The way I see it, the world is rapidly getting worse. It’s probably going to get worse, steadily, every day, for the foreseeable future. And when we reach a point where things seem like they can’t possibly get any worse, they will! Just ask anyone who lived through Venezuela’s decline. Venezuela was a middle income country. Now starving people steal animals from the zoo to eat them. Zimbabwe was one of the wealthier nations in Africa after independence. Then they seized the land from all the farmers. Now they can’t produce food.
That’s the thing about civilization. You cannot take it for granted. Plumbing and sewage and electricity and industrial agriculture and dams and infrastructure. Those are aberrations. The default is famine, floods, disease, chaos, war, upheaval. That’s how it has been for the entirety of human history, save the last 70 years or so.
Less than 100 years ago, industrial warfare convulsed the entire world. Young men, younger than me, were expected to run headlong into machine gun fire and step on landmines and get mangled by tank treads. Remember: this is normal. This is what society is based on. This is how the US carved out their role in the international system. This is why Europe is peaceful and mostly united. They’re absolutely terrified by the reemergence of global industrial conflict.
Alongside mechanized warfare, modernity brought us something much more sinister and more destructive. Thanks to the industrial revolution and the rise of the modern state, we figured that society was just another machine to be programmed. So intellectuals concocted political theories which managed to centralize power in a brand new way. This triumph of reason over nature is what gave elites moral license to undertake the systematic killing of civilians by their own governments, at scale.
I like this quote about communism from David Satter:
[The Bolshevik revolution] hollowed out society’s moral core, degrading the individual and turning him into a cog in the machinery of the state. Communists committed murder on such a scale as to all but eliminate the value of life and to destroy the individual conscience in survivors.
If you wage war against ideas, you aren’t as concerned when there’s a human at the end of the gun. This is the outcome of consequentialism. This is the moral basis that communism (and other highly concentrative political theories) rely on: ‘we have to purge the dissidents, because we have a class revolution to win here. Just wait and see: we’re progressing towards something really amazing.’ The moral paradise offered by socialism was such a lucrative bounty that elites seized by these fantasies were willing to do anything to obtain them, including murdering millions of civilians.
I puzzled over this theory when I studied ethics as an undergrad. It made sense, it had to be right. The moral quality of an action is a function of its consequences. Of course it is. What else is there other than cause and effect? What else has moral merit?
The problem is that effects to take a long time to play out. And causes don’t link to them directly. Declaring a debt jubilee, printing a ton of money, establishing massive stimulus programs, confiscating the wealth of property owners: these bring some satisfaction in the immediate term. They feel great to the beneficiaries. The adverse parts aren’t typically felt until later. So you can justify them with consequentialist language. We have to print. We have to rescue the banks. We have to protect corporate balance sheets. Sod the long term outcomes. They aren’t known, and they can scarcely be measured.
The difficulty of implementing a consequentialist theory in the real world isn’t just due to its general repugnance where it concerns individuals. It’s fundamentally a computational problem. It’s virtually impossible to know what the outcomes of your actions will be, beyond the extremely short term and very local.
But sadly consequentialist political theories seem to returning to the fore. What unites them is a general notion of ‘tinkerism’ – the idea that technocrats can plan society better than the free market can. Communism, fascism, and other such utopian doctrines which stress the primacy of a single entity or system and highly concentrated loci of control are resurgent.
The way I see it, the world is reverting to the mean. Steven Pinker claiming that the world was getting inexorably better and would continue like that indefinitely was effectively the intellectual version of “buying the top”. We have been living in an aberrantly peaceful era thanks to a global hegemon, the US. Thanks to nukes and Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and international institutions which united virtually the entire world, inter-state warfare subsided, almost the whole world became food secure, and trade routes were protected – even for America’s enemies. And perhaps most aberrantly of all, the world was unified within a single (US-dominated) financial system and currency. The only real global reserve currency prior to the USD was gold.
It’s pretty clear this isn’t going to last. The Bretton Woods II / Washington Consensus system is failing, accelerated by a president who is manifestly hostile to its existence. The US is retreating to its pre-1915 default, which is to say isolationism. China (probably) can’t fill the gap just yet, even if they’d like to. There’s no ready replacement for the dollar, for 12 aircraft carrier groups, or for the UN/IMF/WTO/SWIFT etc.
Now pax americana wasn’t perfect, but it was reasonably good. Its near-term replacement will likely be far more chaotic. In this void truly authoritarian states will seize and concentrate power. A decaying empire will lead to a reckoning for the failed doctrines that led to its collapse. I fear that the reckoning in the West will embolden those who promote a wholesale redistribution of wealth and suspension of property rights.
These failed ideas seem to be impossible to stamp out. In a sense they remind me of the fungal blights that periodically afflict ant colonies when they get too large. Society isn’t a progression towards better and better ideas. It’s a cyclical process of experimentation and discovery. We have been gorged on 40 years of debt and unconstrained central banking, and a dangerous illusion of technocratic supremacy has taken hold. Taken to its logical extreme, this morphs into anti-human theories like socialism. With the stimulus taken into account, US government spending accounts for 55 percent of GDP. MMT demands even more government involvement in the private sector. It’s socialism’s intellectual predecessor.
So yes, on the whole I am deeply concerned about the next several decades. I believe there will be more large-scale interstate conflict, potentially even between nuclear powers; I think food insecurity will return to the globe as trade routes are compromised; and I think that voters in the West will opt for the joint extremes of socialism and fascism as they desperately search for answers.
The good news is that a suite of technologies have been developed which privilege the individual over the State (or any other powerful third party). These include technologies which make manufacturing arms cheaper and more decentralized; encryption technologies which allow for the transmission of a message through a medium without compromise; and of course monetary technologies like Bitcoin which grant absolute concealable personal ownership of one’s wealth, for the first time in history. As long as these technological bulwarks exist, and some safe havens exist worldwide from which to instrumentalize them, and a vibrant, optimistic community of builders, financiers, and users exists to promote them, we will have a shot.
Our future does not necessarily entail despotism, chaos, or dissolution. For the sake of everyone who wants to make it through the next few decades with their dignity and property rights intact, I suggest embracing these technologies and doing all you can to further their use in society. I guess you could call me an optimist.
This post was written in an hour for my “one-hour blog post challenge.” Thanks to Vijay Boyapati for the winning prompt.