Home/Alan Jacobs/Dialogue on Democracy, Part 9

Dialogue on Democracy, Part 9

G. K. Chesterton fixing the broken world, via Wikimedia Commons

Previous installment here.

A. Subsidiarity? At this stage of the game?

B.Especially at this stage of the game.

A. I suppose next you’ll be advocating distributism.

B. And why not?

A. I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation. Say what you will about my neoaristocracy, dude, at least it’s an ethos calibrated to the world we actually live in.

B. That, in a nutshell, is my problem with it. You think of it as a radical alternative to democracy, but I see it as little more than a CMS (Capitalism Management Strategy). You want to leave the structures of modern international capitalism in place and just hand over the control of those structures to a different, presumably more qualified, group of people. By contrast, I think modern international capitalism has done for us pretty much all it can do and needs to be dialed back significantly.

A. Are you serious about distributism? You’re really envisioning some beautiful quasi-medieval world of local pubs that brew their own beer, mom-and-pop shops featuring homespun woolens and tallow candles made according to an ancient recipe handed down through the generations?

B. To be honest, that’s always been my problem with distributism: its absurdly nostalgic character, its idealizing of an often dirty and unpleasant past, its refusal to acknowledge what modernity has done for us. Too often the distributist vision is like a historical theme park, fun to visit as long as at the end of the day we can have hot showers and central heating.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s possible to have distributism and subsidiarity without nostalgia. It’s possible to argue that a concerted program of devolution was not as good an idea in the time of Chesterton and Belloc as it is in ours.

A. Very convenient! It turns out that now is the time for returning power to the local, not a hundred years ago. But what if a hundred years in the future someone is saying the same? “Man, am I glad that no one implemented distributism in 2016 — think of all we would have missed out on!”

B. That might happen. I can’t rule it out. But aren’t you and I agreed that democracy as it’s currently practiced in America is in crisis? Don’t we think that we’re digging ourselves into a political and economic hole and at the very least we need to stop digging?

A. Indeed we do.

B. Okay. So what you’re saying, basically, is that there’s nothing wrong with international capitalism that a shift of power from an ill-informed rabble of a “democracy” to a well-informed neoaristocracy can’t fix.

A. I don’t think I would put it quite that way, but keep going. Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

B. First issue will be out soon. But for now let’s say that, at minimum, you believe that the dynamism of international capitalism can be used to make the world a better place if it’s directed by the right people. I have two major criticisms of that model. The first, which I described to you the last time we were together, is that I don’t think even “the right people” are capable of making dramatically superior decisions to hoi polloi because of the scale at which they’d have to operate and the general human inability to master their own cognitive biases.

A. May I ask you something about that?

B. Sure.

A. It’s certainly sobering to hear Daniel Kahneman say that he has not been able to overcome his own cognitive biases, at least not to a great degree. But might that not be, at least in part, a function of his own education? Isn’t it possible that an educational system fundamentally based on what we’ve learned from Kahneman and other scholars in his field could produce a genuine neoaristocracy? I guess I’m asking: Don’t you believe in education?

B. I do believe in education, but within contraints established by our creatureliness. Nobody thinks that a person can run 100 meters in four seconds if he just trains hard enough. We have to understand and embrace our natural limits and work within them, rather than always striving to transcend them. That’s why I mentioned Dunbar’s number last time. What if that’s not some historically contingent phenomenon but rather a fundamental constraint on our cognitive capacities, a constraint as fixed and non-negotiable as the speed of light? If that’s the case then there is something intrinsically unmanageable about international capitalism, even with all the computing power we now have — especially since the computers are always programmed by us.

See, you’re trying to adapt our mode of governance to the size of today’s hypertrophied global nation-state; but what if we went the other way? What if we retained a commitment to democracy, but changed the size of our basic political units in such a way that democracy is actually realizable?

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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