The Costs of Order

As the Arab Spring continues, one thing that has struck me is how easy it is to bring a dictatorship to a crisis. An authoritarian policy of crushing dissent is a weakness, not a strength, because it means that if visible dissent does occur, the regime’s legitimacy is threatened. Whereas by allowing dissent, liberal democracy defangs it, and normalises discontent. The anti-cuts protests in London would have brought down most governments in the Arab world; here in England, they are a blip on the radar.

If you want to have an authoritarian state, like the formalists and reactionaries, then you have to be willing to do more than just crush all obstruction to the smooth working of the state – you have to crush all visible expressions of dissent. This is where the costs are huge. That is why authoritarian states tend to be either brittle (succumbing to coup or revolution in times of trouble) or backwards (the huge costs of suppressing all dissent stifling all growth).

However, although authoritarianism is unstable, we do still need authority. I simply don’t understand Aretae’s position. The rich/trader/forager groups love authority, otherwise they’d all be buying villas in the Congo. How can you be rich unless there’s some authority enforcing your property rights? How can you be a trader unless there’s some authority enforcing contracts? How can you be a Hansonian “forager” unless there’s some authority stopping your neighbours beating you up?

People do not want independence. They want “independence.” The content of that “independence” differs from society to society. Contra Aretae, the truly poor and backwards societies are where people are most anti-authoritarian and most pro-independence. That is why they are most associated with warlordism and unsanctioned violence. Tribesmen in Papua New Guinea fight their own blood-feuds and chafe at the idea of submitting their disputes to a higher authority to settle. Westerners let the courts sort it out, and comply with the verdict even if they think the result is desperately unfair.

The kind of authority matters greatly, no doubt. People do not want to be told to do the kind of things they don’t want to do. But that’s axiomatic. The key thing is that most people don’t mind being told to do the kind of things they wanted to do anyway. Look at where Hansonian “foragers” want to live – not Mogadishu, but Manhattan, one of the most heavily regulated places on earth.

The need for authority is not a wish for preferential rules for my tribe (although it is often co-opted in that direction). It is a need to escape from the Hobbesian nightmare of the anti-authoritarian hunter-gatherer tribe.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. I agree that whatever liberalism produces, it is not absence of authority.

    Not so sure about dissent, though. The essence of a working modern democracy is that “dissent” is plentiful, but it is almost never actually dissent against the real government, which is more stable and secure than any military dictatorship, but only against the little decorative elected figureheads on top, which can be switched with the minimum of fuss or actual effect.

    All the same, you are correct that this immunity is not enjoyed by less deceptive forms of government. Moldbug recommends that public protests be met with machine-guns, but Gadaffi’s use of airstrikes shows Moldbug to be unnecessarily delicate.

    For all that, I still suspect you are overstating the power of such demonstrations. A mob in the streets can topple a government, by actually going into the government buildings and taking them over, but simply demonstrating in the public square does nothing. The demonstrations in Egypt weren’t aimed at Egyptians, they were aimed at us. The Egyptian government had no cause whatever to pay any attention to them, but our governments, by their theology, were forced to act in support, despite the fact that they had nothing against Mubarrak or Gadaffi. Result – Mubarrak pressured to go, and Gadaffi bombed (with exactly the degree of conviction one normally sees in an unwelcome religious obligation).

    Reply

  2. Posted by I am not... on April 17, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Thanks for your reply. I agree that a demonstration in itself does not topple the government, but I disagree that it does nothing. The Egyptian government had every cause to pay attention – such demonstrations were banned, and holding one anyway is therefore a direct challenge to the government’s legitimacy. The fact that the government couldn’t stop it makes them impotent and their rule is likely to dissolve. Even in police states the government relies on tacit obedience – there cannot be secret policemen on every corner.

    I think you are also assuming unity of interests in the Egyptian government. This is faulty. If the protests could not be dispersed, it might well have been in Mubarak’s interests to hope the protesters didn’t actually storm government buildings**, pray the regime’s power stays intact and simply wait them out (see Thailand). But it was in the interests of ambitious people in the government to use the protests as leverage to force out the top dog and advance themselves – indeed this is pretty much exactly what happened. I think you (and Moldbug) greatly exaggerate the importance of western public opinion, but I could be wrong.

    **But remember that they had already burned down the police stations.

    Reply

  3. Posted by red on April 17, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    Are you all stupid? The US told the Egyptian army not to fire on the protesters and they obeyed us. We then told them to remove Mubarak and they complied. The people did nothing but show up while the US used it as an excuse to remove Egypt’s leadership. Now all the rulers of the area have realized that being a US ally is death. The Saudis have already stopped working with us and are actively courting china and Russia as a replacement. The so called Egyptian revolution is the greatest disaster in Amerian policy history.

    Oh and here’s the result of the “revolution”:
    http://blog.jim.com/war/how-the-middle-eastern-revolutions-are-working-out.html

    Any of you want this in your town anytime soon?

    Reply

  4. Posted by I am not... on April 18, 2011 at 7:14 am

    Red, thank you for your comments. Perhaps you might wish to ask yourself why the Egyptian army obeyed “us” – if this is in fact what they did.

    Reply

  5. […] Why I am Not also responds. I agree with all of his post expect the beginning: An authoritarian policy of crushing dissent is a weakness, not a strength, because it means that if visible dissent does occur, the regime’s legitimacy is threatened. Whereas by allowing dissent, liberal democracy defangs it, and normalises discontent. The anti-cuts protests in London would have brought down most governments in the Arab world; here in England, they are a blip on the radar. […]

    Reply

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