“Neoreaction” has been much discussed recently, but what is it?
Neoreaction defines itself more in in terms of what it is opposed to than in terms of what it is in favor of.
Fine. So what is neoreaction against?
Neoreaction is the political philosophy that says that democracy is not merely the well-meaning god that happened to fail, but that our current wreckage was predetermined, because democracy fatally intertwined with progressivism since its birth, that it is a tool of progressivism, and that therefore, for a society to accept democracy is for a society to accept its inevitable doom at the hands of progressivism.
What is democracy?
To modern American ears, the phrase “democracy sucks” is an insane statement. To be against democracy is to be against motherhood, apple pie, puppies, and breathing oxygen.
The fact that our reaction (heh) to hearing democracy spoken ill of is visceral, deep, and immediate, is, I suggest, cause to examine that reaction. We humans only react viscerally to things that are coded into our DNA (dangerous heights, smells of rotting — and therefore disease-causing — meat, and so forth) and to triggers that are beaten into us by culture (the idea of stepping into traffic, the bad dream of showing up at the office without pants, etc.).
We in the West have been told that Democracy is wonderful. But what is this democracy that we love?
It’s a little tricky to answer, because “democracy” is a motte-and-bailey term. The motte (the core defensible meaning of the term) is that democracy is a system of selecting leaders by casting ballots.
The bailey (the much larger extension of the term that is switched in invisibly by its proponents to win arguments) is that democracy is a late 20th century “mixed economy” phenomenon where, yes, leaders are selected by ballots, but also where the State has no well-defined limits to its authority, where there are vast bureaucracies that decide everything from how much water a toilet can use per flush to what factories should get built, and where one-third of the economy is under state control.
A typical conservative thinks that the problem with democracy is merely its excrescences, and wants to push democracy from the overly expansive bailey back to the “reasonable” motte.
A typical neoreactionary disagrees, and thinks that the problem with democracy is not in its excesses, but in its core nature. A neoreactionary does not want to reform democracy, but instead wants to rip it out wholesale.
Wait, what? Who could possibly be against democracy — especially the core of it, the voting part? And why?
Well, we’ve defined democracy, but now let us attempt to understand it — which is to say, let us attempt to understand the hold it has over the modern mind.
Those on the right, with their smaller conception of democracy, have a fairly pragmatic regard for the system — they think that it’s a better technology for selecting legislators than other contenders: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others,” in the famous and pithy words of Winston Churchill.
Those on the left not only have a different understanding of democracy, they have a different relationship with the idea. Leftists see it as simultaneously an expressive act, a ritual of community membership, and, like conservatives, as a tool to generate good outcomes.
They are wrong on all counts.
The “expressive act” argument is easy enough to dispatch. Well, not dispatch. The idea is correct, at some level. Voting is an expressive act; but then again, so is punching a stranger in the face. Anyone with a conception of human rights and individual autonomy would suggest that if you want to express yourself, it would be better to take up dance, or keep a journal, or throw clay pots on the wheel — any hobby that does not require that other citizens put their life, liberty, or property at risk merely because you want to bring the legislature into session to express your special snowflake nature.
Likewise, the idea that democracy is valid as a ritual of community membership: it’s true, obviously. We know this because progressives never shut up about it. But if you want to be part of a community, join a church — or failing that, a group of Unitarians — or form a chess club, or find new friends at meetup.com. Fellowship with one’s fellow human beings existed long before Athens and will exist long after Washington, and every instantiation of it in a non-governmental context is less destructive to the liberty of bystanders.
The remaining argument, the one that both liberals and conservatives endorse, is that democracy may be a flawed tool, but it is still the best available one for letting people coexist and pick public policy that affects everyone.
Anarcho-capitalists and neo-reactionaries (who overlap to a surprising degree, but that’s a different story) agree that this is bunk.
Let us formalize the very best argument in favor of democracy’s effectiveness (“steel manning” it), so that when we defeat it in the field of battle, none can say that it was not a fair fight.
Democracy is, properly understood — and properly cheerleaded for — a tool of social coordination that harnesses local knowledge and feedback loops to generate policy decisions. By harnessing local knowledge, it avoids the problems of top-down autocracies that issue orders saying “the people of province X must plant 1,000 acres and generate 100,000 bushels of corn,” ignorant of the fact that province X is experiencing a drought. By harnessing feedback loops (elections), it ensures that a defective leader is removed from power.
Was Churchill right? Is democracy a better tool than others? Undoubtedly. We need only look at the former Soviet Union or the (sadly) current North Korea to realize that one can do worse than democracy.
Why democracy works
Democracy works … at least better than some other solutions.
What does it get right?
Leftists, from the somewhat-reputable communist punk hanging out in front of local 7-11 and begging, all the way down to FDR, often spin schemes to control the prices of goods. There are multiple flaws in their schemes, but perhaps the least well understood one is that they are attempting to destroy information. Imagine a home heated by a furnace where the electrical line from the thermostat to the furnace is cut. How can the furnace possibly know what to do? It will heat the house either too much or too little. And so in the Soviet Union, where there were no prices to gather distributed information and direct it to those people who needed it, there was always too much or too little. Too many potatoes, or, if you prefer, too little labor to bring in the potato harvest.
Once you know to look for it, the phenomenon of muddied control appears in all sorts of places, and under various names. It’s the principal-agent problem when the taxpayer hires police, who then refuse to provide useful statistics to their theoretical masters, or when investors hire a CEO, who then spins the news to his advantage.
And thus we can see the salient benefit of democracy: it provides some feedback, no matter how meager and how infrequently, that tells the leaders what the populace thinks of their policies.
Some feedback is better than no feedback, and democracy is the only system yet invented that gives regular feedback to the government, thus correcting some of its errors.
Why democracy doesn’t work
In what ways does democracy fail?
First, as noted above, many people vote as an expressive act. The typical Obama voter knew nothing of his policies, but wanted to be “part” of “something”. There are all sorts of cultural and emotional connotations associated with Team Pepsi, and people want to affiliate themselves with those signals. Team Coke is no better: many Republican voters are in favor of a culture of God, Flag, and Apple Pie, and cast a vote for the GOP as an expressive act, without knowing or caring the actual positions of the candidates they vote for.
Second, we are rationally ignorant: even if every voter chose to vote based on policy, not emotions, our individual contribution to the outcome of an election is insanely close to zero, and — at some level — we all know this. Thus, almost none of us bothers to educate ourselves about the candidates and their positions. This is, individually, a smart choice.
Third, democracy has the principal-agent problem: we voters send politicians to Washington DC for — well, for whatever purposes we have. We hope that, once there, they will do our bidding…and we expect to motivate them to do that bidding by using the threat of our future votes and future campaign donations. But a lot is hidden in that “voters hope to motivate them”. Because voters don’t have time or inclination to monitor politicians, and because they tend to vote for expressive purposes rather than policy purposes (think of all the anti-war Democrats who support Obama and his various undeclared overseas wars), politicians need only do just enough to appear to serve the voters, while actually pursuing their own policies.
Fourth, we humans are hyperbolic discounters. Given the promise of one marshmallow now over two in five minutes, we choose the one now. Is it any surprise that we, en masse, repeatedly vote for the politicians who promise us bread and circuses today, and a bill that won’t come due for … a while?
Fifth, democracy has the public choice problem. There are many issues which affect each of us very little — ten cents per person in extra taxes for program X, or three dollars per person more in the price of a commodity because of trade barrier Y, or a slight bit of extra hassle in doing thing Z. These hassles, collectively, destroy a lot of value in our lives, but individually, harm us very little. However, these small barnacles did not randomly accrete on the body politic — each is placed there by the dedicated lobbying of some group that benefits quite a lot from the tax, regulation, or trade barrier. Ethanol in our gasoline harms all of us a little, but helps a small influential group quite a lot. The outrageous salaries of some tenured public school teachers harms all of us a little, but helps a small influential group quite a lot. As long as one small group benefits from a regulation, they will be motivated to secure an outsized influence on politicians. And they will succeed.
Sixth, democracy results in negative externalities and the tragedy of the commons. In a world with robust property rights, if I see that I can make a profit by mining gold and dumping the tailings on your property, my plan can only go forward if you and I come to an agreement on how much I’ll pay you for that right. The better tier of environmentalists are fond of noting that the market is a wonderful tool, but there are some unowned things (they’ll cite the carbon content of the atmosphere, or ocean fisheries) that are not owned, and therefore which do not factor into economic calculations. The result of something having a cost, but not actually showing up on the ledgers, is that it is over-consumed, or over-polluted. This is a coherent argument, but it applies to more than just the atmosphere and the oceans — it also applies to untitled, undocumented, unowned things like cultural capital, an educated populace, and low-crime neighborhoods. When politicians can create “profit” for themselves and for their campaign donors by taking from some other group, they face some minor resistance. When politicians can create “profit” for themselves and for their campaign donors by taking from an off-books account like “cultural capital”, they have no effective resistance at all.
Seventh, “democracies” (in the broad sense of the modern western state ) are run less by the politicians than by the permanent mandarin class. Despite the US Constitution enumerating the powers of the legislature, declaring that anything that wasn’t enumerated was forbidden, and failing to enumerate “may delegate powers to a bureaucracy,” the US legislature continually delegates its powers to unelected, unionized, unfireable civil servants. This is a bargain that delivers benefits for every important class of a modern democracy (i.e. the political class and the government employee class): politicians generate permanent voting blocs that know what side their bread is buttered on, and can use the bureaucracies to deliver policies to important constituencies (e.g. the Sierra Club, corn farmers, etc.) while also having plausible deniability when it comes to the ire of the voters (“there’s nothing I can do; the EPA did it!”).
Eighth, the government controls the schools (Head Start, kindergarten, elementary, high school, and — via funding with strings attached — colleges, graduate schools, and medical schools, including private ones), and so it controls what is taught. Which is to say, it controls both what students think and what the the Overton Window describing the limits of acceptable thought is.
Ninth, the government is just one party in an informal, emergent web of like-minded institutions (known in Nrx circles as ‘The Cathedral’). Citizens are educated by unionized ideologically monolithic teachers, watch movies produced by ideologically monolithic Hollywood, watch TV news and comedy-news produced by the same, use search engines that prune, derank, and purge unacceptable content, purchase books and games from e-tailers that do the same, are forced to obey regulations that are written by lifetime government bureaucrats and enforced by lifetime government praetorians, and have their disagreements with the government ruled on by yet more government employees. At no point during the day — from searching the web to buying a shirt to reading the news — does a citizen have an experience that is unmediated by the web of campaign donors, NGOs, bureaucrats, teachers, and culturally approved entertainers. Thus, even if democracy (in the sense of voting) worked, the choices, knowledge, and opinions that give rise to political choices are all so constrained by the operation of the government, that no real dissent or fresh thinking is possible. We will always vote for either Coke or Pepsi; the very idea of Sprite is dangerous to consider (and the suggestion “tomato juice,” being so far outside the consensus, elicits nothing but blank stares or nervous laughter as the silent alarm under the desk is pushed).
Why democracy is unreformable
Democracy pulls a very clever trick that previous authoritarian regimes were not smart enough to invent: it subverts dissent by channeling it into the democratic process. Every time a libertarian votes for Ron Paul or a conservative for Pat Buchanan, not only does God kill a kitten, but some actual anger and disgust that could have worked against the system is instead channeled into upholding the system.
Further, even if in some electoral spasm we did elect a government that a libertarian or conservative could abide, and/or one that Thomas Jefferson would recognize as being remotely American in character, we already know how it would end.
Computer Science and operations research use the concept of a “state machine”: a mathematical abstraction that shows how one state of a system can flow into another. The transitions are crisply delineated. Red lights turn green, green lights turn yellow, and yellow lights turn red … but yellow lights never, ever turn green.
We have two hundred years of data on how democracies (American and otherwise) transition over time. They start out with limited powers and limited budgets. They soon extend the franchise, then extend it again. Then they grow their budgets, grow their power, and grow more socialist…but they never go into reverse. Sometimes they are replaced by dictatorships (e.g. Weimar Germany, Chile), and those dictatorships are in turn replaced by lean democracies, but democracies themselves never shrink themselves.
Green lights turn yellow. Yellow lights turn red. Red lights turn green.
And yellow lights never, ever turn green.
What can replace democracy
Perhaps democracy is the best system that can be designed for our purposes, and we have to live with its flaws.
But perhaps not.
Because the origin of neoreaction (blog essays by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Curtis Yarvin and former University of Warwick philosopher Nick Land) focuses more on the problem of democracy than solutions, there are several schools of neoreactionary thought, ranging from the juvenile to the disreputable to the interesting.
Let’s imagine the characteristics of an ideal system that does not suffer democracy’s flaws:
- achieves good ends (better than democracy) with regard to respect for human rights, rational foreign policy, rational domestic policy, limited budgets, and/or limited power
- does not depend on the rationality of the citizens
- does not depend on the self-education of the citizens on esoteric political topics
- does not, in short, depend on the citizens at all
- does not suffer from the “state machine problem”: will not quickly degenerate into something worse (e.g. democracy)
Anarcho-capitalists such as myself suggest that a David Friedman-esque polycentric legal order, where there is no true government and all services — including legal services — are provided by free market competitors, achieves most of these goals.
The core problem with anarcho-capitalism is the state machine: there’s no reason to believe that even if the US Government disappeared today and were replaced by competing service providers tomorrow, that it would stay gone.
The forces that subverted the absolutely minimal US government organized under the Articles of Confederation and replaced it with a larger government under the Constitution in 1789 (wealthy bondholders looking to get paid) would still exist.
The forces that subverted the pre-Civil War US government and turned it into a centralized ruler of states, not merely a collection of them (evangelical Massachusetts progressives) would still exist.
The forces that subverted the early 20th century US government and turned it into a regulatory state (again, evangelical New England progressives) would still exist.
No, as much as it pains me to say it, my dream of an anarcho-capitalist order in America is unrealistic.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and a United States without a government is a power vacuum.
Something will fill it; the trick is to engineer a system that occupies the space, fills the ecological niche, refuses the high ground to the enemy … and yet does minimal harm, and does not grow.
The proposals are many, and center around, variously, Singaporean or Chilean style light-touch autocracy, a dissolution of the US into a “patchwork” of small countries covering the map (each just strong enough to defend itself from its neighbors), corporate ownership of the state apparatus (which incentivizes the owners to reduce waste and maximize utility), and others.
In line with Bastiat’s “seen and the unseen,” or Robin Hanson’s “near mode and far mode,” it’s much easier for us to see both the benefits and the flaws in democracy than it is to see the flaws in systems that don’t yet exist.
Neoreaction may be an intellectual circle-jerk, or it may be the early rumblings of something new and exciting.
… or perhaps it’s both.
Regardless, in an era where neither right nor left have anything useful or serious to contribute to the debate and merely argue about what epicycles and what flavor of soda syrup should be mixed with water, I find it a refreshing political ferment.
If it’s sometimes too raucous and way too distasteful, forgive it; it’s young.