January 03, 2009

Small Government Philosphy I

In all the noise over where conservatism, especially small government conservatism, should go in the future a little retrospective why small governments work might just be in order.

The idea of running a polity with a small government is all about recognizing a few facts. Humans aren't perfect. They aren't perfectible. Humans work best when they have well developed feedback loops. Voluntary institutions have the best feedback loops. Coercive institutions have the poorest feedback loops. Government is a coercive institution. To date we haven't figured out how to run everything with voluntary institutions.

These facts lead to the inescapable conclusion that all things being equal, a small government society will work better than a large government society, the smaller the better, until we've hit the limits of our present ingenuity and civilizational level to run things.

It is a very good bet that a durable majority of voters will fundamentally agree with these facts. There will be disagreement as to how far we can go down the path of private institutions solving problems but most people do believe in that intellectual framework.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:12 PM

February 01, 2008

Panic on the Right

When the generals start getting restless, they do things like this preemptive nuclear strike proposal. But why are the generals getting restless all over NATO? Amerca's Gen. Shalikashvili, Germany's Gen. Naumann, the UK's Field Marshall Inge, the Netherland's Gen van den Breemen, and France's Admiral Jacques Lanxade are all serious military players of varying politics. These are not brash, unthinking chest beaters. What possessed them to intervene in this manner and damage their societies' moral standing in the world (and thus their vaunted 'soft power') by proposing an updated, in your face, first strike policy, coupled with a much more active NATO and explicitly decoupling military action from the UN?

I can see no other explanation than a profound, international vote of no-confidence in the political class of the West by heavily experienced military minds that live, breathe, eat, and sleep the problem of defending us all from violent threats to our liberties and very existence. I am not even sure that the presentation of the plan in Bucharest in April is coincidence. After all, Romania is a very good example of how even dead broke powers with unstable, highly repressive regimes can extract uranium and enrich it while nobody takes the threat seriously. Had Ceausescu managed his internal repression better, Romania would be a balkans "hedgehog" today similar to the Swiss except with nuclear armed Scuds and a sociopath's hand on the button. Romania's Ceausescu era relations with North Korea were always very good. They also had friends across the muslim world.

The 'peace faction' that does not look beyond its own nose will be shocked, outraged, and redouble its efforts to neuter the military so it cannot be used. It's as if they have never heard of feedback loops or their own part in this very pernicious one. Spelling it out explicitly, the peace factions have neutered the political process so even vigorous peaceful competition is impossible. After all, to draw a caricature of Mohammad, write an insensitive book, or film a blaspheming movie draw death sentences from which we have little practical defense. The best we can do is a sort of life-long semi-imprisonment, insecure in our lives and our possessions, never knowing when the knife will fall.

The "peace faction" ensures that persistent, responding, violent escalations cannot happen so we end up implicitly enslaved because, in the real world, others are willing to persistently bring to bear more violence than we are. We shrink from exercising our freedoms because of justifiable fear. And thus we lose them in a practical matter because the muslims (and in their success they will draw imitators) are willing to tolerate periodic violent episodes that spasmodically, ineffectively lash out at them more as a sop to western domestic factions that demand "a response" because a durable majority in so many Western countries has shrunk back from the military buildup necessary to generate "a solution".

The only thing that is left in modern Western political discourse is to make the spasmodic response so terrible, so violent, that in that short political window when the West permits itself to respond at all will annihilate our enemies and form a sort of "solution" after all. And thus the general staff rebellion in the making.

What the general staffs across the West see is the death of Western supremacy of violence. Hillaire Beloc probably put it best when he described that superiority in the time when machine guns ruled the battlefield.

"Whatever happens we have got,
The Maxim gun, and they have not".

Since then (and frankly for some time before), we've always had the best military toys. But that technological line ended with the invention of the nuclear weapon. Once you can destroy the planet, where else is there to go in terms of outright destructiveness? We're trying to continue to improve by enhancing the precision of our violence but in the face of a force that wants terror, imprecision is a feature, not a bug.

Nuclear technology is proliferating and those who want to turn to bombs will eventually get them because useful technology only proliferates in one basic way. The smart people among the chattering classes already understand this but it is not generally understood and does not inform our political discourse across all parties.

The analysis of proliferating technology doesn't change whether its internet connectivity or nuclear weapons. All technology progresses in 'S curves'. All technology has societal influences that shift the S curve to the left or right in time and distort the shape into different styles of S. Sometimes a government will attempt to regulate or even eliminate a technology but it rarely works over the long haul and never works without serious consequences with one exception. There is only one way for it to work in the end, for an even better substitute technology to emerge, drawing away all desire for further innovation in the earlier technology. The crossbow is stagnant technology because of the emergence of the gun, not because of the papal ban on it. In the case of nuclear weapons, that solution is no solution.

The ultimate expression of widespread adoption is in the super-empowered individual. If you have a solution for him, you can apply that solution to disfavored nations whose rulers are evil or crazy as well as the intermediate problem of sub-national groups seeking nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad and Osama Bin Laden are, as the saying goes "lesser includeds".

There is no solution for the problems of super-empowered individuals but to remove the matrix of disinterested, powerless innocents within which they hide. One can remove them via brute force, as this first strike military plan envisions removing Iran from this world, free the people in the matrix from the conditions that keep them powerless and foster their civic interest as Petreus' COIN warriors are doing, or connect them with economic, political, and societal global rulesets as Dr. Barnett envisions. What you cannot do is hide behind high walls and deep oceans as the nostalgic isolationists such as Pat Buchanen want. The walls are too easily pierced and the oceans too easily crossed, technology has seen to that.

A danger is that the isolationists will figure that out and move towards preemptive nuclear strikes as their fallback position in an unthinking panic. The corollary to the "high walls and deep oceans" school has always been large strikes from behind our walls and oceans if we are too inconvenienced by events "over there". The generals will be there waiting for them, with their first strike plans drawn up and well gamed out.

And the Earth would burn.

HT Belmont Club.

Posted by TMLutas at 07:44 AM

January 19, 2008

Citizen's War Duty

The Left complains that we don't sacrifice for this war. In a sense, that's a fair complaint, but only in a sense. As citizens and residents, what are civilians actually supposed to do?

The answer isn't just to sign up for the infantry. If the government wanted more trigger pullers, it could get them simply by raising the limits or innovating inside the current limits to improve the "tooth to tail" ratio. Yet the duty remains. People are dying for us every day. We need to keep faith with them but, in general, we don't know how. So what are we supposed to do about it?

The first answer is to simply not lose your head. Panic among civilians, especially voters, is the absolute worst thing to do. It is the one reasonable pathway to success for our enemies that doesn't have "and then there is a miracle" somewhere along the critical path. Panic is not reasoned. It is never productive. It is the worst sort of betrayal because it is an internal, and unforced, error. Citizen panic comes in both right and left forms so let's not imagine one political camp alone has a problem. Panicking into "make the rubble bounce" when it's uncalled for is as bad for the next generation as "cut and run" when we could have won.

Panic is very often a product of ignorance. We live in an information age yet we tolerate massive ignorance of our enemies, their weaknesses, how we can exploit them both professionally in our military and diplomatic action as well as using mass citizen action. If your news sources haven't told you about how mickey mouse Iran's economy and government are, or how much trouble even a mickey mouse government can cause, you're making yourself susceptible to panic. That's not keeping faith with those making direct sacrifices for this war of which Iraq is a mere campaign.

The ultimate expression of not panicking is to cast a good, well informed vote in every election so that those making direct sacrifices have decent backup in the elected political class. That doesn't just mean DC, but everywhere down to local town councilmen supporting returning veterans.

I don't think that not panicking, while necessary, is sufficient. But it's a good start, and for many, we're not even doing that.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:34 PM

May 19, 2007

Conservation as Barbarism

As part of my tech reading I go through Good Morning Silicon Valley regularly. Today, I was jolted by this interview pull:

I personally think that SETI is looking in the wrong direction. If, for example, we’re walking down a country road and we see an anthill, do we go down to the ant and say, “I bring you trinkets, I bring you beads, I bring you knowledge, I bring you medicine, I bring you nuclear technology, take me to your leader”? Or, do we simply step on them? Any civilization capable of reaching the planet Earth would be perhaps a Type III civilization. And the difference between you and the ant is comparable to the distance between you and a Type III civilization. Therefore, for the most part, a Type III civilization would operate with a completely different agenda and message than our civilization.

My first question was what is a Type III civilization, which quickly brought me to the Kardashev scale, a common measure of technological advancement where the metric is raw energy use. The more you use, the more civilized you are.

As soon as I got to Carl Sagan's contribution of fractional values (he calculated Earth as a 0.7 type) it struck me that in this framework, energy conservation is a priori defined as a retrograde action. The more energy you save, the less you use and thus the lower you drive your Kardashev scale value, thus conservation is barbarism. I think it's kind of catchy.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:27 PM

September 20, 2003

A Difficult Position

As a secondary blogger on Flit, there are some real limitations that good sense and common decency impose on my position here. One is the obligation, as a guest, not to nitpick over minor points. The generous gesture that Bruce Rolston has made of including my writings on his forum and exposing me to a much wider audience than I would have been able to scare up otherwise in such a short time gets him a great deal of slack in my book and he has liberally made use of it during our collaboration.

However, there are limits.

First, something that we agree on. Jonah Goldberg is something of a twit. Anybody who makes regular usage of his couch and his dog as column fodder (with both playing speaking parts) cannot avoid it, really. However, he isn't wrong about fascism being socialism in one country. The terms Nazi and fascists are, for all intents and purposes synonyms and Nazi is a contraction of the term "national socialist", a socialist who believes in one country, or nation. The basic point is unassailable when looking at the original term.

As for National Review, it is a contender for the world's most consequential political magazine of the latter half of the 20th century. It is hands down the most consequential political magazine in the US for that time period. Since 1955, it's been advocating a particular form of conservatism that they have always termed fusionism, the coalition of social conservatives and economic free market types with a sprinkling of libertarianism for leavening. It is certainly not bumper sticker conservatism but a highly influential magazine read by US conservatives (including conservative intellectuals) that has literally changed the face of this political movement from one that is in disarray to arguably the dominant force in US politics today.

Sometimes revisionism cleans out the spin and propaganda of the original advocates of an idea. At other times, a clear understanding of an event or a movement is obfuscated by later apologists and returning to the start of it all is essential for the hunt for truth. The fascists were quite clear about who and what they were and who were their progenitors, allies, imitators, and descendants. It may be highly uncomfortable for advocates of the arab Middle East that Hitler's book Mein Kampf does brisk sales all across the region but its something that should not be swept under the rug if we are to have a reliable understanding of the region.

Now the modern usage of certain terms has often descended into just a bad word, something to toss around as an insult. For another example of definitional descension, who really thinks much about the phrase "your name is mud" which is a corruption of the original "your name is Mudd", a term of insult born out of the US Civil War when John Wilkes Booth was treated by Dr. Mudd after he assassinated Lincoln. Like this phrase, it makes no sense to seriously look at a definition of fascism except by starting with the root, original meaning.

Fascism as a human rights system, is an ordering of people by rank with varying rights based on their race or nationality. In economics, it is public control of the means of production while maintaining a virtually meaningless formal private title and has no internationalist impulse. As politics it is dictatorship and thought control, virtually indistinguishable from its international socialist half brothers.

Personally, I have been the subject of cries of 'fascist', 'nazi', when any reasonable reading of my politics is libertarian and my fate in any true fascist regime would be a quick trip to the camps fairly early on. Thus, the revisionist movement is particularly loathsome to me personally. And, yes, the NYT article furthers the revisionist cause.

From the original NYT article:

"Other characteristics on most scholars' checklists: the rejection of both liberalism and socialism; the primacy of the nation over the rights of the individual; the demonization of the nation's enemies; the elimination of dissent and the creation of a single-party state; the dominant role of a charismatic leader; the appeal to emotion and myth rather than reason; the glorification of violence on behalf of a national cause; the mobilization and militarization of civil society; an expansionist foreign policy intended to promote national greatness."

The false revisionism occurs in omitting the word internationalist from fascist's rejection of socialism. It's international socialism that they reject, not socialism. The problem is the internationalism that corrodes the bonds of the people or the race, not any love for private property or economic freedom which all fascist governments have decried as liberalism (another piece of murky reporting when European liberalism in a US context is more accurately called libertarianism). The labeling of free market advocates as fascists is just Orwellian. Most outspoken US conservatives and libertarians have had it happen to them personally and there is something of a justified sensitivity over it.

Posted by TMLutas at 03:36 PM

August 29, 2003

Aristotle's Master Arts

Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics has an interesting concept that arts (in modern terms both arts and sciences) have master arts above them which control them. The art of creating oil based pigments is controlled by the art of painting for example. Above them all is the art of politics, the ultimate master art which can control all other arts.

The City Comforts blog brings up this point with an interesting dilemma. Is the new urbanism architecture or urban planning? There are good arguments to be made for both but it's clear to me that whatever new urbanism should be characterized as, it is an expression of a master art to both and thus controls both.

This, unfortunately, still leaves the dilemma of what actually is this master art but hopefully will get them past the idea of arguing that it's fish or fowl when in reality it is neither.

Posted by TMLutas at 11:03 AM