Home/Alan Jacobs/Dialogue on Democracy, Part 3

Dialogue on Democracy, Part 3

"The Conversation" Paramount Pictures

(The previous installment of this dialogue may be found here; the first installment here.)

A. There’s nothing to be afraid of — but yes (since you’re wondering) my conviction that democracy is a failed experiment does stem, in part, from my reading of the neoreactionaries, especially Moldbug. But I’m not with him all the way — for instance, as you can tell from my earlier comments, I have a good deal more respect for the U. S. Constitution than does Moldbug, who has commented, “The basic nature of constitutional government is the formalization of power, and democracy is the formalization of mob violence.” Nah. But in many other respects his diagnosis of where we’ve gone awry is spot on.

B. Is it? I don’t think so. In fact, hearing that your thoughts have been shaped by Moldbug’s does more to discredit them than anything else you’ve said.

A. Why? Moldbug is a very smart guy — he’s just saying the kinds of things that most people are afraid to say.

B. Maybe. And sure, he’s smart. But he’s not especially knowledgable about things he needs to be knowledgable about in order to offer a compelling alternative to the existing political order. For instance, in one of his most-read posts he writes, “Thomas Aquinas derived Catholicism from pure reason. John Rawls derived progressivism from pure reason. At least one of them must have made a mistake. Maybe they both did” — which is absolutely nonsensical. He has no idea what he means by “Catholicism,” “progressivism,” “pure reason,” or “derived.” He has no idea what either Aquinas or Rawls would have made of those terms, or why they would have described their projects in wholly different ways. I distrust Moldbug because Moldbug clearly doesn’t understand — does not have even a minimally competent, first-year-undergrad comprehension of — many of the positions he rejects.

A. All right, so let’s grant, per argumentum, that Moldbug is not an expert in the history of political philosophy. But he doesn’t have to be in order to present a coherent and useful vision of a new direction in which we can go — a new direction I think you’ll agree we very much need.

B. A new direction, I’m not so sure; but a different direction, yes. Anyway, please remember that I’m not asking Moldbug to be an expert, but I do think he needs to have at least a basic understanding of the views he’s rejecting — precisely because he’s grounding the need for his ideas is the conviction that those other ideas are wrong. However, his acquaintance with those ideas is too superficial, and he’s too incurious about what Aquinas and Rawls really think, for me to take seriously his claim that he can offer a compelling alternative.

A. I don’t think that follows — you’re placing too much emphasis on the need to understand some pre-existing tradition of political thought. You’re trying to hold Moldbug accountable to the very system he’s repudiating: you’re rejecting the red pill because it’s not the blue one.

But in any case, let’s not belabor this question. I still have an argument I want to make.

B. Fair enough — as long as I get a chance to make an argument of my own before we’re too old to care.

A. Of course! But now I want to get back to this notion of — as you divined — aristocracy. The word means “rule by the excellent,” or the “best,” and the primary reason people dislike it is that they know that aristocracy never lives up to its name: it is never rule by the most excellent, but by the rich and powerful who in order to justify their rule designate themselves as excellent. That’s why it’s so absurd when people try to overcome resistance by replacing “aristocracy” with “meritocracy” — the words are synonyms, and “merit” can be faked and then justified as easily as can any other claim to excellence. By meritocracy people usually mean “rule by those who have been academic high achievers” as opposed to the popular use of aristocracy to mean “rule by those of high social status” — but given the enormously strong correlation between social status and academic performance, this is a distinction virtually without a difference.

B. So anyone, like you, who wants to make a case for aristocracy/meritocracy in preference to democracy has one big job at the outset: to show how it’s possible for a society to produce genuine aristoi — and put them in charge.

A. Exactly.

B. But even if you do that, you won’t have proved that such an aristocracy would be superior to democracy.

A. Sure. But one thing at a time. And don’t forget, if rule by the aristoi can be a fiction, rule by the demos can be too.

B. No doubt.

A. Okay, so back to work. I think the model we want to consider — though perhaps not to imitate slavishly — is imperial China’s examination system.

(to be continued…)

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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