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Part of Every Bad Political Doctrine in History

November 26, 2011

I’m enjoying The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch. He’s a physicist who works on quantum computing at Oxford, but the book is a broad and yet brilliant discussion of the philosophy of science, the nature of knowledge, the origins of the universe, the meaning of computation, and much else besides. He works without the main concepts, but it’s remarkable that in his chapter on optimism (chapter 9), Deutsch comes close to identifying the key virtues of competitive governance without knowing what to call it:

Political philosophy traditionally centered on a collection of issues that [Karl] Popper called the ‘who should rule?’ question. Who should wield power? Should it be a monarch or aristocrats, or priests, or a dictator, or a small group, or ‘the people’, or their delegates? And that leads to derivative questions such as ‘How should a king be educated?’ ‘Who should be enfranchised in a democracy?’ ‘How does one ensure an informed and responsible electorate?’…

Ideas have consequences, and the ‘who should rule?’ approach to political philosophy is not just to make a mistake of academic analysis: it has been part of practically every bad political doctrine in history. If the political process is seen as an engine for putting the right rulers in power, then it justifies violence, for until that right system is in place, no ruler is legitimate; and once it is in place, and its designated rulers are ruling, opposition to them is opposition to rightness. The problem then becomes how to thwart anyone who is working against the rulers or their policies. By the same logic, everyone who thinks that existing rules or policies are bad must infer that the ‘who should rule?’ question has been answered wrongly, and therefore that the power of the rulers are not legitimate, and that opposing it is legitimate, by force if necessary. Thus the very question ‘who should rule?’ begs for violent, authoritarian answers, and has often received them. It leads those in power into tyranny, and to the entrenchment of bad rulers and bad policies; it leads their opponents to violent destructiveness and revolution.

Advocates of violence usually have in mind that none of those things need happen if only everyone agreed on who should rule. But that means agreeing about what is right, and, given agreement on that, rulers would have nothing to do. And in any case, such agreement is neither possible nor desirable: people are different, and have unique ideas; problems are inevitable, and progress consists in solving them.

Popper therefore applies his basic ‘how can we detect and eliminate errors?’ to political philosophy in the form of how can we rid ourselves of bad governments without violence? Just as science seeks explanations that are experimentally testable, so a rational political system makes it as easy as possible to detect, and persuade others, that a leader or policy is bad, and to remove them without violence if they are. Just as institutions of science are structured so as to avoid entrenching theories, but instead to expose them to criticism and testing, so political institutions should not make it hard to oppose rulers and policies, non-violently, and should embody traditions of peaceful, critical discussion of them and of the institutions themselves and everything else. Thus, systems of government are to be judged not for their prophetic ability to choose and install good leaders and policies, but for their ability to remove bad ones that are already there.

Democracy is very good at removing bad leaders. But it is terrible at pruning the Amazonian overgrowth of bad policies. That is why the power to leave combined with the power of free discussion and open criticism is more effective than closed doors democracy alone. (You can see the filmmaker Jason Silva’s short film inspired by the book here.)

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9 Comments
  1. Stuki permalink
    November 27, 2011 12:06 am

    I’d suggest democracy MAY be good at removing bad leaders. Or it may not. Absent external checks, how are people even to know whether a leader is bad or not? Were it not for “Radio Free America” and such, would those stuck behind the Iron Curtain even be aware that there was a better way than theirs? More recently, it seems almost all uprisings against those we in the West consider bad leaders are being preceded by their subjects’ increased exposure to the outside, via satellite dishes, twitter or whatnot. So, rather than democracy being good at removing bad leaders, it seems what is good for removing bad leaders, is exposure to alternative systems, period.

    What democracy does seem good at, at least for a period of time, is legitimizing succession, somewhat irrespective of whether either outgoing or incoming leaders are good or not.

    Another question, perhaps more fundamental than exactly who should lead, and again neatly answered by the Thousand Nations approach, is at what granularity leadership should reside. In competitively exposed organizations, there are niches where scale seems to be beneficial, and other niches where the nimbleness associated with smallness seem to outweigh benefits from scale. I can’t think of any reason why this should not also be the case for governments. But the only way to find out, is for multiple specimens of various sizes to slug it out in the real world game of life on earth. Not to once and for all settle for whatever happened to be defensible borders a few hundred years ago. And certainly not by going with whatever the one says, who happens to sound the most convincing in televised debates.

  2. November 27, 2011 5:33 am

    Rothbard made basically the same critique of Willmoore Kendall, but I don’t think the view is so far off. Someone is holding a sword.

  3. Zach C permalink
    November 27, 2011 9:03 pm

    This is brilliant! Amazing how these ideas appear in so many places, often without the thinkers being cognizant of the implications.

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