Thursday, May 5, 2011

An Incoherent Mess Of A Post

There are a about a dozen passages from authors that infringe on FLG's thought process on political matters. He won't list them all, but there are two from Tocqueville that FLG likes to post at every possible opportunity and will do so now. First:
Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated; whereas that obedience which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions only exhibits servitude at certain intervals and throws the burden of it upon a small number of men. It is in vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.

I add that they will soon become incapable of exercising the great and only privilege which remains to them. The democratic nations that have introduced freedom into their political constitution at the very time when they were augmenting the despotism of their administrative constitution have been led into strange paradoxes. To manage those minor affairs in which good sense is all that is wanted, the people are held to be unequal to the task; but when the government of the country is at stake, the people are invested with immense powers; they are alternately made the play things of their ruler, and his masters, more than kings and less than men. After having exhausted all the different modes of election without finding one to suit their purpose, they are still amazed and still bent on seeking further; as if the evil they notice did not originate in the constitution of the country far more than in that of the electoral body.

It is indeed difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed; and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people.

It is important to make an accurate distinction between slavery itself and its consequences. The immediate evils produced by slavery were very nearly the same in antiquity as they are among the moderns, but the consequences of these evils were different. The slave among the ancients belonged to the same race as his master, and was often the superior of the two in education and intelligence. Freedom was the only distinction between them; and when freedom was conferred, they were easily confounded together. The ancients, then, had a very simple means of ridding themselves of slavery and its consequences: that of enfranchisement; and they succeeded as soon as they adopted this measure generally. Not but that in ancient states the vestiges of servitude subsisted for some time after servitude itself was abolished. There is a natural prejudice that prompts men to despise whoever has been their inferior long after he has become their equal; and the real inequality that is produced by fortune or by law is always succeeded by an imaginary inequality that is implanted in the manners of the people. But among the ancients this secondary consequence of slavery had a natural limit; for the freedman bore so entire a resemblance to those born free that it soon became impossible to distinguish him from them.

Then there's this one from Machiavelli, which FLG thinks is the very seed of the modern age:
Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.

Prior to this, authors were, the best way to put it, accepting of the natural world. Nature was an force to be respected, not toyed with. But the passage above changed all that. Eventually, the mitigation of effects of natural phenomena articulated above was adapted by Bacon into the scientific method thusly:
For even as in the business of life a man's disposition and the secret workings of his mind and affections are better discovered when he is in trouble than at other times, so likewise the secrets of nature reveal themselves more readily under the vexations of art than when they go their own way.

Likewise and shortly after, Hobbes took this idea and applied it to politics. People needed a Leviathan to resist the force of political floods and the power to fight Fortune.

Anyway, not so long ago, a far lesser thinker wrote about trying to regulate markets:
And so liberal politics, of which FLG would argue Machiavelli is the fount but that's another post entirely, is concerned only with managing the effects. But to continue Machiavelli's analogy, FLG thinks at some point those canals will overflow and the defences be overrun. Yet, the people who built the canals will say how great the canals are and the people will, after several years of no floods, make decisions based upon those floods not happening any more. Until such time that the dam that held back the waters breaks, and the flood is worse then ever.

Which brings FLG to what prompted this whole post. It's not only the material world or markets, but also international relations. Felix Salmon linked to this article by Nassim Taleb and Mark Blythe about the desire for security, a false security, that leads US foreign policy to support dictators:
Seeking to restrict variability seems to be good policy (who does not prefer stability to chaos?), so it is with very good intentions that policymakers unwittingly increase the risk of major blowups. And it is the same misperception of the properties of natural systems that led to both the economic crisis of 2007-8 and the current turmoil in the Arab world. The policy implications are identical: to make systems robust, all risks must be visible and out in the open — fluctuat nec mergitur (it fluctuates but does not sink) goes the Latin saying.

Just as a robust economic system is one that encourages early failures (the concepts of “fail small” and “fail fast”), the U.S. government should stop supporting dictatorial regimes for the sake of pseudostability and instead allow political noise to rise to the surface. Making an economy robust in the face of business swings requires allowing risk to be visible; the same is true in politics.

1 comment:

George Pal said...

It’s not a mess until you get to Taleb and Blythe.

Allowing political noise to rise to the surface doesn’t fit the narrative that is ‘indispensible government’. Left with nothing to differentiate it from other failed first world countries but an incomparable military, the U.S. government has taken up perpetual war. Dictators and failed states are the dragons that feed the government’s white knighthood illusion.

Taleb and Blythe ought assume they are addressing a high end junkie on AIP rather than a government that had merely made a few missteps.

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