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!).
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.