Sunday 23 January 2011

Who will guard the guardians?


How can rulership be both wise (just) yet avoid corruption (for short term benefit, and/or the benefit only of the ruler or ruling group).


It is an old problem, going back to Plato and Aristotle and their reflections of the possible types of rulership.

Nobody has improved on Aristotle's division into rule by the one (monarchy, dictatorship), the few (aristocracy, oligarchy) or the many (democracy).

But Aristotle can do no more than describe the advantages and disadvantages of each 'system' and state a preference.

Monarchy is potentially the best and highest form of government, but also potentially the worst; democracy vice versa, and oligarchy somewhat in the middle. 

In secular terms, in worldly terms, there is no other answer.


Modernity thinks it has another answer, which is to make rulership impersonal - in other words to rule by an abstract system.

In practice this means rulership by a system of rationally-interlocking laws and regulations; created and implemented by bureaucracies that depend on committee voting.

Yet rational bureacracy is not a solution to the dilemma, because it is not rulership at all.


'Rational bureacracy' is impersonal rulership only because it is inhuman rulership.

Rational bureaucracy is not impartial with respect to humans, it is indifferent to humans.

Rational bureaucracy is also, as we now observe, utterly corrupt (short-termist, fractured and fragmented by covert self-interest and unresolvable in-fighting between the rulers).


So we now have not an Aristotelian compromise between the potential and the actual, but the worst of both worlds: corruption without limit (short-termism to an extent unimagined in the past), and a rulership under which nobody ultimately benefits: not even the rulers themselves (not even the bureaucrats).


Since there is no answer to 'who guards the guardians' in worldly terms, the only potential answer is in otherworldly or transcendental terms.

Rulership can (at least for a while) be both wise (just and long-termist, for all the polity) and relatively uncorrupt (i.e. neither short-termist nor pursued for the exclusive benefit of the rulers) in a situation when rulers and ruled are devout: united in worship and guided by transcendental revelation.

(An example, King Alfred the Great of England.)

But the necessity for devoutness rules out (in practice) large scale democracy.


For large societies there is only (theoretically) a choice between divine oligarchy and divine monarchy - and the conditions for a wise and uncorrupt divine oligarchy are extraordinarily unlikely.

The only example of divine oligarchy (wise and uncorrupt leadership by small groups) that I can think of are situations such as prevailed in the early Christian Ecumenical councils and the translation of the Authorized Version of the Bible under King James I of England.

A small devout group united in prayer and with a sincere common aim.


At any rate, there is no secular solution to the problem of 'who guards the guardians' and it is a waste of time and misplaced effort to refuse to accept the fact.



sconzey said...

Great post, although I'm not sure I agree with your proscriptions.

I agree that unifying power and responsibility in an individual or small group (they must be of one mind -- one purpose; for obvious reasons this is easier to achieve in an individual) is necessary for good governance (at whatever level: family, club, company, country). What I'm not sure I agree with is that religious (specifically, Christian) faith is necessary or sufficient to ensure a particular governor (or group) is good.

Certainly in the data there seems to be a correlation; but is this because in our species' history, proper singular unitary authority has only ever been stable in the form of Divine Right Monarchy?

Since the turn of the last century it has been possible once again for a small group of well-trained and well-armed men to defeat a much much larger force. With permissive action links and public key cryptography it is now possible to ensure their loyalty without having to give religious justification. Secular Monarchy is technically feasible.

The quis custodiat problem is an interesting one. Moldbug's solution of a Sovereign Joint Stock Company works, so long as you believe a good country is one which has maximised it's capacity for wealth generation.

Bruce Charlton said...

I would say that a Christian divine monarch is necessary but certainly not sufficient.

Molbug's solution does not solve the G the G problem, nor prevent the corruption of the elite, when that elite are secualr, relativist, nihilists - who therefore live (at the bottom line) only for maximizing their personal pleasure and minimizing their suffering; the surest way of doing this is to favour the short term and individual over the long term and communal - so the elite would, sooner rather than later, exploit the masses (destroying the society) and fight among themselves.

sconzey said...

There are two assumptions upon which Moldbug's thesis rests:
1. That Austrian Economics gives an accurate description of human behavior in an environment of property rights and the Rule of Law.
2. That a "good" state generates wealth for it's citizens, either directly as they consume the surplus goods for material satisfaction, or indirectly as they trade surplus goods for the leisure time to pursue spiritual satisfaction.

IFF both of those things are true, then the structure of a Joint-Stock company will direct the nihilism and relativism and self-interest of the managers towards wealth creation. Laffer tells us there is a "maximum" amount of tax revenue that can be extracted. Once our for-profit government has set taxes at the Laffer maximum the only way for them to expand their revenue is by increasing the wealth generated by the people of the country.

Short-term exploitation of the country is discouraged by the existence of share-holders with long-term interests, who would fire a management team that looked like they were riding the country into the ground for their personal profit.

Encouraging sensible long-term stewardship of a company is something I've been thinking about myself. You could issue 50 and 100-year bonds, or a special class of share that accumulates the company's profit over 25, 50 years and then pays dividends on that average profit, either to the current bearer, or the bearer 25 years prior.

With all that said, there's a fair few things that I can't imagine a strictly for-profit State doing, but that I think are moral imperatives. Abortion, for instance, I believe is morally wrong, but I can't imagine a way to spin that to the shareholders as increasing their bottom line.

Bruce Charlton said...

Don't get me wrong - I have learned a lot from Moldbug, and continue to do so. He really is trying to work this through.

But I don't think these incentives will work in a society of nihilistic hedonists. Relying on selfishness, even when enlightened and long-termist, is a slippery slope.

Once people start thinking that way, they become dedicated would-be parasites; and will eventually find a loophole in the most complex scheme of checks and balances.

It is like cancer: if we live long enough we will eventually die from cancer; because the neoplastic process sooner-or-later evolves and finds a way to elude whatever immune and repair systems were set-up decades earlier.