I was really excited to hear about the video debate between Noah Smith and Michael Anissimov on neoreaction.
Noah is an economics professor and author of the fantastically punnishly named blog Noah Pinion. He’s also a pretty liberal guy who lists Paul Krugman as one of his heroes. Michael is a Bay Area futurist (possibly not his official job title?) and author of the moderately punnishly named blog More Right. He’s also a sort of spokesperson for neoreaction and someone I’ve argued with a lot in the past. Both are very smart guys.
I was looking forward to the debate because real engagement and discussion between reactionaries and nonreactionaries is hard to find. Even my FAQ, which I hoped would start that kind of engagement, got a couple of brief rebuttals, which I tried to briefly counter-rebut, and then the whole thing died down (this was partially my fault, but I was trying to save my comments threads from becoming too hostile and heated).
The debate didn’t really live up to my expectations, though. Both sides were just too nice and reasonable. My impression was that Michael made weaker claims than usual, presenting his ideas as hypotheses or as a basis for future discussion rather than as assertions, and Noah was pretty happy to agree they were interesting hypotheses and that the future discussion should take place. But the debate that did take place was on a pretty high intellectual level and I feel like I learned some stuff.
First the video, and then my thoughts:
Michael began by criticizing modern society’s social isolation, which he blamed for things like rising depression, rising suicide rates, and poor civic engagement. However, he was very willing to admit that some (most? all?) of this was because of big technological changes like urbanization and industrialization, which in my opinion didn’t seem to leave much room for him to make any political point with it. Noah agreed that social isolation was bad and probably due to technology, and suggested it would be nice if technology somehow managed to solve social isolation. Michael agreed that if technology managed to solve social isolation, that would indeed be nice.
Noah then made much the same point I did in my FAQ – that happiness has generally increased in most countries in the past fifty years. Michael agreed this was true of the developing world but said it was ambiguous/no change in the developed (I don’t have a strong opinion on this). He said that he realized it might not work to go back to the time of monarchies and aristocrats, but that even society fifty years ago seemed a lot more stable and connected. I was confused by this part because it seemed to be cavalierly dismissing everything he has ever said up until now – he previously was pretty set on monarchies and aristocrats.
Around 10:47 they realize they don’t actually disagree on this issue and move on. Michael tries to milk one of his hobby-horses (sorry for mixed metaphor), and talks about how the phrase “all men are created equal” is obviously balderdash since some people are better than others at practically everything. Noah makes exactly the response everyone makes when confronted with this claim – that the founders obviously didn’t mean something completely stupid and so we should assume they meant something more like “everyone is equal under the law”. Michael agreed the founders weren’t completely stupid, but says that this latter reasonable meaning gets misinterpreted by everyone into the stupid meaning. To which all I can say is that it doesn’t really seem to me like lots of people are making this misinterpretation.
I would also point out that this is a case where we should read history of philosophy backwards. The Founders lived in a time when it was still considered reasonable to think that certain people were natural slaves who didn’t deserve legal rights – I’m not even just talking about blacks here, there were Irish slaves in America only a couple generations before the Revolution. In a lot of countries nobles were bound by different laws, faced different criminal penalties, paid lighter taxes, and were reserved most of the high government positions. So “all men are created equal” had an obvious and natural meaning to the Founders – “You know that stuff that everyone else is doing? We’re not going to do that.”
The debate then briefly degenerates into both of them debating the vague term “equality”, with Noah having warm fuzzy feelings about it and Michael having deep-seated anger towards it, without it really touching on concrete examples of policy proposals at any point.
Around 14:05 they move into a discussion of capitalism. Both are broadly pro- free market, but Michael thinks capitalism is insufficient because “it accords status based on who is the best merchant”. Noah requests that Michael differentiate better between “status” and “money”, which is a heck of a good point. Michael points out that money is a really important component of status in our society, which is also a pretty good point.
If I’d been involved I would have asked Michael how else one accords status. Like he says it should be for “service to the community”, which is very nice in principle, but how exactly does one cash that out? Old aristocracies had status depend on accident of birth, which seems even worse than effective merchant-ing. Besides that the only place I can think of for him to go is some sort of proposal like “the President is allowed to give people large cash rewards along with the Medal of Freedom”, which is pretty interesting as far as proposals go but not really neoreactionary.
Around 23:45, Noah says that modern non-traditional societies seem to be richer and more successful in pretty much every way. I was waiting for Michael to make what I think is the proper response – that the causation probably goes the opposite way and that wealth causes modernization and collapse of traditions. Instead, he argues that America had an unfair advantage because it had lots of land and natural resources and won World War II. I started yelling at my computer screen telling Noah to respond “Russia also has lots of land and natural resources and won World War II, but they did very poorly because of their dictatorial social structure”, and to my delight he complied.
Michael then said that democracies inevitably degenerate into tyranny. Once again I started yelling at my computer telling Noah to argue that historically democracies practically never degenerate into tyranny but monarchies seem to degenerate into tyranny quite a lot. And as an economics professor, I was hoping he would point out that the de Tocqueville “democracies spend themselves into bankruptcy” argument is wrong and that federal spending isn’t as bad as everyone thinks and government interest rates are impressively low. Noah says some stuff sort of to this effect, and then says changes the topic, saying “let’s mosy on to monarchy”, which I hope becomes a reactionary slogan.
Noah starts this off with a very ill-phrased claim about technological stability by saying (31:30) that “people in 1700 AD lived in about the same way as people in 1700 BC”, which makes me start worrying about the credibility of everything else he’s saying. I will excuse it as an on-the-spot attempt at a flourish of speech. But he goes on to say how technology has changed a lot since then, monarchies have mostly gone away, and “the only kinglike system I’ve seen instituted recently is North Korea”. Michael counters that Romania is considering restoring a monarchy, saying it will be a real monarchy and not just a figurehead, although his blog post sounds less sure. Some discussion on Romanian monarchy and how Romanians like their (currently non-governing) king more than their democratic government.
I would have added here that of course Romanians like their king, but this is only because the king serves as an apolitical focus for nice fuzzy feelings, the same way most Brits like Queen Elizabeth. So it’s unfair of him to say that the higher approval ratings for the king than the prime minister represent a good argument for monarchy. If the king had to do what the prime minister did – govern – people would find fault with him soon enough.
At about 34:45 Michael changes direction, and says that his main point in pushing monarchy is the “organic state”. I keep getting confused by this term because when I hear “organic” I think of organic farming – you know, leaving everything alone and letting it develop of its own accord, kinda a Taoist sort of thing. But Michael, apparently drawing from Evola, means (AFAICT) almost the opposite – a state in which everyone is united towards a common purpose. I don’t know how fully I understand this idea – for example, it would seem this would make Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution the organic state extraordinaire, since every citizen had to be totally devoted to the declared goal of the state – but these don’t seem like the sort of thing reactionaries usually support. This debate did nothing to allay my confusion.
Michael here makes probably the most memorable quote of the debate – that to him, America doesn’t even seem like a country in the organized-nation-state sense, it just seems like a place where a bunch of people are living next to each other. This doesn’t seem healthy if you want to stay stable and work on complicated projects together.
He makes a good point, but I would argue that America is united on certain uniquely American values. Those values happen to be freedom, democracy, and all men being created equal. Like, patriotism seems to be a really big thing here, and it tends to be expressed in terms of “We are really free! Freedom is great!” and then feeling smugly superior to people who are not free. When people express dislike for these values, we don’t burn them at the stake or anything, but we do tend to tut-tut at them pretty loudly.
And these are probably the only values that America stably can hold. The idea of being a united monoethnic nation-state missed the boat when the original English colonists started letting in German immigrants in the 1700s, let alone anyone else. Given that people disagree about nearly everything except the freedom-justice-equality complex, it’s hard to imagine what else our organic-state-goal could be without kicking out or silencing a pretty substantial portion of the population.
Noah didn’t bring this up, but he did say he thought liberal diverse countries were more stable than “organic” countries, which was the opposite of Michael’s claim. I think the gist of his argument was that if you have a unifying vision for the state, then you have to fight a lot over what that vision should be and people who don’t agree with it get upset, whereas liberalism is pretty live-and-let-live. Seems broadly correct to me.
I think a point that both miss is that organicity is an effect rather than a cause. If everyone in your country is the same ethnicity and agrees about everything, life is easy; but liberalism seems like a technology developed to deal with the tougher situations where this isn’t true. Compare to a philosophy of marriage that couples stick together if they always agree about everything, versus a philosophy that couples stick together if they learn how to set boundaries and fairly resolve disputes. The first kind of marriage is a good deal if you can get it, but the second seems like more of a real-life solution.
Noah points out that empirically, liberal societies are more stable and successful than organic ones; Michael counters with China getting rich; Noah counters with everyone in Asia got rich, China was actually last to do so, and this seems independent of government. Michael (43:00) says empiricism isn’t the proper tool for this kind of thing and we should rely on theory instead. This claim always sets off flashing red lights for me, but your experience may differ.
Around 44:10, the discussion moves to aristocracy. Noah expresses what I was wondering too – given that America has really rich people who tend to pass their wealth on to their kids, what’s the difference between an aristocracy and what we already have. Michael says real aristocrats would give back to the community, for example by sponsoring festivals. To me this doesn’t answer the question of how we would transform the Rockefellers, Kennedys, etc into “real aristocrats”. Flashy red robes? A title? Giving each of the fifty richest families them absolute power over one state? Without something more specific I can’t have opinions on it one way or the other.
Noah doesn’t push against this, and talks about how aristocrats in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere mostly just hold huge parties and become really corrupt and don’t give back to the community at all. Michael agrees this sometimes happens, but says aristocracy is high-variance, which is a good point – and I am usually pretty in favor of moving to higher-variance things because of the value of experimentation and evolution. But he doesn’t address Noah’s broader point which is that as far as I know there aren’t any awesome aristocrats in Saudi Arabia to serve as the far right tail of the high-variance bell-curve and this seems to be a fact that requires explanation.
I remember once reading an article that noted America has a lot of super-awesome give-back-to-the-community super-right-bell-curve rich people: the ones who come to mind are Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Peter Thiel. But that these people, as a class, are almost always first-generation self-made entrepreneurs. The actual aristocracy – the people who have had billions of dollars for generation – mostly spend their time playing polo, buying very expensive status symbols, and occasionally becoming Senator or something. The article conjectured that being born to wealth isolates you from reality enough that you lose your ability to be awesome and get stuck in the aristocratic culture of endless status games. An alternate explanation would be that you need a pretty high IQ to be as awesome as Elon Musk, and tech entrepreneurs mostly have it and fifth-generation old rich don’t (even if the first aristocrats had high IQ, regression to the mean ensures that barring outright eugenics the fifth generation won’t). So I predict that having a hereditary aristocracy would actually be worse than our current method of just having very rich people who are occasionally super-awesome. I can certainly think of fascinating non-hereditary aristocracy proposals that might work, but this gets into one of my general points that once we make neoreaction interesting or useful, we’re building novel utopias and not trying to return to traditional forms at all.
Michael continues on his variance point and says that monarchies have greater variance than democracies. Noah agrees but says variance is often because something goes wrong and does not imply anyone has a higher mean. This seems like an important point to me. For example, hospital patients have much greater variance in their level of health than people not in hospitals, but this does not imply that some long tail of hospital patients have better health than the non-hospitalized.
At 53:30, we move on to gender roles. Michael says the collapse of the family has caused profound damage to society, and that the best way to fix this is to reinstitute traditional gender roles.
Noah says we have to be really careful cashing out “collapse of the family”, but he doesn’t push it and this doesn’t really happen.
Noah says it would suck to make women stay in the kitchen all the time, and uses the example of his sister, who is apparently a very skilled lawyer (and, he notes, can’t cook). How would it be remotely effective to say she can’t practice law?
Michael says maybe she should practice law until she has kids and then stay home to take care of the kids. He agrees it is sad she can’t practice law more, but that it’s a tradeoff and it’s socially more important to avoid broken families than to maximize female earning power.
Noah asks “If two parents live together and split work responsibility and family responsibility, how is that a broken family?”
Michael then freezes, going completely silent for like two minutes. I was moderately hopeful that he was having some spectacular crisis of faith, that Noah’s comment had given him such an epiphany that he could only sit, awestruck, as he re-evaluated everything he thought he believed in. Unfortunately, it turned out that it was just computer trouble. After two minutes, he pops in again, saying that although this may work for the upper-classes, it is too complicated a solution for most people, and that “well-educated people overestimate the degree to which we can mess with traditional gender roles.”
I understand what Michael was trying to get at – it was exactly the point Ross Douthat made in his Social Liberalism As Class Warfare article I linked to this weekend. But I don’t think Michael ever really got there. And so I never got to hear Noah address it, which is too bad as he’s a smart guy and I’d be curious what he thought of it.
Then there was more computer trouble and everyone just decided to call it a night.
Overall I was impressed with the politeness and moderation of both debaters, but I felt that (maybe as a result of that) not a lot got said. If I had been Noah, I would have tried to force Michael’s broad value statements into specific policy proposals. If I’d been Michael, I would have focused more on specific failures of modernity – even though he’s had some excellent Facebook posts on rising crime rates recently that have mostly changed my opinion on the matter, crime barely came up at all.
Hopefully this will inspire more similar discussions in the future. And if Michael ever wants to debate me, he is welcome to do so for as long as he can tolerate my computer’s terrible microphone and constant whirring grinding noises.