Hope Is Not Enough To Redeem Statism

by Feb 6, 2019

I received a few quite thoughtful responses to my piece arguing against statism, and they were clustered in their logic, so I thought it worth responding. The basic response is that I am oversimplifying the statist position, which views the seizure of power by the democratic state as a starting point for a process which will then lead the evolution of good governance structures rather than constituting them already. One version of this argument sees this improvement over time resulting from the process of democratic dialog thus triggered; Lyle Jeremy Rubin made this argument publicly, but Zoë Hitzig expressed similar concerns to me by email. Another version sees this improvement coming from the training of a mission-driven and expert bureaucracy; this version was briefly expressed by Charlotte Cavaille on Twitter but in greater detail by David Adler on email.

There is a great deal that could be said historically and empirically about these claims and I will allude to some cases that cut personally very close to my heart. But my primary objection to this line of reasoning is more abstract: I don’t understand how it allows one to distinguish among different forms of governance in the first place. Perhaps the leading contention of neoreactionary thinkers is that good governance will come from the appointment of a benevolent autocrat in the mold of Lee Kwan Yew, who will then create a mission-driven and efficient administrative bureaucracy beneath him (and it is almost always a him, in their imagining). A leading contention of many religious conservative defenders of capitalism is that it will allow a space for the emergence of a benevolent civil society discourse and public-spirited business leaders who will elevate moral culture and address the failures of capitalism. A central argument among less democratically-inclined members of the contemporary global elite is that the quality of their discourse and reflection upon global challenges is likely to lead to policies that better serve the average citizen of the globe than would arise from distributing voice broadly. And, indeed, there are historical examples of these things occurring, as Kwan Yew’s case, many generous and effective philanthropists and moves by elites to establish supranational institutions with limited direct democratic involvement show.

Yet these critics, I am confident, would vehemently reject these arguments. They would, I assume, think there is something about the formalism of democracy and the vision of some sort of equal voice and power for citizens as being critical to allowing for a successful bureaucracy to be established or an ultimately productive civil conversation to take place. Otherwise they would not be arguing for the assumption of power by such pre-existing democratic polities; there are plenty of bureaucracies around we could go about improving and plenty of public discussions in which participation is possible without, for example, establishing a Social Wealth Fund that owns most of the American corporate economy.

But this leads us naturally to the question of what is meant by these necessary conditions. Is it simply that there be some democratic form among those who can vote? That must be wrong, because then clearly exclusionary undemocratic institutions denying the right to vote to citizens based on race would still get us most of the benefit of democracy, a conclusion I think these critics would reject. In fact, present arrangements clearly have plenty of voting formalism (even corporations do), simply with the wrong power distribution according to these critics. If the concern with those regimes is exclusion, then, given the tremendous effects each nation has on others through e.g. global warming and the War on Drugs, doesn’t empowering current nation-states fail on this test given how many of the most affected are currently disenfranchised? I simply cannot see a case on this account that according dramatically increased and unchecked powers to existing nation-states is likely to achieve their ends.

My personal experience with nation-states, and the hope that democratic but exclusionary forms within them will lead through a process of bureaucratization and democratic dialog towards justice, is an unhappy one. My grandfather barely escaped the (initially) democratically elected Nazi regime to the United States and raised my family as Zionist admirers of the attempt to form a Jewish democratic state in the land of our fathers. That state, which I grew up revering, excluded from political influence most of the Arab people whose ancestral lands it occupies. Every year of the boisterous democratic debate in Israel, more vital than I have seen anywhere in the world, seems to be leading Hatikvah bat shnot ‘alpayim (the hope of two thousand years) ever more in the direction of oppressive and exclusionary ethno-nationalism, to the point where I no longer travel there or buy Israeli products.

In contrast, the nations I most admire and that seem to have made the most progress along the direction suggested by the folks differ widely in their political histories but all were deeply influenced by ideas about decentralization of power and what I would call Liberal Radicalism. Henry George and other radical political economists were central to the cannon shaping thought in Singapore, Scandinavia and Taiwan in a way he was not to the same extent anywhere else in the world. All have exceptionally efficient bureaucracies, use market mechanisms of an enlightened community-oriented variety extensively, have (except for Singapore) among the best democratic cultures and most vital civil societies in the world, etc. This suggests to me that, in fact, the same types of institutions that effectively decentralize power are also, on average, most conducive to, in other less clear and formal ways, improving democracy and governance.

All of which is to say that, for me, social institutions need to earn the trust we place in them roughly in parallel with according powers based on such trust. Trust can be earned based on clear arguments about why power is appropriately distributed, by good empirical performance on average, by clearly visible experiments, and so forth. Along all these dimensions, I think that rapidly giving great amounts of power to majoritarian states with few pre-designed checks and balances has not won our trust more strongly than has the generally neoliberal mixed economy we have at present.