Ribbonfarm likes to talk about refactoring, a conceptual change in how you see the world. I’m not totally sure I understand it, but I think it means things like memetics – where you go from the usual model of people deciding what ideas they want, to a weird and inside-out (but not objectively wrong) model of ideas competing to colonize people.
Here is a refactoring I think about a lot: imagine a world where people considered culture the fourth branch of government. Imagine that civics textbook writers taught high school students that the US government had four branches: executive, legislative, judicial, and cultural.
I think about this because I have a bias to ignore anything that isn’t nailed down and explicit. Culture isn’t nailed down. But if it were in the Constitution in nice calligraphy right beside the Presidency and the Supreme Court, why, then it would be as explicit as it gets.
Like many other people, I was hopeful that nation-building Iraq (or Afghanistan, or…) would quickly turn it into a liberal democracy (in my defense, I was eighteen at the time). Like many other people, I was disappointed and confused when it didn’t. The people in the world that considers culture the fourth branch of government weren’t confused. Bush forgot to nation-build an entire branch of government. If he’d given Iraq a western-style Supreme Court, marble facade and all, but left their executive and legislature exactly how they were before, that would be a recipe for conflict, confusion, and eventually nothing getting done. So why should westernizing their executive, legislature, and courts – but not their culture – work any better?
The world that considers culture the fourth branch of government doesn’t get all confused calling hunter-gatherers or peasant villagers “primitive communism” or “anarchism” or “ruled by elders” or things like that. Those people’s governments have a cultural branch but not much else. Why should we be surprised? Medieval Iceland had only legislative and judicial branches; medieval Somalia only had a judiciary; some dictatorships run off just an executive.
Each branch of government enforces rules in its own way. The legislature passes laws. The executive makes executive orders. The judiciary rules on cases. And the culture sets norms. In our hypothetical world, true libertarians are people who want less of all of these. There are people who want less of the first three branches but want to keep strong cultural norms about what is or isn’t acceptable – think Lew Rockwell and other paleoconservatives who hope that the retreat of central government will create strong church-based communities of virtuous citizens. These people aren’t considered libertarians. They might be considered principled constitutionalists, the same way as people who worry about the “imperial presidency” and its use of executive orders. But in the end, what they want to strengthen some branches of government at the expense of others. The real libertarians also believe that cultural norms enforced by shame and ostracism are impositions on freedom, and fight to make these as circumscribed as possible.
Debates about primaries and the Electoral College are understood to be about how to determine who controls the executive branch. Debates about gerrymandering and voter suppression are understood to be about how to determine who controls the legislative branch. And debates about censorship, the media, and – yes – immigration – are understood to be about how to determine who controls the cultural branch.
In our hypothetical world, the First Amendment specifies “This shall apply to the first three branches of government, but not the fourth”. Still, debate goes on. Some people are happy the first three branches are kept out of it, but glad that the culture censors the speech of people who shouldn’t be talking. These people are another set of principled constitutionalists, the same as people who want to make sure only Congress (and not the President) can declare war, but don’t mind war in and of itself. Other people really are free speech purists, and think that no branch of government should be able to restrict the marketplace of ideas.
I admit this is kind of a silly hypothetical. Culture is much more different from the three branches of government than they are from each other; a civics textbook writer would have to be pretty strange to think it was worth tacking it on. Still, it’s a useful (if extreme) counter to forgetting to ever think about culture at all.
More than this already exists without a name. It’s the group of people who came to consider government a veneer, a skim on culture to tell ourselves it’s more rational.
“Government is the distant seventh most powerful branch of culture.” or something.
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Whatever group controls the bureaucracy of culture will then control the direction of many Americans’ lives.
If you think that accusations by the fringes of shadow/deep state/whatever governments are bad now, imagine how true those accusations will be when the Powers That Be in entertainment maintain government, or pseudo-governmental office with coercive powers.
What major government office, and culture is major, doesn’t have coercive police power?
Obviously, the point of this is merely illustrative, but if taken out to its logical extent you’ll end up in a far more polarized situation. America’s already divided enough, think how angry many would be if football protests received a government mandate with armed reprisals on those who dislike those actions?
Or the reverse. Imagine how angry many would be if the police repressed football kneeling on the mandate of the culture-office?
Simply: Integrating culture into the government could quickly result in violence.
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This goes along with an important generalization: there are many dimensions of power. Military, police, legislation, judicial, cultural, monetary, industrial, demographic, worker unions, organized political parties, etc etc. Where these things work together in a formalized and disciplined way, we have the state. Where they are fragmented, misformalized, and uncoordinated, we get damaging civic conflict and confusion.
The response to the culture-power and utility-monopoly-power censorship of for example Alex Jones is instructive. Many affirm that it wasn’t censorship, and doesn’t violate the principle of free speech, etc. In a technical legal sense, within the formalism, this is true. But there is an important sense in which the coordinated actions of power are always actions of the state, no matter whether the formalism recognizes it or not. Or perhaps, once the power elite is taking coordinated political action, and *governing*, through some dimension of power, we ought to admit that that dimension of power is part of the *government*, and begin thinking about how best it should be formalized and disciplined.
There is a legal concept here, where a private company can be considered to be a ‘state actor’ because they take on responsibilities of government, whether because the responsibility is directly bestowed or whether it develops to the point where a company becomes sufficiently important to achieve that status. It doesn’t get invoked that often, but the idea you’re floating approaches the ‘state actor’ idea.
If you’re a libertarian (not saying you are), there’s a big problem with invoking this principle. If I call you a state actor, I’m saying you’re performing government functions. For example, if you run a private prison and abuse prisoners, we can tell you that you can’t do that. Or more generally, anyone who runs a penal institution that accepts people convicted by the State must abide by certain rules of conduct.
Think about applying that to media institutions, or search engines, though. Are we willing to say that media distribution is a government function? Is search an essentially government-provided service? It doesn’t matter, to the courts, whether government actually provides the service, if it’s determined that it is a government service.
Next, are we willing to say that anyone who participates in providing media or search services should be governed by the rules people want to enforce?
Maybe we say, “at a certain point it becomes de facto governance”, which is probably true. Who governs that? The Trump administration today, or whoever gets elected tomorrow? It’s not easy to craft effective rules under these circumstances.
I recently read “The World Until Yesterday”, by Jared Diamond, in which he describes what it was like to live in small bands and tribes prior to the modern nation state. Interestingly, very small bands had no government except culture. Even the village elder had no decision-making authority, just sufficient cultural clout that people would bring their problems to him for mediation, but he couldn’t say, “Steve should get the pig.” unless Steve agreed to that.
As a sole form of government, this proved sub-optimal, given the near ceaseless rounds of revenge killings of one family against the kin of another. It’s all in the book, which I’d highly recommend.
Meanwhile, as a sort of sub-floor government, culture was never Anisha as me layers of government were tacked on, and is often fought over at least as much as the presidency or Congress, because a win has such far-reaching effects. For example, Mother’s Against Drunk Driving wanted to change the culture, so they decided to target, not the drunks themselves, after all their judgement was already impaired, but their friends.
They figured out that people often knew when a friend shouldn’t drive, but were afraid to say something for fear of jeopardizing a friendship. It simply wasn’t part of the Cultural Code of Conduct that you could stop an inebriated friend from driving, even if you wanted to. So they (and others) started campaigns to change the culture. ‘Friends don’t let friends drive drunk’, ‘take the keys’, and dozens of movies and TV shows depicting scenes where a friend intervened (or didn’t) and later their friend thanked them (or died, or killed people and asked, ‘why didn’t you stop me?’ etc.).
They deliberately changed the culture in a way most people would agree with, in a more effective and lasting way than if they’d passed legislation or gotten a SCOTUS decree. MADD aren’t the only ones who know this, and in fact is really not a secret, even if people using it often try to keep their efforts from being known. People don’t like knowing they’re being manipulated, even if they know it’s happening all the time.
For example, tobacco companies work hard to get their products in Hollywood movies, despite the fact that smoking rates in the USA have been falling for decades, and even their research shows Americans don’t smoke more when they see it on screen. So why the push? Because foreigners see ‘cool’ Americans smoking and want to be like them. So movies that depict smoking increase global sales by shifting culture. There’s a delicate art to buying cultural changes.
TFW SSC rediscovers Louis Althusser’s conception of (social) ideology as an (informal) state apparatus, except within a mistake-theoretic paradigm instead of conflict-theoretic?
Is this what Carl Schmitt means by nomos?
Elizabeth Anderson has done work recently arguing that in many cases, the best way to think of employers is as a form of privatized government that controls the employees. This is definitely distinct from culture, because different people are subject to different employees even when subject to the same culture.
I usually think of the government as a culture incorporated. The US government has a tendency to expand outside of this role.
There are two kinds of power, real power and symbolic power. Real power is money, and symbolic power is prestige. Corporations are the manifestation of real power (if something is needed, and it can be done, the corporation forms to aid in the production of value). Governments are the manifestation of symbolic power (if something is wanted, and it can be done, the government enforces norms).
The government is a mechanism for turning symbolic power into real power. But there is an exchange rate. Even in the 80s, people didn’t hate (symbolic power) cocaine enough to stop the drug cartels (who had real power, the power to give people cocaine). Child labor is an example of when this goes right. As child labor becomes less valuable, and moral sensibilities turn against it, eventually the balance tips and the government can regulate it out of existence.
Sometimes the government gets real power from sources other than symbolic power, and that degrades their legitimacy, their ability to wield symbolic power. Consider the Military-Industrial Complex. This gives the government money and incentives that don’t originate culturally. Now the government is just another corporation.
I consider myself a libertarian, and I just think the government shouldn’t become sentient and start trying to change culture or forcing people to conform to a culture they aren’t actually part of. The government is only acceptable when it acts as an avatar of the culture, doing no more and no less, caring for nothing other than public sentiment, and only acting when public sentiment is actually sufficient to accomplish the goal. Follow the child-labor model, not the drug war model or the military-industrial-complex model.
I’m confused by your comment about “real libertarians”.
Libertarianism is a legal theory, ie. it concerns the legitimate use of force.
Lew Rockwell, as an anarcho-capitalist, subscribes to non-aggression based on an understanding of the nature of property rights. He’d probably defines government (or more precisely the State) something like “a territorial monopoly on arbitration and the use of force”, and he therefore opposes it.
So I don’t understand how you can say that he’s promoting some branches of government, or Constitution.
It might help if you confirmed the definition you use for “government”.
And I also have trouble to understand how shame and ostracism (ie. not associating with) can be considered aggression. It seems to me that only a tyrant or an abuser would think he can control people’s thoughts (the opinions they form) and their willingness to associate (or not, as in ostracism).
The hypothetical “real libertarians” you present sounds like a abuser/tyrant who forbids criticism (shame) from others and forces people to abide by his will (to associate with him against their preference). It amounts to denying people’s agency and self-ownership…
Having tumbled down a bit of a rabbit hole here, I just wanted to revisit Scott’s previous point about universal culture. In general, I’ve found that, with one exception, people do aspire to the same goals. I mean, you sit down in a bar in Nairobi, and buttonhole someone there what he would like to see happen in his society. It’s always: prosperity, low corruption, minimal taxes but some sort of safety net, rule of law, independence from foreign bullying.
But we can see by revealed preference (watching peoples’ actions) that their goals often also include cracking down on or eliminating annoying ethnic minorities, persecuting members of the wrong religions, having the police enforce proper moral conduct (bans on homosexuality or lewd conduct or hate speech), invading some foreign country for national pride reasons (Chinese w.r.t. Taiwan), etc.
And enforcing traditional roles for women. People may have very similar goals for themselves the world over, but their goals for other people vary dramatically.
Your model of “real libertarianism” is incoherent.
Suppose culture really is as constraining as government, that having someone gossip about you or publicly shame you really does have as much impact as physical violence. In that case, those who shame are committing an act akin to violence and the shamed individual has every right to respond with violence. (That should be sufficient as a reduction to absurdity, but…) Now obviously shaming does not involve physical violence or violations of property rights, so “normal” libertarianism (which “real libertarianism” supposedly accepts and extends) cannot condone violence against shamers and gossips. I’ve already shown that “real libertarianism” does condone such violence, so it logically contradicts “normal” libertarianism.
Put in plain English, would you use a gun to make Lew Rockwell shut up about the value of a culture that opposes heroin use? If yes, you’re not a libertarian of any stripe. If no, you’ve repudiated the central claim regarding “real libertarianism”
I’ve responded to a similar comment above.
Some people are happy the first three branches are kept out of it, but glad that the culture censors the speech of people who shouldn’t be talking. These people are another set of principled constitutionalists, the same as people who want to make sure only Congress (and not the President) can declare war, but don’t mind war in and of itself. Other people really are free speech purists, and think that no branch of government should be able to restrict the marketplace of ideas.
Alternatively, support for free speech is itself a cultural norm. For instance, for the 50 years prior to 2015, there were fairly robust norms against using non-government power — as employer, for instance, or street mob — to fire or intimidate people for what they say. Those norms are not nearly as bi-partisan as they once were. So I’m not sure people who believe that the key to “free speech” is restraining culture are headed to a place they actually want to be.
This is starting to approach Rudolph Steiner’s Threefold Commonwealth. It makes use of 3 governing bodies:
political (human rights)
economic (commerce, production, etc)
cultural (education, courts, etc)
Each body is (in theory) responsible for its concern and cannot overrule another governing body. So if the cultural sphere decides the workweek should be 25 hours, the economic sphere can only respond with a summary of what the consequences of such a policy will be – they can’t overturn it in any way.
The boundaries of the spheres don’t have to be the same. You could have a political boundary containing 3 economic spheres which each contain 10 cultural spheres.
If nothing else, I’ve found it super useful to always keep in mind the three perspectives of 1) human rights, 2) culture and 3) economics when it comes to issues in the news/culture wars. Usually people are arguing from 1 of the 3 spheres.
Why would the length of the workweek not fall under economics?
Viewing culture as a fourth branch of government is actually a good way to understand Trumpism. The right and left are roughly balanced in their control of the three explicit branches, which is a reflection of the fact that we live in a democracy and there are about as many conservatives as liberals. But the left is absolutely in control of the culture branch, and the right isn’t happy about this, for obvious reasons, thus Trump. I submit that if you believe in democracy, and think that the culture branch has real power, then you should believe that the left must surrender a substantial share of its cultural power to the right for the sake of basic fairness.
A problem is that there isn’t some secret cabal of Grand Leftists who set social tax policy, there’s just the Laffer-mediated balance of self-reinforcing spirals of debatably-useful outrage and their accompanying anticorrelated spirals of public support. How would surrendering lots of cultural power even work, simply practically speaking and setting aside questions of right and wrong?
An equal time rule for every minority political opinion?
I feel like there’s a bit of (probably unintentional) equivocation here though. There’s one sense in which Scott’s post is referring to culture in the sense of what people normally think of as culture: social norms, ways of life, shared interests. Then there’s another sense where it’s basically used to mean “everything that people do that isn’t explicitly part of the political/legal system,” where it refers to things like the (for instance) the way the USSR was actually run in practice, as opposed to how it was supposed to be run according to its official laws and institutional frameworks, even though that probably had very little to do with Russian culture per se. And with a country like Afghanistan it could be very easy to conflate the two and say “Afghani culture is what’s keeping the people of Afghanistan from actually having the democracy that their Constitution says they have,” but that’s an easy example, and even there it’s far from the whole story.
Many European countries see culture as state business, France mainly, but most have a ministry of culture. Even the US has a department of arts and culture but I’d never heard of it before I decided to duck for it*
*Just came up with this as a substitute for googling when using duckduck go. Think it’ll catch on?
You didn’t “decide what ideas you want” as a baby. People installed software on you and you had no choice in the matter and culturespace is vast. As you said, a specific “universal culture” won and dominated the world:
See Sarah Perry’s article:
> My claim is not so extreme [relative to bicameralism]: I simply argue that there are and have been many forms of human consciousness, varying in particular ways, that we retain the “hardware” capability for many forms of consciousness, and that humans are constrained into particular mental states by their cultures, especially through group ritual (or lack thereof). In order to explore this claim, it is helpful to think about our own form of consciousness in detail – a form of consciousness that is novel, contagious, and perhaps detrimental to human flourishing compared with more evolutionarily tested forms of consciousness running on the same hardware.
I don’t want to get into “No True Scotsman” country here, but would you be so good as to name one?
I always thought commercial power should have been framed as a fourth branch of government at least for checks and balances purposes. I always thought of culture as one of those exogenous forces that nobody can do anything about. I’m a little conflicted about which I hate more, for-profit schools or parochialist schools, which I guess for me is double the reason to defend public education no matter what.
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There are still lots of places in the world where culture is explicitly a branch of the government; for example lots of Soviet-type places have a Minister of Culture. The government takes it upon itself to create and maintain appropriate cultural norms for its citizens, to ensure harmonious operation of society. This idea is not new.
Indeed, what was the Spanish Inquisition except an effort to make sure proper cultural norms were maintained for the good of the souls of the people?
All totalitarianism is rooted in the idea that one may legitimately use force to direct society. It is precisely why genuine libertarianism (as opposed to Scott’s “real libertarians”) is specifically aimed at government (meaning a monopolist on the legitimate use of force, as the sovereign has been for most of modern history in most of the West) rather than society; libertarianism is not a general program of social reform, it is opposition to totalitarianism.
This is why, for example, non-discrimination laws are opposed by libertarians. A genuine libertarian doesn’t sit down and estimate whether the law results in net “liberation”; he says, “You’re trying to use force for a purpose other than stopping the use of force; that is the mechanism of totalitarianism. It does not matter in the least what good end you think you are promoting; all tyranny is force used for ‘good ends’.”
It is the very fact that classical liberalism (which was a program of social reform) fell into the trap of “does this use of force result in net liberation?” that destroyed it. Some followed the net-liberation model into “social liberalism” and thence into becoming indistinguishable from the general socialist/progressive spectrum. Some noticed how often the net-liberation model resulted in disaster, and followed Burke into the new model of conservatism. And some noticed that both the crimes of kings and the crimes of commissars were all were rooted in the idea that you were allowed to shape society with force, and abandoned general reform in favor of a single-point stand against those who would reform society, however iniquitous, with guns.
Moloch is more of an agency refactor. Or even better, the Toxoplasma of Rage with second-order agents interacting with the top level agents of “culture”. Definitely a useful way of modeling social phenomenon!
I’m not sure it is very useful to think of culture as a separate “branch” of government, or as a separate “power” of government (which is what Scott seems to mean when he says “branch”). But, political scientists have been doing what Scott suggests for years, since the “cultural turn” in the social sciences, back in, I think, the 1970s. See, e.g. http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100781850
I’m amazed that (as far as a search shows) nobody in the comments has mentioned that “refactoring” is a term of art in programming, and one that seems like it must have been explicitly borrowed for this purpose*.
In programming, say you have some code X, taking some inputs and producing appropriate outputs (performing work Y). Over time, evolving requirements, or just experience on your part, have either changed it or your understanding such that the code is now obvious inefficient for doing Y.
So you refactor it; keeping the inputs and outputs the same, you redesign the internals to do it in a more efficient (faster, more maintainable, less error-prone, whatver) way.
(The details of common modes of refactoring can be looked up if you care, but are irrelevant for understanding the concept as a term of art in programming.)
(* Indeed, their about page says this: Experiments in refactored perceptions is a geek joke. It refers to changing how you see the world by trying to rewire the software inside your head through writing.
Which … sort of misunderstands the term in its “geek” origins, since the point of refactoring is to make the software do the SAME job, better, more than improving the outputs. That’s a redesign more than a refactor.)
If you’re going to try to generalize concepts that describe the United States Government fairly well to all people ever, you will necessarily miss comparisons in both directions.
At many points, the military was itself a part of the government, not a fully subservient entity. At points, law enforcement was not a government function.
It might even be a better refactoring to consider formal government to be a subset of culture, rather than vice versa; because culture can have major differences without a change in formal government, but formal government cannot change without there being a massive change in culture.
Scott, you are making a great point, but I think there is already an extensive literature on this topic which has already blazed the trail on how to frame the importance and distinctions of culture and government.
This is an issue which Douglas North made a career writing about, as well as many others, including Mokyr, Ober, Wallis, Weingast, Fukuyama, Acemoglu and Robinson (one could even add Hayek to the list). I would be glad to give recommendations on articles or books if anyone is interested.
To try to summarize all this into a digestible bite, they consider institutions to be a subset of culture (which is knowledge that is shared socially and includes, along with institutions, ideas, techniques and artifacts). Institutions themselves are about how people act and interact together which includes moral beliefs, religion, social habits, protocols, values, shared expectations and such. But “institution” also refers to more concrete and formal entities such as the rule of law, branches of government, the constitution, law enforcement and such.
Putting it all together, what you are referring to as “culture” is what North and others would call “informal institutions” which act as a foundation for the “formal institutions” such as the three branches of government. Explicit in most of their writing is that the formal institutions depend upon the underlying foundations and that if the informal foundation is different or changes greatly, that the institutions built upon them change as well (and vice versa eventually). Democracy in Latin America is somewhat different than democracy in Canada (different informal cultures) and very different from what it would be in Iraq (which specifically includes the fact that non-Christian societies did not get the dramatic effects on culture of a millennium of church squelching of clans and cousin marriage, which despite WEIRD ignorance has been dominant in most of the world).
Summarizing, culture is not framed as a fourth branch of government. It framed as the informal foundational institutions upon which the formal institutions are built. The formal and informal institutions co-evolve and influence each other in complex ways (they are part of a complex adaptive system).
I remember when Mencius Moldbug made a similar argument that “the Cathedral” and the permanent bureaucracy (closely tied together, of course) were the actual important arms of government, while the elected officials were as phony as the opposition parties in East Germany. I derided this at the time and compared him to Foucualt in his debates with Chomsky. But the idea goes back even earlier to J. S. Mill’s “On Liberty”, where he considered the threat of public opinion to be a grave risk. Paleolibertarians would argue that Mill wasn’t a libertarian at all, but merely an elitist who feared government to the extent that it was democratic and thus under the influence of people he distrusted (he was perfectly fine with colonialism, where backward people were ruled by their betters). I don’t call myself a libertarian any more (I try to keep my identity small), but I think they’ve got him pegged.
Is there such a thing as a society which doesn’t have a “cultural” branch, analogous to ones that lack these other branches?
That a human being should do something is not to say that the heart should do something, or ensure that it is done. Nor does it actually make any sense to treat the rest of the body as a fifth chamber of the heart simply because some people are confused by the heart’s importance into thinking it is the whole human organism.
It is true that the people who believe the heart is the whole human organism would have their understanding improved somewhat if they thought the rest of the body was a fifth chamber of the heart, but what they really need to learn is that the heart is only one organ among many.
That the body should filter poisons from the human bloodstream is not to say that the heart should, or that the heart should make sure the kidneys do it. That a bodily process is important does not mean it should be any responsibility of the heart, whose role in the purification of blood is simply pumping it.
And certainly one shouldn’t actually “refactor” the whole human body such that the rest of the body actually is only a fifth chamber of the heart.
“If you think the situation on the ground in Iraq is a product of its culture, history, or religion, think about what would happen at São Paulo, Paris or Los Angeles after three years of 50% unemployment.”
Fareed Zakaria, circa 2007, hopelessly misquoted from my memory.
Newsweek paper magazine editorial, can’t find the quote now. As I recall, the numbers applied to a handful of key cities in the sunni triangle. The whoule country number was about 20%, 30% excluding the almost normal Kurdish area, and had been there from 2003 to 2006.
There are plenty of instances where those in power didn’t “forget to think about culture.” They actively tried to alter the culture of a minority group or a nation. Nowadays, this is sometimes called cultural genocide.
Paging Forward Synthesis. He had an older blog post discussing how free speech, democracy, and open borders form an engineering triangle (pick/prioritize two out of three: get it fast, get it cheap, get it to spec). A debate is not only to be had about whether Free Speech the principle should apply to culture, but if there are any trade-offs between liberalizing the culture branch versus other branches.
For example, would progressives be amenable to blanket bans on Fascist and Communist parties in exchange for guarantees against censorship by private entities? The idea isn’t that farfetched: The Czechs considered banning the KSČM and eventually banned their youth auxiliary for some time, and then actually banned a far right nationalist party.
At least IMHO, we would be better off if “alt-right trolls” were able to keep whatever space they have online as containment. Apparently its not that hard to infiltrate these groups as long as they’re using the web to organize. Therefore, it would generate less false positives to identify a fascist political party (is a political party continually talking to some violent nationalist group we’re inside) than to try and use blanket censorship tools. The question is if progressives feel more comfortable with am explicit rule that says “No Fascism in your political organization” than a strategy of “We will use private organizations to stop nationalist thought, including payment processors.”
That and figuring out how actually “enshrine in law” (i.e. pass Constitutional muster) a valid method to discriminate against political parties without the potential for abuse in the United States.
This just means to me that “real libertarians” are people who like to have sand in their nose, eyes, ears, and mouths, because they clearly have stuck their head quite deep. No where do we see the intermediary social functions like Elk clubs, churches, etc diminish without government taking over the role served, and twice as much. And this is obvious, the Elks choose their members, the government does not, so eventually government becomes captured by the worst people living in the land, not just the poor and immoral, but the rich and immoral. Immorality is the key to political power in a government structure, whereas in a community intermediary model, reciprocal benevolence is the strongest mode of advancement.
>whereas in a community intermediary model, reciprocal benevolence is the strongest mode of advancement.
…. you might be watching too many sappy movies.
Lots of local-level organizations end up with horrible, genuinely-evil people in charge.
You often find crooks in high political offices… but if you want to find the really little power-mad micro-Hitlers you need to look at the sort of people who become members of HOA boards.
Little religious compounds run by someone who’s declared himself jesus aren’t so much known for their mutual benevolence and fairness so much as all the 12 year old girls being pregnant with the prophets children.
Since oversight against systemic corruption doesn’t scale downwards well local-level politics also tend towards being vastly more corrupt since there’s often little real oversight.
“reciprocal benevolence” doesn’t tend to get so much as a look in. Take away the framework provided by higher authorities and laws and you remove limitations on the actions of such people.
There are always opportunities for little tyrannies, but its is clear from the writings of de Tocqueville that America had a proliferation of clubs and mutual aid societies that no other country on Earth even approached, and it created a social fabric that tamped down the desire for a proliferation of government aid.
Note that there are social structures – not exactly nations – that *do* manage culture like a branch of governement: Big companies. And it is well-known and taught. I first learn about it when reading Growing Pains. There is a whole chapter on it and you can easily google it (“growing pains managing culture”). Here is a link: https://www.mgtsystems.com/culture-management-1/
I wonder whether that’s why big companies win in the competition with states.
Ya, when I worked in a big american multinational for a while I found the company culture thing suuuuper creepy.
It was like an pseudo-religion that they seemed to expect you to carry home with you, complete with all the dogma and things that aren’t true but nobody points out because that’s against the culture.
It couldn’t be just a job, they wanted you to make it part of your identity…
I’ve seen companies try to do this, and even seem to succeed with a lot of their employees. I mostly notice this when the company is insisting that people demonstrate agreement with blatant untruths, or trust of people who’ve either explicitly claimed not to be trustworthy, or are known to have betrayed others in the past. When this happens, I wonder why so many employees seem to be gullible enough to fall for this, and whether that’s yet another bit of bad evolutionary programming that doesn’t work in groups too large for everyone to know each other personally, and too transient for iterated games of prisoner’s dilemna. Or I wonder if they are simply better actors than I am, and less emotionally distressed by living a lie.
OTOH, every large company I’ve ever worked for had its own culture. In many cases, the cultures were severely dysfunctional, or dysfunctional in specific ways. In some cases (e.g. the large employer with a chronic oversupply of alcoholics, particularly in management), I can’t imagine how this culture could have been intentionally chosen by anyone acting in the interests of company or shareholders. (OTOH, once you get some most-of-the-time-functional drunks entrenched in the company, everything else follows, as they hire and promote people they enjoy working with…)
I wonder why so many employees seem to be gullible enough to fall for this
A kind of Stockholm Syndrome maybe? I mean, if you’re dependent on your job financially and also being continually pressured to act a certain way or else risk losing the job, it’s not hard to see why even non-gullible people could get sucked into it. I think religion (or even secular ideological communities) can sometimes function in a similar way. If you’re dependent on a group and the group believes certain things, it’s an adaptive mechanism to mold your beliefs to theirs.
Many don’t. However, they signal compliance with the culture claims to get a paycheck. In addition one of the ways that I’ve seen untrustworthy managers get in a lot of trouble is when their subordinates act like they trust them. Sometimes complying with an untrustworthy person is an effective form of sabotage.
Because people who perform correctly get promoted. And for the rest of everybody who keeps their mouth shut, the stock options keep vesting.
It is I think a mistake to view “corporate culture” as being just hamfisted attempts by management to forge an artificial culture through lame speeches and teambuilding exercises and whatnot, that only gullible people would fall for. Corporate culture is absolutely a real thing, even if management makes no deliberate attempt to shape it, and it profoundly affects the way corporations work and compete. Boeing has a different culture than SpaceX which has a different culture than Aerospace corporation. Apple has a different culture than IBM which has a different culture than Sun Microsystems – and it’s not a coincidence that one of those isn’t around any more. I suspect ADBG and Plumber could tell us about the cultural differences between various bookkeeping and plumbing shops that they have worked in over the years.
Culture is baked into a corporation – or a government agency – at its creation. It comes from who you hire, what you ask them to do, what you actually reward them for doing, and how you structure their relationships with each other. And, like other forms of culture, it is resistant to chance. Which is why all the hamfisted attempts at cultural reengineering, by managements realizing they are handicapped by poor or misaligned culture, are so laughably ineffectual. But if your takeaway is that the other corporations, with well-aligned cultures, are just good places to work that don’t have any culture, you are missing something.
The term you are looking for is “paradigm shift”.
I think you have it backwards: government is a branch of culture. To be precise, government is the institution created by a civilization to deal with certain kinds of coordination problems.
This was not an accident. Bush could reform all branches of the Iraqi government by fiat, but he couldn’t change the Iraqi culture. It’s not like he forgot to, it was just not in his power to do so. And since culture precedes the government, the thing that Bush created was an alien grafted on the Iraqi society that was eventually rejected.
Bush, and many people who supported him, or generally believed in procedural democracy as the natural endpoint of human government, thought that culture followed from government: if you have the right institutions then culture will adapt to them. There were some historical precedents supporting this: Japan became largely Westernized after the American occupation post-WW2, Germany and Italy were already Western but they further Americanized and democratized post-WW2, Eastern Europe Westernized after the fall of communism, without even the need of an American occupation. So it wasn’t prima facie implausible that it would work in the Middle East, but it didn’t. Both Bush’s heavy-handed occupation approach and Obama’s light-handed “Arab Spring” approach utterly failed. The tribal culture of the Arabs, Afghans, and perhaps Muslims in general, seems impervious to attempts at democratization.
As I read down the thread I discover that I was the third person to think of this. I agree with you and Guy in TN.
This is correct… generally. I think you could make an argument that modern China is a state where culture is a branch of government. Remember the modern Chinese state came to power with the Cultural Revolution. Think about the level of pain necessary to dictate a culture to a population. I think something like the Cultural Revolution is probably close-ish to the minimum necessary.
I don’t really think it’s a good thing for culture to be considered a branch of government.
All of these countries had at least some prior experience with elected parlaments, rule of law and capitalist economy (the only exception is Albania which is still not quite a functioning democracy).
The kind of people that want to serve as an example for that in the Muslim world (e.g., the YPJ/YPG/Rojava/Kurdistan experiment) are abandoned by Western realpolitik whenever their power approaches a point where they might present challenges to our prestigious allies like the Saudis or the Turks, etc. Democratization fails because we only want to encourage/force it in places that preserve our current system of relations and power as-is and not the more difficult places it emerges from organically
This is interesting and helps to state a question that is important but not talked about in US politics. Should the other three branches of government follow cultural norms or shape them? Should the other three branches govern for and enforce a ‘better’ culture and enforce these laws? Should the other three branches accept culture as a given, and focus on protecting rights.
Following cultural norms is slow. Chesterton’s fence keeps important rules that are not fully understood in place. It also keeps poor rules in place.
Shaping culture is fast and powerful. It is also dangerous, because some changes cannot be easily undone. When governmental attempts to change culture don’t take, things can get ugly.
This is not an easy question to answer. Attempts to shape culture range from prohibition in the 1920’s to the civil rights reforms of the 60’s.
I think this is really, really true, although as common, you described it much more clearly than I’d been able to conceive of it.
To pick really blatant government related examples, in some countries or times, there’s an understanding that “if multiple parties need to form a coalition to govern, they play nice and agree what each will get and don’t repeatedly renege and engage in last minute brinkmanship to get more, and if they do, the voters turn away from them” or “if power passes back and forth between two parties, the one in charge doesn’t immediately gerrymander everything to try to lock the other one out forever”, and in other countries or times there isn’t. And that trust needs to be grown over time, it can’t be imposed in one fell swoop. And once it’s destroyed it needs to be rebuilt.
And all society is like that. Think of things like “paying tax” or “not embezzling” or “driving under the speed limit with a seat belt”. It matters both whether they’re normalised and whether they’re legal, those both affect each other.
I’m sorry, but culture as a fourth branch of the government doesn’t make sense to me. Culture is already a subject of the government, so all three branches of the government controls it.
Here’s an example. Agriculture, i.e. growing pigs isn’t a fourth branch of the law, but that doesn’t mean that the government doesn’t care about growing pigs. The government makes agreements with the EU about how many total pigs people in Hungary are allowed to grow. The legislative government makes a law for how to enforce that quota, and how to distribute the right of growing pigs among individual people who want to grow pigs. The executive government handles all those little details, such as reading the forms, and looking into people’s pens to check whether they’re lying about their pigs. The judical branches figures out which government executives have been handling out pig growing licenses against the rules, such as giving licenses only to their brothers-in-law or to people who gave them tasty pig sausage, and hands out punishment when they can prove this. None of this requires that the government itself grows pigs.
Similarly, culture is a subject of the government, which means they control it to some amount, but don’t necessarily do culture themselves. Making cinema films is expensive, so the executive government subsidizes it according to the rules made by the legislative government. People illegally copying the home media publications of those expensive films can hurt the profit of the people making the films, so the government tries to make sure that this doesn’t happen. There’s a very old promise that the government doesn’t do censorship, which means that they’re not supposed to be able to ban specific types of culture if people pay for it from their own money. In the sixties and seventies, this was simply blatantly ignored, and the government did censorship openly, while claiming that there’s “a free press” and no censorship. These days, the government is a bit more subtle about directing culture to the form they want, but that doesn’t mean they’re not doing it.
No, influences it. And vice versa.
Yes, vice versa too. Such as the feedback when the angry farmers who actually do agriculture protest by pouring milk to the sidewalk in front of the ministry.
I believe that the strongest influence on people’s behavior is “people like us do this” and “people like us don’t do that”– anything a government can do is secondary.
Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but I’m not sure why you think that the influence of secondary factors can’t be just as strong as primary factors. If all that is influencing people’s behavior is “what people like us do or don’t do,” then over multiple iterations culture will fail. People will defect, slowly at first, but more will join when they see it’s safe.
An example is risk management. There are three lines of risk management in a large organization, for instance a bank. A trading desk has it’s own risk manager who is supposed to make sure that the desk’s trades don’t breach the existing policies. Then there are separate risk management and compliance departments that routinely review the bank’s risk policies and make sure that the first-line managers aren’t breaching their thresholds. And then there is internal audit, which goes back and checks and makes sure that all of the institution’s rules are being followed. In this example, risk management and internal audit are the secondary and tertiary lines of defense, but they’re just as influential and important to the process, because without them the front line norms would fail.
I don’t think custom is the only force, just the strongest. And when a government (or anyone else) wants to change culture, it should be aware of what it’s up against.
I don’t think rules are the only thing that prevent defection– I’m not sure of everything that prevents defection, but if it were a steady downhill slide, the world would be much worse than it is.
Good post, but I think a lot of government-like actions that you ascribe to “culture” would be more accurately ascribed to “private coercive power”, since my civic-class understanding of culture tells me that “government” is already located under that umbrella. My conceptual outline:
–C. Religious beliefs
—-4. Culture (…again? Isn’t there a more specific term for this?)
If your point was simply something along the lines of “government affects the world, but things like language and local cuisine also affects things”, then yeah I guess that’s true, but not very interesting.
However, I’m thinking you have a more acute critique, which is that there are people able not just to influence, but to control us in a manner very much like that of the power of states. This would be the private coercive power. It can take many forms, but some that jump to my mind are the authority of property ownership, the authority of the family, and in some cultures the authority of religion.
I do enjoy ssc, but the more I read, the less I think Scott understands what “libertarian” means.
Did you catch his post specifically about libertarianism? What do you think of it?
That’s from a bit before I started reading ssc, I’ll check it out, thanks!
Just getting through the intro, I would already flunk Scott on the intellectual Turing test.
Failing to distinguish between libertarian, Libertarian, and an-cap isn’t necessarily a red flag in a piece for a general audience, but since he’s already splitting libertarians into separate ideological buckets, and moreover, is so eager in the counterexample to distinguish between socialist, communist, and Stalinist; this is either a total lack of understanding of the divisions in libertarian thought, or blatant rhetorical hyperbole. On ssc I’m not sure which is the more slanderous charge.
Far from believing “industry can do no wrong”, libertarians are unqualified critics of corporate welfare (both dems and reps favoring handouts to their respective pet industries), and libertarians are the most ardent champions of public choice theory, which often explicitly blames industry for government failure (E.G., regulatory capture).
If Scott can’t or won’t parse basic distinctions like the difference between ‘pro-market’ and ‘pro-industry’ I think it’s entirely fair to conclude he either doesn’t understand what ‘libertarian’ means, or is strawmaning the term. I like Scott, and so prefer to believe the former.
Update: skimming through the faq (it’s quite long and time left to edit this comment is running out) but I see both effects. Scott switches between neo-classical libertarian arguments and anarco-capitalist ones apparently unaware that these are completely separate schools of thought (and as far as I can tell, doesn’t acknowledge the existence of Austrians). More troubling, he is strawmaning the ‘libertarian’ arguments, and then shrugging off his own strawmaned rebuttals:
“and you think government can do better?”
“Seems like it.”
This exchange is unserious in both directions, but seems typical from my admittedly brief skimming.
“This is a repost of the Non-Libertarian FAQ (aka “Why I Hate Your Freedom”), which I wrote about five years ago and which used to be hosted on my website. It no longer completely reflects my current views. I don’t think I’ve switched to believing anything on here is outright false, but I’ve moved on to different ways of thinking about certain areas.” Yeah, it gets some stuff wrong. Scott is human after all.
Right… I did read that disclaimer, but I think I’m making a different point. I’m saying I don’t believe Scott ever actually investigated libertarian thought in a deep way. And not just in his piece several years ago; my eyebrow goes up basically every time Scott mentions libertarians, which was what my OP was about. In his recent writing (case-in-point: the post these comments are under) it seems like his understanding of ‘libertarian’ is not well founded.
In response to that comment, someone asked me for my opinion of his non-libertarian faq, so I took a quick look. I specifically did not refute any of Scott’s arguments against ‘libertarian’ philosophy or economics as he perceives them in the piece. Rather, I confined my comments to what I could infer about the depth of his understanding of libertarianism as a whole, which seems disappointingly shallow. Double disappointing that he doesn’t seem to have improved at all on the subject in the past several years.
Have libertarians agreed on the definition of a liberterian yet?
0.1 takes for granted that the size of the state is the only or major issue for libertarians. Some people might talk that way, but is that what they really mean or a shorthand?
“judge the individual policy on its merits” takes meta issues for granted. A liberatarian can take those for granted, but personally I think that is where all the action is.
0.2 “some seemingly intractable problems can be solved by a hands-off approach”. This takes property rights for granted. So long as the state is enforcing property rights, is anything a hands-off approach? The question is, is the government supposed to be the referee, or making goals for one of the teams?
Okay, I’m picking nits. What do libertaians have to agree on to earn the name?
If only culture were a branch of government! Then it might actually be accountable to the People.
Piss off the public enough and you get boycotted. Of course, pressure groups can do it too.
Government is an organization, culture is not. I could go on, but maybe instead I should try to express Scott’s idea in a less self-contradictory way? What is Scott trying to say by imagining culture as a fourth branch of government?
The Iraq example does not help much. Obviously, a society is not identical to its government. We can force a society to change their government, by destroying the government and seeking to influence their attempts to rebuild it. But can we force a society to change the way we want it to? A society is more than a government, and even clever or cruel governments may fail to get societies to obey (ahem drug war cough).
Government performs various social functions, culture performs various social functions; in some circumstances they overlap and reinforce each other, in others they conflict. Which one is the dog and which is the tail?
What is unusual about government? Scott seems to emphasize its role in enforcing rules (though that is hardly unique to it) And indeed, culture also creates patterns of behavior that we might as well regard as sorts of rules, though enforcement will be more informal and (usually) nonviolent. But then is physics the fifth branch of government?
“The executive makes executive orders.” It also chooses who to investigate, who to prosecute, what charges to bring or dismiss and what plea deals to offer. The legislature creates the parameters and their range of application, the executive sets them.
“The real libertarians also believe that cultural norms enforced by shame and ostracism are impositions on freedom, and fight to make these as circumscribed as possible.” I’m not sure shame and ostracism are the best tools for motivation, but shall we make disapproving of someone into a thoughtcrime instead? How do we eliminate ostracism without punishing ostracizers with ostracism or something worse? This is why Scott says “as circumscribed as possible”. But this glosses over some problems, I think. Maybe I should just say it. This calls for a means of social control that does not have punishment as the failure mode. That means that shame and ostracism will not be prohibited (unless a prohibition with no punishment for violations counts as a prohibition) but rather rendered obsolete.
What would it mean to make government into the second, third and fourth branches of culture?
In fact, shame and ostracism are often advanced as useful tools for social advancement in libertarian/an-cap frameworks. E.G., ‘if you don’t like sweatshops, don’t use the force of the State to ban them, simply persuade your peers to boycott companies that use them’.
Yes I agree, refactoring ‘government’ as an outgrowth and formalization of certain cultural norms makes much more sense than assuming culture is an informal offshoot of government. And it adresses the Iraq puzzle more elegantly.
I don’t think it’s true that we forget to talk about culture at all. I think it’s that conversations about culture tend to be generally terrible and so people avoid them if they can, unless they’re trying to do culture war on purpose. And I think that conversations about culture tend to be terrible, because people all to often fall into the habit of my culture and the culture of the ingroup is the logical expression of our natural superiority filtered through whatever travails we’ve had to go through, but the culture of the outgroup is a realistic expression of how they’re not as virtuous and have had everything handed to them but still come up short.
But there are objective and fairly honest discussions of culture that are absolutely essential to understanding any topic in social science. You just have to know where to look for them.
This sounds not entirely unlike the idea of the Ideological State Apparatus, as written about by Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser:
“Ideological state apparatuses (ISA), according to Althusser, use methods other than physical violence to achieve the same objectives as RSA. They may include educational institutions (e.g. schools), media outlets, churches, social/sports clubs and the family. These formations are ostensibly apolitical and part of civil society, rather than a formal part of the state (i.e. as is the case in RSA). In terms of psychology they could be described as psychosocial, because they aim to inculcate ways of seeing and evaluating things, events and class relations. Instead of expressing and imposing order, through violent repression, ISA disseminate ideologies that reinforce the control of a dominant class. People tend to be co-opted by fear of social rejection, e.g. ostracisation, ridicule and isolation. In Althusser’s view, a social class cannot hold state power unless, and until, it simultaneously exercises hegemony (domination) over and through ISA.”
Sounds a lot like Marxism itself.
Eh, sounds like your particular ideology.
By which I mean, I believe this is precisely the kind of offhanded self-congratulatory bullshit that Scott, in the most recent open thread, asked everyone to cut out.
I’m not sure what it is that I’m congratulating myself on, but I apologize sincerely if this has pissed you off in any way.
It’s a bit of curt comment, but not at all meant to be snarky or provocative. I legitimately believe that this description of how culture works is truer in societies led by Marxists than by almost any other group of ideologues. Some other authoritarian societies come close, though.
And really, what I think is that when Marxists construct these theories attempting to define culture as a means of social control, what they are really doing is setting the scene for their own political commissars and Marxist theoreticians to institute a new means of social control. Because if the culture of the liberal democracy is really just a smokescreen for controlling the proletariat for the material benefit of the capitalists, then of course Marxists have to destroy that culture and replace it with one that serves the true interests of the masses.
And I accept that, as should be implicit in the way in which I complained.
I’m just saying that it was one of those “irrelevant to the topic”, “matter-of-fact offhand comments that are spoken like they’re so self-evidently true that no one could ever believe otherwise, and which would be hard to imagine someone saying unless they felt the type of people they were talking about were beneath them” (hence, “self-congratulatory”). I do not mean to single you out specifically, it was just the first of its kind that I noticed after Scott’s recognition of the problem incentivized me to point them out. I am talking, of course, of the specific variation, common around those parts, about broadly-defined leftism obviously and intentionally leading to all the harm and misery in the world.
I think use of the term refactoring came from software design, where it is used to refer to a modification that is intended only to make the design more understandable or expandable, without actually changing any functionality. Kent Beck came up with a paradigm of development that I will summarize as “when making a functional change, first refactor until the way to make the change becomes simple, then make the change.” This has the advantage that refactorings have been formalized to the point where some of them are fully automated and others nearly so, and they should never break test suites, so any bugs introduced should be easier to find and eliminate. Only the final step of adding new functionality requires new testing software, and if things work out (ha ha) this should be fairly trivial.
Applying this to worldviews isn’t straightforward for me. Maybe, the resulting worldview would provide identical predictions to the original, but be easier to apply, apply to a larger domain, or be more easily understood. I’m not sure how else to analogize the “functionality equivalence” aspect of refactorings.
There’s a concept in left-leaning libertarian groups of “thick” and “thin” libertarianism. Thin libertarianism is when you concentrate on challenging the power imbalance of the government versus individuals. Thick libertarianism is where you also try to address social blocks in the way of individual autonomy, such as racial prejudice, impediments to free association, and the oppression of novel or experimental lifestyles.
I’ve always thought that this was great observation, hampered by a terrible name. Maybe this fourth branch is another way of thinking about it.
Thick libertarianism is where you also try to address social blocks in the way of individual autonomy, such as racial prejudice, impediments to free association, and the oppression of novel or experimental lifestyles.
Isn’t this just progressivism, though?
Haven’t read the article closely, but skimming it, I do get the impression that they are trying to repackage progressive ideology as a type of libertarianism, which seems a little disingenuous. Or at least needlessly confusing.
A thin libertarian, while acknowledging that racists have a right to hold and express their views, would still argue that being a racist is incompatible with being a libertarian, since racism is a collectivist mentality that’s mutually exclusive with libertarian individualism. Same goes for any other -ism that pre-judges people on the basis of their group identity. A thick libertarian, on the other hand, would argue that a sexist racist homophobe could be a libertarian as long as they didn’t support the use of government oppression or criminal violence/intimidation in the service of their bigoted views.
Thin libertarians don’t have to be left-libertarians or progressives – Ayn Rand would be a thin libertarian.
You seem to have reversed the two in some places?
I’d make a distinction:
a. You might think racial discrimination is just a preference, like preferring pork chops to steak. Government shouldn’t get involved, nobody should be upset, just you do you. (Some libertarians are here.)
b. You might think racial discrimination is morally wrong but that the state shouldn’t be able to interfere. People who openly discriminate might still face the dislike of their neighbors, customers, etc. (I think this is probably the default libertarian view.)
c. You might think racial discrimination is such a big barrier to personal freedom that it requires a government response even though normally hiring decisions should be done without government intervention. (Various libertarians made this argument after Rand Paul made an argument along the lines of (b) in public.)
Some thin libertarians fall into the first category. Most thin libertarians and all thick libertarians fall into the second, but there’s a further distinction to be drawn:
b1. You might think that racial discrimination is something that’s undesirable but not incompatible with libertarian views. In this sense, it would be comparable to something like meth addiction: Most libertarians agree that meth should be legal even if it leads to addiction, but they’d still see the choice to do meth as a bad decision, not merely a neutral preference like choosing pork over steak. Still, they wouldn’t say that a junkie couldn’t be a libertarian either, because even though it’s a poor life choice, it’s not one that contradicts libertarianism on a philosophical level. This is how a lot of thin libertarians see racism.
b2. You might think that racial discrimination is something that’s both undesirable and incompatible with libertarian views. In this sense, it would be comparable to something like communism: Most libertarians agree that it shouldn’t be illegal to be a communist or to express communist views, even though they strongly disapprove of communism. However, they’d also say that someone who chose to express communist views couldn’t be a libertarian, because communism and libertarian contradict each other on a philosophical level. This is how thick libertarians see racism.
That’s a specific kind of thick libertarian. A libertarian who would think segregation is necessary to get and/or keep a libertarian society would also be a thick libertarian.
See also my other reply here.
AFAIK Ayn Rand held the same view of racism as you ascribe to the thick libertarians in the quote above.
What do you mean by “progressivism”, is the question? Because that word gets used to mean a number of different things.
I think discussion of this whole area tends to be pretty confused due to some seriously overloaded terminology. But if by “progressivism” you mean something like leftism or SJ, then I’d say the answer to your question is no. As I understand the term, thick libertarians are essentially coming from the liberal tradition, not the leftist one. What they say may sound similar, but the meaning is often different. Both would agree with the statement “racism is bad”… but would mean entirely different things by racism! I mean, consider the fundamentals — a thick libertarian is an individualist, considering groups to have no moral relevance beyond that of individuals composing them; the person I’m contrasting them with isn’t and will make statements the libertarian considers meaningless.
a thick libertarian is an individualist, considering groups to have no moral relevance beyond that of individuals composing them; the person I’m contrasting them with isn’t and will make statements the libertarian considers meaningless.
That is an important distinction. But it wasn’t just the “racism is bad” angle I was reacting to, it was the whole article. It felt like it was making the argument that thick libertarianism is about continually promoting a culture that maximizes individual liberty as a value, while discouraging cultures that don’t. The idea of pushing certain cultural norms (even pro-liberty ones) feels anti-libertarian to me. Though some of the examples they use as anti-liberty culture actually involve direct use of force (i.e. mutilating people’s genitals against their will) which are or ought to be illegal, and so I think would fall more under the scope of laws and government (which would, according to their definition, be “thin” libertarianism).
Progressives have always used the justification that the existence of certain cultural norms rob people of individual choice (as far as gender roles, or whatever) and that therefore “the personal is political” and in order to have true freedom they need to change the culture through social engineering. I’ve always seen libertarianism as a more hands off, “do your own thing” approach, as a recognition that there is no single culture that will work for everyone, and that trying to tamper with culture often does as much harm as good.
The idea that a libertarian should not push cultural norms is also a form of thick libertarianism i.m.o.
I think you are too quick to map “racism is bad” to progressivism.
There are lots of things that are bad, and lots of things that are bad in the specific maaner of reducing personal autonomy. Contemporary Western civilization, while not perfect in that regard, has gone a long way towards defeating the particular harms of racism. So when someone needs a generic example of badness, and their first thought is “racism!”, then my first though is that they are coming from a progressive-adjacent place.
to pile on and double team this disrespectful dog:
Uh, haven’t read the article and I don’t plan to, but I get vibes of marxist arguments about freedom; you know, you need to be able to actually exercise your freedoms (which may be impossible under capitalism) as opposed to just having legal freedoms. Replace “capitalism” with “racism” and you get the thing we’re talking about – kind of like how progressives replaced capitalism with racism as the thing they really don’t like. So, logically, it’s probably progressives pushing this schtick.
The “progressive” examples in the article are just that: examples. The author could have used “conservative” examples also. See also my other replies here and here.
That said, left wing thick libertarianism (aka left-libertarianism) differs from progressivism that left-libertarians don’t want to use the state (or physical force) to make other people behave the way they think is right. They wouldn’t have the government force you to bake a wedding cake. Instead they might organize a boycott (if they thought it was important enough).
I don’t think you’re using the term left-libertarian correctly. Traditionally, “left-libertarian” refers to people on the far-left who have socialist, communist, or left-anarchist views but oppose the authoritarianism of far-left dictatorships (i.e. social anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, anarcho-communists).
However, over the past few years, I’ve noticed people using the term to refer to free-market capitalist libertarians who either support centrist economic policies rather than being a die-hard believer in a totally unrestrained free market (e.g. believing we should have some taxes, some welfare, and at least a little bit of regulation) and/or hold progressive stances on social/cultural issues (e.g. supporting racial equality, feminism, LGBT rights, sexual freedom, and recreational drug use, in ways that go beyond just saying that there shouldn’t be legal impediments to those things). This is a bastardization of the term that basically conflates actual economic leftists with centrists and social progressives. It’s more accurate to say that the centrists are simply moderate right-libertarians, and that the social progressives are economically right-leaning while culturally left-leaning.
I’m using left-libertarian here the way some self-proclaimed left-libertarians use it. See e.g. here. Maybe libertarians like this shouldn’t call themselves “left-libertarian”, but they do. And what else should they call themselves?
notably nathan robinson calls himself left-libertarian, probably a good example of what LadyJane is talking about
that said I don’t know how you could tell which definition he was using since both work for that original post, nice job sniffing it out I guess
I’d agree, but disagree with Scott in the OP–I think “libertarian” originally meant mostly the “thin” libertarians, whose arguments were about in what context force could rightly be used, and so focused on what the government could rightly do. The “thick” libertarians (I call them ceb-encr yvoregnevnaf sbe gurve nethzrag gung serr nffbpvngvba vf abg n erny evtug) have tried hard to take over the name, but I think the “government leaves people alone to form their own groups so long as they don’t physically harm or intentionally defraud anyone” norm needs a name.
Thick libertarians believe in free speech and free association, they simply believe that free speech and free association can be exercised in some decidedly non-libertarian ways (which would nonetheless be allowed in a libertarian system, because libertarianism is a system that allows people to freely express and act upon non-libertarian views).
What I find weird about the opposition to thick libertarianism is that virtually all libertarians display a “thick” mindset when it comes to fascism, communism, and other forms of authoritarianism. They don’t believe that people should be thrown in jail for expressing authoritarian views, yet they’d also adamantly disagree with the idea that a Nazi or Stalinist could be a libertarian themselves, because the ideals of libertarianism are fundamentally opposed to authoritarianism. Thick libertarians just take this same logic and apply it to bigotry: A racist sexist homophobe has a right to be racist and sexist and homophobic under a libertarian system, but he can’t be a libertarian, because the ideals of libertarianism are fundamentally opposed to bigotry.
I think the difference is in seeing libertarianism as a value system–as the sort of thing that could have ideals.
Thin libertarians (I’m probably one–I’m at least close) think of libertarianism as a framework for restraining violence–a “piece of alien machinery forged in the fires of Hell” in Scott’s memorable phrase. The point is that different people with very different ideals can all co-exist. Thick libertarians see libertarianism as having ideals beyond “no hitting, no biting, and no cheating”; to me, that view misses the whole point, which is that libertarianism is a peace treaty so we can continue to disagree about ideals while living under the same government.
Fascism and communism are, to me, different: they are theories about the government. I do not think a thin libertarian would object to a voluntary group running on a communist basis–I don’t recall any significant opposition from thin libertarians to government toleration of communes, monasteries, and so forth.
ETA: the best articulation of “think” libertarianism I know is by James Taylor, at BHL. And it’s [the commitment to treating people as individuals]–and not the view that you should not aggress against others–that is the fundamental basis of libertarianism.
And the best statement of “thin” libertarianism is from Agamammom in the comments: There’s no call in libertarianism to view all humans as being worthy of respect. Simply that they be allowed to go to hell in the handbasket of their own choosing
This seems quite a leap to dismiss with “just”. As long as the bigots do not demand a specific form of government to advance their cause, just having the belief that some group is inferior is very different from authoritarianism.
Even on a more general level, I don’t really see why you’d think that “the ideals of libertarianism are fundamentally opposed to bigotry”. Is it wrong for a libertarian to for example consider seriously retarded or mentally ill people as being inferior? (For those who want to say something like “nobody is inferior”, then you’ll be OK with saying that people of other races are retarded or mentally ill, since that’s not saying anything bad or judgmental?) If it’s OK for a libertarian to consider groups inferior for “objective” reasons, then is the argument against racism just that it’s not rational enough? To be a libertarian you must be perfectly rational in your judgment of other people?
@uau: The idea is that libertarianism is a fundamentally individualistic philosophy, and racism is a form of collectivism. (See this essay, where Ayn Rand considered racism “the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.”)
If someone is unintelligent and you treat them as if they’re unintelligent, that’s fair because you’re judging them as an individual, on the basis of a trait they’ve actually displayed. If someone belongs to an ethnicity that may have a somewhat lower average IQ, then it’s not fair to treat them as if they’re unintelligent because you’re making a pre-judgment of them based on their incidental and involuntary membership in a group, without even getting to know them as an individual first.
Of course, you could argue that “mentally retarded people” constitutes a group too, but it’s a group literally defined by “significantly lower than average intelligence,” so by definition all of the people in it will be unintelligent. Likewise, if someone identified as part of the group “blue eyed people,” it wouldn’t be unfair to assume that they had blue eyes. But if you automatically assumed that a specific mentally retarded person had an inclination toward violence, solely on the basis that mentally retarded people as a group tend to have somewhat higher than average rates of violent behavior, then I would consider that an example of unfair discrimination against them.
I’m not seeing the connection to anything like the essence of libertarianism here.
If you condemn racism in general, that means condemning opinions without any associated actions, and even without any opinions about actions. You can’t really be an authoritarian without supporting forcing people to do things, whether you physically act to bring that about or not; but you can be strongly racist without supporting any policies based on racism. Saying that opposing racism is a natural consequence of “valuing liberty” is quite a stretch. I think even at best this would be at a level of “this is not a fundamental value conflict, but in practice these beliefs tend to result in conflicting effects in our current society”.
I don’t think it’s a central requirement of libertarianism that an individual would have to be equally “fair” toward all others. Libertarians are of course likely to think that irrational grudges or bigotry are negative things, but I don’t consider avoiding them to be the core of what it means to be a “libertarian”. Libertarian does not mean “support for all good things and opposition to all bad things”. That something is unfair does not make it anti-libertarian.
When writing my earlier post I assumed you meant blatantly irrational racism, of the “hate all blacks” variety. Now you seem to require a stricter variant for qualifying as “non-racist”, of not having any level of expectations based on race whatsoever (even in situations where such expectations could be rationally expected to benefit you – you’re not judging based on whether it’s an irrational belief that only costs you in any sense other than satisfying your bigotry, but based on whether it’s “fair” from the other person’s view). I’m pretty certain that such far-reaching demands for “fairness” are not part of core libertarianism. As above, I don’t think libertarianism would prohibit even irrational grudges and bigotry as long as you they don’t result in you acting in specific prohibited ways; certainly it doesn’t require self-sacrifice for the sake of “fairness”.
@uau: Read the Ayn Rand essay I linked to, it explains why racism and collectivism in general go against the ideals of liberty. Note that Rand agrees that racism shouldn’t be prohibited, but nonetheless thinks it should be condemned by libertarians, in the same way that communism should be condemned by libertarians.
I briefly scanned through the essay. Rand seems to mainly argue for individualism – it shouldn’t matter what any group you’re part of (such as family or race) has achieved, only what you individually achieve. She seems to argue against race-based policies and against claiming “innate” race-based value differences of individuals independent of actual proven competence:
So she’s against collective praise or blame, and likely against any race-based policy (whether intended to be negative or positive). I don’t think her views are as broad as anything that fits under “racism” being clearly against individualism though. If you just dislike members of some particular race, there’s no obvious reason why that would be more “anti-libertarian” than disliking some other random group of people for an arbitrary reason.
I didn’t notice anything about factual expectations. I don’t think her concept of “racism” included having any expectations based on race whatsoever; if you want to argue for that in connection with libertarianism, the essay is not an argument at all.
Thick libertarians argue that free association is not a real right? Do you have a citation for that?
Probably the most careful and best known “libertarian” to have stated that directly is Jacob Levy, here.
I would argue that means that are ONLY protected when they serve good ends aren’t being treated as rights. The whole point of rights in a liberal tradition is that they are NOT defined by “only with appropriate ends.”
Note that I found Levy helpful and still find his perspective on government thought-provoking. I just dislike having his views become definitive for libertarians, because so far as I can see they don’t protect liberty for minority viewpoints at all well.
“I just dislike having his views become definitive for libertarians, because so far as I can see they don’t protect liberty for minority viewpoints at all well.”
The point of libertarianism is not to ensure that every crackpot viewpoint gets heard, nor to ensure that all opinions are treated with equal respect. That would be impossible to guarantee under any system, short of the bizarre “free arguments over free speech” policy that Baeraad mentioned elsewhere in this thread. And even if it was feasible, I don’t think it would be desirable.
The point of libertarianism is to ensure that people have the liberty to express their crackpot opinions without any fear of being fined, robbed, imprisoned, assaulted, assassinated, or otherwise suffering violence at the hands of state or individual actors. People still have to fear social consequences like mockery and dismissal, because the only alternative is to suppress the free speech of the people responding to them. Libertarianism guarantees Nazis and Communists the right to express their views, but it also guarantees me the right to say “fuck off” to Nazis and Commies, and to summarily dismiss their arguments without even bothering to hear them out – which is exactly how it should be.
Not necessarily, the thickness could also be socially conservative. What is meant by thick libertarianism is that someone connects libertarianism to cultural values, whether conservative, progressive or otherwerwise (if there is such a possibility).
See e.g. this article. (Note the title.)
I think I’d distinguish between two possible sorts of “thick” libertarianism.
One thinks that libertarianism itself has ideals: treating people as individuals, rather than groups; etc.
The other thinks that libertarianism is only sustainable given that the people involved have certain ideals: a libertarian society requires people who have reasonable well-governed emotions; stable families; etc.
These may both be thick, but seem to me to be different. One states a definition of libertarianism, the other states a pre-condition for it’s success or an expected result.
The article hiblick linked to distinguishes four different kinds of thick libertarianism. I think your first kind is Thickness from Grounds and your second is Strategic Thickness.
Can we rename it “narrow vs. broad?”
I always did find libertarians to be pretty thick.
(sorry I couldn’t help myself with all this talk of “thick libertarianism”, this was meant in jest, I do not find libertarians thick, I have some libertarians tendencies myself and many libertarian friends)
In his “Metaphysics of Quality,” Robert Pirsig proposed the paradigm that everything in the universe is made of patterns that have to adhere to a hierarchy to work properly (be “moral” as he might have put it): inorganic matter at the bottom, then organic matter/life forms, then the social patterns that those life forms produce, then intellectual patterns at the top. You could think of it like hardware and software, with each level of the hierarchy being the “hardware” that runs the “software” of the level above it.
But software has hardware requirements. Culture is a social pattern, while government seems like more of an intellectual one. So it makes sense that if you try to superimpose one form of government on a culture that isn’t compatible, it won’t go well.
That also would explain why disagreements about how we ought to run our government so often come down to cultural differences between the people making the arguments, and why people who want the government run a certain way are so often culturally similar.
It is cool seeing someone else who has read and been affected by Pirsig’s MOQ. I agree with your hierarchy viewpoint, though I would say that both are in his social level. Jumping to the institutional theorists (Douglas North, Joel Mokyr and a few dozen others) I believe they view cultural habits, values and mores as being “informal institutions” and branches of government as “formal institutions”.
The important point, dovetailing with Scott’s posting your comment , is that formal institutions are built upon and coevolve together with informal institutions. Democracy in a liberal western country built upon centuries of habits, patterns, values, (specifically including the squelching of clans and cousin marriage by the church!) is going to work completely different when exported to a radically different culture. Democracy in an extended clan culture, to give just one example, is not anything like what we consider western democracy.
Just a disclaimer: I’m not ready to say Pirsig’s MOQ is also “my” viewpoint, but I would agree that I’ve been affected by it, at least to the extent that I found it interesting enough to reread both ZAMM and Lila multiple times and spend a lot of time thinking about them and talking about them with others who’ve read them.
I agree with your sorta clarification.
Have you ever joined or participated in the MOQ discussion group? It was popular before the turn of the Millenium, but I think it still continues on today.
During the 80s, for some reason, that book really resonated with me. I used to keep it on my nightstand and I read it several times in a row. It changed how I frame things.
No, I haven’t. I’m not sure if I’m interested…part of me is and part of me isn’t. Where does this discussion happen?
I’ve reread those books every few years since high school. They’re at least among my favorites if not my favorites.
I am not recommending it, they can be found by googling MOQ discuss. Last I checked they got lost in the weeds about twenty years ago. I haven’t even checked the website in years. I was just wondering if you ever participated since finding someone else who was impressed by the books is so rare.
Regarding your thoughts on democracy in Iraq…
I don’t know about refactoring, but I spent 15 months in Afghanistan, and I’ve thought a lot about our difficulties installing democracy there. My current hypothesis is that any system of government is a useful abstraction that a culture builds on top of reality, and that a system of government only remains stable as long as it reflects the underlying power distribution of that culture. It was natural for the thirteen American colonies to adopt a system of government where all adult white males shared power, because most adult white males were within the same rough order of magnitude of power already.
So far, I’ve come up with four basic pillars of power. They are: money, persuasion, education/intelligence, and the capacity for violence. As an accident of their culture and history, a large proportion of colonial Americans were well educated, reasonably well off, literate, and armed. Therefore, instead of running around beating the shit out of each other every four to eight years to decide who was going to be in charge, it was reasonable for them to institute a democracy as an abstraction of that process.
This also explains why the woman’s suffrage movement became popular and succeeded in the decades after the industrial revolution and World War I. After the invention of the steam engine there was a gradual decrease in the correlation between upper body strength and economic output. During World War I women demonstrated their equivalent economic ability while the young male population was at war. Directly after the war, women obtained the right to vote. This was inevitable. Our underlying reality changed, and so our political systems changed to keep up.
In Afghanistan, a large segment of the population is dirt poor and uneducated. Furthermore, there are serious language barriers among the various tribes of people who live there. While the country is extraordinarily violent, most average citizens do not have access to modern weapons. Most insurgents are provided weapons by local warlords to whom they are loyal. Democracy in that environment is pointless. It is a bad metaphor that does not have any relation to the actual power dynamics of the system. Either people will vote the way they are told with a gun to their head, or widespread ballot stuffing by the powerful will make their votes worthless. Some kind of neo-feudal government would much more accurately reflect the actual power dynamics of that country.
Remember, voting is not the source of political power. It is the means by which some societies choose to exercise the power that their citizens already have. Likewise, most people seem to think of democracy as the cause of a prosperous and free population. I believe they have that cause and effect relationship exactly backwards.
This was very insightful. Thank you.
Yep, COTW nomination.
This was extremely, extremely helpful. Thank you.
There are advantages of democracy that apply even to very poor countries with poor literacy: that powerful people able to mobilize large numbers have a way to settle their disputes without a war, namely the election. The loser mobilized less people, so they’d probably lose the war anyway. This is useful even if the elites do not care one iota about the well-being of the populace. It’s still a priori more convenient to them all if the eventual losers among them will retire to their villas instead of having their head on a pike.
That’s only true if all people are roughly equal in their capacity for violence. If the “loser” mobilizes half as many people, but much more of them are e.g. either smart enough to implememt long-range artillery fire or rich enough to pay for artillery, the “loser” is going to be the winner as soon as he defects from democracy. You need something that reflects that fact.
Interesting post, but I’d be curious to hear how your model deals with a case I’m well-acquainted with.
Gambia is a small west-African nation that until a couple years ago was led by Yahya Jammeh, a loony dictator. Gambia has a lot in common with how you describe Afghanistan: much of the population is uneducated and extremely poor, there’s a language barrier between the tribes away from the capital, and Jammeh’s forces had way better weaponry than the rest of the population. Gambia was nominally a democracy, but in practice, the voter intimidation and ballot stuffing meant that Jammeh’s victory was ensured.
So far, so similar? Well, at the end of 2016, international observers were present to monitor the elections. So constrained, and with the opposition uniting around a single candidate, Jammeh lost the election. He initially tried to stay in power, but ECOWAS troops outside (and, I gather, a bit inside) the country’s borders scared him enough to resign and flee the country. Granted, this isn’t a story of Gambia’s democratic institutions being enough on their own — they had external help from the election observers and the fortunately-unconsummated threat of overwhelming military intervention. But it was still a pretty much bloodless transition of power to someone with widespread legitimacy in a country that has a lot in common with how you describe Afghanistan. Do you think this could have happened without them having democratic voting?
This is the wrong question to ask. Nobody questions that voting can be useful to avoid bloodshed – that having the majority of the vote can be a close enough proxy to winning a war of succession that it’s not worth the risk for the loser to take up arms. So you shouldn’t ask whether a “bloodless transition” would have been possible, but whether even without voting Jammeh could have lost power after a bloody civil war (with possible foreign interference).
As long as voting is a less bloody way to select a person who’d be reasonably likely to win the civil war anyway, there is no problem. The problem case is when a portion of the population has no hope of winning in battle, but still has enough votes to select a different ruler.
I think Anaxagoras and emiliobumachar touch on a good point. Possibly I’m being too pessimistic when I say democracy in Afghanistan is pointless. Even if the underlying power dynamics are such that a democracy does not allow everyone to participate equally as intended, it does at least provide the few oligarchs who are in control a non-violent mechanism to fight among themselves. If this is the case, perhaps our adventures in Afghanistan were not a complete waste of time/lives/money after all. This makes me happy.
I was thinking along similar lines when I read Starship Troopers. Heinlein seemed to be inspired by the ancient Greek city-states in which democracy was tied in to military service (oarsmen among Athenians, while Spartan hoplites required more expense to equip & train). Medieval feudalism was based on the dominance of heavy cavalry, up until trained squares of pikemen and lots of cheap firearms levelled the playing field (artillery similarly devalued the castle). I suppose that’s a quasi-Marxist/materialist viewpoint, where politics is downstream from military technology.
This is somewhat similar to the argument made by the book Forged Through Fire, which essentially makes the case that governments have historically extended political rights to whatever class of people they need to be bought in on a war effort to defend against external threats. They aren’t quite the same thing – in particular, I think Forged Through Fire‘s argument pertains more to areas where there’s already a relatively strong central government, and people assume that’s the natural way of things.
E.g., in the middle ages, you needed mounted cavalry and people who could organize and mobilize them to be militarily successful, and those were the people who had a formal stake in the government. The extension of political rights beyond that class tended to follow from the need to raise revenue for wars as the nature of war changed (more professional mercenaries and navies), which made buy-in from wealthy people beyond horse soldiers necessary, and so you Lastly, in the era of mass-mobilized armies and total warfare, you need buy-in from the entire population of the country if you’re going to ask them to fight and sacrifice for your cause. In each of these different cases, you’re going to have a different narrative about where the government derives its legitimacy (divine right, constitutional liberties, national identity, consent of the governed).
(You can argue that the sudden appearance of the welfare state in the postwar era has to do, similarly, with the intensity of the risk non-combatant populations were exposed to during WWII; if the nation can put people’s lives and homes at risk of air war, it takes on a correspondingly greater responsibility for their well-being.)
In all of these cases, of course, there needs to be at least some base agreement that there’s something worth defending in national independence. I’ve seen it stated – although I haven’t actually read up on it myself – that the Polish nobility chose to accept Russian subjugation rather than come to a political settlement with their serfs that might have allowed them to mobilize to the degree necessary to resist conquest. Would be an interesting case to look at sometime.
This is absolutely a COTW.
The prediction then is that as wealth inequality continues to rise (regardless of the net-increase in general power of an individual which is considerable) the major Western territories will become less democratic.
My secondary prediction, about the ways in which it will become less democratic is that different corporate interests, Red Tribe groups, Blue Tribe groups, etc will splinter off in terms of the amonts of votes they control – and form loose “coalitions” in order to win elections. This may or may not result in eventual fracturing or warfare, but I have been critical of the amount of both faith and power we put in the Federal government for some time. I have seen some evidence of this “coalition forming” type of “democracy” already with Trump and the Intersectional Left.
Thanks for the positive feedback!
Although I’m tempted to agree with you, I personally don’t feel confident enough in my hypothesis to make that prediction without a million caveats and addendums.
One problem is that power is multi-dimensional. To make matters worse, the dimensions are not orthogonal, so they can interact in weird ways. Intelligence will have some bearing on persuasiveness. Firearm ownership depends on a minimum level of wealth. Most importantly, I’m not clear on the relative importance of the various dimensions, and whether the shapes of the functions of power over the various dimensions are linear (probably not) or some kind of S-shaped sigmoid curve where power is basically zero until you hit some minimum threshold, then increases rapidly until you get to some maximum threshold, at which point your power gains level off no matter how rich/charismatic/well-armed/intelligent you are. (The growth of most organic things seem to work like this).
How powerful are you when you’re poor and uneducated, but your capacity for persuasion is very high? Maybe you’re a high school dropout with no savings who recently lived in a homeless shelter. But you’re also a calm, charismatic person with a Facebook account, so for $0 you can livestream a video of a cop shooting your boyfriend to an audience of two billion people and basically enrage the planet Earth.
(BTW, if you had to choose between giving up your right to vote, or giving up your first amendment rights, which would you choose? Which would have more impact on your real political power? What if your choice was between voting, or POSTing to the Internet?)
England has spent the last hundred years or so gradually restricting their citizen’s right to bear arms. However, from the outside at least, England still seems to be a relatively free and prosperous place. Is this because a large middle class and freedom of speech is enough to counteract the lack of gun ownership? Or is it because there can be a generational lag between a change in real power and a change of government abstraction?
I thought the yellow vest protests/riots were a good data point. They also provoked some interesting thought experiments. These protesters seemed right on the edge of having enough wealth to be politically relevant. They were able to travel to Paris in large numbers, but they could only do so on the weekend, when they didn’t have to work. Had they been much poorer, they probably would not have been able to stage an effective, large scale protest.
After weeks of violent protests, the yellow vests have so far been able to get some minor concessions from their government. In other words, they have partially dispensed with the abstractions provided by their democracy and now they are in the process of finding out exactly how powerful they are. Would they have gotten more concessions faster if they had the resources to riot all week long? Hundreds of them have been arrested. Would they have gotten more concessions faster if a quarter of them owned AR-15s? If they did have access to disposable income and/or semi-automatic rifles, would they have needed to riot at all? Perhaps a sternly worded letter to the editor would have sufficed.
Remember, another word for a peaceful protest is a demonstration. This begs the question: What are you demonstrating? I think you are demonstrating no more and no less than your potential capacity for organized violence. “Look at us,” you’re saying. “We’re organized, motivated, wealthy enough, and numerous enough to get 10,000 people in the same place at the same time. Listen: we’re all shouting roughly the same thing. Aren’t you glad this is a peaceful protest? Wouldn’t you prefer that we remain peaceful? Maybe you should listen to what we have to say.”
Was that your takeaway from the Women’s March, or the March for Science? “Better be glad we got these pussy hats and slide rules instead of AKs?”
I think those events were probably fun for the people who participated, but meaningless overall. They did not persuade anyone who didn’t already agree with them, and did not intimidate those in power.
I think the attitude on the left towards marches and such is a cargo cult mentality. The civil rights movement had marches, and that was effective, so marches are effective. No, what was effective about the civil rights marches was that respectable looking black people in suits and Sunday dresses got police dogs and fire hoses turned on them for the simple act of marching. That made an awful lot of white people take notice and say “wait a minute. Something’s wrong here.”
Similarly, during the 2016 election, Trump would hold a rally in a Blue area (Chicago, San Jose), knowing the “peaceful demonstrators” would come out and riot. The images of respectable-looking middle- and working-class Americans coming out to hear the Republican candidate for President beaten, bloodied, pelted with eggs, by angry foreigners waving Mexican flags on what is ostensibly US soil while the media sympathizes with the rioters woke an awful lot of people up. Every time that happened, there would be dozens of new posts on Trump-friendly forums from people saying “I wasn’t paying attention before but this is horrifying; I’m with Trump now” and his poll numbers would go up.
First of all, you’re definitely correct that the Selma to Montgomery marches during the civil rights movement were not veiled threats of organized violence. The statement that you highlighted was an overgeneralization on my part. Thank you for the counterexample.
In general though I think black history between the Civil War and the civil rights movement is another example of political systems conforming to underlying power structures. After the Civil War, Black People were free, but generally poverty stricken, and therefore powerless. Racists easily enacted Jim Crow laws, limiting the ability of most former slaves to participate in the political process. Over the next hundred years, black wealth gradually increased, along with their real power. Our political system stayed the same, becoming less stable over time as the underlying reality slowly shifted. Eventually Black People gained enough power that they were able to enact political change. The political system was brought in line with the underlying power dynamics and the system stabilized once more.
It’s true that the Women’s March did not intimidate those in power. I was also not intimidated. I probably should have been. Some people in power definitely should have been (e.g. Harvey Weinstein, Lockhart Steele, Roy Price, Cliff Hite, Robert Scoble, John Besh, Caleb Jennings, Rick Najera, Hamilton Fish, Michael Oreskes, Ira Silverstein, Jeff Hoover, Kendall Fells, Sam Adams, Don Shooter, Dwayne Duron Marshall, Benjamin Genocchio, Dan Schoen, Tony Cornish, Tony Mendoza, Andrew Kreisberg, Eddie Berganza, Gary Goddard, Brian Linder, Jim DeCesare, Michael Meredith, Steve Lebsock, Jeff Kruse, Paul Rosenthal, Wes Goodman, Al Franken, David Sweeney, Randy Baumgardner, Stephen Bittel, Charlie Rose, Raul Bocanegra, John Lasseter, Blake Farenthold, Josh Zepnick, Dean Westlake, James Levine, Matt Dababneh, Peter Martins, Sam Isaly, Lorin Stein, Matt Manweller, Joe Alexander, Bryan Singer, Trent Franks, John Moore, Eric Weinberger, Maxwell Ogden, Jerry Richardson, Stephen Henderson, Don Hazen, Charlie Hallowell, H. Brandt Ayers, Kevin Braun, Paul Haggis, Eric Greitens, William G. Jacoby, Rob Moore, Zach Fansler, Steve Wynn, John Copley, Wayne Pacelle, Paul Shapiro, Paul Marciano, Joseph M. Souki, Javier Palomarez, Karl Templer, Lawrence M. Krauss, Jorge I. Dominguez, Jeff Franklin, Tony Tooke, Angel Arce, Michael W. Ferro Jr., Bill Hybels, Eric T. Schneiderman, Howard Kwait, Demos Parneros, Bernard Uzan, Corey J. Coleman, Nick Sauer, Jack Latvala, John Conyers Jr., Patrick Meehan, Nicholas Kettle, David Sawyer, Duane Hall, Dillon Bates, and Leslie Moonves.)
Perhaps Weinstein, Moonves, et al. were unintimidated for the same reasons I was. My perception was that the Women’s March participants had a very low capacity for violence. My mental Venn diagram of people willing to wear pink pussy hats and people willing to set shit on fire has very little intersection. Therefore I felt comfortable ignoring them.
However, during the course of this dialogue I’ve become aware that I tend to give too much weight to the “capacity for violence” coefficient in my power formula. The Women’s March protesters did demonstrate very high education/intelligence, persuasiveness, and wealth. I should have been able to predict that they would respond effectively to any perceived threat to their issues. Because they did. In addition to the individual notches on their belt, during the Kavanaugh hearings, when they perceived a threat to abortion availability, they came within a hair’s breadth of blocking his confirmation. This time they were willing to go a little further toward discarding democratic abstractions, with sit-ins and blocking the steps to the courthouse, etc. The atmosphere in DC (where I live) felt a little more like a real protest, and less like an open air music festival.
If our government does move toward restricting access to abortion, either through reversing Roe v Wade or some other mechanism, I predict a noticeable de-stabilization of our political institutions. They may wear stupid hats, but it seems clear that the Women’s March participants do in fact have real political power.
I think the effect you are describing is mostly just the consolidation of GOP wings under Trump, not new voters being minted.
Only women can fix the GOP at this point. Unfortunately their voice within the party is still trending downward.
This is why I come to SSC.
I disagree with this. At the time the Civil Rights Act was passed, the US was 90% white, and whites held almost all political power. Black people did not get the changes they wanted in the civil rights movement by exercising their own power. White people did it. They were the only ones who could.
I would rename your pillars of power and distinguish the source of the power from the method. I think the sources of power roughly correspond to controlling the access to different levels of Maslow’s hierarchy for other people. The methods of power are closer to what you talked about. I think you are over complicating it with a false taxonomy. Power is the ability to alter physical reality. For small tasks, you can perform the alterations directly. For anything more complicated, you need to cooperate with others. Culture is what defines how this cooperation operates.
1. The fourth branch of government is the Permanent Standing Bureaucracy. Seriously, the bureaucracy is far more government-like in its power and functionality, and in the gap between it, the other branches of government, and all that we label as not-Government, than is culture.
2. While acknowledging that culture constrains government, if you’re going to insist that culture is government (even at a fifth-branch level), then I’m going to have to insist that communism, environmentalism, and atheism are all religions. All three of those examples are closer to the central concept of religion, require less in the way of overstretched definitions, than does culture = government.
I would instead prefer to simply acknowledge and examine the ways that culture constrains and influences government, without insisting that anything which can constrain and influence a government must be part of it. Are governments not subject to external influences?
Though I agree with you about the bureaucracy, I think what Scott proposes is useful, at least as a thought experiment, in the following sense:
On the one hand, I am really impressed by the Bill of Rights. I think part of the reason America has been so much more resistant to restrictions on freedom of speech and the right to bear arms than e.g. the culturally similar UK and Australia is that, 200+ years ago, some prominent guys wrote down on a piece of paper that the government can’t pass laws like that without clearing some really tough hurdles.
On the other hand, we all know that e.g. the Soviet Constitution guaranteed the right to freedom of religion, speech, and assembly and that simply having some prominent Afghanis sign a paper that says “democracy, freedom of religion, and equal rights for women” wouldn’t mean much in the absence of big cultural changes.
I think it’s common for libertarians like myself to scoff at “laws on paper” and emphasize the importance of traditions of jurisprudence, conventions, culture, etc. And I think this may be a useful corrective to the more common tendency to think just passing a law is enough. Yet really both are important and interact (laws create Schelling points for culture to glom onto) in a manner arguably analogous to different branches of government.
Also, Scott’s division is odd, to take such a broad category as “culture” and set it coequal to the smaller conceptual components of government.
If anything, I think the more accurate description would be “government is one of the branches of culture, which is broadly speaking the body which dictates behavior.” Admittedly, the one with the most physical power and one that doesn’t like to see itself limited by any other, at least de facto. But it is not the parent of family, religion, academia, entertainment, etc., but rather their locally more dominant sibling.
It is the branch which exercises a monopoly on violence. A weak state cannot maintain that monopoly and cedes some violent corrections to non-state actors. Whether being shouted down in college auditoriums or kicked out of restaurants constitutes violence is a values debate posing as a semantic one.
Legitimate violence, you mean. In our culture. Different cultures have different amounts of legitimate violence, different cultures have other institutions of legitimate violence (schools with corporal punishment, or religious or private armies).
Regardless, violence is only one means of persuasion, albeit one that is hard to ignore.
You could argue that most historically self-described communist governments definitely treated culture as their fourth branch.
For more moderate examples, here’s a list of countries with a Ministry of Culture or equivalent: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_minister#Lists
Culture ministries are about Culture, not culture.
They’re just aediles organising circuses.
Can confirm what Lambert is saying. Romania is on the list, and everything the Ministry of Culture does is pay salaries for museum employees, and very occasionally moderate dramas between ballerinas (that was the only time it made the news this decade).
It might make more sense to talk about culture as coequal with government “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation”
I don’t think it makes sense to talk about “less” culture as one might talk of “less” government, although one can certainly talk about less coercive cultural norms and more permissive cultural norms. A libertarian wants some kind of combination of less government period and less coercive government (disapproving slightly of a government-owned mine whose proceeds go to funding random art, though not nearly so much as some coercive government actions). But a libertarian surely doesn’t want less culture period (disapproving of art or of complex social norms pertaining to engagement rings or whatever), only of certain specific freedom-reducing cultural norms. I would definitely not consider culture a branch of government in that regard, and indeed Libertarians usually are very hopeful that if government shrinks then social norms will take up the slack in making society pleasant.
In a recent OT, someone pointed out how paranoid it seemed for conservatives to see themselves as underdogs fighting the “liberal media” and a few left-wing professors, given that they control all branches of government (well, but the House, soon), more governorships, etc. That is, it seems like a lot more conservative hands are sitting on actual levers of power today than liberal.
To which I was tempted to snarkily respond something like “okay, I’ll give you the Supreme Court, the legislature, and the presidency for 50 years if, in exchange, conservatives get to dominate the media, academia, and Hollywood.” In part this is because I am increasingly skeptical of the possibility of any one side “winning the argument on its merits” and suspect instead that political opinions may shift as science progresses (“one funeral at a time”). If this is at all true, controlling the sorts of narratives children are taught in school and exposed to through media is more important, long term, than controlling the government itself.
If this is at all true, controlling the sorts of narratives children are taught in school and exposed to through media is more important, long term, than controlling the government itself.
In the long term I think this is probably true, because kids will eventually grow up and vote and change the government. In the short term it’s probably a lot better to have straightforward governmental power.
There is conservative media, but it tends to be fairly niche and ghettoized and (from the limited sampling I’ve seen) of not-so-great quality. Though I guess that also depends on how stringently you’re defining conservative. It is fairly rare to see non-niche movies with an explicitly conservative political message. I think it is more common to see media with a more vague, understated conservative ethos.
The Lion King is still a very popular kids’ movie, and I’d consider it to have an overall conservative morality, in the sense that there’s a natural order present (with a defined hierarchy and social roles) and bad things happen when that natural order is disrupted and subverted. You could even see it as being a cautionary tale about open borders if you squint and tilt your head enough. And if you squint extra hard, Scar has the feel of a Marxist intellectual who seduces the lower classes (hyenas) with promises of free stuff and then uses them as muscle to overthrow the existing government. But of course he’s ultimately in it for himself.
Disney movies have gotten noticeably more liberal in the last decade or so, though, with many riding on the trend of subverting older, more conservative tropes.
I always wondered why there wasn’t a market for smart, center-right magazines. Where’s the conservative Atlantic?
It’s called The Economist.
Sounds like a plan!
In a previous thread I wrote:
and many times I’ve written that my ideal is a mid 20th century style welfare state (which I gather still exist in Canada and some European countries) combined with divorce for parents with children being so socially unacceptable that “sticking together for the sake of the kids” is the default again.
I’ll even spot conservatives local control regarding “hot button cultural issues” in return for the legislative agenda I want for economic, education, and labor issues.
That wouldn’t do anything for the kids whose parents were never married in the first place. (Currently, about 40% of US births are to unwed mothers.)
This is a great example of Scott’s thesis: the increasing cultural acceptance of unmarried couples living together and having children together (or having children alone, from transient relationships) has done as much to change the country as anything the official branches of government have done.
I’d say “yes, but”–the increasing cultural acceptance had a lot to do with very forceful national government policy to require that acceptance. Before 1960, there was a lot of social pressure to not be an unmarried mother or a cohabiting unmarried couple: many people (including government agencies) wouldn’t rent to you, hire you, let you enroll in school…
Andrew Breitbart said it as “politics is downstream from culture.”
Saying that conservatives “control” all branches of government because some nominal leaders of the different branches have Rs by their names is sloppy classification. Conservatism is an ideology that lives in the domain of ideas and culture. Republican is a political party that is concerned with getting and keeping power by winning elections. Overlap is not equivalence.
You’ve phrased your request wrong if you want lasting change. You don’t want existing conservatives to dominate culture. They wouldn’t know how to use it. You want the kind of people who dominate culture to become conservative (mostly verbally intelligent people high in agreeableness who are willing to take low-pay, tedious jobs in media and education to further the cause) The nature of conservatism as an ideology makes this very difficult because people are not going to organize to sacrifice themselves for the idea that things are mostly fine as is no matter how true it may be. You need sell radical change to get ideologues to buy in, preferably radical change that gives your ideologues more power.
On widespread public education and mass media in particular, we really need a new form of government to be designed accounting for these. All existing designs were created before their existance. “Separation of powers” is useless when the the bulk of every branch went through the same education with the same reading lists and grew up in the same culture.
Look, if it were up to me, I’d make that trade. What can you possibly do to media and academia that’s worse than the perversion of progressive ideals that are going on there right now? Whereas at the same time, US Democrat politicians seem moderately sane enough that they might just be able to fumble their way towards a proper welfare state if given the chance. I call it, if not a win/win situation, then at least a makes-no-difference/probably-win situation.
Oh, I don’t know. Leaving aside truly odious examples like Nazi Germany, conservative control of media could lead to, say, obscenity and blasphemy laws like we used to have, with information regarding abortion banned (remember the Comstock laws?). I am not a fan of MeToo and ‘woke’ defamation campaigns or even hate-speech laws, but ‘what could possibly go wrong’ definitely applies to the right as well. Heck, look at the laws to punish association with the BDS movement in conservative states.
Bush, et al. were trying to change the culture in Iraq, though. If he had been more hands off, gone for the normal conquerer’s decapitation of the most evil Baath Party people at the top, and let the new culture adapt, we would have been in a much better place than the wide ranging exclusion of anyone Baath Party related. It was exactly as much of an attempt to mold the culture (and as stupid) as a country conquering the US would be to say “no one involved or in the past registered with the Democrats or Republicans can be so much as a dogcatcher now.” In a one party police state like that The Party becomes a simalacrum for various measures of status, prestige, etc. even for people that don’t care about the dogma of The Party and you can’t just smash that in 1 or 2 presidential terms.
The flip-side of this argument is that, comparatively, our hands were tied in how much we could try to change the culture of Iraq and we had to contend with other outside powers working to change the culture to their favor at the same time. Historically, it definitely seems possible to effect mass change of cultures; after World War II, the US did a massive overhaul of Japanese culture, and more or less did the same thing to two-thirds of Germany (and the Soviets overhauled the other third), and those changes seem to have taken.
The culture of Iraq was already incredibly fractured. The Baathists were just sitting on top from one wing of it. The adaptation process post-second-Gulf War would have been very bloody and opened the door for Iran to take over (with Chinese financial backing). This has been delayed maybe 20 years but not averted. Sometimes buying time constitutes a foreign policy objective.
Why is everyone so sure that country culture has not been changed in Iraq or Afghanistan? Maybe they are not clones of Western culture but it does seem to me that they have changed significantly on the margin. I don’t know Afghanistan but I know plenty of people working in Iraq and their impression is of a country slowly getting it’s act together (impacted though by the recent Islamic State insurrection which has now been defeated). Note that the Islamic revolution in Iran changed what was becoming a fairly secular country led by a modernist monarch almost overnight to an Islamic theocracy. I think if the change can happen quickly in one direction, it can probably happen quite quickly in the other direction.
Or, since it only took getting rid of some chunks of the central government to turn a ‘fairly secular country’ into an outright theocracy, consider that the metrics aren’t accurate. The assumptions we naturally make about nationalistic sentiment, deference to central authority, etc. just don’t hold very well outside the West, as we keep learning over and over again.
It’s also interesting to contrast culture and branches of government.
Government has meaningful branches because of the Constitution; their arrangement of powers were designed by a group of negotiating individuals, and then placed into power by fiat. Culture, on the other hand, is a spontaneous order; influenced, guided perhaps, but also chaotic and organic.
A mental model that seems more common is one which places culture next to another similarly organic phenomenon: economy. The left tends to believe in a cultural form of libertarianism: that attempts by the state to influence culture (by establishing a religion, banning a form of marriage, etc.) are futile, doomed to backfire and/or disastrously oppressive. The right tends to believe the same about the economy.
Cultural factors such as respect for rule of law underpin democracy, and one way of looking at the disastrous attempts to nation build is that with a missing culture, democracy can take form. But one can also look at them, and the massively violent wars that preceded them by destroying the centers of power and killing massive numbers of civilians, as massive state interventions against a culture; futile, disastrously oppressive and doomed to backfire.
Nah, the left is just as willing to use the state to push cultural ideas it favors.
I think both sides want culture to be a certain way, and also want laws to enforce that (they just disagree on what way culture and laws should be). E.g., for me, at least, I want, for instance, for LGBT people to be treated well, which likely means both changes in culture (for homophobic and transphobic ideas to stop being part of culture and LGBT-positive ideas to become part of culture) and changes in laws (for any laws that adversely affect LGBT issues to be repealed and new laws protecting LGBT people to be passed), and similarly about other issue I care about.
That doesn’t seem right: to choose a few examples, what about desegregation, Title IX, laws against hate speech, and anti-discrimination law?
I’m interested in seeing a proposal for preventing culture from restricting the marketplace of ideas that doesn’t involve a whole hell of a lot of one of the four branches of government limiting what people can say. To what extent is the “free speech purist” proposal even coherent?
Note that it is established precedent under US law that arresting people for saying e.g. “fuck the draft” is considered to be a violation of their free speech even if you wouldn’t arrest them for saying “I think the draft is a bad idea”– the vehemence of a strongly-worded statement such as “fuck the draft” is considered to be a meaningfully different message than “I think the draft is a bad idea.”
This is why I like to talk about “free argument” rather than “free speech”. In terms of the actual law (the “first three branches”), you want free speech, definitely. But for the “fourth branch”? It seems pretty clear that some speech is trying to make actual arguments, and some speech is just trying to shut down argument (frequently, so that social maneuvering can win out over truth), and people should discourage the latter.
I think “free argument” has the advantage over the “free speech purist” proposal* that it’s a coherent ideology, but I’m not sure how many people (even people who nod along reading this comment) would really accept all the implications. For example, having Nazis as the villains in movies would be a violation: perhaps Inglorious Basterds should have an accompanying movie rejoicing in Nazis torturing Jews to death. Similarly, our schools rarely teach the controvery about whether the Holocaust is a good idea. And don’t get me started on Springtime for Hitler!
Alternately, you could give up on viewpoint neutrality, but at that point you’ve entirely conceded my point: we all agree that there are some ideas that deserve no response but “fuck off,” we just disagree on which ones those are.
*I resent this term because I am a free speech purist and that is why I will defend to the death your right to send scatalogical insults to innocent people with no punishment except me sending you a scatalogical insult back.
I’m confused. In what way does having Nazis be villains in a movie violate free speech or free argument? Such movies try to shut down argument? Is that it?
Parts of this make a good point that there is a limit to the extent that one should carry this out, but parts of this don’t make any sense at all. Specifically:
Huh? This isn’t about some sort of balance thing. Like, if we want to take the idea so seriously that just depicting an ideology as villainous in a movie is a violation, then a second violation doesn’t make it better. And what do schools have to do with it? The conclusion here would be that students should be free to argue in favor of Naziism, not that schools should make the argument! If you are requiring people to make particular arguments, that’s not really freedom of argument anymore, is it?
Anyway, ignoring that point, and focusing on your stronger point… yeah, it’s unclear how far this should be taken. I agree that there is a interpretation that would conclude that Inglorious Basterds is not the sort of thing that one should be shown, because it would cause people to feel less comfortable arguing for Naziism; but also such an interpretation would seem to prohibit fiction altogether, so, uh, yeah. Mostly I’m worried about things that, you know, actually pretend to be or otherwise substitute for arguments. That’s the sort of thing I want to discourage. Inglorious Basterds isn’t pretending to be an argument nor is it otherwise substituting for one. It’s just a work of fiction. Yes it has indirect effects but that is not really what I’m concerned about.
But you’re right, for practical purposes, it’s impossible to be entirely viewpoint-neutral. Still, it’s something we could do a lot more of, you know? And a lot more saying “That is not an argument! Present an actual argument or shut up!” within that region.
Anyway yeah I don’t know where I’m going with this 😛
Agree that some things are more “argument-y” than others, but I also remember that the latest Wolfenstein managed to stir up controversy by being a game about killing Nazis who have taken over America. Apparently that was enough of a dog whistle for some people.
I wonder if part of a free-argument policy might necessitate an explicit permission to be as passive-aggressive as you wanted to without anyone having a right to get upset until you crossed the line to actually making an explicit argument.
The Internet would certainly be a lot quieter if no one could write up furious screeds about how this, that or the other ridiculous thing was CLEARLY a coded attack on all that was good and pure in the world.
The failure modes of this idea are screamingly obvious. First off, how do you support free speech and at the same time restrict my ability to point out that someone is being a passive-aggressive jerk, because sometimes it’s pretty darn obvious?
no, it was because they marketed it with the idiotic “punch a nazi” slogan, even though the game is mostly about shooting nazis instead of punching them
I don’t. Free arguments, not free speech – that was the original suggestion. I suggested further making “complaining about forms of expression that aren’t explicit arguments” to be one form of speech that people would not be free to indulge in.
Of course, if you thought that someone was being a passive-aggressive jerk, you would by the same token be free to be a passive-aggressive jerk back. Then you could both sit there and pretend that you weren’t attacking each other all while trading veiled barbs. The benefit for everyone else would be that this would be much easier for people who didn’t care about your stupid snits to ignore than if you were allowed to openly scream about how offended you both were.
I am sorry to nitpick, but the sheer complexity of this disinformation really infuriated me when it actually happened, and it was such a good example of an instance of ‘trump derangement syndrome’ or whatever they’re calling it, that i simply have to lay out the entire sequence of events
First: Wolfenstein II came out. In the game, there are Nazis who say typically Nazi things like “kill all the jews” and “the white race is the master race” and things like that. But they also say things that come pretty close to being ordinary right-wing policies, like complaining about the incentives created by welfare, or the double-standard wherein leftists are totally willing to ascribe a person’s actions to their skin color of they happen to be white, but not if they are any other race.
Then the conservatives pointed this out, and complained: “Oy, you are putting perfectly ordinary conservative beliefs in the mouths of Nazis. As if someone concerned about the incentives that a welfare state creates is also likely to believe in the superiority of the white race. This is more than a little unfair to regular old conservatives, who aren’t Nazis and have never been Nazis.”
It was a pretty minor criticism, not a big deal in the long run. But the response from the left-wing media was totally insane. They actively misrepresented what the conservatives were saying. The conservatives were complaining about having their own beliefs compared to Nazism, but the articles misrepresented this as complaining about the Nazis being portrayed as evil. Which is like, the literal opposite of what they were doing. And the more the conservatives complained about a huge portion of society calling them Nazis, the more the media pointed and said, “See? They are complaining about the portrayal being unfair to Nazis. Who would defend Nazis except other Nazis?”
Consider if there were a game where the protagonist fights against a hypothetical Stalinist America, where the US lost the Cold War. And in this game, there’s a bunch of typical evil Soviets who torture and maim people and act extremely evil in general, and so are clearly meant to be irredeemably unsympathetic. And then when they open their mouths, they say things like, “We should have a graduated income tax, where the rich pay a larger proportionate amount than the poor.” Or, “The government should spend at least some of its funds educating the next generation.”
In other words, these perfectly innocuous not-even-really-leftist statements are *treated as if* they are so evil that only a crazy stalinist would say them.
And then regular, ordinary people who believe in public education and the graduated income tax come along and say, “Woah, hold on now, this representation is unfair, you are trying to connect mild socialism with stalinist russia in the mind of your audience”
And in response, the game dev’s PR firm comes out and says, “Look, obviously there’s always a risk of alienating your customers. But frankly, anybody who objects to our characterizing stalinist russia as being evil isn’t anybody we want playing our games anyway.”
And then the angry people say, “No! We weren’t objecting to you saying that stalinist russia is evil, we were objecting to the fact that you put perfectly ordinary liberal statements in the mouths of the antagonists *as if* they were the sorts of things that a stalinist believed”
And then a bunch of articles get written about the weird alt-left phenomenon whereby a bunch of stalinists are getting upset that their Great Leader was portrayed negatively in a recent game about fighting evil stalinists
To my understanding, that is exactly what happened here here (except, obviously, mirrored left-to-right), or at least what my centrist friends claim is happening. Since I haven’t actually played the game, I don’t know if they are right. But, for instance, they claimed that at one point one of the big nazi baddies expressed some distaste for gay marriage, as if the only reason you might be against gay marriage is if you are literally a nazi. And at another point, some super-evil nazi makes a comment to the effect that letting the free market continue unimpeded by government is a good thing, again as if anybody who prefers small government must be a nazi
these claims were almost certainly exaggerated, and i honestly doubt that there was any intentional hostility towards centrist conservatives in the original game. But this response by Bethesda is a different story. They very explicitly claimed that all of the anger towards Wolfenstein came from “people who are against freeing the world from the hate and murder of a Nazi regime”, when even a cursory examination of what the criticism was actually saying would have easily disproven that notion
I am a little disappointed that the distorted version of this narrative actually ended up getting referenced in the SSC comments without anyone objecting
It seems pretty clear that some speech is trying to make actual arguments, and some speech is just trying to shut down argument (frequently, so that social maneuvering can win out over truth), and people should discourage the latter.
I think most people would agree with this statement, but nobody agrees on which speech is legitimate disagreement and which is about just shouting people down. Everyone sees their own faction as being about seeking truth and other factions as being about power.
Not true! If you’ve hung much around the nastier parts of the leftist/SJ-sphere, they’re often openly anti-free-speech, and openly say the goal is just power, and disdain truth as a liberal idea. But, we don’t need to invoke anything so extreme. Yes, I agree it can be contentious — there’s a reason you don’t want anything like this as a law. The point is things are generally nowhere near as bad as the hopeless situation you claim. Usually, it’s easy to tell, because it’s pretty much content-netural. At least, in anything extended; not so much when you’re dealing with short slogans, but slogan-shouting is also something to be discouraged, you know?
The fourth branch is where freedom of association is being confused with freedom of speech.
A (cultural) restriction on free speech requires more than just speech, IMO. Creating a cultural norm of not being friends with people with certain opinions, boycotting people with certain opinions etc. or other significant negative repercussions on them could be called “fourth branch” restrictions on free speech. Merely saying that a certain opinion is stupid or evil is not a restriction on free speech, not even a cultural one.
(If Alice says “Bob should be ostracized for his speech” is itself speech. If we oppose cultural restrictions on speech, it should be argued against, and not be acted upon, but it shouldn’t lead to ostracism against Alice. The First Amendment doesn’t make an exception for saying “the First Amendment should be abolished”, and that’s not a problem.)
My personal opinion is that cultural restrictions on speech are a problem for much of the same reasons legal restrictions are, though it’s a less serious problem. As such, I don’t support laws to combat “fourth branch” restrictions on speech. I’d prefer enforcing a cultural norm in favor of free speech to be a task for the “fourth branch” itself, using much of the same methods it could use to enforce a norm against certain opinions. E.g. don’t call for boycotting a company unless they fire some employee for his opinion; instead call for a boycott if they fire him.
You’re making a big distinction between speech and association, but a cultural norm that Alice has to stay friends with Bob after he makes an argument she finds evil seems much more tyrannical than any restriction on her speech.
That still doesn’t mean that cultural free speech absolutism is incoherent. That said, I wouldn’t want to create an obligation to stop friendships over opinions, but I’d certainly wouldn’t encourage doing so.
> The First Amendment doesn’t make an exception for saying “the First Amendment should be abolished”, and that’s not a problem.
I think it would actually be a much stronger law if it, as the sole exception from its protections, permitted censorhip of opposition to its existence and enforcement.
Certainly stronger. Likely too strong. Or more precisely, so strong that it would work against itself, and render itself inert until that exception was taken back out.
Often times, there’s just not enough time in the day for all the speech. Not enough room on the broadsheet, minutes in the TV segment, or ultimately, energy in the audience to continue listening or reading. This limit is physical; the law can’t touch it.
If the speech everyone agrees is Really Insightful, or summarizes a lot of other speech so well that the latter need not be made, or is otherwise especially meritorious, might come outside that limit, then people will want to prioritize it earlier. Except that you can’t do it without running afoul of that new clause in the 1A. Or rather, you can’t talk about doing it, but it’s going to get done anyway because of the physical limit, but you can’t talk about it, so it’ll get done like a drunken pinata session.
Leave that exception out, and people will still occupy precious time arguing about it, but everyone will at least have a chance to learn more about what everyone else opposes.
I’m curious what Scott’s ideal no-restriction-on-free-speech society would look like. Many people have cut off relations with family members who are on the other side politically, and I think that’s the wrong decision.
But what if someone doesn’t merely post memes on facebook about how everyone who supports the other side is evil and stupid – what if someone says to your face, “You are evil and stupid?” Do you just continue being close to this person?
My sister is my political opposite, and when we were together last summer she accused me of “teaching my children lies” among other things. We’re still in contact, but it’s hard to feel the same warmth we once had. My husband is both more political than I am, and less conciliatory, the two of them (husband and sister) will no longer eat at the same table.
So is the ideal that everyone is friends, and everyone insults each other? Or do we self-censor in order to remain friends?
n.b. Scott clearly doesn’t go this far, since he will ban commenters when called for.
If you can discuss the reasons for your opinion in detail, it should often be possible to, if not come to an agreement, at least “agree to disagree” in the sense of seeing each other’s reasons for their opinions.
Style matters. It’s usually possible to phrase an opinion in a less hostile way than “you’re stupid/evil”. “This particular thing you said is pretty stupid/evil” is already much less hostile.
In any case, I wouldn’t say it’s wrong to break a friendship over a disagreement in opinions, but I’d say it should be generally discouraged rather than encouraged or expected.
Motive for breaking off a friendship also matters. If someone hates you, that’s a legitimate reason not to be friends with him. Likewise, you may prefer to have friends with a similar mindset to you, or to discuss politics with someone with a broadly similar opinion. What’s more problematic from a free speech perspective, and should be discouraged IMO, is ostracizing someone in order to punish him for expressing a certain opinion, and to discourage others from doing so.
Likewise, secondary boycotts are more dangerous and less justifiable than primary boycotts. E.g. not being friends with someone with a certain opinion, or firing someone with a certain opinion, are primary boycotts. Ostracizing someone for being friends with someone with certain opinion, or not buying from a company if it has an employee with certain opinions, are secondary boycotts.
I don’t see the practical difficulty, much less incoherence of free speech absolutism. Protecting free speech does not require limiting anyone’s speech. It only requires limiting their actions.
Me saying someone should be killed for what he says does not prevent him from speaking. Me actually murdering him would, but I am forbidden from doing that. At no point does any government branch need to restrict my ability to speak. It only needs to restrict my ability to murder.
Now iterate over all instances of “things that act as speech deterrent”. Say, an outrage mob demands that someone is fired from their job? We don’t need to stop them from expressing this demand, we just need better worker protections.
The thing is, it’s not that someone might be fired because the mob cried for his head. It’s that certain people have privileges that stop them being fired, giving them greater freedom to act–a certain privilege, one might say. It’s the idea that while Bob McWhiteface has to be careful about appearing at certain events (or, even, being involved in certain activities around his neighborhood), Joel Blackson can do what he likes because reasons.
If you are going to consider the ability to prevent someone from being fired for speech a sort of super-legal privilege, then surely the ability to actually fire someone for their speech should also qualify as one of these privileges.
If you were given the choice between being able to fire one person in the company you worked for or prevent yourself from being fired, which would you choose?
If we define “free speech” as the ability to speak without negative retribution (via either government or private coercive power), the we run into the same conundrum with trying to maximize “positive liberty” i.e. the ability to act: Increasing one person’s power inherently involves some degree of diminishing another person’s power, because human activity is always tangled with the activity of other humans.
This doesn’t mean I think they are hopeless concepts. You can definitely attempt to maximize “positive liberty” or “positive free speech”, but you are going to have to focus on how a given policy effects the net-speech or net-liberty society-wide level, since analyzing a given individual will tell you close to nothing.
“If we define “free speech” as the ability to speak without negative retribution…”
Which we shouldn’t, so you can stop there.
You failed to understand my earlier post. What has happened is not that people suffer undesirable consequences for their speech; what has happened is that some people suffer consequences for their speech, and other people do not suffer consequences for the same speech, and the legal explanation for why seems to run counter to how we’ve been told things ought to work.
Scott is, I think, making the modest proposal that if there were a Culture branch of government, then it could pass Cultural Edicts that would clear all this up. There would no longer be unwritten laws, impossible to understand or recognize until violated, about things like who gets to yell at noisy kids in the pool and who does not; there’d be actual definitions of Person A who can do this with no problems and Person B who will lose their job and have to move to a different state.
I think this is a misreading of Scott’s post. His argument isn’t that there should be a Culture Branch of government. His argument is that certain weirdness in the world makes more sense if you conceptualize culture as a branch of government.
Note my choice of words. I mean, Swift wasn’t actually saying we should eat babies. He was just saying that we might as well admit what’s going on and carry it all the way to its logical conclusion.
The USA places individual freedom supreme to everything except laws. So you can argue that culture as a 4th branch of government would be highly destructive to the American body politic. After all, which culture are you going to choose? In the USA there are so many and the granularity is extremely fine.
In nations where culture is so important that it enforces norms without the apparatus of government, then yes, you can consider culture to be a branch of government. For example, in the Middle Ages even into the 1700s, there were very few laws that were actively and/or consistently enforced but peasant villages thrived as anarchist communities because the cultural norms were so strong.
Two modern examples of culture as a 4th branch of goverment are Afghanistan and the more remote regions of American Appalachia. Both very cohesive cultures with very weak government influence.
My personal opinion is that American anarchists really don’t know what’s what when it comes to the USA. Anarcho-communism historically only functioned well in peasant villages with cultural norms that were enforced by murder and by burning down the cultural offender’s house.
But the United States functions as a society ruled by law. And culture has very little place in that legal society except when it influences the executive branch and the House of Representatives to change those laws. In my view, both the judicial branch and the Senate act as brakes on that cultural influence.
My impression is that most people guide their day to day behavior on a basis of a shared culture, even in the US. If I take what you said very literally, I’d have to interpret you to mean that everyone learns local and federal statutes in high school and acts on that basis. Obviously you do not think that, and you could point out that no business is going to get very big without some lawyers advising them how to stay on the right side of the law. So I’m not sure what you mean.
Maybe the problem is that culture is so vague and all-encompassing. The norms by which we (mostly) avoid getting into serious conflict with strangers can be shared by people who have very little else in common. Cultures are big things, but they can coexist if they overlap or harmonize a bit in important areas.
I’m reminded of The Valley of the Squinting Windows…
Culture is vague and all-encompassing but also powerful beyond all other wings of government as long as it has sway over enough of the population.
The courts can be nullified if the average jury contains a couple members it controls.
The legislative and executive sway with it like the wind.
But it’s hard to pin down. Avalanches verifiable exist and can kill people and can be scary… but you can’t point at any particular snowflake and declare it responsible for the avalanche.
How do you restrain a branch of government where you can’t censure or punish any particular individual as responsible?
So even if it’s a branch of government.. you can’t really do much to restrain it.
Order Without Law, which Scott has a review of somewhere, extensively documents the rancher culture in northern California, which is both nonviolent and nearly 100% governed by culture.
They don’t care — or know — what the law is.
This is also true of essentially all Americans, such as the police, whose job doesn’t require them to know and work with the law. Most people will go their whole life without resolving a dispute through legal means or otherwise making recourse to the law.
For a rather different view of several cultures haled as not needing police, see:
Rule of Flesh and Bone: The Dark Side of Informal Property Rights, available at:
I found a review by David Friedman (http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Less_Law/Less_Law.html) but not by Scott. If you have a link, could you post it? I’d be interested to read his thoughts.
“Ideas competing to colonize people” seems like a very interesting way of looking at things.
Darwinism is supposed to have three main parts: superfertility, differential selection, and inheritance. In the case of memes, we obviously have the first thing (a meme that three people believe can spread to far more than three.) We obviously have some kind of selection going on — some ideas spread more easily than others. Inheritance is hard to really understand in the context of memes, but maybe there is some analog? This kind of speculation is kind of hard to falsify, though.
It’s also interesting to think about processes that just involve selection. For example, you have a thousand people. Assume for a moment that their characteristics are fixed. Which ones of them get to wield political power? You could imagine different cultures and different -isms coming up with very different answers to that. After one or two generations of this kind of selection regime, the “culture” will seem quite different.
“Ideas competing to colonize people” is another way of looking at society, especially a society that is increasingly regulated by high connectivity via the Web. Another way of phrase “Ideas competing to colonize people” is “memes”. The concept originated well before Richard Dawkins in the 1970s, in the 1940s but I can’t find the reference on the web just at the moment. Nevertheless, memes are the way that ideas propagate and survive. But I wouldn’t classify them as a branch of government, just as another metric.
This is not correct terminology. Memes are the ideas that propagate and survive. (Or fail to do so.) The process by which it occurs is just called “evolution”; it’s the same process for ideas and organisms.
Actually according to Dawkins, memes are synaptic patterns in people’s brains. I believe songs, habits and such would be the phenotypic effects of memes, just as bodily characteristics and behaviors and beaver damns are the phenotypic effects of genes. (I do believe Blackmore and Dennett later exapted the idea away from brain patterns and more toward cultural behaviors.
But going back to Dawkins, in his book The Extended Phenotype, he clarified the differences and importance of the meme concept as follows:
” These differences may prove sufficient to render the analogy with genetic natural selection worthless or even positively misleading. My own feeling is that it’s main value may lie not so much in helping us to understand human culture as in sharpening our perception of genetic natural selection.”
And he summarized it even more succinctly in his book The Blind Watchmaker:
“Analogies should be taken so far, and no farther.”
Memes are ideas that are particularity good at acting like viruses. They colonize a host, and then they change the host such that the host spends energy and resources spreading the
virusidea to other hosts.
Huh. I just realized that Scott and I are the same age, pretty much.
However, doesn’t this conflict a little with the previous article on how western culture has metamorphosed into universal culture?
Weirdly, since I’m one of those right-wing culturist maniacs, I agree with the former post more than this one, and from an internationalist perspective, I like that one better. I think the idea of a universal culture / global civilization makes more sense these days than talking about western culture, with one exception. There is universal culture – and there is Islam. That’s the only really deep division.
What about Russia? They’re not Muslim, but their democracy became a dictatorship in short order because they didn’t have cultural background necessary to make it work. Nations that do have this background tend to be Western, and Islam happens to be more common outside the West than within it. But Islam doesn’t specify a form of government any more than Christianity does. (And if it did it would hardly matter; moderates and fanatics alike pick and choose which doctrines they care about.)
Here’s the difference: you get Russians in the West, and they are not trying to set up a Putinist autocracy. There isn’t really a challenge to the universal culture; not even Putin does that. Contrast the Soviet era, which really did sell itself as a distinct, alternative to the Western world view.
However, you really do get Muslims, and not small numbers of them, throughout the most developed and liberal and civilized parts of the West who flatly reject it and want to overthrow it and replace it with Islam. And not just the West. I’ve been all over the world, and I assure you, you hear the same stories everywhere.
Even Putin isn’t like this. He wants to increase Russian reach and power and influence, but he isn’t like Erdogan, who really does urge Turkish Muslims, and Muslims generally, to rally to his flag as the new face of Islamic power.
By way of contrast, Mugabe established a repellent tyranny in Zimbabwe, and I’ve never even heard of a Zimbabwean who wanted to export that model of government. Even the one other case I can think of – North Korea – is strictly local. The most the ghastly necrocracy wants to do is take over South Korea. It doesn’t have a desire to spread this rule all over the planet.
Isn’t Putinism all about the superiority of a manly, Christian strongman to the weak, effeminate liberal West? Certainly sounds like a challenge to our culture and a distinct alternative to me…
Maybe, but they export it in a weird way. Russia seems to want other countries to have strongmen they can trade favors and otherwise deal with, not expand globally.
“Certainly sounds like a challenge to our culture and a distinct alternative to me…”
Putin seems to be within a standard deviation of the Russian ideal in terms of displayed religiosity and manliness. Nothing remarkable from the modern Russian point of view, though a striking contrast to the geriatric atheism of the late Soviet Union or the drunken lawlessness of the 90s. I suspect many Russian people just appreciate a return to “normalcy”.
I expect there would be a market for “Putinism” in the West, but really it would just be a return to social norms of fifty years ago.
Russia expands all the time whenever it can, but does so slowly. (Abkhazia, Transnistria, Crimea, etc.) Meanwhile, it tries to have local strongmen in the surrounding countries as a buffer between itself and the competing civilizations.
The difference seems to be that USA (or ISIS) can convert a country to their image on Monday, only to lose it again on Tuesday. Russia instead converts it to a semi-fascist state, and it remains so on Tuesday, too. That is different from Russia also sometimes taking a bite of someone else’s territory, and keeping it. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.”
Not all cultures are expansionist and globalist. Islam and Soviet-style communism are, but nationalist cultures aren’t. Putin, Mugabe and Kim Jong Un are all nationalist leaders.
I mean, a few of them have been…
“you get Russians in the West, and they are not trying to set up a Putinist autocracy”
But many Russians living in EU countries are supporters of Putin and reject “decadent liberal West”. And Western Muslims aren´t usually actively working on changing Western countries in which they live into Saudi Arabia or something like that. This is imho false distinction.
 Let’s see some numbers on those. In the last twelve years, I have found basically no cases of Russians in the West, much less orthodox Christians, who want to overturn the whole way these societies function.
However, Muslims in the West, collectively are working to that change, actively or not. For example, there is no western society now that does not have a de-facto penalty for blasphemy against Islam. There is no state in which you could publicly criticize Islam harshly without risking your neck. And there are other changes too – in Britain rape is slowly being decriminalized.
I was thinking in terms of nation-state, but, if you like, please remember that they tried that in Texas, and almost ended up dead for it, and not only that, but the victims were blamed, quite explicitly, by the media. Because it has become the standards that Islam is above criticism, above mockery, above the stuff we throw at literally everything else.
Since this is a bit depressing, look at it the other way though. The fact that we can still work on and expand a kind of super-civilization, a universal and global culture with everyone else, is freakin’ huge.
This is obviously far removed from original post, but I am afraid your assumptions about muslims in Europe are somewhat wrong, and I don´t want to let them stand here unchallenged.
First of all, in fact, in European countries you generally can criticize Islam quite harshly without risking your neck. I assume you are touching on Charlie Hebdo shooting and similar awful events, but those are fortunately quite rare. You have far better odds to be killed in car accident than because of criticizing Islam. Of course, Islam inspired terorist attack are still major problem in Europe, but they are usually not targeted on critics of Islam. In fact, those terorists have disturbing tendency to mow down people at random, like that guy in Strasbourg few days ago.
In fact, in most EU countries anti-hate speech laws are far more binding constraint of what is considered acceptable criticism of Islam than fear of terrorism, and those laws are generally directed against racial and religious hatred of all varietes, not against Islam specifically. Despite this constraint, we have in many EU countries parliamentary political parties whose platform imho could be considered quite, um, unfriendly to mainstream Islam. Just several months ago, group of prominent French public figures including former president Sarkozy signed open letter calling for removal of some objectionable verses from Quran.
Second, it isn´t really true that muslims in Europe are actively or otherwise working to overturn whole way our societies function. One problem with some muslim communities is that they are trying to impose on their own members social norms incompatible with mainstream liberal order, but very few muslims are trying to forcibly convert everyone to Islam.
In sum, I think that relation of traditionalist muslims and traditionalist Russians living in western Europe to mainstream is in many respects similar. There is just generally far more muslims than Russians in EU as a whole, although this does not apply to many postcommunist EU countries. I grant that there is no Russia inspired terrorism, but it is a mistake to cornflate traditionalist muslims with terrorist supporters.
I don´t know either way whether slow decriminalization of rape in Britain is real thing or not.
To take it in reverse order, look at Rotherham, Oxford etc. where mass rape was deliberately ignored and unprosecuted. That is “decriminalization” defined.
As regards the rest, I seem to have tumbled down this rabbit hole again. You can find tens of thousands of words on this on my site.
The reason we don’t have more attacks on critics of Islam is that there are so few, and they are getting fewer all the time. Douglas Murray said at the annual free speech event he attends that each year there are fewer and fewer, because so many have been killed, or live in hiding now.
Compare and contrast with the case where a British metalhead could openly wear a shirt with the legend “Jesus is a C***”. Can you imagine, even slightly, something like that happening with Islam?
Oh, but regarding Rotterham, quick google search finds that 16 people have been convincted in that case. That doesn´t look like decriminalization.
It is probably true that in Britain you could more easily get away with verbally abusing Christianity than Islam, but certainly when Christianity was stronger, like few decades ago, its authorities weren´t tolerant of f*** Jesus T-shirts. There appears to be widespread anxiety in Europe that Islam will sort of replace Christianity as “authoritative religion”, and I agree that would be bad, but you have some of your facts wrong.
“What about Russia?”
I’m an American, and in many ways a good old-fashioned liberal. Having lived and worked in Russia for a number of years, I have a few comments.
“They’re not Muslim”
About 7% or more of the population of Russia is Muslim and deeply rooted. While far from a majority, they are not without influence. In particular, Islam, together with Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and Tibetan Buddhism, are recognised as “traditional religions” of Russia, which means in practice that you can run afoul of the Russian version of hate speech laws for insulting Islam.
“their democracy became a dictatorship”
I don’t know how other people imagine a dictatorship, but somehow Russia just doesn’t live up to my expectations in that regard. I would describe it more as soft authoritarianism rather than a dictatorship. In particular, you can practice your (ir)religion as you like, have relationships as you like, say and write what you want (modulo the comment above about hate speech laws), run pretty much any kind of business or school without much ado (so long as you don’t propogandize “non traditional sexual relationships” to minors), and have a good chance of winning court cases against the government (https://irrussianality.wordpress.com/2018/04/08/book-review-everyday-law-in-russia/).
In short, in contemporary Russia one has a fair amount of freedom of religion, of association, of speech, of commerce and education, and of the rule of law. As one senior Russian colleague put it, never has there been a freer time in the history of Russia. That said, it will be interesting to see whether Russia continues to liberalize or becomes more authoritarian.
“they didn’t have cultural background necessary to make it work.”
This is a common claim about Russians. While it is true that the Bolshevik revolution set the progress of Russian society back many decades, I see no fundamental reason why Russian society shouldn’t continue to converge to western norms of governance and economics, while probably still retaining its distinct cultural norms.
But those are at best at the margins of the Russian culture, and at worst in open rebellion towards the Russian government and society.
They have all the formal institutions of a democratic republic, and yet the same person has been in power for nearly 20 years switching between President and Prime Minister offices with his associate, opposition party politicians, critical journalists and political dissidents are routinely arrested or assassinated, and there is no real expectation that a different political majority could form in the foreseeable future.
Russia is a good example of formal institutions being insufficient to attain any real democracy when not supported by an underlying democratic culture.
“opposition party politicians, critical journalists and political dissidents are routinely arrested or assassinated”
While there are non-trivial barriers to entering politics in Russia, and there are abuses of power, you are greatly exaggerating the situation, in particular with respect to assassinations. I would recommend following Paul Robinson, an upstanding liberal academic who is very knowledgeable about Russia. In particular, he had a recent discussion on his blog about assassinations:
As for political dissidents being arrested, it is true that if you and your three thousand groupies insist on holding your protest march down a major boulevard in Moscow, rather than on the side boulevard for which the city has granted you a permit, then you get arrested. Similarly, if you are a corrupt billionaire and don’t play nice with the government, you are going to end up in jail. In both cases, what’s at play is partly the rule of law and partly soft authoritarianism.
What I am arguing is not that Russia is some kind of perfect liberal (or even illiberal) democracy, but that there is a spectrum of liberality in the world and that Russia is not as far from the mean as many people assume. In short, I am pointing out the fallacy of reverse moderation, discussed on this blog earlier in the week.
“Russia is a good example of formal institutions being insufficient to attain any real democracy when not supported by an underlying democratic culture.”
I’m not sure what is real democracy (along which axes should it be measured?), or if it is even desirable (I would be content with rule of law, civil liberties, and relatively free markets), but perhaps we would agree that formal institutions are not sufficient for maintaining any kind of society, whether democratic or not.
On the other hand, with respect to Russian culture, about which I have personal knowledge, I see no way in which it is fundamentally less democratic than Anglo-Saxon culture. What is certainly true, however, is that the formal institutions of democracy are less developed. Along many axes, however, the institutions have improved. What will be very telling is to witness the transfer of power to the next president, which is expected to happen in the next four or five years.
And I suppose that Anna Politkovskaya also died of natural causes. /s
Sure, there isn’t Stalin sending people to the gulag anymore, but Stalin (or Hitler) is an extreme example of illiberalism.
Agree. I don’t particularly dislike Putin, I think he’s more competent than many Western leaders and probably did more good than harm to Russia given how it was in the 90s, but certainly he is not a democratic leader.
How many assassinations, confiscations, covert invasions and annexations of neighboring countries are necessary to make your point about the primacy of Putinism?
This is meant as a reply to your comment below, which doesn’t have a reply button. (I’ve been busy for a few days.)
“And I suppose that Anna Politkovskaya also died of natural causes.”
Anna Politkovskaya made some very nasty enemies on all sides (Chechen warlords, Russian oligarchs, FSB, and Russian military), seems to have survived a number of attempts against her life, and was finally murdered. Although something of a fanatic (on at least two occassions she tried to personally intervene in negotations with terrorists holding large numbers of hostages), she was clearly a courageous person in her own way, her murder was a tragedy, and even if no one in the Russian government is personally responsible, it is certainly a major failure on the part of the Russian government that it did not provide for more security.
A similar story is Paul Klebnikov (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Klebnikov), an American of Russian descent, who was the editor of Forbes Russia. He made enemies of a number of shady characters, including Chechen warlords and the oligarch Boris Berezovsky. He was murdered on the street outside the Forbes office. Again, at the very least this is a major failure on the part of the Russian government to provide security.
Nobody serious is denying that these cases are nasty. Rather the claim is that such cases have slowly become less and less common (they were altogether too common in the 90s) and that there is no evidence and no apparent motive for high-level members of the Russian government to have been involved. That’s not to say you shouldn’t assign some non-zero prior probability to “Putin dunnit”, but there seems little reason to assign a high probability.
Rather my point.
Unless you’re a Jehovah’s Witness. Yes, I know Putin recently said that it’s madness (in this rare case I agree with him). But he says a lot of things.
For example, saying that the annexation of Crimea should be undone is illegal.
Against tax inspectors – yeah, sure. But not against FSB. And if you’re practicing your freedoms – say you’re not even a JW, but an alternative Orthodox – then it’s FSB that comes for you.
What is more probable, (1) your senior Russian colleague watches too much TV (on which nobody except “bad guys” may say anything negative about Putin) or (2) pretty much every rating institution (Freedom House, Cato etc.) indicating *il*liberalization of Russia is wrong or captured by evil russophobes?
You again are falling for the fallacy of reverse moderation. Nobody is arguing that Russia is some kind of liberal paradise, only that its deviation from the mean is not as great at the New York Times would have you believe.
As for Freedom House, Cato, and so on, indeed I have no use for their opinions on Russia. I have lived in Russia for many years, I am viscerally aware of deviations from the mean, and I still think that these people are crying wolf.
I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about the deviation from the mean. Do we weight it by population? What if the mean is actually pretty horrible? And a mean of what, exactly? Do we aggregate some scores and if yes, how?
I’m specifically addressing your claim that Russia is currently becoming more and more free. You didn’t say that literally but you’ve quoted your colleague and used the phrase “continue to liberalize”.
I view this claim as obviously, ridiculously wrong. To discuss this it would be useful to have a standard projection on some axis, that’s why I’ve brought in FH and Cato. (And they’re different – FH thinks that Brazil is a free country but for Cato it’s worse than Russia).
But even if we don’t have a projection on an axis, it doesn’t matter. I’ll just pick up anything and it’ll show that Russia is not liberalizing. Here’s some statistics of convictions for “extremism”, whatever that is. The two numbers are for the two parts of the infamous 282 “extremist” article.
Given all that, hearing your colleague saying that today is the freest time in the history of Russia should have lowered your estimation of freedom in Russia.
Replying here to your comment below, on which there is no reply button.
“I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about the deviation from the mean.”
You fairly object to my overly precise language. I joined this subthread when Russia was described as having quickly transitioned from democracy to dictatorship, which I consider a gross exaggeration.
“I view this claim as obviously, ridiculously wrong… I’ll just pick up anything and it’ll show that Russia is not liberalizing.”
Article 282 is indeed infamous, particularly among the Russian far right, and is certainly abused. The closest I have come to it is that I know some weirdo who has a server on which other weirdos have blogs and one of those other weirdos had some sketchy content (some combination of pornographic and violent, I think) and got in trouble with FSB. Pornography and violence are not my cup of tea, so I haven’t looked into the details, but I suspect that it wasn’t so very extreme by American standards.
I haven’t yet found comparable statistics for Western European prosecutions under hate speech laws, but I have no doubt I’d rather spend six months in a German prison than in a Russian one.
On the other hand, in day to day matters that affect everyone, such as
petty corruption, property rights, and so on, the situation was very bad even 15 years ago and has become much better through more transparent and better documented processes such as the creation of databases registering and time-stamping complaints requiring government officials to either respond in a timely manner or to pay fines. (I myself have had very positive experiences with the new, centralized “My documents” centers.) Certainly there are still problems, but one should not underestimate the importance of first and second derivatives.
Another indicator of improvement is the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings, in which Russia has gone from around 120th in the world to 35th (just behind Japan and Switzerland) in the last 10 years.
While as a matter of principle I myself am a free speech absolutist, I don’t buy the argument that freedom of speech is an all or nothing proposition, and like most people I am rather selfishly more concerned with maintaining and improving my economic freedoms and protecting myself from corrupt bureaucrats than I am with a few hundred cases of skinheads, anarchists, and religious fanatics having their rights abused.
It will be interesting to see if increased economic freedom and better protection under day-to-day law will eventually lead to more freedom for skinheads, anarchists, and religious fanatics, but this is an empirical question, so we’ll have to wait and see.
Finally, there are a number of freedoms that are personally very important to me, particularly regarding the education of children, which I have in Russia but would not have in many Western European countries.
So altogether, there are many axes along which you can try to measure freedom, and on many of them Russia is relatively free and on some of them is objectively improving. I repeat for the Nth time that this does not make Russia a liberal paradise. It just means that I think characterizing Russia as “unfree” full stop or as a “dictatorship” is unreasonable.
OK. now I see what you mean. Your meaning of “freedom” contains a lot more economic freedom than mine.
Then I agree with you on the data. Cato actually makes two indices – Personal and Economic freedom – and the Economic index agrees with you too: Russia is around the mean (87 of 162) and improving. By now it’s better than Greece and a lot better than Ukraine.
Ease of Doing Business is naively assuming that all laws are perfectly followed, so I wouldn’t pay much attention to that.
And indeed you can homeschool your kids in Russia. I suspect that it has nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with ultra-rich not wanting the government to bother them and their children at all. Nevertheless, it’s a good law, and if you can use it, awesome.
What I disagree with is that all of that economic freedom is of any importance for classifying Russia as a dictatorship. How does improved bureaucracy – and I agree that Russian bureaucracy has improved – contribute to Russia being not a dictatorship? China and Saudi Arabia have decent economic freedom scores – not quite Russia, but still better than Ukraine – do they stop being dictatorships?
Also I object to the notion that the Western institutions are crying wolf, given that Cato’s economic freedom index basically agrees with you. They’re just talking about a different kind of freedom.
“Your meaning of “freedom” contains a lot more economic freedom than mine.”
Maybe, but what I’m trying to say doesn’t hinge on that, or on the peculiarities of contemporary Russia. To me liberalism is a political, pragmatic, utilitarian value, not a moral value of universal validity, and I’m arguing that if in some country most people have the freedoms they want, while on the margin there is room for more freedom, then it is unreasonable to describe that country as unfree, full stop. It is in that sense that I think western freedom rankers are crying wolf. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to see some more freedom for skinheads, anarchists, and religious fanatics. It’s just that in my context there are more pressing concerns.
I did however take a look at the Cato map on Human Freedom Index (https://www.cato.org/human-freedom-index-new), and it more or less agrees with my priors, up to a few oddities (Turkey has a higher score than Russia and India?). I look into it more, but this is consistent with the point I am trying to make: Russia is not an outlier on this index.
Is that accurate? I thought a large part of it involved a survey of businessmen, with questions like “have you had to pay a bribe to get a permit?” But maybe I am confusing this with surveys on corruption. However, if the laws are good, and there is evidence that on the whole people are having success winning relevant court cases against the government, then one may more confidently consider this to be progress.
“I suspect that it has nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with ultra-rich not wanting the government to bother them”
My sample is skewed (I don’t know any ultra-rich people, and even very few upper middle class people), but I know about fifty “homeschooling” families in the region where I live outside Moscow. Most of them are either hippies or nerds who just enjoy spending lots of time with their kids and don’t like the rigid atmosphere of the state schools. Together with a group of other families, we organize a kind of “cooperative unschool” where the kids can run wild together and have access to more resources than they would at home. This is a major aspect of our lifestyle and although I have opportunities for jobs in some EU countries, I am unwilling to move largely because I would have to give up this lifestyle.
In terms of political support for homeschooling in Russia, my impression is that it is supported by some popular Orthodox priests with large social media followings, so it seems that in Russia, like in the US, homeschooling appeals also to people who want more religion in education, as well as to hippies and nerds.
“classifying Russia as a dictatorship.”
People can classify it that way if they want, but I really don’t know what they mean. Soft authoritarianism, sure. The ruling party is quite entrenched and has many ways to defend its turf. Some kinds of protests get shut down. Others are “successful” in the sense that people get what they want (even when it’s stupid and the government knows better). Does that happen in dictatorships? Maybe it does.
OK, because I believe freedom-as-universal-moral-value to be incompatible with any government, especially with taxation and conscription. We’re discussing practical freedom, which is simply a right not to be punished or abused by the government.
Now if you think you have a right not to be eaten by wolves, but the wolves are currently chewing you neighbor, does it mean that you’re still enjoying your right not to be eaten while your neighbor is in an unfortunate margin? I’d say that would be an extremely unhelpful way to look at the situation. It would be much better to admit that your rights are fictional and the government is simply too busy with somebody else to pay attention to you… yet.
Consider the Sokolovsky case. He just made fun of Jesus and Mo. He got convicted for that by court; he also got on the extremist list meaning that he’s blocked from all banks and whatever he had on his accounts is lost. Is he an anarchist, a skinhead or a religious fanatic?
Currently the government is pondering a new law that would criminalize “disrespecting the government”. Maybe it won’t be that horrible, who knows. But many people who did criticize the government already find themselves under pressure without any law. Every single time this guy wants to gather listeners there’s suddenly either a pipe leak or a blackout. Is he an anarchist, a skinhead or a religious fanatic?
Their Human Freedom Index is simply an average of their Personal Freedom Index and Economic Freedom Index. This is just the default weighting; you can reweight it of course to reflect a higher preference for economic freedom. But note that the Personal Freedom score of Russia is 5.71 in 2016 (#130), slowly coming down from 6.53 in 2008. That’s about 1/5th quantile from the bottom. Is this “unfree, full stop”?
The two-year lag in ratings might explain the high scores of Turkey.
I can’t find an answer right now, but it looks suspiciously uncorrelated to the Corruption Perception Index (Macedonia?). Also Wikipedia: “does not measure all aspects … such as … the level of employment, corruption, stability or poverty, in every country.”
OK, right, that makes sense. Your community sounds great, and if your kids won’t be conscripted than it’s awesome. But why do you say that this doesn’t occur in the EU? I mean, Germany and Sweden, sure, boo, but the others?
I’d say it’s a projection on an axis similar to what Freedom House is doing. But unfair and rigged elections are pretty much enough. I think the most telling moment was when Putin was asked why he didn’t let Navalny participate in the elections and Putin replied that “[he] is Saakashvili, the Russian version!” and other nonsense.
“because I believe freedom-as-universal-moral-value to be incompatible with any government, especially with taxation and conscription”
But do you agree that “utility” as a function of “freedom” is
concave, so that an increase from very little freedom to basic freedom causes a large increase in utility, while if you have a fair amount of freedom already, then additional freedom doesn’t bring so very much utility? This is one of the general point I am trying to make. Of course one can disagree where exactly one stands on a concave curve.
And if I may continue with my bad habit of overly precise metaphors, I think the function is not continuous, but exhibits phase transitions. Once certain basic freedoms can be expected with reasonable probability, then people can begin the task of building their own communities and solving their own problems collectively, which is ultimately what I am interested in.
“the wolves are currently chewing you neighbor”
In a contest of hyperbole, you win.
My neighbors, and other people adjacent to our circles, do of course sometimes have legal or financial problems, for which we provide assistance. One can also ask, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, “who is my neighbor?” Answer: yes, also included are people on the margins, but I have incomparably more opportunities to help people with more mundane problems.
“Consider the Sokolovsky case.”
I can also play what-about. Westerners only get fined (Count Dankula) or get fired (Bahia Amawi). They don’t have to go to Russian prisons. I concede that you win this game.
“Currently the government is pondering a new law that would criminalize “disrespecting the government”. Maybe it won’t be that horrible, who knows.”
Of course this could be a set back. We’ll see. Given so many previous scares that amounted to nothing, I’ll wait and report back.
“I mean, Germany and Sweden, sure, boo, but the others?”
Homeschooling is illegal in the Netherlands, Greece, Spain, and Iceland. Sweden is extreme in that there are examples of children being taken away from their families, even when people have tried to move out of the country in order to continue home education abroad. In other European countries, the level of freedom for homeschooling varies. Also, in many countries where homeschooling is legal, starting certain kinds of independent school can be very difficult if not impossible.
“I think the most telling moment was when Putin was asked why he didn’t let Navalny participate”
Again, from a utilitarian perspective, I am more concerned about the communists being cheated in elections, since there are far many more communists than Navalny fanboys. However, I think it was plain stupid of the Russian government not to make an exception to the law and let Navalny run. It’s not as if even in a fair election Navalny has a chance.
Anyhow, we can go around in circles like this, and at some point it will get boring for both of us. In my experience, there is enough basic freedom in Russia and some means of fighting back when those basic freedoms are threatened in order to start mostly ignoring the government and get on with the more important business of building society.
You probably didn’t want to assert that the same function is both concave and non-continuous. Let’s say that the utility function looks like a sum of something concave, (representing diminishing returns from more freedom) and a bunch of sigmoid functions that we can regard as step functions (representing utility bonuses for reaching a particular level). Does that sound right?
I’m fine with that picture as long as we clearly state that it deals with the freedom we enjoy today and the utility that we receive today. This model doesn’t take into account expectations about the future.
My main point is that Russia is trending down on personal freedom. I’ve been so far completely unsuccessful in convincing you of that. I give you government’s statistics on growing incarcerations for extremism and you say it’s just anarchists, skinheads, and religious fanatics. I give you counter-examples but you say it’s what-aboutism. I give you an aggregated rating by Cato and you say they’re crying wolf. I have no resources to personally gather statistics. What evidence could convince you then?
Let’s look past this problem for now and let’s assume for simplicity that Cato’s Personal Freedom Index is The One True Way of Measuring Freedom. In the last 8 years (as much as we’ve got data for) Russia’s score got lower and lower at the average rate of 0.1/year. At what point does that phase transition occur at which you can no longer mostly ignore the government and mind your own business instead?
If it’s at the point of where Venezuela, Chad and Oman were in 2016, then (if the current trend continues) Russia should be at this level right about now.
Or maybe it’s at the point of where Pakistan, Gabon, Gambia and Bangladesh were in 2016? Then (if the current trend continues) you have 2 years of living in Russia before it gets that bad.
Of course a lot of assumptions went into that one and you might feel that the result is inadequate. But I want to reflect back your principle that derivatives are important. You happily applied it to economic freedom where the derivative was positive, and my message is that it also applies to personal freedom where the derivative is negative.
The Amawi case doesn’t bother me at all. I think an employer should have the freedom to employ people with particular political views if he so desires.
Dankula’s a lot worse. Even without him, UK is clearly losing ground in personal freedom. Of course the Brits should worry about it, especially those who see high utility in high personal freedom.
Funny, but Navalny claims that such law doesn’t exist and the exception was made not to let him run. My prior says that Navalny is telling the truth and the government lies.
OK, thanks! I think the “More here” link is lost though.
But AFAIK at least in Germany the ban on homeschooling is only applied to nationals, and American troopers in Germany do homeschool.
“You probably didn’t want to assert that the same function is both concave and non-continuous.”
After writing it, I wished I had said “with discontinuities” or “with singularities”. But logistic is a good enough metaphor: on some interval its convex, then there is an inflection point, after which it is concave.
“What evidence could convince you then?”
I agree that your interpretation is consistent with the data on “extremists”, though other interpretations are as well. I think what we disagree about is how worried a normal resident of Russia should be about this.
(By the way, I thought about your question as to whether Sokolovsky is a skinhead, an anarchist, or a religious fanatic, and I’m going with religious fanatic. Nonetheless the punishment was certainly excessive, and there are indeed cases of people prosecuted under Article 282 about which even everyone scratches their head.)
“Venezuela, Chad and Oman… Pakistan, Gabon, Gambia and Bangladesh… you have 2 years of living in Russia before it gets that bad.”
Sorry, I don’t know enough about those countries to have a real opinion. If things get bad here, maybe I’ll move to one of them where the weather is more pleasant.
“derivatives are important.”
There are some negative derivatives, and some positive ones. My hypothesis that a more stable economy and improved legal procedures will eventually solve other problems might be naive. For now, I keep an eye on the trend.
“The Amawi case doesn’t bother me at all.”
What’s bothersome is not so much that there is some employer who demands loyalty to a foreign country as a term of employment, but that the employer in question is a public institution and that the state legislature has passed a law requiring this as a term of employment for institutions receiving public funds. One solution is to develop alternative institutions, independent of the government, but in the meantime, I do think this is a real problem.
I work in a scientific laboratory funded by grants from the Russian government. I admit I’d be not a little bothered if I were required to take or not take political positions as conditions of employment. (I believe there were some cases of academics at Moscow State University getting in trouble with the university administration around the time of the annexation of Crimea.)
My prior is that Navalny is a poser and that the government lies. But Navalny might be right in this case. At any rate, I think it was a mistake strategically on the part of the government.
The intended link about homeschooling was just https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeschooling_international_status_and_statistics#Europe.
And thanks for the piece of information on homeschooling for foreigners in Germany. That could be useful to me at some point.
What about Russia? They’re not Muslim, but their democracy became a dictatorship pretty quickly, because they lacked the necessary cultural background. Nations that do have this background tend to be Western, and Islam happens to be more common outside the West. There’s nothing in Islam that says you shouldn’t have democracy, and even if there were, Muslims who wanted democracy would ignore that part. People ignore parts of their religion all the time.
That statement by our host reminded me of how different my “bubble” is from him.
I was just under 35 years old, and while I subsequently knew a few guys who thought that having troops in Iraq was effective bait for the terrorists so that the fight would be over their (I had a big argument with one of my journeymen despite my being still an apprentice, him saying “They volunteered”, me saying “Not for stop loss”), but I don’t remember anyone suggesting that the war would be good for Iraqis.
That’s good to read, and also sad. The thing is – as I’ve pointed out elsewhere – we thought that history was basically over. We really thought that with the fall of the wall, the path was clear to a world of liberty and prosperity, that no one would be nuts enough to destroy the only system that actually worked.
They didn’t get that from nowhere. Flypaper theory was one of the arguments for the war at the time.
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, 2003:
President Bush, 2005:
I think that Bush and his general were doing post-hoc bullshitting though. Bush initially presented the Iraq invasion as a quick liberation war, in May 2003 he gave his “Mission Accomplished” speech, then all hell broke loose and American soldiers were being blown up left and right – “It’s their job, everything is going according to plan”. Yeah, no.
That’s the best study I’ve seen on official statements about war purposes. Basically, public arguments started out with a strongly internationalist/WMV focus, which started to shift when the international community decided not to play ball (though it’s worth remembering that the 2003 invasion had more partner nations who contributed a larger share of the total troop strength than 1991) and it shifted towards terrorism/freedom/democracy.
No, there was a fair amount of that, at least in certain quarters. People told (true) horror stories about Saddam and his even viler sons (for a mild taste, see this, but a little searching for Uday and Qusay will show you more). After the war some Americans were dyeing their fingers blue in celebration of the free Iraqi elections.
I’m older than you are and yet even I was basically optimistic. I know Iraqi immigrants and they seemed like good guys. I doubted that Saddam’s regime had serious support from the populace, a doubt that seemed confirmed when he was toppled so easily. So, yeah, I thought it was a case of “Lafayette, we are here!”
Iraq had really good institutions, 20 years prior. They suffered a lot under the 20 years following the first Iraq war, for many reasons, and you can blame a few different groups, depending on which is your outgroup.
It still had way better institutions than Afghanistan did, or does, or will have for a generation.
I remember a pro-war radio station in Atlanta that had a “debate” between an Iraqi who favored the invasion of his own country in order to stop Saddam and an ignorant anti-war American teenager. I strongly suspect they were both American actors.
I personally knew an ex-pat Iraqi who married into my family. He supported both Iraqi wars for basically anti-Saddam reasons. I cannot say how common his attitude is among ex-pat Iraqis but I know that it would not be hard to find more of him.
See, I’d argue differently: I think there’s laïc culture, which is always driven by force, and there’s all the others.
On the contrary I would say that successful non-democratic regimes actively promote cultural particularism as a defense mechanism against international norms of human rights or liberalism. E.g. “different things work for different people, just because someone says something is universal doesn’t mean it is; we need to remember our own traditional values like family etc…”
This is a thought-provoking way of looking at things. Thanks!
And then there’s the UK constitution…
God save the Queen!
Yeah, the UK is weird that way. The odd thing is that it’s about the only place where you can be a republican monarchist – that is, think it’s a good thing to have the house of windsor around because it separates the “leader worship” bit of power from the “actual power” bit.
Tangential question: Is this a common argument / line of thinking? I remember seeing this argument once maybe a decade ago on another forum (the author was talking about how the US is screwed up because it lacks this separation) and I thought it was very interesting, but that’s the only other time I’ve seen it before now. I’m wondering why if this is a well-known argument it’s only the second time I’ve ever heard it.
Like, I remember reading this Vox article a while back about why (in the context of countries with parliamentary governments) a monarch works better than an elected president, and I thought they were going to make this argument, but they didn’t even mention it. What’s up with this?
Maybe it’s more commonly heard within the UK? I remember I first heard it from Peter Hitchens.
It is quite common in Spain, particularly now that there are forces in the parliament making noise for a republic. This is as recent as this October, from an editorial piece in the main conservative newspaper over here,
It says a lot of things, but it basically starts by saying that we “choose” the monarchy by implicitly accepting the constitution (social contract something something?) and then
(The translation is mine and may be very far from perfect.) About republics,
And etc etc. Of course, it flies over the issue of having a democratically elected symbolic figure as if his life depended on it, but that is usually solved by appealing to the importance of not changing the object of loyalty as some sort of Schelling fence against people losing their loyalty to everything.
I took a crack at translating the first bit:
“This fully democratic institution [the constitutional monarchy] is the one charged with personifying [the state] in its fullness, but it does so only symbolically, and so it can only comply with democracy and with the constitutional order [in] renouncing the ability to act: the king reigns, but he does not govern.”
The US is a presidential republic: the President is both the head of state and the head of the executive.
You don’t need to be a constitutional monarchy to separate the two functions: parliamentary republics also do it: essentially they have a “king” which is elected by the parliament every X years.
I think that people tend to downplay the powers of the head of state in constitutional monarchies and parliamentary republics. These are not merely ceremonial figureheads, but they have substantial powers which can actually affect the country’s politics. The 1975 Australian constitutional crisis is possibly the most prominent example.
There is an entire framework of emergency powers granted to the US executive that, if activated, could potentially nullify the other two branches of government. The only thing preventing this is cultural norms.
I think there’s a bit more to it than just having a ceremonial figurehead who’s officially your head of state.
Humans aren’t very good at thinking about democratic government of large populations. Democracy, in theory, is supposed to be about the entire population coming together, seeking a mutual understanding, and cooperating to make important policy decisions. It’s pretty much impossible for us to even properly conceive of this on the scale of our modern countries. There’s too many variables, too many things going on. We need to fit it into narratives to make sense of it, and a proper narrative demands something critical: a main character.
That’s the “leader worship” aspect of power that Sniffnoy is talking about, and it’s what enables cults of personality. If the President of the United States were not the main character of the United States, then it would be impossible to form a cult of personality around the president. It would be like forming a cult of personality around the head of the local district school board.
Officially, we called the main character the head of state, but in practice, a lot of official heads of state aren’t really main characters. The President of Germany is Germany’s head of state, for example, but the Chancellor is the main character, which is why you know who Angela Merkel is, but know so little about Walter Schwan that you probably just took for granted that he’s the President of Germany when in fact I just made him up.
Queen Elizabeth, on the other hand, is an *excellent* non-governmental main character, and a model for others to follow.
Australia also provides a very good illustration of this narrative principle of government. If you tried to imagine how the Australian government worked just from reading the constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia, you would think that after every general election the House of Representatives sits and; as a whole, elects each individual minister, who then govern collectively as a Swiss-style council of equals with maybe the Governor-General acting in a neutral moderating capacity. The Prime Minister is not mentioned in the constitution once, they have no official powers, but they were the de facto leader of the government from the very beginning because we inherited the narrative entitled “Parliamentary Government” from the UK. This narrative is all about how a “proper” government is formed by a single strong party gaining a majority of seats in parliament, said party having a single unquestioned leader who appoints ministers by fiat, and who fills the role of “Prime Minister”; the protagonist of the narrative.
“Is this a common argument / line of thinking?”
Yes, at any rate in constitutional discourse in the UK. It’s implicit in the distinction made by Walter Bagehot in the 19th century between the ‘dignified’ and ‘efficient’ elements of the constitution (in his book called, er, The English Constitution). It makes perfect sense to me that separating the Head of State and Head of Government reduces the risk of leader-worship and takes a lot of heat out of debates. One then has someone whose job is to govern and someone else who keeps out of the day-to-day but has reserve powers to defend the constitutional order. In today’s world, that makes a constitutional monarch the last line of defence for democracy. (Something like this happened in Spain in 1981.)
By way of illustration, George Orwell once commented that Franz Borkenau had said that the monarchy was the reason Britain was in no danger of fascism. Better for an apolitical figure to be the emotional focus of the constitution.
I don’t know how common the argument is, but it’s one of my reasons for supporting retaining constitutional monarchy (another reason is as an insurance policy for the type of once-in-a-century crisis where the institution has a prominent role to play).
The UK constitution really isn’t that weird at all. Unwritten constitutions were the norm before the US came along and even in the US, there are de facto lots of unwritten parts of the constitution (e.g. that there should be 9 Supreme Court justices) and parts of the constitution are outright ignored through dubious rules-lawyering (e.g. presidents ignore the rule that Congress has to declare war by just starting undeclared wars).
Additionally, in practice the American constitution doesn’t depend on the text of the constitution, but on its interpretation by the Supreme Court, which frequently defies a common sense reading of the text. For example, someone unfamiliar with contemporary American jurisprudence who relied solely on the text would need to have a very active imagination to even consider the possibility that anyone could come up with the idea that the 14th amendment somehow implies that women have the right to have an abortion up to at least the second trimester.
All of which tends to argue against having a written constitution – at least in a common-law jurisdiction where constant reinterpretation of case law is second nature. Maybe written constitutions work better in Roman-law jurisdictions?
As long as we’re refactoring, why take the division of the government into “executive, legislative, judicial” for granted? (Much less apply that same framework to other societies, not only present but past as well—that seems fairly absurd to me!)
You seem to be treating this division as if it’s an analytic, descriptive framework for characterizing how governance of arbitrary societies works, instead of treating it as a designed structure for governing one particular society. I don’t see how this view can be justified. (This is without even getting into the question of whether that designed structure remains operative, in the actual United States, in a way that still admits of describing it thus, which question is by no means trivial to answer.)
I agree that would also be an interesting thing to refactor.
First pass: political (subsuming legislative etc), cultural (subsuming ideology, media, and various ingroup/outgroup markers), technological, economic, military.
It’s entirely appropriate to suggest that between executive orders and regulatory rulemaking, the US Executive Branch has become a de facto legislature.
And judiciary, with Administrative Law Judges.
Yup. With their also getting to decide whether you are out of appeals — until then, you can’t go to the real courts.
And when they do go to the real courts, it’s under a “substantial evidence” standard, which means that even if the decision is clearly erroneous, if there’s any evidence at all that could back it up, it stands. It is not true that they play the Captain Kangaroo theme at such hearings, but they should.
Of course, the judiciary has also become a de facto legislature. It may be that our official legislative branch is the least legislature-like.
Interesting that their most well-known feature of late is their hearings – which look an awful lot like courts.
It seems to me that you are conflating the powers of government with how they are structured. All governments must, by necessity, exercise legislative, executive, and judicial powers (i.e,, they must create laws, execute laws, and interpret laws). That is true even if those powers are exercised on an ad hoc basis at the arbitrary whim of a single person. It is the separation of powers into three discrete branches which describes the structure of a particular society, not the existence of the powers themselves.
If your society is run by the whim of an all powerful emperor dictator, I fail to see how there are anything I would call “laws” there.
Normally, you separate “rule of law” from “rule of man”.
Ok, so call them “rules” or “edicts” rather than “laws.” The label is unimportant. The whim of an all powerful dictator is functionally the same as laws passed by Congress, even if they are not legitimate to modern, Western eyes.
If I am a dictator who wakes up one day and wants to throw a party, I might proclaim, “each of my subjects must give me 10% of their food.” In so doing, I have exercised the legislative power. When I send my soldiers to collect, I am exercising the executive power. If my soldiers seize 10 percent of a peasant’s beer, and the peasant complains that beer is not “food,” I might say,”food includes all that is consumed at parties” or I might say, “you’re right.” In either case, I am exercising the judicial power.
It is interesting to contrast your comment with that of SuiJuris, just below yours.
But more to the point: all governments must, by necessity, do all sorts of things. It seems to me that if we take the entirety of everything that all governments do, or must do, and put it all into a big pile, and then separate it back out into several piles, we can do that separation in various ways. Sure, we can make three piles and label them “create laws”, “execute laws”, and “interpret laws”. But surely that’s not the only possible way to categorize government actions? Surely there are other ways? And perhaps some of those ways might even be more informative, or might more neatly “carve reality at the joints”? Or do you suggest that this particular division is the only one that is possible or sensible?
Hm, I cannot think of anything that any govt ever has ever done which does not fall into one of those categories. Those define how governments act, as far as I can tell.
Do you have any such categorization in mind?
I agree with hour point in principle, but I can’t come up with a good example that doesn’t feel significantly more contrived than the traditional one.
I am reminded of a Twitter misunderstanding I had which hinged on the fact that in the US you call the executive, legislature and judiciary the three branches of government, whereas in the UK (traditionally, at least) only the executive is thought of as the “government”. The legislature and the judiciary not the government in UK terms, but they are institutions in the life of the state: and so are the church(es), the press, the universities etc etc, even though none of these are “the government” either.
I wondered whether Scott was going to explore the nebulousness of culture, in that although persons and institutions help to create culture, no one person or institution is individually responsible for it.