State Machines and Machines of State

Software engineers – and those who take a software class or two undergrad to fill out some distribution requirements – learn about a conceptual tool called a state machine.

State machines come in a few varieties, but the simple version is this: we describe some system (a soda machine that takes coins, a traffic light, a bowl of water) in terms of an initial state, a few other possible states, and transition rules between them.

For example, a bowl of water starts as liquid water, and can transition to a block of ice or to a cloud of steam. The block of ice can transition back to a bowl of water, but the cloud of steam, once created, can’t reform into a bowl of water.

State machines are usually simplifications of reality (in the real world the bowl of water could slowly evaporate until it was just 95% of its original weight, or the act of freezing could be halted partway, etc.), but all models are. We don’t curse a globe of the Earth for not having a molten core.

At some point I’d love to work up a complete taxonomy of libertarians, conservatives, anarchists, alt-right, etc. some day, but I haven’t done so yet. But let’s just accept as given that there is a subtype of libertarian / conservative that I’ll call the True Believer in the Constitution.

I love the True Believer in the Constitution type. Their hearts are in the right place, they’re just ignorant of how the world works.

A True Believer in the Constitution is very clear on how we can fix the high taxes / police state / War on Drugs / welfare state, etc.: we need to JUST GET BACK TO THE CONSTITUTION.

It’s so simple!

I imagine that if the True Believer in the Constitution was in a rowboat that sank to the bottom of the lake because of a large hole, they would explain that “guys, guys, GUYS, we just need to get the rowboat back up on the surface of the water. See the problem is that right now the boat is under the water. So let’s just get it back on top of the water! Guys, guys, guys! We can do this!”

So, anyway, TBC conservatives think that the problem is simple, we’ve just got to fix the problem (guys!).

Deep sigh.

Deep breath.

Deep sigh.

Deep breath.

OK, where were we?

Ah, yes, state machines.

What the TBC ignores is – well, the entire complexity of the situation.

The United States started with a small federal government and very very clear delineations on what it could do.

And now – IN THE CURRENT YEAR!!1! – we have a government in DC that controls 20% of the GDP and funds cowboy poetry festivals and regulates how much water a toilet can use per flush.

What happened between 1776 and 2015?

We must construct a state machine.

It’s hardly a new observation that the US was one sort of government under the Articles of Confederation, then was a slighly different sort under Constitution until the Civil War, and then was a larger Lincoln-esque – but still medium sized – state until the Wilson / FDR era, at which point the “general welfare” / “interstate commerce” loopholes were expanded to allow pretty much everything under the most recent version of the government.

Moldbug formalized these various governmental regimes as, I recall, USG1, USG2, USG3, and USG4 (perhaps I’ve got a fence-post error, and he didn’t count the Articles of Confederation? Anyway, the important thing is not that I use anyone else’s precise terms, but that we identify distinct stages in the evolution of the US government.

USG1: a loose federation of independent states

USG2: a central government with a very few limited powers, a bill of negative rights for citizens, adding up to a federation which states are (presumably) free to exit

USG3: much the same as USG2, except with a central government which has demonstrated its willingness to kill 3% of the population to prevent regions from exiting

USG4: a federation in name only; a mostly unrestricted imperial state which controls commerce, banking, communications, and almost everything except religion and speech

and, heck, let’s throw in UK1: when North America was a colony.

We know that there are transitions, because we can read about them in our history books.

Washington and Jefferson helped orchestrate the change from UK1 to USG1. They did it because the UK was distracted and because they wanted lower taxes and more autonomy.

A few years later, much the same cast of characters orchestrated the transition from USG1 to USG2, largely because the war debts weren’t getting repaid and the debt holders wanted a government strong enough to collect taxes and pay them back.

In the middle of the next century Abraham Lincoln led the transition from USG2 to USG3 not under the banner of “Slaves must be freed!”, but instead under “The Union must be preserved!”.

The finally Wilson and FDR led us into the current USG4 based on the theory that North Eastern Puritan progressives knew better and needed their hands untied so that they could share their vision with the common people…good and hard.

On thing that is noteworthy about this state machine is that there are no backwards arcs. USG2 never flirted with abandoning the Constitution and going back to the Articles of Confederation. In the 1880s no one in DC ever said “perhaps we were wrong and states should be allowed to leave”. In the 20th century Republicans castigated FDR and the New Deal, but the closest they came to undoing social security was a disastrously mismanaged attempt to replace it with a nearly identical system involving mutual funds.

So when a True Believer in the Constitution type suggests that we should “just” go back to the Constitution, they are positing that there somehow exist a backwards arc from USG4 to USG3, and from USG3 to USG2…and somehow we have all just been too stupid to realize it until they pointed it out in their blog.

There is no going back to Kansas.

There are no backwards arcs in the state machine.

Now, there might be a cycle in the state machine. Perhaps USG4 leads (via an arc labeled “global pandemic”) to USG5, and USG5 leads (via an arc labeled “nanobot apocalypse”) back to USG2.

Or perhaps USG5 leads to USG6, and then on to USG7, and then on to USG8.

To understand the state machine we need to look at history and at the world around us, not worship a long dead document, or wish – against experience – that the authoritarians in DC (and in the state capitals, and in our local town halls) will stop being authoritarians.

Some state machines have a single transition out of each state, on to the next state.

But other state machines have multiple transitions.

This is what we must study.

Be the fire you wish to see in the world.

About clarkhat

Socialcon Catholic ancap (Nrx-curious for college). On twitter as @clarkhat
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51 Responses to State Machines and Machines of State

  1. Dr. Clark,

    Congrats on the new digs.

    I would ask: Why do we think the machine functions in this way? Is it something about the nature of the machine (Governments), something about the nature of this type of machine (democracatic republic) or something about the constituent parts of the machine (Americans)?

    Plausible Explanations, per my own conjecture:

    1.) Natural consequence of USA become more heterogenous. When not everyone is a Puritan, it’s hard to impose a Puritan consensus. Apparatus of state becomes larger to cope with increased volume of disagreement among citizens.

    2.) Evolution of the technology of government, i.e. instruments of war and mass communication. Where previously MA and VA could sort of ignore each other and complain behind the other’s back at cocktail parties, with newspapers and telegraphs and trains they were suddenly too close for comfort.

    3.) The natural endpoint of New England progressivism (nee puritanism) is either domination or extinction.

    4.) Big, empire-type expenses (like war with Brtiain) require big, empire-like government (collecting taxes, paying debts). Once in place, any system will attempt to replicate or at least ensure its own survival. Hence, moar gov.

    I’m kind of partial to #3 myself, with other factors playing a supporting role, if only because that’s the pattern we’ve observed so far. You note above that Lincoln fought not to end slavery but to preserve the Union. I’m not sure Lincoln’s personal motivations are relevant. Remember that Bleeding Kansas was funded by a lot of well-heeled Boston Brahmins. A lot of abolitionists wanted war, or at least, were not shying away from war as a means to emancipation.

    And while the crises that led us to each transition were different, the outcome has always been in the direction of the managerial state. (Cthulu, swimming, etc).

    This raises a question that I find myself unable to answer, though. How did we get USG1? You gently, and rightly, mock the Constitutional believer. But, for a brief moment, history does seem to record that it worked. Why? Why has the growth of government been incremental (though constant)? Maybe it’s just an issue of practicality; Rome wasn’t built in a day, etc. But what if there’s some other magic there? Washington could have been king, after all. Why did he reject the crown?

    I think everyone reading this understands that ultimately, only force and the will/desire to use it “matters.” If Obama (Or John Roberts, or Cokie Roberts…) wanted to make this country a dictatorship tomorrow, the Constitution wouldn’t stop him. The military, one hopes, would.

    So how on earth does one arrange a society where the threat of violence isn’t needed, or at least, is not needed so much as it is today, in USG4?


    • xtmar says:

      But, for a brief moment, history does seem to record that it worked. Why?

      Luck, and more immediately enlightened leadership. If you look at history, some places and times have had the right combination of leadership, location, and so on to flourish and punch above their weight in terms of development and human enlightenment for some period of time, before you either have a general decline in standards, or get eclipsed by someone else. Just as the Enlightenment and Rome marked local high points in development, so too did Washington.


      • Bert says:

        I think the vast amounts of resources available out west played a large part. The movers and shakers grew up making money not from family trusts for the most part. They made money by exploiting resources or adding value. That instills different values than large mature states. They want strong protections on their ability to earn vs strong protections on the status quo. Currently the people in power talk freedom, but what they really want is for tomorrow to look exactly like yesterday, them in power.


    • Artimus says:

      “Why do we think the machine functions in this way?”

      The first goal of every organization is the continued survival of that organization. Expansion is good, stasis is usually fine, ambiguous change is to be avoided and shrinkage is a disaster to be avoided at all cost. This isn’t an American thing, it’s a human thing.

      Great start to a new beginning, Clark!


    • kratoklastes says:

      Why do we think the machine functions in this way? Is it something about the nature of the machine (Governments), something about the nature of this type of machine (democracatic republic) or something about the constituent parts of the machine (Americans)?

      That government always winds up being captured by sociopathic parasites, is simply a function of the payoff structure of political life; the cost-benefit structure associated with seeking political office; and preference maps of parasitic megalomaniacal sociopaths (which are so vastly different from the preference maps of normal humans, that they may as well be a different species).

      The ‘raw’ (i.e., dollar) payoff structure associated of political office is probably the least important, since anybody who sets their sights on being a politician or senior government functionary is motivated by power, not by the salary, perqs and retirement benefits. It’s only the junior apparatchiks and myrmidons who are motivated by salary+bennies. Still, being part of the high-end welfare recipients is still not a bad gig – being completely unaccountable, failing upwards, and not having to do anywhere near the same amount of work as a private-sector employee earning the same dollars.

      When it comes to seeking political office, political aspirants know several things:
      (1) that officeholders can ’tilt’ policy to favour concentrated beneficiaries at the expense of the polity;
      (2) that potential concentrated beneficiaries know (1) and are thus willing to fund the ‘right’ aspirant; and
      (3) that whatever they say to the polity in order to get elected, doesn’t matter and can be reneged upon with near-zero consequences;
      (4) the median voter is incapable of parsing information of any significant level of complexity and usually votes based on some minimal-information heuristic (including, but not limited to, the haircut of the aspirant).

      (1) and (2) taken together, mean that all candidates for any office above dogcatcher will be in the pocket of some or other vested interest. And only two specific types of person are willing to be in the pocket of a vested interest: True Believers in the interest, and sociopaths. Any interest group capable of marshalling the resources required to rent-seek at a national level must – almost a fortiori – be the beneficiary of government-granted monopoly or licensure (e.g., banks/FIRE and the Merchants of Death – you’re never going to get into the White House because you’re in the pockets of the AARP or NAACP or ACLU).

      (3) favours anyone willing to lie; (4) makes it clear that the consequences of lying are minuscule – tilting the ground even further in favour of the dishonest.

      Who is prepared to lie when the consequences are piffling and the benefits are great? Sociopaths.

      Who wants powerful jobs the most? Megalomaniacs.

      Add in that any numerate person with an IQ above 120 knows – thanks to Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and the Gibbard-Satterthwaite Theorem – that it is not possible for ‘democratic’ preference-aggregation to reflect a valid social welfare function (and so claims of the representativeness of ‘representative government’ are a priori false), and nor is it possible to construct an ordinal voting mechanism that is not tyrannical or corruptible through tactical voting (i.e., provides an positive expected return for individuals who provide a rank-ordering of candidates that does not reflect their actual preference ordering).

      Belief in democracy is prima facie evidence of ignorance about its theoretical underpinnings.


  2. xtmar says:

    Leaving aside the US and looking more broadly at various international examples, does the level of abstraction needed to make this idea work actually help our understanding, or are we trying to foist a helpful model onto an area where it actually obscures our understanding.

    On the one hand, it seems like there are examples of states reverting to near previous states of organization, like the British Restoration, or the seemingly innumerable transitions between fragile democracy and military junta of some South American and African nations. Furthermore, to your point about having transitions to multiple possible states, I think that’s true, but it also depends somewhat on how you model it. Every country can descend into civil war or some other form of violent transition, but is that best modeled as the transition between two states, an option wherein the other option is a more peaceful state, or the only option on the timeline of the country?

    On the other hand, history is a merely a collection of timestamped occurrences, and time moves linearly and irreversibly in one direction. So, while the state of the clock may be noon every day, and December 31 one a year, we never actually repeat a point in time, but merely move along the number line of time, ever closer to the heat death of the universe. The repetition that we see is merely because we truncate the rest of the information out of convenience. Noon today is Dec 31, 2015 AD, while noon yesterday was Dec 30, 2015 AD, and thus not really the same thing, anymore than $10.99 is the same as $11.69 because they both end in .09. Speaking more historically, while the government of a country may revert to a given form of organization, and perhaps even the same nominal title, the people at the top rarely have the same goals as the previous governments.* Again, if you look at the various juntas of South America, they rarely come back with the same set of rulers and rules, even if the headline name is the same.

    *I suppose the exception would be someone who is temporarily deposed by a coup but regains power. However, I think those sorts of temporary excursions are short enough that the state hasn’t really changed.

    PS It’s annoying that we have to use “state” to indicate both the status of the government and society, and to refer to the government itself.


  3. Tilikum says:

    Generals always try and and fight the last war don’t they? Good stuff.


  4. @ “To understand the state machine we need to look at history and at the world around us, not worship a long dead document[.]”

    True enough, but not worshipping that long dead document comes at a price. In the physical world there is no such thing as “government.” Governments are imaginary. Our form of government is based on the utopian principle that we are a nation of laws, not of men. So to the extent that law is ignored, our government is illegitimate, a government of men (and women), ruling by power rather than pursuant to law.

    Allowing public officials to depart from the law creates a highly dangerous situation in which rulers get to choose arbitrarily which laws they will obey and which they will ignore. So playing Devil’s Advocate on behalf of the True Believers in the Constitution, what is the alternative to adhering to the constitution? What law then governs any given dispute?

    “The law, Roper, the law. I know what’s legal, not what’s right. And I’ll stick to what’s legal. . . . I’m not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain-sailing, I can’t navigate, I’m no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh there I’m a forester. . . . What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? . . . And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? . . . This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — Man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down . . . , d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow them? . . . Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.”

    R. Bolt, A Man for All Seasons, Act I, pg. 147 (Three Plays, Heinemann ed. 1967), as quoted in Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153, 195-196 (1978), (construction of “virtually complete” major dam enjoined to protect the endangered Snail Darter).


  5. Brother Voodoo says:

    Clark’s clever claws are stuck in the carpet while the clowns that haunt coalesce around the next hegelian leap?


  6. melK says:

    You’re right, it would take something on the scale of a nanobot apocalypse to revert us to the previous states of (US) government.

    Because cell phones. Because Internet. Because fricking automobiles, global warming, atom bombs. And because those previous USG states were in a context of previous foreign governments as well, and governments do compete and force each other to evolve.


  7. Sidney Carton says:

    After yesterday’s gaffeE I can now properly welcome Clark to his new blogging home. Offer of financial support still stands, btc or otherwise. Go Clark Go (and Meredith too)!


  8. somercet says:

    The position Get Back To The Constitution carries a subtext this author has ignored.

    The Administrative Procedures Act freed the US Congress from the burden of legislating. Now, faceless bureaucrats outlaw CO2, and a mere 40 Senators suffice to block other elected officials from having to make a political decision that might cost them a teeny bit.

    The US Supreme Court freed Congress from the burden of negotiating political settlements.
    Only five drag queens in basic black need tell us the Feds can control and micromanage my healthcare, just as those five said abortion is utterly outside politics and statutes. And now, gay marriage, and the coercion of gay wedding cakes from Christian bakers (not Muslim, I hear) are also super not political issues, thanks to The Five.

    I got a fundraising letter from Eric Cantor before his booting. He wrote to tell me how shocked he was that the US Congress had abdicated all this power to the Presidency when people eventually elected an abusive a–hole named Obama and could I send money to defeat him?

    Why? So I can wait for the next abuser to be elected? Regardless of party?

    Congress was the most democratic branch of the Federal govt. Well, they fixed that. Congress abdicated its duty to speak to the American people, everyone knows it, and we’re sick of it. End of argument.


  9. There’s a major problem here: You’re looking at the US in isolation, something that is, well, never true: The US is a part of the wider world, and political situations are a result both of direct events outside the US, and to larger systemic changes (the Industrial Revolution, etc.)

    And it should be noted, historically speaking even USG1 was a fairly advanced, intrusive state: Compared to eg. early-medieval societies it was already extremely large and advanced.


  10. Actually, let’s talk some more, someone mentioned the Restoration above and I’d like to point something out: The English Civil War was (despite what was said) not a matter of Big vs. Small governmnet. Throughout the conflict, and even afterwards, the english (later british) state grew ever stronger. Walpole had access to resources and powers that would have made Charles I green with envy. The issue was never the scope of government, but who should hold the reins of power.

    (I think you could probably make a similar argument for the US government, the immediate reactionw was to seize power from the british crown and reallocate it to where the rebels held it, eg. the colonial assemblies that would become the states)

    In fact, in european history I can think of only a few instances were state power was actually decreased on a systemic level: The collapse of the roman empire, and maybe the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire into a series of more-or-less independent statelets, and in the latter case it’s arguable whether or not state power actually decreased or if it was just reallocated (eg. rather than the Emperor, it was now held by the local princes, who still increased their powers on the local level)

    The collapse of the roman empire is the big case of actually decreasing state power: It’s a slow process, but we go from a bureaucratic state to a very, very limited set of rulers (though in paralell, we get states in places that never had them before….)

    The other time when state power decreased was the fall of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.


  11. Andy Cleary says:

    Going back to the Constitution would not change the fundamental problem: we’d still be a *State* in which we consider it legitimate and valid to resolve non-violent disputes with violence. As long as that escalation is considered legitimate and not combated, its use will grow. It’s Statism itself that is the problem, no matter how well one writes a “Constitution”.


    • xtmar says:

      we’d still be a *State* in which we consider it legitimate and valid to resolve non-violent disputes with violence.

      Much though it pains me to say, I think you need some sort of coercion mechanism backed with violence in order to give your generally non-violent government credibility. If nothing else, even in a fairly open condition where you have multiple governments, you still need somebody to enforce contracts, or even to show up to court/arbitration.* If the state is so committed to non-violence that you can effectively avoid contract enforcement by not showing up, you have anarchy. Admittedly, the threshold for provoking this violence should be much higher than it currently is, but I think that order ultimately requires a state with a monopoly on violence.

      Alternatively, you could say that people who are non-violently not cooperating with the system are doing so by implicitly threatening violence against those who try to enforce the norms of the system,** but that seems even less helpful than the original statement, and I think leads down a road towards semantic nit picking.

      *I suppose you could avoid this by limiting contracts to only cash on the barrel type transactions, but I don’t think that would be very useful, because there are many beneficial arrangements where you need to trust that somebody will perform on their end of a contract, be it services, or a lease, or something of that type. You can mitigate it with performance bonds and so on, but that just moves the nexus of violence from the state to the bondsmen, which doesn’t seem like much of an improvement.

      **For instance, if you sit down in your house and refuse to cooperate with those who are trying to arrest you, are you doing so by implicitly threatening to harm the cops once they lay hands on you. I think you can come up with examples both ways, but I don’t think that way of framing it is very helpful.


    • xtmar says:

      Also, violence versus non-violence is an important distinction, but at the fringes I think it starts to break down. If a banker absconds with $100k of his depositor’s money, is that more or less serious than somebody assaulting the depositor and forcing him to take a year off from his 25k a year job? I can argue it both ways, and I tend to think that it’s still worse to physically assault people, as that can’t be undone in the same way that non-violent financial crimes can be, but I’m also not entirely convinced that this is 100% true.


      • Andy Cleary says:

        “I tend to think that it’s still worse to physically assault people, as that can’t be undone in the same way that non-violent financial crimes can be, but I’m also not entirely convinced that this is 100% true.”

        Oh, I don’t think there’s *anything* in the realm of social interaction that I’m *100%* sure about, but much like you’ve done between your first reply and second, the more I’ve thought about it, the more it has made sense to me… You’ve already considered some of the main issues of what I call the NIVP: Non-initiation of violence principle. It’s obviously inspired by the standard libertarian NAP, but as you noted, it emphasizes the distinction between property crimes and direct inter-personal violence such as assault or, in the case of States, kidnapping (jailing someone).

        There are undoubtedly corner cases where either the application of the principle is unclear or where it seems at first “not to work”, but *all* systems of justice share the first problem, and the second is really just an “the end justifies the means” argument that suffers in the same way that all such arguments suffer, which you can clearly see in that it is the argument that all big-government Statists use, e.g. “well we *have* to tax people because who will build muh roads?!” For the first, I’ve always loved David Friedman’s example of how a system based only on property would still have trouble: consider that when you have a light on in your home, it’s photons stream out of your window and collide with your neighbor’s house: property rights violation! Assuming you agree it’s impractical to prosecute or prevent every such “violation”, what the example illustrates is that *any* system requires the application of judgment.

        I’ll address your “Bernie Madoff” scenario in a second, but in the meantime, consider what a society that acts according to the NIVP would *gain*. First of all, no State could exist in its current form: without the initiation of violence, how would they be able to enforce their monopoly on governance services? I come at this as an “anarchist” (really, a State Abolitionist) and I get the feeling you don’t necessarily, but you mentioned “multiple governments” and that’s really what I’m talking about (I say “providers of governance services” to emphasize the economic nature of “services” and to allow for those services not necessarily being provided all by one provider, but for this purpose it’s basically semantics). States today use their initiation of violence not only to threaten people to follow their rules, but also to squash competitors (and to start wars). I think this first is really important and overlooked: consider a would-be “State” that never initiated violence, particularly for the enforcement of its laws: it would be largely impotent. Probably the most powerful tool that States currently have is taxation, which libertarians often call “theft”, but this misses the true nature of taxation in the real world: it’s extortion, not theft. The difference may feel like semantics morally, but in terms of implementaiton, the difference is huge. In short, I claim that no State would be able to maintain heavy levels of taxation without the threat of violence. No government official ever comes and steals my money: they simply could not manage the logistics. Instead, they extort me to *give* them my money, or they extort others (my employer in the form of withholding, vendors that I purchase from for sales taxes, etc) into taking my money for them. It’s a house of cards, and the only thing holding it together is threat of violence in the form of jailing someone for income tax evasion etc. If you take a hard look at what States do, inevitably the worst things are enable and completely propped up by the threat of violence. Take this away in the sense of a society that does not consider it legitimate to initiate violence (or its threat), and this would be State becomes much like the Queen of England: largely just ceremonial, with no real power.

        Meanwhile, now consider a society that has been living under the NIVP for a while, such that new institutions and service providers and business models have had a chance to evolve. You mused that without the violence of a state, it would be difficult to enforce contracts or get people to show up at court, and that it would be difficult to dissuade Bernie Madoff type property crime. I get that, but I think that’s because we’re *used* to thinking about and seeing violent solutions to these problems. Remember, the Statists are concerned that no one will build roads if the government doesn’t tax for that reason but libertarians are convinced that if there’s a sufficient market demand for a product/service, the market will find a way to provide that (even if we can’t say for sure exactly in what form it will provide that). But if you take a step back, the same logic applies to services for protection of one’s property rights: that is a service in great demand, and without the crowding out effect of the State, one can expect the market to provide much more vigorous and effective mechanisms for protecting one’s property. The nature of “property” – and this is particularly clear in a society that does not consider it legitimate to protect property rights with the initiation of violence – is that it is a cooperative relationship, the foundation of which is that you claim certain property rights *and others voluntarily honor those property rights*. If you have a wad of money that you think is yours and you give it to a bank, but they do not voluntarily honor your right to that money, then they will just take it. If you claim a piece of land is yours but others don’t agree, they will just walk on your land, or build on it, etc. And this is the great contradiction in being a thief/swindler in such a society: if you don’t honor others’ property rights claims, *they have no incentive to honor yours*. Practically speaking, say, if you’re Bernie Madoff and you’ve swindled all of this money and all of the public knows it (because whether you showed up at court or not, the proceedings were held and you were found very guilty), where could you *put* that wealth without it being taken back from you? If you put it in a bank, I show up at your bank with a note from a court that the bank listens to that says that the money they were keeping for Bernie Madoff is really mine, and they give it to me. If you use it to buy a mansion, the rest of society can just refuse to honor that mansion as your property and resell it to pay off your debts. If you stash the cash in a mattress, those who you have ripped off can hire an agent who goes in and “steals” it (it’s not “yours” if no one honors your property rights claim to it, so it’s not really stealing, it’s recovering property that is not yours). Etc. The key point is that the minute you violate someone else’s generally accepted property rights claims to accumulate your own resources, you have demonstrated that you care about having others honor your property rights claims, which they are only going to do… if you honor theirs. It’s a catch-22 for a would be thief/swindler. You don’t need violence to enforce property rights claims, the incentives are natural for the person that wants to accumulate property: they won’t be able to unless they let others do so by not violating their property rights claims.

        Of course, there are many other business models and incentives for not being a thief in an NIVP society like shunning and reputation mechanisms and economic considerations like access to or the cost of insurance (which is likely to play a much larger role in a society without the crowding out effect of States) but I find the most compelling to be the above musing on the nature of mutually honoring each others property claims.

        Thanks for engaging, this is a favorite topic of mine as I have spent a fair amount of free time (what little we all have of it 😉 over the last 5-7 years constructing a fictional society based on the NIVP as part of a fiction-writing project I have been working on (in short, I am writing a novel and some short/stories/novellas based in this fictional society).


  12. James Pollock says:

    So… there’s a REASON that there aren’t any backward arcs, and that reason is that, for most people, the new state functions better than the previous one did. (Bummer for those people who are not numbered amongst “most people”.)

    It became fairly obvious that the “united” United States under the Articles of Confederation were anything but. Strengthening the central federal government turned the United States into a nation.

    The original plan was for the states to be the bulwark against invasion of rights by the federal government. By 1868, it was painfully obvious that this was not the correct formulation… instead, the balance of power was shifted, and the federal government became the defender against invasion of civil rights by the states. The federal government became stronger as it took on its new role, but the population became more free.

    The next transition, I think, isn’t related to Wilson or Roosevelt, but rather, to a changing of the guard in the Supreme Court. The old guard found, in the prohibition on slavery, a prohibition against imposing any sort of limits on labor. Thus, a man should be free to sell his labor on any terms. The new guard looked at the obvious imbalance of power between employer and employee, and recognized that the old interpretation of the 13th amendment made people less free, in most cases. Authority to set workplace conditions (under the interstate commerce power) grew into the administrative state… but the administrative state works for most people better than the gilded-age capitalism did. Under laissez-faire regulation, the economy naturally falls into boom-and-bust cycles… and the busts always seem to land on the average citizen, while the advantages of the boom tended to be more concentrated. Regulated markets cut the tops off the booms, and bottoms off the busts.

    Your modern Republican sees the top being cut off the boom end of the cycle, and see that as interfering with their opportunity to become wealthier (which is correct) but not to remember that booms come with busts. Modern Democrats, of course, tend to see the bottom cut off the busts (again, correct) but to ignore the cost at the top end. The actual party apparatus, however, see the advantages of the status quo (remember about a decade ago when the Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, the White House and the Supreme Court, and set about making the government smaller by reducing the size of the federal bureaucracy, paying off the debt, and so on. No? You say that instead, the government got bigger, the debt got bigger, and all that changed was who the government checks were being made out to? Hmmm.)

    I submit to you the fact that you ignored. Today’s citizen is more free than the citizen of the previous revisions of the United States government. The notion that you are actually less free is a mirage caused by short-sightedness. If you get stuck behind a red light, you focus on the fact that the red light is holding you back and keeping you from proceeding. But because of the order imposed on the chaos of the intersection, you get faster throughput (less waiting) at controlled intersections than you do uncontrolled ones, and that isn’t even factoring in the reduced carnage, both in terms of bent metal and smashed and twisted human bodies. If you imagine the opposite state of waiting for a red light to be proceeding through the intersection, you’re going to have a different view of red lights in general, than if you see the opposite of waiting at a red light to be waiting longer at an uncontrolled intersection.

    (And if you’re getting ready to denounce this socialist communist Nazi view of the entire economy, back that sh– up. If you can’t tell the difference between regulated capitalism and socialism, I don’t particularly care what your opinions are on the matter.)


    • DB says:

      I would argue that you mistake correlation and causation. Yes, workers have much safer workspaces than they used to. And are more free in many senses. But not because government appeared to make it so. Rather, workers started to demand better workplaces. Since large government existed, it was used as a tool to that end. But (due to non-repeatability of history) there is no evidence that absent a large bureaucratic government the same changes would not have occurred.


      • James Pollock says:

        Early in the labor market, the government sided with management.

        Only after granting workers the right to bargain collectively did the labor movement make any headway.

        Anyways, the principle is sound. If you bargain away a freedom you didn’t intend to use, and gain a restriction upon others that actually matters to to you… your freedom goes up, even though the number of things you’re restricted from doing has also gone up.

        Look closely at the stoplight analogy. Everybody’s freedom is restricted (you’ve lost the freedom to just drive through the intersection) but your freedom of travel is actually increased, because imposing order on the chaos benefits everyone, even the people it restricts. Regulated capitalism is like that, only in hundreds of thousands of ways all at the same time. Pure food laws mean you can’t sell tainted meat any more (darn) but you’re now substantially freed from the danger of tainted meat. Blue sky laws mean you have to jump through a bunch of hoops before you can sell securities, but you now are freed of people selling you blue sky investments. A government that enforces contracts means you can’t break your word any more, but you’re freed of other people failing to keep theirs.
        It’s true that the regulation doesn’t necessarily have to come from government… but government is pretty well positioned to be the arbiter. You may not like having faceless bureaucrats decide your fate… but it’s probably better than having someone with a vested interested against you deciding it. The notion that you can decide your own fate is quaint, but poorly grounded in reality.


      • Andy Cleary says:

        IMO James, you have basically given an argument for why “freedom” is an incoherent concept for defining a social/political system, since you have shown all sorts of paradoxes and contradictions that would occur were you to create a system based on “maximizing freedom”. It’s easy to demonstrate situations in which one is taking an action perfectly aligned with libertarianism but is not “maximizing freedom”, e.g. if I own a small business and I decide to close it down, I have reduced everyone else’s freedom in that you no longer have access to my service/product, but clearly it is within libertarianism for me to decide to close my own business. Many actions that a person may take as part of their ownership of resources are going to reduce others’ freedom, sometimes very much on purpose.

        The core of libertarianism isn’t maximizing some positive concept like “freedom”, it’s restricting certain negative behaviors such as the use of violence or violation of property rights. It’s valid to evaluate the efficacy of a given socio-political system by metrics such as “freedom”, but you can’t base a legal system on it.


    • Paul E. "Marbux" Merrell says:

      @ “Today’s citizen is more free than the citizen of the previous revisions of the United States government.”

      That depends mightily upon your definition of “free.” There are counter-arguments, including inter alia: [i] given the crash of 2008 and resulting widespread unemployment and under-employment that our oligarchs seem to have no intent of fixing, today’s U.S. citizen on average is far less free because of reduced income and purchasing power; and [ii] between man-caused crises such as uncontrolled population growth, global warming, global discharge of radioactive substances, and oceans used as cesspools so contaminated with pollutants that sea life is no longer fit for human consumption, mankind has set a course that will destroy what currently passes for “civilization” within most living citizens’ lifespans. So it’s less free except for those dwindling few lucky enough to have remained in the middle class and for all it’s freedom with an expiration date.


      • James Pollock says:

        Historically (and I made a historical argument), each generation was economically better-off than the ones before it… more disposable income (after inflation), and more leisure time to spend it. If that is not true now, it will take some time for that to have an effect on a historical level.


      • Andy Cleary says:

        “uncontrolled population growth”:

        Birth rates in developed countries are *below* replacement level.


      • Paul E. "Marbux" Merrell says:

        @ “Violating the contract makes the government illegitimate. So it’s got to be forced back into compliance, or destroyed and replaced.”

        Elaborating on that, there is no such thing as government. I never met one, never changed one’s diaper, never kissed one. Governments exist only in our collective imagination and only to the extent that our imaginations of the concept agree; as jdgalt says, it is a contract that reflects our collective agreement on the words in that contract. But government itself is a mere concept that has no physical existence.

        Our particular form of government is founded on the concept of the Rule of Law (as opposed to the Rule of Man), a utopian concept that will never be fully realized because the Rule of Law is implemented by mere mortals, yet is useful nonetheless because it provides an agreed yardstick by which to measure human conduct.

        But when those implementing mortals ignore the law and act ultra vires, they breach the contract and govern using the Rule of Man. And you wind up with the Nixonian view of personal power, that one is outside the Rule of Law, the view that there is no yardstick by which to measure one’s conduct. It is rejection of the Rule of Law itself, a rejection of the contract.

        And in that situation, society either accepts that the Rule of Law is dead or takes corrective action to restore the Rule of Law. For example, Nixon was impeached and forced to resign. See “I have impeached myself.”

        There is no other choice.


      • Paul E. "Marbux" Merrell says:

        @ “Birth rates in developed countries are *below* replacement level.”

        You’ve missed that notwithstanding, global population continues to grow exponentially. The birth rates you discuss are exclusive of immigrant population. Real population in the developed countries continues to grow.


      • Andy Cleary says:

        “global population continues to grow exponentially”

        I do not think that word (exponentially) means what you think it means.

        I’m glad you’re a libertarian, but I think you’re way offbase on the basic facts of population (the rate of increase of the population worldwide is decreasing; and you called it “uncontrolled growth”, when there is a clear relationship to controlling growth which is “people who are economically successful have much fewer children”, IOW, as economic conditions improve throughout the world, population growth not only slows, it *reverses*), you concern me very much when you use a term like “Uncontrolled” since it implies a need for a “controller” which is hardly libertarian, and your doom and gloom message that the earth and human population are just about to face cataclysm is really just kind of embarrassing. You can base your thoughts on that prediction, but I’m not going to adjust mine.


    • Frank Ch. Eigler says:

      “Under laissez-faire regulation, the economy naturally falls into boom-and-bust cycles […]. Regulated markets cut the tops off the booms, and bottoms off the busts.”

      How well is that actually working out?


      • Andy Cleary says:

        ““Under laissez-faire regulation, the economy naturally falls into boom-and-bust cycles”

        Umm, no, it is the regulation itself that creates the boom and bust cycles. Google “Austrian Business Cycle theory”.


  13. Erwin says:

    While I’d agree that each transition has been driven by deficiencies in the previous state, the law of unintended consequences still applies. Broadly speaking, people are better off under the later states (whether by reduction of risk of invasion, or to lowered mortality risk in the workplace).

    However, there’s a way in which the organic growth of the state is possibly better likened to my refrigerator. The state is large enough, with enough moving parts and history, to mimic the behaviors of organic objects. Much of the greenish, smelly stuff I fished from the fridge following vacation has no backward arc to edibility. Realistically, the only solution involves either trash or compost.

    That said, I’ve wondered what achievable, positive goals are possible from a libertarian perspective.

    A laundry list of major issues might include… (either those that cost a lot of money or those that affect tons of people.
    1. Military spending. This one is fairly simple. Do less. (but, honestly, probably not 90% less, invasion sucks.) 17% of budget.
    3. Social Security? Realistically, perfectly affordable. Possible to eliminate, since old people are pretty helpless. Problem is, they vote. And young people don’t want old people in their homes. 24% of budget
    4. Medicare? See above. There is an argument that sick people should be left to the wolves. Particularly those unable to care for themselves. OTOH, mental institutions, in particular, are cheaper than prisons. 24% of budget
    5. Spying. Well, here’s a clear win.
    6. Public education. Arguable.
    7. General regulation. A lot of little changes. Personally, the permitting process should be made deterministic, with requirement of substantial bonds posting before an appeal.
    8. Non-discrimination stuff? Well, okay. I’m not sure ‘don’t wanna hire xx race’ will be particularly popular.
    9. Privatization of police powers? I’m a corporate drone. And no, just no.
    10. Rule of law? Well, this is important for liberty. One way to reduce the power of the state is to lessen discretion and increase accountability. This would arguably be a really good thing to do. I’d really like whistleblower compensation acts.
    11. There’s another 29% of the budget. (after 6% for debt payments). Some portion is arguable, some portion (roads) should arguably be larger.
    12. Financial industry? Well, this is a big one. But is arguably more of a communication thing than anything else. Probably any company above x in ‘size’ should negotiate a public failure provision with the government in advance. Once they become insolvent, just execute the provision.
    13. Global warming? Carbon tax.
    14. Transparency. Meh. New technology – but increases regulation of government.
    So, aside from making life worse with some sort of revolution, #1, #7, #10, #14 look applicable. However, half of these would arguably make the government larger, just less powerful. There are a couple of other issues that are arguable, but not clearly susceptible to improvement.


    • Frank Ch. Eigler says:

      Re. #3 or #4, gradual decline via inflation-like tricks (making eligibility harder, making contributions higher, making benefits smaller) could be one way to unratchet.


    • Paul E. "Marbux" Merrell says:

      @ “1. Military spending. This one is fairly simple. Do less. (but, honestly, probably not 90% less, invasion sucks.) 17% of budget.”

      I’ve often wondered whether the military budget might be cut even more than 90% if our military were redirected from global domination to pure defense. Notwithstanding “The Mouse That Roared,” we really do not have to worry much about invasion so long as we have our nukes and a small force to guard them.


  14. SlimTim says:

    The 21st amendment repealing prohibition is one example of a backward arch returning the USG to a previous state.


    • mappamundorum says:

      Was it really? Even with the 21st amendment the government almost immediately somehow found an authority to regulate commerce in intoxicating substances that it clearly lacked before prohibition began.


  15. Josh C says:

    You are mistaken. I have discovered a remarkable refutation, which this comment box is too small to contain.

    (Congrats on the new platform!)


  16. j r says:

    I agree with the overall gist of the post, that of a momentum that never reverses. I do, however, have a hard time accepting these supposed state changes. Take USG2 for instance. Here are some things that happened during that state:

    – In 1794, erstwhile revolutionary George Washington sent an army, under the command of “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, father of future revolutionary Robert E. Lee, to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, an act which required SCOTUS to assert the federal government’s ability to intervene in what would have otherwise been a state matter.
    – In 1803, strict constitutionalist Thomas Jefferson put aside his concerns and executed the Louisiana Purchase.
    – In the 1830s, all three branches of the federal government contributed in stripping the Five Civilized Tribes (called so, because they adopted the practices of their ) of their right to hold land and then proceeded to forcibly remove them from that land, so that the government could give it to a more politically preferred group.
    – In 1846, the United States invaded Mexico.

    How exactly did USG2 exist in a completely different state than USG3 or for that matter USG4? You could just as easily posit of model that holds that the federal government has always been, for all intents and purposes, omnipotent, but simply had less reason and less opportunity to invoke its power. Put another way, the one constant in the history of the United States is that the only check to the federal government’s ability to take what it wants from individuals within U.S. borders, and often outside of those borders, has been that sometimes state and local governments get there and take it first.


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  18. jdgalt says:

    As somewhat of a TBC myself, I think I can explain what you’re not getting:

    Let me use a metaphor of my own. Traffic laws such as speed limits do not describe what the drivers and cars out there on the streets are actually doing. They were never meant to explain it. The purpose of traffic laws is to regulate that traffic, to tell us what the drivers and cars are supposed to be doing, hopefully leading to enforcement that will give everyone on or near the road enough ability to predict each other’s behavior that we feel safe.

    Similarly, the Constitution is not supposed to explain government, whether government is understood as a bunch of people or as your metaphorical machine. It’s supposed to regulate it. The Constitution is a great contract the people made which spells out the conditions under which that government is entitled to exist.

    And that contract is violated when the Constitution is “re-interpreted” by lying about its meaning, merely because the people doing the re-interpreting are unable or unwilling to go to the trouble of amending it by one of the proper methods spelt out in Article V.

    Violating the contract makes the government illegitimate. So it’s got to be forced back into compliance, or destroyed and replaced.

    @jr: If you really don’t understand that the government is a creature of contract, read Paine’s Rights of Man.


  19. grifterd says:

    Congrats on the new home, Clark. Interesting read…a more even-handed approach than I generally (whether fair or not) expect of you. I’m curious, though, whether this is simply a feature of the thing called government–I’m trying to think of an system (and, actually, on further reflection I’m trying to think of ANY organic system, whether ideological or biological) that did not expand more and more until something happened to stop it doing so.


  20. Andy Cleary says:

    “But government itself is a mere concept that has no physical existence. ”

    Governance services are very real services, just like postal service or carpet cleaning service or insurance services. In a free society, these services would be provided via normal free market mechanisms, e.g. you might hire a company (or join a non-profit collective, whatever) that helps protect you from assault, helps insure your possessions from theft or destruction, that takes a fee from you yearly in return for a retirement pension, etc, etc. Some service providers might provide more than one of these services.

    “Government” is a short hand for a system in which these services are bundled into a single service provider who then claims – and enforces with violence – a monopoly on the provision of these services.

    So it most certainly has a physical existence, as long as you believe that carpet cleaners have a physical existence. It’s the people who provide those services on the one hand and that use the initiation of violence to extort you into paying for those services and that prevent competitors from operating on the contiguous geographical region that they claim a monopoly on.


  21. Reader says:

    Just left a message but I think it went to spam folder.


  22. Walter says:

    I think I read a Moldbug post that was similar. Good stuff.

    On every software squad there is someone who (similarly to Constitution Man), will tell you all about how the system SHOULD have been designed. Nothing, mind you, about how it currently functions. Just, that if we’d followed Best Practices (a nebulous and shifting framework that involves using your time machine to know what compromises were worth making) we wouldn’t be in this state. We could fix everything, trivially, by just scrapping the existing (enormous, in production, enterprise) suite and writing a new one in this dude’s pet language.


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  24. says:

    So libertarian justice is one that jettisons due process out and instead uses vigilantism. Fucking A.


  25. Pingback: You Come At The King, You’d Best Not Miss | Status 451

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