Sub Specie Aeternitatis

One of the most common mistakes I see intellectuals making is getting caught in a short-sighted bubble, and thus tending to overconfidence in their worldview, and disregard for heritage and future. The symptoms are familiar:

  • Belief that one and one’s ingroup (and possibly some enlightened outsiders) are the only people to have figured out the answer to some important question(s).
  • Learning from and collaborating with only local, contemporary intellectuals, who are often mostly of the same ingroup. Generally getting one’s opinions from only a small set of sources.
  • Disagreement with >90% of people who have ever lived.
  • Rationalizations against taking outside thought seriously; “We are so far ahead of them, they have nothing to teach us”. “Ignorant backwards pre-enlightenment thought”. “Everyone else is insane”. “They didn’t have <proprietary cognitive tool X>”. Etcetera.

Despite being near-universal among intellectuals, and often justifiable (for scientists especially but not at all universally), this pattern of isolating oneself within the “one true school of thought” is usually pathological. Seeing as the pattern is likely still present in myself and my readers, this will need some argument:

By default, the set of facts and insights encountered and raised to importance by the investigations of an intellectual acting alone or with similar-thinking contemporaries will have small overlap with the set of important facts and insights overall. This is by inherent limitations of investigation, as well as quirks of human reasoning.

Most serious intellectual work does discover important facts and produce valuable insight. Influence is generally a good proxy for importance, though far from perfect.

Most intellectual work will have some added arational insanity and bad insights besides its important insights. This comes from circumstance, path dependence, entryism, tribal signalling, human irrationalities, and so on.

The errors in unconnected non-contemporary intellectual works are in a large part uncorrelated. Convergent or eternal patterns of failure, and relatively repeatable human biases will remain as sources of error, but the set of reliable sources of error is small compared to all possible sources of error. Sampling from work from a wider range of circumstances reduces the set of reliable errors.

Generally, when provided with only one view of something, it is very difficult to tell that it is insane, or to even notice that one believes it. However, when presented with multiple uncorrelated views, it is much easier to notice the question and the insanity of some of the possible answers. This means we can separate the bad insights from the good by comparison between schools of thought that do not make the same mistakes.

Existing thinking is a much cheaper source of raw insight than trying to reason things out from scratch. One has to be very substantially more rational than average for this to not be true.

Therefor, sampling from as wide a range of influential works as possible for raw facts and insight, and using critical contrasting to select mostly the good stuff, is a much better idea than the default of isolating oneself and failing to explore. This is obvious once stated. The hard part is noticing and caring that you’ve isolated yourself in a bubble of contemporary thought.

This is simply a more self-contained and explicit argument for the doctrine of Slow History:

  1. Read old books, primary sources, and distant outsiders.
  2. Take them seriously.
  3. ???
  4. Achieve wisdom.

The second step is to remind us that we tend to read outsiders “framed” in a patronizing or deconstructing way, by which we avoid challenging ourselves and learning what they have to say. This is to be avoided.

The ideal result of this is seeing the world sub specie aeternitatis, “from the perspective of eternity”. Most of us have unfortunately not achieved anything like the eternal perspective, but it seems wise to try. Unbound from temporal concerns, fashion, and particular mistakes, what would the world look like and what would seem important?

Response to David Brin’s “Neo-Reactionaries” Drop All Pretense: End Democracy and Bring Back Lords!” Article, December 2014


2014 is quickly coming to a close, so I’ll celebrate the last month of the year by finally replying to David Brin’s blog post of November 2013. At the time, I was so taken aback by Brin’s excitement and enthusiasm for the topic, I was speechless. Now that I’ve had more than a year to process it, I think I can muster a response. Brin cites me several times throughout his article as a “leading light” of the neoreactionary position.

It may help for you to go read Brin’s post first, so you know what I’m responding to. Brin’s comments are in blockquote.

Following up on my previous posting, about the rationalizations of the new aristocracy, this time I plan to reveal to you a pernicious trend among some of society’s best and brightest.

Best and brightest? Are you sure about that? A few people in the Bay Area does not best and brightest make. One stray critical comment of democracy by Peter Thiel does not mean he is a neoreactionary. Calling Moldbug, Nick Land, and myself “best and brightest” sounds like a bit of an exaggeration, I think. We’re fringe figures with little influence.

But still, they also contain my patented brand of optimistic faith in reason: in this case positing that a cabal of trillionaires would have enough honesty and self-awareness to know how badly their favored system worked, in 99% of past human cultures.

Here, Brin makes the claim that aristocracy operated “badly” (in italics) for 99% of past human cultures. It’s worth asking–how? Did it operate badly in 17th century Austria? In 16th century Russia? In pre-Revolutionary France? In Imperial Rome? There’s something suspicious about taking a great diversity of modes of aristocracy, modes of governance throughout history (99% of it), and dismissing them all so effortlessly, with a broad brush. Were all great thinkers throughout history, including Plato and Metternich, simply idiots about governance, while David Brin and his modernist allies are right? Perhaps Brin is the one who is wrong and it was Plato and Metternich who were correct.

Later on, Brin also uses the phrase “getting things done” as something democracies are good at and aristocracies are allegedly bad at. According to what metrics? It’s worth being specific, so this can be debated. When Brin says that aristocracies operated badly, what exactly does he mean? I’ll try to identify substantiations of this claim as we continue.

For example, how to avoid catastrophic in-breeding and instead use meritocratic systems to invite the very best commoners upward to join their elite families via marriage and other alliances, at the top. Solving the illusion of superiority by making it — gradually — completely real.

It’s no illusion, David. Some people come from better families than others. Though some deny this in the abstract, in practice everyone behaves as if it were true, because it is. It’s called revealed preference. Don’t you know how American communities actually work?

David’s denial of class reminds me of the introduction to the book Class by Paul Fussell, where Fussell says some people were angered at the notion that he was even writing a book about class in America. Their denial didn’t make class any less real, though. The entire book focuses on the differences between American classes, often in the area of simple aesthetics. Take this comic from the book, for instance, showing how different classes make use of the same clothing pattern, but in different ways, with different preferred beverages:


Another illustration from the book shows the infamous “prole gap”:


Through many subtle and not-so-subtle cues, Americans sort themselves into different classes. Within each class, there are different hierarchically ordered sub-classes. This is the way all societies have always worked. A recent comprehensive study of surnames in England and their associated socioeconomic status showed that families stay at roughly the same class level for centuries. None of these studies surprise neoreactionaries; our view is that this is natural. It sure surprises idealists who believe in Rousseau’s yarns about equality, though!

As I have said many times, this is human nature.  We are all descended from the harems of guys who pulled off this trick. Voluptuous delusions run through our veins, so strongly that it’s amazing the Enlightenment Miracle was ever tried at all, let alone that it lasted as long as it has.

David takes the time to include an evolutionary just-so story. Organic hierarchy is not a trick; it is the natural state of human nature. That’s why it requires big government and mass paranoia about inequality to beat it back even a few steps. Calling organic hierarchy a “voluptuous delusion,” when it has worked perfectly well in so many societies for so many centuries, is the product of rigid Enlightenment partisanship. David wants the benefits that he perceives Enlightenment brings, so he calls organic hierarchy a ‘delusion’. Perhaps others would benefit from this ‘delusion’, much in the way you benefit from ‘Enlightenment’, David. To us, you’re the one in a delusion.

For three hundred years, in realms as diverse as science, wealth-creation, error-avoidance, innovation, justice and happiness, [the Enlightenment] has outperformed all previous societies combined. But that is not the secret sauce. Its key trick, above all, was a very strong mythology of egalitarianism, individualism, pragmatism and liberality — the ideal of a level and fair playing field, in which good ideas should win out over bad ones, without interference by stodgy or biased authorities.

Industrial civilization has outperformed all previous societies in the domain of wealth creation. It has done this through the use of fossil fuel power, industrialization, and automation. Egalitarianism, individualism, pragmatism, and liberality are incidental. The Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution occurred in what were pre-democratic states. The fact that through bloody terror (the French Revolution and Reign of Terror) and colonial rebellion (American Revolution), liberal government had new populations to experiment with does not mean that the success of these countries is entirely attributable to ‘better’ government. We can attribute it to technological development and the human capital of its people. Whether liberality is a prerequisite for technological advancement is highly contentious, as plenty of technological advancement has historically occurred in non-liberal societies.

Liberality may be something that is good for certain societies and at certain times, but not all the time. Historically, European states have benefited from it, but today, it is harming them. That is why we are seeing a return to traditional values and increased support for ‘far’ right parties across Europe. It’s a prelude to the same thing happening in the United States in the near future. Arguably, it is already happening right now. Liberality has many components which can be evaluated individually and approved or disapproved on their individual merits. It isn’t necessary to view liberalism as a take-it-or-leave it monolithic package. Similarly, there is much contention among liberals about the specific implications of liberal principles being applied to individual cases.

Brin’s claim that post-French Revolution society has outperformed “all previous societies combined” is just outrageous hyperbole. It takes an astonishing ignorance of European history to make this claim. Brin believes in democracy and egalitarianism so strongly that he succumbs to the halo effect with respect to them, failing to appreciate the accomplishments of societies without them. He rejects the many great philosophical, artistic, martial, and technological accomplishments of Europe from Ancient Greece up until 1789, all of which occurred in non-democratic, non-egalitarian societies. How can he reject all this so easily?

Brin quotes Klint Finley from his anti-NRx article at TechCrunch, the one that started media coverage:

Neoreactionaries believe that while technology and capitalism have advanced humanity over the past couple centuries, democracy has actually done more harm than good. They propose a return to old-fashioned gender roles, social order and monarchy.

Yes, we propose this. Brin further quotes Finley:

Perhaps the one thing uniting all neoreactionaries is a critique of modernity that centers on opposition to democracy in all its forms. Many are former libertarians who decided that freedom and democracy were incompatible.

Actually, this isn’t really true. Most neoreactionaries nowadays are not former libertarians. We come from a variety of political backgrounds. These backgrounds shouldn’t matter anymore since our views have changed.

Brin then quotes me:

“Demotist systems, that is, systems ruled by the ‘People,’ such as Democracy and Communism, are predictably less financially stable than aristocratic systems,” a leading light of this movement, Michael Anissimov writes. (And note how he slips in the Trojan Horse axiom that communism is a categorical cousin to democracy – the sly rogue!) “On average, they undergo more recessions and hold more debt. They are more susceptible to market crashes. They waste more resources. Each dollar goes further towards improving standard of living for the average person in an aristocratic system than in a Democratic one.”

I stand by these statements. Aristocratic systems are more fiscally stable. They are more decentralized and less susceptible to failures of the central government. This is exactly the kind of “antifragile” governance our chaotic modern world needs. The current system is highly susceptible to catastrophic failure. We need less federal and state spending, and more local spending. It’s a question of resilience. Communities will shape their own fates; not have their fates shaped by compulsory entanglement with the federal and state governments. As for governance, private government is more reliable and predictable. Let others take their chances with public government. We’ve seen what public government can do, and we don’t like it.

There it is, the assertion that autarchies “get more done” than flighty, self-indulgent, bourgeoise polities.

They do. I couldn’t have put it better myself. For further background, see Evola here.

Is this just a fluke? No, the movement has been long-simmering.

Yes, it’s not a fluke. Many of us have held these views in private for some time, but only in 2012 or so did a lot of people get interested and talk about it publicly. Though people always cite Moldbug, I think it was Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: the God That Failed which really planted the seeds in 2001. The rest is history.

Or the way no ancient autarchy ever “got done” even a scintilla’s percentage of the accomplishments of any modern democracy.

This depends on a very liberal-centric idea of what “getting things done” means. Was the Scientific Revolution not getting things done? Was 2,500 years of European civilization not getting things done? Traditional Europe was not “autarchy,” it was aristocracy and monarchy, which are better for freedom than your liberal democracies are. As Erik von Keuhnelt-Leddhin said, it’s democracies that are anti-liberty, because they crush differences and inequalities. Democracies are always pressuring people to fit in, to be unexceptional. De Tocqueville realized that. “Equality” is fundamentally anti-liberty. The potential for inequality is the essence of liberty. Aristotle said, “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.”

The list of staggering rationalizations is too long for me to even ponder addressing, from ignoring Adam Smith’s denunciations of aristocracy as the core enemy of enterprise, to the bizarre belief that you can have economic freedom without any of the political kind, or that the clearly nasty and stupid rulership pattern of 6000 years should ever, ever again be trusted with anything more than a burnt match. Or that Communism was somehow a version of democracy, instead of a quasi-feudal theocratic cult that relentlessly spewed hatred at “bourgeoise democracy.” Or the way they rail against the Hayekian sin of “too few allocators and deciders” when it is committed by civil servants, yet justify narrow cliques of conniving group-think lords who do the same thing, just because they are “private.”

Yes, we’re so deluded. Except that what we believe in is the same as what nearly everyone used to believe in for millennia. And, we came from the Enlightenment before. But we were reasoned out of it. Hence your panicky tone.

Adam Smith said lots of things. That doesn’t change the fact that we need aristocracy now. Democracy is Communism Lite. Reject Demotism. We need powerful representatives to stand up for our localist, particularist cultural interests. Hence the creation and formalization of aristocrats. Common nobodies, which is essentially me and everyone reading this, can benefit from powerful people who are aligned with our nativist interests. They stand as a natural counterbalance to the other (unwanted) forces of the world, like the USG and multinational corporations. Since International Communism is dead, the USG is the new greatest threat to traditional, localist interests. The behavior of USG reflects its nature as a manifestation of the Demotist, Universalist, Universalizing State. Its universalization-by-force behavior is explicitly or implicitly endorsed by a majority of the electorate. This is especially relevant in education, but can be observed in all spheres of government activity. Democracy is what enables this.

Above all, the hoary and utterly disproved nostrum that bourgeois citizens are fiscally less prudent than kings and lords, a slander that is as counterfactual as claiming day is night.

Bourgeois citizens vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. They increase the size of government until it exceeds 40 percent and eventually 50 percent of GDP. Politicians from the Republican and Democratic parties only care about winning the next election and democratic politics is a charade, a big joke. This is all enabled by making government a public enterprise, which it never should have been. Just because a mob can storm a palace and murder a king in cold blood does not mean that democracy is the end-of-history best government ever. It’s an experiment, and perhaps an optima for certain times and certain places. Not an optima for every place, all the time. We are not claiming monarchy is the best system all the time, just that it can be good for certain situations.

Then head over to a marvelous, point-by-point refutation provided by Scott Alexander showing, among other things, how neo-reactionaries overestimate by many orders of magnitude the stability or governing aptitude of monarchies.  Alexander recently published an Anti-Reactionary FAQ, a massive document examining and refuting the claims of neoreactionaries.

I refuted the most important claims of the Anti-Reactionary FAQ here, on this blog. I wrote a 22-page response to one of Alexander’s basic claims about monarchy. I then wrote a second response to specific points when someone on an image board was unsatisfied with my original response. I think I’ve responded quite strongly and cast doubt on Alexander’s original assertions.

Brin says a lot of other things, but I think I’ve made my core points, so let’s skip to the end.

Amid the Rapture of the Ingrates, they are welcome to contend (it’s a free country) that we’d all be far better off if the west had not followed the advice of Locke and Montesquieu and Franklin and Smith and all the other heroes — the greatest our species ever produced — who rebelled against oligarchic rule, giving us one chance — perhaps only this one — to try something else.

They are free to offer that assertion. But I am (nodding thanks to all those heroes) equally empowered to say bullshit.

Mr. Brin’s heavy-handed dismissal of neoreaction and superlative praise of Enlightenment gurus only prompts us to question why he is so passionate about this issue.

Democracy vs. Monarchy

I’ve noticed people who say that they’re generally interested in our ideas but lean “more libertarian”. It’s my belief that a true “libertarian” republic would quickly reveal itself to be a de facto oligarchic structure composed of the most influential people. The overall formal government of society would then be whatever these influential people wanted it to be: meritocracy, plutocracy, democracy, monarchy, aristocracy, or some combination of those.

Therefore, a libertarian society would just revert back to whatever the leaders wanted it to be. In the modern United States, that could very well be a form of social democracy, like we have today. Most of today’s leaders were raised in political environments where social democracy was seen as ideal. So, my point is that even if libertarians got their wish of a minimal government overnight, under conditions of democracy, with the current demographics and the current predominant political beliefs, society would evolve right back into a social democracy with big government, perhaps in only a matter of years.

Democracy inevitably leads to big government. This is both in accordance with Conquest’s second law—that organizations not explicitly right-wing become more left wing over time—and also with this quote (often misattributed to a historical figure, but actually first appeared in 1951):

A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.

Whether democracies inevitably collapse into dictatorships remains to be seen, but the first part, the association of democracy and big government, is historically obvious. No traditional state had a government the size of which even vaguely approaches that of today’s. In broad outlines, there are two major differences in the system of government between today’s and that prior to the French Revolution: 1) democracy instead of monarchy and 2) big government instead of small government. The other differences (such as the alleged moral superiority of democracy) are just commentary.

Proles and Animals are Free

Where does one push on the world if one wants to make a large positive impact? This entire mission is dangerously dubious, but we’ll assume it’s a good idea for now. The “positive” part is hard, and a matter of case-specific judgement, but we can briefly comment on “large”:

Generally, to make a large impact, one wants to work on things that are “upstream”. That is, things that influence and affect other things. Things that have their effects multiplied. The “elites” are upstream of a lot of things in society. These are the people who build things, run things, maneuver into positions of power, lead, and determine the direction of a society.

Because of their position, if they are sane, well educated, fertile, cohesive, and organized, as in the early british empire, the proles and other assets of society will be well-managed and well-utilized, and you will get empires, science, great art, law, and general flourishing. On the other hand if the Elites are decadent, disorganized, barren, or insane, as in the late roman empire, and disturbingly in our own empire, you tend to get bad results; they have large capacity for destructive behavior. Things have not fully hit us yet, but the signs are there that our elite is crazy, and the precedent is disturbing.

So if one wishes to build and maintain empires, it is probably necessary to build and maintain a competent elite class. The rest will manage itself (or rather, will be managed by the elites). If one wishes for certain ideas to be utilized in the administration of society, it is probably necessary to teach those ideas to a powerful elite. If one is able or needing to route around the “elites”, this is a bad sign.

It is true that a competent elite will not be able to accomplish much without a strong economic base, geopolitical opportunity, a virtuous and capable prole class, a sane worldview, and a good political system, but one does not simply conjure such things out of thin air without a competent elite. Only an elite class is in any position to construct such things, and even they will not always find it possible.

Therefore the primary mandate for a strategically-self-aware empire is to maintain good behavior in the elite class. If it is necessary to manage the behaviour of the proles, it is ten times as necessary to manage the virtue and competence of the elites. It is also easy to get wrong.

Therefore a major strategic focus for any ambitious school of thought is to engage with, influence, and assist the elite class.