The fundamental problem of governance is the misalignment between means and ends. In all practically achievable government systems, the process of acquiring and maintaining power requires different skills than the exercise of power. The core criteria of any good system of government, therefore, must be selecting people by a metric that bears some resemblance to governing, or perhaps more importantly, having a metric that actively filters out people who are not suited to govern.
When the difference between means and ends becomes extreme, achieving power serves only to demonstrate unsuitability for holding it. Such systems are inevitably doomed to collapse.
Many people (I am thinking most notably of neo-reactionaries) put too much stock in the incentives or institutions of government systems. Neo-reactionaries look at the institutions of monarchies and claim they lead to stability, because monarchs have a large personal incentive to improve their kingdom and their lifetime tenure should afford them a long time horizon.
In practice, however, monarchies are rather unstable. This is because monarchs are chosen by accident of birth and may have little affinity for the patient business of building a nation. In addition, to maintain power, monarchs must be responsive to the aristocracy. This encourages the well documented disdain for the peasantry that was common in monarchical governments.
Monarchy, like many other systems of government, was not doomed so much by its institutions, as by its process for choosing a leader. The character of leaders is the destiny of nations and many forms of government have no way of picking people with a character conducive to governing well.
By observing the pathologies of failed systems of government, it becomes possible to understand why democracy is a uniquely successful form of government, as well as the risks that emergent social technologies pose to democracy.
“Lenin’s core of original Bolsheviks… were many of them highly educated people…and they preserved these elements even as they murdered and lied and tortured and terrorised. They were social scientists who thought principle required them to behave like gangsters. But their successors… were not the most selfless people in Soviet society, or the most principled, or the most scrupulous. They were the most ambitious, the most domineering, the most manipulative, the most greedy, the most sycophantic.” – Francis Spufford, Red Plenty
The revolution that created the USSR was one founded on high minded ideals. The revolutionaries were going to create a new society, one that was fair, equal, and perfect; a utopia on earth. Yet, the bloody business of carving out a new state often stood in stark contrast to these ideals – as is common in revolutions.
It is, as a rule, difficult to tell which revolutions will lead to good rule and which to bloody shambles and repression. Take, as an example, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. They started as an egalitarian organization that treated prisoners of war with respect and ended up as one of the most brutal governments in the world.
Seizing power in a revolution requires a grasp of military tactics and organization; the ability to build a parallel state apparatus in occupied areas; the ability to inspire people to fight for your side; and a grasp of propaganda. While there is overlap with the skills necessary for civilian rule here, the perspective of a rebel is particularly poorly suited to governing according to the rule of law.
It is hard to win a revolution without coming to believe on some fundamental level that might makes right. The 20th century is littered with examples of rebels who cannot put aside this perspective shift when they transition to civilian rule.
(This, incidentally, is why nonviolent resistance leads to more stable governments and why repressive governments are so scared of it. A successful non-violent revolution leaves much less room for the dictator’s eventual return.)
It was so with the Soviets. Might makes right – perhaps more so even than communism – was the founding ideal of the Soviet Union.
Stalin succeeded Lenin as the leader of the Soviet Union via political manoeuvering, backstabbing, and the destruction of his enemies, tactics that would become key in future transfers of power.
To grasp the reins of the Soviet Union, it became necessary to view people as tools; to bribe key constituencies, to control the secret police, and to placate the army.
And this set of tools is not well suited to governing a prosperous nation. Attempts to reform the USSR with shadow prices, perhaps the only thing that could have saved communism, failed because shadow prices represented a loss of central control. If prices were not set politically, it would be impossible to manipulate them to reward compatriots and guarantee stability.
It’s true that its combination economic system and ambitions doomed the Soviet Union right from the start. It could not afford to be a global superpower while constrained by an economic philosophy that sharply limited its growth and guaranteed frequent shortages. But both of these were, in theory, mutable. It was only with such an ossifying process for choosing leaders that the Soviet Union was destined for failure.
In the USSR, legitimacy didn’t come from the people, but from the party apparatus. Bold changes, of the sort necessary to rescue the Soviet economy were unthinkable because they cut against too many entrenched interested. The army budget could not be decreased because the leader needed to maintain control of the army. The economic system couldn’t be changed because of how tightly the elite were tied to it.
The USSR needed bold, pioneering leaders who were willing to take risks and shake up the system. But the system guaranteed that those leaders would never rule. And so, eventually, the USSR fell.
“The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don’t have to waste your time voting.” – Charles Bukowski
Military dictatorships that fall all fall in the same way: with an increasingly isolated junta issuing orders that are ignored by increasingly large swathes of the populace. The act of rising to the top of a military inculcates a belief that victory can always be achieved by finding the right set of orders. This is the mindset that military dictators bring to governing and it always leads to disaster. Whatever virtues of organization or delegation generals learn, it is never enough to overcome this central flaw.
Governing a modern state requires flexibility. There are always many constituencies: business owners, workers, teachers, doctors. There are often many regions, each with different economic needs. To support resource extraction can harm manufacturing – and vice versa. Bureaucrats have their own pet projects, their own red lines, and their own ideas.
This environment is about as different as it’s possible to be from an army. The military tells soldiers to follow orders. Civilians are rather worse at this task.
Expecting a whole society to follow orders, to put their own good aside for someone else’s plan is folly. Enough people will always buck orders to make a mockery of any grand design.
It is for this reason that military governments are so easy to satirize. Watching career soldiers try and herd cats can be darkly amusing, although the humour is quickly lost if one dwells too long on the atrocities military governments turn to when thwarted.
After all, the flip side of discipline is punishment. Failing to obey orders in the military is normally a crime, whereas failing to obey orders in the civil service is often par for the course. When these two mindsets collide, a junta is likely to impose harsh punishments on anyone disobeying. This doesn’t spring naturally from their position as dictators – most juntas start out with stunning idealistic beliefs about national salvation – but does spring naturally from military regulations. And so again we see a case where it is the background of the leaders, not the structure of the dictatorship that leads to the worst excesses.
You can replace the leaders as often as you like or tweak the laws, but as long as you keep appointing generals to rule, you will find they expect orders to be obeyed unquestioningly and respond harshly to any perceived disloyalty.
There is one last great vice of military dictatorships: a tendency to paper over domestic discontent with foreign wars. Military dictators know that revanchist wars can create popular support, so foreign adventuring is often their response when their legitimacy begins to crumble.
Off the top of my head, I can think of two wars started by military dictatorships seeking to improve their standing (the Falkland War and Six-Day War). No doubt a proper survey would turn up many others.
Since the time of Plato, soldier-rulers have been held up as the ideal heads of state. It is perhaps time to abandon this notion.
“Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” – Winston Churchill to the House of Commons
To gain power in a democracy, a politician needs to win election. This normally requires some skill in oratory and debate, the ability to delegate to competent subordinates, the ability to come up with a plan and clearly articulate how it will improve people’s lives, possibly some past experience governing that paints a flattering picture, and above all a good reputation with enough people to win an election. This oft-maligned “popularity contest” is actually democracy’s secret weapon.
Democracy is principally useful as a form of government that is resistant to corruption. Corruption is the act of arrogating state power to take benefits for yourself or give them to your friends. Persistent and widespread corruption is one of the biggest impediments to growth worldwide, so any technology (and government system are a type of cultural technology) that reduces corruption is a powerful force for human flourishing.
It is the requirement for a good reputation that helps democracy stand against corruption. In any society where corruption is scorned, democracy ensures that no one who is visibly corrupt can grasp power; if corruption is sufficient to ruin a reputation, no one who is corrupt can win a “popularity contest”.
(It is also worth noting that the demand for a sterling reputation rules out people who have tortured dissidents or ordered protestors shot. As long as autocrats are not revered, democracy can protect against many forms of repression.)
There are three main ways the democracy can fail to live up to its promise. First, it can fail because corruption isn’t appropriately sanctioned. If corruption becomes just the way things are done and scandals stop sticking, then democracy becomes much weaker as a check on corruption.
Second, democracy can be hijacked by individuals whose only skill is self-promotion. In a functioning democracy, the electorate demands that political resumes include real achievements. When this breaks down, democracy becomes a contest: who can disseminate their fake or exaggerated resume the furthest.
It is from this perspective that 24/7 news and social media present a threat to democracy. Donald Trump is an excellent example of this failure mode. He made use of viral lies and controversial statements to ensure that he was in front of as many voters as possible. His largely fake reputation for business acumen was enough to win over a few others.
There are many constituencies in all societies. Demonstrably, President Trump is not popular in America, but he appealed to enough people that he was able to build up a solid voting block in the primaries.
Beyond the primaries Trump demonstrated the third vulnerability of democracies: partisanship. Any democracy where partisanship becomes a key factor in elections is in grave danger. Normally, the reputational component of democracy selects for people with a resume of past successes (an excellent predictor of future successes) while elections with significant numbers of undecided voters provide an advantage to people who run tight campaigns – people who are good at nurturing talent and delegating (an excellent skill for governing).
Partisanship short-circuits this process and selects for whoever can whip up partisan crowds most successfully. This is a rather different sort of person! Rabid partisans spurn compromise and ignore everyone outside of their core constituency because those are the tactics that have rewarded them in the past.
Trump was able to win in part because such a large cross-section of the American electorate was willing to look beyond his flaws if it meant that someone from the other party didn’t win.
A large block of swing voters who look critically at politicians’ reputations and refuse to accept iconoclasts is an important safety valve in any democracy.
This model of democracy neatly explains why it isn’t universally successful. In societies with several strong tribal or religious identities, democracy results in cronyism dominated by the largest tribe/denomination, because it selects for whomever can promise the most to this large block. In countries that don’t have adequate cultural safeguards against corruption, corruption does not ruin reputations and democracy does nothing to squash it.
Democracy isn’t a panacea, but in the right cultural circumstances it is superior to any other realistic form of government.
Unfortunately, we can see that democracy is under attack on two fronts in Western nations. First, social media encourages shallow engagement and makes it easy for people to build constituencies around controversial statements. Second, partisanship is deepening in many societies.
I don’t know what specific remedies exist for these trends, but they strike me as two of the most important to reverse if we wish our democratic institutions to continue to provide good government.
If we cannot find a way to fix partisanship and self-promotion within our current system, then the most important political reform we can undertake is to find a system of government that can pick leaders with the right character for governing even under these very difficult circumstances.
[Epistemic status: much more theoretical than most of my writing. To avoid endless digressions, I don’t justify my centrist axioms very often. I’m happy to further discuss anything that strikes anyone as light on evidence in the comments.]