The Crisis of Authority

Posted by the chieftain of seir on Jul 20th, 2008


The Crisis of Authority


“Even the most rational approach to ethics is defenseless if there isn’t the will to do what is right”— Alexander Solzhenitsyn


People are talking about a new Great Depression. People are talking about the unraveling of the current economic order. People are scared. And they are sacred of all the wrong things.

People are self centered, so it is natural that the prospect of losing their job excites people’s imagination. Suddenly, they no longer feel in control of their puny little world. This feeling of helplessness is intensified by the rapid increase in the prices of things that most people have long taken for granted. So, people being people, they naturally conclude that the world is ending.

This fear is both rational and absurd at the same time. It is rational to fear that the world is ending, but it is absurd to think that this is going to happen because of economic problems. America has been through a great many economic crises and they have all left the country stronger in the end.

Nowadays people mentioned the Great Depression in the same breath as Armageddon, but this is silly. What harm did the Great Depression really do? How many people starved? At the Great Depression’s very worst, only 26.6 percent of the work forces could not find a job. There are many countries in the world (South Africa being one of them) that would love to have an unemployment rate that low.

Of course, the Great Depression was an unpleasant time to live through. I don’t deny that. But the generation that came out of that era was one of the most fiscally responsible and level headed generations in American history. Character building is never any fun, but that doesn’t mean it is a disaster.

To be sure, an old fashioned Conservative would bemoan the expansion of government power that happened during the Great Depression, but they are barking up the wrong tree. Franklin Roosevelt was no libertarian, to say the least, but the pendulum would probably have swung the other way without the intervention of World War II. War or the threat of war has historically been the thing that accustoms Americans to greater federal power on a permanent basis.

I would go so far as to say that one should look at the current economic crisis affecting American as a fundamentally beneficial thing in and of itself. If it does nothing else, it will put an end to the building of those hideous McMansions that have blotted the rural landscape. High gas prices are already causing people to drive more sensibly and in smaller cars. And the economic problems have already tightened up consumer credit to levels that come closer to being sane.

Of course, politicians will do stupid things in response to the economic crises. They always do. But for all those conservatives that are already moaning and groaning about the great economic damage that Obama is going to inflict on us all, I have only two words: “Richard Nixon.” When Obama manages to top the boneheaded stupidity of Nixon’s prices controls, I might start to worry. But since Nixon’s price controls did not bring about the end of the world, I doubt that anything Obama can do will have any worse effects—at least, not in the economic sphere.

I don’t mean to go overboard in downplaying the very real pain that will come about as a result of today’s economic problems. But Americans tend to worry excessively about things that affect their economic status and not enough about things that could get them killed (or otherwise change the state of their existence in ways that can never be compensated for with money). Simply put, Americans are not very good at recognizing existential threats to their nation.

In part, this could be because they don’t get much practice. After all, there have only been two events in all of American’s history that have truly threatened America’s existence as a nation.

The first such event was the importation of slaves from Africa to America. From that point on slavery was an existential threat to America. As such, its influence was heavily felt in every decision that America made from how it dealt with Native Americans to how it constructed its political structure. Even the southern slave owners recognized the seriousness of the threat at some level. That is why they lay awake at night worrying about slave rebellions.

The legacy of this threat is still with us, although it is common to assume that it no longer threatens the existence of the US because we took care of it during the civil war, or the civil rights movement, or whenever. I would not be so confident, myself. If the failed state of Afghanistan can produce 9/11, what can the failed ghetto cultures that slavery has left behind produce?

But that is a subject for another time. The primary point of bringing up slavery is to highlight what a real threat to national existence looks like. It is not just a ten year period of rough economic times. A true threat always has an element of moral crisis and it always involves the near certainty of massive bloodshed. It is not much of a crisis if there is a little moral doubt about the best way forward. And it is not much of a threat if no one is going to die.

That brings us to the second great threat to the existence of United States of America: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Most people with a modicum of historical knowledge would find that statement odd. People normally think of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as marking the start of World War I, and nobody really believes that particular war threatened the existence of the US. In fact, a lot of people go so far as to argue that US’s participation in the First World War was a great mistake.

But a World War I was only a small part of the great crisis that the assassination of the Archduke unleashed. That crisis did not end with World War I, World War II, or the Cold War. The last twenty years that we have gone through have been but the eye of the storm. The crisis that the Archduke’s assassination sparked is still raging.

The fact that the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand marked the start of a World War I has obscured the fact that it also marked the marked the start of a worldwide crisis of authority. Before Mr. Ferdinand was killed, there had been a few revolutions, but in each case there was revision back to a traditional conception of authority. For example, the French violently overthrew every form of traditional authority in their revolution. But it did not take many years before Napoleon appropriated the old royal symbols to lend his régime an air of authority. From there, France regressed (or progressed depending on your point of view) back towards their old social order. In fact, it could be argue that the French revolution strengthened the existing frame work of authority in Europe as it gave the emerging European middle class a good look at the disadvantages of revolution.

In other words, in spite of the violence of the French revolution, France’s social order managed to maintain a type of continuity. Similar observations could be made about Cromwell or any other pre-World War I revolutionary. They may have tried to overthrow the social order, but their lasting effects were small.

Nowadays, the death of the Archduke seems like ancient history, and we forget what a dramatic change came over the world. But almost no social order managed to survive the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. To get a superficial idea of the scale of the change, consider the age of some of the empires that disappeared for good. The Habsburgs had been ruling in Austria for 640 years. The Ottoman Empire had been around for over 600 years. Even a relative new kid on the block such as Romanov dynasty had been ruling Russia for about 300 years when the crisis hit. That is longer than the United States has been a nation. I can only think of eight countries whose form of government survived from before the time of the Archduke to the present. Most of them came from Anglo-Saxon cultures.

The widespread destruction of the existing social orders naturally led to the question “what is the proper authority that shall govern men?” This question transcended the merely political. With the collapse of the social order, the very basis of right and wrong was up for dispute. What was moral was as much in question as how men should be governed.

Such questions seem like the domain of philosophers, but people fought and died in large numbers over those very questions. Adolf Hitler explicitly taught that ethnic cleansing was required from a moral nation. The Communists explicitly taught that private property was theft. Such ideas turn previously accepted conceptions of morality on their heads. Yet these were the types of ideologies that rose out of the ashes of the dead social orders. And without any agreed upon source of authority, who was to say they were wrong?

The debates were not settled with calm discourse. Millions upon millions of people died. In addition, thousands of ballistic missiles were put on a hair trigger that, if tripped, would have brought about the closest thing to Armageddon that mankind could produce. At the heart of all this trouble was the simple question of what was the proper source for authority, and, by extension, what types of behavior were moral or immoral.

As we all know, the other side of this deadly debate on the proper source of authority was a primarily Anglo-Saxon alliance. The nations that formed the core of this alliance had not suffered the same level of damage to their social order that other nations had (although Great Britain lost its empire). At least on the superficial level, they kept their preexisting (meaning pre-Ferdinand) forms of government. Drawing on their own traditions, they put forth a conception of authority that was different from both the old imperial orders and the new ideologies that sprang up offering a new source of authority and morality.

The conventional narrative has it that the good guys won and the bad guys lost. After all, both the Communists and the Nazis have been confined to the dustbin of history. Some take this narrative so far that they argue that the end of history is at hand and that everyone will soon adopt the Anglo-Saxon conception of authority. Admittedly, the more paranoid types like to talk about a new conflict with those dang Islamic fundamentalists. Others fear that anyone with strongly held religious beliefs poses a threat to the good guys. But most everyone seems to assume that crisis of authority is only a problem because of backward types.

The problems that tore right through highly educated and “advanced” societies in the last hundred years are presumed to be solved. It is taken as a given that all intelligent and educated people acknowledge that democracy with a recognition of basic human rights is the proper authority for all men. In other words, everyone takes it for granted that the end of history is here, if only you are smart enough to see it.

But before you accept the conventional narrative you need to think a little harder about what type of authority the “good guys” fought for and how it differed from the “bad guys”. At first glance the conventional narrative seems straight forward and uncontroversial. The Anglo-Saxon dominated alliance fought for an authority based on democracy and human rights where as their opponents had no use for the rights of individuals.

As far as this narrative goes, it is obviously correct. All the Anglo-Saxon members of the alliance had functioning democracies that went back before the time of Ferdinand. And all of them had a widespread belief that every individual has a set of rights that no government should take away from them. Nor can it be denied that the Communists and Fascists explicitly denied the importance of the individual.

The problem with this narrative is that it presents the Anglo-Saxon countries as having a unified understanding of the proper basis for authority. This ignores the tensions that the crisis of authority has injected into the Anglo-Saxon political debates.

As an example of this tension, consider some of the political questions that are commonly debated in western countries. Should the right to free speech really rank higher then public safety? Should the right to freely practice one’s religion really trump the right to a good public education?

These questions pit so called “negative rights” against “positive rights.” This tension within Anglo-Saxon political thought started with death the Archduke (granted, it can traced back further than that, but it flowered with the start of the crisis). Prior to the assassination of the Archduke, the justification of Anglo-Saxon political ideals was carried out on moral grounds. That is to say, defenders of Anglo-Saxon ideals argued their superiority on the grounds of justice and freedom of consciences. The boast of the Anglo-Saxon patriot was that he was a free man.

After the assassination of the Archduke, the tendency was to argue for the superiority of Anglo-Saxon ideals on materialistic grounds. That is to say, the defense became couched in terms of who had the best living standards on average and who had the best GDP growth. The boast of the Anglo-Saxon world gradually switched from their freedom to their toys.

This change was reflected in the political debates of the time. The political debates in the Anglo-Saxon world pre- Ferdinand centered on the demands of freedom and justices vs. fears of anarchy. After Ferdinand’s death, the political debates shifted to arguing over what polices lead to the best materialistic outcomes.

Part of this shift in debate had its origins in the events happing in the rest of the world. When the competitors to the Anglo-Saxon model were the old imperial models, it was natural that the argument would center on moral questions and fears of anarchy. After all, old imperial orders justified themselves on the grounds of moral issues and fears of anarchy.

For example, the Hapsburgs held themselves out to be the defenders of the Catholic faith and the preventers of intracommunal warfare. The Romanovs held themselves out to be the defenders the Orthodox faith and the glue necessary to hold such a vast country together in the face of foreign attacks. The Ottomans held themselves out to be defenders of the Islamic faith in the face of increasing Western power. In such a context it is only natural that defenders of the Anglo-Saxon political orders strove to define their own moral justifications and their own defenses against anarchy.

But when the old imperial orders destroyed themselves, the questions confronting the Anglo-Saxon political ideals changed. The Fascists attacked the Anglo-Saxon ideals on the grounds that their ill-disciplined nature prevented true national greatness. The Communists argued that Anglo-Saxon ideals stood in the way of an earthly paradise.

Against such attacks, many defenders of the Anglo-Saxon order felt that they had no choice but defend Anglo-Saxon ideals on materialistic grounds. When millions of Fascist went on the march to prove on the battlefield their theories of national power, the Anglo-Saxon nations felt compelled to respond with their own demonstrations of national power. When millions of poor people started swarming to the Communist cause because they believed that it would provide them with relief from their misery, defenders of Anglo-Saxon ideals felt compelled to point out that such a hope was false.

Thus many people who believed that basic morality was the primary justification of the Anglo-Saxon ideals found themselves arguing for the materialistic superiority of their ideals—on both the battlefield and in the war of ideas.

But events in the outside world were not the sole cause of the shift in the debate in the Anglo-Saxon world. Anglo-Saxon countries did not entirely escape the crisis of authority that destroyed the old social orders all across the world. There were many who thought that the old conceptions of moral authority upon which the Anglo-Saxon ideals were founded no longer had any relevance. To these people, the only possible justification for the Anglo-Saxon ideals lay in their materialistic benefits.

Thus, there is a deep divide in the Anglo-Saxon world between those who hold to the Anglo-Saxon ideals because they believe them to be a moral imperative, and those who hold to them because they believe them to be the best route to a materialistic paradise. This divide is not strictly ideological in the traditional sense. There are many conservatives and libertarians who base the legitimacy of their ideals on what they think will produced greatest human happiness. And there are some liberals who seem committed to the moral imperative of Anglo-Saxon ideals even as they seek to use government force to improve materialistic outcomes.

Does this really matter? Doesn’t everyone agree on the right political model even if they don’t have the same reasons for accepting it? Is not a practical unity good enough for everyone except the philosophers? The answer is yes and no. A practical unity is sufficient to produce power for as long as it lasts. But it cannot produce a durable form of authority.

Most people don’t understand why this matters because they don’t understand the distinction between power and authority. In most people’s mind, power produces authority. Therefore, authority and power must be the same.

But the premise behind this idea is false. Power does not create authority. If anything, authority creates power. Authority is derived from people’s willingness to die for ideas and institutions. Power is derived from people’s willingness and ability to kill for ideals and institutions. Power is what impresses people, but without authority no political system will last for long.

Authority is necessary because pressure will always afflict different parts of an organization at different rates. Somebody will always be first in line for the problems that life invariably produces. If nobody is willing to die for the organization’s ideals, the organization will fall apart as soon as serious danger affects the organization. This is why criminal gangs can never stay unified for long no matter how powerful they become. They typically lack the willingness to sacrifice their needs to that of the organization. This is the problem that afflicts all organizations that have power but not authority.

By contrast, religious organizations demonstrate the durability of authority. Even when (or especially when) they don’t directly have any power of their own, they can often inspire people to die for their ideals. As such they often have tremendous authority and because of that authority they can often survive all kinds of disasters and setbacks.

It used to be that the relationship between willingness to sacrifice one’s life for a cause (that is, authority) and the durability of social systems was well understood in Anglo-Saxon cultures. Lectures on the necessity of sacrifice were a normal part of the Anglo-Saxon political discourse. A good example of such a lecture would be John F. Kennedy’s first inaugural address.

Kennedy’s first inaugural address is best known for the line, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” By itself, this line indicates a recognition of the need for self sacrifice to maintain the country’s ideals. But taken in its entirety, the speech provides a comprehensive over view of the Anglo-Saxon conception of authority and its corresponding ideals in the early days of the struggle against Communism.

Kennedy’s speech starts off by expounding the traditional Anglo Saxon view of their ideals by saying….

We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning—signifying renewal, as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

As Kennedy himself obliquely admits, his speech represents both a continuation of the traditional Anglo-Saxon political ideals and a change. The speech is a continuation because Kennedy portrays the Anglo-Saxon ideals of freedom as moral imperatives to be upheld regardless of their materialistic costs. But Kennedy departs from the traditional Anglo Saxon conception of authority when he places poverty on the same level as tyranny and argues that Americans have a moral imperative to struggle against both. As he says…

To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

And later….

Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation”—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.

If Kennedy had lived before the time of Archduke Franz Ferdinand he might have made a speech on the necessity to sacrifice to preserve liberty. Such talk was common throughout America’s history. But he never would have argued that America had the moral imperative to battle poverty around the world. Such talk would have made a laughing stock out of any American politician before the assassination of the Archduke. But as we have already noted, the foundation of Anglo-Saxon ideals was shifting and Kennedy speech was an expression of that change.

Yet for all that Kennedy’s speech represented a shift from an old Anglo-Saxon idea of what was moral imperative, a modern Anglo-Saxon politician would not dare to duplicate the thrust of Kennedy’s speech. It is not so much that sentiments that Kennedy expressed would be out place in a modern political speech (although some of Kennedy’s religious terminology would make even George W. Bush blush) as it is his call for self-sacrifice in pursuit of national ideals. Politicians no longer do this.

It is fairly common to observe that Conservatives portray the War on Terror as being threat to the nation and yet they ask for no sacrifices from the nation at large. Even as they portray the War on Terror in terms reminiscent of World War II, they push for tax cuts and raise government spending on agricultural subsidies and other discretionary domestic spending. Conservatives seem to think that all that is required is for government’s power to increase, and then the problem of terror can be contained.

It could also be observed that Liberals typically view global warming as a grave threat, and yet they ask for no real sacrifices from the nation to combat global warming. In fact, they argue that action should be taken to keep oil prices low. They seem to think that the problem of global warming can be solved by increasing governmental power.

There seems to be a lack of recognition across the political spectrum that you cannot deal with difficult long term problems with power alone. Without authority you are doomed to fail as self interests and fickle opinions will shatter the unity necessary to sustain power. That fact that political authorities don’t even dare call for self-sacrifice indicates that they no longer have much authority left.

This is a disaster waiting to happen. Historically speaking, the lack of authority is not tolerated for long. Social orders that have no compelling authority are swept away by those social orders that do. And we should not take it for granted that such authority will spring from ethics that we recognize.

If it is mistake confuse power with authority, it is also a mistake to imagine that the authority equates to morality. Or to put it in less partisan terms; the willingness to die can support forms of authority that are completely opposed to each other. In other words, the willingness to die has been found amongst the enemies of the Anglo-Saxon ideals as well as amongst the defenders.

For example, Adolf Hitler had a good understanding of the necessity of authority and he worked hard to cultivate it. If you watch his speech to the Nazi youth group in the Triumph of the Will you can get a good idea of how he went about it. In that speech he captured the foundation for his authority when he said “Regardless of whatever we create and do, we shall pass away, but in you, Germany will live on.” Hitler always sought to remind people of the mortality and then would turn and appeal to them to join something bigger and greater then themselves. He expounded on the need to be willing to sacrifice and suffer in order to create something worth living for. And it worked.

We don’t like to talk about it much in these days, but the reason that Nazism and Communism were such big threats was because people were willing to die for those ideologies. If they had ruled exclusively through fear, they would have posed little threat. But the SS troopers and other true believers in the Nazi faith fought and died like the pagan heroes they aspired to be. And history is full of Communists who willingly gave up their lives for their cause. Similar observations can be made about Islamic radicals.

The Nazi empire did not come to an end until just about everyone who was willing to die for the Nazi ideals died. Communism did not cease to be a threat until almost no one was willing to die for Marxist ideals. (Proof of that can be found in the attempted coup against Gorbachev by supposedly hard-line communists. As soon they saw they might have to die for their cause they gave up. If all communists would have given up that easy, no communist revolution in any country would have ever succeeded.) In other words, those ideologies were not defeated until they had lost all authority.

But it was not at all clear at the time that the authority of the Anglo-Saxon world would outlast that of its enemies. Nazi success was greatly helped by the fact that almost no country in Europe had a population that was willing to die for its ideals. Contrary to post-war mythology, there was almost no underground resistance in Europe until it was clear that the Nazis were losing. What little effective resistance there was in conquered Europe was mostly inspired by Communism (Norway being a notable exception).

It is common to make excuses for people in occupied Europe. What could they have done against the might of the German Army? But this is a demonstration of how little authority is attributed Anglo-Saxon ideals, even in retrospect. The primary thing keeping people from fighting the Nazi empire was fear of the horrific reprisals that everyone knew that the Nazis would unleash. But this fear of suffering did not stop the Communists in Yugoslavia. In fact, if every country in occupied Europe had had the willingness to fight and die on par with the Communists in Yugoslavia, the Nazi empire would have imploded from within.

The fact that Communism was one of the few forces that could inspire people in continental Europe to fight and die had lot to do with Communism’s popularity in France, Greece, Italy, and other western European countries. Communism was the party of résistance in Europe and they were not shy about advertising that fact.

In fact, most Communists viewed World War II as proof that the Anglo-Saxon ideals were on their last legs. They expected that an ideology that could not inspire people in continental Europe to be willing to risk their lives would not have authority for long.

Such beliefs were strengthened by those Anglo-Saxon protesters who assaulted the authority of Anglo-Saxon ideals by shouting “better red then dead.” It is not that protester who chanted such things had anything against free speech or the right to vote. It was just that they did not think that those things were worth dying for. But in denying that those principles were worth dying for, they denied them any authority. Ideals you are not willing to die for are mere whims.

Notwithstanding such open displays of contempt from within the Anglo-Saxon camp, we now know that the Anglo-Saxon ideals were not as weak as the Communists thought they were. Today, Communism has lost power and authority while Anglo-Saxon ideals are popular all around the globe. Almost all of the countries of the world at least pay lip service to the idea of free markets, free elections, and basic human rights. Even Communist China has embraced the free market with a vengeance and it has been experimenting with allowing free elections.

But we should not look at this success and think that the crisis of authority is over. By way of analogy, an imperialist in the British or French empires would have been a fool to think that their empires were safe simply because they survived World War I where as the German, Austrian, Russian, and Ottoman empires did not. If they had truly understood the crisis that the Archduke’s death had unleashed, they would have understood the grave danger that their empires were in. In the same way, anyone who looks around at the current triumph of Anglo-Saxon ideals and thinks the crisis of authority is over has some serious blinders on.

It is true that Communism has failed. But Anglo-Saxon ideals have not met with success around the world because people have become convinced that they are moral imperatives worth defending at any price. Rather, the appeal of Anglo-Saxon ideals is that many people think that they are the best path materialistic happiness. This wide spread belief has set up Anglo-Saxon ideals for the same disappointment that robbed Communism of its authority.

We know from our own historical record that Anglo-Saxon political ideals don’t always mean unalloyed prosperity. We know from our own history that the defense of the rights that Anglo-Saxons nations hold dear has never been a painless exercise. In short, we all know that people whose god is prosperity are the first to leave when times get tough. It is precisely when times get tough that the Anglo-Saxon political ideals cease to have any value to them.

It is well known that people are willing give up a lot in the way of material goods to save their skins. It follows, then, that people who support the Anglo-Saxon political ideals solely on the grounds that it leads to greater material happiness are an iffy support for the authority of the Anglo-Saxon political ideals. It is not rational to give up your life for toys.

Of course, people have been willing to die for materialistic ideals in the past (most notably Communism and Fascism). But when people are willing to die for materialistic ideals, it is because they feel that those ideals will lead to a better future. The problem with such a hope is that it only tends to work when you start from ground zero. When a regression occurs, it is hard to keep the faith.

In other words, if you start off with a dirt poor and corrupt society, it is easy to believe that sacrifices are necessary to redeem it. But if you start off prosperous and optimistic and regress, it is a lot harder to remain faithful to the cause. Since life is filled with setbacks, materialistic hopes are a very unstable foundation for authority.

This is why the Communists only managed to rule Russia for 80 some years compared to the 300 or so years that the Romanovs ruled. Once the power in Soviet Russia switched from those people who had started out with nothing to those people who had never gone anywhere, Communism lost its moral authority. By contrast, the Romanovs never based their authority strictly on materialistic ideals. That enabled them to survive a number of serious setbacks over their 300 year rule. And in the end, it took the deaths of millions of people to unseat the Romanov’s where as it only took hard economic times to bring down the Communists.

Since Anglo-Saxon political ideals increasingly derive their authority from the belief that they are the path to riches, the celebrations of their success over Communism are premature. As we have observed before, the same disappointment that robbed Communism of its authority could very well rob the Anglo-Saxon political ideals of their authority.

Indeed, many people from other cultures feel that Anglo-Saxon world is already lacking in authority. It is common for radical Muslims to claim that people who hold to Anglo-Saxon ideals are unwilling to die for their beliefs. A Serb of my acquaintance expressed similar observations. And I have read accusations of a similar nature from many other cultures.

Some might take issue with the idea that Anglo-Saxon ideals have little real authority left. Have not America soldiers shown they are willing to suffer and die for their ideals? Are there not American policemen who strongly defend traditional Anglo-Saxon ideals even at the expense of their own power? Can we not say that there are still people left in America who will die for Anglo-Saxon ideals?

I am not so sanguine. Surveys show that the only institution in which Americans have much faith in is their armed forces. Other such institutions such as churches or the press rank far behind. I believe that this is because Americans feel that the only institution full of people who are willing to die for their ideals is the armed forces.

It seems to me that any society that trusts its military above all other institutions has deep social problems no matter how justified that trust might be. Surly we need other institutions besides the military to be filled with people who are willing to die for their ideals? The fact that armed forces are the only institution is believed to be governed by a set of un-materialistic ideals hardly inspires confidence in the strength of authority in the Anglo-Saxon world.

But when it comes right down to it, I am not inclined to argue with those that think that Anglo-Saxon ideals still have lot of authority in Anglo-Saxon world. Granting that those people are right does not change the scale of the crisis that is facing us all that much.

Much of the peace and security that the Anglo-Saxon world had enjoyed over the last 20 years stems from the widespread acceptance that Anglo-Saxon ideals are the best way to get rich. To be sure, the various countries like to pick and choose which part of the Anglo-Saxon ideals they think are responsible for wealth creation. But that does not change the fact that over the last twenty years, the vast majority of the world has strove to become more like the Anglo-Saxon world. And this desire to emulate the Anglo-Saxon world has naturally led to a period of relative peace.

The reason for this wide spread adoptance of Anglo-Saxon ideals has to do with dearth of real authority in most of the world. With no real authority, the only way most governments of the world can hope to keep their countries from falling into anarchy is by continually improving living conditions. They have latched on to elements of the Anglo-Saxon political and economic model as the guarantee of the continuously rising living standards. When the inevitable disappointment occurs, the results are going to be catastrophic.

If you want to understand why the disappointment is going to be so catastrophic, you should consider Russia. It is in danger of collapsing because of a lack of authority. Russia’s collapse alone would be catastrophic to the rest the world without even taking into account the other countries of the world that are in danger of collapsing.

I remember when Russia was going through its transition from communism. I remember hearing and reading countless interviews with ordinary Russians during this period and they all seem to have a common thread. They were all fascinated by American wealth and desirous to know how they might obtain the same. The sense of anger they expressed towards their former communist masters stemmed from the humiliation they felt at finding out they were the poor hicks of the world. By and large, they expressed little anger at their previous lack of civil rights unless they were professional dissidents.

The Western do-gooders who flew in to advise Russian on how to change its laws and institutions fed right into this mind set. The selling point for all their grand nation building plans was “do this and you will become rich like us.” The failure of these promises to pan out in the way that the Russians envisioned had a lot to do with their disillusionment with the West.

Nowadays it is common to say that Western advisers made an error when they pushed economic shock therapy on a confused Russian people. But all of this controversy has obscured the more fundamental question. Is it really possible to found an Anglo-Saxon style democracy on the foundation of people’s desire to get rich?

Of course, picking on Russia is an easy target. It is hardly controversial to suggest that Russia’s attachment to democracy and human rights is not very deep. At this point, many people seem to have more or less given up on Russia accepting Western style democracy.

For the most part, this is a false sense of realism. It causes people to think that the future of Russia is that of a strong autocratic country whose interests sometimes run counter to the US. People are under the illusion that threat posed by Russia comes from its increasing strength and its hostility to Western ideals.

But the truth of the matter is that the Russia people have not given up trying ape what they understand the Anglo-Saxon model to be. Vladimir Putin’s decision to step down as President and become Prime Minister is a tribute of sorts to the Anglo-Saxon political model. It may seem farcical to Western eyes, but if Russia had truly given up on the Anglo-Saxon political model, such games would not be necessary.

The fact is that Russia still hopes to become a modern and wealthy country along Western lines. And as poorly as they execute it, they still strive to observe the appearances of respecting human rights and having a functioning democracy. Even though they have a deeply rooted paranoia of the West, they still cling to appearance of having a Western-style government. To abandon such games would be to give up all pretense of being a modern state.

Putin’s great popularity rests on the fact that he has delivered what most Russians thought that Anglo-Saxon model should deliver. Under his watch, wages have increased 150%, GDP has increased 6 fold, and the number of people living in poverty has been cut in half. And he has done all that with a pretty light hand compared to Communists of old. From a Russian historical perspective, Putin’s governing methods seem positively Western.

It is natural, then, for Russians to bristle at any Western criticism of their leader. Such prissiness in the face of such great success seems like proof that the West will never accept Russia as an equal. The unfairness of it all seems especially apparent when Russians consider the fact that disastrous leaders such as such as Yeltsin and Gorbachev received less criticism than Putin. It seems to Russians that the West will only accept weak leaders so as to insure a weak Russia.

The real problem in Russia is not its increasingly authoritarian political governance. Rather, the real problem in Russia is the lack of authority. Putin may be wildly popular and he may control every organ of the state, but not many people would die for him. More importantly, there is no set of unifying ideals or institutions that Russians would die for. This lack of authority practically necessitates an authoritarian form of governance. If there are no ideals behind which people will rally, how else can you govern a country except by force?

To understand how little authority Putin possesses you need only to compare him to Tsar Nicholas II. Nicholas is best known as the last of the Russian Tsars. He was the one who lead Russia to its ruin. It was he who was killed along with all his family by the Communists. And yet Nicholas had more authority then Putin can ever hope to possess.

Consider the scale of Nicholas’s incompetence. He started and lost a disastrous war with the Japanese. He presided over a number of half baked reforms that only served to anger both conservative forces and liberal forces in Russia. He allowed his own supporters to be slaughtered by his own troops. He allowed himself and his family to fall under the influence of the sexually promiscuous and corrupt Rasputin. This brought his whole family into disrepute. He fired Pyotr Stolypin and halted his reforms even though Stolypin could have saved his empire. And worst of all, he rashly entered Russia into World War I. The result of that disaster alone was over 3 million dead Russians and almost 5 million wounded. On top of that, Russian was consumed by hyperinflation and experienced widespread shortages of basic goods. The result of this last disaster was too much even for a Tsar’s authority and he was forced to step down when the resulting revolution overthrew his government.

And yet, the Communists later felt compelled to execute him and his entire family. By their own confession, they did not do this because of Tsar’s alleged crimes. Instead, they feared that the Tsar would become a rallying symbol in the civil war they were fighting. They acknowledged that even after all his mistakes the Tsar represented ideals that many Russians had a deep attachment to. In other words, he still had some authority left even after he was stripped of his power.

By contrast, Putin has been far more effective as ruler. But he could never get away with making mistakes on the scale of some of Nicholas’s smaller errors. His support is based entirely on prosperity that he has brought to Russia and should Russia’s economic performance begin to lag the political vultures will soon begin to circle. He represents no ideals save the desire to be rich and powerful. The day he loses power is the day he will be irrelevant.

Putin realizes this, even if people in the West do not understand it. This is why he spends so much time trying to build up the Russian Orthodox Church. This is why he tries so hard to instill a deep love of country in the Russian youth. He is desperately looking for ways of building up the authority of the Russian state.

I do not think that Putin is trying to do this exclusively for his own sake, even though it is common to view Putin as one who has been corrupted by power. His public pronouncements make it clear that he realizes the scope of the crisis that Russia faces. I think he realizes that power alone will not be enough to enable Russia to overcome the disaster that awaits it.

As with many countries in the modern world, the core of Russia’s problems can be found its demographics. But Russia’s demographic problems are far worse than the type of problems that cause people to worry about the future of Social Security here in the US. They are even worse than the demographics of countries such as Japan and Germany whose low birth rates are a cause for grave concern.

In most countries with demographic concerns, the focus is on the total fertility rate. In Russia this stands at 1.4 total births/per woman. This is far below replacement rate. But in this respect, Russia is far from being unique. After all, both Germany and Japan have similar fertility rates (though that should not be any kind of comfort).

But where Russia is unique (at least compared to developed world, some other Slavic countries have similar problems) is in the scale of the other problems that are exacerbating its demographic crisis. For starters, it has the third highest suicide rate in the world. Russia also has a serious drinking problem. It has been estimated that half of all the deaths of working age males stems from alcohol abuse. As if that was not enough, Russia also has a serious and growing AIDs problem. In fact, parallels can be draw between aids problem in Russia now and the aids problem in South African in the early 90’s.

What all this means is that Russia does well in terms of infant mortality and its old age mortality rate is comparable to its peer group (Countries such as Brazil, Mexico, and Turkey). But according to Demographic Policy in Russia: From Reflection to Action (a peer reviewed study sponsored by the UN) the mortality rate among working age males is 3 to 5 times that of its peer group (for woman the mortality rate is more than twice Russia’s peer group). In other words, the problems brought about by the lack of children are being accelerated by the fact that working age people are dropping dead from preventable causes. It also means that Russia leads the world in orphans per 100,000 children.

To make matters worse, Russia cannot rely on immigrants to make up for the population shortfall like other countries in similar positions hope to do. For one thing, Russia’s extreme xenophobia means that really nasty things happen to foreigners who have the wrong skin color on a regular basis. This discourages immigration. Another problem is that many of the Slavic countries that might provide immigrants acceptable to Russia’s xenophobic culture have extreme demographic problems of their own. And even if all these problems went away, Russia’s relative poverty compared to other countries with demographic problems means that it is unlikely to get the immigrants that it needs.

The combination of all these problems means that Russia’s population has been dropping for some time. According to Demographic Policy in Russia: From Reflection to Action, Russia has lost 12 million people since 1992. This loss was partially offset by Russian nationals who moved backed to Russian during this time period. This means that the total Russian population only dropped from 148.5 million in 1992 to 142 million in 2007. But now that flow of Russians who used to live in the Soviet Republics has dropped off, Russia will start to experience a sharp drop in population.

In fact, the authors of Demographic Policy in Russia: From Reflection to Action predict that Russia will lose about twenty million people from now until 2025. More crucially for Russian economic prospects, Russia is expected to lose one million working age people per year from now until 2025. As bad as those numbers sound, both of those forecasts are highly optimistic. They assume that the AIDs crisis in Russia will not get worse, and it assumes that economic growth in Russia will continue its upward trend. Both assumptions are dubious, to say the least.

It is highly unlikely that Russia can continue its current rate of economic growth while it is losing a million people out of its work force per year. Already Russia is suffering labor shortages in many key areas. And it is highly unlikely that Russia can come up with an effective AIDs policy when corruption and incompetence have hindered every other social policy that Russia has tried to implement to date.

The fact that Russia is even facing problems of this scale demonstrates what happens to a society that lacks authority. You can’t stop people from committing suicide with power. You can’t fix a widespread addiction to alcohol with power (the Communists found this out when they tried to stamp out the problem in the 80’s). You can’t make people value children with power.

Since the Russian government lacks the authority to stop the demographic slide, it stands to reason that it lacks the authority to survive the crisis that slide will bring on. This is especially true in view of the fact that the population of Islamic minorities in Russia is increasing in numbers. They do not suffer from the same demographic problems that the ethnic Russians do and they dislike the Russian state. It is likely that as soon as economic problems weaken the Russian State sufficiently they will make their feelings known in force.

What we are looking at is a complete implosion of the Russian nation. During the economic crisis that followed the end of the Soviet Empire, Russia almost fell apart. It was rescued by rising oil prices, but given the scale of the crisis facing Russia it is hard to imagine miracle big enough to prevent Russia from falling into a serious and prolonged economic crisis. Given that, we may safely say that Russia will fall apart.

Since the Russian state is still has over 14,000 nuclear arms in its possession, this is a crisis that threatens the whole world. If you are worried about the scale of problems that threatens America’s banking system, you should be hysterical with fear over Russia’s problems. Every day that you pay $4 a gallon for gasoline you should be getting down on your knees and thanking God for the high oil prices that sustain the Russian state. You should be hoping that at economic slowdown in the Western world does not significantly affect the income of oil producers.

The fact that people are not inclined to do any of those things demonstrates that people are not very good a rationally judging the severity of various threats. The results of the implosion of Russia would be far worse than the implosion of America’s banking system, and yet people tend to be more worried about the latter then the former.

This sanguine attitude is in part supported by the usual lies that people tell when they don’t want to face the truth. For example, there are a lot of stories out there pointing to the uptick in Russian births and the down tick in Russian deaths as proof that Russian demographics are turning the corner. But as anyone who has looked into the matter could tell you, this does not represent good news.

The reasons for this seeming positive trend are simple and are explained by Demographic Policy in Russia: From Reflection to Action. The old people who will be dying off in Russia over the next couple of years were born during World War II. For reasons anyone should be able to understand, this was a smaller than normal generation. That means that they will produce a smaller number of deaths over the next couple of years. You also have a small increase in the number of woman of child bearing age because of a temporary uptick in the number of births back in the 80’s. Put these trends together, and you have a small decrease in the rate of Russian population loss.

These trends are going to reverse in a couple of years. After the temporary uptick in births back in the 80’s there was a sharp drop off that will lead to corresponding sharp drop in births starting 2012. Moreover, as the post World War II generation will start to die off around the same time. This will lead to a sharp increase in the number of deaths. Thus, the rate of Russian population decline is going to accelerate sharply around that time, and continue on for the foreseeable future.

All that the seemingly good news proves is that the number of births and deaths that are happening now are heavily dependent on what happened 25 and 70 years ago, respectively. Anyone who accepts this fact is bound to be frightened by what it implies for Russia’s future. The women who will be capable of bearing children in 2025 have already been born. And there simply won’t be enough of them to prevent an implosion.

To many people, this seems like an excessively mechanistic view future. It fails to take in account people’s ability to recognize and overcome problems. It is often argued that if Russia made it more economically attractive to be a mother, then Russia’s population free fall would eventually stop. To put it crudely, the idea is that if you pay people to breed, they will.

The problem with this idea is that it presupposes a wealthy and efficiently run Russia that is able to pay enough to make up for the economic costs of having a child. Because of a lag in demographic effects, a sharp fall in the Russian working age population is irreversible till at least 2025. If this has the economic effects that reasonable people expect, the Russian government will have hard time coming up with the money to pay any money to working mothers. It is even less likely that Russia will be able to come up with the money needed to make motherhood economically attractive seeing as it is unable to do this at the present time.

The problem with Russia is not that its problems are insurmountable. The problem is that Russia’s problems are not surmountable with power. If the Russian population was idealistic and willing to sacrifice their own well being towards a higher goal, one could imagine ways out of the Russian predicament. But it is unrealistic to hope that Russia can solve its problems by throwing money at them. If this worked, all the aid money thrown at Africa would have turned it into a paradise by now.

But if the Russian population were idealistic they would not be in the predicament that they are in now. Such things as widespread drunkenness and high rates of suicide are merely a reflection of that fact that the Russia population has no widespread set of ideals. Instead, they are ruled by what Solzhenitsyn called the Thieves Law.

The Thieves Law refers to a common saying of criminal eliminates in the old Soviet concentration camps. According to Solzhenitsyn, these people openly proclaimed the motto “You today, me tomorrow.” In other words, I am going to make it so that you die today, so I don’t have die until tomorrow. This corrupting motto spread throughout all of Russian society under Communist rule.

A society with a criminal ethos is no more stable than a criminal organization. Without a source of authority, a society will have just as much trouble hanging together as a criminal organization. Thus, the crisis in Russia is ultimately a crisis of authority. But this crisis is hardly limited to Russia. Most of the countries in the world are ruled by governments who have power, but little authority.

Historically, this is an oddity. Most of the governments throughout history were deeply rooted in the religious and ethical ideals of the cultures they governed. But today, most governments are accidental creations that were formed out of the dead empires. Other governments were created by ideologies that had authority once, but now those governments hardly even pretend to believe in the ideologies that created them anymore. The failure of many of these nations would be catastrophic even if Russia stood forever.

There is Ukraine, a nation in search of a reason to exist, besides its language. It does not have a well developed sense of national identity because it has not existed as an independent state since the eleventh century. At the time of the death of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand it was divided between Austria and Russia. Not surprisingly, the parts that used to be controlled by Austria want to be close to Europe and the parts that were controlled by Russia want to be close to Russia. This sharp division has created serious tensions in Ukraine.

In addition to the political problems created by these sharp divisions, the Ukraine has demographic problems that are even worse than Russia’s. It has already lost roughly 6 million people (or 6.23% percent of its population in 1989) and its fertility rate is the lowest in Europe. Without oil to cushion the blow of its demographic problems, the Ukraine is currently dealing with serious economic problems. Since Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe, its collapse will seriously destabilize much of Eastern Europe.

Then there is Serbia. Unlike Ukraine, many people in Serbia have fairly clear idea of why they want to be a nation. Unfortunately, the realization of their national ideals is likely to destabilize the whole of the Balkans. A pro-Western government has barely won a recent election on the promises of prosperity. Any serious economic problems would likely put the nationalist back in charge.

Never discount the possibility that big problems could come from small countries. If America was distracted by serious economic problems, the fun could start all over again. If Russia was imploding it is quite conceivable that Serbia could acquire nuclear weapons so as to prevent Western interference. Of course, none of those things could happen, but one should never be sanguine where the Balkans are concerned.

Pakistan needs no commentary except to note that what stability it currently has depends largely on American financial aid. Removal of this aid and/or the continual worsening of the global economic situation will likely remove what little power the secular authorities’ posses.

The leaders of China have all but admitted that they depend on economic growth to stay in power. They have no other authority besides the belief that their fall will bring about economic chaos. Since they have tightly tied their economic fate to that of US, it is likely that China will experience an economic crisis in the near future. Especially since they face demographic problems that are in some ways worse than Russia’s, albeit the full effects of their problems are little further down the road.

So will China take a cue from the former leaders of Argentine, who invade the Falkland Islands to distract their unhappy subjects from their economic problems? They have never renounced the use of force to retake Taiwan. Or will the historical fate of Chinese’s governments that lose authority come about? Will China brake up and descend into warlordism?

Mexico is even now struggling to hold itself together in the face of powerful criminal gangs. At the same time the oil production is falling off. This seriously threatens the revenue upon which the government depends on for funding. If the world wide economic situation worsens, it will make it that much harder for the government to hold Mexico together. The implosion of the Mexican state is not only possible, it is probable.

In Europe, far right parties are on the rise. They are feeding on wide spread disillusionment with the existing social order. And this growth has come even without any serious economic problems to feed the discontent. How will the people of Europe react when the full weight of their demographic problems makes itself felt? At best they will have to change their retirement dates and work more hours. Current events suggest that the people of Europe will not be pleased with such changes no matter how necessary.

The whole the Middle East is ruled by governments that have no authority, except Israel and possibly Jordan (because of the loyalty of the Bedouin tribes to throne). The governments of Egypt and Syria sprang from an ideology that no longer has any authority. Saudi Arabia is ruled by the last remaining sons of a dead man. When the sons are all gone, it remains to be seen if succession can be arranged in an orderly matter. Many Gulf states have Sunni rulers and populations that are largely Shiite. It remains to be seen if Iraq can hold together once the Americans leave. And on and on we could go about the lack of authority in the Middle East.

In almost every country in the Middle East there is an Islamic opposition that has more authority then the governments that are currently in power. In other words, more people are willing to die for Islamic ideals then are willing to die for the corrupt governments currently in power. History indicates that it is only a matter of time before the people with the authority become the people with the power. Worldwide economic problems will likely accelerate this process. And the likely consequences of instability in the Middle East do not need to be spelled out.

This is only a brief and incomplete survey of those countries that lack authority. The more in depth you study the problem, the worse it looks. Optimism is in as short a supply as wealthy countries with replacement rate birth rates. The educated elites who run most countries act as if being willing to die for something was proof of mental instability. Meanwhile, discontent with the existing social order in the lower classes is growing all over the world. They want something to believe in as they see their culture being swept away.

The only thing that keeps most of the world’s social orders from collapsing in chaos is the fact that living standards have been increasing the world over. As long as people lives are getting better, it is unlikely that they will want to destabilize the status quoi.

But it is not possible for the economic good times to go on forever. There will economic setbacks. In the past most nations states had ideals that they could fall back to in hard times. Continual prosperity was not necessary in order to insure the loyalty of the Russian patriots who supported old tsars or the committed Catholics who supported the Hapsburgs. But today, hard economic times will lead to the collapse of the social order in many countries around the globe.

It is impossible to predict what this collapse of social order will bring. But if history is any guide, the collapse of the social order is worse then disease, famine, or wars between nation states. It leads to civil wars that are without mercy. It leads to rise of ideologies that would be considered insane in normal times. It leads to a bleak despair. And into this historical mix we have now added weapons of mass destruction.

Even presuming that Anglo-Saxon ideals retain their authority in the nations that they were born in, the people of those nations will still feel the effects of the wide spread collapse of the social order. They will face tough moral choices with the lives of millions of people at stake. Maybe they will be called on to decided what burden they will bear and what price they will to pay to preserve the independence of Taiwan. Or perhaps they will have to decide what freedoms to retain and what actions to take in the face of nuclear weapons that have fallen into the hands of terror groups. Regardless of how it turns out, I have little doubt that that the Anglo-Saxon cultures will be facing one of the most serious crisis of their collective history in next 20 years.

As a result, the question that will weigh most heavily on the Anglo-Saxon mind over the next twenty years will not be “Will I have a job tomorrow?” Rather the question will be “What, if anything, should I die for?” And that is a much harder question to deal with.

7 Responses

  1. Woodrow Wilson Says:

    I am not sure what to make of all of this. You seem earnest and have obviously worked hard on your essay. But much of your effort has gone towards presenting a view of history that little connection to the facts.

    Having read your entire essay I am still unable to understand why we should regard the death of the Archduke as some magical dividing line in history. No one would argue that The First World War was anything but the most unfortunate occurrence. But the sweeping away of imperial authority would have happened regardless. One of the things that drove the German war mongers on was fear of a revolution in their own homeland. The changes that you talk about had their roots in a time long before the poor Archduke was killed.

    Your fundamental problem is that you do not allow for the reality of progress. Contrary to your assertions, the French Revolution had a lasting impact on Europe. And so did many reform efforts and revolutions in the pre world I era. Some of the outcomes of these efforts were regrettable, but that is how evolution works. The end result of this evolution has been a greatly increased understanding of the sciences of government. We now know a great deal about what works and what does not work.

    Yes, governments of today don’t have same religious character of those old empires. But seeing as all those religious attachments brought about a lot of bloodshed I don’t lament their absences. Have you ever heard of the 30 Year War? If that is the type of stability that “authority” brings I think I shall pass thank you very much.

    Good government should be boring. It is all about bringing about increasing basic human happiness, not satisfying the longing of disturbed men to feel part of something bigger then themselves. Governments should inspire men to improve their lives, not give them up. The fact that governments around the world now owe their legitimacy to their management of the economy is a good thing. It is far superior to a government based on chest thumping. In the long run, it is more stable as well. It is unlikely to get you into wars that you can’t get out off.

  2. Human Being Says:

    Did you live through the Great Depression? Do you know anything about life at all?

  3. Ben Hoffman Says:

    What you call authority seems to me like a specific hypothesis for how structured coordination might lead to good outcomes for people. People can feel varying amounts of credence or loyalty towards different ideas of authority.

    What you call power is very different from an idea. It’s a sadomasochistic coordination structure that is inherently alternative to and subversive of language. It strengthens and replicates itself through the practice of coercion, in an inherently escalating pattern that drives out all interests aside from that of power itself.

    My article Civil Law and Political Drama works out the theoretical framework for this. You seem like a serious independent thinker and I would to read your criticism.

    I the framing where authority is about what people would die for might be misleadingly symmetrical to your definition of power as what people would kill for. In fact power is about which people will take commands – against reason and interest – from which other people, under what circumstances. There is only one such thing power, it’s one kind of network, there are not alternative theories you can try out the way there are alternative theories of legitimacy, only alternative ways of dealing with or accommodating the single underlying pattern of power itself.

    Authority is only about what people would die for in the sense you describe in your article on Spinoza:

    For example, a man in a desert with only one spring of water will cherish that spring of water as he cherishes himself, even though the spring of water is completely indifferent to his fate. In fact, the man will fight to the death to keep from losing that spring of water, for it would be his death to lose that spring of water.

    From the above example, we can see how it as at least possible for the desire to go on existing to cause one to give up one’s life for something that is not part of the interdependent forms that make up one’s self. But we are not all dependent on the same things to the same degree. A modern man who has been raised all his life in a city might very well fight to the death to keep from having to live in an environment that a bushman would feel at home in. In part, this is for the obvious reason that a city man will not have the skills to get food, water, and whatnot in the bush environment. But it is much more than that if you accept Spinoza’s argument.

    We are affected in some way by everything that we hear, taste, feel, or see. All of these things affect our body and thus affect our idea of ourselves in some way. What this means is that if the essence of you is the desire to go on existing, it can take more than just food and water and whatnot to fulfill that desire. Take the example of the city man; he will deeply miss the cultural life of the city if he is forced to live in the bush, even if he somehow manages to get enough food and water to keep going. It is possible, therefore, that he could love his culture enough to risk his life for it.

    The nature of legitimate authority is that rational agents come to know themselves within, not outside, the context of an intersubjective interpretive apparatus. Therefore a member of a language or legal community may experience the prospect of excommunication as the prospect of actual death, and be willing to bear any personal risk to avert that event.

    The Kantian categorical imperative, viewed from this perspective, is an attempt to specify the generalized normative constraints within which rational agents can exist at all. An intersubjective interpretive apparatus only originates and perpetuates itself through its members’ use of its symbols as ways to think together about shared problems. We can only know about ourselves within a preexisting structure for knowing about things at all, i.e. descriptive language. The attempt to manipulate others’ perspectives using these symbols is parasitic on the process of shared interpretation, even if they historically may have coevolved.

    This is why, in Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals, Kant focuses on the example of lying. He is not asserting the Golden Rule. He is not arguing that if you do what you wouldn’t like others to do to you, things will go worse generally. He is specifically talking about the preconditions for being a rational agent, not the simpler “tragedy of the commons”.

    Consider the problem of litter. One would prefer no one else to litter, and one might imagine a preference to personally get away with littering. If you get away with it personally by evading punishment, the visible presence of litter erodes the implied norm. But the act of littering is not itself rendered meaningless if the norm against it collapses; rather, it continues to be a locally convenient way to dispose of trash.

    What’s bad about wishing to get away with secretly littering is the element of secrecy. Whenever someone tries to think through a problem together with you that touches on your secret, your natural orientation is not to think along with them, but to anticipate where the inquiry might expose your secret and oppose it in those directions. Once you tell a lie, the truth is ever after your enemy.

    This is strongly related to the distinction in Kant’s short essay What Is Enlightenment? between public and private reason. Private reason is compatible with trying to get away with things (you could say it’s simulacrum level 2), but erosive of the shared language within which the rational mind is formed in the first place. Public reason is incompatible with trying to get away with things, and persuades based on shared interests. The idea that I and I alone should get away with littering can be persuasive within private reason, if I calculate that the personal convenience of littering outweighs the cost of decorrelating from other minds. But it will not be persuasive as public reason unless there is some shared metric by which making a special case for me seems beneficial to many people.

    In practice it is more profitable for me on nearly any metric to spend more attention on public and less on private reason. Even a couple of other correlated minds increases the range of outcomes I can produce by a very large multiple of the winnings I can extract through the use of private reason. But just as causal decision theory can only get the more profitable answer on Newcomblike problems by self-modifying into a variant of logical decision theory, I cannot participate in public reason by calculating privately on each instance whether it is the better thing to do, but by opening my mind to shared reason and orienting away from the life strategy involving secrets and advantage, except where I need to do so in service of my langauge community’s defense, i.e. in wartime.

    It is wartime, of course. In addition to what I already linked, See There Is A War, Talents, The Order of the Soul, On Drama, and Is Stupidity Strength? parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

    Private reason is a subversion of public reason that makes an unprincipled special case of the person in whose brain a calculation is being performed. Power is the general pattern of navigating unprincipled special cases. It turns public reason into private reason, but does not leave private reason – which can understand language without fully participating in it – alone; rather, the procession of simulacra continues, destroying the mind’s capacity to communicate intersubjectively with itself.

  4. The Editor Says:

    Mr. Hoffman,

    This essay is meant to be more practical then philosophical so the terms in it are necessarily imprecise.

    The problem in practical terms is that modern society is based around the idea that people rationally pursuing what is best for them will result in good outcomes. It is on this grounds that liberty is presumed to be a good thing.

    But every society that has widespread female participation in higher education, a secular outlook, and the ability to for woman to freely find employment outside the home, the birth rate drops well below replacement. The severity of this drop is obscured by the practice of mixing in the birthrates of woman who do not fall into this category with those who do. A prime example of this would be the reported fertility rate of Israel which mixes the high fertility of Ultra-Orthodox Jews with that of secular and less religious Jews who are far below replacement rate. This is mathematically unsustainable but even in countries where this is clearly a problem (i.e. Japan although to the mathematically perceptive it is already an issue a across the modern world even if it is not yet showing up as population loss). In order for this to change, people have to want to make the sacrifices necessary for their society to survive.

    This essay argues that such a willingness to sacrifice for the sack of society is lacking the world over doming societies to destruction. Birth rates are only one aspect of this issue but are the thing that is most mathematically clear cut.

  5. Ben Hoffman Says:

    That seems exactly backwards to me. I know plenty of women who very much authentically want to have children, but don’t, and instead sacrificially pour time into careers that give them validation but no pleasure because they feel compelled to.

  6. Ben Hoffman Says:

    I understand that there’s widespread propaganda that we live in a society with near-total freedom, but when I described my upper-middle-class upbringing, schooling, and early career to an elderly African-American jazz musician he said it sounded totalitarian. Different social classes face different cultural conditions, and increasing numbers of Americans are being actively recruited into social conditioning that suppresses reproduction. Consider this chart – advanced degrees are a strong indicator of high-time-preference conformity. The people sacrificing the most to comply with central cultural imperatives are having the fewest children.

  7. The Editor Says:

    At what point are people responsible for their own choices? Many woman with advanced degrees do have children. Many woman choose not to pursue advanced degrees so that they can have a family. All the ones who choose not to have children are victims even when they claim to not want children consistently?

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