In the previous chapter we examined one of the general principles underlying liberal thought, specifically the existence of an elite with superior insight, capable of providing the answers that the majority is unable to find for itself. In that essay I specifically argued that such an elite is necessary for the existence of a liberal, or other interventionist, theory of government, as without such an elite, one of the other two foundations of liberalism, the general incompetence of mankind, would generate nothing but a nihilistic theory that mankind is unsuitable for any sort of social existence. However, as I mentioned in passing, there is one other possibility. Rather than an elite, either an inherently enlightened group or one which has somehow acquired superior insight, it is possible to base an interventionist theory upon the alternate thesis, that man, while incompetent when acting alone, gains superior insight when acting as a group.
Before I proceed to look at the implications of this theory, allow me to clarify some details. First, this is not the same as the postulates that underlie theories of federalism, or even my arguments in favor of the free market. In my endorsement of distributed systems, such as the free market or federalism, I argue that by allowing a group to make independent decisions, superior results are produced, as the number of options will likely produce at least one superior option which will eventually show its merit, allowing all of the individuals to adopt the best solution. By preventing the imposition of any single, centralized solution, the distributed system makes less likely the general adoption of an inferior solution, and, by encouraging a diversity of opinions also makes a system wide failure unlikely, as even with the diffusion of the best solutions, there is normally enough variation to prevent the universal adoption of a single answer. Of course, it is arguable whether or not this system would always produce superior results, as a collective of manifestly inferior individuals may produce results less desirable than a single superior individual, but, given relatively equal starting conditions, it does seem likely the independent exercise of judgment by a group of actors would be superior to either the independent decisions of a single actor, or the imposition upon a group of actors of a set of answers decided by one or more actors.
The interventionist theory of collective competence is nothing similar to this.
The interventionist, or liberal, thesis is not based upon the diffusion of good answers, nor the collective sharing of results. As the liberal theory postulates uniformly incompetent individuals, it must, of necessity deny the possibility of such collective improvement, as otherwise the theory would argue for a free market or federalist distributed solution. But, as the hypothesis assumes individual actors not only are incompetent, but are also incapable of properly assessing whether a given decision is inferior or superior to another (and thus are unable to either learn or assess the decisions of others), such a collective solution would be impossible.
No, the liberal theory rests, through a variety of ill-defined mechanisms, upon some sort of synergy between individuals. Or at least it does so in most cases. In a few cases there is difficulty determining exactly what theory is being applied. For instance, in many Marxist beliefs, the elite draws their inspiration from their role as representatives of their economic class, which suggests what I described in the last chapter as irrational inspiration1. On the other hand, unlike some other versions of such theories, Marxists normally2 do not believe individuals capable or such inspiration, instead believing that the consciousness of the the working class is best expressed through the decisions of some sort of collective body. However, that leads to the question whether such insight is the result of synergy between the individuals, or is the result of special insight, but one which can only be achieved by group decision making.
For the moment, let us ignore such questions, and instead look at the more clear cut cases, where it is clearly indicated (though likely not stated, as for some reason no one ever makes such claims explicit), that the assemblage of lawmakers making up the government are capable of finding solutions inaccessible, not only to the public at large, but to the individual law makers themselves, were they to act independently3. Unlike most theories, which tend to favor some variety of either technocratic or mystic elitism, under this proposition, the ability to find the right path, to discover the right answer to a given question, is present solely because a number of individuals are acting together4, and not because of any other attribute of those making the decisions.
The most common form of such a theory is akin to the common misunderstanding of democratic government. As I wrote in an essay entitled "Misunderstanding Democracy" quite some time ago, the reason behind elective government is, quite simply, to provide a peaceful means for both the change of regime, including the removal of unpopular governments, and a means for the public to feel the government represents their point of view. To the degree such mechanisms function properly, the public will avoid the use of force in the political process, providing the stability which is so essential to prosperity and general happiness.
However, the popular understanding of democracy is something quite different. Born of countless misguided civics classes, combined with the proto-positivist mistakes of the early rationalist and utilitarian theorists, the public at large seems to believe that democracy is something akin to the popular (if cynical) description of the law, setting loose two liars so the truth will emerge. That is, they believe democracy, by allowing the public debate between competing positions, will produce, over time, the best possible outcome. That, by allowing the public to hear all sides of a debate, the public will come to choose the best option, and, even if it is not the best of all possible choices, by choosing repeatedly the best of the possible options, the public will inevitably move toward the best of all possible governments.
As this, in some ways, is also a distortion of my argue for federalism (and the free market), given above, I feel the need to take a little time to explain the problem here. As it also helps explain the inherent flaw in the (pseudo-)rationalist justifications for collective competence, it will not be time wasted.
Earlier I talked about federalism, and the way in which, by allowing a range of decisions to be made, it gives the public the opportunity to see all outcomes, which will, over time, lead to the more general adoption of the best choices, leading to the eventual embrace of the optimal government. And, I admit, this sounds much like the claims being made for elective government. However, there are three crucial differences, the difference between eloquence and reality, the difference between making a choice before and after seeing the results, and finally, the ability to make one or many choices (both to prevent error, and to allow growth).
Let me explain how these three elements distinguish the two situations.
In the federalist system, the choices are made based upon observing the outcomes of the choices of others. When I see the results others achieve, if one seems to be achieving the results I would like, I can assume his choice is better, and embrace it. That is both making a decision based on physical results, and making a decision after seeing the results. Democracy allows for neither. First, democratic government is not based upon outcomes, but upon eloquence. We do not judge a political platform based on results, as we have no results upon which to base our choice5, all we have are promises. Which means we will always be making our decisions based on promises, and based on promises made before we have any evidence upon which to base our choice. More, since even an honest appraisal by the politician cannot cover every possible outcome, every side effect, every possible implication of a decision, we will likely make decisions based on incomplete information. And, of course, that is assuming the description is both accurate and honest, which is not guaranteed, or even likely. Thus, the most important part of federalism, the ability to judge results after they take place, that is judge a theory after it has proved itself, and also to judge it based upon seeing all the implications, and deciding based upon the criteria most important to us, is not present in politics. And so we have no real mechanism in political decisions allowing for the general diffusion of good ideas.
Which brings me to the third element, the last aspect of federalism which is absent, and which allows for both the diffusion of good ideas, and the avoidance, or at least amelioration, of bad decisions. Government choices are always singular, monolithic, and universal. The government makes a single choice and imposes it on everyone. Under federalism (or free markets), each individual makes a choice which touches only him. Thus, under a government system, once a decision is made, it is the one choice. And thus, if we make a mistake, it is imposed on all, and we have no hope of seeing a better theory to either tell us what a mistake we made, or push us in the right direction. Or, even if we chose well, but not as well as we could have, we are now committed to this less than optimal choice. Only when we allow multiple choices do we have the ability to identify and then cure our own errors, or recognize the shortcomings of our decision and the superiority of an alternative. And so, though democracy seems similar to federalism, in this way the two differ greatly. Only by implementing a truly minimal government, and with even those minimal powers delegated to the most local level possible, do we gain the benefits of federalism. Collective decision making alone does not guarantee anything better than an individual decision.
However, though the rational for the theory, at least the rationale given by the more rationalist proponents, is completely invalid, that does not stop the proponents from making that argument. As stated above, they argue that collective decision making somehow allows for the competence missing in individual decisions. And so they turn over political authority to some elective body, be it universal, or maybe some subset, such as members of a party, a social class, a body of experts, or some other subset. Of course, in practice, a universal plebiscite for every decision is impractical, and so these theories of collective competence usually end up resulting in the universal body of voters electing smaller bodies which then make the actual decisions6. And so, even those theories of collective competence which do embrace universal participation tend to be ruled practically by a much smaller group.
So far I have dealt with only the rationalist approach to collective competence, and have ignored the alternative arguments, those who promote a non-rational foundation for collective decision making. And I admit it is tempting to simply ignore these theories, as their foundations, despite their popularity among some, are without any support. Despite the efforts of communists, nationalists, racists and others to provide scientific foundations for their beliefs, there has never been established any identity which is uniquely white, black, rich, poor, proletarian, male, female, Jewish, Christian or any other group. Yes, specific groups at specific times have some cultural aspects which color their behavior and decisions, but the idea of an innate racial, religious, sexual or other identity is unfounded in the extreme.
For the moment, though, let us ignore that theory, and instead look at the idea that one's competence is based upon the degree to which one conforms to his group identity, that is the degree to which he conforms to the proletarian, volkish, or other ideal. As no single individual can completely embody this identity7, it then falls to a body of those who come closest to that identity to arrive at the best decision and impose it upon the whole.
However, this approach creates its own problem. If the group itself is competent, and incompetence is limited to only those who deviate from the identity, then would it not follow that a free government, with a limited franchise, would be superior to the fully liberal choice? If the group members can learn, and can see the better and worse decisions, then what justification is there for placing them under the control of the government? Should we not have a free government for all those who have the capacity to make decisions, and impose the government's choices only upon the remaining individuals who do not have that capacity? It just seems irrational to have a universal interventionist state, when incompetence is limited to only a subset of the population.
Of course, that points out the entire problem. The same one I pointed out earlier. To have true collective competence, either individuals have to be capable of learning, and identifying and evaluating choices, which destroys the foundation of intervention, or else we have to postulate some mystical, irrational foundation for collective competence, which has never been demonstrated and would require some pretty convincing evidence.
And, in the end, that is the problem with postulating collective competence, either it contradicts the other assumptions or it requires proof which history has failed to give us. In fact, based on the evidence of our own experience, it would seem that large groups tend to be more easily swayed by rhetoric, by passions and by a few charismatic individuals than individuals are on their own. It is certainly also not proven that individual decisions are any more sound than group decisions, but neither is the opposite evident. If anything, it seems most likely that individuals and groups suffer from the same problems, both can be swayed by sweet words, by a pretty face or a dramatic manner, and both are subject to prejudices and prone to errors. In short, a group is not much more than an assembly of individuals, and so whatever one says of individuals applies to a group as well. Which makes it absurd to imagine a group is in any way different in nature from the individuals who comprise it.
Continue to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Chapter 9 - A Is Null-A".
Return to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Preface".
1. Such non-rational inspiration can come in a variety of forms. In a number of cases it comes from the decision making of a group, be it a larger, pseudo-democratic body, or the decrees of a small ruling elite. But in other cases it can come from the special inspiration of a leader, seen as the embodiment of the will of the race, class or other significant group.
2. Communism (specifically the "Russian form of communism", where the state openly owns the means of production) is not immune from the cult of personality. Though in many cases it relies upon collective decisions making through various popular assemblies, or else through the decision making of nominally representative bodies, in a number of historical cases various leaders, from Stalin to Tito to Kim Jong Il, have claimed to be themselves the best representative of the will of the proletariat, and have adopted the single an rule we tend to associate more often with the "German version of socialism", such as Nazi or Fascist government, where the state maintains the fiction of private ownership, as well as normally eschewing the internationalist rhetoric of Russian communism.
3. This may help explain why the theory is rarely explicitly stated. While voters would be much more comfortable with the idea that law makers are not an elite, superior to them, but instead can find answers because they act together, the politicians are uncomfortable saying they are not Solons, but are simply right because of the conditions under which they work. Of course, there is a second factor at work here. If everyone is equally incompetent, and the source of all insight is simply acting collectively, then politicians have no means to campaign. Why select one over the others if his experience is irrelevant? So the myth of the competent, even elite (though not explicitly so) politician must be maintained. In fact, that also explains why one of the few places such a theory might be explicitly stated in in a totalitarian state, as there the ability to campaign is irrelevant, since the candidates, if the fiction of elective office is maintained, are selected by the state or party. And so, when there is less democracy, the rhetoric is more democratic, while the existence of more democratic methods tends to produce more elitist rhetoric.
4. Of course, this is true only under an absolutely "pure" theory of collective competence, and such is almost unheard of in reality. In the real world, such collective thinkers tend to also be subject to other criteria, be it "racial awareness". "proletarian logic", "volkish consciousness" or some other class, race or religious identity. And, of course, there are also the blends of technocratic with collectivist theories, where there is an appeal to expertise, but there is an equal irrational claim, that expertise alone is insufficient, and what is needed is a collective decision making body made up of experts. Only the combination of expertise AND collective thought can produce correct answers.
5. Granted, we often have the past results of the same political party, a similar political program, or even the track record of a given politician. However, that is rarely much of a guide. If the record is negative, the politician will inevitably claim this time will be different, and make enough changes to make it unlikely the results will be the same, though what they will be will not be easy to determine. On the other hand, if a given theory has been successful, or a given politician or party has had positive results, that is no promise of success. Given our politicians' dedication to "pragmatism" over principle, they rarely have a consistent, theoretical approach, and so their outcomes more often depend upon circumstance than their fundamental ideas. So if they have succeeded in the past, odds are very good the future results will be less impressive, unless they are fortunate enough to have the same circumstances occur again.
6. In practice, this use of elected assemblies is not only in order to prevent unwieldy plebiscites, but also to keep power in the hands of a small group, which tends to control who can stand for office, making it possible for an "elective" government to remain under the control of a single party or other group.
7. Clearly, some theories do accept that a single leader can embody the group ideals. This was the case of the Nazi Fuehrer cult, as well as the Stalinist personality cult, or the Cultural Revolution-era idolization of Mao and the North Korean worship of Kim Jung Il. The list could be extended, but I think the point is clear. Though most such theories are born arguing that the race or class is too complicated to be represented by a single individual, when a charismatic leader takes power, he manages to change the theory to argue that it is not only possible, but likely.
In the essay above I used the terms "Russian form of socialism" and "German form of socialism" (or perhaps "of communism", as I use "socialism" and "communism" interchangeably). These terms are not unique to me, but have been adopted from the writing of Ludwig von Mises. I discuss both in my essay "The Political Spectrum", but, as most readers seem to ignore such links, allow me to provide a simple explanation.
Basically Russian communism is the communism with which we are familiar, the government ownership and control of all industry, as well as internationalist rhetoric. German socialism is the Fascist/Nazi model, under which the government controls industry while maintaining a fiction of private ownership. It also normally adopts nationalist, rather than internationalist, rhetoric, though that is not an essential feature.
Why I make a point of using these names is quite simple. We have long been taught that Communism is "left" and fascism "right", the implication being that any political philosophy, when "too extreme" turns dictatorial.But that is nonsense. Both Communism and Fascism are of a single nature, differing only in details. If we take the left to represent the side of government control and intervention, with the right being the side representing small government and personal freedom, it makes no sense to argue that fascism is somehow the "extreme" form of individual freedom. And so, rather than let this fiction stand, I have tried, whenever possible, to point out that certain "right wing" philosophies (such as Naziism, paelo-cons, and others), are better seen as part of the left. (Cf. "Thoughts on the Irrationality of Nationalism", "The Inevitable Corruption of Protectionism", "Fear of Trade", "Protectionism Right and Left", "Beware Populist Deception", "Tolerance, Agnostic Prostelytizing and Liberal Activism", "Misplaced Blame and A Power Play", "Buchanan and Obama", "A Question for "Paleo-Conservatives"", "Right on One Issue is not Enough", "A Passing Thought", ""The Best Historical Example", "I'm Back and Surprised", "Amusing "Truths"", "Bad Economics Part 15 ", "Rethinking the Scopes Trial", "Defending Freedom?", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships", "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government", "Negative and Positive Rights", "My Vision of Government", "My Vision of Government Part II", "Why I Am Not A Libertarian", "The Benefits of Federalism", "An Analogy For Government", "A Simple Proposal", "Consolidation and Diffusion", "Man's Nature and Government", "Prelude", "Culture and Government")
My discussion above of the public's misunderstanding of elective government can be followed in my posts "Misunderstanding Democracy", "Brief Thought on Voter Qualifications", "An Interesting Thought", "An Old Idea I am Taking More Seriously", "The Road to Violence", "Negative and Positive Rights" and "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government". The same discussion also talks about the benefits of stability which can be found in "The Virtue of Humility", "In Praise of Slow Changes", "Predictability", "Conservatism, Incremental Change and Federalism", "In Defense of Standards", "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"", "The Problem With Cultural Relativism", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "The High Cost Of Protection", "The Problem With Evolving Standards", "England Becoming a Third World Nation", "Why Judicial Activism Hurts", "Interpretation and Activism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Shaky Reasoning", "Expectations", "A Perfect Example", "In Praise of Contracts" and "An Immature Society". Regarding the difference between government and private decisions, I would recommend "Redundancy as a Protective Measure", "Adaptability and Government" and "Inflexibility and Bureaucracy". Finally, for the argument that groups and individuals should be treated identically, I would recommend "Individual and Aggregate".
Originally Published in Random Notes on 2010/09/13.