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Dialogue on Democracy, Part 10

A. Changing the size of our political units? [1] Is that really possible? Surely any serious reduction of the scope of the modern nation-state is a pipe dream.

B. Well, we’re both dreaming here, aren’t we? It’s not as though there’s any real chance of your creating a class of specially educated technocrats to rule the world. We’re both speaking in ideal terms, and neither of us has any real plan for bringing our hopes to realization.

A. Maybe — but since our world is already effectively ruled by technocrats, my model, of having it ruled by the right technocrats, a genuine neo-aristocracy, has a good deal more practical plausibility than any distributist fantasy.

B. The similarity between your ideal and the current reality is not a feature, it’s a bug. That’s what I meant last time when I said that your position is less a radical alternative to democracy than a mere CMS (Capitalism Management Strategy). My ideal can be pursued with less danger to the common good than yours can. Every step towards devolution, however small, is a step in the right direction. But I don’t think you can create a new aristocracy without first implementing a structure that will strengthen the old one — which will make the rule of our current idiocracy stronger. You would leave so much of the old system firmly in place that a successful replacement of the current social hierarchy by the one Moldbug et al. want would simply mean a repetition of the scene at the end of Animal Farm: “They looked from man to pig, and from pig to man, but already it was impossible to tell which was which.”

And don’t we already see the truth of this if we just look at the absorption of Silicon Valley radicals into the power elite? A plutocrat in a t-shirt and sneakers is a plutocrat all the same.

A. I don’t think —

B. Hang on, hang on — sorry, please bear with me. We’re on a tangent here, and I need to finish the argument I started last time, before I forget what I was saying. I said earlier that I had two critiques of the current model, and I haven’t gotten to the second one yet. My first critique, you may recall, is that I don’t think international capitalism can be effectively ruled by anyone, no matter how perfectly educated, because it operates at a transhuman scale. The second … well, I was put in mind of it by some of the things Kevin Williamson has been writing lately about “failed communities [2]:

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

This is a recurrent theme for Williamson. Last year he wrote [3], “Some towns are better off dead…. My own experience in Appalachia and the South Bronx suggests that the best thing that people trapped in poverty in these undercapitalized and dysfunctional communities could do is — move. Get the hell out of Dodge, or Eastern Kentucky, or the Bronx.”

A. My guess is that the answer a lot of those people would give Williamson is “I would if I could.” People with no jobs and no credit can’t rent a U-Haul; and even if they could, where would they unload it? You can’t get an apartment without a job and some credit, either.

B. I think that’s right, but I want to look at something a little deeper.

A. Oh, excuse me for being so shallow.

B. Certainly. But what I mean by “deeper” is, something Williamson doesn’t openly acknowledge. Some years ago now the economist Richard Thaler [4] made a distinction I think very useful, between Econs and Humans. Econs are the “rational agents” of rational choice theory, who always make decisions based on dispassionate calculation “expected utility” and suchlike criteria. Humans are the rest of us.

Thaler (along with his sometime collaborator Daniel Kahneman) suspects that the Econ is a fictitious species, but Kevin Williamson, at least in these articles about “dysfunctional, downscale communities,” sure sounds like one. For him economic calculations seem to be the only ones, and if you raise any other considerations he just calls you “sentimental.” That someone might stay in an economically failing town because he loves it, or because his mother lives there, evidently strikes Williamson as rationally indefensible behavior.

I think such an assumption, if Williamson really holds it, is based on a pretty impoverished notion of what counts as “rational.” And I think your system does too. Maximizing expected utility is not how to live the good life. I mean, you know this, we all know this. We need a social and political system that doesn’t elevate economic considerations above all others — and doesn’t confine “economic” to matters involving money alone. There’s such a thing as human flourishing, eudaimonia, that cannot be measured in monetary terms.

A. Easy for you to say.