Voter Power

In my previous post, I wrote

. It is not controlled by the electorate, but neither is it independent of the electorate. The effect of the electorate’s limited power of choice is not catastrophe, but the slow expansion of the bureaucracy into every area of life, along with a slow decline of effectiveness in everything it does.

That probably needs to be explained more carefully. I’ve talked about the three-way game between civil servants, politicians and voters before, but there’s a lot more that can be said. It’s easy to argue in terms of “Democracy means the people control the government” or “Our democracy is fake”, but the truth is more complex.

To a first approximation, democracy in Britain is fake. The real power lies with the civil service, who have to reach a compromise with other powerful interests in the media, other industry, the universities.

They also have to deal with the politicians who are nominally in charge of them, and who themselves are answerable to the electorate. In theory this is what gives the voters the power.

The politicians want to satisfy the voters by doing popular things, but that only works for them if they can appear successful. If the permanent establishment wants one thing, and the voters want another, the politician will do better in elections by following the wishes of the establishment than by following the wishes of the voters. Because if they do what the voters want, the establishment can make them look bad – everything that goes wrong (and lots of things always go wrong) will look like the politician’s fault if the government is following a policy which the establishment opposes.

What it amounts to is that the fact that politicians are elected is an essential part of the system, which would be very different without it, but that its effect is not to take power away from the permanent establishment to any large degree. The voters have no fine control over policy, but within the permanent establishment (which obviously itself contains factions and differences of opinion) policies which have more appeal to voters will always have a slight advantage over policies which have less.

On this very coarse level, what most clearly gains votes is the expansion of the clients of the state – those on benefits or those in government employment. An establishment policy which cuts government employment will be one which politicians will be able to resist, one which adds them will be very hard to resist. Detailed arguments about economics or technicalities are insignificant in electoral terms compared to that – because the context in which they are presented to the voters is set by the civil service and media.

Two Kinds of Democracy

Arguing against democracy can get confusing because democracy exists in two very different forms.

What we have in Western Europe and America I call “Old Democracy”. It has parties and regular elections, which are carried out fairly, and it also has powerful non-party institutions of civil service, law and media which stabilise the whole edifice. These powerful institutions get their power mostly from tradition – from the fact that they have had power for a long time and are widely respected as such.

These systems of government are very different from those created by a pro-democratic revolution or a pro-democratic invasion. Those normally produce “Young Democracy”, in which power is concentrated in elected institutions.

One cannot argue for or against democracy without distinguishing these two forms. Their merits and faults are quite different.

Old Democracy is the system of which it is tiresomely said, that it is the worst form of government ever tried, except for all the others. The claim is irritating but more than plausible – the most successful governments of the last hundred years, leaving aside a few city-state tax havens, have been of this kind.

Young Democracy, on the other hand, is what Old Democracy purports to be. The voters can vote for what they want, and they get it. Any theoretical, rather than empirical, defence of democracy applies to Young Democracy, not Old Democracy.

Young Democracy, however, is highly unstable. If the people can vote for what they want, then before long they will vote for “Strong Government” which will put an end to free, fair elections. The best case for a Young Democracy is that the unelected institutions solidify power and it becomes an Old Democracy before that happens.

The faults of Old Democracy are more subtle. It is not controlled by the electorate, but neither is it independent of the electorate. The effect of the electorate’s limited power of choice is not catastrophe, but the slow expansion of the bureaucracy into every area of life, along with a slow decline of effectiveness in everything it does.

The endpoint of Old Democracy is the utter bankruptcy of the state and its collapse under the weight of its ineffective functions. I don’t think that has ever happened in the West – economic growth has kept up with the growing cost of government – but I would expect it to look something like the end of the Soviet Union. which I do not classify as an “Old Democracy”, but which in its late stages shared many of the characteristics of a very old Democracy.

Alternatively, it might not be coincidence that economic growth and the expansion of the state keep pace with each other. It may be that Old Democracy exercises just as much waste as the economy can afford. The growth of the state is not an inevitable process of Old Democracy per se, it is its inevitable response to economic growth. Old Democracy would therefore be stable in the long run.

The virtue of Old Democracy is its stability. I have made the case before. While Mencius Moldbug may have come up with something better, he has yet to describe how it could come about, and my own suggested path to non-democratic government is no more than a sketch.

Supporters of Democracy are able to switch between the two forms as it suits them. Thus a commenter at UR was able to say

You like to offer up weak, fledgling democracies that collapse into dictatorships as arguments against democracies, but really they’re just arguments for creating democracies that can stand up to the overly ambitious sociopath and his cronies.

But a democracy that can stand up to its new leader is one that can stand up to the voters – i.e. an Old Democracy. The implication that it is voter power which protects democracy from tipping into totalitarianism is the opposite of the truth.

I must admit finally that the labels “Old Democracy” and “Young Democracy” are not ideal. Not every Old Democracy was previously a Young Democracy – the non-elected institutions in Britain are older than the mass suffrage, and I’m curious about the history of post-war Germany. And Old Democracy is only one possible outcome of Young Democracy – the Old’s link with the Young is more a matter of its own propaganda than a natural one.

Hierarchy of security needs

Mencius Moldbug’s latest has a real gem where he talks about the political needs of a society as a hierarchy of needs parallel to Maslow’s psychological hierarchy of needs.

there are four levels of sovereign security. These are peace, order, law, and freedom. Once you have each one, you can work on the next. But it makes no sense to speak of order without peace, law without order, or freedom without law.

His claim is an essential tool for understand how I can whinge about ID cards and yet make allowances for brutal policing in China or Iran.To analyse the reasons behind the hierarchy, the first need is peace, and the second order. Order is valuable, but if an enemy is present, the inhabitants must use violence against the enemy. If inhabitants are using violence, you do not have order. Therefore, peace must come before order.If you have peace, you can then impose order, and stop inhabitants using violence within the realm. We also desire law, meaning that by following some published laws, I can be assured I will not be the subject of violence from or approved by the state. But if violence is not controlled between inhabitants, then safety from the state is of little value. The state has to first reduce violence between inhabitants to a low level before we can get benefit from the state following law.Once we have law, there is then value in freedom. Freedom means that the state will not restrain me from doing things I want to do, to the greatest extent practical. I cannot have any freedom if I do not know what the state will and will not punish, so law is a prerequisite to freedom.Therefore, the hierarchy is : peace, order, law, freedom.I want to live under a good government, and a good government is one which will provide freedom. But I cannot have freedom unless there is law, there cannot be law unless there is order, and there cannot be order unless there is peace.We have order where I live, and mostly we have law. I would like more freedom than we actually have, and I think it is entirely practical to allow more freedom without compromising the more basic social needs of order and law.In China, there is order and they are working on law. There is much less freedom than in Britain even under New Labour, but allowing freedom to political rivals is almost sure to wipe out law and severely reduce order. We can see that order has broken down in part of China just recently.The hierarchy of needs also explains some of my differences with Mencius. We could do with a little more order and law around here, but we have enough to support freedom. Mencius gives the impression that in his area, at least, order has broken down. Now, I don’t live in the leafy, peaceful suburb where my mother went to school, my grandfather used to play bowls, and I used to play in the park when I visited, and where the Shine My Nine gang now kills those who encroach on its women. But then, I live in Luton, which isn’t exactly cut off from the problems of the rest of Britain. And yet in my view we have at least the necessary minimum of order. I would like more, but I don’t think we have to abandon law and freedom to get it.(Is it not possible to have order without the state, some will ask? I think not, though that’s another discussion).

What Ecclestone should have said

In Britain, if we want a government that was not entirely dependent on actively managing interest groups to hang on to power, either with elections or without (and I do want just that), there is only one conceivable alternative basis that the government could rely on for authority and legitimacy. That is of course the monarchy. And while a genuine restoration of monarchy is just conceivable, it is a very long way from being likely.
The advantage of monarchy is that the ruler does not normally face a rival who holds an equal right to rule. That makes him the opposite of a modern dictator who rules because the army followed him, and will be deposed by the next person who can get the army to follow him instead. Her Majesty, for all her strengths, is I fear a little past the stage of being able to lead a counter-revolution. She could of course serve as a figurehead, but that would not fill the need for a stable government that could concentrate on governing well rather than retaining power. The shogun with real power would have rivals who were his nominal equals, and struggles among them would dominate government just as her nominal subordinates do today in Whitehall.No, we need a ruler with real personal power, who cannot be replaced by a rival with equal legitimacy. If the current sovereign is too old, we must wait for her successor. Unfortunately, the idea of the Prince of Wales assuming personal power as an autocrat comes over as somewhat ludicrous. Even if I am misjudging him, and he does have the inclination and competence to rule, it seems far-fetched that he could command the organs of state to support him.As an aside, I might seem to be contradicting myself here – my point is that we need a ruler not responsible to popular opinion, yet I am ruling out King Charles III on the ground that the army etc. will not wear it. However, the value of a monarchy is that once established, its legitimacy is inherent and not dependent on external opinion polls or power struggles. To go from a failed democracy to a monarchy nevertheless will necessarily entail a power struggle of some kind – the first monarch will have a harder job than his successors.Leaving Charles aside, then we look at the next generation. There, possibly through mere ignorance of their actual nature, we have grounds for hope. The long-cherished links between the Royal Family and the military are much stronger than Charles managed, the young men show admirable willingness to defy popular and fashionable opinion, and not in the direction of exotic mysticism or deep environmentalism either. The next decade will very likely crush my hopes, but based on what we know now it remains at least conceivable that in the kind of degringolade which hangs over this century, an emergency seizing of power in royal hands could be the response to one disaster or another.It is a long shot, but it is more imaginable than any other route to non-political government that I can think of.Of course, monarchy does not eliminate all the problems of politics. The fact that the monarch has an extra legitimacy from who he is gives him a head start in holding off rivals who cannot duplicate his every other asset, but there is a level of political lead which will overcome that advantage. The King therefore needs to do expend that much less effort on security. That itself makes his government more pleasant than a dictator’s would be, which reinforces both his own position and the legitimacy of monarchy as a concept. But if he is unwise, he will fall as many past monarchs have.Not that the monarch needs to be exceptional. His absolute power over government does not mean he has to make every decision. He merely has to hire expert managers. The essential feature is that the hired manager is not a public figure, and does not command any legitimacy of his own – he can be fired at will by the monarch. The King must take care that the manager is doing well, but that is a far easier job than the management itself.There are also the other difficulties inherent in monarchy, which arise when the succession is unclear, or when the rightful monarch is incapacitated. It would take a new Wars of the Roses, though, to bring the quality of royal government down to the level of recent Prime Ministers.

Bernie Ecclestone on Government

Apparently Bernie Ecclestone, on being accused of a dictatorial approach to his business, made the reasonable point that democracy isn’t as good as it’s cracked up to be, and followed with a rather ill-considered defence of Hitler.
I suspect the comments were off the top of his head, as they show signs of not having been thought through. Politicians are too worried about elections, it is true, but modern dictators generally come to power on the same basis of mass support as democratic politicians, and hold on to power by maintaining mass support. Ecclestone acknowledged that, even going much further than I would in claiming that Hitler had been “pushed to do things he didn’t want to do”, but he didn’t draw the relevant conclusions about the similar natures of populist dictatorships and democracies.I think the difference between a democratic leader and a dictator is not so much whether elections are held, as whether the normal expectation of the society is that the leader will remain in power. If that is the norm, such that opposition is unrespectable, then elections can be held and even be reasonably fair, but the government will still be considered a dictatorship. I would put Putin, for instance, somewhere in that category.Ecclestone said that Max Moseley would make a competent dictator for Britain, based on his experience of working with him. That may be true, but a struggle for political power does not in general promote competent managers such as Ecclestone assures us Mosely is. It promotes the likes of Hitler, who I suspect would have done a poor job of managing a motor racing competition. A dictator Moseley would have to spend all his attention and skills on hanging onto power, and would not be able to manage the country like a profitable entertainment business. Politics is the problem, and a dictatorship is not an alternative to politics. It is merely a rearrangement of who the ruler has to do politics with. Because the dictator can be deposed by a rival at any time, he does not even have the secure truce period of a democrat’s term of office. Every year is election year. This is one reason why dictators tend to be even more tyrannical than democratic governments.This is also the reason why attempting to make government better by making it more responsive to the population only makes things worse. The contradictions show through in every attempt at reform, such as have been put forward by Douglas Carswell. Yes, politicians would be more accountable if they could be recalled. That would indeed be more democratic. And if every year was election year, would government be better, or worse? The opposing forces of democratic ideology and realism result in an equilibrium, which is as much democracy as we can get without producing government so drastically bad that people start to realise that democracy is the problem, not the solution. And switching to a new Moselyism would cause just the same problems as would “fixing” the undemocratic elements of the status quo.

Secrets and non-secrets

Very silly story in the Mail – shock, horror, the head of MI6’s wife is on facebook!

There’s very little revealed in the story that wasn’t in the press-release-driven reports when his appointment was announced.

The head of MI6 is not a secret agent. He is a government administrator.

Secrecy used to surround the intelligence service, but that’s not because it was intelligence, it was because the British government was secretive about everything. There was a move to more openness under the Major government, and the government is now genuinely slightly more open than before.


You say “Military Coup” like it’s a bad thing.

The constitution of Honduras has an article 239 which specifically prohibits not only the reelection of a president, but also proposing to reform it. It’s a neat idea – remember I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Thomas Paine had recommended something along the same lines with respect to monetary policy.

President Zelaya proposed a referendum to overrule (without legal justification) this article of the constitution, and was told by the Supreme Court that he couldn’t. He then had the ballots printed abroad and attempted to carry out the referendum illegally, and, after votes by both the Congress and the Supreme Court, the army was ordered to arrest him. Which they did.

Hat tip to Half Sigma, whose line is that this is no coup, but a simple exercise of law.

Assuming ½σ has the legalities straight (since Honduran constitutional law is one of those odd gaps in my knowledge) I would still say that whether this is a coup is merely a question of definition. The question matters to many people because they have an unjustified prejudice against military coups. I’ve been thinking sympathetically about the concept of the army removing the government for a while, so the idea that a coup might be legal strikes me not as a paradox but as a ray of sunshine – if nothing else, it allows me to post some of my thinking about the future of Britain without being a terrorist.

The advantage of a definition of coup that ignores the legality is that it allows me to describe what happened even in situations, like this one, where I don’t know what the law precisely is. There has been a military coup in Honduras, which I think was probably a legal one. There, isn’t that an efficient description of the situation?

The thing about constitutional legalities, as I suggested in my recent post on Iran, is that they never ultimately matter because there’s no forum where they can reliably be resolved, the competent court always being in effect one player in the political game. Some of the participants may be influenced by their perception of the legal situation, but that’s the only importance of law.

The court made the legal decision to have the president arrested, then the army made the political decision to obey the court rather than the president.

As I said in a comment at UR, For law to be preserved, law and government have to be two different things. If the law overrules the government, then it is not law, it is government. If the government can decide what the law is, then similarly, it is not law but government.