The Gandalf Test

The two dominant American political parties have one defining trait in common, and it’s the trait that makes them both undeserving to hold the power they seek to wield. Both parties fail the Gandalf test.

I derive the Gandalf test from one of my favorite conversations in the Lord of the Rings. Gandalf pays a visit to Frodo Baggins after concluding that Bilbo’s old ring is in fact the One Ring–the single most dangerous and powerful object in Middle-earth. Once the full enormity of the ring dawns on Frodo, he tries to thrust it upon Gandalf. Gandalf flatly refuses. “With that power I should have power too great and terrible.” He recognized that he cannot embrace so much power even though he would want to do good with it. “Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me!”

The Gandalf test is simple: a righteous cause and a genuine desire to save the world do not qualify anyone for the exercise of extensive unilateral power. The Republican and Democratic Parties both have recently failed this test, and not for the first time. On one side, President Trump has turned to emergency powers to barge through constitutional barriers, so convinced he is that his cause is just. On the other side, the Green New Deal proposes to remake the United States economy. We tend to too often squabble over the merits of these policies instead of stepping back to apply the Gandalf test. Even if the policies themselves are good ones, even urgent ones, we must ask whether any person or cadre should wield the extraordinary power to put them into action. The “desire of strength to do good” is not enough.

A clear message of Gandalf’s and the Lord of the Rings generally is that progress toward the good and worthy comes through the everyday courage and goodness of ordinary people, not a few great souls on gilded thrones. Elsewhere, Gandalf points out: “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay.” And in the Return of the King: “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” What a wonderfully apt response to the Green New Deal’s attempt to rule with an iron fist today in order to literally rule the weather that others might have tomorrow. That kind of hubris is poison to a republic.

We need to subject our leaders to the Gandalf test. We need to know if they are the type to vainly “master all the tides of the world,” or whether they will lead in humility by quietly empowering the everyday deeds of everyday people. If they can’t pass the test, I couldn’t care less whether they’re proposing a wall, a tax hike, or a clean energy revolution.

John Rawls had good reason to be a reticent socialist and political liberal

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John Rawls: Reticent Socialist by William A. Edmundson has provoked a renewed attempt, written up in Jacobin and Catalyst, to link the totemic American liberal political philosopher with an explicitly socialist program to fix the problems of 21st century capitalism, and especially the domination of the political process by the super-rich. I found the book a powerful and enlightening read. But I think it ultimately shows that Rawls was right not to weigh his philosophy down with an explicit political program, and that socialists have yet to respond effectively to James Buchanan’s exploration of the challenges of non-market decision-making – challenges that bite more when states take on more explicit economic tasks. The large-scale public ownership of industry at the core of Edmundson’s democratic socialism is plausibly compatible with a stable, liberal political community in some circumstances but it is unclear how such a regime is supposed to reduce the scope of social domination compared with a private-property market economy in similar circumstances once we look at public institutions with the same skeptical attention normally reserved for private enterprise. A draft review is below.

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Fantasy and politics

I wish fantasy novels offered more political diversity. I adore fantasy, but I’ve begun to chafe at the ironic lack of creativity when it comes to political regimes. The genre may be missing a great opportunity. Or maybe I’m reading the wrong books.

While I don’t really mean this as a criticism so much as an observation, monarchy and feudalism abound in most other-world fantasies. Or the politics are indistinct. Despite my deep love for Tolkien, he falls into this category as well–either political control is unclear in regions like the Shire, or the region is ruled by an absolute ruler. His most well-known series culminates with the return of the benevolent dictator to the throne, Aragorn King of all the Dunedain (granted, there is intentional Christian symbolism here).

Modern fantasists follow a similar trend. Brandon Sanderson’s books, while wonderful, tend to involve worlds replete with absolute rulers. In fact, in the original Mistborn trilogy, a naive emperor tries to impose a more representative system of government, fails, and then decides that a firm hand is what’s called for. He and other authors like Robert Jordan dabble with some interesting political ideas and do provide a great deal of political detail, but they ultimately tend toward absolutism of some variety. Terry Pratchett’s main city-state on Discworld, Ankh-Morkpork, is ruled over by an absolute ruler, but Pratchett at least takes plenty of opportunity to poke fun at the masses’ constant yearning for a noble king to tell them what to do. Really, all these books are splendid, and politics are typically not their centerpiece–I just think some more variety may be valuable to the genre. (I’m not pointing fingers, as I’m guilty of the same problem–my forthcoming fantasy novel takes place in an empire with an absolute ruler and a largely meaningless parliament).

Fantasists could perhaps take a page from their science fiction comrades, where experiments with politics seem more common. Fantasy authors could do more than tinker with small tweaks to the monarchy and mercantilism of a pre-enlightenment age.  I can’t help but roll my eyes when I hear Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones gushing about how Daenaerys Targaryen is the only person who can swoop in and save the Seven Kingdoms from itself. That’s remedial polisci–surely we can do better. Who wouldn’t want to read about an anarcho-capitalist Iron Islands or a post-communist King’s Landing?

If you have any good recommendations for other-world fantasies that take up this challenge, I’d love to hear them!

Rent isn’t a four-letter word

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Inspired by the publication this week of NYU scholar Alain Bertaud‘s critical new book Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities (MIT press), Sandy Ikeda‘s pre-book development series Culture of Congestion over at Market Urbanism, and London YIMBY, here is a note on housing reform.

Classical liberals see the economic solution to housing as relatively simple: increase supply to better meet demand. By contrast, the political economy of housing is almost intractably complex. The reason for this is that there are endless externalities associated with new housing: access to light, picturesque landscape, open space and uncongested roads just for starters. These gripes and grievances are the bread and butter of local politics. Unlike consumer product markets, housing cannot be disentangled from these social, political and legal controversies. A successful market-based housing policy must establish institutions that not only encourage housing supply growth but navigate around these problems while doing so.

Policy reform proposals that deliberately favour increasing owner-occupied single-family homes, as tends to be the focus among market liberals in the UK (and to some extent in the US), are currently self-defeating. As justified as they were in the past to achieve a more market-friendly political settlement, they are now a barrier to achieving plentiful, affordable housing. This is because every new homeowner becomes an entrenched interest, a potential opponent to subsequent housing development in their area. They impose more political externalities than renters. I propose we cut the link between support for home ownership and housing supply policies. This would free up policymaking to focus on expanding provision by all available market-compatible means.

This should include greater encouragement of institutional landlords, especially commercial enterprises. Commercial landlords have more incentive and capability to expand supply on estates that they own, while long-term renters (unlike homeowners) have an interest in keeping rental costs low. The lack of private firms dedicated to supplying housing in England compared to much of the rest of the world is startling and yet often overlooked even by friends of free enterprise.

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Populism versus Constitutional Democracy

What is the difference between a conservative and a reactionary? A conservative knows when she has lost.

A conservative respects the status quo for the sake of stability. The reactionary rebels against it. Unfortunately, it is the reactionary impulse within Brexit that now threatens to hem in the liberties of British citizens, and threaten the rights of foreign residents, for a long time to come. A looser but productive relationship that Britain could have had with the European Union was lost, first at Maastricht in 1992, then again at Lisbon in 2007. A conservative recognizes this loss and adapts her politics to the new landscape. The reactionary tries to reconstruct those lost pasts in vain as the chaotic debates in Britain and the increasingly disappointing outcome illustrates.

Does this mean that referendums are bad? Do they only embolden radicals and reactionaries? It depends. If referendums are used to rubberstamp the decisions of a party in power, or as a way of deferring political judgement, then they are useless at best, dangerous at worst. By contrast, if they are part of the fabric of a democracy, and act as a real veto on constitutional change, rather than a populist rallying point, then they can be enormously valuable. They act as an additional check on the political establishment that might be irrationally fixated on some new governance structure. It ensures that every major change carries with it some level of majority support.

Ten years ago, I wrote a monograph Total Recall: How direct democracy can improve Britain. I advocated supplementing representative democracy with a norm or statutory requirement for referendums on constitutional issues and new local initiative powers. I focused on direct democracy in US states that mean that US state elections often involve both voting for representatives and on propositions. Referendums are required for state constitutional changes. In some states, citizens can initiate new legislation through propositions.

There are parallel constitutional requirements in force in parts of Europe, particularly in Switzerland, Norway and Ireland. It is hardly a coincidence that direct democratic mechanisms have slowed down European integration wherever they have had statutory rather than merely advisory force. Ireland had to go to the polls several times to get the ‘right’ answer but at least this meant that a majority of Irish eventually accepted the new EU arrangements. By contrast, Switzerland and Norway, against the wishes of their political establishments, took European integration only so far before settling with generous trade relations and much more limited political integration. The cost-benefit calculus of their arrangements are up for debate, but fewwould deny their legitimacy. Britain’s future position, by contrast, may turn out to look much worse and all because its people never had the chance to say ‘no’ until long after the facts on the ground changed.

It’s the ability to say ‘no’ that’s important, with the implication that the status quo must still be a viable option. A people cannot be legislators. Mass votes can’t add up to complex judgements to inform actionable law. Hence the Brexit referendum for leaving the EU for an unknown alternative was bound to lead to chaos which, in the long run, may undermine the legitimacy of representative government, let alone popular democracy, rather than strengthen it. There is no status quo ante to return to.

At the time I was writing Total Recall, the spirits of referendums never voted on haunted British politics. Referendums were promised on adopting the Euro and the European Constitution. Both were abandoned when the Government realized they would almost certainly lose. So we stayed out of the Euro but signed what became the Lisbon Treaty. This turned out to be a deadly combination that eventually led to Brexit. The Euro is quite badly managed as an economic scheme. As a political mechanism, however, it binds members of the Euro much closer together. Leaving the European Union, as Britain is doing, is perilous and costly. Leaving the Eurozone would be even more difficult as it would involve establishing a new currency from scratch. If New Labour had been serious about putting Britain in a federal united states of Europe, it should have gone all in with the Euro from the beginning.

So Brexit could have been avoided but not by ignoring majority sentiments. If British referendums were constitutionally mandated rather than the random outcome of internal (in this case, Conservative) party politics; if referendums were required to change the status quo rather than a mechanism for a belligerent minority to relitigate past losses, then, like Switzerland and Norway, we would be in a much better position now.

Will our political leaders learn this lesson for the future? That I doubt.

New Books: Philosophy of the Novel, French conquests

Just wanted to call your attention to Barry‘s newest book, Philosophy of the Novel. Here’s a description:

This book explores the aesthetics of the novel from the perspective of Continental European philosophy, presenting a theory on the philosophical definition and importance of the novel as a literary genre. It analyses a variety of individuals whose work is reflected in both theoretical literary criticism and Continental European aesthetics, including Mikhail Bakhtin, Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. Moving through material from eighteenth century and ancient Greek philosophy and aesthetics, the book provides comprehensive coverage of the major positions on the philosophy of the novel. Distinctive features include the importance of Vico’s view of the epic to understanding the novel, the importance of Kierkegaard’s view of the novel and irony along with his other aesthetic views, the different possibilities associated with seeing the novel as ‘mimetic’ and the importance of Proust in understanding the genre in all its philosophical aspects, relating the issue of the philosophical aesthetics of the novel with the issue of philosophy written as a novel and the interaction between these two alternative positions.

Barry has more on liberty and the novel here and here.

Jacques has a new book out, too, titled Indecent Stories by Decent Women. It’s under a pen name, John René Adolph, for obvious reasons. Here is a 2014 essay by Jacques titled “Why Young Women Are Stupid (If They Are): A Scientific Inquiry.”

Books I’ve been reading (and elections I’ve been watching)

The elections were pretty decent overall. The GOP actually picked up some seats in the Senate, the Democrats picked up some seats in the House. It was a draw, and now Trump is weaker than he was in 2016 and so are the Democrats. It’s a win-win for libertarians.

Speaking of libertarians, we have a political party here in the States, and it didn’t do too bad in the elections. It looks as if the Libertarian Party has started to run candidates in districts where a representative usually goes unchallenged. So, in heavily Democratic areas like urban Dallas or suburban Denver, or in heavily Republican areas like Wyoming, Libertarians have begun running legitimate campaigns. Jennifer Nakerud won 4% of the vote in suburban Denver, and Shawn Jones got nearly 9% of the vote in urban Dallas. In West Virginia, Rusty Hollen took 4% of the vote in the Senate race. Gary Johnson didn’t do too bad, either, finishing with almost 15% of the vote in New Mexico. He was running for Senate, and he was a very successful governor there, so his losing success was somewhat assured, but still, it’s encouraging. Also encouraging is the re-election of Clint Bolick, a libertarian judge in Arizona (Damon Root reports on Bolick’s victory at Reason, here).

I’ve plowed through a bunch of books recently: Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1920), Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty (2010), Nicolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842), the Three-Body Problem trilogy (2014-2016), and Prador Moon (2006), the first book in a long, 15-part science fiction series. They’ve all been richly rewarding, and I’ll be blogging my thoughts about them sporadically throughout the next few months, so be sure to keep checkin’ in on NOL!