Social Technology and Anarcho-Tyranny

1.

When people talk about politics, they generally fall into one of three groups.

The first and by far the largest group basically argues “more good stuff, less bad stuff!” They may use clever rhetoric, but they fundamentally ignore the idea of tradeoffs.  They view policy debates as a parade of applause lights or boo lights, and cheer for anything that sounds vaguely nice.  They can be persuaded to support or oppose any policy just by changing the wording from “provide more government services” to “raise taxes to make big government bigger.” All Moldbuggian arguments aside, this group of people is the best possible argument against democracy.

The second group takes a more sophisticated route. They understand that most policy decisions involve trade-offs, and argue accordingly. They may claim that yes, government welfare does distort incentives somewhat, but at the margin we should be doing a little bit more to help the poorest people in society. Or perhaps aggressive policing does represent an encroachment on civil liberties, but that public safety is important enough that we should empower the police a little bit more. These sorts of debates can get just as heated as the first sort, but they’re noticeably saner. Although these people may disagree on values, everyone is aware that they’re working off a reasonable and sane description of how the world actually works.

The third group takes things to an even higher level of nuance and sophistication. They basically argue “more good stuff, less bad stuff!”

2.

I had a hard time really understanding the neoreactionary term “anarcho-tyranny.”  Wikipedia credits it to Samuel T Francis, who had this to say about it:

What we have in this country today, then, is both anarchy (the failure of the state to enforce the laws) and, at the same time, tyranny – the enforcement of laws by the state for oppressive purposes; the criminalization of the law-abiding and innocent through exorbitant taxation, bureaucratic regulation, the invasion of privacy, and the engineering of social institutions, such as the family and local schools; the imposition of thought control through “sensitivity training” and multiculturalist curricula, “hate crime” laws, gun-control laws that punish or disarm otherwise law-abiding citizens but have no impact on violent criminals who get guns illegally, and a vast labyrinth of other measures. In a word, anarcho-tyranny.

The problem was that it seemed like an empty piece of rhetoric. You could point out any bit of degeneracy and call it anarchy, then turn around and point to any policy you dislike as tyranny. So all “anarcho-tyranny” boils down to is “hey, the world doesn’t totally conform to my standards!” – which for anyone of any ideological stripe is always a pretty good bet.

But I’ve come to understand that anarcho-tyranny, properly used, is a much more specific diagnosis. It is describing a particular set of adaptations that societies are forced to use when they’re living in the aftermath of a collapse in what I’ll call social technology.

Group 2, the one that argues politics in terms of tradeoffs, is basically correct about how policy works. Governments decide how much tax money to raise and give to the poor, and how strong their police forces need to be to control crime – keeping in mind that both taxes and police have downsides and it’s quite possible to have too much of either. You could view this as a production possibilities frontier, with a standard exchange rate between taxes raised and poor people helped, or between police power and deterred crime. And you can ponder this curve, look at where we’re standing at a society, and argue about whether we should be sliding a little bit up or a little bit down this curve.

What this tug-of-war game misses is that it’s sometimes possible to get better at both sides of the bargain. When medieval charities organized early hospitals in Europe, the economies of scale meant that you could actually help more poor sick people per dollar raised. When the police are able to work effectively with a law-abiding citizenry, they can be more effective at stopping crime while still being Officer Friendly.

We use the term “technology” when we discover a process that lets you get more output for less investment, whether you’re trying to produce gallons of oil or terabytes of storage.  We need a term for this kind of institutional metis – a way to get more social good for every social sacrifice you have to make – and “social technology” fits the bill.  Along with the more conventional sort of technology, it has led to most of the good things that we enjoy today. [1]

The flip side, of course, is that when you lose social technology, both sides of the bargain get worse. You keep raising taxes yet the lot of the poor still deteriorates. You spend tons of money on prisons and have a militarized police force, yet they seem unable to stop muggings and murder. And this is the double bind that “anarcho-tyranny” addresses. Once you start losing social technology, you’re forced into really unpleasant tradeoffs, where you have sacrifice along two axes of things you really value. [2]

3.

Start with a pleasant town, with a trusting, cooperative, watched over by professional, friendly policemen who knows the streets, and the townsfolk, like the back of their hands.  Crime is rare, but when it happens, it’s news, and the people, from the concerned neighbor to the kid who reads way too many detective novels, eagerly overwhelm the police with their offers of help.  With that information and cooperation, what crimes there are usually are solved without so much as a baton broken out, and the community is grateful for being protected.

Then, almost imperceptibly, things begin to change.  There begins to grow an idea that authority figures are not to be trusted.  At first it’s just a few kids at the local college with some odd political ideas, but pretty soon the town’s poor pick up on it too, with the notion that their loyalty is to their fellow poor rather than to the town’s government and police force.  And before long, even otherwise law-abiding people are refusing to cooperate with any police investigations.  At the same time, riding on a wave of new complaints about police oppression, the state starts passing laws that make it a harder and longer process to hand down long prison sentences.  The police is backed into a corner, both less capable of gathering information to investigate crimes, and facing an uphill legal battle to prosecute alleged criminals.  Crime starts creeping up, despite the promises of increasingly desperate mayors and commissioners.  Being a beat cop looks like a terrible career choice, the smart kids stay away and so the ranks start getting filled with less qualified candidates, who care less about their work and more about their pensions.  The force becomes increasingly alienated from the town, seeing the poor districts as enemy territory, and it starts seeming less bad to use a little enhanced interrogation to crack a tough case.

You graduated from the local college and settled down for the long haul.  It’s election season, and you flip to the mayoral debate.  Police reform is the hot button issue, and it’s something that’s been on your mind a lot lately.  One of your friends had his car broken into a month ago.  Just a few weeks ago you heard that one of your coworkers got mugged and you do a double take – that’s a street that you used to play on as a kid.  Naturally, you resent the spike in crime. But at the same time, you’re disgusted at the increasingly boorish behavior of the police – it seems like there’s always a police brutality scandal in the news, and you know that’s only the ones you hear about.  The moderator finishes his question and one candidate responds, saying that the only way to get a handle on crime is to give more and more powers to the police forces – which, a little voice whispers, you know they’ll just end up abusing. His opponent responds, saying that the real problem is the growing militarization of the police, leading to the citizenry understandably unwilling to work with them.  The only way forward is to assuage fear of police brutality by giving more protections to those accused of a crime – many of which, the little voice whispers, are in fact guilty.  No matter what you do, all that either candidate can offer is with higher crime and a more unpleasant justice system than you remember from your childhood. You turn off the television in disgust, and decide that this November you’re going to do the one thing that will really make a difference. You’re going to write a strongly worded letter to the editor. [3]

4.

The fascinating thing about this notion of social technology is that once you start looking at politics through this lens, you start seeing its influence everywhere. A lot of our thorniest political battles involve two sides desperately trying not to lose too much ground in the aftermath of a loss of social technology. Civil libertarians bemoaned the growth of the police state while law and order types bewail soaring crime statistics. Left-wingers bemoan the lack of progress on poverty, while right-wingers point out that the ratchet of federal funding is clicking upwards with no end in sight. And because of human loss aversion, these fights are often some of the most bitter debates in politics. Both sides remember a time when they were much closer to achieving their values, and neither wants to backslide further now.

So that is the value of the term anarcho-tyranny. It points out these situations where we as a society are getting less for more – where we’re losing social technology. Of course, just because we can diagnose a loss of social technology doesn’t mean it’s straightforward to figure out exactly what delicate institutions were giving us the bounty to begin with.  And it’s even trickier to figure out what we need to do so that our institutions have incentives to be more and more functional – to sustain the same kind of progress in social technology that we have experienced in material technology. Politics is hard, and the idea of social technology doesn’t suddenly make everything easier. But it points us in the right direction, and starts us asking more interesting questions.

The third level of political discussion is “what happened to our social technology, and how do we get it back?”

 

[1] In fact, this is more or less explicitly the argument that Palantir made as to why they were not evil, despite running essentially a huge intelligence bureau. They argued that the government was going to do whatever it took to prevent another terrorist attack, no matter how intrusive it would have to become.  So the only way that directive wouldn’t result in Orwellian levels of domestic spying is if they had access to software that let them more efficiently target the bad guys without needing as much invasive snooping on ordinary citizens – if they got better technology. Now, given recent revelations about the extent of CIA snooping, we may well laugh at that argument, but the Palantir folks would likely argue, and with some justification, that without their tools, domestic surveillance today would be even worse.

[2] I am aware that there is a second, distinct use of the term “anarcho-tyranny” – that when the government deliberately tilts the playing field of a tribal conflict by letting Group A terrorize Group B, while cracking down tyrannically when Group B attempts to defend itself or retaliate.  This is a real phenomenon – whether in Nazi-Communist street fights in Weimar Germany or in the coverup in Rotherham.  But having one name for two concepts does justice to neither, so I will use anarcho-tyranny only in the context of losing social technology, and leave others to come up with a suitable term for the second concept.

[3] This, in macrocosm, is basically the story of crime in the 20th century.  Crime and policing both started out at a relatively benign level. A decline in social technology – involving some of the factors in the story – led to a spike in crime that peaked in 1970. Since then, politicians and police forces have been painstakingly fighting back by massively increasing the budgets and powers of the justice system.

Some people have argued against the idea that crime has gotten much much worse over this time period, on the basis that crime stats have mostly stabilized and even improved since the 1970s. What this argument misses is the enormous investments that have made this relative improvement possible. The police have gotten more expansive powers and more sophisticated technology, the level of incarceration in the US has reached staggering levels, and any private citizen who can afford it spend huge amounts of money cocooning themselves.  They pay exorbitant rents to live in safe neighborhoods within cities (where large areas are effectively uninhabitable), move out to the exurbs, or, most dramatically, move into gated communities and apartment buildings that provide a private security force. It’s only with these enormously expensive sacrifices that we’ve eked out a slight downtick in the prevalence of crime; had we not done that, the problem would be much worse.

Introducing Phalanx

Phalanx

Phalanx, alternatively rendered as >>>, is a reactionary fraternity for the cultivation of masculine virtue and the development of social and moral capital. If degeneracy is the cancer that’s killing the West, Phalanx is regeneracy.

Phalanx is not about collective action or activism in the perverse leftist sense. It is about physical, social, and spiritual self-cultivation, becoming better men, and supporting ourselves, each other, and our communities. The plan is not to directly engage, but to become strong and worthy.

We won’t try to do everything at once, but we envision a group of men meeting regularly to do things like the following:

  • Go to church.
  • Shoot guns, go hunting.
  • Train martial arts.
  • Get stronger.
  • Wing each other and support Patriarchy in our relationships.
  • Go camping.
  • Study practical skills like coding, fixing stuff.
  • Study history and old books.

That’s not all we want to do, and we’ll start with less, but it gives the idea. Whatever we end up doing will be configured to not take up too much time; enough to forge solid relationships and deliver the value, but not so much that you can’t have a job and other hobbies. Less than 10 hours a week, but hopefully at least a few.

Phalanx membership will be selective, so that we get men who are serious and useful. We are looking for men with some level of physical, intellectual, and social talent, a willingness to grow, and a commitment to reactionary virtue and saving Western Civilization.

This is in the early experimental phase, but if you’re interested, contact us on twitter @phalanx_nrx or by email at phalanx.nrx@gmx.com. We’re especially interested in men around Vancouver, NYC, San Francisco, and Washington DC.

Data vs Theory

Experimental Physics characterizes the interesting phenomena of physical reality to high accuracy, collecting data that must be explained.

Theoretical Physics sits in an armchair and explains the data it has access to, providing a better framework in which to reason and collect further data.

Not all fields have this fact-theory synergy structure explicitly, usually to their detriment, but conceptually it is an important distinction.

Smart intellectuals seem to theorize by default, but theorizing quality is largely a function of the amount of solid relevant data known or quickly accessible to the theorist. Despite this, people do not seem to automatically go out of their way to find and curate data, much preferring to theorize on what they already know. I would explain many intellectual trends in these terms:

  • Useful science happened exactly when the collection and cataloging of large amounts of data became high status.
  • Kepler formulated his planetary laws in response to Brahe’s comprehensive data.
  • Physics did well because physics needed the least data, and it was easiest to get solid data.
  • Fundamental physics has largely stagnated because good data on edge cases has become very expensive.
  • NRx happened when the Internet and Google books made possible fast and easy access to large amounts of relatively unfiltered information.
  • The problem with social science is its tendency to draw conclusions based on small amounts of data collected by single researchers.
  • The flaws in this post are almost entirely due to incorrect and missing information.

I therefor posit the following:

If a school of thought seeks to improve its ideas or spread ideas it believes to be true or subvert enemy ideas it believes to be false, the highest-leverage action is the production and curation of high-quality data sets.

The id of the basic income

There’s been a lot of talk lately, from many ideological corners, about the idea of a basic income guarantee – the idea of scrapping all our complex welfare programs and replacing it with a guaranteed income.  From first principles, this seems doable.  Our modern transfer programs cost a lot of money, and if you do the math, it works out to roughly enough to let everyone live at the level of a grad student.  Based on the lives of my grad student friends, that seems pretty awesome.

There are serious criticisms of the proposal as well.  Many of the proponents seem to be relatively isolated from the actual struggles of the poor, and how much of it is about being immersed in a bad culture rather than (in the US) actual material deprivation.  And they tend to assume that we’d have enough unified political will to prevent it from quickly drifting back into the mess we have today, when confronted, say, by cute pictures of starving kids whose parents gambled away their dole for the year.  But I’d like to address a different point here: regardless of the merits of the proposal, there’s a lot to learn from the fact that it’s becoming popular today.

Let’s leave the quibbles over the mechanics and bean counting and view the proposal as poetry, as aspiration.  What do its proponents think people will *do* with all their free money?  Let’s look at the best written scenario I’ve read on the subject, from Slate Star Codex:

Or consider your life on a $20,000 a year income guarantee. No longer tied down to a job, you can live wherever you want. I love the mountains. Let’s live in a cabin in Colorado, way up in the Rockies. You can find stunningly beautiful ones for $500 a month – freed from the mad rush to get into scarce urban or suburban areas with good school districts, housing is actually really cheap. So there you are in the Rockies, maybe with a used car to take you to Denver when you want to see people or go to a show, but otherwise all on your own except for the deer and squirrels. You wake up at nine, cook yourself a healthy breakfast, then take a long jog out in the forest. By the time you come back, you’ve got a lot of interesting thoughts, and you talk about them with the dozens of online friends you cultivate close relationships with and whom you can take a road trip and visit any time you feel like. Eventually you’re talked out, and you curl up with a good book – this week you’re trying to make it through Aristotle on aesthetics. The topic interests you since you’re learning to paint – you’ve always wanted to be an artist, and with all the time in the world and stunning views to inspire you, you’re making good progress. Freed from the need to appeal to customers or critics, you are able to develop your own original style, and you take heart in the words of the old Kipling poem:

And none but the Master will praise them
And none but the Master will blame
And no one will work for money
And no one will work for fame
But each for the joy of the working
Each on his separate star
To draw the thing as he sees it
For the God of things as they are

One of the fans of your work is a cute girl – this time I’m assuming you’re a man, I’m sure over the past four years you’ve learned some choice words for people who do that. You date and get married. She comes to live with you – she’s also getting $20,000 a year from the government in place of an education, so now you’re up to $40,000, which is actually very close to the US median household income. You have two point four kids. With both of you at home full time, you see their first steps, hear their first words, get to see them as they begin to develop their own personalities. They start seeming a little lonely for other kids their own age, so with a sad good-bye to your mountain, you move to a bigger house in a little town on the shores of a lake in Montana. There’s no schooling for them, but you teach them to read, first out of children’s books, later out of something a little harder like Harry Potter, and then finally you turn them loose in your library. Your oldest devours your collection of Aristotle and tells you she wants to be a philosopher when she grows up. Evenings they go swimming, or play stickball with the other kids in town.

When they reach college age, your daughter is so thrilled at the opportunity to learn from her intellectual heroes that she goes to Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV and asks for a loan. They’re happy to give her fifteen thousand, which is all college costs nowadays – only the people who are really interested in learning feel the need to go nowadays, and supply so outpaces demand that prices are driven down. She makes it into Yale (unsurprising given how much better home-schooled students do) studies philosophy, but finds she likes technology better. She decides to become an engineer, and becomes part of the base of wealthy professionals helping fund the income guarantee for everyone else. She marries a nice man after making sure he’s willing to stay home and take care of the children – she’s not crazy, she doesn’t want to send them to some kind of institution

Your younger son, on the other hand, is a little intellectually disabled and can’t read above a third-grade level. That’s not a big problem for you or for him. When he grows older, he moves to Hawaii where he spends most of his time swimming in the ocean and by all accounts enjoys himself very much.

You’re happy your son will be financially secure for the rest of his life, but on a broader scale, you’re happy that no one around you has to live in fear of getting fired, or is struggling to make ends meet, or is stuck in the Rust Belt with a useless skill set. Every so often, you call your daughter and thank her for helping design the robots that do most of the hard work.

Note how different it is from the lives of the Aristotle-reading, Kipling-quoting class today.  If I had to sum it up in one word, I’d say it’s independent.  Not only are you socially independent, living in a remote mountain cabin with a small group of close friends, you’re intellectually independent too.  Freed of the anxieties of citation-mongering or trying to land the big sales account, our protagonist embarks on an isolated intellectual quest answerable only to himself for his progress.  His life – as full of intellectual ferment as it may be – looks, and feels, leisurely. [1]

This rigorous yet free life of the mind sounds extremely appealing to the intellectual 1%, and living in this utopia would be reason enough to favor the basic income guarantee, even leaving out all the selfless stuff about fixing the culture of poverty.  Yet upon reflection this is not a dreamy utopia of the far future, but a lifestyle that has existed throughout the past.  From the philosophers of Athens to the aristocrats of the Invisible College, from the monasteries of the Middle Ages to the mandarins of the Middle Kingdom, many cultures had a space set aside for the life of the mind.   The form varied, but the bargain usually ran like this: in exchange for giving up some worldly status-climbing and wealth, you get a position of moderate freedom – and a moderate amount of guaranteed prestige.  And the bargain worked incredibly well.  [2]

That bit about prestige might sound trivial, but it’s the one thing that makes all the rest of the setup possible. Having a floor of status you can’t fall below seems somehow necessary to allow intellectual freedom.  Keep in mind that the Colorado retreat is perfectly feasible now.  It’s totally feasible for anyone making a moderate income to retire to a simple life after working about ten years.  Certainly Scott himself, set up to make a physician’s salary, can easily retire after a decade, even including the years of his residency.  The limiting factor isn’t stuff, it’s status and social narratives.  There’s no narrative in our head that painting landscapes and reading Aristotle all day is okay, let alone admirable.  Someone trying to live that life would be much less respected than a practicing physician – if they’re not just regarded with frank incomprehension and skepticism.  And so, the idyllic retreat slowly gets worn down among constant questions from parents when you’re going to get on with your life, the lack of nearby parents who understand and approve of how you’re raising your kids, and the gnawing worry that even your intellectual work will never be as cool as what those kids at Harvard or Berkeley are working on.  And so smart people march on to officially approved lifestyles and become doctors and coders and accountants and postdocs, and yearn for that rustic mountain cabin in the Rockies.

But until very recently, they had another option.  Even after the death of the old aristocracy, there was a pretty guaranteed way to live a low-key life of the mind; you could join academia.  Now academia today is a rat race like any other prestigious career track, and if you want to make it you have to apply your nose firmly to the grindstone and not spend too much time fooling around.  But it’s really only quite recently that academia was so difficult and Darwinian to try to break into.  James Watson, as recently as the 1950s, was a mediocre college student until he read What is Life, got excited, and decided to go to grad school in Indiana to work on it.  Today he wouldn’t stand a chance against students who had spent undergrad getting good grades, working with the right mentors, and generally jumping through the right hoops.

I think the basic income folks are fundamentally reacting to this shift, this closing of the last sanctuary of aristocratic intellectual freedom.  The reason they have a low-resolution view of the poor[3] but portray an incredibly compelling portrait of what an aristocratic intellectual life could look like is exactly because that is the main driving force, a semiconscious cry of pain at the possibilities that were lost as the last academies closed their gates.  And whatever one may think of the policy proposal itself, I think this pain is perfectly real, not only for individuals but for a society’s intellectual health, and whatever else they do, the proponents have done a great service by articulating it.

 

[1] The only dissonant note is the notion that our protagonist wins a wife with his art, which hints that status is still the ultimate scarce commodity, and that the drive for status could ultimately become as all-consuming as it is today or at Versailles.

[2] I have a whole other essay in me yet about the productivity of aristocracy, but I will simply note here that practically all the intellectual production before 1900 was produced on this model, off the work of an aristocracy that was much less selected for IQ than our modern elites.

[3] Of course it has to be pitched as reforming charity, because “creating a new lifestyle for the intellectual elites” would poll terribly.  This despite the fact that the basic income is a much better tool for the latter than the former.

A World of Expanding Threats Requires Private Government to be Resilient

The United States government has failed to protect us from ebola by refusing to stop flights from West Africa. Scientist Greg Cochran recalls how American Samoa was saved from even a single case of the Spanish flu by a quarantine. The way our leaders are thinking about America has changed. From The American Conservative:

The deeper answer is that much of the American establishment has bought into “post-America”—the concept that the border shouldn’t mean much of anything. There is a right-wing and hawkish component to this: those feel we have the right and duty to meddle in every region of the world. ISIS is treated as primarily an American problem, as are ethnic fissures in Ukraine. The liberal side of the same paradigm is driven by guilt that the United States is richer or more successful than much of the world and hopes–by eliminating the significance of the border—to gradually erase such differences. The Washington Post recently ran an op-ed denouncing “borderism.” The piece opened by lamenting that someone born in New Mexico has better opportunities in life than someone born in Mexico.

We are living under a government that doesn’t take the idea of a border very seriously. They won’t even stop flights from an area of the world with a deadly, uncurable, exponentially spreading disease.

The future of most of America and Europe is unsafe. It’s unsafe because 1) there are cultures trying to do as much damage to us as possible, 2) people are constantly pushing us to start a war with Russia, 3) within a few years it will be much easier to arbitrarily design new pathogens, 4) our leaders aren’t insular-thinking enough to take the measures needed to defend us properly.

In Germany, pro-ISIS forces are running wild with machetes. This is Hamburg, not Mosul. 16 percent of French citizens support ISIS. I could go on.

The world is re-radicalizing, reaching back to its roots. Only Europe and America are lagging here. We retain egalitarian, universalist, multicultural values that make us easy prey for a new generation of guiltless fanatics. Only when we have been thoroughly exploited and ruined will we abandon our liberal values and truly fight back. The war has little to do with air campaigns. It’s about mass immigration which is a hostile invasion by foreign cultures.

Private governments are more likely to take actions that clearly benefit the people of a country, without worrying about whether it’s in fashion. For example, in Switzerland, all activities related to ISIS have been banned. There’s something related: Switzerland has rejected immigration. The common thread is putting the native citizen above the foreigner. Switzerland is not a private government, but its historic isolation makes it behave more like one than, say, America or the UK.

In a world of abundance, there is enough to go around. It’s easy to accept immigrants and grant unlimited public freedoms when the going is good. What about when the world becomes more dangerous, because any terrorist can cook up Ebola 2.0 in his basement, and he has a mind to spray it all over the New York subway? Then, the open society will fall. This is due to the simple fact that technology improves the ability to attack faster than it improves the ability to defend.

Think about the world from a perspective where the failure of an open society is inevitable. From that perspective, a democratic society isn’t an option; the question becomes, which kind of post-democratic system is likely to prevail?