Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Lure of Despotism and Its Failure

Look, I understand to some degree Donald Trump's appeal, which is to say, the appeal of setting aside democratic norms in favor of an elective despotism.  Democracy is hard.  It requires habits and discipline that are difficult to learn and easy to forget such as acceptance of dissent as normal, recognition of the need for that seeming oxymoron, a loyal opposition, and a willingness to be gracious both in victory and defeat.  Democracy is best seen, not as something people desire for itself, but as an uneasy compromise, not as good as a dictatorship by Us, but infinitely preferable to a dictatorship by Them.

But that isn't all.  Democracy is ugly.  It airs out its dirty linen in the most distasteful manner that tends to undermine respect. New scandals always seem to be breaking out.  As the saying goes, two things you never want to see made are laws and sausages.  When lawmaking takes place in public, you get to see all the petty, spiteful, self-serving activity that goes into it, all the actors who seem more interested in advancing their partisan interests -- or, worse, their personal egos -- than the public good.  Factions,  petty squabbles, procedural tricks, and countless other distasteful matters are carried on in full public sight.  And, worse, when things take place in private, the public can only assume that politicians are hiding something worse than the ugliness on full display.  Besides, the democratic process is demonstrably inefficient.  Important goals get tied up in petty procedural squabbles and important work remains undone.  In times of deep ideological divide (as we have been experiencing) the inefficiency becomes much worse.

In times like this, people tend to lose faith in democratic institutions like Congress or their state legislature and admire authoritarian institutions like the military or the police, which are presumed to be disinterested patriots above petty, personal motive.  Or they long for a nice dictator to cut through the red tape and get things done.  Dictators, its is assumed, by eschewing the cumbersome democratic process, can exercise real efficiency and make the trains run on time.

There is just one little problem with this theory.  It isn't true. Dictatorships, as well as armies, police forces, and other inherently authoritarian institutions in a democracy, are just as petty, just as given to self-serving motives, and just as prone to factions and self-serving behavior as any democratic legislature.  The difference is that these things take place in private so the public doesn't see them.

I seem to recall a quote from one of the Founding Fathers to the effect that he was not concerned about efficiency in government because all the efficient governments he knew were despotic, but if so, he was wrong.  Free governments vary greatly, from grossly inefficient and incompetent to as good as can be expected in an imperfect world,*  but despotic government are always grossly incompetent and inefficient.  Any account of the Soviet Union is staggering in the degree of incompetence an inefficiency on display.  The Czars were also notorious in that regard, as were the Turkish sultans.  Nazi Germany is likewise proving to have been wildly inefficient.  After the conquest of Saddam Hussein's government, the US was able to lay bare the nature of his regime by studying the documents of his government and the pathology and incompetence is staggering.**

There are reasons why despotism always leads to inefficiency.  A leading one is that when institutions are kept from any outside scrutiny, they invariably become corrupt, sclerotic, and incompetent.  The only way to make government efficient is to subject it to openness and accountability.  Another is that under despotism, people invariably fear giving their leaders unwelcome news.  The result is that leaders live in a fantasy world.***  Yet another is that despotic leaders tend to fear and distrust any person or institution that is too competent as a possible threat and therefore deliberately set out to undermine any show of competence.  And finally, despots have serious internal security problems and are always setting up countless rival internal security organizations, each designed to infiltrate and undermine the others.  Indeed, I was quite intrigued by a blogpost I saw (no longer linkable) which postulated that bureaucratic orderliness is synonymous with the rule of law, and that snarling of the bureaucracy is the inevitable result of despotism.

In short, any sort of despotism is incompatible with efficiency.

But if despotism invariably breeds inefficiency, inefficiency also breeds despotism.  At the time the US was founded the Baron de Montesquieu, the political scientist who most influenced the Founding Fathers, had postulated that any government over a large territory was inherently despotic.  (This was one of the reasons many Americans so feared a strong federal government).  He acknowledged in exception in cases of a confederation, in which a large number of locally self-governing territories joined under a single partial government.  Montesquieu, it should be noted, distinguished between monarchy, meaning one-man government under the rule of law, and despotism, meaning one-man government run arbitrarily.  He considered liberty to be compatible with  monarchy, but not with despotism.  Perhaps one can see, then, why large territory and despotism went together.  Technology being what it was in the 18th century, there was a limit to how large a territory could be and still be efficiently administered.  In a confederation of self-governing sub-states, each local government is answerable to the population it governs and therefore prevented from being despotic.  In a monarchy of manageable size, local rulers are answerable to their bureaucratic superiors and can bound by laws and subject to administrative punishment for illegal or oppressive conduct.  In a territory under a single central government, but too large for efficient oversight, the central rulers have little choice but to appoint local official and leave them to their own devices.  These viceroys are accountable to neither the local population nor the central government and act as local, petty despots who are invariably despised.

A milder version of these factors can be seen even in democratic governments.  The rampant corruption in the Grant Administration, for instance, appears to have resulted at least partly from Grant's authoritarian, military style of administration and failure to abide the the normal bureaucratic division of labor, i.e., its snarling of the usual bureaucratic orderliness.  McCarthyism made State Department officials fear to give accurate reports to their superiors.  Although their fear was merely for their careers and not for life or liberty, the result was nonetheless to undermine the quality of information that made its way up the chain of command. And George W. Bush was notorious, both for cutting himself off from unwelcome news and for administrative incompetence.

Which leads to the subject of Donald Trump.  The article begins:
We’re all aware of the movie supervillain cliche, coldly murdering his top lieutenant while seething, “You have failed me for the  last time!” You see that, and you’ve got to wonder: Who are these stupid henchmen? Why would anyone work for that asshole? 
In real life, people don’t want to work for that asshole, particularly not when they have better options. 
Obviously, operating in the US, and without the power of the state, Trump is at the milder end of the despotism scale.  Barred from murdering his top lieutenant, he settles for strict non-disclosure statements and sues employees who break them.  He also promotes rivalries among employees on a "divide and conquer" theory, and tends to favor yes-men who tell him what he wants to hear.  In short, denied a the opportunity to be a true despot, Trump nonetheless rules in the most despotic style he has available, with the resulting -- and predictable -- distortions and inefficiencies.  He may very well win the election despite all that.  But, as I have commented countless times before, if he can't even run a campaign, what sort of job will he do running a government?  My answer would be, as despotically inefficient a job as our institutions permit.

*And, incidentally, despite libertarian theories of the perfectly efficient private sector driven by perfect markets, really "as good as can be expected in an imperfect world' is as good as can be expected from the private sector, either.
**To the extent that it made me think Hollywood understands evil overlords better than we give it credit for.  (Cue jokes about Hollywood having lots of evil overlords, known as "producers."
***Following the movie The Last Emperor, I read an abbreviated translation of the Last Emperor Pu Yi's autobiography, which contained an extraordinary example.  Under the despotic Dowager Empress Cuxi believed that Europeans had no knees!  (My father believes this was an excuse that exempted them from kneeling in the presence of the emperor).  As a result, when China's highest ranking officials were planning support for the Boxer Rebellion, someone suggested that if they pushed Europeans over with a stick, they would be unable to get up!  Needless to say, it did not work.

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