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Plan or strategy?

By Lorenzo

In Austrian school economics, and economics influenced by the same, there is often talk of entrepreneurs as making plans. This turns up, for example, in Mark Casson’s entrepreneurial theory of the firm (pdf).

As someone who is actually in business, I find the notion of plan somewhat problematic. The business I am a principal of does not make plans in any strong sense, it adopts strategies. It is not about a planned-out sequence of steps, but making decisions about purchases, procedures and communication. Yes, they are aimed at achieving certain outcomes, but in a flexible and operational way.

I suspect the plan usage is something of a holdover from when manufacturing was the dominant mode of private production. Making things does involve a certain amount of planning (and the bigger the thing being made, the more than is true). But, even manufacturing, firms are engaged in commerce, so are about (if they are to be successful) connecting to customers, and you do not control your customers or your competitors. So, the planning of manufacturing is still embedded within commercial strategies.

This is more than a semantic point. Operational strategies are more flexible things than plans. Strategies typically do not regiment decision-making, they coordinate it. The trick is not to target a precise outcome, but to have an outcome within the ambit of success for your commercial strategy. Which procedures such as, for example, just-in-time logistics make easier to achieve.

At a macro level, this makes coordination between commercial strategies somewhat easier. It also makes the entrepreneurial function less like something bureaucratic and more what it is–something very hard to replicate in a highly bureaucratised environment.

Which is my other objection to the plan usage. It does not make clear enough that what goes on in commerce and what goes on in the apparatus of the state tend to be significantly different.

ADDENDA:  The plan usage may also be, as Nick Rowe suggests in a comment, a response to socialist planning claims. In fact, that is more likely.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Good appeasement and bad appeasement

By Lorenzo

Appeasement–in the form of conciliatory concessions–can be a perfectly reasonable way of dealing with folk. It entirely depends on how limited their aims are.

Mixed past
So, the Middle Realm‘s Sons of Heaven used appeasement successfully for centuries in dealing with the steppe nomads to their north, the only open border of a unified China (with the partial exception of the Tibetan Empire) until the Europeans started projecting state power across China’s coasts in the C19th. The steppe rulers wanted resources to support their social position, particularly to pay their beholden warriors. The Sons of Heaven regularly obliged with extensive “gifts”, thereby purchasing border peace much more cheaply than did serious military campaigning.  If anything, there was some under utilising of appeasement: the Southern Song did rather mishandle the expanding Mongol Empire, for example.

The Son of Heaven has been generous again, no raiding his lands this year.

The reason appeasement has such a tainted reputation is because of the failure of the policy of appeasing Hitler. The problem was that Hitler’s aims were much grander than the Anglo-French Alliance were prepared to concede. Unifying Germans into a single Reich was a limited aim. Achieving a lebensraum empire in Eastern Europe, not so much. Since that really was the aim of Hitler’s policy, indeed, his entire economic and military management of Germany, no policy of appeasement would have avoided conflict between Germany and the Democratic Powers unless the Anglo-French alliance was prepared to hand over all of Eastern Europe to Germany. Which they were not, with British public opinion in particular shifting strongly against further appeasement after Hitler’s occupying of “Bohemia and Moravia” clearly demonstrated that his aims extended well beyond just unifying Germans into the Reich.

Good or bad?
The Western democracies are currently running a policy of appeasement on the cultural front. It is perfectly fine to satirise, lampoon and critique Christian and Jewish religious beliefs and sentiments as much as one wants. Doing the same to Islamic religious beliefs and sentiments, not so much.

Nor is there any mystery why. There are some Muslims perfectly prepared to assault and kill in the name of enforcing “respect” for Islamic beliefs and sentiments. The process may be selective, but the reality is clear.

So, is this good appeasement (conciliation that avoids conflict by giving folk enough of what they want) or bad appeasement (concessions that only encourage further demands)? Well, it depends on what the aims of the jihadis are, since they are the “pointy end” of the violence, the conflict attempting to be avoided.

 Working out the aims is not hard for the jihadis are, like Hitler, clear about their ultimate aims. Just as reading Mein Kampf excellent insight into the aims of Nazi policy, so do the statements of the jihadis. For example, to them the Reconquista, the loss of al-Andalus, is a grievance that should be redressed. The existence of Israel is obviously a grievance. To Osama bin Laden, Australia supporting the independence of (Catholic) East Timor from (overwhelmingly Muslim) Indonesia was a grievance. The notion of democracy not subordinated to Sharia is a grievance. And that we do not accept Sharia as our law is a grievance. (Their conception of Sharia, obviously.)

So, the short answer is no; the aims of the jihadis are not sufficiently limited that appeasement is going to work.

So, what about the current cultural appeasement, treating Muslim religious sensibilities with greater sensitivity than Jewish or Christian ones? Simply by killing a relatively small number of people, and implicitly and explicitly threatening to kill a few more, a fundamental principle of Sharia is seeping throughout the Western world–that Islam is entitled to superior treatment in the public arena than other religions. I would call that a win for both the jihadis aims and their chosen operational methods. Indeed, from their perspective, an inspiring win, given that lots of Muslims support giving Islam special status.

So, does the current cultural appeasement fulfil the jihadis full aims? No. Does it represent progress towards their aims? Yes. Is such appeasement going to work? Only in the sense of appeasement of Hitler “worked”–it will inspire them to keep doing what they are doing. So, the cultural appeasement will have the opposite effect regarding conflict–it will not lead to less, but to more. For the aims of the jihadis are too grandiose for appeasement to work. (And note that nothing in the above is an argument against Muslims having equal protection of the law and being accepted as citizens.)


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Don’t mention the inconvenient

By Lorenzo

So, a black guy with a long criminal record, a history of mental illness and attempted suicide, attempts to murder his girlfriend, kills two cops in Brooklyn and then shoots himself. A mainstream newspaper provides details on his life, ignoring an obvious one; he was Muslim (his name being Ismaayil Abdullah Brinkley is something of a hint).

There are some fairly obvious similarities with the Martin Place hostage taker. Violent misogyny: check. Homicidal self-righteousness: check. Terroristic grandstanding: check. Since police killing unarmed blacks (or civilians generally) is not a currently prominent issue in Australian society, that does not seem to be the link between the two homicidal grandstanders, despite the enormous rhetorical fuss made over that aspect of the Brooklyn killings in the US. Some of which commentary is stunningly innumerate and almost all of which is a case of just don’t go there. (And a black man walks up and kills two cops: that will of course do nothing to reinforce police fears of black men–this is John Wilkes Booth level of homicidal stupidity.)

Juan Cole insists that the media should not parade lone-wolf nuts as “Muslim terrorists”. (He is apparently getting his wish in the Brooklyn case, where it is being fitted into the preferred narrative of reaction to homicidal racist cops.) I think a much more interesting question is; why are there such similarities  between two “lone wolf nuts” who happen to be Muslim from opposite sides of the globe?

Not all “lone wolf” terrorists are Muslim, but a disproportionate number are, with the disproportion increasing in recent years. Radical Islam seems to becoming the strongly preferred framing for grandstanding de-personalised homicide.

Something of a pattern

In the case of the Martin Place grandstander, it was not a case of no warning signs. The hostage-taker was someone whose dangerous qualities were presciently identified in a 2009 piece by an ABC religious affairs reporter. More recently, a SMH reporter was a little less prescient: she was, however, following Juan Cole’s preferred approach.

The Martin Place tragedy has now brought down the NSW Opposition Leader. But the late unlamented Man Monis is a perfect icon for culture war dispute–an asylum seeker, on welfare and out on bail as an accessory to murder. So, someone the Australian state let in, paid for and then let out. With all the rhetorical power, and statistical pointlessness, a single recognisable case provides.

The question of commonalities is even more interesting because of a somewhat similar case that occurred in Broken Hill a century ago and because such behaviour is being engaged in on an organised basis. With extras: is not part of the appeal of the Islamic State homicidal psychopathic sex tourism? With self-righteous religious rhetoric to match. An appeal than cannot be said to be entirely random; there are now apparently more British Muslims fighting for the Islamic State than in the British Army. Probably also true in Australia, although Australian jihadis are apparently being killed about the same rate as new recruits. The Syrian civil war has attracted thousands of foreign fighters, many of whom have ended up fighting for the Islamic State.

 The jihadi movement considers democracy blasphemous or heretical–since it presumes for mere humans to take on the law-making prerogatives of God–engages in violent misogyny, Jew-hatred and queer-hatred while using modern technology (such as social media) to promote a violently atavistic warrior ethos which extols the triumph of the master-believers over all others. To the point of massacre, slavery and teaching children courses in beheading, with practice on (temporarily) live victims.

Atavistic counter-reaction

It is the contemporary version of Nazism: like it a violent atavistic counter-reaction against the stresses of modernity. As if to emphasise the point, there is a nasty cat’s cradle of links between Nazism and both Arab nationalism and radical Islam. Hitler, unsurprisingly, thought Islam a better religion than Christianity:

Had Charles Martel not been victorious at Poitiers–already, you see, the world have fallen into the hands of Jews, so gutless a thing is Christianity!–then we should have in all probability have been converted to Mohammadism, that cult which glorifies heroism and which opens the seventh Heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world. Christianity alone prevented them from doing so (p.667).

Taunting a captured Iraqi officer.

The jihadis are even more explicit in their violence and brutality than the Nazis. It is not wildly unreasonable to suggest different religious framings might be a factor here: the teachings and actions of the Gospel Christ really are profoundly different from those of the Received Muhammad (who had folk who said bad things about him beheadedmassacred defeated males and sold their women and children into slavery–all of which may sound vaguely familiar).

On the face of it, the jihadi movement is a violent denial of everything Western progressives are supposed to stand for. And their collective inability to confront it in any useful way extends at times to active protection of, or even implicit collaboration with, its adherents and advocates. Going with the principle that any sin indicts Western civilisation or Western capitalism or Western whatever and no sin indicts Islam.

It is, as Nick Cohen puts it, the great betrayal. And yes, the generic indictments are bunk, but it is the selective willingness to engage in, or tolerate, them that is revealing. When lone wolf killers are white supremacists or extreme nationalists, going for general indictments is all the rage among progressives. If a lone wolf killer is a Muslim, that fact gets downplayed or simply ignored and general indictments are furiously denounced.

It is striking how intellectually impoverished modern progressivism has become: when real Nazism was stalking the world, progressivists did not attempt to frame the debate as “let’s not be nasty to Germans”. Nowadays, in the face of the homicidal reality of the jihadi movement (the overwhelming majority of whose victims are, in fact, Muslims), it appears that the only framing that is seriously adopted is “let’s not be nasty to Muslims”.

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem saluting the Waffen SS Handschar division in Yugoslavia in 1944. In a speech he apparently stated that there were “considerable similarities between Islamic principles and National Socialism”.

Apparently, anything resembling Nazi evil can only be committed by folk with white skins. A moral infantilising of the non-white on a massive scale. Not anti-racism at all; just massive purblind condescension passing itself of as compassion and anti-oppression while averting eyes from inconvenient victims (which, in the case of the Middle East, seems to be any minority except the one which is a majority elsewhere–the Palestinian sub-group of Arab Sunnis). Parading as modern moral bwanas ”protecting” their mascots of the moment.

A betrayal with consequences. Do folk really think that the attack on Sony over the film The Interview has nothing to do with the Mohammad Cartoons affair or the Satanic Verses fatwa? Demonstrable ability to be intimidated–or, worse, side with the intimidators–just encourages others to play the game (or pretend to, it is a bit murky what precise game was being played). Which, yet again, has been shown to work, at least to some extent.

 And yes, the neocons and fellow travellers have demonstrated amazing capacity to be blundering fools or worse. But if they are the only “willing to do something” game in town, they will end up being the people turned to when the next mass attack happens. Nick Cohen makes a similar point about the British state’s predictably ham-fisted response to the domestic manifestations of radical Islam. (A somewhat similar point was also made by Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson {pdf} about the Northern Territory Intervention and progressivist aversion from issues of simple functionality in indigenous communities.) When public speech primarily becomes a game of “I am more virtuous than you” dealing with issues that profoundly affect people’s lives gets lost in the game-playing.

Not that anywhere in the Anglosphere has gone anywhere to the extreme of Sweden in blocking free speech and basically “rigging” national politics to make (Muslim) immigration an absolute non-topic, even as the Swedish police have released a map of 50 “no-go” areas and the ambulance union demands military-style protective gear to enter such areas.

OK, let’s not be nasty to Muslims generically. But let’s actually have an open debate about strains within Islam (both as a religion and as a civilisation), let’s not engage in the massive condescension of refusing to critically examine ideas held by non-white folk, let’s critically consider using religion to project viciously nasty ideas (other than, and much worse than, conservative Christians) and accept that evil is not limited to folk with white skins. Especially as, in the world today, Christians are disproportionately the victims of inter-religious violence.

Let’s also not hide inside a Condescension Virtue Bubble, congratulating oneself on moral courage and perception and the wickedness of dissent; an impoverished perspective that does not seem to have anything to say about homicide, massacre, slavery and vicious misogyny beyond “let’s not be nasty to Muslims”.

Really folks, how would “let’s not be nasty to Germans” seem at the time, or in retrospect, as a preferred response to Nazism?


 [Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Culture and rationality: or why South Asian call centres can be so infuriating

By Lorenzo

I recently read Kenneth Pollack’s Ph.D dissertation on The Influence of Arab culture on Arab Military Effectiveness (which later became a book). It is a very fine piece of social science which, alas, I doubt any important member of either the Obama or Bush II Administrations has read. The burden of his analysis is that Arab culture strongly militates against having effective junior offices or tactical flexibility. Arab armies can be stubborn in defence (until breakthroughs happen), and can execute meticulously planned and rehearsed offensives, showing considerable individual bravery and unit cohesion. But they are typically very bad at any sort of free-style manoeuvre, innovation or coping with the unexpected. In particular, information flows can be stunningly unreliable, as people hide failure behind false reports.


Providing the Iraqi army with lots of American equipment and training still dramatically failed in the first military test in much the way one might have expected, if anyone in either the Bush II or Obama Administrations had read Pollack’s dissertation. (Particularly the discussion of how the Libyan Army was defeated by Chadian forces.)

I used to describe cultural explanations as the last refuge of the analytically bereft. I am still dubious about cultural explanations which are not properly “fleshed out” but simply “thrown at” analytical problems as sort of analytical “silly putty”–something that can be used to fit any required (analytical) hole. But, as Pollack’s dissertation shows, cultural explanations–done carefully–can be enlightening.

In his conclusion, Pollack makes the following observation:

It is a peculiarly American cultural trait that we dogmatically refuse to accept the importance of culture as an influence on behavior. Only Americans could assume that all men and women are purely rational beings upon whom societal values have only minor influence. For this reason, Americans have tended to dismiss culture as a potential influence on military effectiveness. We assume that any given state will conduct its military operations in exactly the same fashion as we would because we assert that our own behavior–at least in military operations–are governed entirely purely by reason and the objective conditions of our situation, but not by cultural values. As a result, we consistently misread the capabilities and intentions of foreign powers and are baffled when they consistently conduct military operations better, worse, or just different from our own (p.764).

This failure is not so surprising. Those who migrate to the US typically do so to play the game of being American, a game which is open to anyone to play. So, Americans see folk from many different cultures (14% of American residents are foreign born) coming to be Americans and learn to discount culture; or, rather, to expect a generalised “rationality” which cannot see its own emotionality and particularity. (Contemporary scholarship on the history of emotions–Australian centre here–has been revealing how Western post-Enlightenment concepts of rationality are somewhat more emotionally based and culturally particular than is often realised: Hume‘s dictum that reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them has great force.) Australians are perhaps a little more inclined to see differences–if only from an awareness of not being Americans–but some of the same effects apply, as Australia is even more (proportionally, 28% of Australian residents are foreign born) full of people coming to play the game of being Australian.

Cultural exasperations

Which brings me to South Asian call centres. Companies use them because South Asian labour is much cheaper than US, Australian or other Western labour and because modern telecommunication is so cheap, that the saving in labour costs dwarfs the expense in international calls.


There are, however, some (inter-related) problems with this. One is that South Asian labour is also less productive than Western labour. Second, the folk in the call centres simply do not have the same life experiences as the Westerners they are dealing with. Third, differences in culture can lead to very unhappy customers. The notion that one just pays South Asians to do “the same job” as would Westerners falls down if, for cultural reasons, they do not see things the same way as their Western customers: i.e. they do not share a common “commercial rationality”. Such as not actually seeing “the job” itself in the same way.

Indian commercial mythologist/chief belief office Devdutt Pattanaik, in the course of a TED talk on culture (transcript here), says of culture that:

Culture is a reaction to nature, and this understanding of our ancestors is transmitted generation from generation in the form of stories, symbols and rituals, which are always indifferent to rationality. And so, when you study it, you realize that different people of the world have a different understanding of the world. Different people see things differently — different viewpoints.

He contrasts one-life cultures with many-life cultures:

Take a look. If you live only once, in one-life cultures around the world, you will see an obsession with binary logic, absolute truth, standardization, absoluteness, linear patterns in design. But if you look at cultures which have cyclical and based on infinite lives, you will see a comfort with fuzzy logic, with opinion, with contextual thinking, with everything is relative, sort of — (Laughter) mostly. (Laughter)

Reading Kenneth Pollack’s dissertation happened to coincide with both my business and a friend having very annoying experience with two Australian telco’s using South Asian call centres.

Telco non-communications

Case 1:

My business is part of a complicated arrangement with Optus. Last year, we moved our office. We have found it is apparently quite difficult to tell modern corporations your business has moved. Which leads to bills not being sent to where they will be paid, so they aren’t. I had got some calls from Optus, and I kept telling them I was not the person to talk to, since I did not handle those aspects of the business. One Monday, my business partner spent two hours on the phone with Optus and was assured, at the end of the conversation, everything was now fixed.


The next day (Tuesday), Optus rang me while I was driving (so I did not pick up). I found later my phone had been cut off. I rang back (on another phone, since my would not connect to Optus), getting a nice lady who could not work out what was the problem, put me on hold and said she would get someone from the Finance area to talk to me: I was on hold for a while (too long, apparently) and dropped into another call centre person, who said the account as fully paid up and re-connected my phone.

The following Monday, Optus rang me while I was driving (so I did not pick up). I found subsequently that my phone had been cut off. I was on the way to a job, so could not deal with it. I got one of my fellow presenters to text my business partner and then, at lunch time, used another presenter’s phone to ring my business partner who was very aware of the problem since his wife’s phone had also been cut off (being part of the same plan), this while deeply personal things were happening and friends needed to be contacted. Our office manager spent a couple of hours on the phone with Optus and was assured at the end of that that everything was fixed. She rang me and told me that if I powered off my phone, it should be fine when I powered it back up. Verily, this was so.

The next day (Tuesday) Optus rang me. For once, I was not driving. We had a pointed discussion about telling them not to ring me and that we had been assured everything was fixed. I gave him my business partner’s phone number, who later texted me back that he had a “pointed discussion” where he was assured everything was fixed (by my count the fourth such assurance in a little over a week) and he assured them that, if there was any recurrence, we were going to the Ombudsman.

So, our experience with a telecommunications company that apparently cannot communicate or handle communication. How much cultural issues played in the recurring screw-up, hard to say.

Case 2

Meanwhile, a friend of mine was moving between states. She rang her telecommunications company, Telstra, to tell them she was moving (and gave them the dates) and enquire about getting internet at her new (non-metropolitan) address. She later found her internet had been cut off (extremely inconvenient given how much information searching, ticket arranging, etc one nowadays does over the net). She rang Telstra and was told that it had been cut off because she was moving. She informed them that yes, but she had given them the dates and still needed internet access. After bouncing around South Asians who were not helpful, she finally got an Australian lady who reconnected her.


She subsequently found that, once again, her internet had been cut off. After more bouncing around South Asians at a call centre, where she had to explain the problem, over and over again, she finally got the same Australian lady who expressed puzzlement about what folk (in Telstra) thought they were doing, and reconnected her.  So, in the middle of packing and arranging an inter-state move, she spent hours on the phone simply because her telco couldn’t apparently cope with the idea of moving at a date they had been informed of. Another telecommunications company that apparently cannot handle communication.

But, of course, communication is more difficult when people do not have the same life experiences; not merely individually, but also collectively. (I am guessing that Indians moving probably do not do very much arranging matters over the internet.) What my friend found added an extra level of annoyance was that the call centre folk she talked to did not use the language of responsibility; she got no sense at all that they thought of themselves as representatives or agents of Telstra. She found talking to the Australian lady much more satisfactory, as she used the language of being responsible representative and then acted on the same.

Culture matters

But that is also a matter of life experience and culture; the things that affect the way you see the world and think about it, other people and yourself in relation to same. Devdutt Pattanaik again:

Indian music, for example, does not have the concept of harmony. There is no orchestra conductor. There is one performer standing there, and everybody follows. And you can never replicate that performance twice. It is not about documentation and contract. It’s about conversation and faith. It’s not about compliance. It’s about setting, getting the job done, by bending or breaking the rules — just look at your Indian people around here, you’ll see them smile; they know what it is. (Laughter) And then look at people who have done business in India, you’ll see the exasperation on their faces. (Laughter) (Applause)

Remembering that even the concept of “the job” can be culturally specific. Kenneth Pollack defines culture as:

as the set of learned, shared values, patterns of behavior, and cognitive processes, developed by a community over the course of its history. … it is acquired behavior, learned by members of the community over the course of their lives (p.38).

Culture matters for individual behaviour because:

Culture influences an individual’s preferences and priorities. By defining what the individual is likely to consider important, culture shapes an individual’s preferred outcome in a given situation. … Similarly, culture will shape the courses of action and methods an individual is predisposed to employ to secure a goal. Culture has a tendency to suggest that certain ways of doing things are better than others, thus culture shapes both ends and means. Finally, culture may actually shape the way in which an individual thinks and how he or she approaches different situations.

In addition to its impact on the individual, culture also influences the behavior of groups by shaping interpersonal behavior. It teaches members of a society how to treat other people and how the individual should behave when part of a group. It establishes what is permissible and what is desirable behavior in public or within smaller groups (Pp38-9).

So culture establishes tendencies in behaviour rather than rigidly determining individual actions; tendencies that, as Pollack points out, will be clearer the larger the groups of people, and the longer the time frame, being examined.

Devdutt Pattanaik talks of one-life versus many-life cultures. But one can also talk of limited versus generalised morality, nicely defined by economists Avner Greif and Guido Tabellini as clan versus city (pdf):

In a clan, moral obligations are stronger but are limited in scope, as they apply only toward kin. In a city, moral obligations are generalized towards all citizens irrespective of lineage, but they are weaker, as identification is more difficult in a larger and more heterogeneous group.

Christianity and Buddhism encourage generalised morality, Confucianism and Hinduism encourage limited morality. Islam is a limited morality with universalised ambit. What folk in the West think of as “common sense” rests to a significant degree on generalised morality and putting yourself in the other person’s situation. Limited morality cultures tend to not have the same “common sense”.


A way to think about culture is a set of economising heuristics where the alignment of one’s perspectives, expectations and preferences with those of others decreases cognitive effort and reduces social friction (i.e. transaction costs). The more said heuristics align with social success (marriage, income, reputation; i.e. have strategic complementarity [pdf]) the more they will be reinforced, and so persevere. Conversely, persistent and socially significant shifts in pay-offs will lead cultures to change (as they do).

So, you hire folk who continue to live in their culture to deal with practical and personal aspects of people’s lives who live in a quite different culture with quite different collective life experiences. How is that going to work out, in the customer satisfaction stakes?

Helping to create telecommunication companies that handle communication really quite badly, apparently.


 [Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Domain states, tax states and fiscal states

By Lorenzo

Have been reading a Ph.D dissertation by Wenkai He on the consolidation of a modern fiscal state in C18th England and late C19th Japan and the failure to do so in late Qing China. (The dissertation has since become a book.) The dissertation references history of public finance literature I was previously largely unaware of. The literature covers domain states and fiscal states (what Joseph Schumpeter apparently called tax states). Wenkai He further divides the fiscal state into the traditional and the modern fiscal state. I would prefer to talk of domain statestax states and fiscal states, defined as follows:

The domain state: draws income primarily from state-owned property or enterprises such as estates, forests, mines, railways, monopolies, factories, etc.

The tax state: draws income primarily from taxing economic activity, using its tax revenue mainly as income to meet its current spending, with any borrowing limited to short-term occasional expedients.

The fiscal state: draws income primarily from taxing economic activity, using its tax revenue as a means to leverage more financial resources, either through issue of paper notes or through long-term borrowings or both.

In other words, fiscal states both rely primarily on taxing economic activity and can deficit finance in a significant and recurring way. The first fiscal states were Song China, the first state to issue paper notes, and the Serene Republic of Venice, which issued the first public bond, the prestiti.

There are no longer any tax states. It was an historical form which, with the universal adoption of paper/plastic notes and development of global capital markets, is now extinct. The Roman Empire, the late Sassanian Empire (at least after the reforms of Khosrau I), the Abbasid Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, were all tax states. As were Ming and Qing China, as the large scale use of paper notes lapsed after the experience of hyperinflation at the end of the Yuan dynasty and of inflation in paper notes at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty.

Ruling domains

The domain state was the original form of the state. Pharaonic Egypt, Mesopotamian palace-and-temple complex states, the Khmer Empire, were all domain states. But so was the Spanish Empire after the discovery of the Potosi “silver mountain” and other silver mines. So was the Soviet Union. So are Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela. So are Cuba and North Korea. The domain state is far from extinct.

The odd thing is, I had come to various conclusions about domain states without being aware of the term, though having the term is usefully clarifying.

Domain states come in two basic types; those reliant on a single resource (silver, oil) and those reliant on the extraction of labour surplus (agrarian and industrial domain states).

Both forms are [likely to be]* highly ideological and are the more ideological the more the state dominates economic activity. That is, both have a set of ideas that express the status and dominance of the ruling authority, with public adherence to said ideas signalling loyalty to the authority that is economically dominant (and thus has very extensive power to reward or punish by giving access to, or cutting off access to, the revenues it controls). While cults of personality provide a way to signal loyalty when said loyalty is effectively compulsory. Failure to signal loyalty in the required way is likely to make one a target; a useful and public target for signalling the error of not publicly adhering to the status and dominance game of the ruling authority. Said status and dominance being all the stronger as the ruling authority–due to the scale and independence of its revenue–typically has little need to conciliate or bargain with other sectors in the society.

So, if the domain state is religious, it is likely to be very religious–hence the persistence of the Spanish Inquisition and the particularly virulent religious police of Saudi Arabia and Iran. If secular, it is likely to be intensely ideological–as in the Chavismo of Venezuela, the Castroism of Cuba, the Juche of North Korea. Or the Leninism and Stalinism of the Soviet Union, the Maoism of the People’s Republic.

Extracting surplus

Jayavarman VII likely used his face on his monumental temple.

Domain states reliant on the extraction of labour surplus do so by paying labour well below its marginal product. Pre-industrial (i.e. agrarian) domain states typically did this by tying peasants to the land, although extraction through labour service or corvée was also often used. Hence agrarian domain states are typically addicted to monumentalism: labour service cannot be “stored” from one year to the next, thus it has a “use it or lose it” quality. So a continual series of autocrat-controlled labour service projects signals, manifests and preserves the authority of the autocrat; especially as the monuments themselves typically represent in stone the status and dominance of the autocrat, either directly or by expressing the status-and-dominance symbology.

Industrial domain states extract labour surplus by controlling the borders and blocking exit. Since the state owns all the enterprises, it can ensure that workers are paid below their marginal product. Which means they can clearly do better elsewhere, hence they have to be blocked from leaving so that they can be paid well below their marginal product. It is exactly the same principle as serfs being bound to the land (whether Spartan helots, late Roman coloni or medieval serfs), except on a much vaster scale.

Which is why, when former domain states transition to fiscal states, they open their borders, even if the same regime remains in power (as in China and Vietnam). No longer reliant on paying people below their marginal product, they are no longer anywhere near as motivated to block exit but very keen to encourage transactions that can be taxed–including cross-border transactions. So, Leninist regimes running fiscal states open their borders, while Leninist regimes running (industrial) domain states close them.

States making societies

The state is not an epiphenomenon of society, but a fundamental moulder of it. States make societies, and societies make states. And the more the former is true, the less the latter is,

Stateless societies either pre-date the state or are created in refuge from it. An option which is no longer open. (Sufficiently cheap space travel–if that is possible–may recreate it; but not if the experience of European colonialism is any guide.)

But the tax, and later the fiscal state, has an interest in encouraging transactions to be taxed. Which (along with various factors in organising military force) eventually led, in Europe, to the creation of the bargaining state. Which was so successful, the idea developed that states were an epiphenomenon of society. But that was a false inference from profoundly anomalous experiences in profoundly unusual (in terms of human history) societies.

It is one of the great historical ironies, that the philosophy (Marxism) which most expressed this notion that the state was an epiphenomenon of society–that it reflected and served the interests of the “ruling class”–in its Leninist variant expressed most completely how false this notion was, as Leninist states created the societies they wanted. Not wanted in the sense of some perfect ideological vision, but wanted to serve the interests of the ruling authority of the state. It was control of the state which made them the ruling authority, they did not control the state because they ruled. Their state made their society. Up to the limits of rival states.

The emergence of the state was the emergence of surplus-extracting hierarchy able to mould society into a form that could support it. States originally made societies rather more than societies made states. Since then, the degree to which states made societies, or societies made states, has been highly varied; but states have never been a epiphenomena of society.


* [Small city-states not so much, since they have a de facto cosmopolitanism more or less imposed on them.]

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

States and gangs

By Lorenzo

Having previously defined the state as (a structure of) systematic coercion requiring hierarchy to operate and revenues to sustain itself extracted from a given territory, an obvious question is: what about criminal gangs? They engage in systematic coercion, have a hierarchy which they use to extract revenue to sustain themselves from a given territory.

One objection might be that criminal gangs do not have a “territory” in quite the same sense. They extract income from individual acts of coercion within a given region rather than being “sovereign” over a specific territory. Sovereign as defined by the 1933 Montevideo Convention, which adopted the declarative theory of the state as:

a person in international law with 1) a defined territory; 2) a permanent population; 3) a government and 4) a capacity to enter into relations with other states.

Or, more simply:

as a community which consists of a territory and a population subject to an organized political authority; that such a state is characterized by sovereignty.

Which means a lot is resting on the notion of government or political authority, as gangs can have territories, even in a strongly exclusory sense. For example, the Swedish police have released a map of 55 “no-go” areas (via). (In France, they are known as Sensitive Urban ZonesZones Urbaines Sensibles or ZUS.) If the armed organs of the state cannot operate in specific areas, said areas might be within the official boundaries of the state, but not its effective authority. That would appear to rest with whatever gang is dominant in a given “no-go” area.

State authority contested.

There is likely some notion of legitimacy lurking in the above definitions to distinguish a state from, say, a criminal gang, but legitimacy is a dubious descriptive concept. Is the state just a criminal gang with pretensions? 

In a sense, yes. Both derive revenue fundamentally from coercion, from expropriation. Both are exercises in domination, nicely characterised by political scientist Xavier Marquez as:

asymmetrical relations where one party (“the dominant”) has an incentive to prevent the other party (“the dominated”) from exiting the relationship or meaningfully altering its terms, i.e., from resisting it, while the other party has a contrary incentive. 

But state and gang engage in domination on rather different scales. A criminal gang is about personal status and profit, often highly localised; there is little or no serious pretensions beyond that. A state claims authority in a much “thicker” sense. It might operate at its core as a protection racket (“pay us, or bad things will happen to you”) but states make larger, and very public, claims, when criminal gangs typically don’t bother. On the contrary, gangs operate much more in the shadows. Indeed, the more openly gangs operate, the more compromised the authority of the state–for, if the authority of the state was not sufficiently compromised, being too public just makes the gang members targets of state sanctions. 

Which does point to the ways in which states and gangs are competitors. Criminal gangs flourish particularly strongly when the state declares a range of (continuing) transactions as being illegal–i.e. not covered by the normal property rights enforcement and adjudication services of the states–such as prostitution, gambling, drugs. Gangs move into to provide such goods and services and have to provide their own property rights protection and mediation services, backed by private violence. Gangs are then providers of property rights protection and mediation services that the state refuses to provide. Thus they can also operate in areas the state does not bother with (e.g. Latin American shanty towns) or does so too incompetently (e.g. Bangalore property rights).

Creating disorder

So, by banning a range of continuing transactions (or being too lax or incompetent to deal with them effectively), the state creates social disorder into which competitors move. Which is the wider point made in James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling’s 1982 “Broken Windows” essay: subtitled, revealingly, “Police and neighbourhood safety”–that enforcement of social order is not merely a matter of law:

Though the police can obviously make arrests whenever a gang member breaks the law, a gang can form, recruit, and congregate without breaking the law. And only a tiny fraction of gang-related crimes can be solved by an arrest; thus, if an arrest is the only recourse for the police, the residents’ fears will go unassuaged. The police will soon feel helpless, and the residents will again believe that the police “do nothing.” What the police in fact do is to chase known gang members out of the [housing] project. In the words of one officer, “We kick ass.” Project residents both know and approve of this. The tacit police-citizen alliance in the project is reinforced by the police view that the cops and the gangs are the two rival sources of power in the area, and that the gangs are not going to win.

The state and gangs as competitors becomes very explicit in such circumstances.

But rather localised competitors. Which is part of the problem–the comfortable can largely ignore the consequences of policies they do not have to live with. So the Swedish police publish their map of “no-go” areas and it just disappears into the ether, since that (largely Muslim) migration to Sweden has resulted in such intense (if highly localised) social disorder is too confronting to progressivist comfort to deal with. The Baptist-and-bootlegger de facto alliance operated much the same way, as does the modern “war on drugs” equivalent.

Being public
States need public effectiveness, for if authority is going to “scale up” beyond the narrow and personalised intimidation of the criminal gang, habitual obedience is required to make the state work. Both within the hierarchy of the state and the wider populace. The notions of government and political authority used in the above definitions of a sovereign state incorporate a notion of sufficient control generating habitual obedience. But very public control and very public habitual obedience. 

Hence the importance of signalling for systematic coercive power. The more publicly a gang operates, the more it signals its power. The more people are surrounded by effective signals of state authority, the more habitual obedience is likely to be. Hence the aforementioned “broken windows” theory of crime. Hence also the “cosmological bluster” (to use James C Scott’s lovely phrase) of states, expressed in stone, ritual and public discourse. States require habitual obedience over much wider territory and areas of life than does a criminal gang. 

Exit, resistance and voice

The dangers to such habitual obedience are exitresistance and voice–ways of coordinating against state activities and authority. Not necessarily exit from the territory of the state–European states exported large numbers of people in the C19th without losing authority. The dangers are rather exit from its authority within its territory and public denial or contesting of its authority; either as a political community (the wish to secede: as seems a factor in the Swedish and French cases mentioned above) or as a current regime.

Leninist states famously attempted to block exit. While widespread wish to leave did undermine the cosmological bluster of such states–that they were the golden path to the future–at least as important an issue was the loss of people to expropriate from; given the level of expropriation such states engaged in. Hence, for example, East Germany “selling” people to West Germany. 

A wall to keep people in.

Leninist regimes also typically seek to drown out any alternative voices in public social space. Less total regimes are usually content with merely “pruning” the public social space.

So, the main difference between the state and a criminal gang is the scale of the operation of the state. Unless, of course, the state acts to broaden the benefits it provides. Which, of course, modern democratic states do. Indeed, the point of elections and representation is precisely to get the state to do that.

Which can then provide a strong positive-social-standing effect to what the state does, and does not do. For good or ill. The “war on drugs” and the “fight against crime” provide cover for noxious withdrawal of state coverage of transactions and inadequate police accountability respectively, to take topical examples. 

Community, state and regime
There is also some ambiguity between political community/society, state and regime. Partisan feeling can generate widely varying attitudes to particular office holders or governments. In the US, conservatives tend to be strongly attached to the US as a society & political community, but be rather more dubious about aspects of the American state. Conversely, progressives tend to be more positive about a wider range of aspects of the American state, but rather less enamoured of the US as a society & political community. 

The belief that the state can reduce “sin” in society has done much to increase the level of crime and the ambit of the state’s localised competitors, criminal gangs. Fear of said crime in a highly armed community has done much to undermine police accountability in the US. A bit more scepticism about what the state can do in stopping “sin” would go a fair way to reducing crime.

Ironically, it is the failure to extend basic operations of the state to a range of continuing transactions that gives its localised competitors such revenue opportunities and expands the ambit of crime, including theft and violence. Less hubris about what can be achieved and more coverage would work rather better. 


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Origins of the state

By Lorenzo

The state is systematic coercion requiring hierarchy to operate and revenues to sustain itself extracted from a given territory. The development of farming does not, of itself, create the preconditions for the development of the state, apart from requiring the storing of food across seasons (and so able-to-be-expropriated). Indeed, the first wave of proto-cities rose and fell without creating states.

Çatalhöyük: settlement without streets or public spaces.

Foraging society strongly tends towards egalitarian norms, as sharing of food within the band lowers the risks of variability in garnering food. So, plants–gathered by child-minding women, with low day-to-day variability–tend to be shared within the family. Meat–hunted by men, with high day-to-day variability–tended to be shared within the band. It was possible, though not common, to have foraging inequality, if prestige could be parlayed into control of productive assets (such as large fishing canoes, particular inlets), possession of ritual knowledge, or other levers of social inequality.

Farming, as it started and spread from the Fertile Crescent, was originally hoe-based, thus largely women’s work, as hoe-based farming can be done while child-minding. The men hunted and later herded, the women farmed. There was no inherent reason to shift away from egalitarian norms and beliefs. But the larger population led to the development of substantial permanent settlements, which persisted for centuries or even millennia, and then collapsed. Settlements which were physically structured in a way that did not reflect any apparent social hierarchy.

It has been suggested that such settlements failed because the belief system could not longer sustain them (pdf). But it had for many generations. It is more likely that some new factor destabilised the social arrangements, leading to the abandonment of the concentrated settlements. Otherwise, they would more likely have simply reached an upper limit and plateaued in size.

One factor could be climate change: the productivity of the region declined. Though there is apparently no correlation between a drop in regional surges and collapses in population in Europe and climatic conditions.

A possible disrupting factor could be pastoralist raiders; disrupting the productivity of the region. This has been suggested as reason for the collapse of “Old Europe“, the farming settlements of the Danube valley.

 The disruptive plough

A third possible factor could be the introduction of the plough, disrupting the social logic of the egalitarian settlements. The earliest evidence of ploughs in the the Levant is in the 6th millennia BC, or around 8-7,000 years BP (Before Present), which is around the time in which the first wave of urban settlements in the region drop dramatically in size.

Ploughs have two effects–they increase the productivity of farmers and they concentrate farming in the hands of males. More productivity means (1) more people, (2) more possibility for social differentiation, (3) a more sizeable possible extracted surplus. Moreover, ploughing is men’s work–both because of the greater grip and upper body strength required and, more crucially, as it is not compatible with childminding. As neither is animal herding, that leads to a male monopoly of the major productive assets and, as a consequence, male domination of public social space.

Suddenly, family relations become much more hierarchical. Hierarchical families provide easier support for wider social hierarchy: ploughs predate the first states. Contradiction between the egalitarian social logic which originally sustained the first wave of urban settlements–manifested in their physical construction–and the new logic of male domination of productive assets, and so public social space, could have been so disruptive as to lead to the abandonment of the first wave of concentrated settlements–which reflected, and were associated with, the previous social logic–and dispersal into new villages, which could now reflect physically the new social logic. Possibly helped by the plough increasing the land area which could be cultivated. A social logic that had not yet developed the means to support larger aggregations of population.

Hierarchical Uruk.

When sizeable settlements arise again, they are both significantly larger in population–they are undoubtedly cities–and physically reflect much more hierarchical social arrangements. Including explicit physical public spaces, which Çatalhöyük, the largest of the earlier settlements, had entirely lacked–it had no streets, one went from house to house via roofs.

Hierarchical families, based on unequal gender relations, may well make the generation and acceptance of wider social hierarchy more acceptable, but that is hardly enough in itself to generate states. Though the larger populations, higher individual productivity and capacity for social differentiation from the plough created a much larger possibility for the creation of states.

Conflict and coercion

Which comes back to states being coercive: so the obvious path for the creation of coercive structures large and coherent enough to be called “states” is via inter-group conflict. Specialist warriors (or at least war-leaders) arise to block raids. That creates the basis for a coercive hierarchy, which can then extract a surplus: since farming on its own merely supports more babies and some increased specialisation, so it takes expropriation to create a significant surplus. The bigger the area controlled, the more effectively raids can be countered. So an upward process of building a coercive surplus-extracting hierarchy is created, whereby outside pressure provides crucial motivation for key stages in the process of state-building, turning what would otherwise be a “chicken-and-egg” problem of how to get the hierarchy to extract the surplus to support the hierarchy into a more interactive feedback process which spirals into state building.

There would be an element of experimenting involved, trying things to see what works. And the process would be aided if hereditary elites could be established, as genuine state-building is likely to be a multi-generational process.

Those pastoralists again

If conflict occurs across an ecological frontier–that is, a persistent division in ways of life which militate against unification across said frontier; as, for example, between farming and pastoralism–then a mutual spiralling up could occur. A chief aggregates villages to block raids, so the nomads gang together to manage bigger raids, which encourages even more aggregation of farming villages. And so it goes. If the farmers have a big enough hinterland, a large agrarian empire could be created. If the pastoralists have a big enough steppe, a large pastoralist empire could also be created. Which is Peter Turchin‘s model for the creation of large agrarian empires (pdf).

Pharaoh dealing with the vile Kush.

A process which incorporates state-building, but such empires need not be the end result of any particular state. Once we have hierarchical family structures, the logic of hierarchy has a point of origin; a point to rest the social lever to leverage into ever greater hierarchy until we end up with ancient autocrats disposing of huge social surpluses largely created by the process of extraction: since farming on its own merely supports more babies and some increased specialisation. It was required to have (1) persistent conflict; (2) the notion that one person could control (a) productive assets that others do not and (b) other people; and (3) enough accessible production to support the required surplus. Indeed, monumentalism is a rational pattern in such autocracies, since a continual series of autocrat-controlled labour service projects signals, manifests and preserves the authority of the autocrat. Still, having all three conditions for long enough was sufficiently rare that states still took centuries or millennia to evolve, and only in a fairly small number of locations.

State territory in 1837.

Once the trick was known, the creation of states spread. But as late as the first half of the C19th, large sections of territory were outside effective state power, or even claimed authority, because the necessary conditions had never applied–either long enough or at all. Up until at least the C15th, states had never controlled more than a minority of inhabited territories. And, for millennia, only a relatively small proportion of inhabited territories.

American exceptions?

The Americas did generate states from hoe-based farming. Only in a few regions and much later than in Afro-Eurasia (the Monte Alban polity of the Zapotec in central Mexico around 100BC, the Moche of the Andes around 100AD and the Classical Maya of Guatemala around 250AD) eventually leading to the AztecIncan and late Mayan civilisations the Spanish conquistadors encountered and destroyed. The Americas also had unusually productive hoe-based agriculture via maize, potatoes and a wide range of vegetables. They had (1) persistent conflict; (2) the notion that one person could control (a) productive assets that others do not and (b) other people; and (3) enough accessible production to support the required surplus. They just did it without the plough.

State territory in 1453.

It also seems to have been done with relatively balanced gender roles. Women could typically own property and divorce, often had a significant role in farming, dominated cloth and feather production, were priestesses, local merchants and (occasionally) rulers–though the most common instances were Mayan royal women acting as temporary regents for male relatives.

Warriors and war-leaders were male, while rulers were strongly predominantly male. So key aspects of state-building were male-dominated.

Herd animals played much less role in American societies than in Afro-Eurasia, being limited to some domestication of deer in Mesoamerica and the llamas and alpacas in the Andes region. The lack of herd animals likely encouraged a hunting mode of warfare, where a central aim was the capture of slaves and sacrifices. In particular, the limited availability of herd animals, especially in Mesoamerica, also probably encouraged the widespread use of human sacrifice (where the sacrificed were also eaten: we might call them protein wars), which may have had an intensifying effect on conflict; remembering that war is a great device for social differentiation. While acceptance of slavery brings together control of productive assets and control of others.


State territory in 500.

So, state-building (and even empire-building) was possible without the plough or pastoralists, it just apparently took longer. Lacking the higher productivity, stronger gender imbalance and quicker social differentiation that ploughs produced or the spiralling-up effect of farmer-pastoralist conflict.

Herding ironies

So, the existence of substantial herd animals in Afro-Eurasia, hence balancing the roles of hunting-herding males with hoe-farming women, meant the development of very egalitarian proto-cities. Yet the existence of the same herd animals led to the development of the plough, unequal gender relations, pastoralist raiders and then a relatively quick path to states.

The much lower significance of herd animals in the Americas led–especially in Mesoamerica–to human sacrifice, with the intensification of conflict that implies, a hunting mode of warfare, yet rather more even gender relations and a slower path to the state.

This also suggests answers to two puzzles of Ancient Egypt: (1) why were gender relations in Pharaonic Egypt unusually even? and (2) why did Egypt move in the shortest known period from farming to territorial state? The answer to the latter is because farming arrived after the plough had been developed and production along the Nile was very “transparent” to observers (pdf): the plough had the increased productivity noted above while accurate expropriation was unusually easy.

The answer to the former is; because production was so transparent and based on irrigation managed at the village level, there was no private ownership of land, which meant male ploughing was simply a task, not a basis for gender-differentiated asset ownership. Nor was there any large-scale pastoralism in the Black Land–that was left to folk such as the wretched Kush (aka the vile Kush). So men did what men did, women did what women did and neither dominated productive assets, leading to relatively even gender relations.

Expropriation games

Karl Wittfogel’s theory of hydraulic civilisation got things the wrong way around. It was not management of irrigation that provided a basis for state power–irrigation was managed at very local levels. Irrigation provided the basis for easier expropriation, with the highly observable (i.e. transparent) irrigated productivity of the Nile (with its regular inundations) making for particularly easy and thorough expropriation. The ability to expropriate drives the state: the more total the expropriation, the more total the state. States where expropriation is based on active bargaining are a rather different beast, but the only developed in a few places and were, for most of the history of human states, odd outliers.

Don't worry, Pharaoh's watching.

Don’t worry, Pharaoh’s watching.

Leninism’s development of the totally expropriating state was, indeed, profoundly atavistic. So atavistic that, as I have noted before (here and here) the Soviet Union managed to pass through ibn Khaldun‘s state cycle in a single life time.

Lenin famously claimed that communism was socialism + electricity. Actually, it was an attempted return to the origins of the state + electricity. But bargaining states had let loose technological dynamism on the world, and mere expropriation was no longer the cutting edge in organising societies. The gap between Leninist pretension and economic reality became de-stabilisingly obvious. So, we have collapsed Leninist regimes or societies with notionally Leninist ruling regimes ruling very not-totalitarian societies or, in the case of North Korea, a regime that has embraced its atavism. History is how the present was created, but only provides understanding if we accurately grasp that history.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Atavism error

By Lorenzo

What is the most atavistic state on the planet?

That would be the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), aka North Korea. It is a state of hereditary God-kings using a hierarchy of officials and soldiers to extract resources from a poverty-stricken population. And a system of God-Kings extracting resources from poverty-struck mass populations harks back centuries and millennia in human history. Though the system North Korea most resembles is that which evolved in Sung China (907-1279) and replicated under Ming (1384-1644) and Qing China (1644-1911) of hereditary ruler ruling through a meritorious bureaucracy over labour-service-and-tax-paying peasants. Except, as a command economy, rather than sitting “on top” of society as the mandarin state (mostly) did, the North Korean state effectively subsumes society.

Public acts of worship of departed God-kings.

Nor does it make much sense not to call the ruling dynasty of North Korea God-kings. Since the first ruler of the Kim Dynasty is the eternal President, and the second the eternal General Secretary, what would we call them other than God-Kings?

There is, of course, a huge irony in North Korea being the most atavistic state on the planet, since it is a product of Leninism, which regarded itself as the end of history; the culmination of hunan social political and economic understanding. How can such a vicious irony occur?

Getting the state wrong

From a series of errors embedded in Marxism, mainly in understanding the state. Historically states are:

(1) originally based on exploitation

(2) fundamental moulders of human society.

Qin Shi Huang and subjects:
Everyone ultimately worked for the ancient autocrat.

Leninism is a derivation of Marxism, and Marxism treats exploitation as a product of capitalist commerce and states as a epiphenomenon of society. So, if one gets rid of capitalist commerce, one gets rid of exploitation.

Nor is it the state one has to worry about; in Marxism the state is a tool of class interests. So, as long as the state proclaims itself to be a servant of the “correct” class, then social developments are on the correct path, no matter how powerful the state gets.

But states are not epiphenomena of society: a fact most obviously displayed in the history of Leninism itself, where state power was used to hugely remould societies. Moreover, states are the prime vehicles for exploitation of humans by their fellow humans. Indeed, genuine exploitation is always based on unbalanced coercion. That is, coercion which is used against one group for the benefit of another. And the state is, almost always, the most effective instrument of coercion, hence the most effective vehicle of exploitation.

Exploitative origins of the state

In its origins, the state is an instrument of exploitation. Perhaps the most striking single feature of Western civilisation is that it creates states which are not primarily vehicles of exploitation. Ironically, it was the very distinctiveness of Western states which encouraged Marx to be so wrong about the state–observing states which were actively responsive to their societies, he took the wildly abnormal as the normal and generalised from that.

[I rather like Deidre McCloskey's view of Marx:

... the greatest social scientist of the nineteenth century, without compare, though mistaken on almost every substantive point, and especially in his predictions ...

Actually, it is productive labour that counts;
not the same thing at all.

But he was attempting to generalise from C19th Europe; in so many ways, the most wildly anomalous place and time in human history up to that time, bar none.]

Farming societies do not automatically produce hierarchy or surpluses–the extra food produced mainly goes into producing babies and supporting some increased specialisation. What farming does is create extractable food–since food has to be stored across seasons. So, once the trick is managed of creating a controlled hierarchy able to systematically extract food, then a substantial surplus is created.

Look what I can do with all that extracted surplus.

It generally took thousands of years to evolve the state (centuries in the case of Upper Egypt), because it took that long to get the combination of farming density and social hierarchy able to resolve the “chicken-and-egg” (or perhaps non-linear feedback) problem of sufficient-surpluses-created-through-extraction able to sustain a system of extraction-that-created-sufficient-surpluses.

Thus Marxism’s blindness about both the nature of exploitation and the nature of the state lead directly to–in its revolutionary form–the creation of exploitative tyrannies. Hence the path from Marx’s mistakes to the creation of the most atavistic state on the planet.

Ideas do indeed have consequences. Including mistaken ideas–indeed, perhaps especially mistaken ideas.



[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

A regulatory wrinkle from rational expectations

By Lorenzo

The rational expectations hypothesis can be understood in various ways. One is as an equilibrium condition in a model–the model is in equilibrium when expectations of agents in the model align with the predictions of the model (though that does not mean it is a stable equilibrium). Another is that expectations of agents within the model should not be set differently from the predictions of the model without justification. That is, rational expectations is the default available-information-is-used hypothesis.*

One of Arnold Kling’s recurring points in his useful and enlightening analysis of the 2008 Financial Crisis, Not What They Had in Mind, is that the regulators were not systematically cleverer than the banks and other financial institutions. That, on the contrary, both the regulators and the regulated tended to share beliefs about risk, prospects, etc. Of course, why would we expect them to do otherwise? They had access to much the same information and were using essentially the same analytical tools–remembering that analytical tools are part of information. (Indeed, to the extent there were differences in access to information, market participants would be likely to be better informed than regulators.)

The convergence in information and expectations was (and can be expected to be) of a somewhat interactive nature, as much of the information was created as a response to the regulations. I don’t mean “made up” (though there was some of that; but where there is wealth to be had, fraud is always a potential issue). I mean that information was created both to conform to the regulations and as a result of the regulations.

Discretionary convergences

So, does not discretionary regulation have a rational expectations problem? On what basis do we expect the expectations of the regulators to be usefully systematically different from the expectations of the regulated about market conditions? If we have no basis to expect them to be usefully systematically different about (for example) risks–and surely we do not–why do we have discretionary regulation?

One response might be: but regulators and regulated have different incentives. Well, yes; but why does that make a difference if they still have converging expectations? And creating a difference by having the regulators be significantly less informed about market conditions than participants hardly seems a desirable way to discourage expectations convergence. (Having them be systematically better informed is not a plausible situation if markets are even weakly information efficient.)

The US political system is particularly prone to creating discretionary regulations, because delegating regulatory activity to specific agencies allows more “responsive” regulation (i.e. it does not have to fight its way through Congress), because it creates someone for Congress to blame (they can distance themselves from negative political fall out) and because it permits more use of “expert” knowledge to “fill in the blanks” of legislation that is more likely to pass if it has useful ambiguity, leaving areas open to later (lobbying and) decision.

If we at least pretend that the point of regulation is good public policy (rather than creating politically useful externalities), given this converging expectations difficulty, what is required for socially-beneficial regulation is for differing incentives to usefully create different reactions even though regulator and regulated are likely to have the same expectations about, for example, risks.

What makes this even more problematic is that, as Kling points out, financial regulatory regimes in particular are not stable:

It turns out that financial regulation is not like a math problem, which can be solved once and stays solved. Instead, financial regulation is like a chess game, in which moves and counter-moves proceed continually, eventually changing the board in ways that players have not anticipated.

A great deal of financial innovation is aimed at what Kling calls “regulatory arbitrage”–getting around regulatory constraints. So, any given regulatory regime is inherently prone to becoming increasingly detached from the actual structure of financial markets even as those structures will be significantly affected by said regulatory regime. In such circumstances, as Kling notes, regulations become ways, not so much of stopping the last crisis, as helping to create the next one.

And expecting regulators to react usefully to the changes when they will have the much same expectations as those they are regulating seems, to put it mildly, a big ask.

So, there seems to be a rational expectations problem with discretionary regulation, particularly in financial markets.

Broad bargains

If you are really going to get around the converging expectations problem, then the incentives difference has to be maximised without enlarging the gap between market participants and regulators about market conditions–i.e. not increasing the degree to which regulators are less informed than market participants. Such can be done by making sure that–to continue with the case of banking and financial markets–the “game of bank bargains” is played in as broad a bargaining process as possible. That is, minimise the likelihood of the interests of significant groups either not being considered or being discounted. Which is another mark against discretionary regulation, because that has a fundamental tendency towards being framed by those most involved; hence the whole regulatory capture problem.

So, is your financial regulation bargain broadly or narrowly based? If it is the latter, then converging expectations (and incentives) between regulator and regulated are not likely to result in a socially-beneficial regulatory regime; and the more said regulatory bargain relies on discretionary regulation, the more that is so.

A point, by the way, that applies to bureaucratic approval processes generally. Especially when we realise that regulatory capture is not solely a feature of regulated firms, but can apply to well-organised/well-connected interests generally. Land use regulations are classic examples of that.

Broad-based bargaining producing general rules which are transparent would seem the way to go. Any system which ultimately relies on the regulators having different expectations about market circumstances than the regulated has a problem. Given that the more informed the regulators are, the more convergence in expectations is to be expected–while generating different expectations by regulators being less informed is hardly desirable–rather more scepticism about regulatory structures (especially discretionary regulatory structures) than seems generally evident seems sensible. If the point is good public policy.

Arnold Kling’s suggestion of trying to have a financial system which is easier to fix rather than harder to break also seems to be worth considering.


* Economising on information and cognitive effort would presumably be what you would base any divergence in agent expectations from model predictions on.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Three ages of Western history summarised

By Lorenzo

In the Ancient period, the dominant ideal was to ennoble life (to seek glory).

In the Medieval period, the dominant ideal was to sanctify life (to seek salvation).

In the Modern era, the dominant ideal is to expand life (to live long and prosper).

The ideal of the previous era never entirely dies, but becomes part of the cognitive context in which the later ideal operates. 

These thoughts struck me while reading Pierre Manent‘s The Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic. A book I found alternatively intriguing and frustrating.

The Ancient period generated both the aristocratic-heroic notion of seeking glory and the philosophical notion of seeking knowing virtue. These are both hierarchical notions of meaning and purpose in life. In a different way, so is seeking salvation. It may be open to all, but it is a journey Godwards, so a journey metaphysically upwards, towards the highest point in the “great chain of being“.

Social framing

In the Greek polis there is the participation in the city-community and glory within (and beyond) it. From the persuasion, disputation and rhetoric of polis politics came the philosophers, who came to seek a universal wisdom and virtue. The Jewish idea was to follow God, but was not a universal idea, it was a matter of being the Chosen People.

Then along comes Christianity, which marries the universalism of the philosophers to the God-focus of the Jews within the rule of a city (Rome) that had become a quasi-universal law-for-all Empire; an Empire that was both the apotheosis and the stagnation of the Classical World.

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the triumph of Christian universalism creates the medieval world of Latin Christendom. But that universalism breaks apart in the Reformation and the Wars of Religion–the aspiration and claim remains, but the experienced reality becomes very different.

Meanwhile, the Scientific Revolution produces a universalism of truth. But that is not a hierarchical notion in the same way–it may seek to winnow out truthful understanding from misleading dross, but it is outward-looking rather than upward-directed.

Along comes the Enlightenment; a reaction against murderous and hugely destructive religious strife, but a re-engagement with philosophy and Classical thought inspired by the burgeoning success of science. This in a society where the aristocratic ideal had been re-invigorated as one of leadership in military and political life along with patronage and appreciation of art and culture.

Political revolutions

The Parliamentary tradition coming out of medieval history gets a commercial re-invigoration with the Glorious Revolution and again, with more of a Classical gloss, in the American Revolution. While both were grounded in claims about the British tradition, the already somewhat multi-ethnic American colonies began to articulate more universal notions–most notably in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Though the US Constitution stressed commonality rather than universality:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The Revolution which talked rather more in terms of universality was the French Revolution and those that descended from it. Or, as it was put in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (pdf):

The representatives of the French People, formed into a National Assembly, considering ignorance, forgetfulness or contempt of the rights of man to be the only causes of public misfortunes and the corruption of Governments, have resolved to set forth, in a solemn Declaration, the natural, unalienable and sacred rights of man …  

Article first: Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on considerations of the common good.

Article 2: The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of Man. These rights are Liberty, Property, Safety and Resistance to Oppression.

The French Revolution became based on the politics of virtue which led, of course, straight to the politics of the guillotine. For virtue can not be negotiated over, it can only be adhered to, or not; and to be the “enemy” of virtue is to be the enemy of humanity.

Judged to be insufficiently virtuous

Hannah Arendt once asked why folk so often ignored the American Revolution, which succeeded, but extolled the French Revolution, which failed. A major reason is that intellectuals and academics–typically not being responsible for anything except their own work–have not much to contribute to the politics of negotiating liberty. But they can define “virtue” more easily than anyone else while being–precisely due to that lack of responsibility–far more “virtuous” than anyone else. So, of course, they find the politics of virtue so attractive.

Moreover, in societies where commercial interests were relatively weak, revolutionary activity was much more likely to be grounded in the intelligentsia than in the sort of propertied folk who drove the  Glorious and American Revolutions. Hence the sad litany of failed “Revolutions of Virtue”, with their tyrannies and mass murders.

Mass politics

As the Industrial Revolution got underway, and revenue and politics became so much about the capital/labour ratio (where capital is the produced means of production)–rather than, as it had been before, the land/labour constraint (with a trade-in-luxury-goods add-on)–the Western world led the world into an age of mass politics.

Mass politics in its universalist forms being the politics of humanity. But, as Manent asks, how do you define humanity? A much more fraught issue than it might appear. What of past generations? What of future ones? Do we accept that everything with a human face is human? Or “fully” or “properly” human. (Lots of people don’t accept that; not really.) Are the vast majority of people even, in any real sense, visible to us?

Poland divided between the Counter-Enlightenment and the Radical Enlightenment

The struggle between the Sceptical Enlightenment (of negotiated liberty); the Radical Enlightenment (of a humanity made virtuous); and the Counter-Enlightenment (extolling the particular) flows directly out of the fraught politics of humanity (and the reactions to it). The Dictators’ War (1939-1945) was all about that struggle, which saw the defeat of the Third Reich; the state which personified the Counter-Enlightenment. Just as the Cold War was about the struggle between the Sceptical and Radical Enlightenments, as personified in their two Revolutionary super-states–the USA and the USSR.

Sceptical v Radical Enlightenment

Contemporary confusions

The triumph of the Sceptical Enlightenment, with the collapse of the Soviet Empire and China’s switch to “socialism with Chinese features” (i.e. capitalism), was supposed to be the End of History. But the ideas of the Counter-Enlightenment resonated with the Islamic revival (its own form of the politics of virtue) to produce the jihadi movement while Euroskepticism and Putin have come along to remind us that the Counter-Enlightenment’s extolling of the particular can still have appeal. Often for quite understandable reasons.

The jihadis confound us; not only because religious motives (such as clearly expressed here as mass killing following the example of the Prophet) are mysterious to our overwhelmingly secular intelligentsia and commenters, but also because the goal of virtuous harmony seems very Radical Enlightenment, but the jihadis particularist atavism is much more like the Counter Enlightenment in its most violent form. Or, as Algerian journalist Mohamed Sifaoui puts it:

the Muslim fundamentalists are our extreme right.

Expatriate Algerian activist Marie-Aimee Helie-Lucas expressed a similar sentiment back in 1993:

Islamic fundamentalism is not a religious movement, it is a political movement. It is the extreme right wing using religion as a cover. Yes, it is a populist movement, which therefore gives it legitimacy. But we should never forget that Hitler was a populist. Hitler was elected. It is the Fascism of today.

The jihadis are especially confounding for Western progressives, as they fit really not at all into the oppressed-oppressor narrative of progressivist politics–they are non-Westerners (so inherently “oppressed”) but seek to be oppressors (up to, and including, being slave-owners [pdf]).  All this mostly within the confounding complexity of the Middle East (though a complexity not so different than Europe during, say, the Thirty Years War, but with extra unfamiliarity).

So, not quite the end of history. But not quite not, either. Democracy–the politics of the sovereign people–is still the overwhelmingly preferred political system in polls around the world (including the Islamic world). The Emancipation Sequence–the politics of common humanity–has proved to be a somewhat exportable product. Violence continues its long-term decline, albeit with some upward spikes.

The paradox of politics–that we need the state to product us from social predators but the state itself is the most dangerous social predator–was never going to go away. But the framing of that paradox has changed profoundly; and overwhelmingly for the better.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud].