The Odysseus Problem

Moldbug’s insistence that ‘Sovereignty is conserved’ surely counts as one of the most significant assertions in the history of political thought. It is arguably the fundamental axiom of his ‘system’, and its implications are almost inestimably profound.

Sovereignty is conserved says that anything that appears to bind sovereignty is itself in reality true sovereignty, binding something else, and something less. It is therefore a negative answer to the Odysseus Problem: Can Sovereignty bind itself? If Moldbug’s assertion is accepted, constitutional government is impossible, except as a futile aspiration, a ‘noble lie’, or a cynical joke.

In addition to Moldbug’s powerful arguments, we know from the work of Kurt Gödel that the Odysseus Problem is at least partially insoluble, since it is logically impossible for there to be a perfect knot. However well constructed a constitution might be, it cannot, in principle, seal itself reliably against the possibility of a surreptitious undoing. In a sufficiently complex (self-referential) constitutional order, there will always be permissible procedures whose consequences have not been completely anticipated, and whose consistency with the continuation of the system cannot be ensured in advance.

Yet it would be obviously misleading to assume that such concerns were not already active during the formulation of the American Constitution. It is precisely because some quite lucid comprehension of the Odysseus Problem was at work, that the founders envisaged the grounding principle of republican constitutionalism as a division of powers, whereby the component units of a disintegrated sovereignty bound each other. The animating system of incentives was not to rest upon a naive expectation of altruism or voluntary restraint, but upon a systematically integrated network of suspicion, formally installing the anti-monarchical impulse as an enduring, distributed function. If the republic was to work, it would be because the fear of  power in other hands permanently over-rode the greed for power in one’s own.

The American Constitution was, of course, destroyed, in successive waves. After Lincoln, and FDR, only a pitiful and derided shell remains. USG has unified itself, and the principle of sovereign power has been thoroughly re-legitimated in the court of popular opinion. Democracy rose as the republic fell, exposing yet again the essential political bond of the tyrant with the mob, Leviathan with the people.

Does this ruin refute the constitutional conjecture? Is there really nothing further to be said in defense of imperfect (but perhaps improvable) knots? This one came horribly undone. Might there be other, better ones? Outside in remains obstinately interested in the problem …

ADDED: Many relevant speculations and insights are to be found in this article on the practicalities of secession (especially section XI J, XII, XIII, and XIV). “Since it is important that the AFR [or proposed American Federal Republic] function as a constitutional republic, one of the first things it should do is to hold a constitutional convention. We anticipate that the resulting document will be similar to the present American constitution, but not identical.” It includes some (very modest) recommendations to curtail democracy.

February 21, 2013admin 9 Comments »
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9 Responses to this entry

  • richeyrw Says:

    On occasion when I’m feeling hopeful, or dealing with someone who “can’t handle the truth”, I describe myself as a gradualist. That if all the rights discovered by the supreme court (or not repudiated when found by the other two branches) had instead been forced to go through the amendment process before coming into being, I think, while not in any sense removing the problems Moldburg and Godel noticed, would have at least delayed the crisis point.

    The founders obviously wanted it to be difficult, but possible, to amend the constitution, and when thinking about gradualism I wonder if they made it too difficult, given the obvious incentives for circumvention. Also I’m not sure how this would have changed Lincoln’s evisceration of the constitution (another thing not to mention around people who “can’t handle the truth”) but perhaps my Civil War History is inadequate to the task of finding a suitable example.

    [Reply]

    Posted on February 21st, 2013 at 10:18 pm Reply | Quote
  • admin Says:

    Your reserve is admirable, but arguably excessive. How much Civil War history is required to see problems in killing 600,000 Americans in order to criminalize the constitutional right to secession — the fundamental building block of the entire American constitutional experiment!

    The idea of a constitution as a political decelerator is an intuitively plausible one, but it, too, might be excessively modest (as you suggest?). It cannot be mathematically impossible to institutionalize permanent soft civil war (in order to make the hard variety unnecessary) — even if it is impossible to know that this goal has been successfully achieved.

    [Reply]

    Posted on February 21st, 2013 at 10:37 pm Reply | Quote
  • Handle Says:

    The best bind is reality, nature, the market, etc. You may look at the charter and by-laws of an institution and see an attempt at fabricating a structure of governance and limitation of authority, but what you don’t see are the environmental competitive pressures that are the truer constraints on the room for maneuver for any organization if it is to survive in its ecosystem. The underlying limiting assumption behind any collective endeavor that relies on voluntary association, trade, etc. which wishes to perpetuate itself and where the participants have feasible alternatives, is that it must satisfy demand or perish.

    This unwritten but obvious need to pass the reality test provides as significant and powerful a discipline to corporate activity and decision making as any attempt to string legal clauses together ever could. What Moldbug’s neocameralist model provides is a way for sovereign government, organized as small-ish profit-seeking landlord corporations in competition with each other, to ride that same wave to rationalize behavior and align interests. Citizens and Residents become merely Tenants who (unless their live in giant slave-prisons like North Korea), can choose their Landlords.

    We don’t need to ask irresolvable philosophical questions about constructing self-binding landlords, and if we can avoid getting stuck in intractable intellectual quagmires we should. Landlords own capital, and their ability to capitalize upon it is a function of their policies given the overall demand framework.

    Let me tell you, Homeowners Association across America are chock full of petty tyrants champing at the bit to unleash their inner dictator on their neighbors. It’s not the rules that keep them in check.

    In a way, this kind of “market democracy” is superior to “electoral democracy” in actually giving people what they really want, just as any economist is familiar with the often striking difference between stated and revealed preferences.

    Now, you still run into the problem of who is influencing what people want, and that the desires of herd are a poor proxy for “merit”, but I think when it comes to choosing where to live, most people I know are highly focused on finding the best place they can afford and are willing to move quite readily when things take a rapid, unexpected turn against their preferences.

    The point could be rephrased, “How I learned to stop worrying and love the sovereignty.” Competition is indeed the key to such a system, but between many unified sovereigties, not within a single sovereignty. Moldbug might call it “hyperfederalism”, and I prefer to call it “multizionism”. This emphasizes the community-vs-individual scope-adjustment to the notion of multiculturalism since, you know, part of what individuals want is to live in a particular kind of community. You can only really be individualistic if you allow the individuals to disaggregate into their optimal social circumstances.

    [Reply]

    Posted on February 22nd, 2013 at 2:33 am Reply | Quote
  • admin Says:

    @ Handle
    I very strongly agree with all of this (I think). It’s exactly where my inclinations go: quasi-Darwinian control systems within massively disaggregated social systems.

    Quibbling for quibbling’s sake, however: “…if we can avoid getting stuck in intractable intellectual quagmires we should” — that’s formally impossible to disagree with, but I’m not sure that I’m entirely in sympathy with the implication. Reactionaries have plenty of time — after all, what are we going to do while hanging around, waiting for the consummate collapse? Thinking is worth doing, in itself. We also have no divine revelation telling us which problems are strictly intractable in advance, so we simply don’t know until we try thinking them through. Republican constitutions (and legal structures) are the most elaborate formal systems known to political history, so any intellectual program with formalist commitments should engage with them at an intense level, even if driven ultimately to discard their false promise. Constitutional republics have a mixed record, at worst, so it is worth giving them no less rope than we give kings (who have a mixed record, at best).

    [Reply]

    Posted on February 22nd, 2013 at 2:58 am Reply | Quote
  • richeyrw Says:

    @admin
    When I mentioned my weak Civil War history I was saying that I wasn’t aware of any point where an amendment would have solved the problem but it was rejected because the process for amending the constitution was too difficult.

    [Reply]

    Posted on February 22nd, 2013 at 4:14 am Reply | Quote
  • admin Says:

    @ Richeyrw
    Yes, sorry if that came over as abrupt. The amendment issue is definitely central to the entire discussion, but making the process easier is not very satisfactory (the ‘deader’ a constitution the better, anything else weakens it against democracy). My under-formulated (but formalist) suggestion in the UF piece was to make it a requirement of constitutional amendments that they strengthen the constitution, in a mathematically determinable way. The final goal is a fully autonomous constitution — actually an AI — as the natural complement to an autonomous economy (= capitalism). Not many people striving for that just yet …

    Still not sure I’m entirely getting your point though. Didn’t Lincoln get his amendment (the 13th)? As explained by Spielberg in his recent masterpiece of historical truth telling. Secession, on the other hand, didn’t require an amendment, since it’s the guiding light of the Declaration of Independence, and thus meta-constitutional.

    [Reply]

    Posted on February 22nd, 2013 at 7:44 am Reply | Quote
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