The Problem of Democracy

Recent discussions (on Twitter, primarily) have convinced me of the need for a ‘Neocameralism for Dummies’ post, providing a succinct introduction to this genre of political theory. The importance of this is obvious if Neocameralism is conceived as the central, and defining pillar of Neoreaction. In preparation for this task, however, it is necessary to revisit the socio-historical diagnosis from which Neocameralism emerged (in the work, of course, of Mencius Moldbug). That requires a brief prolegomenon addressing the NRx critique of democracy, focusing initially on its negative aspect. Neocameralism is introduced as a proposed solution to a problem. First, the problem.

Government is complicated. If this thesis seems implausible to you, it is probable that you will have great difficulties with everything to follow. It would take another (and quite different) post to address objections to this entire topic of discussion which take the approximate form “Government is easy, you just find the best man and put him in charge!” All social problems are easy if you can ‘just’ do the right thing. Infantile recommendations will always be with us.

There are two general lines of democratic apologetics. The first, and politically by far the strongest, is essentially religious. It too is best addressed by a post of its own, themed by Moldbug’s ‘Ultra-Calvinist Hypothesis’. For our purposes here we need only suggest that it is quite satisfactorily represented by Jacques Rousseau, and that its fundamental principal is popular sovereignty. From the NRx perspective, it is merely depraved. Only civilizational calamities can come from it.

The second line of apology is far more serious, theoretically engaging, and politically irrelevant. It understands democracy as a mechanism, tasked with the solemn responsibility of controlling government. Any effective control mechanism works by governing behavior under the influence of feedback from actual performance. In biology, this is achieved by natural selection upon phenotypes. In science, it is achieved by the experimental testing of theory, supported by a culture of open criticism. In capitalist economics, it is achieved by market evaluation of products and services, providing feedback on business performance. According to systems-theoretical defenses of democracy, it works by sensitizing government to feedback from voters, who act as conductors of information from actual administrative performance. This is the sophisticated liberal theory of democracy. It explains why science, markets, and democracy are often grouped together within liberal ideologies. (Bio-Darwinism, naturally, is more safely neglected).

How could this beautiful political design possibly go wrong? Merely by asking this question, you have set out on the Neoreactionary path.

Moldbug’s answer, and ours, begins by agreeing with the sophisticated liberal theory in its most abstract outlines. Democracy is indeed a system for the functional tuning of government, operating through electoral feedback, and predictably enhancing its specialized competence, as all reiterating experimentation-selection mechanisms do. Democratic political machines become increasingly good at what they do. The problem, however, is that their functional specialism is not at all identical with administrative capability. Rather, as they progressively learn, the feedback they receive trains them in mastery of public opinion.

The long-circuit, assumed by liberal political theory, models the electorate as a reality-sensor, aggregating information about the effects of government policy, and relaying it back through opinion polls and elections, to select substitutable political regimes (organized as parties) that have demonstrated their effectiveness at optimizing social outcomes. The short-circuit, proposed by Moldbug, models the electorate as an object of indoctrination, subjected to an ever-more advanced process of opinion-formation through a self-organized, message-disciplined educational and media apparatus. The political party best adapted to this apparatus — called the ‘inner party’ by Moldbug — will dominate the democratic process. The outer party serves the formal cybernetic function demanded by liberal theory, by providing an electoral option, but it will achieve practical success only by accommodating itself to the apparatus of opinion-formation — perhaps modifying its recommendations in minor, and ultimately inconsequential ways. It is the system of opinion-formation (the ‘Cathedral’) that represents true sovereign authority within the democratic system, since it is the ‘reality principle’ which decides success or failure. The monotonic trend to short-circuit dominance is the degenerative process inherent to democracy.

If you want the government to listen to you, then you have to expect it to tell you what to say. That is the principal lesson of ‘progressive’ political history. The assertion of popular voice has led, by retrospective inevitability, to a specialized, super-competent political devotion to ventriloquism. The disaster, therefore, is two-fold. On the one hand, government competence in its primary responsibility — efficient governance — is systematically eroded, to be replaced by a facility at propaganda (in a process akin to the accumulation of junk DNA). As government is swallowed by messaging, residual administrative competences are maintained by a bureaucratic machine or ‘permanent government’, largely insulated from the increasingly senseless signals of democratic opinion, but still assimilated to the opinion-formation establishment by direct (extra-democratic) processes of cultivation. Lacking feedback from anything but its own experiments in mind-control, quality of government collapses.

Secondly, and even more calamitously from certain perspectives, culture is devastated by the politicization of opinion. Under a political dispensation in which opinion has no formal power, it is broadly free to develop in accordance with its own experiences, concerns, and curiosities. In a significant minority of cases, cultural achievements of enduring value result. Only in cases of extreme, provocative dissent will the government have any interest in what the people think. Once politicized, however, correct public opinion is a matter of central — indeed all-consuming — government attention. Ideologically installed as the foundation of political legitimacy, it becomes the supreme object of political manipulation. Any thought is now dissent if it is not positively aligned with society’s leading political direction. To think outside the Cathedral is to attack the government. Culture is destroyed.

To be a Neoreactionary is to see these twin eventualities starkly manifested in contemporary Western civilization. What democracy has not yet ruined, it is ruining. It is essentially destructive of both government and culture. It cannot indefinitely last.

The subsequent question: What could conceivably provide a solution? That is where Neocameralism is introduced.

ADDED: Absolutely not to be missed, from Nydwracu.

August 9, 2014admin 31 Comments »
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31 Responses to this entry

  • Wyrd Says:

    I am become Democracy. The Destroyer of Worlds.


    Posted on August 9th, 2014 at 4:50 pm Reply | Quote
  • Brett Stevens Says:

    I am not certain it needs to be that complex. Democracy compels voting by preference, thus people pick the easier option, which is usually what flatters their pretense and inflames their emotions. Voting distills complex questions down to yes-no answers which generally reflect the asker manipulating the herd because anyone who does not will not get elected. The voters are not innocent; they are the bad guys. The “bad guys” in the forms of politicians are what democracy always produces.


    admin Reply:

    We’re probably addressing different audiences. There are people who demand the (slightly) more elaborate version.


    Posted on August 9th, 2014 at 5:01 pm Reply | Quote
  • peppermint Says:

    government *is* easy, you really do just find a cool dynasty and put them in charge.

    Socrates demonstrated what democracy is like by goading the Athenians into ordering him executed, and making them carry out the sentence. But as Charles Francis Adams said, for some reason we thought that after Christ is different from before Christ. We needed to see what democracy is like again.


    orlandu84 Reply:


    The democracy of Athens was quite different from what we have today. In Athens many positions in the government were filled by lottery whereas today positions are filled by voting or appointment. Most importantly, the Athenians never entrusted the entire city with political responsibilities – resident aliens, women, and men without a certain amount of property could not participate in government.

    Now, this distinction raises an important but perhaps irrelevant question, “Is what we have now really democracy?” Names have power so that calling what we currently have “democracy” creates a certain set of expectations about our government. I would prefer to call it a quasi-totalitarian market-state, but that’s just me. Now, the question might not be relevant given the requirements for states at present. In other words, granted that states have to possess x number of people over y square kilometers, you get “democracies” of the present sort. Of course, this posses a chicken and egg dilemma: do we have states this large and pervasive because of democracy or do have democracies of the present sort because states are so large?


    Shalmaneser Reply:

    Would Klerotarian demarchies be subject to the same degenerating tropisms of party-based elective democracies?


    orlandu84 Reply:

    So long as the lottery was truly random, I do not think that Kletorian demarchies would experience the same form of degeneration. Degeneration would come, however, from powerful elites attempting to influence the newly elected official, i.e. bribery. In such a system there would be strong reasons for those chosen by lot to get whatever bribes they could unless they could be prosecuted for it after leaving office. Also, I would imagine that any reformers or honest statesmen would have a hard time staying alive since assassination would be a very useful way of removing people. Still, any system without the pretense of progress/perfection would be a welcome improvement from our current situation in my opinion. Remember, there are no final answers in the game of political life, just solutions that create new problems.

    Hurlock Reply:

    “government *is* easy, you really do just find a cool dynasty and put them in charge”


    Should we start posting ads in newspapers then?


    admin Reply:

    (I share this response.)


    Alrenous Reply:

    To be fair, finding a cool dynasty is pretty okay.
    However, to put them in charge means you are already in charge. The power of succession implies every other power. It’s strict neocameralism.

    Tangent: this is why I make a big deal of how science journal editors are chosen. The journal editors can directly choose who gets published. Bureaucrats follow science, by which they mean prestigious papers. Whoever can choose the next editor of Nature, especially if they have fire as well as hire, directly chooses what policies future bureaucrats write into law.

    Aside: note how effectively the byzantine power structure obscures responsibility, without much attenuating the ability to direct. The main disadvantage is the slowness of the process.


    Posted on August 9th, 2014 at 6:15 pm Reply | Quote
  • The Problem of Democracy | Reaction Times Says:

    […] Source: Outside In […]

    Posted on August 9th, 2014 at 8:28 pm Reply | Quote
  • Alrenous Says:

    Macroeconomics is impossible and microeconomics is easy. Microgovernment is hard and should be left to trained and experienced leaders, but macrogovernment is easy.

    Making a car go vroom at all is hard. You can’t just slap some pistons together with a fuel tank. By contrast, making Communism just sort of happens. Many countries have managed to put together single-payer healthcare without fuss. When the Catholic church wanted to break the power of the clans, they did the first thing that came to mind – banning cousin marriages – which happened to be exactly the right thing to do.

    Democracy in macro is created deliberately, precisely because the creators expect the short-circuit to form. The cultural tradition that expects to succeed under these conditions is called Sophistry. All historical outbreaks of democracy follow exposure to Sophistry.

    (Checksum: the more recent outbreaks of democracy and the related Protestantism were criticized on record. The critics have been fundamentally vindicated. Ergo, the criticized could and should have known what would happen, and most likely did. For example, untrained layhumans can’t effectively read the Bible. You get nonsense like young earth creationism out of letting them think they can.)


    Nick B. Steves Reply:

    Nonsense like young earth creationism is a go-to bit of nonsense, but it pales in comparison to some other sola scriptura nonsense.


    Posted on August 10th, 2014 at 12:14 am Reply | Quote
  • Lesser Bull Says:

    I appreciate this very much. NRx for dummies is very clarifying.

    Your critique of democracy suggests a general critique of government.

    Under your critique, there isn’t a general problem with democracy per se. There is a problem with democracy along the time axis. Every thing else being equal, we would expect democratic systems to function fairly well at first and to gradually break down over time. Indeed, I think we see something like this. In the right kind of nation, democratic governance seems to have been pretty decent in the 19th (see Moldbug rhapsodizing about the Victorians, e.g.). We see the process of decay continuiing in our time.

    But no system optimizes perfectly for the results they seek to obtain. We should see the same type of result in other government types over time. The disadvantage of democracy may be that it lives faster, since democratic cycles occur faster than other types of cycles.


    Lesser Bull Reply:

    As much as it pains me to say it, Thomas Jefferson may have been right.

    Government can avoid deterioration (optimization for manipulating the system) only in fairly stagnant conditions, where life drifts on sleepily, and government too. But under conditions of capitalism and technological growth, government must respond to changed conditions, which means it must change, which means it will increasingly optimize for manipulating its system. So TJ was right, you need a new system every so often (he thought every generation, which would be about 4-6 electoral cycles). Good luck getting it.


    Posted on August 10th, 2014 at 1:46 am Reply | Quote
  • Shlomo Maistre Says:


    “On the one hand, government competence in its primary responsibility — efficient governance — is systematically eroded, to be replaced by a facility at propaganda (in a process akin to the accumulation of junk DNA).[…] Lacking feedback from anything but its own experiments in mind-control, quality of government collapses.”

    Yes, but why? I’d propose that recognizing representative government’s inherent time preference is central to understanding why the quality of democratic government erodes systematically (well said) and inevitably collapses.

    A key lever in a man’s inherent quest for worth is the extent to which he acts in a disciplined manner. Worthy (or quality) government is likewise a function of (among other factors) its exercise of discipline, which is basically the degree to which long-term net-benefit is preserved at the opportunity cost of deciding to forgo short-term net-benefit. Democracy formalizes the erosion of the discipline of government – to understand why this must be so one must first recognize what government is.

    Every government is only the collection of individuals who combined possess sovereignty over the exercise of government powers. Government is (inherently) absolute (as Moldbug said “power is conserved”). A democracy is predicated on the principle that government rule is subject to the whims and wishes of its subjects, which is if not comical, certainly impossible.

    If the people actually rule, the government is functionally comprised of everyone, which is a plausible definition of legal anarchy – and thankfully virtually never occurs. If, on the other hand, the people do not actually rule, the government is functionally comprised of those who convince the ruled that they are not ruled. This is Moldbug’s Cathedral – the media, the bureaucracy, the academy.

    In a democracy there are elections – there are “times” at which voters elect politicians to offices. The more frequent are these times, the more heavily does government weigh short-term benefits at the expense of long-term social/national welfare. These elections are superfluous insofar as government propaganda is sufficient in inculcating those beliefs in the people that compensate for any doubts in the minds of the ruled that they are in fact rulers.

    But in any case, democracy chops up the long-term (AKA infinite) time horizon into periods of time (election cycles). Since there is an inherent drawback to long-term net-benefit accrued for mostly any short-term net-benefit, the politicians that most egregiously harm the long-term welfare of the nation are those that tend to deliver the most value to their constituencies at any given election cycle.

    We have answered our question.

    An addendum: the relationship between harming the nation’s long-term welfare and delivering short-term value to voters becomes increasingly reliable AND increasingly pronounced as the franchise expands, which explains:
    1. why any democracy almost never narrows its franchise but almost always eventually expands it
    2. why Moldbug’s Inner Party is always especially devoted to such expansion
    3. why the disorder wrought by democracy typically accelerates


    Anissimov Reply:

    >Shlomo Maistre


    Posted on August 10th, 2014 at 2:28 am Reply | Quote
  • Shlomo Maistre Says:


    “The subsequent question: What could conceivably provide a solution?”

    The short answer is simple and everlasting: submission and belief, which are the ONLY two means by which sovereignty is forged/assured/experienced.

    The long answer, which perhaps implies Moldbug’s admonition to “be worthy” (as per his invocation of tianming), is as follows, as per Joseph de Maistre:

    “The different forms and degrees of sovereignty have given rise to the belief that it is the work of nations which have modified it at will. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every nation has the government suited to it, and none has chosen it. The remarkable thing is that, nearly every time a nation tries to give itself a government, or more accurately every time too great a section of the people set out with such an aim, the attempt works to its misfortune; for in this fatal confusion, it is too easy for a nation to mistake its real interests, to chase desperately after what cannot be suitable for it, and at the same time reject what is best for it: and we all know how harmful errors in this field are. This is what made Tacitus say, with his simple profundity, that “it is much better for a people to accept a sovereign than to seek him.”[Tacitus, History I, 56.]

    Besides, as every exaggerated proposition is false, I by no means intend to deny the possibility of political improvements brought about by a few wise men. I might as well deny the power of moral and physical education to improve men’s morality and physique; but this truth confirms rather than shakes my general argument by proving that human power can create nothing and that everything depends on the original aptitudes of nations and of individuals.

    It follows from this that a free constitution is stable only when the different parts of the political system come into being together and side by side, so to speak. Men never respect what they have made. This is why an elective king never possesses the moral force of a hereditary sovereign because he is not sufficiently noble, that is to say, he does not possess that kind of grandeur independent of men which is the work of time….”


    Posted on August 10th, 2014 at 2:37 am Reply | Quote
  • Lesser Bull Says:

    What would be a better democratic form of feedback? Maybe just a kind of veto power, like with judges and retention elections.


    Peter A. Taylor Reply:

    Back in the 1980s, there was a scheme called a “Clarke tax” that caused a bit of buzz in the field of public choice. It was an attempt to get people to give honest weights to their preferences in a referendum. People lost interest when somebody figured out a way to game it. But the idea was to make people bid real money on how badly they wanted something, and if they “won”, they had to pony up.

    How do you limit government? I like the idea of recall petitions, but I want there to be a price to be paid by the people who support them, like the bets that Bryan Caplan writes about. And then there is the problem of finding a replacement who wasn’t “educated” by the same institutions as the guy you’re trying to get rid of.


    Alrenous Reply:

    I wonder how Hanson thinks futarchy will get around whatever can game a Clark tax.


    Blogospheroid Reply:

    Problem with clarke tax was under bidding on public goods. 10 people desire a public good whose cost is $15. Everyone, even if they secretly valued it at above $1.5, do not have any incentive to actually put up those numbers on their chits, as they end up paying more.


    Peter A. Taylor Reply:

    @Blogospheroid: My understanding of the Clarke tax was that you don’t pay anything unless your bid makes the difference between winning and losing (i.e. your bid was greater than the difference between the “yea” and “nay” votes) so you *do* have an incentive to bid honestly. The way to game the thing is to coordinate a large group of people to overbid. If the referendum wins by a landslide, then no one voter’s bid is large enough to tip the election, and so none of the conspirators have to pay.

    @Lesser Bull: Whether this would be as effective as limited franchise, I don’t know. But it seems less hopeless in terms of political feasibility. If my fairy godmother will give me two wishes, why not both?

    @Alrenous: I saw the Moldbug-Hanson futarchy debate video, but I didn’t understand it very well, especially when David Friedman chimed in. There are definitely conditions under which it can be gamed, but I don’t understand what those conditions are.

    Lesser Bull Reply:

    Maybe the simplest solution is to leave the form of feedback the way it is and just pay some attention to who is giving the feedback. Wouldn’t a simple poll test or poll tax or property qualification improve it more than a radical new voting system?


    Posted on August 10th, 2014 at 3:38 am Reply | Quote
  • Lesser Bull Says:

    Electoral feedback makes less and less sense the bigger the electorate, the more diverse the electorate, and the more complicated the system. The large electorate size means the feedback is increasingly less fine-grained. How do I express, through voting, my dissatisfaction with the national bureacracy’s mandates for my tiny rural water system? If the mandates were from my village, it would be easy. Same issue with system complication–as the system gets harder to understand and any one elected official’s possibilities and responsibilities become more opaque, its get harder to deliver feedback on his performance.

    Diversity of the electorate, on the other hand, means that different voters are evaluating different things, so the feedback is increasingly meaningless.

    We’ve moved from a thorough walk-through inspection of a sailing craft to a rocket ship that we evaluate through one wide-angle photo, the examination of the photo being performed by a combination of near-sighted, far-sighted, and color-blind people.


    Posted on August 10th, 2014 at 12:53 pm Reply | Quote
  • Lesser Bull Says:

    A number of political scientists have electoral models in which the state of the economy is practically the only relevant variable. Which means feedback, no?

    So maybe Moldbug’s model is wrong. Or maybe the political scientists are working on too restricted an economic model. Or maybe economic economic statistics are manipulated to get the desired results.

    But another possibility is that the Moldbug analysis is right. Assume that the political class at any given time has already optimized for opinion manufacture and manipulation. Assume also that the various electoral factions will be centered around the pole that this process of opinion manufacture and manipulation has defined. In that case, you would expect that actual elections would be based on something else, perhaps the state of the economy, but only because all political factions are focused like a laser on opinion manufacture. If one of those factions focused instead on the economy, they would then consistently lose and election results would no longer track the economy. Also, election results would temporarily cease to track the economy when significant advances were made in opinion manufacture, as in the 2012 Obama campaign.


    admin Reply:

    That point is important enough for a whole post (or several). My immediate response, however, is to subsume it under the generalizing Cathedral machinery. There was a time when economic data might have meant something, but that age is past. The Cathedral has its own economic ‘reality’ now, based on manipulable macroeconomic ‘facts’ and credit-based postponement mechanisms that allow real consequences to be pushed out beyond the time-scale of political significance. Only a radical reality shock — in the form of a massive, unmanageable economic implosion — is able to break through the bubble of magical Keynesian mind-control. The ‘state of the economy’ is what the Cathedral tells us it is.

    So while I take the point, I also don’t take it.


    Was Enlightened Reply:

    “A number of political scientists have electoral models in which the state of the economy is practically the only relevant variable. Which means feedback, no?”

    Since elected officials have little influence over the permanent bureaucracy, not really.

    One point which I have not seen made before: It is in the Outer Party’s interest for government to be run badly; it is in the Outer Party’s interest for government to be run by an arrogant elite. Because then the Outer Party can point to the failures and the left-wing craziness and say “See! This is why you should vote for us!”


    Lesser Bull Reply:

    Potemkin democracy is not a bad answer, but it subverts Admin’s argument that democracy itself is a bad form of feedback.


    Posted on August 10th, 2014 at 1:05 pm Reply | Quote
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