Sine qua non

Conservatives in general are fond of the notion of concentric loyalty – that we should be loyal to family first, then community, then region, then nation, and then the world.  Greg Cochran Socratically needles this idea by pointing out that mammals are all more related to one another than birds, so why don’t they act out of concentric loyalty to protect one another from birds of prey?

The answer is that outside immediate relatives, altruism only happens if reciprocity can be assured.  Two randomly selected humans will cooperate against an animal predator not because they’re genetically related – the extent of overlap is trivial compared to that among family members – but because we implicitly recognize that as humans we share subconscious tendencies towards reciprocation.  Squirrels and groundhogs share no such tendency.

What this suggests on the social front is that concentric loyalty is only stable if the social technology exists to enforce reciprocation.  Within a small town, reputation tracking can serve the function – mooching or lying carry reputation costs and so people rationally avoid that behavior.  In much of the modern world, this is much more difficult.  Reputation tracking by locality and nationality is practically nonexistent.  To the extent that reputation exists, it’s carried by other social technologies – loose Facebook networks of old alumni stretched across the globe, professional associations that bind a cardiologist closer to a doctor from Turkey than to his neighbor down the street.

Much of neoreaction is favorable towards reviving old forms of association – ethnonationalists who wish that ethnic kinship meant what it once did, Putnam fans who wish that local communities were as vibrant as they were in the recent past.  What Cochran’s question suggests is that the focus on advocating concentric morality, and individually acting on it, mostly misses the point.  The key goal – if you want to revive group solidarity on any scale – is creating the social technologies to allow stable reputation tracking and encourage reciprocation.  Lacking that, dreaming of organic communities or coherent ethnic clades is LARPing.

Short FAQ of Obvious Questions I Get When I Introduce Critiques of Democracy

Since the book came out, I’ve had the privilege of hearing a number of counterarguments to critiques of democracy. Some of these are listed here.

Q. You critique democracy, but isn’t it the best out of all the bad governments which have been tried? (Quora.)

A. In this new land of political theory, we consider critiques of democracy at a deeper level than pithy Churchill quotes. This is unfamiliar territory, I know. The lowest grade of thinking about democracy and its critiques are the Churchill quotes. After we get rid of those and agree to never speak of them again, then we can have an adult conversation about democracy and its merits.

Q. About monarchy — what about succession issues? (Arnold Kling)

A. Your concept of monarchy is based on democratic/republican selective reporting of history and availability bias with respect to stories of exciting succession crises. Have you made a list of monarchs in post-Renaissance kingdoms and actually broken down how often there is a succession crisis and how bad the results of it are? Have you then compared that list to democracy? Have you accounted for global American hegemony as a crucial factor in the apparent stability of democracies across the globe? If not, then you are going off of the standard “intuitive” model of monarchy common to anyone living under democratic-republican hegemony, which is extremely biased, self-serving, and historically inaccurate. Spend a few hours picking one European dynasty and skimming its route of succession until its conclusion. Figure out the percentage of succession events that caused crises or major wars. You will find out that that percentage is small (less than 10%, with average reigns being 20-25 years, or about one crisis per 200 years), which is roughly equivalent to the frequency that democratic Presidents are assassinated and far lower than the percentage of bloody coups in democracy as it is practiced by nearly any non-white countries, including South America, Africa, and the Middle East. In any case, there needs to be a fuller treatment of succession, and that is forthcoming in my second book.

I analyzed the stability of monarchy at length here.

Americans are predisposed towards underestimating the stability of monarchy because England had particularly unstable monarchies during a crucial historical period, right around the time Americans broke away. It is necessary to learn about Continental monarchies to get a more balanced view of the “average” stability of monarchy.

Q. Monarchy may be better for the leaders, but what about the people who are governed? Didn’t think of that, did ya smart guy? (Quora.)

A. Yes, I did think of that. That is the whole point. Why would someone go to the trouble of writing a book critiquing democracy and not have the welfare of the common citizen in mind from the start?

Q. You wouldn’t be able to write critiques of the government in a dictatorship. (Quora)

A. Big deal. Free speech is not the highest good. Most historical monarchies did not seriously restrict speech except for questioning the legitimacy of the Crown itself. Monarchies are not the same as Communist dictatorships. If a small percentage of speech is restricted for a vast gain in security and stability, I’ll take it. Ben Franklin’s quote about liberty and safety is republican claptrap. The highest liberty is civilizational success, not milquetoast aimless freedom. If that means outlawing treasonous speech against the Crown, so be it.

Free Gift: Chapter Two of Anissimov’s Anti-Democracy Book

Today I’m posting the second chapter of my anti-democracy book, available here as an ebook and here as paperback. The book is currently being read by well-known econblogger Arnold Kling.

The Science and History of Leadership
Chapter Two

In contrast with democracy, rule by the many, is dictatorship or oligarchy, rule by the few. In this chapter we examine the evolutionary history of leadership among primates and how it transformed over time.

Primates evolved cooperating in hierarchical groups with a pecking order, the “dominance hierarchy”. A living example of an ancestral-style Homo sapiens dominance hierarchy would be the “Big Man” system in Melanesia and Polynesia, where dominant men take key roles and occasionally challenge each other for position.

The presence of a dominance hierarchy does not necessarily mean that every individual is in a strict linear order. There may be various tiers of social status with dozens or hundreds of individuals more or less on the same tier. Most of the time, however, a group or community will have one leader.

What is the evolutionary purpose of leadership and followership? Broadly speaking, to solve group coordination problems. When a hunt is on, someone has to decide when to stay and when to attack, where to travel in pursuit of prey, and so on. When two warriors are engaged in a brutal fight, it is helpful for someone with the authority to break it up. De Waal (1996) studied chimpanzee behavior in a captive colony at Arnheim Zoo in the Netherlands, and observed one interesting case:

a quarrel between Mama and Spin got out of hand and ended in fighting and biting. Numerous apes rushed up to the two warring females and joined in the fray. A huge knot of fighting, screaming apes rolled around in the sand, until Luit (the alpha male) leapt in and literally beat them apart. He did not choose sides in the conflict, like others; instead anyone who continued to act received a blow from him.

These apes were in a zoo, but consider if they had been on the African savanna in an area that had not received rain for many months and where food was scarce. In such a scenario, avoiding unnecessary fights would be a matter of life and death. If a full-on internal war did occur without an alpha male to break it up, numerous apes would have torn into each other, causing infection and probably death. Stupid conflicts are paid for in Darwinian coin.

In pre-civilizational human societies, the outcome of crippling internal conflict would be even worse—being tortured to death by warriors of a hostile tribe. Archaeological study of ancestral remains gives us estimates that 15-60% of adult males met their demise from violence (Keeley 1996). Without strong leaders to keep groups effective, a group might become slightly weaker than the competition, which seizes the opportunity to take over its watering hole, leaving the original group with nothing but warm mud to drink. This must have happened millions of times over the last 200,000 years. The highly competitive demands of survival and coordination make it easy to see how leadership and followership could have evolved as adaptive mechanisms to promote survival. In a sense, relying on a leader to make group-level decisions is “putting all the eggs in one basket,” but the alternative, arguing it out until everyone in the group agrees, is too socially and computationally expensive to be a viable adaptive solution.

Evolutionary psychologist Mark van Vugt, who works together with well-known psychologist Robert Dunbar, has used game theory to explain how leadership naturally develops. From (van Vugt 2009):

A simple two-player ‘coordination game’ illustrates that, in many situations, leadership is almost inevitable. Imagine a pair of individuals with two simple goals: one, to stick together for protection, and, two, seek resources such as food patches and waterholes. Two mutually exclusive options are available, patch A or B, and they will get the same pay-off at each one. In this situation, any trait (physical or behavioural) that increases the likelihood of one individual moving first will make them more likely to emerge as the leader, and the other player is left with no option but to follow. Furthermore, if this trait difference between players is stable — for instance, if player 1 is always hungry first — then a stable leader–follower pattern will emerge over time. This two-player game can be easily generalized to a multiple player game where one or a few individuals are able to coordinate a large group.

People stick together for protection. They move to get things. Someone must initiate the movement. That person is the leader. Thus, leadership emerges. This is a very simple model with broad explanatory power. Note how dominance psychology doesn’t even need to be a part of the picture, though in practice it is.

Van Vugt’s review of the literature on leadership in human groups comes to the conclusion that extraversion is the trait most often associated with leadership, that this trait has a substantial heritable component. In addition, he says that experiments have shown that talkativeness is predictive of leadership—a phenomenon he calls “the babble effect”.

In evolutionary theory, it is often assumed that personality deviations from group averages—greater shyness or extraversion, for instance—are statistical noise that represent suboptimal deviations from the species-average. Van Vugt speculates, however, that heritable differences in personality actually serve an adaptive purpose, fostering social coordination through leadership, followership, and similar mechanisms.

Leadership went through a distinct change at the dawn of civilization, roughly 5000 B.C. in Mesopotamia. The systematic use of agriculture, pottery, and permanent dwellings allowed accumulation of wealth for the first time. This brought about the first social differentiation and the formation of specialized warrior and priest-leader castes. All of this is in contrast to the forager lifestyle of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, where leadership was informal.

Prehistoric hunter-gatherers lived in groups about the size of what is called the Dunbar number, first proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar. This number is roughly 150 people, about the maximum with whom an individual can maintain stable social relationships. The dawn of civilization is unique is that it is around that time that human groupings of super-Dunbar levels were achieved for the first time. Maintaining stability and order in super-Dunbar groups is a unique coordination problem, one that we still understand poorly seven thousand years later. We can call this “the challenge of civilization”.

The first cities such as Eridu and Uruk in Mesopotamia had populations between about 4,000 and 10,000 people. Individuals could still only have about 150 stable social relationships, but now lived in societies where the total number of individuals was much greater than that. This must have been an unusual experience for the first individuals to aggregate in this manner, or perhaps it was too incremental to notice.

Beginning with Sumerian civilization, three sectors of society began to differentiate; institutional households, communal households, and private households (van die Mieroop 1997). This notion of different kinds of households, especially institutional households, was rather novel. Beyond different types of households, there was differentiation of the palace, the temple, the city, and the countryside. The palace and the temple are academically known as “great organizations,” a historically novel entity. The earliest monarchs, in city-states like Eridu, were priest-kings. Secular authority was intertwined with spiritual authority.

Contemplating the rise of civilization from hunter-gatherer tribes is rather mysterious. In a different timeline of planet Earth, could it be that hunter-gatherer tribes are still the standard, and the planet is populated by a mere several million individuals? That’s how it was for most of our history. During the Toba eruption, 70,000 BC, the human population was just between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding couples. What essential ingredients came together to make civilization possible 63,000 years later?

In Sumer, the dawn of civilization went hand-in-hand with agriculture, sophisticated hierarchies, social differentiation, and the emergence of monarchy. How about elsewhere? In Ricardo Duchesne’s The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, he overviews how Indo-Europeans, the progenitors of modern Europe, were organized in tribes around a warrior aristocracy:

I want to argue that heroic individuals first come to light in aristocratic societies, and that Mycenae, the society evoked in Homer’s Illiad, was truly aristocratic. It is in aristocratic societies that we first discover characters zealously preoccupied with their honor and future name, with the judgment of other “masters” regarding their courage, skill in war and in the hunt—as embodied with such intensity in the figure of Homer’s Achilles, a character fundamentally at odds with any form of servility. But what do we mean by “aristocratic”? Why do we find the “first” individuals in history in such societies? I will argue that the individualism of the Homeric heroes came originally from the Indo-European chieftans who took over the Greek mainland in the second millennium, and founded Mycenaean culture. The argument of this chapter is that the primordial roots of Western uniqueness must be traced back to the aristocratic warlike culture of the Indo-European speakers who spread throughout Europe during the 4th and 3rd millennium.

According to the Kurgan hypothesis, formulated by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas in the 1950s, the history of Old Europe was dominated by outward expansions of Indo-Europeans from the Pontic steppe between 4000-1000 BC. There is not substantial agreement on whether this was a mass movement or colonization by an elite, but genetic studies of haplogroup R1a1a seems to suggest that much of Europe has a high incidence of genes that are prominent in the Pontic steppe area to the northeast of the Black Sea. So, the Kurgan hypothesis is corroborated by genetic evidence.

The Indo-Europeans had certain genetic and cultural adaptations which made them well-suited to success and expansion in the environment of late Neolithic Europe (4000-3000 BC). The primary driver appears to be what Andrew Sherratt calls the “Secondary Products Revolution,” (Sherratt 1981) referring to the secondary products of domestic animals such as butter, milk, cheese, and wool. Simultaneously, the wheel was invented in the northern Caucasus area, which may have been an independent invention or proliferated from Mesopotamia, and horses began to be domesticated and used in warfare.

The most useful genetic adaptation of Indo-Europeans was lactose tolerance, which evolved in Turkey about 6,000 BC, and had become common among Indo-Europeans by the time of the secondary products revolution. This adaptation increased their caloric intake and led to greater growth rates, making the Indo-Europeans several inches taller than the other tribesmen around them. It would have also made them more muscular and capable of expansion. J.P. Mallory, in his book In Search of the Indo-Europeans, Language, Archeology and Myth (1989), writes: “physical anthropology of the deceased [in the new Kurgan-style burial mounds] speaks of a population that was more robust-appearing with males averaging up to 10 centimeters taller than the native Eneolithic [Balkan] population” (Mallory: 240).

In The Coming of the Greek, Indo-European Conquests in the Aegean and the Near East (1988), Robert Drews makes the case that the elite caste of proto-Greeks were Indo-European chariot riders who made their warlike arrival on the Greek mainland around 1600 BC, giving rise to Mycenean civilization. It was the combination of rugged steppe peoples, with their high-calorie diets and secondary animal products, combined with the fair weather and abundant seas of Greece which gave rise to the origins of European civilization, what we know today as Mycenean or Homeric Greece.

In his book, Duchesne emphasizes individualistic and aristocratic qualities present in Indo-Europeans which were not evident in any other of the world’s known cultures at the time:

Indo-Europeans were also uniquely ruled by a class of free aristocrats. In very broad terms, I define as “aristocratic” a state in which the ruler, the king, or the commander-in-chief is not an autocrat who treats the upper classes as unequal servants but is a “peer” who exists in the spirit of equality as one more warrior of noble birth. This is not to say that leaders did not enjoy extra powers and advantages, or that leaders were not tempted to act in tyrannical ways. It is to say that in aristocratic cultures, for all the intense rivalries between families and individuals seeking their own renown, there was a strong ethos of aristocratic egalitarianism against despotic rule.

Let me pull together a number of traits I have found in the literature which, in their combination, point to a life of aristocratic equality, vigorous, free, and joyful activity. First, all Indo-European cultures from the “earliest” times in the 5th millennium have seen the presence of warriors who sought to demonstrate their standing and wealth, by dressing in “ostentatious” ways; for example, with long or multiple belts and necklaces of copper beads, copper rings, copper spiral bracelets, gold fittings in their spears and javelins—with variations of styles depending on place and time but all demonstrative of an “individualizing ideology” (Anthony: 160,237, 251, 259-63). Second, the Indo-European warriors “were interred as personalities showing off the equipment of life and their personal position in a final coup de theatre, rather than joining a more anonymous community of ancestors” (Sherratt 2001a: 192). Kurgan burials commemorated the deaths of special males; the stone circles and mounds, and the emphasis on “prestige weapons and insignia,” were intended to isolate and self-aggrandize the achievements of warriors (Anthony: 245). Third, they developed a distinctive tradition of feasting and drinking, in which “individual hospitality rather than great communal ceremonies” dominated the occasions. These feasts—backed by a “prestige goods economy”— were “cheerful” events of gift-giving and gift-taking, performance of poetry praising individual deeds, and animal sacrifices (2011b: 253; Anthony: 343, 391). These feats served as a great opportunity for warriors with higher status and wealth, in this world of constant small-scale raids and persistent inter-tribal conflicts, to acquire the greatest number of clients. They were also an opportunity for the less powerful or younger warriors to attach themselves to patrons who offered opportunities for loot and glory. The more followers the patron could recruit, the greater the expectation of success to be gained by all. Fourth, as Gimbutas clearly articulated, and as Anthony (93) has further noted, this was a culture in which “all [the] most important deities lived in the sky,” While Gimbutas described these sky gods in negative terms as the gods of a belligerent people, one may see them as the gods of an energetic, life-affirming people whose gods were personified as celestial heroes and chieftans. The sky-gods of the Indo-Europeans reflected—to use the words of Dawson (2002)—their “intensely masculine and warlike ethics, their mobility.” If the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia demanded unquestioned submission to their will, passive acceptance; and if the female deities of Old Europe—to borrow the language of Camille Paglia (1991)—represented the “earth’s bowels,” and embodied the “chthonian drama of an endless round, cycle upon cycle,” the sky-gods of Indo-Europeans furnished a vital, action-oriented, and linear picture of the world. Finally, I would highlight the purely aristocratic manner in which Indo-Europeans organized themselves into war-bands (koiros, brotherhood). The nature of this association might be better understood if we were to start by describing Indo-European society as different levels of social organization. The lowest level, and the smallest unit of society, consisted of families residing in farmsteads and small hamlets, practicing mixed farming with livestock representing the predominant form of wealth. The next tier consisted of a clan of about five families with a common ancestor. The third level consisted of several clans—or a tribe—sharing the same. The Those members of the tribe who owned livestock were considered to be free in the eyes of the tribe, with the right to bear arms and participate in the tribal assembly. Although the scale of complexity of Indo-European societies changed considerably with the passage of time, and the Celtic tribal confederations that were in close contact with Caesar’s Rome during the 1st century BC, for example, were characterized by a high concentration of both economic and political power, these confederations were still ruled by a class of free aristocrats. In classic Celtic society, real power within and outside the tribal assembly was wielded by the most powerful members of the nobility, as measured by the size of their clientage and their ability to bestow patronage. Patronage could be extended to members of other tribes as well as free individuals who were lower in status and were thus tempted to surrender some of their independence in favor of protection and patronage.

In the late Bronze Age, this combination of aristocracy, warrior ethos, and free-spirited individualism was uniquely European. We often hear that Athenian Greece was the foundation of Western civilization, but this is not the case. The proto-Greeks were representative of a diaspora that began with the horse-mastering, milk-drinking aristocratic warriors of the Pontic steppes.

There are three reasons why the Greeks are often referred to as the foundation of Western civilization rather than Myceneans or Indo-Europeans. The first is that archaeological and paleogenetic studies of Indo-Europeans are more of a challenge than classical Greek studies and have only begun to bear fruit and consensus during the early 90s. The second is that focus on the Athenian Greeks is more politically amenable to educators in present-day liberal democracies. The third is the association of Indo-Europeans with the Aryan racial theories of Nazi Germany. We do not consider any of these good reasons for why study of Indo-Europeans should be neglected, as they are the true forebears of Western civilization. Their cultural impact on the West is profound.

This concludes our brief overview of the science and early history of leadership and the context of monarchy as it initially emerged—in an egalitarian aristocratic tradition that guarded against despotism. Keep this system in mind as we explore the problems of what came later, liberal democracy. The next topic we visit is the dynamics of cultural cohesion (or lack thereof) in modern society.

The Tragedy of Light

I’ve never been a huge anime fan, but Death Note is the one show that I’ve really enjoyed.  The intricate plot can be simplified as follows: Yagami Light, a bright high school student, finds a magic notebook that lets him kill anyone whose name he writes on it (modulo various rules.)  He proceeds to launch a crusade to rid the world of criminals.  While personally maintaining a low profile, he starts anonymously killing high profile criminals to set an example.  According to his plan, once people realize was going on, the crime rate will drop like a stone, and people realize that someone with a godlike power is responsible.  His social crusade will end with him as the god of a new, crime-free world.

The only problem with this plan, as we shall see, is that it is not ambitious enough.

Mencius Moldbug once wrote up a thought experiment.  Imagine that someone found a magic ring that gave him the power of life and death over anyone in a Pacific island.  For all intents and purposes, he has become the absolute monarch over that territory. What would that regime look like?  Well, things would actually work surprisingly well. Suppose our new King were a greedy man.  He would rationally institute sound economic policies to turn it into a first-world country, and tax at the Laffer limit.  He has no interest groups to pay off.  His rule is absolutely secure. So he has no need for secret police or limits on free speech.  Let the people say what they like, as long as the gold keeps flowing.  And if their cause were truly and obviously hopeless, there will be very few outright rebels.

Well, Yagami Light had that magic ring.  And instead of using it to seize political power for himself – with a tough-on-crime platform that would be pretty popular and the threat of the notebook itself to keep challengers at bay – Light instead tries to wield his influence anonymously from the shadows.  And so a story that could have ended with Yagami Light on the Chrysanthemum Throne instead has him hunted like a dog.

This is fun as far as fan-theorizing goes, but Light’s failure also points to a more general nerd failure mode.  Nerds, who understand better than anyone the power and value of technology, often act as though understanding technology alone is enough to bring influence.  They systematically underestimate the importance of actively seeking power, whether on a small scale in office politics, or on a grand scale as powerful, active investors or CEOs.  Light’s instinct was to rely heavily on the power that’s the Death Note gave him, paying no attention to gaining conventional political power or even creating a pseudonymous public persona, even when both of these tactics would have greatly helped him to realize his goals. [1] [2]

Peter Thiel has pointed out the remarkable fact that aside for some very brief, very contingent points in history, inventors of new technologies have captured almost none of the value that they created through those technologies.  Even though science itself is a powerful force, and innovation extraordinarily valuable, it’s a mistake to assume that individual scientists and innovators are themselves powerful.  Mostly, they’re withdrawing from overt contests for power and influence, whether at the corporate or political level, and dreaming that they will quietly change the world through their inventions, publications, and anonymous blog posts.  The tragedy of Light shows how much they’re leaving on the table.


[1] (At least he avoided an even more extreme nerd failure mode: he at least targeted high profile criminals to create a media sensation, rather than mechanically killing anonymous criminals in the abstract sense that it would change people’s incentives on the margin.)

[2] It’s not surprising that Death Note functions as such a good allegory for this nerd failure mode.  It was written, in part, as a way to appeal to teenage power fantasies, and a lot of the fun in watching the series is thinking through what kind of strategies you yourself would use if you were in his situation.  That his instincts are those of his typical teenage fans is no surprise.