#4: principles of any next regime
Let's try to understand the purpose of government from scratch.
In 2020, we are all nihilists. Whatever this weird regime we inherited from the 20th century actually is, almost none of us has any significant positive belief in it.
Where authentic public engagement still exists in the American political system, it is purely negative engagement. Where we still “support” any of the System’s organs, wings, tentacles, departments, corporations or dignitaries, it is only to “resist” some other office, figure, principle or movement, which strikes us as still more egregious.
It is an exaggeration to say the whole Show is fake. But: the whole Show is fake. So if we nihilists do not even think about the Show—much less try to participate in it—and we do not dream its Dream, what are we even thinking about?
Nihilism, detachment and absolutism
The substantive content of 21st-century nihilism, like many esoteric philosophies cynically crafted to entice the young, is a twisted pair of yin and yang: detachment and absolutism. These concepts do not overlap; but they fit. In previous chapters, we have thrown a lot of ink at detachment. In this chapter, we start on absolutism.
Detachment, the yin of nihilism, means disengaging, detaching, withdrawing or resigning from every form of power, or ambition for power, influence or relevance, under the present regime. The Russians used to call this “internal exile.”
Detachment is surprisingly hard, especially if power can’t resist the joy of hunting you. What saves you is that power always has enemies, and it hunts them down first; and you, actually, are not one of them. You appreciate and respect power. It is what it is.
Your magic is the magic of the weak, not the strong; not the wolf and the bear, but the owl and the fox. Better to know, than to see; better to see, than be seen; better to be seen, than noticed; better to be noticed, than feared; better to be feared, than hated; better to be hated, than beaten; better to be beaten, than killed; better you are killed, than your family. The fox has no illusions and is always, in principle, on the move.
The detached nihilist is a virtual expatriate: a guest in his own country. If he was in Thailand, he would respect the King of Thailand. He is here, and here he respects the powers that be (which are everywhere, anyway). He respects both the formal laws and the real laws. Either or both may be, for his impieties, deployed against him. If power’s dogs are really set on him, he may run; but he will never fight.
Absolutism, the yang of nihilism, means thinking ex nihilo: from scratch, from first principles, not relative to any specific past or present reality. Nihilists do care about reality. We care about it so much that we accept no substitutes. The motto of the Royal Society, crafted in happier times: nullius in verbum. We take no one’s word for it—that’s what it means to “believe in nothing.”
The System has gotten many things right. There are whole fields of knowledge—such as math—where the System may be asymptotically perfect. These generally tended to be the same fields in which Soviet academia was also strong—always the “hard” fields.
But as with Soviet science, we cannot accept any knowledge from the System, however internally reputable, without some other justification, narrow or broad, of its validity. Just as some Soviet departments were almost perfectly untainted by power, others were almost perfectly corrupted by power. There is not much left of Soviet psychology, Soviet political science, Soviet historiography…
A broad justification is like: Soviet physics is valid. A narrow one is like: this Soviet psych paper is valid. Either demands an argument. Soviet physics cannot be accepted in verbum—either because of the prestige of the USSR, or the prestige of physics—and nor can any Soviet paper, just because it appeared in some prestigious Soviet journal.
The tradition of scholarship is to stand on the shoulders of giants. Typically the scholars do not think much about the giants; they take the giants for granted; these giants, they know, are good and friendly giants; they are not gods, they do err; but their errors are accidental, random noise; it is our task, on their shoulders, to correct them.
The situation of the scholar changes once he realizes that while there are certainly plenty of giants in the crowd he is surfing, there are also more than a few ogres. The errors of the ogre are not accidental; they are sins, even crimes, of various degrees. Auden knew the species:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master Speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
Every true scholar remembers the first time they set foot on the shoulders of an ogre. That foot itched savagely and at once, producing an irresistible desire to be standing on the ground. Those who escape this allergic reaction are blessed. Not scholars but strivers, they may go far indeed in the poison-garden of the Cathedral—and if lucky, even grow up to be ogres themselves. Over time, the whole nave fills up with ogres.
The absolutist, back on the ground, has a huge problem. We really do have to start ex nihilo. While there are real giants on whose shoulders we could stand, nihilists will not stand on anything’s shoulders again without a good hard look at its intellectual DNA.
This leaves nihilist scholars with a lot more work—mostly in “soft” scholarship—than their orthodox peers. But is this a problem? Isn’t the Western world experiencing an embarrassing shortage of real work to occupy its overeducated, overpopulated clerks?The more scholarship we find corrupt and discard, the more work we give ourselves; and when whole fields must be discarded, the creative opportunities become immense.
20th-century history, for instance, is an almost completely fallow field. Beyond some facts and figures, nobody knows anything about it. It’s a fascinating period which has barely been studied, except of course by its own writers—essentially all of whom were attached to one of its contending factions.
Imagine reading the Third Reich, the USSR, even the Roman Empire only through its own authorized eyes. “But our regime is different!” Sorry, dude. The primary sources, voluminous in this period, are as interesting as ever. They are not history, though.
But this is not a work of history. At the end of this chapter we’ll make our first foray into another area, absolute public policy, which is not just a fallow field but an entire unexplored valley. Hopefully you like the look of this valley, since we’ll be spending the rest of the book there. We will also spend the rest of this chapter getting there. At least it is shorter than the last.
Getting to zero
By rejecting precedent, ceremony and tradition, absolutists get to design the future from first principles. But starting from zero is only half the journey. The other half is getting to zero—from our principles. They may suck, but they are ours.
One way to sell absolutism to Americans, which is almost as hard as selling BLTs to ISIS, is to derive our next political doctrine not from rational first principles, like a total sperg, but from some long-hallowed American mantra which we all adore.
Let’s start from Lincoln’s great line: “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Who doesn’t love Lincoln? No one who matters. Who disagrees that this phrase describes the ideal government? Probably no one at all. Let’s drill into our lovely Lincoln line, and see where it takes us.
First: can anyone explain the difference between “of the people” and “by the people?” I can’t. I think Lincoln thought three things was more poetic than two, which is true. Unless “of” means “over”—but this is implicit in the definition of “government.” Either way, we are down to “government by the people, for the people.”
But “for the people” is definitely not the same thing as “by the people.” These are two boolean attributes—like saying, “cold, fresh water.”
At least for drinking, cold fresh water is the best. Hot salt water is the worst. But if we have two orthogonal, boolean attributes, we get four choices.
Suppose we are marooned—in the middle of the Pacific, without a paddle. Suppose we could drink any time, but we only had two choices—cold salt water, or hot fresh water?
Is it possible that one of these inferior liquids, neither of which is cold, fresh water, could nonetheless quench our thirst? If we could drink cold, salt water, we could drink the ocean. If we could drink hot, fresh water—
We could actually drink out of that black barrel behind the mast. We’d been wondering what that barrel was for! Adrift in mid-Pacific, and our only fresh water is baking in the sun, hot as hot tea and utterly undrinkable. Or so we thought!
In historical hindsight, our discovery that while cold, fresh water is ideal, the hot, fresh water we actually have, though way less refreshing, works almost as well, and way better than drinking the cold, salty ocean, will be as clear as this metaphor. Today you are one in a thousand if you can step through the answer like a six-year-old.
Like Lincoln, we want government for the people, and by the people. Suppose we can’t have both? Suppose government by the people cannot actually deliver government for the people? Suppose we just have to choose? Which matters most—that our water be fresh, or that it be cold? I know what Lincoln would say.
Is this a hard choice? Let's reduce it ad absurdum—to the choice between peace and harmony, under the rule of some autistic alien AI overlord, which makes the justest laws and enforces them efficiently and impartially; or chaos and anarchy, in which we are bullied, assaulted, extorted, beaten and even slaughtered at the hands of our own deranged cousins, who even as kids never seemed totally right in the head.
Fresh water is a necessity. Cold, fresh water is a luxury. Government for the people is a necessity. Government by the people is a luxury. We are not always forced to choose between necessity and luxury. Sometimes we are—and when we are, we need a way of telling the difference.
This idea that government is first and foremost for the people is historically normal. Since we are all Americans now, you do have to pull the historical camera a long way back in time to see how normal it is.
Perhaps the best literary expression of it is what we can call Pope’s rule:
For forms of government let fools contest;
Whatever governs best is best,
Even if it’s an alien AI autist.
So, 250 years ago, said Alexander Pope—not an actual Pope—actually kind of a weirdo—whose couplet I have here, in imitation of the great Dr. Bronner, improved.
If you cannot accept Pope’s rule, it means that your view of government and power is mystical rather than instrumental. You believe that certain human beings have certain inherent rights to political power, regardless of the good or evil this power does. You believe that even a small amount of evil is a price worth paying, since political power is essential to the human soul.
This is a normal aristocratic way to think about government. If you think this, you are or want to be an aristocrat. This is fine. It is good to be, or become, an aristocrat. But this desire, like all desires, can bend your logic; and bent logic is a very dangerous toy.
The belief in a birthright of political power falls under Hume’s “ought” rather than his “is.” It is an ethical or aesthetic judgment. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, also felt he had a hereditary right to political power; it was essential to his human soul.
God help the nation which makes itself a nation of Hamlets. Dear reader, logic cannot dissuade you from this aesthetic. I urge you to question it. If this is too hard, you may not get much from the following discourse.
For the rest of this book—good government is government for the people. As nihilists we feel comfortable in denying that anyone, whether Prince of Denmark or citizen of Dagestan, is born with any moral right to any political power. The only question of government, in Denmark or Dagestan, is what is good for Denmark or Dagestan.
Three paths in the forest
Latin is cool again. Here are three purposes of government, as Latin phrases: (A) vox populi, vox dei; (B) salus populi, suprema lex; and (C) luxus populi, suprema lex. (Nobody ever said (C), but the Latin is right—I think.)
Each of these mottos can easily be sold as for the people. A is actually by the people, but that’s okay—it never hurts to refute it in every mask it owns.
Everyone swears they believe in A. All modern public policy assumes C. The correct answer is B. Almost no one believes in B, and we’re certainly not getting it either.
B is also the historically normal answer, so long as you zoom out far enough on history. B is even the state motto of Missouri. If Missouri took it seriously, Missouri would be a pretty different place.
B should not be at all weird or surprising. And yet—when we take it seriously—it is. B is the strange path we will take. But first, let’s give A and C one last goodbye look.
Vox populi, vox dei
Vox populi, vox dei is the definition of popular sovereignty. “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”
Since God is always right, public opinion is always right. Since public opinion always wants the right thing, the public should always get what the public wants.
Well. Okay. But… was any doctrine more surely exploded by the 20th century, than the belief that whatever the people (or a numerical majority of adults) want or like, must also be the right thing, which is also the best thing for them and everyone else?
By the middle of the century, the world’s intellectuals agreed that a civilized, educated population can be led dangerously astray—and persuaded to want things that are very bad for themselves and others. We don’t seem to have changed our minds on this.
Anyone who is not a Nazi can agree that Hitler proves this point by example. Anyone who is a Nazi can point to FDR, Churchill and Stalin. Perhaps future historians will end up pointing to all four—but they will hardly dispute the point.
So the Modern System, in the second half of the 20th century, amended its principle to read: the people are always right, if rightly educated. Obviously this rule is inconsistent with the principle of vox populi, vox dei. Who “educates” a god?
The amended rule is flawless—a tautology. Best of all, it needs the people not at all. Since the people are downstream of the teachers, power can work directly with the teachers. This helps keep random weirdos out of the building. It is also how our ancient republic inevitably evolved into a modern oligarchy.
“An immense and tutelary power”
In the 20th century we learned to assume that people believe whatever they are taught. A teacher is any reliable source—anyone with a license to make trusted assertions. A teacher is a teacher; a professor is a teacher; a journalist is a teacher; and even some government officials may turn out to be teachers.
And whoever controls these jobs controls public opinion. And ultimately, all politics is about one of two things: war, or controlling jobs. If public opinion can be controlled by controlling jobs, the vox populi has one neck that any such power can compress.
If all the teachers must be licensed by the Enlightenment Ministry of Dr. Goebbels, public opinion will be Nazi opinion. If all the teachers must be Catholics, the Virgin Mary will rise steadily in the polls.
Controlling jobs—filtering who can get them, typically for some religious, cultural, ideological, or racial uniformity—is not just one kind of hack. It is a field—an art form. It is the great field of (nonviolent) politics.
Politics is a human universal. It does not even need to be centralized or directed. Just because you have no Minister of Truth to hand out journalist licenses, does not mean power has not found a gentle way to squeeze the neck of your truth stream.
For squeezing necks is what power does. It does something else, something worse: it strokes necks. Power knows how to take care of both its enemies and its friends. Power has a black belt in the stick; but its carrots win gold medals at the fair. Power need not hurt anyone itself. Power has made more than enough friends to handle its enemies.
At a certain level the System will even admit this. It has to. And it can, because of its new, 20th-century version of vox populi: the people are always right, if rightly educated. Uncomfortably, at the bottom of the argument, you find yourself agreeing with power. And your true faith is not even in a specific power—but, if consistent, in power itself. Your superficial principles are hypocritical. Under them is this, perfect as a diamond.
The two political temperaments are not about policies—only compliance. As a liberal, you may even feel the flash of realization that in Nazi Germany, a person like yourself would be a Nazi—just as someone like me would be a liberal. As Cavafy wrote:
Che Fece… Il Gran Rifiuto
For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,
he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he’d still say no. Yet that no—the right no—
drags him down all his life.
Is that you? Strong in your conviction?
The wages of tautology
The fundamental assumption of democracy is that public opinion is an ultimate cause. Once public opinion is a consequence of some other cause—once it must be led and educated—vox populi, vox dei is “not even wrong.” No voice can be the voice of God, yet also the voice of the man behind the curtain.
If the voice of the people does not even come from the people—if they are less speaking, than spoken through—if the grass-roots always turn out to be made of nylon—whatever party, institution, movement or force does control this voice is, by pretending that the voice is both endogenous and exalted, pretending to be God.
This is nothing unusual. Most regimes pretend to be at least inspired by God. Many even pretend to be descended from God. Is vox populi, vox dei less rational?
But God never speaks directly. When we grant sovereignty to public opinion, we grant sovereignty to the teachers—the persuasive institutions that manage public opinion. This is no different from granting sovereignty to Army, Church, or King. Unless public opinion is an ultimate, self-governing, self-creating cause, beyond the power of any other power to manage or regulate, popular sovereignty cannot substantively exist.
The paradox of public opinion is that if public opinion is irrelevant—suppose absolute power, both real and formal, is in the hands of King and Army, jock Chad boneheads to a man—no power has an incentive to coerce or seduce public opinion. No power has any reason to compel the public mind; so the public mind is effortlessly independent; it is the only cause of its own opinions. It has to be ruled by boneheads, though.
But public opinion, under a constitution in which the sovereignty of the public is real, formal or both, becomes a megaphone of power, a sacred conch, which is the prey of every party with any motive to speak through it. Rather than an infinite wellspring of fair and impartial philosophy, it is a blade which the strong wield and the weak suffer.
The prerequisite for democracy
Yet in some cases, we know, democracy actually works. In some cases, we know, it is a tool for public opinion to control the state—not for the state to control public opinion. There is supposed to be a valve, so that power flows only in the proper direction. But a valve is always a tricky little moving part. What determines the real direction of flow? If we could only start controlling the state again, we might even learn to control it well.
Suppose the legitimate and sovereign public was a legitimate and sovereign king. We know that kings, even dynasties, can go from power’s master, to power’s creature. We know that Elizabeth II has the same title on her business cards as Elizabeth I.
A monarch cannot be a true and absolute monarch, full master of the state, without (a) unshakable will to rule, and (b) total confidence in ability to rule. Any glitch in will or confidence can turn any monarch into a headless body, or a royal celebrity—equally irreversible conditions.
We can generalize this by saying that no regime can rule unless that regime is strong. The historical birth of democracy—both in the Greek world, and the English world—was not a consequence of democratic philosophy, but rather of popular strength—if that word can bear the marriage of determination and ability.
We see that early in a democratic period, the real power of democracy (the power of the mob) greatly exceeds its formal power. Late in the cycle, this disparity inverts: the formal power of democracy exceeds its real power. Its peaceful, apathetic voters are not only a not mob—they are not even a crowd. These “last men” are too soft to even lift the swords of the primitive and violent ancestors who created their powers.
So those powers must and will be taken from them. In a monarchy where the king is weak, the king will be managed. In a democracy where the voters are weak, the voters will be managed. In no such country can vox populi be vox dei. God is not managed.
It is impossible for any weak party, person or population to truly rule. As Tocqueville wrote: “no form or combination of social polity has yet been devised, to make an energetic people out of a community of pusillanimous and enfeebled citizens.”
This is why FDR cannot be charged with the murder of American democracy, any more than Caesar can be charged with the murder of the Roman Republic. In both cases we see a regime no longer capable of managing its country. We should not hope to see such a regime restored; time does not reverse; we should hope to see its replacement, itself nearing the end of fate’s thread, itself so cleanly replaced.
A democracy in which public opinion is formally sovereign, but lacks will or capacity, is a a bit like a monarchy in which the king is formally sovereign, but eight years old. The big difference is that eight-year-olds grow up—a trend that any sharp careerist in the civil service is wise to anticipate. This inevitability makes a temporary regency inherently temporary—in the long run, the king is still the king. But for now, no nation has ever actually been ruled by a child; and none will ever be.
But if the lack of will and confidence in modern America is in any sense a consequence of a long-term decline in public virtue, the trend is in the opposite direction. America is not like a child. America is like a grown man with the mind of a child. The child will grow up; the man is growing down.
“Your people,” said Alexander Hamilton, “your people, sir—your people is a great beast.” Hamilton was right—but a great beast has will and capacity. Hamilton was right—today, Hamilton would not be right. He would look at us—even at our riots!—and see a petty worm.
Next to his 18th-century beast, 21st-century democracy is a sea-cucumber. Once a wild animal, it has since evolved into a sessile quasi-vegetable without will or capacity. Any vegetable has a farmer. To empower it is to empower its farmer. Its voice is the voice of that farmer. This hollow and passive ventriloquism is the last stage of many a regime.
Autocracy is the absence of democracy
If public opinion is not an ultimate cause, all governments are “autocracies”—granting absolute power to some arbitrary, contingent, and unaccountable institution, which is deemed spiritually pure and infallible, but which does not include the whole public.
“Autocracy” literally means “oligarchy or monarchy”—the absence or converse of democracy. In a polity in which democracy is effectively impossible, there is no case for autocracy—the trial is only between oligarchy and monarchy.
But in your mind, “autocracy” just means “monarchy.” This may seem like a semantic nitpick. It is a semantic security hole. It is how democracy died without you noticing.
You assumed that democracy meant the absence of autocracy, which is true. Then you equated autocracy with monarchy, which is false. Then you didn’t see a monarchy, so you assumed you had finished checking for autocracy and clicked “OK.” It’s a good thing you’re not guarding, like, jewels, or something.
If an oligarchy manages public opinion, public opinion is managed just the same. The public mind that is managed by an oligarchy is managed just the same; it is just not managed by a single person or institution that everyone can agree to uniformly resent. In other words, it is managed more stably and securely.
When oligarchy is actually good
The real advantage of oligarchy is not that oligarchy is inherently freer than monarchy. It is that oligarchy is inherently more stable and secure than monarchy. By definition, it is easier to overthrow a monarchy. So monarchies work harder on internal security. So they often feel less free—because, if at all wobbly, they are less free.
In a period of global instability—such as the last quarter-millennium—monarchies are at a disadvantage, because stability is at a premium. This disadvantage forces them to overinvest in internal security. This is why we think of monarchies, autocracies, and secret-police states as essentially synonymous—and generally foul and wretched.
The freedom characteristic of young oligarchies comes from their stability. The stabler a regime is, the more controlled chaos it can safely tolerate. Unstable autocracies cannot even tolerate free enterprise. Extremely stable autocracies can even tolerate free speech. The stabler the government, the more liberty it can safely allow. Unfortunately, this means aging oligarchies grow more repressive as they weaken.
Popping Popper’s paradoxical poppers
This apparent paradox is isomorphic to Karl Popper’s famous “paradox of tolerance." The Party is tolerant—as tolerant as possible, consistent with its own security. It tolerates every party—except any party that would not tolerate the Party.
If liberalism extends its tolerance to fascism, fascism might overthrow liberalism. We know this because it happened. And fascism in power does not tolerate liberalism, so it is intolerant. So we tolerate everyone, except the intolerant.
Popper, stuck in the 20th century without our supercilious and futuristic hindsight, did not stop to observe that his paradox is a perfect multiple equilibrium—the same logic also advises fascists to repress liberals. It is nice that you are having such a strong spiritual experience, but please do remember that this same shit gets everyone high.
Milton, in his great call for freedom of opinion, Areopagitica, has just the same insight. Protestants should tolerate other Protestants. But Catholics are dangerous to the state; Catholics must be canceled—maybe even punched. There is always some such theory.
Popper and Milton, both personally familiar with civil war, are just rebranding its first commandment: do unto thy neighbor, before he doeth unto thee. Popper’s advice is pure Machiavelli. Its message to any regime is: take and hold the levers which control public opinion, before someone else does.
If public opinion controls the state, to control the state, control education, journalism, scholarship and art. The distribution of this control is a military fact on the ground—an arbitrary, contingent outcome of history. If public opinion is delivered via TV, send your tank brigade to the TV tower. If it is delivered via Internet—filter the Internet.
Popper has just reinvented the Schmittian exception, the Tudor prerogative, or the Bourbon raison d’etat. For the same reason, Elizabeth I banned Ben Jonson’s play Isle of Dogs—so effectively that we don’t even know what naughty things it said. “Cancel culture” is not some Snapchat-era fad; it is older than Shakespeare, older than Rome.
There is still a difference between centralized, monarchical sovereignty, like power in Tudor England or Nazi Germany, and decentralized, oligarchic sovereignty, like power in the modern world. The latter is a lot harder to get rid of.
In the old, vanished world, there was only one power to persecute you. In the modern world, everyone does unto their neighbor—or is starting to think about it. At least if their neighbor has put up the wrong lawn sign. In the old world, the king was easy to dethrone. In the modern world, how do you dethrone your neighbor?
A decentralized oligarchy is still an autocracy. It has no Hitler and no Goebbels—and needs none. Vae victis! Next time we meet, it will be on a tank. A luta continua.
Luxus populi suprema lex
Luxus populi suprema lex is real Latin. It is not a real Roman idea. It means “public luxury is the supreme law.” Few ideas would horrify a proper Roman more. (Nor is it lexus populi suprema lex, which means “everyone has to drive a Lexus.”)
In Anglo-American intellectual history, the idea that “public luxury is the supreme law” is called utilitarianism. All modern, Western schools of economics, Marxist or libertarian, capitalist or communist, are fundamentally utilitarian.
So our economies, which are just, like, all of what we all do all day, are run on the principle of luxus populi. As Dr. Phil always says: how’s that working out for you?
Luxury is a pejorative. A utilitarian would say that public utility is the supreme law. But the same utilitarian must acknowledge that utility ascends on a scale from necessity, to convenience, to luxury. And, to Jeremy Bentham, today’s most modest conveniences would appear as miraculous luxuries. This is not an objective difference.
Luxury, or utility, is satisfaction of desire. Utility is the object of consumption. It’s easy to measure the aggregate satisfaction of the public’s desires: count the dollars that consumers paid to producers for the goods and services they consumed.
Since the number of dollars a consumer is willing to spend corresponds to their desire for the product, the price of the product must measure its utility. Therefore, the most luxurious products are the most useful; so utility is luxury. At least, for a utilitarian.
Since we do still feel some shame in this gross doctrine of luxus populi, we measure not aggregate economic consumption, but aggregate economic production. These are the same number, of course. A rise in this number is “growth”—unless caused by elasticity in our modern, high-tech, rubber-yardstick financial system, which is “inflation.”
To distinguish between “growth” and “inflation,” ensuring that when the line goes up the public’s desires actually have become more satisfied, we have to measure changes in the quality of goods and services. A utilitarian economic metric like GDP can only be accurately defined as a measure of the aggregate pleasure they produce.
Utilitarian macroeconomics is easy. Pleasure growth is price growth, minus inflation. While the Declaration is clear about “the pursuit of happiness,” our economists remain troubled by this image of America as a vast massage parlor—so they use euphemisms, like “hedonics”—neither a semiconductor process, nor an urban basilect.
Utility has the same advantage as democracy: it is measurable. Suddenly we have a picture of a practical political system, in which voters elect the party that they expect to produce the most utility—that is, maximize their satisfaction of desire.
Both the goal of the government, and the outcome of the election, are hard numbers that everyone can agree on. Certainty is a desirable quality in a political system. everyone wants a “government that can be carried on by steam,” power operating by mechanical rather than human judgment.
But there is a major problem in measuring utility. As libertarian economists in the Austrian School like to observe, utility is not comparable across consumers. Pleasure cannot be added or aggregated—this is math abuse.
A Big Mac is worth much more to a starving man than a rich man. Since Bill Gates has only one back, a hundred-dollar bill is barely worth bending over for. For a homeless person it will buy a few hours of pure bliss. You can’t add these things.
This ambiguity causes political friction between libertarian utilitarians and liberal utilitarians. Liberals observe that taking a benjamin from a billionaire and giving it to a bum creates an enormous increase in utility. Libertarians observe that this is, like, totally, stealing, and stealing causes pervasive damage to the utility-creating economy.
Watching this debate, we begin to wonder if it is possible for liberals and libertarians to both be right, and both be wrong. This might be possible if neither side was rooted in reality—if their conversation was not the sky, but a fragment of the sky in a puddle.
It is easy to forget that national economic planning by hedonic macroeconomics—hedonomics, if you will—is less than a century old: a post-WWI innovation. Even the liberal tradition in economics only goes back a quarter-millennium to Adam Smith.
Humans have been making and trading and borrowing and lending for much longer. And governments, too, have been promoting and regulating and taxing this activity. If we forgot everything since 1770, we would still know a lot about political economy.
By satisfying it utterly
The trouble with utilitarianism is deeper than the sibling rivalry between communism and capitalism. It is not even an economic problem. It is a spiritual problem.
Utility is satisfaction of desire. One interesting aspect of this promising new principle, luxus populi suprema lex, is how closely it tracks with ancient Buddhist thought.
The Buddha spoke also of desire. The Buddha agreed that the purpose of existence is the conquest of desire. Desire, Siddhartha Gautama taught, can be conquered in just one way: by satisfying it utterly. What is this but the modern idea of utilitarianism—that the purpose of economic life is the satisfaction of desire?
Wait. Sorry. We’ve just had a call—we’re going to have to, ah, correct that attribution. For “Siddhartha Gautama,” read “Hugh Hefner.”
Apparently the actual Buddha—if we’re hearing this correctly—taught that “hedonics” could never satisfy human desire—only inflame it. Hm. So utilitarianism would be, actually, the opposite of Buddhism. Well, that’s cool. “But Playboy is valid too, man.”
The problem with utilitarianism is that it doesn’t actually quite match our goal. Our goal was government for the people. If we equate good government with the maximum consumption of utility, we are equating what is good for people, with what they want. The hedonomics of the luxus populi era measures their revealed preferences, not their expressed preferences; but the fundamental error is the same.
As we climb the pyramid of needs from necessity to convenience to luxury, what we naturally want diverges from what is naturally good for us. When you are dying of thirst, what you want is exactly what is good for you. When you are living like Hugh Hefner, what you want and what is good for you may be exact opposites.
At the top end of the economic scale, living well is a constant struggle against desire—a struggle the Buddha, born a prince, knew well. While we are not all born as princes, our lives are full of technical luxuries that princes of old could never have imagined.
When we combine this error with the error of aggregating incomparable utility scales, we realize that all forms of hedonic or utilitarian economics could be very far from making sense—and the arrow of technical progress is moving them away from sanity. Hedonomics plus technology is a recipe for societal diabetes.
Technology and the resource curse
20th-century economists are oft puzzled by a phenomenon they call the resource curse, in which nations with more natural resources have consistently worse outcomes. This would seem to blatantly flout that axiom of modernity, luxus populi suprema lex.
Aspects of the curse, such as Dutch disease, are understood; but they still fit poorly with classical liberal economics. When the Dutch strike oil, Ricardian trade theory would suggest, the Dutch economy should shift from making stuff (which can now be imported from China), to service industries (such as peeling grapes for oil drillers). How is this a “disease”? Who wants to work in a factory, making stuff, instead of getting, like, totally free stuff from a pipe someone else stuck in the ground?
And yet Venezuela, which has the most oil in South America by far, is the worst basket case in South America by far. What we realize is that economic activity—humans working and trading—is essential to a society, a civilization and a nation. An economy in which five people stick a pipe in the ground, and everyone else lives on government checks, does not seem to work as a society, a civilization or a nation.
This is the resource curse. But most people don’t realize that sufficiently advanced technology is like striking oil. Thirty engineers at WhatsApp used to run a billion accounts. An economy in which five people, or even five hundred thousand, lay out chips and design software, and everyone else lives on government checks, also does not seem to work as a society, civilization or a nation.
What the resource curse tells us is that “fully automated luxury communism”—the hypothetical apotheosis of luxus populi suprema lex—is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed. Some of it is in Venezuela—most of the rest is in the Persian Gulf. (Heavy religion seems to ameliorate the disease.) The 20th-century dinosaur-juice curse is just a preview of the hell that 21st-century technology is scheduled to unleash on the earth.
For the closer we come to this tech resource-curse apocalypse, the closer we come to hell—except for a louche, talented, largely parasitic elite, which is doing just fine. (So is Venezuela’s elite.) This problem is only becoming more urgent. We cannot even start to solve it until we understand it; and we have not even started to understand it.
Salus populi suprema lex
This is the original and correct principle of all government, famous for millennia, never changed and never improved on: “the health of the people is the supreme law.” Alas, it is easier to say than understand—and easier to understand than implement.
The word salus, literally health, is the core of the question. In 2020, salus has taken on a very literal meaning. While this medical definition is not wrong, nor is it complete. A broader sense of salus might be translated as human condition. Certain members of the legal profession excepted, a human has both a body and a soul.
So we might say that the purpose of a government is to defend and cultivate the bodies and souls of its subjects. (“Citizen” begs the question of vox populi, vox dei.)
The central problem of salus populi suprema lex is that while the health of a body can be quantified, sort of, the health of a soul is a qualitative and aesthetic judgment. Usually this is a very easy judgment—at an individual level. But it is completely resistant to the quantitative methods of 20th-century mass administration.
Quantitative metrics of administrative success are inherently popular in an oligarchy, because they enable impersonal, procedural, and unaccountable decision-making. When the criterion of success is qualitative, aesthetic, or even just unscientific, the decisions can only be handed to a single author, chef, director, general or CEO. This individual may tire of serving as a passive decision oracle for procedural exceptions, and try to manage proactively by initiative and command—and you are at monarchy. This is why luxus populi remains so popular: it fits the tools of the procedural state.
Cinema has long since accepted the auteur theory. Chain restaurants compete with independent chefs on price, never on quality. And if making a movie or preparing a menu is an intangible creative whole that must be the vision of a single human mind, and would be a mess with one more director or one more cook—how much more so is government? Therefore the qualitative rule of salus populi, though it does not demand a monarchy, is as historically bound to it as the quantitative luxus populi to oligarchy.
Recovering the art of government
Here we arrive at the meat of Gray Mirror: the operating manual for the next prince.
While every historical situation is new, the next regime will face an unprecedented challenge: global regime change, on a planet festooned with H-bombs. The birth of this regime will be as spectacular and irreversible as a rocket launch, and as binary. And it must be as carefully engineered. No one’s country can blow up on the pad.
And we have absolutely no idea what to do. We need to build a rocket; we are not even sure we know physics. Since for a government to work, one or a few must lead and the rest must follow, we actually have two arts to relearn: not just the art of ruling, but what Wyndham Lewis called the art of being ruled. The latter is probably the hardest.
Our knowledge of 21st-century governance comes from three places: (a) abstract theorizing, always the worst possible way to think; (b) personal experience in 20th-century governance, which is sometimes useful and usually much worse than useless, since it is usually experience in how to do the wrong thing badly; and (c) old books by people from incredibly strange countries, who are dead and don’t answer their email.
By choosing the old objective of government—the salus populi—we have made the dead men happy. At least we know what moon our rocket is headed for.
Still, neither we nor our old sages have any clear idea what the salus populi means in the real 21st century. Nor, since the question is neither inductive nor deductive, but critical and aesthetic, can logic force us to agree: de gustibus non disputandum.
Five trucks to one quarry
What do we mean by the salus populi?
Any English speaker who has studied modern Greek has been delighted by the fact that “metaphor,” in modern Greek, means truck. A metaphor is indeed a truck. A metaphor is a qualitative, aesthetic way to get from point A to point B.
A metaphor of government is a perspective for judging a government. If our metaphor of government is that Elvis is Lord, the way we judge a government is to ask: what would Elvis do? What would Elvis think? If Elvis is satisfied, so are we. Of course, this truck is only useful if we know more about Elvis than about government.
In my pocket I have five metaphors of government. All five are synoptic: asked the same question, they produce roughly the same answer. This could be because it is the right answer; or it could be something else.
Unfortunately, bits have become very expensive this summer. Gray Mirror’s bit budget is almost exhausted. We can only afford two of these trucks. We have chosen the two which are new to almost any reader—which you have never thought about in the context of politics or history. They are not the best trucks; but they are new.
The remaining three are used. You can probably guess them. They can be represented as gods, forces, principles, etc. Besides the price of bits, there is a second reason not to drive around in used trucks—even though these are, on balance, much better trucks.
The System has broadcast not just pictures of the used trucks—but also broken, twisted caricatures. Our friends find these bad metaphors, pick them up, use them, and wind up cast as the villain in the Dream, with a performance better than acting. It’s not a part you want—be careful.
Truck #1: the human zoo
The human zoo! Right away, you find this creepy. Strap in, buddy. We’re in for some hardcore philosophical ethics.
First: there are two kinds of zoo. In the first kind of zoo, the animals exist for the zoo. In the second kind of zoo, the zoo exists for the animals.
Zoos of the first kind are generally restricted to “Tiger King,” circuses, developing nations, and the ineffable East. Western zoos that any professional considers real, legitimate zoos are always and everywhere zoos of the second kind. The purpose of the zoo is to support the animals, not the other way around. The Bronx Zoo is not a conspiracy to imprison and torture animals.
So the zoo is for the animals—just like government for the people. Yet the zoo exercises absolute, unconditional dominion over its animals—just as any government exercises absolute, unconditional sovereignty over its subjects. Maybe this metaphor isn’t so creepy after all.
The animal condition
What does zookeeping for the animals actually mean? What is the salus animalium? As with humans, this question is surprisingly hard to answer. In animals, it partakes more of the physical; we only think of humans as having souls; but higher animals certainly have minds, habits, and personalities. We name our pets for a reason.
The salus animalium could mean the zookeeper is a farmer—that her goal is to produce as many physically healthy animals as possible. While reputable zoos do breed animals, a zoo is a zoo and not a lion farm.
The salus animalium could mean the zookeeper is a crazy cat lady—that her goal is to make sure the animals enjoy their lives as much as possible. The purpose of this zoo is the pursuit of animal happiness. The lions only eat filet mignon. Since intoxicants make lion happy, they even get all the vodka and catnip they want. Perhaps there is even such a thing as lion porn... but a cat lady is not a zookeeper, either.
The relationship of a zoo to the animal condition is much more subtle than this. It starts with the universal understanding that any creature raptured from the wild and imprisoned in a zoo, or still worse born in the prison of a zoo, is fundamentally a diminished creature—a lesser animal than its free and wild cousins.
Then the zookeeper asks: how, within the operating constraints of a real-world zoo—which does exist for the animals, but cannot run out of money for them—can she ameliorate this diminution? This amelioration is her definition of the salus animalium.
Her caged lions will always be less than real lions. But what can she do to make the lions as real, as liony, as possible? Certainly, if she had the budget, she would make the lions hunt zebra for their lunch. Certainly, if the lions had to choose, they would prefer buckets of ground chuck. (All cats are lazy; and the lion is the laziest of the cats.)
It turns out that a big part of making a lion into a real lion is presenting it with the real challenges of being a lion. These challenges are expensive, often prohibitively so. It is much cheaper for the zookeeper to not challenge the lion—for its so-called life to be ground chuck, catnip and cat videos. This is the happiness that any lion would pursue; any lion would choose this cat prison over the wild, unforgiving veldt.
But in the zoo, pleasure is cheap and difficulty is expensive. To exercise the lions and keep them from becoming bored and neurotic, on a budget, without the use of catnip, lion porn, or any other degrading stimulus, is a constant challenge of ingenuity that makes any Gerald Durrell memoir entertaining.
The alien zookeeper
Now let’s drive this metaphor into human space. It is still just a thought-experiment. But now there are wingless bipeds in the zoo.
Alerted to the human breakout by our expanding electromagnetic sphere of bad TV, the Galactic Authority sends one of its early-supervision units to our system. This alien ship shows up in earth orbit and parks there, braking against the galactic ether in a giant shower of disco-pink sparks.
On board is an alien zookeeper. Her IQ is a divide-by-zero error. Soon her nanotech sensors are everywhere, so she knows everything. And she can zap anyone or anything, so no power can resist her. Her regime is as supreme over all human powers, as the zoo over its lions.
Fortunately, she is a good zookeeper. She is here to govern for these humans. The humans should thrive; they should flourish; most of all, they must be as human as possible. Yes, well-heeled alien tourists in their UFO yachts, dropping by this arm of the galaxy, will check out Planet Three and leave with lighter wallets. But this is only to help fund GA’s new planetary wildlife park. (An early-supervision unit isn’t cheap.)
This operation is cheaper than you’d think, because humans are not lions and naturally govern themselves. Taking a tip from the British Empire, our zookeeper practices “indirect rule”—she uses her unlimited exceptional power not to govern directly, but to select the form, and if necessary the laws and even the personnel, of an appropriate human government. Ideally, she never needs to zap anyone at all.
It is this regime, not alien but alien-approved—an alien satellite or puppet state—that must uphold the salus populi. The playbook of the alien zookeeper is an operating manual for choosing the form and structure of a good human government. While the alien is up there with the lasers if her puppet leaders cannot hold themselves in power—so the example is not quite natural—she really doesn’t want to have to do that.
This metaphor drives us to a design document for a good human government. The alien zookeeper does not exist, so we can’t get our hands on the document. If we could, and we knew it was genuine and infallible, we could do a lot of good with it.
No such luck! We can still try to write it. Which is all a good metaphor can do.
Truck #2: the human buffers
The alien zookeeper is a good metaphor, but ultimately too weak. It requires us to imagine an alien power which is as far above us as we are above the lions—a serious test of anyone’s creative powers. Our next truck needs to do more of its own driving.
Here is a more powerful truck. The power comes at some cost. The alien zookeeper was very unlikely, but actually kind of sweet. This metaphor is grim, dystopian, and not likely—but much less unlikely. In fact, it’s actually almost possible.
It is even possible enough that it even runs the risk of being mistaken for a proposal—which it most certainly is not. The point of the exercise is not to invite this extreme situation—but to learn to orient ourselves within it. This exercise, which is not real, will teach us principles which real regimes can use to solve real problems in the real world. To make it the best possible exercise, we will make it as realistic as possible.
A country is a role-playing game. Its regime is the designer or dungeonmaster (DM). Both users and designer are perfectly human; but the designer shapes the world in which the users play. So, just like a government, sort of.
This seems like a very normal truck—not at all weird and scary. Maybe we should hitch a ride on it, and see where it’s going.
Who is this demiurge, the game designer? What are his goals? The DM, whether the organizer of a tabletop game or the architect of a virtual world, is devoted to the experience of the role-playing users—who both are, and are not, their characters.
The human condition is both body and soul. The zoo truck was more about the body. This truck is the soul truck. The game is not, of course, physically real. For the soul alone, what adjective should characterize the experience of both player and character? One candidate might be intense.
No one would live as a knight and role-play as a marketing consultant. When we immerse ourselves emotionally in a role-playing character, whether in a virtual world or a tabletop game, we want the experience to be as dramatic and significant as possible. It needs to be—since it is just pixels on a screen or dice on a table.
In virtual worlds, which cannot hurt us, we reveal our human preference for intensity. It is not a coincidence that virtual worlds so often select premodern European social, political and technical parameters—and the older and more fantastic, the better. The most basic human sociology is that all human beings prefer, all things being equal, to live in guilds that fight dragons for a living.
There are three forms of virtual worlds: virtual worlds without artificial monsters or player-on-player violence; virtual worlds with both monsters and violence; virtual worlds with only violence. The third form is the richest and most intense. The second form is kind of tacky, but more popular, and can be done well. The first form is lame, and appeals principally to perverts and journalists.
As real human beings, we do not fight dragons; but we do want our lives to be as dramatic and significant as possible. It is one thing to define public health beyond public luxury; another to pray outright to Neruda’s god of “struggle, iron, volcanoes.”
Pablo Neruda, it is worth noting, was a hardcore Stalinist. And the intensity of the first half of the 20th century was felt by everyone in its second half as a great loss. There is a reason that the fake and lame simulacrum of online politics naturally tends to collapse into fake teenage fascists larping against fake teenage communists.
While when we become adults we put aside childish things, intensity of life remains meaningful to mature adults. It may be that the most intense and human lives are led by career criminals, followed closely by entrepreneurs. There is no functional society composed entirely of criminals and/or entrepreneurs. And either of these experiences pales next to the intensity of life as an NKVD illegal or a Waffen-SS commander.
And yet we really don’t want to get holocausted or gulaged, either. But there is no such thing as a virtual gulag. In the end our virtual worlds are just pixels: entertainment both casual and sterile.
The revealed preferences that gamers have shown us must mean something about how real human beings wish to work and live: in a guild of professional dragon-fighters. (Note that dragon-fighters need well-crafted swords, beautifully woven armor, etc.)
But the metaphor is still too distant. Real humans cannot fight dragons for a living. Or can they? Let’s see if we can back the truck in closer.
The weak with the DM metaphor is that, as compelling as any game can be, the user still devotes only a tiny fraction of his life to this game. He may not have anything else in his life besides vidya. He still switches games on a regular basis. And of course, his reeking, unshowered carcass stays right here on Earth, between the bed, the screen and the stack of Monster cans.
Let’s try to imagine a situation—as a thought-experiment and certainly not a proposal—in which we can deepen this engagement. We project the player as far as possible into the game, bringing the human power of the DM as close to sovereignty as we can. In the end our thought-experiment, which is certainly not a proposal, will arguably even reach true sovereignty.
The human buffers
The governance of America is a hard problem. It is much harder than the governance of Iceland. It is much easier than the governance of the planet—a truly scary problem. As a thought-experiment and certainly not a proposal, let us take this monster on.
We imagine a governed planet. We agree that this planetary government accepts the political ethos of salus populi. It therefore accepts the duty of allowing 8 billion people to live in a fully human way.
As anyone reading this will agree, the tragedy of Earth today and for the foreseeable future is that most human beings do not and cannot live in a way that we would recognize as fully human. They certainly do not live in guilds and fight dragons.
No—most human beings on Earth live in a shitty way, in places that look and often smell like shit, doing grim, stressful and shitty things every day to survive, under the rule of shitty governments. Hopefully this is not news to you.
This is the 20th century’s fault. You are not okay with this and you shouldn’t be. But how can it be changed? If the world is to be remade in a non-shitty way, perhaps it cannot be remade in place.
None of the governance geniuses of the 20th century ever showed us how to turn a slum into a non-slum—though cases of the converse abound—except by clearing it to the ground. But if we clear it with the people inside, or even just force them out with guns and dogs, our heads are really back in the 20th century.
Instead we have a better plan. We are going to offer all the people who live in inhuman ways, in shitty places, a better place and a better way to live.
It will still not be perfect. It will be an interim half-solution. It will be a buffer between where they came from, usually somewhere that needs to be burned to the ground, and where they are going, usually some peaceful, pretty, pleasant town which does not yet exist. That town will beat the buffer; and the buffer must beat the slum. Then every step of the whole process can be completely voluntary.
The design of this human buffer must balance two tradeoffs. The buffer is a mitzvah; it must infringe as little as possible, both financially and physically, on its sponsors. Yet its sponsors believe in the salus populi; so it must do everything possible to defend and cultivate the humanity of the humans inside the buffers.
And there will be a lot of those; and it can take quite a while to put together peaceful, pretty, pleasant towns. So, though the human buffers are not meant to last forever, they should be designed for the worst-case scenario: their users’ whole lives.
Humans already live everywhere. Using human migration as a political weapon is also very 20th century. A human buffer must be useless as a weapon. It must impose no externalities, other than operating costs, on the geographic space around it.
The implication of this requirement is that the human buffer be sealed. Except when moving in or out, no person may cross the seal. A sealed human buffer can be placed anywhere. You could have one next door—just a big, windowless high-rise building.
But there is already a word for a sealed human buffer: a prison. How can we build a prison that human beings want to live in? Or at least—that they would rather live in than their current Hobbesian slum?
In the past, we couldn’t. But now—we have vidya.
The antisocial box
Let’s start with the grimmest, most dystopian case: the antisocial human atom. Half of these hopeless, unsalvageable people are probably gamers already.
Hate your life? A new life awaits you on the off-world colonies. You will live in the pod and eat the bugs. You will love it—because this pod is the ultimate gamer pod.
Your pod, which fits in a box three meters on a side, is a full-presence experience. It provides not just audiovisual presence, as in today’s VR, but haptic physical presence. Your hands are virtual hands which can hold and use virtual tools. The pod is also an exercise pod, with both aerobic and resistance affordances. With various loathsome extensions, you can have sex through it. It can even squirt drugs into your nostrils.
Inside the box are your pod, a toilet, a bed, a sink and a shower. Food packs and fresh clothes arrive through a pneumatic delivery tube; garbage and laundry go out. From its support matrix, the container needs water, sewer, ventilation, low-diameter pneumatic delivery (enough for bug burritos and T-shirts), Ethernet and electricity. The walls of the box are also screens. The sky is a high-intensity screen. It even looks like you lived in a beautiful place—like on top of a mountain, or maybe in a strip club.
The box is a cell in a kind of human beehive. If the container, or its pale and larval occupant, needs specialized support, rails and elevators move it to a contact point where support staff can open it. A light will flash when your box is about to move.
Inside the pod, you live in a fairytale, as a hero fighting dragons with your guild. Your haptic controller is so realistic that you could leave the pod and be a great swordsman in the real world. But when was the last time the real world needed swordsmen?
What is the economic model of this pod life? Your pod life is cheap—cost of the box, cost of the matrix, cost of bug burritos, robot laundromats, and emergency services, amortized cost of constructing the pod. You create zero externalities. Maybe the state is happy to subsidize your pod—maybe you created more externalities outside.
Or maybe you have to pay your own box fees. Or maybe you want to upgrade your bug burritos to real carnitas. You can work physically in the real world—use your haptic controller to operate real-world machinery.
Anything from a vacuum-cleaner to a bulldozer can be operated for bitcoins by some gamer in a pod. Not as fun as fighting dragons; not inhuman either. These human buffers then become intelligence datacenters—letting any machine in the real world power itself, not by feeble artificial intelligence, but AI-complete natural intelligence.
The speed of light is a thing, so the box needs to be geographically near its physical application. The world will be dotted with these weird, termite-like towers, which are sealed human buffers made of box hives, and their external support facilities: bug-to-table food production, textile maintenance, and medical/dental/security.
A rail and/or sea network can transport boxes to wherever support costs are lowest or more computing power is needed. A light will flash when your box is about to move. You remain legally a resident of wherever you came from, of course. You can go back there anytime you like; but the box is sealed, and so is the hive. You actually have no idea where you are geographically—and you have no reason to care. A light will flash when your box is about to move.
The social pod village
For many gamers, this sealed solo podlife would actually be an ideal existence. This just shows us how sick these gamers are. While it’s 100% okay to be a sick gamer, normal human beings are a social species; and housing them atomically is inhuman.
The natural human unit of social organization is a tribe or village, with tens to hundreds of fellow unwinged bipeds. You know all these people as human beings: names, faces, personalities.
The pod village houses a whole human community in one space. The users in this community interact physically with each other, but virtually with the rest of the world. The DM can move users between communities, but users do not regularly circulate.
A sealed village cannot be mobile; but it can occupy one or more floors of a high-rise hive. Still, the only non-emergency access to the pod is a secure elevator that opens into a secured space. The village pod remains literally a prison. When the DM’s staff enters the village, they enter like prison guards—with any level of force they need.
But everyone enters this prison only of their own free will. Now we have to persuade normal people, not just degenerate gamers, to move into in a literal jail (which they can still leave anytime). However strong a product engineering can deliver, this will call for some serious marketing chops.
The pitch is simple and not new. A new life awaits you on the off-world colonies. Are you living a shitty life in a shitty place? Why not join the crew of a galactic starship?
We will match you into a crew. Or you can bring your own real-world village. You will enter the ship, blast off, and roam the galaxy—having a new, exciting, and different experience on every system you visit. You are James T. Kirk, or at least Lieutenant Chekov. Or even just some kind of cool-ass Viking rapper space-pirate MC.
Of course, when you carry out your space-pirate raids, you do not physically, in your own body, land on these alien planets. Their atmospheres are unbreathable, etc. You send a drone, which you inhabit through a control pod. If the drone is destroyed in combat, you are obviously unharmed.
Obviously, the drone-control pods are the same hardware as the gamer pods. But the solo gamer is a social atom. The solo gamer can switch from game to game when he gets bored—as every gamer does. This is not the case in the village pod.
The sealed village is one single starship—or whatever the game’s metaphor may be. The whole village inhabits a single virtual story. This story consumes the rest of the village’s life. If the village bears children (as it should; a childless village is inhuman; but this need not imply above-replacement fertility), the story can last forever. In the back room, the programmers are coding up more planets to visit.
As generations advance, the players in this game may even forget that it is not real. They may actually think they are exploring the galaxy. If they arrived in an uneducated condition, they may go straight to this faith—which is optimal for their mental health.
In the real world, this village is one or more floors in a building stuck firmly on Earth. The village governs itself; how could it not? Yet the village is only a pod in a human buffer; and its government is inexorably governed by the DM. Again, as in the human zoo, we see indirect rule.
At any point, four-limbed aliens in armored suits can capture the starship, enter and board it, and do as they will with its crew. Due to their remote-scanning technology, the aliens may even display a remarkable knowledge of previous events on board...
The dungeonmaster’s day
We are not recommending these human buffers as the future of global governance. We are presenting them as a disturbing, yet barely plausible, future—to put the reader in the barely plausible ethical position of the dungeonmaster, which is also the barely plausible ethical position of the sovereign.
At this point, the two are almost the same. Indeed the DM has more power over virtual reality than any sovereign over the physical world; and is therefore closer to divinity. To manage a sealed village is to be its god. For a culturally unsophisticated village, this perception may be literal.
To manage a sealed village is to be a practical anthropologist: to manage the souls and bodies of your fellow human beings—to design the space and write the rules that their bodies exist in; to design the world and write the code that their souls exist in.
Again like a god, the DM also knows everything. She has a camera feed on every room. The villagers do not read this as an invasion of privacy. They parse her as a bodiless, impersonal force, not a human being. Ideally, she never has to perform any miracles at all; and the villagers govern themselves, as any village can.
But she will not let them go too far in misgoverning themselves. What can she do? It is best to keep force abstract. It is enough to say that she can extract any villager from any village in the buffer, and move them to any other village—or to a private pod. With this physical power, the DM has the power to disrupt any petty human tyranny.
Her virtual power is far more godlike. Her tech department designs the hardware and software of the pod—both the interface, and the game. The interface must offer a sense of human presence as complete as possible. The game must offer a human reality as humane as possible.
And these features must integrate with the physical experience of living in a prison and eating tube-delivered bug burritos, so well that a human being can be born and die of old age in the village, having experienced a rich and full life, with no more limits than ordinary reality might enforce on any ordinary human—a lifelong villager will never surf, but nor will a lifelong Mongolian.
Because no real village is isolated from the rest of humanity, pod villages live in a virtual world which lets them interact, virtually, with other villages, even other peoples. Outmarriage between villages, in which young men or women transfer into different tribes, is a common human pattern. So is warfare between tribes. So is trade between tribes. So is the spread of arts and ideas...
The DM is a human being, not a god. Like a god, she guides a civilization. It is hard to imagine that any human being, granted this quasi-divine power over so many fellow human beings, would fail to use it with at least the care and reverence of a zookeeper whose only professional responsibility is keeping a pair of loaner pandas not just alive, but happy enough to hump.
And because this level of sovereignty is both almost divine, and almost plausible, the model is a plausible substrate for many thought-experiments in absolute public policy. It gives us an only slightly unrealistic picture of unlimited authority. Let’s try using it for an even deeper, more forbidden thought about the purpose of government.
On pain and death
The haptic VR pods we have specified are hard to build, even in 2020. They are hardly unimaginable, though. But the project of extending presence across the sensorium—from basic audiovisual VR, to touch and feel, perhaps smell, and even intoxication— extends still further into the most forbidden possible ground.
What is the salus populi? The healthy human being must flower in every possible way to the limit of their capacities. Some capacities are intellectual; some are professional; some are artistic; some are artisanal; and some are military. Are not some men born soldiers? If they cannot become soldiers, their genius is wasted. But if they cannot be slain, they are not soldiers.
What is war, without pain and death? War, without pain and death, is nerf war. It is vidya war. It may be fun. It is fun. It does not in any way produce the virtues of real war. War, said Heraclitus, is the father of all things. Vidya is to war as masturbation to fatherhood. Is it really a human experience to fly around the galaxy winning nerf wars?
We arrive at the strange conclusion that, at least in some cases, human health requires pain and death. Humanity is a warlike species; without pain and death, there is no war. But how, in a haptic VR pod, can we simulate pain and death? Pretty easily, actually. Your physical body is inside the pod.
Obviously the pod has the mechanical—or electrical, thermal, chemical, etc—power to hurt you. It is even technically straightforward to inflict almost arbitrary levels of pain, without causing permanent damage. And of course, if the pod can drug you, it can kill you. (Or the pod looks to everyone like it kills you, but just knocks you out—then you wake up in an airgapped afterlife, from which there is no reporting back.)
To fight against other human beings, singly or in warfare, in a virtual game, but one in which strength and stamina and pain and even death are real on both sides, is a entirely different experience from Donkey Kong. It cannot quite be as heroic as Homer. It can be almost as heroic as Homer. It can be every bit as lethal as Homer, even if no one is shoving a bronze spear through your face in such excruciating detail.
Compare this to the diminished humanity of a natural Homeric soldier, who today can only be a pseudo-soldier fighting pseudo-wars. Or pseudo-feuds, pseudo-crimes, pseudo-dragons or even pseudo-duels. This Ajax spends his whole life playing—vidya. Or in real life, tossing a ball around. If this is not dehumanizing, what is?
Compare that to an extended-modality vidya world in which our Ajax can duel some Hector, in lethal online monomachy, and the loser will actually expect to die.
In real life, dueling is illegal—and has been for two centuries. Why? Because it is dangerous? So is climbing Everest; and that is celebrated. The usual VR deathmatch, with plasma rifles or whatever, will proceed. The loser will not fall three thousand feet and be smashed facefirst into human jam. All he will feel is a little spray in his nose.
Yet if this deathmatch is real—or if the combatants believe it is real, or even just could be real—it will have all the energy of the combat of Ajax and Hector. Everyone will come to watch (in VR).
The winner of virtual combat is a real warrior, not a virtual warrior, only if the virtual combat has real consequences. Pain and death are just human-interface modalities. A human sensorium without them is a crippled and diminished sensorium.
And once there are one-on-one duels, why not full wars? Is not war itself essentially human? Are not humans, deprived of war, thus dehumanized? War, said Heraclitus…
The principle of essential difficulty
This is as far as we need to go into science fiction. Again, this bug-eating sealed-pod virtual-prison death-machine future is a thought-experiment, not a proposal. I think humanity can do much better.
Humanity could also do worse. And virtually modeling the ingredients of the salus populi in this grim, insectivorous hive dystopia (the defeated duelist’s remains, usable organs aside, may be fed to the black soldier-fly larvae), inevitably imperfect though the resulting meal must be, can still help teach us what it means to be an actual chef.
This thought-experiment, which is not a proposal, has taught us at least one big thing: that the distance between salus populi and luxus populi goes farther than anyone in 2020 can imagine. While not everything we have learned from utilitarianism is worthless or worse, it might as well be. We know almost nothing about how eight billion humans should want to share the planet in a human way—even if we could.
When we accept the realization that humanity is not and cannot be in a healthy, manlike condition in the absence of pain, violence and death—not a new revelation, not even a Nietzschean revelation, but one of the oldest ideas in Western philosophy—we are forced to accept the general realization that the human experience is in every way shaped by essential difficulty. In hedonomic jargon, humans need disutility.
Essential difficulty, the proposition that the human condition is unhealthy when it is unchallenged, is the most salient distinction between the principles of salus and luxus. According to the principle of salus, our bodies must be exercised; our minds must be challenged; our characters must be tested; or we will be less human than we could be.
This principle has never been more relevant. Disutility, in older times, was never in any short supply. We never dreamed that we could run short of obstacles. Our bodies were certainly never designed to be couch potatoes. We never expected to beat nature.
In many ways nature remains an active enemy in the field. We can barely read our own genetic code, and are nowhere near writing it. We are constantly assaulted by heinous pests and diseases. Our computers still crash, and even our VR is incredibly primitive.
In other ways we are still paying the price for two centuries of utilitarianism, in which easier was better by definition. It was hard to realize in a preindustrial world that the indiscriminate pursuit of utility would ultimately become a dehumanizing force. Not that Oliver Goldsmith didn’t realize it 250 years ago:
The Deserted Village
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.
The endpoint of easier-is-better is Goldsmith’s deserted village. The village is deserted because Britain’s rising pre-industrial economy has shown that its functions are no longer needed. The factory is on its way for the last of the village blacksmiths. Today the container ship has long since come for the last of the sailors. And 250 years later, the drone has a sharp message for the last of the soldiers.
Is this progress? Soldiers are no longer pierced by steel. Sailors are no longer drowned rounding the Horn. If you cannot be pierced or drowned, you are no soldier or sailor. The essential difficulty is gone. So is one more way of being a human being.
Making sailing easier has left us with no sailors at all—just crewmen. Soon robots will even drive the container ships. Which is cool. Lots of things are cool. Fire is cool. But if this is physical progress, it is human destruction. And for what? More of that sweet, sweet luxus populi? Another buck-fifty off a pink polyester bear from the Pearl River?
Essential difficulty, which includes everything difficult or unpleasant all the way up to pain, danger and death, shapes the whole human story and is an essential part of a rich human experience. Everyone on earth deserves a rich human experience, which is much more important than luxury or even convenience. And as much as individuals depend on essential difficulty, society depends on it much, much more.
Here is a challenge that none of us even knew government had. We are starting to see how different a principle salus populi is.
Having skipped trucks 3, 4, and 5—or at least, left them as exercises for the reader (hint: try to identify them as gods)—let us retreat from these strange, disturbing, futuristic fantasies, to a simple, almost-realistic example of absolute public policy.
This policy is very simple: toy control. The rule is: all new children’s toys sold in any country must be handmade, from natural materials, by subjects of that country.
The purpose of this policy is a moderate step toward shaping labor demand to fit labor supply—a task which political economists, before Smith and Ricardo, considered a major responsibility of government. Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth’s grand vizier, thought nothing of strengthening the English navy by requiring the English to eat fish one extra day a week—which is why Hamlet calls Polonius (Burleigh) a “fishmonger.”
Abstractly, the point of toy control is artificial difficulty. If difficulty is essential to the human experience, and if we can no longer rely on nature to provide this essential difficulty, replacing it is the natural task of the government.
As normal, relative public policy, toy control is completely insane and absurd. You can’t get there from here. It is completely off the map. It would not be popular and could not be made popular. Politics is the art of the possible, not this hippie garbage. Or is it Nazi garbage? Doesn’t even matter—toy control is a complete nonstarter on the Hill.
It is also straightforward to demonstrate that toy control is counter-utilitarian. Even Austrian economists, those sticklers for incomparable preferences, will have to admit that normal human young, who can demonstrate revealed preference well before 6 months, will when given a choice always reject handmade natural toys in favor of garish plastic garbage from the Far East. And once the price differential is reflected in the physical volume of toys—this preference will become still more marked. So the kids are all against toy control. We knew there was a reason we didn’t let them vote.
In fact, toy control is a frank project of artificial difficulty. If difficulty is essential to the human experience, and if nature no longer provides this essential resource, replacing it is the natural task of the government. We are breaking Bastiat’s windows.
Breaking one’s own windows is antisocial and deranged. Making one’s own toys is not antisocial or deranged. If you cannot tell the difference, Horatio...
The cons of toy control
Let us examine the direct impact of a toy-control policy—adopted in isolation. (Of course it could not be adopted in isolation, only as part of a regime change.) Like any breaking-windows policy, it has both winners and losers.
The losers in toy control—by all modern hedonomic theories—are our children. Their hedonic desire for garish plastic garbage from China goes unsatisfied. Furthermore, if we assume that toy budgets (Americans spend only $20 billion a year on toys, which seems very low) are held constant, our children will receive far fewer toys.
This is very sad. Dickensian, even. What would our kids do without overstimulating their dopamine circuits with novelty, dooming them to teenage Adderall abuse, then later a real, grownup addiction, recovery, and narcissistic, insufferable self-help?
Yet no utilitarian economist, Austrian or Keynesian, will dare to aver that the utility function of children is irrelevant just because they are children. Does real utility begin at 18? What is the praxeological derivation of this number—18? There are many things under heaven and earth, Horatio...
Toy control is an excellent example of salus populi because satisfying the desires of children is so different from nourishing their health as human beings—and every parent knows the difference. Even if we do sometimes surrender to it.
Children do need toys. Children do have genuine interests. If toy control is imposed abruptly, these interests will be especially challenged. The short-term impact of toy control on toy consumers, while the market for natural toys winds up, will be an epic toy shortage. As natural toys first become available, they will be able to command high prices—so only rich kids will get any new toys. This doesn’t seem quite right.
There are two solutions to this problem. One solution is to do nothing, and let a used-toy market develop. Old garish plastic garbage from the pre-control era will be lovingly tended and traded, like ‘50s Fords in Havana. Rich kids will have beautiful new natural handmade trinkets. Woodworkers will be rolling in heavy cash, like coke barons or machine-learning engineers. Plastic junk wears out; woodworking is not that hard to learn. Over time, labor markets will come into balance.
The other solution is a temporary ration-card system for new toys, so that—until labor markets come into balance—natural toys are distributed evenly across all American children. This will dampen capitalist incentives a little, but probably not too much.
“UBI for toys” also gives the regime a labor-demand knob that can be turned up—employing more people, giving kids more toys. The regime can even buy up and destroy old plastic toys, as if they were weapons. And in a way they almost are. Each one stands between an artisan and a child, creating nothing but perishable fun.
The pros of toy control
We have identified the victim of toy control: the fickle and greedy American child. What does America get in exchange for this sacrifice of unspoiling our children?
Assuming that toy budgets stay constant—they would seem more likely to increase—our new natural-toy industry can employ 200,000 American toymakers at $100,000 a year. Given a reasonably stable supply of children, and a reasonably stable government that is unlikely to return to plastic-garbage toy policies, that’s 200,000 human careers.
But not all jobs are created equal, regardless even of salary. It is more important to consider the quality of the work that an artificial-difficulty measure creates.
Toymaking at its best is neither menial labor, nor creative labor. It is skilled artisanal labor. It has both a menial and a creative quality. Work of this kind is well-suited to a very wide band of natural human talents and inclinations. Craftsmanship is the bread and butter of artificial difficulty. Mandating preindustrial production of essential goods can employ an almost arbitrary number of human beings in human and fulfilling ways. Fighting dragons it is not; but there are no dragons.
While the salus populi certainly involves keeping everyone at work, the best work is far more than busywork. Dickens did not exaggerate the human tragedy of the early industrial age, which transformed an economy based on artisanal labor to one based on industrial labor—in which human beings were essentially used as industrial robots. Using humans as robots was only a step toward fully eradicating the human element from the production of consumer goods, itself a terrible step toward dehumanization.
Economists have an apocryphal anecdote in which some libertarian professor, usually Milton Friedman, visits a backward country, usually China, and sees laborers moving earth with pick and shovel. Why not use a bulldozer, the economist wonders. These people need work, his host tells him. In that case, he asks—why not give them spoons?
The difference is that digging ditches with a shovel is normal human labor. Indeed, it is exactly the right kind of employment for a nontrivial set of normal human beings. But digging ditches with a spoon is inherently and intentionally degrading to anyone. The same can be said of breaking windows and then fixing them again. Employment without meaning really is just punishment.
Labor demand fits labor supply when the quality of the work fits the aptitudes of the workers. Ideally, every worker is challenged to exercise their full talents and abilities—and no more. Since human beings are not robots, their skills are not literally software and can be difficult or impossible to upgrade.
And the proper organization of artisanal labor needs little or no inventing. The answer to the question is well-known: the European guild system. There are many systems of medieval social and political technology which cannot be intelligibly applied to, or even defined in, the 21st century. But the guild system—with its career ladder of apprentice, journeyman and master—is essentially perfect.
The guild system is not perfect at maximizing the satisfaction of human desire. It is not perfect at maximizing the production of whatever junk the public can be swindled into buying. It is perfect at maximizing the quality of the products. It is also perfect at maximizing the human experience of the producers.
Reducing the power of the economy to satisfy human desires, especially unhealthy or unproductive desires, to increase demand for labor that is healthy work for healthy people who at present have no such use, is an obviously attractive policy to any regime operating on the principle of salus populi.
Selectively reinstating preindustrial methods and structures of production, which means burning what hedonomists call “productivity” like it was hay, should be obvious in a world where technology has given us productivity to burn. That this absolute policy is unachievable under our present regime is not the policy’s fault; nor is it caused by a shortage of productivity. (Carlyle and Ruskin had similar thoughts; but they were far too early in the technical revolution.)
By either the democratic rule of vox populi, or the utilitarian rule of luxus populi, toy control is a nonstarter. By the rule of salus populi, it’s a no-brainer. So this tiny, half-absurd case study in absolute public policy may help you decide which of the three great principles of government pleases your eye.
This concludes the first section of Gray Mirror. We have even had a taste of our elusive quarry, absolute public policy—for the first time, in democratic terms, we actually can say what we are for. This ruthless and radical measure is: moar wooden toys.
Yes, it did take 50,000 words to get to that. Apparently, when you first take up fencing, you spend months just working on footwork. Only once you have learned how to walk do they hand you a sword. Not a sharp sword, of course.
But in history, politics and even philosophy, there are no dull swords. Not that we even know how to crawl. Yet. But we’re learning! Can’t you feel yourself learning?