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Immortal vs. Life-cycle Political Theory

August 5, 2012

It’s very rare that I meet a Platonist, at least outside the philosophy of mathematics. Few are willing to divert a conversation in a bar to say something serious about a transcendent order of pure ideas lying behind this very flawed reality we inhabit.

But nonetheless, an air of platonism still hangs around in political discussion. The ideal state is a cruising altitude.  If only we rose through this storm of confusion and Fox News, and at last instituted just rules and institutions, then a just government would carry on in the blue skies of Reason, or Equality, or Community….forever!…with only the slightest turbulence from time to time to disturb a passenger from his soporific movie and meal.

In this model, the work of governance in the future is maintenance. Establish just laws and then work to protect them from corruption, erosion, forgetfulness, and Chick-Fil-A.

The economist Amartya Sen broke ranks from his Harvard pals in Emerson Hall by suggesting that a theory of justice need not aim for an ideal, but only for the comparatively better. Governance becomes a treadmill of transitive preferences, where we move to state C, which is better than B, which is better than A, and so on through time, never arriving, but somehow always getting better.

While I think this contrast between the Platonic ideal and the comparatively better is a good one, I want to suggest that there’s a more important, and very neglected element of political theory that needs more discussion. It is the immortal theory versus the life-cycle theory.

The Platonic theory can easily be confused for the immortal theory, in that a Platonist will fight like a pit bull to show that the pure idea of justice is, like the soul, immortal. Forever beyond our limits, it lives forever. But that’s not what I’m talking about. You could just as well have a life-cycle Platonic theory: states rise and fall, and only at their pinnacle do they instantiate the platonic ideal, before quickly declining and disappearing.

Perhaps this is easier to see in corporate governance. It may be–and I’m certain a number of McKinsey consultants know for sure–that there is one ideal system of corporate management. Companies come and go through history–look at the top ten highest valued companies 100 years ago compared with today’s top ten–and yet we can still accept that in those rare years of vitality, when everything is humming on Six Sigma Jack Welch overdrive, that firm attained a platonic ideal. But humans are humans and new technologies disrupt industries and so the firm inevitably falls, spirals, and disappears off the Dow Jones without anyone even noticing. It is accepted as given that no firm will last forever. There is a life-cycle to its existence, however well managed.

I’m interested in thinking about life-cycle theories of governance, Platonic or not. A life-cycle theory would take corruption, sclerosis, and any other malady as inevitable. It would take very seriously the biological metaphor. And instead of focusing on safeguards within any political unit, this body of theory would take a step back and think about foundings, the rise, the pinnacle, and the fall of political units. It would accept certain historical drivers as–such as human nature–as features, not bugs. And it would also think about political evolution over time.

Immortalist American libertarians, for instance, yearn to bring back the Constitution in exile. If only we could roll back the clock!

Life-cycle libertarians would accept the New Deal as inevitable. It’s part of aging. But they would marvel at the inner workings of a constitution that has enabled a state to last, and thrive, for so long. And instead of undertaking rearguard action to protect the sacred vessels, they would look for new frontiers for new foundings, knowing full well that whatever political unit is established, it will rise and, one day, ultimately fall.

The only constant, Heraclitus said, is change.

  1. John permalink
    September 30, 2012 4:05 am

    This is a view I strongly agree with. I think in the early days (say, the 19th century) capitalism kept the fall at bay because all the government had to do was very little, so the lifecycle of producing corporations maintained vibrancy.

    But as our technology became more powerful and manifested itself on an ever larger scale, letting capitalis run totally unfettered just became too dangerous and the government had to play an increasing role in regulating production, to keep the air clean, to keep diseases that can contaminate food that is unsanitarily prepared from killing us, to prevent people from getting electrocuted from the gizmos they buy and the list goes on….

    At this point in our technological progress we have to acknowledge that some degree of regulation is important, but the question of exactly how much is necessary to both keep people at an acceptable level of safety without stiffling innovation is a question nobody really knows the answer to.

    However coorporations are also very complex mechanisms and noone could answer the question in advance as to the precise way to create an optimally successful microchip including optimising corporate culture etc. etc., before it was accomplished, however the answer was the experimental approach of free competition… let a bunch of different companies try and the one who does the best job grows the largest.

    There’s no reaso that this experimental approach should work with countries and their regulatory framework to. Just let failing countries die and let successful countries rise to take their place.

    In the olden days this happened all the time and it was probably a necesary process to ensure governing organisations retained their vibrancy. The problem was in the ancient world the mechanism for competition between countries was war, something that we rightly find distasteful.

    Infact often when I talk to people about new countries forming and growing as being an engine for innovation in governance the reaction has been extreme scepticism and the primary reason why people are skeptical is because there is a strong association with moving national frontiers and war.

    I think this association is one reason why after an initial period of upheaval the borders of the world’s nationshave been pretty stagnant since world war II (with the exception of the collapse of the soviet union). Infact a major goal of the UN seems to be to try to maintain the same old countries with the same old borders for as long as possible as a means of preserving the peace.

    Representative democracy does something to maintain the responsiveness of a nation, but not enough. Almost every new government adds more regulation than it gets rid of. And as time goes by and the laws become ever more complex, changing them becomes increasingly like a game of jenga wih politicians rightfully fearing that eliminating laws could have unforseen consequences that could cause the whole system to collapse.

    The answer to radical legislative innovation is to create independent sovereign nations that are small enough for collapse to be acceptable without excessive loss of resources, and let the few who succeed better than existing nations grow and control more resources so that their model of good governance spreads.

    The growth part doesn’t have to be violent, if only we can break the paradigm of this mistaken belief that the function of governments is to protect and hold their national borders above all else. The job of goverments is to look after their *people*. There’s so much land out there that isn’t being used by anyone! In many cases it would be tremendously beneficial for a state to sell its sovereignty over a useless desert area so that a governance entrepreneur could start a new Dubai!

    The rise of a nation needn’t be anymore violent than the rise of McDonalds over Wimpy bars, infact with the increasing trend of urbanisation it should be easier than ever since as people move more to the cities there will be increasing tracts of land not inhabited by anyone.

    The rule of law is a great help to any nation…… for a while. But throughout history the laws have always progressively become more tangled and unworkable.Its important to remember that the Romans who developed the rule of law and a codified legal system, while in the beginning they prosperred by the end of the empire it became unworkably complex and corrupt. With ridiculous laws being passed right left and center which contributed to the collapse of the empire.

    Indeed perhaps one reason why China is rising is because Mao Tse Tung didn’t believe in the rule of law, and rule of law in China only really began to be adopted in the 80s. So China is in an earlier phase of adopting rule of law where tremendous benefits result, while the US and Europe are in the declining phase of the rule of law where the law is beginning to become complex and unworkable.

    Finally I’d lack to offer my legislative interpratation of Savagery, Civilization and Decadence.

    Savagery : No law, those with power do what they want, those without, obey those who have power and hope that they will please them enough that the powerful will not spontaneously decide to kill and torture them at a whim.

    Civilisation : A codified law exist that everyone understands and everyone abides by. The powerful receive the same punishment as he powerless for breaking it. The is order, innovation thrives and the people prosper.

    Decadence : There is a law but its now so complex that noone really understands it and it may not even make underlying sense or be logically consistent. A man must dedicate his entire life to studying it just to understand one small facet. A “legal priesthood” emerges, and court decisions depend less upon the law itself and more upon the “priesthood’s interpretation” of the law (as was the case with catholicism in the 14th century) those who can afford to pay the priest are above the law, those who cannot can be prosecuted for anything if they fall out of favour with the powerful class. In otherwords to all intents and purposes decadence is indistinguishable from savagery.

    I believe we are entering a phase of legislative decadence and must return to a point of civilization. The only way to do that is to form new very small nations, as

    1) large nations have too much cultural inertia and vested interests opposed to radical change


    2) Radical change can result in collapse, which for a large nation would be horrendous but for a new small nation the resources lost are small and worth the price of trying, and the worst case is that everyone goes back to where they originally came from and are none the worse.

  2. August 13, 2012 5:28 pm

    Few people have thought seriously about this possibility. One of them is Joseph Tainter, whose book on “The Collapse of Complex Societies” presents an interesting theoretical model along the lines you suggest. It’s worth checking out.

  3. abelard lindsey permalink
    August 7, 2012 9:43 pm

    Political life-cycle theories? The dynanstic life-cycle is one flavor of this.

    And, yes, the new deal can be considered an aspect of the American dynastic life-cycle in that democracies last until people start voting themselves largress from the public treasury.

  4. Juan permalink
    August 6, 2012 7:52 pm

    I was getting fed up about the lack of pragmatism and all the complaining going on in discussions related to libertarianism. I’m glad I found this blog.

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