May 10·edited May 10

I've had three reactions to your latest post. (Oops, this was accidentally posted to a wrong thread...)

1. Early proponents of Liberalism were very well aware of the paradox, between virtue in public office (and those who selected those who enter it--i.e. the publics) and individualism/self interest. Oddly enough, in US, while people love to quote James Madison about "ambition checking ambition" and other such things, very few are aware of the following gem (from his speech to the Virginia (Constitutional) Ratifying Convention:

I have observed, that gentlemen suppose, that the general legislature will do every mischief they possibly can, and that they will omit to do every thing good which they are authorised to do. If this were a reasonable supposition, their objections would be good. I consider it reasonable to conclude, that they will as readily do their duty, as deviate from it: Nor do I go on the grounds mentioned by gentlemen on the other side--that we are to place unlimited confidence in them, and expect nothing but the most exalted integrity and sublime virtue. But I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks--no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.

2. The relationship between private interest and public virtue is not, well, an individual phenomenon. Fukuzawa Yukichi, 19th century Japanese philosopher and educator who played a major role in shaping the modern Japan described an interesting exchange with his superior from the days when he was serving as a translator for the Shogunate government in his memoires. His superior instructed him to go abroad and find useful foreign books. Fukuzawa responded by saying what a great idea it was, since Japan badly needs more exposure to foreign ideas and he'd do his best to seek out the most useful books and make sure that they are as widely distributed as possible. The official "corrected" him by saying that the idea is to have this operation as a revenue generating device for the government, since the demand for foreign books in Japan is so great. (Note that this is not even a private profiteering scheme, per se--but a means to raise revenue for the state, i.e. the "public," at least in principle, at a time when Japan also needed more revenue for all sorts of things.) Fukuzawa responded to this by saying that he cannot participate in such a scheme, unless he got a cut. He will do things without compensation if it is for "public's good," but not if the scheme is to simply make money. So a peculiar paradox that I've seen elsewhere, too: people don't want to participate selflessly in schemes that are just for raising money--even if the money is not necessarily for private profit (and even the schemes like what the Japanese official described, an "honest" revenue raising scheme for the state, are rare). The state/public has to show its good intentions by foreswearing profit in order to get talented people to sacrifice their own personal gains. Of course, no project nowadays--even public projects--operates on the premise that it will lose money, because of the widespread economistic thinking that everyone is ultimately a little self-serving "profit seeker," even if "profit" is defined broadly (i.e. ensuring that their individual sense of righteousness is advanced through their actions, regardless of the "public")

3. On a personal side, these were exactly the questions that made me go into social sciences (and a briefly thought about becoming a Jesuit--that obviously did not happen), but I was deeply disappointed that there was absolutely no interest in this sort of thinking--except, maybe, if you were an old graybeard who had no interest in advancing career and remained intellectually curious, who were very rare. The thing that bugged me more than others was that none of students I'd had (at a middling large US state university) seemed to get Weber (or the version of Madison that showed up at the Virginia Ratifying Convention)., so absorbed they were to the notion of self-centered individualism. (again, defined broadly: their idea of "public mindedness" was that, since I value my righteousness more than doing what other people think is right and making money doing the latter, I should be respected. A peculiar perversion of the usual notion about self-serving individualism.)

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(i don't tend to comment on things, so please forgive me if i get it wrong!)

"... its modern sense of taking money off people to remove an obstruction you have put in their way" is possibly one of the most relevant and relatable thoughts in the entire (well-written and pertinent) piece. i try to do the right thing, always. not out of fear (although of course there is certainly fear), but because i want to do what's right, what's expected of me, what is my responsibility. but i find that increasingly, doing what's "right" (by which i mean, what has been declared to be right regardless of its morality or even legality because it benefits someone or just ticks a box) is becoming impossible for "the little guy". the fees, restrictions, and regulations which now govern almost every aspect of life (and certainly the life of a very-small-business owner) have become wholly unmanageable, at least if i want to eat, which i generally do. i now find myself wondering what i can get away with not because i want to break the rules but because i want to survive.

that is not, all in all, a good sign for the future, mine or anyone else's.

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Since you're quoting Max Weber, and you're concerning yourself with the features of a bureaucracy which displays honesty and integrity, you do yourself no favors by not discussing the work of The Great Elector, Frederick William I, Elector of Brandenburg (1620- 1688).

It was during the reign of 'Der Grosse Kurfurst' that the Prussian royal service was subjected to an extraordinary regime of personal surveillance by the monarch (cf. Hans Rosenberg, Bureaucracy, Aristocracy, and Autocracy. The Prussian Experience, 1660 - 1813.), as a result of which the understanding grew that aristocratic birth was no defense against suspicion of corruption.

Throughout the European Continent, throughout the 19th century, the Prussian bureaucracy was renowned for its devotion to honesty and transparency; it was from that model that Weber drew for his commentary.

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Thank. A interesting read.

I think you are saying in part that a culture of honesty, service and probity matters far more then micro management and rule blindness. Liberalism though encourages self interest and is therefore in total conflict with such an ethos. If so, I fully agree.

Liberals have a very touching but misguided faith as you say in the power of written rules and documents. Worth recalling in this respect that Hitler never abolished the constitutional protections of Weimar. He just ignored them and made sure that the state apparatus did too.

Behaviour is always far more about beliefs and incentives than anything that is written down that can always be reinterpreted to suit. The old British constitution was similarly based on what was considered by its participants to be acceptable and honourable. Unfortunately, the definition of that has changed considerably. Blatant nihilism seems now to be the norm.

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You describe very comprehensively and clearly how Liberalism has destroyed the roots of society, and thanks for that. However, I imagine that the solutions you describe are either not likely to be introduced, and/or merely tinker with the edges of the problem.

But earlier you describe the most effective solution, when you say: ". . . the political elite was reeling from the shock of German industrial competition and the shambles of the Crimean War."

As I see it, only a comparable shock will be sufficient to allow the effective recalibration of western societies. Perhaps we should ask Mr Putin and Mr Xi to help?

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Confucius proposed a solution to this problem 2500 years ago and, after 1000 years of debate and experimentation, China adopted it.

The bureaucracy that Xi has been cleaning up was already extremely competent before he arrived, and corruption never reached the policy-making level as it has done in the West.

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Personally, this was a very timely post. I have just been educating my local council about the people that work to pay their wages. I'm not sure they know what work is. They are definitely as unhappy with their jobs and lives as working people but are unaware of the anxiety caused by the insecurity of working as an employee or employer in the private sector. The energy has to be reciprocal.

Knowing which end of a spade to put into the ground is going to be very useful in the future.

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As a fish in an ocean of muck, I thank you for a bit of visibility.

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Plato already said so much, and being a platonist, I'm inevitably also a "reactionary". The way forward of course being laid out quite clearly, an abandonment of liberalism as the state ideology and it's replacement by something more archeo-futuristic.

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In any society, in any political or economic system, power naturally flows towards sociopaths, because sociopaths are the people who will do whatever it takes to get their mitts on power.

This is the kernel of The Iron Law Of Oligarchy.

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Excellent piece!

Just a thought. Perhaps what’s needed is the re-democratisation of society. I don’t know your age or class background, but would it be too bold to speculate that you started your career at that postwar period in the U.K. when education and opportunity started to be widely to the working class?

And the reason I say this is that we at the lower rungs of the social ladder still have to be self motivated to stay honest, there are better outcomes from it for people who aren’t the main beneficiaries of the capitalist system. Or so it seems to me.

Part of the problem seems to be the real-assertion of castes in public life (another medieval characteristic). We’ll know we’re on the mend when competition is opened up to everybody again and there is an investment in education equal it superior to the 1960s. And none of these idiotic student loans, access solely on the basis of academic merit.

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This take is the freshest thing I've read in a while.

You underline incredibly well how much what is off-handedly referred to as a liberal or capitalist society in fact requires an incredible amount of near polar-opposite infrastructure to sustain it (let alone a whole other host of things required to make it bearable, e.g. holidays, weekends, 8h days, etc). You'll get liberals bitching about taxation all the time, but they are not actually saying they'd like to live in countries that do not fund the infrastructure (logistical, legal, etc) that supports their profit making.

It also reminds me of another, similar 'paradox'.

I asked students to summarise and critique an article literally titled 'Against transparency', basically arguing that transparency had paradoxical effects, preventing politicians from doing actual politics (finding compromises with political adversaries) because with transparency they are constantly framed as traitors by their electorate or party if they grant anything at all to their political opponents. Out of a whole class, only 3 students were able to summarise the central argument of the article, let alone critique it. All the others seemingly couldn't even envisage how transparency could be bad or bring about paradoxical effects. A truly unsettling experience.

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Did you really work in the pubic sector? What is the interview process? Or is this like the radio skit where the "l" on the typewriter is not functioning and the announcer is introducing an item on the Duke of Bedford's enormous clock?

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Great stuff, subbed

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What is a libertarian?

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“The original assumption is that human beings are rational, utility-maximising individuals, who will therefore be dishonest when it suits them.” This is my problem with Liberalism but it’s also my problem with the Enlightenment. I’ve not yet seen a proof of the assumption that human beings are rational. I’m not debating our obvious ability to be rational, but rather that rationality is our nature.

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