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.

Government isn’t the only problem

Working in a college, I’m at the front lines of a significant problem: wasteful bullshit jobs. In fact, I am writing this post to procrastinate editing a bureaucratic report (that nobody cares about) that has been slowly grinding the joy out of my life for the past several months. I have to write this report for the benefit of regulatory oversight which, ironically, is supposed to ensure that I use my privileged position for the benefit of society instead of wasting my efforts on pointless or destructive outlets.

In my case, this bullshit aspect of my job is a predictable outcome of working in a state sponsored bureaucracy. But the same disease afflicts private industry too.

If I’m the head of a Fortune 500 company, I have incentive to increase profitability of my company, but I have competing interests too. Most importantly I have to maintain my position of power within the company. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and coauthors have laid out the logic of the situation in The Dictator’s Handbook, and The Logic of Political Survival–in a nutshell, I have to worry about competition for positions of power within any hierarchy. This requires engaging in cooperative rent-seeking to keep the right people happy. If I don’t, I risk losing my position to a sycophant who will.

We shouldn’t be surprised to see Niskanenian logic show up in these situations. Corporate flunkies are like a private army that can help me keep my position of power even if they don’t contribute to the profitability of the firm. Even if I want to maximize profits, if I have to worry about keeping my position, I have to engage in some of this costly, inefficient rent-seeking.

In other words, “firms maximize profit” is an approximation that brushes aside methodological individualism. Don’t get me wrong, there’s evolutionary pressure on firms that will push in that direction. But within a firm there’s evolutionary pressure preventing the firm from fully maximizing. (In other other words, if I survive this report I’ll have to start reading up on corporate governance.)

This logic is a natural source of bullshit jobs, even in a free market. Regulatory capture should make it worse, but we’ll never completely eliminate it.

On a more speculative note, I think we also have to worry about culture. For one, our current culture drives the demand for increased regulation. For another, we prize work for work’s sake to the point that most people would rather see someone fritter away their brief experience as a sentient being than see them fail to live up to social expectations. Such notions, I think, are behind the surprising lack of riots in the street you might expect in a world where most people know we face this problem of bullshit jobs. But I’ll leave any further speculation for the comments.

tl;dr: Our economy is beset with bullshit jobs that sap our creative capacity and crush our souls. And pretty much everyone knows it. Government is part of the problem, partly because regulation creates demand for paper-pushing, and partly because anti-competitive regulation converts lively, profit-seeking firms into private bureaucracies in their own right. But there are deeper problems: our willingness to abide, and the fundamental logic of hierarchical organizations.

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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“If you work for peace, stop paying for war”

The most omnipresent slogan of libertarianism in the digital age is the one that argues, or maybe just declares, taxation is A, theft is B, and A is B. Everyone has a gut feeling about being stolen from or coerced into losing his or her property, and so whether it’s extortion or theft anyone is apt to understand what “taxation is theft” means on a primitive level.

Even if anyone can understand what it means, it seems there’s little agreement about what it encourages — since, “the government’s up to no good again” doesn’t really have a telos behind it and pitching a preferred state of arrangements is useless without appropriate connected action.

I was thinking about this, and ran into a short essay by Gina Lunori that looks to answer the question, with the same frustration.

I heard someone praise a conscientious objector who refused
to fight in Iraq, and I asked him if he was still paying taxes. He told
me that the government hadn’t created a “conscientious objector”
category for taxpayers, so he was sorry to say he wasn’t able to
stop paying. As if you only have a conscience when the
government issues you a permit for one!

I told him I know people who’ve stopped paying their taxes
without waiting for permission, just by lowering their income and
living below the tax threshold. He told me that he wasn’t prepared
to make that kind of sacrifice. If I had a pocket calculator I could
have told you the maximum price of his conscience. If I had a
quality postal scale I probably still couldn’t discern its weight.

Like Walter Mitty these armchair peaceniks burn their draft
cards in their daydreams, meanwhile the people who serve in the
military in their place are equipped, and shipped, and paid for by Walter Mitty’s tax dollar.

The biggest obstacles to change aren’t the few who are
abusing the government, but the many who are submitting to it and
facilitating the abuse.

A government that loved liberty would be trying at every
opportunity to expand and protect that liberty. Our government
tries everything it can to evade the few protections that have
survived since its founding. Look at how shamelessly it has
whisked people off to Cuba — Cuba! — in order to sweep them out
from under the protection of the Constitution.

A person who loves liberty would not shovel coal into a
tyrant’s engine just to earn a higher salary. Why does a person in
the United States who claims to love freedom, and who is
intelligent enough to understand that the government is freedom’s
enemy, still feel that it’s worthy of respect to be a taxpayer, and the
more salary — and therefore the more taxes — the more respect?
If you love liberty, if you hate war, you should at once withdraw
your support from the government. Withdrawing your moral
support isn’t enough — it’s your practical support that the
government feeds on — it doesn’t give a damn what your opinions
are.

This is something you must do because you know the
difference between right and wrong and you know, when you look
the facts straight in the face, that when you willingly give practical
support to the government you participate in its wrongs. But this is
more than a matter of personal integrity.

Imagine the power of this statement. What if every person
who felt that the government had lost their moral support also
withdrew their practical support? What if only one in ten did? It
would be the beginning of the end. It would be that nonviolent
revolution we’re praying for.

Maybe the best tests of intellectual integrity are consistency and hypocrisy. How do the people that swear off voting as aggression feel about funneling taxed income to the government to enable its aggression? How do the people that mantra “taxation is theft” feel about surrendering their goods, each and every year, in a way they would never, ever tolerate from a burglar?

Semiotics in national dialogue: an observation

One thing the Notes on Liberty community may not know about me is that I worked for a while as a research (and writing) extern for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Because of my academic background in history and the arts, most of my work focused on historical communism, especially as related to propagandist representations from inside communist countries. The experience provided me with an opportunity to immerse myself in the documentation and wording of communism.

Most people know how the Soviet and Maoist propagandists portrayed their own people: the moral, brave underdogs who are hated and despised by rich, corrupt weaklings. Any of the sufferings connected to communism – famines, shortages, economic instability – these were all the fault of external forces. Except in the case of the Chinese, to whom Mao refused to offer explanation and simply told the people that their sufferings were glorious and were sacrifices to the revolution. Hua Yu in his memoir China in Ten Words conveys quite poetically exactly how “glorious” everyone’s sufferings were. Even today, we are still treated to a modern iteration in the form of Nicolás Maduro and his wild accusations regarding the cause of Venezuela’s collapse. Most of the time, the perpetrators are the White House and CIA, though in August 2018 he blamed Colombia and some unidentified Floridians and in December 2018 he threw in Brazil, along with the traditional “White House did it” trope.

What is less commonly known – outside of film and literature aficionados – about Cold War era portrayals is their representation of those who live on the other side of the divide, i.e. in capitalism. Across the board, the portrayals were fairly simplistic – the rich were evil, the poor were good. The premise was always that the former were useless and the latter were meritorious, belonging in a socialist workers’ paradise, instead of in a system that metaphorically chewed them up and spat them out. The propagandists were masters of imposing this interpretive paradigm universally, from traditional Western literature (or even their own traditional literature in the case of China) to news items. For example, the failed yachtsman and minor-league conman Donald Crowhurst became a proletariat hero in the Soviet film Race of the Century in which he is driven to his death by a greedy, capitalist sponsor (in real life, Crowhurst’s angel investor). The propaganda point being that in capitalism human life is expendable. One has only to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to see under which system an indifference to human life was, and still is, ingrained.

There is a reason that Marxist and post-structuralist theory and criticism focus on the concept of “the other.” It is because communism can only arise from chaos and conflict. In order to justify its existence and explain its ills and failures, there must be an “other” which opposes it. The other can be the White House, foreign intelligence services, or foreign bankers. “Othering” can be imposed on practically any person or group of people, and the dynamic can be read into any relationship. If one wants to find an “other” in Solzhenitsyn, a very good candidate is Fetyukov from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. For a literary criticism standpoint, Ivan Denisovich Shukov’s contempt for Fetyukov is a case of the former “othering” the latter. “Othering,” while a development of Marxist thought, is not a domain exclusive to communist writing. Ian Fleming used the paradigm, consciously or unconsciously, in his James Bond series, with their black-and-white portrayals of who was the good and who was the bad party.

Study of the language and structures of Marxist thought and propaganda is both lacking and overwhelming today. Yes, on the one hand, our universities have been overtaken with grievance studies and criticism classes. But on the other, the tropes and thought processes of Marxism have subtly appeared in contemporary American dialogue. More insidiously, they are not coming necessarily from the overt socialists, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but from figures that identify as center and right. Ocasio-Cortez and her idol Bernie Sanders might be pardoned for regurgitating Marxist tropes, given that at least these politicians have had the decency to acknowledge their ideological leanings, but for “Conservative” [note the big “C”] intellectuals to do so is indicative of either ignorance or manipulation, both of which are unforgivable.

Consider what Michael Lind, a prominent neo-conservative, wrote in an article titled “Classless utopia versus class compromise,”published in American Affairs in summer 2018,

Democracy, then, requires strategically strengthening institutions that working-class people can control or at least influence. That means, among other things, defending the institutional independence of diverse religious communities, while sometimes favoring pragmatic municipal socialism. Whatever form an authentic grassroots working-class movement might take in the twenty-first-century United States, it is likely to look like historic precedents, including old-fashioned Milwaukee-style “sewer socialism” (municipal ownership of public utilities) and the Salvation Army. It will not look like the campus-based social justice and climate-change NGOs of progressive upper-middle-class professionals or, for that matter, free-market agitprop groups funded by the libertarian rich.

Lind has had a decades-old, well-publicized bugbear with libertarian thought, and to some extent his language reflects this. What is concerning about his words is the justification of localized socialism (history shows that this would not remain local for long) using the language of agency. The entire argument is built upon the fundamental Marxist assumption that the proletariat has no agency, wants it, and must collectivize to have it. In Marxist speak, Lind’s acceptance of the laborer-has-only-his-labor paradigm effectively “others” everyone on the other side of an indeterminate class line – upper-middle-class professionals (progressive or not), college students, free-marketeers, oh, and rich libertarians (one wonders where poor student classical liberals and middle-class libertarians fall in this equation).

In old fairy tales, a common theme is a beloved plant, usually a tree, that begins to wither away. The tree is externally healthy, and no one can discern a logical reason for it to be dying. After a long search, consulting of necromancers, and other typical fairy tale activities, the hero digs around the tree’s roots and discovers that there is a repulsive, venomous animal, usually a snake or a toad, living there, and it is the cause of the plant’s slow decline. Marxist thought and paradigms, not Marxism as an ideology, have become that snake for American Conservatism and center-right politics. Its poison is exacerbated by the fact that its acolytes and proselytizers appear to be unconscious of its presence as they argue that their only desire is to preserve the American Republic through preventing class conflict. But if they are doing is to hurl us faster and faster, more inexorably toward this very breakdown, as their ideas begin to overlap with those of the acknowledged far-left.

Where are our manners?

“Manners Makyth Man.” William of Wykeham said that back in a distant past when the letter “y” was at peak popularity. I thought of that quote today as I read about the shrill outrage over Karen Pence’s unremarkable job at a Christian school. There’s a great speech expounding on William of Wykeham’s quote, delivered about a century ago by Lord John Fletcher Moulton in London. He entitled his speech, “Law and Manners,” and its message could really use another go around.

Lord Moulton’s speech begins by dividing human action into three domains: the domain of positive law, the domain of absolute choice, and the domain of what he calls “manners.” This last domain is his essential topic, which he defines as “obedience to the unenforceable.”

Manners, by which he means something akin to duty or morality but encompassing more than both, are sandwiched between the worlds of positive law and absolute choice. This realm of manners is where we may act as we choose but we nonetheless face constraints that are outside the force of law. His basic premise is that the larger the middle domain, the healthier the society. He says, “The true test is the extent to which individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self-imposed law.” Encroachment from the realms of positive law and absolute choice pose a danger.

Lord Moulton does not suggest that the two outer domains are bad. They are vital. But if either expands too far into the middle, trouble awaits. If positive law expands too far, it stifles the freedom necessary for a flourishing society. On the other hand, if people feel completely unrestrained in their exercise of freedom, civil society begins to sag, and the danger that positive law will sweep in to pick up a perceived slack increases. As one religious leader put it, “We would not accept the yoke of Christ; so now we must tremble at the yoke of Caesar.”

Given these threats to the middle domain, Lord Moulton feared that “the worst tyranny will be found in democracies.” Minority interests will get chewed up by the voracious appetite of a positive law driven by a majority.  The representatives of the majority “think that the power and the will to legislate amount to a justification for that legislation. Such a principle would be death to liberty. No part of our life would be secure from interference from without. If I were asked to define tyranny, I would say it was yielding to the lust of governing.”

The maintenance of the middle domain depends on growth of a robust civil society sheltered from majority dominance. Religion, culture, tradition, diasporas—communities independent of the state must exist with some genuine autonomy for the middle domain to survive and thrive.

And this brings me back to Karen Pence working at a Christian school that (trigger outrage) requires students and teachers to abide by traditional Christian values. Whether or not those values are correct or not is not at all the point. Those eager to slap down a law at the first hint of a disagreement need to understand that tolerance for even genuinely illiberal viewpoints is essential to the success of liberal democracy. Organizations must have some power to define themselves apart from the prerogatives of the state to establish a framework for obedience to the unenforceable. As the Supreme Court put it, people must have space to organize communities separate from state interference that can serve as competing purveyors of norms. Such groups provide an essential “counterweight . . . to the State’s impulse to hegemony.” Thus, organizations that can establish their own norms apart form majority interference prevent the encroachment of positive law into the middle domain.

I worry that we are seeing simultaneous encroachment from both the realms of positive law and absolute choice. People outraged at Karen Pence’s new job feel convinced that the positive law should thrust its tentacles into group dynamics, thereby swallowing civil society into an all-pervading state orthodoxy. On the other hand, a sneering sense of moral relativity that frowns upon any attempt to speak up for solid norms encroaches from the other end—the perversion of tolerance that believes in no genuine moral structure outside what the law “makyth.” The letter “Y” may be a consonant and a vowel, but that doesn’t mean we can live without unenforced rules. Lord Moulton warned us about this. It’s time we mind our manners.

A humorous aside, out of context

<Scene: A wood-paneled study where a smartly-dressed person sits reading aloud from an oversized King James Bible.>
“Isaiah 9:7 – Of the increase of government … there shall be no end… .”

<Our hero pauses, turns to the camera and deadpans.>
“You got that right, brother!”

<Exeunt>