-intensive the solution, the harder it is to sustain.

Trouble arises, though, when you’re a flightless, fearless dodo perfectly well adapted to your environment and suddenly humans show up. Or likewise, you’re a fit dinosaur species but prove unable to cope with a nuclear winter caused by asteroid impact possibly combining with volcanic eruptions to form a perfect disaster.  Evolution alone can’t plan ahead or anticipate rare catastrophic events.  This is why I think some living things have been pushed towards higher levels of awareness despite its massive costs, so they can be strategically lazy spending as little effort as possible while avoiding the dangers of only responding to constant, familiar stressors.

 The peacock’s tail is one of my favorite examples against the infallibility of nature.  It’s a natural pattern we see often in corporate, governmental, civilizational bloat.  All that sacred competition gets you something that maybe looks pretty but is a worse-than-useless burden sucking huge amounts of energy.  It teaches us that the patterns of civilizations and corporations are every bit as natural as the rippling of sand dunes.  Perhaps the most devastating doctrine of the enlightenment was to hubristically treat man and nature, not only as separate, but as opposites.

When I was about 12 years old, I was responsible for weeding the yard.  Trouble was, there were more seeds constantly blowing in from the desert and most of the lot was dirt and gravel that was perfect for them.  I well knew that even going over the whole yard with a hoe a couple times a week wouldn’t accomplish much.  In a few days, new sprouts were coming up everywhere.  In fact, killing everything just favored the worst sort of thorns that hugged the ground in choking vines, and dropped thousands of their sharp barbs that deflated basketballs and stuck in shoe soles by the dozens.
I noticed at the same time that a lot of the desert plants had pretty flowers, lacked thorns or sticky leaves, and had roots that were easy to pull up if I needed to.  I started what I then called “selective weeding” and let the desert weeds I liked flourish while punishing the thorn vines and the russian thistles that turn into tumbleweeds.
Before long, there was a colorful garden of desert flowers outside my bedroom window alive with the buzzing of bees.  The thorn plants were not even 1/10th of the problem they used to be once they had competition.
Of course my parents eventually asked me why I wasn’t doing my job.  I tried to explain what I was doing, but no one listens to a 7th grade kid trying to avoid work and I was told to take care of it.  So knowing full well what would happen next, I went out and uprooted my experiment.  Soon enough, the thorns were back in force despite our best efforts.
This was a formative experience that influenced my world view ever since.  I learned the futility of sustaining a vacuum against equilibrium.
I later saw the same problems I encountered doing childhood yard chores over and over again in 6000 years of failed human governments.  At some point there’s always well-intentioned policies that try to defy the equilibrium, end up favoring the thorns, and the rest is history.

I came to realize as I grew up in a frantically workaholic American society that nature in fact favors laziness.  An animal at leisure is well-fed and prosperous, a creature that must always work is failing at the game of survival.  It helped explain to me the widespread stress and misery of what should be by all rights a prosperous and happy land.  Constant labor tells us on a gut level that we are always on the brink of starvation, however many mansions and cars we may own.  Some of us become adrendaline junkies while others get ground down into burnouts that just go through the motions.  Whatever someone’s station, there’s just an interminable “job” never a tangible task that has a beginning and an end after which one enjoys the fruits of a job well done.  That I realized is the peculiar insanity of industrial civilization—a trap of Sisyphean futility most are stuck in until they’re dead.
As I approached adulthood I came to understand there was no luxury on earth greater than the power to simply do nothing.

The basic problem of modern civilization is that it favors extravagant solutions arrived at through extreme, specialized competition like the peacock’s tail.
A sense of minimalism, strategic laziness, yields simpler, more resilient, more adaptable solutions.  
Even when gatekeepers force peacock competition with a strategic bottleneck, the payoff for finding a low cost workaround or substitute is very high.

Cultural Secession

There are many who rebel against governments and institutions.
But the edifices they seek to bring down are but natural outgrowths of the people and culture they were born into, like stalactites trickling down over eons from subterranean ceilings.

You know a person not by their rhetoric, but by what they choose at the grocery store.  Yet, seldom does the person who rebels against a government think of seceding from the birth culture that brought about the system they hate.  Governments and tyrants may come and go, yet the foundational customs of a people endure.

We fear the monopolistic aims of businesses and governments, yet not of culture and custom. We are simply born into a place and adopt its arbitrary trappings for the sake of unthinking expediency. If we think, though, who do we find more strange, the man who dislikes a mere government or the man who proclaims pizza an unclean food to your face and refuses to celebrate christmas? Which man’s beliefs register just in your mind and which triggers a primal instinct deep in your gut?
Which is just another activist and which has thrown a bloody gauntlet of challenge at your feet?
Imagine asking for a neon pink plastic tombstone at a local graveyard or forget to mow the lawn for a few months. What begets harsher prohibition and reprisals? Mundane infractions of custom or the criticism of remote political assemblies?
If one is displeased with their birth culture, what is the point of deriding an abstraction of government when they still adhere religiously to the ways of those who cheated and oppressed them?

In this post-nuclear age with a world-wide economy, conventional wars have become cost prohibitive, but great wars rage on under a placid surface.
Where it has become impractical to wage war over lines on a map, the new conquerors will struggle to hoard wealth rather than land, to occupy wombs rather than cities, and to carve out empires of belief from the ailing bulk of mass consensus.

I, for one, was never really socialized into my society, living on the fringes through my youth.  I endured the last years before internet became widespread, feeling alone against the crushing weight of the world, a formative experience that has shaped me ever after.  I often wonder that without the dawn of such electronic expression, I would have spent the rest of my life feeling I’d been buried alive thumping in the pitch black against a coffin lid weighed down by a ton of earth.
As soon as I was on my own in the adult world, I found myself rapidly drifting from the customs of my youth rather than transmitting them into my daily life.  What for others were symbols of comfort were for me reminders of torment.
I found myself letting holidays pass unnoticed, sought out new foods and new recipes so I might eat differently.  I often observed fasts early in the day to distance myself from the indulgent and mechanical “3 squares” of the peoples among whom I lived.

I played with nonsense syllables, a practice if done enough begins to yield coherent meanings, and which inflected my speech at times with the hint of an unplaceable accent.  Having learned more of the English language from books than from people, I had already always spoken in a foreign dialect.  I had been strangely impervious to the understandings that passed easily between people without a spoken word.
As years went by I became apathetic towards politics and civic institutions; that was a game that did not concern me.
As a child I had seen myself as an outcast, as an adult as an outsider.
I floated through cities as a foreigner viewing people’s behavior from a distance.  I had long since ceased to think of them as “my” people.  I was merely a savage benefiting from their society as best I could so long as I must.  Over time I’ve learned their ways well enough to function normally and begin to understand how they think, but at heart I remain alien.  In due time another order will replace the present one and I will adapt to that one too like a ship that rides successive swells.

It seemed obvious watching from afar that besides ethnicity, peoples are defined by the aesthetics of their language, food, costume, architecture, traditions, and ceremonies.  These aesthetics of culture surround members of a people all their lives gaining emotional purchase on their hearts from infancy.   Aesthetic unity in a society is an everyday symbol of cooperation, a ritual dance with practical function.  To cause discords in the aesthetics of culture is much more powerful than to harry a few patricians running governments.
People understand this on a deep instinctual level.  Until I learned how to properly defuse people, I was regarded with something close to hostility wherever I went, no matter if I tried to be polite as I could or to remain beneath notice.  I could not hide for long that I was discordant with their master aesthetic.  It drilled into my head again and again the importance of culture.  It dawned on me that nearly every traditional culture has some version of the crime of witchcraft, a convenient mechanism which allows discords to be eliminated from the collective music.  If someone becomes unpopular enough, they are  fair game to be hunted down.  Such is the intense pressure for group selection under which humans have always lived which makes us as we are today.  We have a visceral fear of social deviance as we have of snakes and spiders.  Thus the powers that flout custom are the powers of Hell.

For one who is displeased with their society, becoming an activist or turning to violence rarely accomplishes much.  Simply seceding from the culture and beginning to build a new one is the most dangerous and damaging thing one can do.  Merely by doing so one sets a disastrous precedent for others to do the same.
If we consider culture as a market, we see people all over the world tend to live under monopolies.  Monopolies deliver poor service because they have no fear of competitors.  Merely creating a competitor, however tiny, is a force that opposes the enemy directly and proposes to solve the problem one perceives rather than merely reacting with incoherent discontent.  Unlike a self-destructive rebel, the cultural dissenter becomes an entrepreneur.

Political Democracy is Just One Type of Democracy

We’ve concluded that the state cannot be changed just by shuffling around governments, since the quality of rulership is decided by the nature of the population.
Russians, for instance have always had autocratic, brutal, corrupt governments no matter if it’s a monarchy, communist dictatorship, or a democracy.  The English on the other hand had strong councils of representatives whether there was a monarch, a theocratic dictator, constitutional monarch, or a democracy.  The French defaulted to an order of centralized semi-autocracy, never quite leaving behind the authoritarian ways of their old monarchy, whether under Robespierre, Napoleon, Napoleon III, or DeGaulle.  How important then is the label?

Since government merely reflects the nature of its people, it becomes clear if we want to change a state, first we have to produce a change in its people.
But it’s impossible to produce any rapid change in the nature of a population.  We should sooner try to cool down the ocean by throwing in ice cubes.  This is the hard truth that every victorious revolutionary, political reformer, or activist soon discovers.

The most obvious way we might control the expression of a population is not to change it, but to distort its expression.  To accomplish this, we decide who to enfranchise the most to bring about the best results a people is capable of supplying.  In the process of politics then, we make sure those most inimical to an effective state have no vote at all, those of middling character get one vote, and the best of the race, a single vote that outweighs many lesser votes.
This after all, is the proposition made by a classical republic.  In the Roman Republic, the groups of people voted in “tribes” not at all equal in representation.  Plebeians despite their greater number were outweighed by the clout of the patrician classes in a vote.
In the early American republic, only those who owned sufficient property, giving them a real stake in the system of governance, were allowed to cast votes concerning the government.
Only by the 1820s was America well along the path to its transformation into a popular democracy.
However, no truly pure democracy has ever existed.
In Ancient Athens only an elite class granted the title of ‘citizen’ had the vote.
In America, several methods of strategic distortion of the popular will persist to this day.  The bicameral system that distorts the clout of representatives numbered according to population by the addition of senators who are equal in number and power, even if they are sent to the capital from sparsely populated mountains, desert, or tundra.  And of course, the electoral college that simplifies the popular vote into a winner-takes-all system.  Not to mention a great many who are only appointed by elected officials, elected by proxy, such as the entire judicial branch.
Even the American popular democracy is imbued with an inherent distrust of the unalloyed popular will built into it by its founders and reinforced by three centuries of their successors.
So the question is not whether to distort the popular will, but how it should best be done.

But…I began this entry commenting that governments alone cannot achieve the greater purpose.

Our first step is to observe that government is just one sort of democracy decided by the people in aggregate.  We can think of several great democracies, of which government is by far the least significant.

Political democracy – Every vote elects a representative.

Economic democracy – Every purchase is a vote that elects a product.

Social democracy – Every value someone holds is a vote that elects a society.

Biological democracy – Every child conceived is a vote that elects a people.

I will hope to discuss each in turn.

Plato, Democracy, and Mob Rule

By the 4th century BC, civilizations had already existed for at least a couple thousand years.
By then, most of the basic patterns of civilization were ancient news.

Plato’s observations about governments over 2,000 years ago might seem disturbingly familiar to us now.

Humans may boast of mechanical technologies such as airplanes and atomic bombs, but social technology, the ways we organize haven’t changed since the very first farming villages:

“Every form of government tends to perish by excess of its basic principle.  Aristocracy ruins itself by limiting too narrowly the circle within which power is confined; oligarchy ruins itself by the incautious scramble for immediate wealth.  In either case the end is revolution.   When revolution comes, it may seem to arise from little causes and petty whims…when a body is weakened by neglected ills, the merest exposure may bring serious disease.

Then democracy comes…But even democracy ruins itself by excess-of democracy.  Its basic principle is the equal right of all to hold office and determine public policy.  This is at first glance a delightful arrangement; it becomes disastrous because the people are not properly equipped by education to select the best rulers and the wisest courses.

As to the people, they have no understanding, and only repeat what their rulers are pleased to tell them.  To get a doctrine accepted or rejected it is only necessary to have it praised or ridiculed in a popular play.
Mob-rule is a rough sea for the  ship of state to ride; every wind of oratory stirs up the waters and deflects the course.

The upshot of such a democracy is tyranny or autocracy; the crowd so loves flattery…that at last the wiliest and most unscrupulous flatterer, calling himself the ‘protector of the people’ rises to supreme power.

Plato complains that whereas in simpler matters—like shoe-making—we think only a specially-trained person will serve our purpose, in politics we presume that every one who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state.  When we are ill we call for a trained physician, whose degree is a guarantee of specific preparation and technical competence—we do not ask for the handsomest physician, or the most eloquent one…when the whole state is ill should we not look for the service and guidance of the wisest and the best?   To devise a method of barring incompetence and knavery from public office, and of selecting and preparing the best to rule for the common good—that is the problem of political philosophy.”

-Plato as quoted, paraphrased, and summarized by Will Durant

The Story of Philosophy
Will Durant, 1953, Pocket Books, Washington Square Press
Excerpts from pages 20-21

What The Hanseatic League Tells Us About The Present

When governments grow weak, commercial organizations tend to fill the void.

Across a vast region along the Baltic Sea with few strong central authorities in the middle ages, merchant guilds banded together for strength and security until they were effectively their own state with their own military.

Indeed, they clashed with actual kings and princes and because they monopolized trade through the entire region, they usually won.

It was only when centralized government became strong again and the modern concept of a nation-state began to form that the Hanseatic league went into decline.

In our own time:

If I were to ask “Who is the most powerful man in this room?” The answer is not necessarily obvious.

Jobs obama zuckerberg silicon valley dinnger

Presently, we see a weakening of both the physical powers and legitimacy of the state. And predictably, we see a corresponding rise of commercial entities as they increasingly exert control over the state itself or take over functions (i.e. space exploration, education) that were previously the preserves of central state power.

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