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On Irrational Retirement Strategies

“Most people are systematically irrational when it comes to retirement planning. They overlook the magic of compound interest and dollar cost averaging, waiting for their first gray hairs to start seriously saving for retirement. And so the government needs to make people start saving, starting young…”

That’s the story we hear from the smaller government conservatives. The liberals go further, assuming that the peons are too stupid to make any retirement choices, so we need Social Security – as if Congress was a better portfolio manager.

Is this story right? Are people irrational? It is certainly true that many people wait too long to start saving for retirement; that is, if they are going to use stocks as their main investment vehicle. I am rather guilty myself, and many of my libertarian friends are much worse. It does appear that if we want to replace Social Security with private retirement accounts as generally conceived, then we need to either force them Chilean style, or deal with destitute old people.

As I contemplate this dilemma, another asserts itself: stocks are a safe retirement option only for those who invest over decades. Over shorter spans the volatility is unacceptable save for those who like to gamble. Even if stock market investing is the ideal long term retirement option, how do we make the transition from Social Security to private accounts for those over 40? How about those over 30 even? The liberals have a point when they scream about Wall St. ripping off retirees and undue risk, especially for those trying to catch up late in their careers.

Then again, maybe typical human investment behavior isn’t irrational under a more free market system! When you are young, should you invest in your education or stocks? Later, should you put your savings in a retirement account or in your own business? And how about your house: if it weren’t for the tax deductibility of mortgage interest, paying off your mortgage early is a very conservative and predictable investment. And what about rearing children: should both parents work in order to have money to put away for retirement, or is it better for one to stay home to raise the children? Now consider the years after the children have grown and finished college: these are excellent years for both parents to work and maybe save a large fraction of their combined income.

This conservative, non-Wall St. retirement strategy could work, if we got rid of laws which encourage financial recklessness. Get rid of the mortgage deduction and paying down the mortgage makes sense. Allow unused IRA deductions to carry over to later years. Outlaw aggressive maturity transformation on the part of banks and go to a gold standard, and plain old bank certificates of deposit could provide a decent predictable return on investment for both existing retirees and for people who opt to go on a savings spree during the height of their careers.

Maybe default human behavior is rational after all, in an environment of rational economic policy. It thus follows that we need the rational economic policy before we eliminate Social Security. Order of operations is important.


Government as Public Corporation

With democracy, the people eventually vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. Deficits ensue. Constitution writers can dream up limits: balanced budget amendments, enumerated powers, checks and balances, and so forth. It doesn’t work. The people find a work around. As voters they own a government; eventually they want the profits.

Perhaps we should borrow a page from the modern monarchists and simply formalize the arrangement. Government is a sovereign corporation. Democratic government is a sovereign corporation in which each citizen owns one share – a consumer cooperative, as it were. Maybe that corporation should pay a dividend, instead of having shareholders constantly thinking up sneaky ways to get their hands in the public till. Ditch the welfare state and give every citizen an equal amount of free money from the government.

The result would not be libertopia. Self-interested citizens would want to maximize tax revenue in order to maximize their dividend check. But our theoretically limited government often goes beyond the Laffer maximum in order to use the tax code to indirectly redistribute the wealth. Worse yet, we have hundreds of programs and hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats and social workers to figure out which category of largesse you deserve. Naked aggression/people power/might makes right would be simpler and fairer. All those smart people currently bonded to the government teat would be banished to the private sector, receiving no more from the government than the bums on the other side of the tracks. Who knows what sorts of interesting businesses and foundations they would set up if so released into the wild?

Would this fix the deficit problem? Or would the people vote themselves a dividend beyond the ability of government to pay? Or worse, would they vote for a dividend and a welfare state to boot?

We cannot say without doing the experiment. But the private sector provides some clues. Corporations pay big money to top management in order to keep management’s interests aligned with the shareholders. Pay someone a mere $100K to run General Motors and the CEO can make far more money in kickbacks from suppliers than from serving GM. This doesn’t always work, of course. Sometimes greedy or overly ambitious CEOs milk the businesses they run anyway.

But the people are the shareholders, not the CEO. So this payment principle is a bit of a stretch. For democratic government we have finely dispersed ownership. A somewhat closer analog would be the mutual insurance company. Hmmmm, if we could get government to behave as conservatively as a mutual insurance company, we’d be doing rather well…


Shopping for Government

Democracy divides. In order to get anything close to what you want in government, you must support a team. Democracy makes us stupid as well. Once on a team, you have an incentive to defend that team’s every action no matter how bad.

And so, the Sith Lord Moldbug finds grist for his condemnations of democracy, and rationale for monarchy. And if you ignore the War of the Roses, Czarist Russia, most ancient history, all of Central and South American Indian history, monarchy begins to look pretty good. Actually, what Moldbug is locking in on is a mix of competitive government, which the Holy Roman Empire had to a significant degree, and a slice of colonial history from when classical liberal values were popular. His data points are not representative of his thesis.

Competitive government provides better accountability than democracy, so radical federalism is one answer, even of some of the localities are run by a Boss Hogg. But today, state’s rights are not enough. The states are too big. California is a prime example. Split up the big states so that none are more populous than, say, Virginia, and we might get a taste of accountable government even under our current system.

But while accountability breaks down with size, other features of government scale up. Uniform laws over a large population provide bigger markets. Larger countries can field larger armies per mile of territorial border. Economic diversity stabilizes the tax base and reduces the impulse for mercantilism somewhat.

So I’ll stick with democratic republics until someone successfully field tests anarchocapitalism in a small country. But I do think we can and should make democracy less bad. To do so, let us look at the mechanisms by which democracy divides and dumnificates.

If you wish to reign in the rich, hand out largesse to the poor, stop global warming, keep abortion legal, and keep guns out of the hands of dangerous civilians, then the Democratic Party is your team. If you hate high taxes on the rich, despise regulations on business, like to own guns, and think abortion is murder, then the Republican Party is your team. If Democrats outnumber Republicans, then you get Democratic rule in that district and vice versa. No problem, if everyone fits into one of the teams. But they don’t.

Joe is a union member, distrusts big corporations, but he is also a God-fearing gun owner. Jane wants to stop global warming but she also thinks government is too big and complicated. Which teams should they join?

Enter the ugly battle for the swing voter. The Democrats need members of the tax paying elite to fatten its welfare-mooching coalition, so they pander to professors and push pretentious preachers on PBS. The Republicans need some blue collar voters to round out its coalition of golf-playing corporate overlords so they feature clowns and buffoons on talk radio and run presidential candidates of limited vocabulary.

Each side nitpicks away at the other, trying to convince the swing voters that the other side is less competent and more corrupt. Those who agree significantly more with one team, join said team and then bend their thinking to fit in. Each side has its echo chambers to exhort the faithful and drown out inconvenient truths with noise. Stupidity is amplified.

But what happens if we switch to Score Voting? Joe and Jane can safely give their highest scores to candidates they actually agree with. Candidates in general have less incentive to toe their party’s lines, since you could have more than one Democrat and/or Republican on the ticket in the general election. Groupthink provides fewer rewards; people can think issue by issue. Collective stupidity wanes.

If government becomes a bit less stupid, it might become a bit less bad. And if it becomes a bit less bad, it might become a bit less period. Government grows in response to crisis. Lazy libertarians would do well to ditch the Atlas Shrugged scenario and push for Score Voting and other incremental reforms. It’s cheaper and safer than living on a floating island, or turning Cuba into an experiment in anarchocapitalism.


The Genetic Impact of Ancient Sexual Arrangements

Time for a little break from defending and improving upon democracy. The Moldbugosphere enjoys indulging in the politically incorrect, and I have found a doozy for ya’ll. And it should be fun for those interested in alternative sexual arrangements and the economics thereof. Have a look at this article on Evolution in the Bible. Here’s a bit to whet your appetite:

Sex is rather pleasant. The blind, the cripple and the stupid enjoy it too. And so defective genes do propagate to the next generation unless we allow nature to weed them out. Welfare prevents the unpleasant culling, and I salute the process even as I admit the price. Besides, as long as welfare recipients breed at the same rate as taxpayers, we break even. The human race is good enough, no need for nasty eugenics programs.

But are we breaking even?

Hear the tale of two teenage girls, Sally and Ellie. Sally is diligent, studies hard, goes to college, practices safe sex or even abstinence (we need not investigate). After several years building a career like a modern woman should, she meets Mr. Right. They buy a home in the suburbs, and when their finances are finally in order, she manages with difficulty to bear 2.1 children before she gets too old.

Ellie, on the other hand, lives for the day. The teenage years are time to party hardy! And check out Joe Studly, with his snazzy clothes, James Dean stares and that sleek sportscar! Time to get busy while the hormones are hot, and those rubber thingies really kill the romance. Ellie gets big, Joe moves on looking for tight new hotties, and Uncle Sam has a new ward. Ellie’s value on the marriage market goes down considerably, but no problem. Uncle Sam pays the bills, and plenty of handsome hunks with steamy stares are ready to provide sperm donation services in between pregnancies. By the time Sally and Mr. Right are on child 2.1, Ellie is on bastard number 5 with a grandchild on the way.

Old Dr. Darwin says over time we will have more free-spirited Ellies living for the day and more Joe Studlys with great fashion sense and no conscience. After several generations we might run low on taxpayers to fund all those food stamps and housing projects. Then what?

Maybe we shouldn’t worry about it. What constitutes “fit” today may be unfit tomorrow. Maybe we will be hit with a massive plague, so a propensity for rapid breeding will be most critical for human survival. Maybe civilization will collapse, making today’s gang members more fit than today’s doctors, lawyers and dot-com millionaires. Maybe we’ll have GMO humans and designer babies to offset natural selection before too long. Maybe our robot overlords will take over all responsibilities: ambition and intellect will become liabilities; today’s welfare recipients are the prototypes for a brave new tomorrow. Maybe the Second Coming will happen before too many generations, so Christians should focus on charity and ignore genetics.

Or maybe societies with stricter breeding codes will conquer the decadent West, and we’ll all live under Sharia law, bringing us full circle. Don’t laugh; it’s already beginning in France.

The article goes on to point out how the Old Testament Law got around this genetic dilemma. It explains some of the more politically incorrect parts in terms of reconciling welfare system and longterm genetic viability for the Israelites. Might be worthy material for the Antiversity.


Biased Towards Bigger Government

Previously, I made a pitch for an improved form of representative democracy: score voting. With Score Voting we could ditch the two-party duopoly and explore incremental versions of many different ideologies: libertarianism, market environmentalism, Christian liberalism, Georgism, Objectivism, Darwinism, or whatever. While radicals of any school would still have difficulty getting elected, different districts could tentatively explore a few of many possible directions. Our state and local governments would become true laboratories of democracy. Meanwhile, our national legislatures would be filled with a variety of near-moderates; diverse enough to represent the nation while moderate enough to work together. Power would likely flow back from the executive to the legislative branch. We would be a working republic once again, instead of elected near dictatorship (in the classical sense).

Some of you received the idea warmly. Others were troubled. A more democratic system means rule by the median voter, and many of you distrust the median. With the median voter in charge, would we get even more largesse for the middle class? A more progressive income tax? Protectionism? Persecution of minorities?

Legitimate concerns all, but I think a bit misplaced. The median voter is no libertarian, for sure, but government has grown beyond the median voter's desires. We are biased towards bigger government, in several ways.

Civil servants and other recipients of government largesse vote for more. As the number of government employees, contractors and subsidy moochers grows, so grows the demand for bigger government. Moreover, these are the people who show up to vote even when the general public is disengaged. Reengage the general public; make elections interesting contests instead of coronations for incumbents; and the special interests lose some clout. Score Voting has the potential to reduce this bias somewhat, but by no means completely.

The bigger bias, however, is ideological. Our two-party duopoly virtually guarantees that government will ratchet ever upwards. Have a look at this political map. We have a bigger government party of the Left and a party of the Right which includes both big and small government coalition members. The aforementioned map is not the Nolan Chart, BTW, but a map using Left and Right in a more traditional sense: Left means a call for a more egalitarian society and looking out for the poor; Right means defense of the existing order, including wealth distribution. The Democratic Party is dominated by moderate socialists and welfarists. The Republican Party represents defense against the Democrats. The Republican Party thus contains a fair number of free market capitalists, but it is also the home of mercantilists, militarists, authoritarian traditionalists, crony capitalists, and others who wish to preserve economic elite.

The existing alignment makes government ratchet upwards. The Republicans increase the demand for socialism by widening the wealth gap, and the Democrats provide it. The United States lacks a party of the Upper Left, a party which calls for smaller government and a narrower wealth gap. So government grows bigger and the wealth gap widens. Since our society moves Down and to the Right due to systemic bias, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the median voter is somewhere in the Upper-Left quadrant. A new political party which occupies this quadrant might well become a dominant party.

But starting a new party under current conditions is a problematic indeed, and I doubt this audience is much interested in taking on such a risky and expensive venture. Our other option is to open the market to new parties -- or new non-party political factions. That is, with Score Voting in place we can expect one or several new parties of the Upper Left to enter the political market. With the Lower-Right ideological bias gone, we have hope of shrinking government back to the size desired by the median voter. And with government thus shrunk, the civil service/special interest bias shrinks as well. Positive feedback might work in our favor for a change.


Democracy for the Modern Era

Democracy, government accountable to the Will of the People: many set it on a pedestal, as the highest ideal of government, or even morality. Others call it mob rule, two wolves and a lamb deciding what to have for lunch. I stand in between. Democracy may be mediocrity, but given the nasty predilections of many monarchs and juntas, I’ll take mediocrity – at least as long as nations are large enough to make government shopping prohibitively expensive. If government is to be a natural monopoly, let it be a consumer coop.

Our democracy has many problems because it isn’t. We don’t have democracy at the national level. We have a representative republic. Given the size of congressional districts and the enormous advantages of incumbency, our republic is not all that representative. Special interests, political parties, and the civil service are heavily overrepresented.

This is not to say I favor direct democracy. Legislation takes time, even for limited government. And why spend the time if your vote is only one of millions? Rational ignorance is no way to run a nation. So I’m game for choosing representatives, but I’d like a real choice.

Under our current system we usually get stuck with two choices: a Democrat and a Republican. This is not the fault of unfair ballot access laws or a sinister conspiracy by The Duopoly. This is a result of the plurality-take-all voting system we use for federal (and most state) elections. Put three or more viable candidates on a ballot and plurality-takes-all breaks down. Consider this ballot in a conservative district:

  • Rudolph Giuliani
  • Newt Gingrich
  • Nancy Pelosi

If conservatives split their votes between Giuliani and Gingrich, Pelosi wins, even though conservatives are a majority. This is hardly representative. And so, conservatives try to line up behind one and only one candidate before the general election. (I’ll leave it to the reader to devise a converse scenario for a liberal district. I’ll stick to this same conservative scenario for the rest of this article for brevity’s sake, not to endorse conservatism or the Republican Party.)

Most viable/moderate Libertarian candidates come off sounding more conservative than liberal, and so they rob more votes from the Republican candidate. A maxed out Democratic donor could thus aid his cause by donating to such Libertarians. This is rather perverse. And so, the people usually ignore third party politicians even when they aren’t on the fringe. The people rationally vote for the lesser of two evils.

The standard American ballot allows the user to express his (positive) opinion about only one candidate per office. If there are only two candidates, this implicitly provides an opinion on the second candidate. With three or more candidates, the missing information is significant. In the scenario above, a Gingrich voter cannot express a preference between Giuliani and Pelosi.

Many election reformers propose some form of ranked choice ballot to provide the missing information. A conservative voter could thus mark the above ballot:

  • 2 Rudolph Giuliani
  • 1 Newt Gingrich
  • 3 Nancy Pelosi

Counting such ballots is surprisingly tricky. Political scientists have devoted thousands of big-brain hours to the problem with no satisfactory solution. The gold standard solution is the method of Condorcet (which was used by the Free State Project to choose New Hampshire). Under Condorcet Voting, we look at each pair of contestants: Giuliani vs. Gingrich, Gingrich vs. Pelosi, and Pelosi vs. Giuliani in this scenario. We can take the ranking from each ballot and assign the vote to one of the two candidates in each pairwise contest. The ballot above would go to Gingrich, Gingrich and Pelosi respectively. If Gingrich beats Giuliani overall and Gingrich beats Pelosi, the Gingrich wins – which might be the case for a solid conservative district. However, if the liberal minority overwhelmingly prefers Giuliani over Gingrich, and moderate conservatives split, then Giuliani wins. The liberal minority doesn’t get their preferred candidate, but they still have influence. The entire district is in some sense represented. This is unifying.

Alas, Condorcet counting is confusing. A two-dimensional table is required to display voting results. This is hard to read and takes up scarce newsprint area. But far worse, Condorcet counts are not transitive. We could get Gingrich beats Giuliani, Giuliani beats Pelosi and Pelosi beats Gingrich! This is a recipe for civil war!

Instant run-off is simpler, and more familiar, than Condorcet. Unfortunately, it leads to the same two-party duopoly as our current system. Moreover, it can produce perverse results. Suppose most conservatives pick Gingrich, Giuliani, Pelosi; liberals pick Pelosi, Giuliani, Gingrich. Moderates divide between Giuliani, Pelosi, Gingrich and Pelosi, Giuliani, Gingrich. Under instant run-off, Giuliani loses in the first round. If moderates plus liberals outnumber conservatives, then Pelosi wins, even if conservatives outnumber liberals. Our current system of primaries, where in this case conservative voters could consider the electability as well as the desireability of the Republican during the primary, is less perverse.

Fortunately, a better system exists: Score Voting. Score Voting is how multiple judges decide between multiple contestants. If you’ve ever watched figure skating, high diving, gymnastics, or a beauty contest, you’ve seen Score Voting in action. Each judge assigns a numerical score to each contestant. The scores are added up or averaged and the contestant with the highest score wins. Score Voting is also how most schools pick their valedictorian. Grade points are scores. We do a better job of choosing beauty queens and top figure skaters than we do choosing our president and congresscritters.

Score Voting is an old system – for judging contests – but it is largely forgotten in a political context. The only political context I know of is the ancient Teutonic tradition of beating on shields in favor and shouting down in opposition to a measure or candidate. Score Voting is too much work for counting thousands of votes in the days of hand-counted ballots and so it disappeared in the political context. In the computer age, Score Voting is very easy to implement, however, so it is high time to give it a new try.

Mathematician Warren Smith is leading the charge to bring Score Voting back for political contest. His Center for Range Voting web site features in-depth analysis of Score Voting vs. other systems, and how Score Voting defies Arrow’s Theorem. (Range Voting was his original name for this system.) Take special note of his simulation studies, on how Score Voting minimizes Baysian regret. This is rather important. When Baysian regret gets too high, people die!

Consider a nationwide ballot in Iraq featuring the following candidates:

  • A Shiite extremist
  • An Arab Sunni extremist
  • A Kurdish separatist
  • A moderate social democrat
  • A moderate classical liberal

With plurality-take-all voting, the Shiite extremist wins — and the rest of the population takes up arms. Similar failure modes happen in other deeply divided countries around the world. When racial, tribal, linguistic, religious or ideological divisions grow too deep, democracy leads to dictatorship or civil war. This is the sad story of the Third World.

Now, consider the ballot above using 0-10 Score Voting. Shiite extremists may still give their man a 10, but they are likely to give the other divisive candidates zeros. Ditto for Arab Sunni extremists and Kurdish separatists. Under such an environment, unifying candidates such as the social democrat and the classical liberal have a real chance of winning, even though they have small enthusiastic bases. Score Voting favors candidates that are “less bad for all” vs. “best for the biggest gang.” The political culture should become less poisonous over time, and peacekeeping troops can come home after peaceful democracy takes root.

Of course democracy is not the same thing as freedom. In fact, many of you reading this may fear the spread of democracy, as it does lead to lefty governance. The poor outnumber the rich, so keeping the masses from looting the treasury is a problem. Moral arguments can help, but try explaining why are lazy poor people collecting welfare checks is bad while lazy rich heirs collecting interest is acceptable? This is an important objection, and I’ll deal with it in depth in future posts. For now, let’s look at the benefits of improved representation:

  • Incumbents can no longer hide behind fear of the other party. A corrupt conservative can be challenged by a fresh conservative without fear of electing a liberal. Ditto for corrupt liberals.
  • New ideologies can be explored: libertarianism, eco-conservatism, free-liberalism, Georgism, etc.
  • While more ideologies can be explored, they will be explored incrementally. Extremism loses under Score Voting. Excessive change in government is bad. People can adjust to even bad laws if they don’t change. Think of our ever changing tax code or ever changing monetary policies.
  • Score Voting applied within legislatures provides clear accountability. We will know where legislators stand.
  • Score Voting applied within legislatures might allow legislatures to take powers back that they delegated over to regulatory agencies.
  • Improved democracy might allow us to weaken the power of the civil service.
  • More efficient democracy might render state and local government competent enough to forgo help from the federal government. This could be a step to restore federalism.

Some of these benefits are conjectural. Experiments are required. But the experiments can be done. I’ll detail how in a future post.


Why the U.S. Constitution Works

Mencius Moldbug decries democracy and points to its many failures. Meanwhile the United States struggles to deploy democracy in Iraq, displacing millions in the process. The Ottoman Empire ruled the region with more success. Latin America continues to oscillate between revolution and reaction. Africa went rapidly from post colonial democracy to corrupt despotism and or civil war in most countries.

Cherry pick the right examples and Moldbug’s case seems ironclad. But then there are those notable exceptions, such as the United States, the richest, most powerful nation on earth, and surprisingly, one of the oldest governments. Our democratic republic is more stable than most modern monarchies.

Sure, we have our problems. Our crime is excessive, our prisons overflowing, and or debts piling high. We could be near the end of our golden age, but not if I can help it. Our problems have solutions, no reboot necessary.

The important question is: why are we so successful where so many other countries have failed in short order? Why do we merely get Roosevelts where others get juntas and Hitlers? Why is our Constitution so successful? Can we export this success elsewhere instead of wallowing in bloody and futile nation building exercises?

True, it may have nothing to do with our Constitution. It may be our Northern European heritage. The Scandinavians and Germanic tribes practiced democracy back in ancient times, when much of the civilized world worshipped god emperors. We may be carrying over habits from those times, and have institutions which survived the feudal era making democracy natural for us even as it is unnatural for many other cultures. But then again, Germany sure had a bumpy ride returning to democracy in the 20th Century. The Weimar Republic and the Nazi eras were none too pleasant.

Maybe it’s our extremely Christian roots. Many of the early colonists came to escape persecution and/or establish religious utopias. The Bible contains a law code suitable for anarchy, and America’s Founders were well-versed in the Bible – even those who were not Christians. With a culture well-versed and amenable to in an anarchy-friendly legal code, citizen policing, trials by jury, and amateur legislatures worked well. And when people get their public morals from an ancient book, leaders become accountable to outside powers. No more god emperors. That said, the Puritans had a few mishaps on the way to establishing successful democracy; the early Pilgrims were communists, after all.

Perhaps it was our frontier. With cheap land available out west to all brave enough to fight for it, ambitious members of the working class went west instead of becoming union rabble rousers or socialist revolutionaries. To this day, our more frontier oriented states feature major party politicians which more resemble libertarians; note Mike Gravel and Sarah Palin of Alaska. But I don’t think this is the whole story. Our settled states have most of the population, and our republic has yet to collapse.

Most democracies outside the U.S. are parliamentary democracies. Parliamentary democracies are intentionally unstable. Power flips over radically to whichever coalition musters a majority. Our constitution provides for more stable government. We have the benefits of gridlock: presidents and congresses of different parties. We have powerful courts which reflect the views of multiple past administrations; this filters the effects of political victories over time. We also have a strong civil service system – a stabilizing feature in addition to our constitution – which provides a check on the current chief executive.

The features above are appreciated by many, but they too are not the whole story. Part of the magic of our Constitution lies in the ugly bits: the bits leading to pork, gerrymandering, constituent service, and the two-party system. We have district based elections.

District based elections are the bane of third party politicians. Duverger’s Law states that with plurality-take-all district elections, only the top two candidates are worthy of consideration. Third parties thus get squeezed out. Libertarian Party chairman Bill Redpath has long called for proportional representation. This would allow the Libertarian Party some seats at the legislative tables. It would also give seats to socialists, communists and racists. Proportional representation is a dangerous idea. Adolph Hitler gained his foothold using proportional representation.

District elections keep our elections a bit dumb and uninteresting. They keep principled libertarians out of government. They are also a key to the success of our republic. District based plurality-take-all elections provide the following stabilizing features:

  1. They keep the wacky radicals out of Congress and the state houses. You have to be middle of the road enough to be in the mainstream of your district to get elected.
  2. They weaken the importance of political parties. “All politics is local” is a U.S. mantra. Politicians are more accountable to the people in their districts than the party machines.
  3. Gerrymandering produces safe districts. The resulting perpetual incumbents are relatively immune to the political tides of the moment. Each chamber of Congress has both its commons and its lords.
  4. Local accountability turns legislatures into ombudsmen as much as they are lawmakers. “Constituent service” keeps the civil service on its toes.

This combination of features produces legislatures which are reasonably stable from term to term and are able to function. A legislature fractured by radical factions can be so divided that its members refuse to work together productively. Increased executive power, by dictatorship or junta, is a frequent solution under these circumstances. The constraints of district elections tend to tame radical factions and make them more humane. To have influence, radicals must package their programs into manageable bites, no Great Leap Forwards allowed. They must learn to play nice with others, including moderates and remoras, and work within the squishy two-party infrastructure.

And so, when top-down technocracy was all the rage, and the Great Depression provided a convenient crisis, we suffered the Roosevelt Years. Bad, and borderline dictatorial, but the Constitution survived, albeit bruised and battered. Alas, the same factors which saved us from socialism during those dark years also prevent rapid recovery. The journey back to a limited government republic must be a long one. The debt is high and the entitlement obligations higher. There are no real tax cuts in our near future. Libertarians must embrace this reality and behave like grownups if they want to govern and get us out of this morass.

Our system is stable, but by no means perfect. While moderate parties are good, having only two parties is not. Neither existing party embraces the solutions we need, even in mushy moderate form. The system is now biased to badness, and some reform is called for. Either a new coalition needs to take over an existing major party, or we need a new major party. The latter is extremely difficult, but perhaps not impossible; two possible loopholes in Duverger’s Law present themselves.

But it may be even easier to fix the system than it is to get good people elected under the current system. The reform needed is very mainstream and understandable to the masses. It could be presented to service clubs and civics classes. Moreover, it could be embraced by peaceniks. The reform I contemplate may be effective elsewhere, even in those lands now resistant to stable democracy. Fix the flaws in democracy and nation-building works faster, and our troops can come home.

I’ll detail this important reform in my next post. For now, appreciate what we have and realize we can do better.


In Defense of Democracy

In perusing the Seasteading Institute’s website, I came across a blog ecosystem challenging democracy (including democratic republicanism). Interesting stuff, but I find the suggested alternatives – monarchy, dictatorship, colonialism – to be rather unsettling. At times these systems do work better than democracy, but their failure modes can be most catastrophic. Indeed, even in equilibrium such governments can be very unpleasant. I’ll take W. Bush or Barack Obama over a shogun or pharaoh any time.

Democracy is not great, but it is not horrible. Democracy is mediocrity – by definition. At least, democracy represents the median when it works. Actual implementations can diverge from the median, sometimes catastrophically. But these are not failures of democracy per se; these are failures of particular implementations. Many implementations of democracy could use some serious reengineering. Even the U.S. system could use significant fixes, though it is more stable than most parliamentary forms.

In a deeply divided society, however, the median has little support. In such cases tribal anarchy, empire, or a redrawing of boundaries might be preferable to countrywide democracy. Such are not the conditions in the United States nor in most other First World countries. To suggest a “reboot” or “reaction” is typical libertarian wishful thinking, in the tradition of Atlas Shrugging or the unmasking of the Rockefeller/Rothschild axis. (Seasteading and Free State migration are considerably more realistic options.)

Given that at least one writer on this website has taken part in this attack on democracy, I decided to join this community in order to enter the discussion. For this is a very interesting discussion, much more so than the eternal quibbles among LP partisans. Mencius Moldbug, in particular, is a most entertaining writer.

So, let us consider some of the failure modes of democracy:

  1. The masses vote themselves a free lunch.
  2. Special interests vote for special privileges.
  3. The civil service becomes independent of its democratically elected bosses.
  4. The elected chief executive uses his executive powers to become tyrant. (Huey Long, innumerable El Presidentes.)
  5. Warring tribes use the democratic central government to smash rivals.
  6. The dominant religious faction uses the government to persecute rival religions.
  7. A radical faction (Nazi, communist) seizes control using the democratic process to get a foothold.
  8. Losing factions give up on the process and start a civil war. (U.S. Confederacy, and the near breakdown after the Florida recount.)
  9. Rotation in office results in a churning, contradictory legal system. (U.S. tax code.)
  10. Vote buying results in perpetual deficits, eventually bankrupting the government. (Our current looming crisis.)
  11. Two-party systems lead to one-dimensional thinking. (Particularly bad in the U.S.)

Most of these problems can be fixed – incrementally. We can get there from here; no reboot necessary.

Of course, “there” is not libertarian paradise. Democracy is mediocrity. But mediocre government is good enough to live a good life. And if the laws are relatively stable, the people can adapt to the laws, even bad laws.

And for those willing to work for something better, there is always separation. If the median is libertarian, then even democracy will result in a libertarian government. But to achieve such separation, it still behooves freedom lovers to make the U.S. government less bad. Currently, it is broke and aggressive, unlikely to tolerate seasteads or free states.

To this end, I will address possible fixes in future posts.