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Taming Leviathan, Part 2

May 27, 2012

This is the second part of a two part series. Part 1 can be found here.

“Apparently a government can prevent itself and its successors indefinite from doing bad things, just by writing a note to itself that says “don’t do bad things.””
Mencius Moldbug

According to the Constitutionalist framework of government, there are two distinct phases of governmental rule making: the constitutional phase where the meta-rules of how laws are made and which rights people have are decided, and the post-constitutional phase where the political system is in place and politicians follow the constitution when making and enforcing new laws. The first phase sets the rules of politics, and the second phase is politicians work within those rules to gain and use power.

I think the main reason why a Constitutionalist approach is popular in America is the success of our Constitution and the high degree of respect it commands. A popular constitution is a Schelling point that allows voters to see when politicians are cheating. Politicians would have to be exceptionally popular in order to stay in office if they did not satisfy the criteria to be reelected in the constitution, because they would have to not only be more popular than the next best politician, but also be more popular than the system itself. However, in countries with unpopular or new constitutions, the game theory is completely different. Members of the selectorate who have little or no respect for the country’s constitution won’t care when it is violated, and so won’t change who they support when their favored candidate violates it. The U.S. is more the exception than the rule, and most other countries change or ignore their constitution with relative ease. Even in America’s history, there were times, such as the Progressive Era, when the Constitution was essentially ignored without repercussions for those violating it. Constitutions may be useful in constraining governments, but only in cultures which hold meta-rules in very high regard and are willing to forsake their own short term goals to enforce a particular system.

Micronations and Immigration
The other mechanism for mitigating bad government is exit. If you are not happy with a company, you don’t buy their products. Similarly, if you are not happy with your government, in all but the most oppressive regimes, you can move. Moving, especially to a country with another culture and language is far more costly than just about any other form of exit, but it does provide a last-ditch way to constrain terrible governments. “Berlin Wall” situations exists, but going down that path eliminates any pretense that the government is anything but tyrannical.

Advocates of immigration as a way to constrain government power often write of micronations or very small countries. I did some research and discovered that none of the Heritage Foundation’s Freedom Index components are statistically significantly correlated with country size (chart below). Having more countries to chose from would increase the maximum freedom possible, because of the increase in variance, but may not increase the freedom in the average country. On the other hand, being able to move wherever you like is a valuable freedom in and of itself, and such freedom does constrain truly horrible abuses of power. more open countries have bigger governments, but whether a government is good or bad is more important than the size alone.

None of Heritage's indexes are correlated with population or log population.
Each of the factors that make up the index are also uncorrelated.

Perhaps one way to think about how to constrain governments is by thinking about what gives them power in the first place, technology. Before long distance communication, government was limited in the amount of laws it could enforce and the geographic area it could control. Mostly governments focused on military control and extracting resources. But even as technology can be used to control, it can also be used to resist. The internet is a powerful tool for both sides, but it seems like it is more useful for those resisting tyranny than for tyrants, hence why many regimes censor or restrict access. If the direction of technology could be directed, people could push toward technologies which would help constrain tyranny rather than technologies that support it, but I doubt that such control is possible. The future is always uncertain and even the inventors are often wrong about how their inventions will be used.

Taming Leviathan is one of the most important tasks of humanity. The difference in the quality of life between the best governed countries and the worse almost cannot be understated. There is a lot of ruin in a nation, and people are adaptable, but some institutional systems cannot be overcome. I think each of the methods discussed can be helpful in constraining sovereigns and each is effective in its own right. It can be easy to be caught up in pessimism, always seeing the path to corruption and ruin, but nations do reform, and tyrants can be overthrown. The battle is never won, and the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.


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