The deconsolidation of power

From Tablet Magazine The Red-Pill Prince

Power, according to Yarvin, is like computer code, binary. It is either on or off; final and absolute, or merely a glorified form of servitude. Even the tech giants, which he considers the only efficient organizations left in the United States, are powerless. Facebook may be able to ban anyone it wants while controlling the flow of critical information to billions of people across the globe, but Mark Zuckerberg still has to answer to midlevel government functionaries—a relationship demonstrated by the Facebook CEO’s reluctant embrace of a Democratic Party approved fact-checking apparatus. Even if Zuckerberg wanted to raise an army to stage a coup, it’s not clear what target he could strike. “[F]or all practical revolutionary purposes,” Yarvin wrote in May of 2020. “the ‘deep state’ is as decentralized as Bitcoin, and as invulnerable—to ballots and bullets alike.”

I don’t really agree here. Yes, tech companies do not have power in a formal sense, but one overlooks that federal power over the past few decades has possibly weakened, with some exceptions such as the FBI and the so-called ‘surveillance state’, which means that major tech companies may have more relative power. Since 2009 or so, ‘big tech’ and ‘big government’ have diverged. Collectively, big tech is worth at least $10 trillion–a 10-fold gain since 2009–whereas the federal government hasn’t grown by anywhere close to a comparable magnitude. Although the federal government is impotent as far as legislation and sweeping social change is concerned, it’s still powerful as far as administrative functions.

Consider the inability of the federal government to mount any sort of national response to Covid, which was opposite of 911 in which the federal government expanded its power, and unlike other countries, but left it up to the states to decide. Just today, Roe was overturned, as further evidence of this trend of power becoming more decentralized and in the hands of the states, especially on social issues. Governors, particularly for large states such as Texas, Florida, and California, seem to be playing a bigger role in policy, and the likes of DeSantis and Abbott get as much media attention and are as influential and powerful as even Biden.

The era of leaders wielding singular or absolute power ended mostly in WW2, and then even more so after the Cold War, and is never coming back. Everything has been delegated to committee. Globalization and social media means that inept or overzealous leaders face much more accountability than in the past, so even leaders who do have absolute power tend to use it very judiciously. Biden, putatively the most powerful person in the world, his only solution to surging gas and oil prices, high inflation, and plunging approval ratings is a gas rebate, because he cannot do anything else. China’s leadership is very much multi-tired/faceted, like the US. I think major Western governments and leaders are much more banal or prosaic than they are evil or corrupt. People blame corruption or incompetence for the failure of Western government, but this seems like a misdiagnosis. Instead of the ‘kakistocracy’, it’s more like the ineffecocracy.

The world is run by entrenched bureaucracies and institutions and ruled by committee even if there is a president. The notion that any one individual will change this or change the world, seems wrong, but I don’t think too many people actually believe this. That’s not to say that individuals cannot impart great influence culturally, like we see with Elon Musk, but institutions are designed to be insulated from individual influence externally and internally. Institutions have two main objectives: longevity and advancing the stated or implicit goal or purpose of the institution. Institutions can be thought of as homeostatic, immortal organisms, with succession plans and redundancy, in contrast to something like a sole proprietorship.

Overall, I think Yarvin puts too much faith in the power of governments, and I have repeatedly argued that national governments (as opposed to state/local ones) are relatively feeble, especially compared to the private sector and influential business celebrities/leaders (like Bezos and Musk), and that this trend has accelerated notably since 2008 or so. The French elections were this weekend. When were the French elections ever consequential despite the size of France’s economy. You have to go back to 1933 for the last time the German elections mattered (that was a pretty important election though). More people care about Mr. Beast’s videos than French politics, even in France.

But also, efforts to reform government with the help of the private sector or to merge the two, are possibly misguided or unproductive. The government and the private sector run in parallel. The latter cannot complement or help the former, because they have intrinsically different cultures, objectives, and values.

Trump, who despite his business experience, struggled at being effective in Washington. Someone like Musk or Thiel would not have the patience to deal with government bureaucracy. Academia and politics complement each other because they both require a lot of patience, and the process matters more than the outcome or expediency. Writing and publishing papers is time consuming. Teaching classes can get monotonous. Dealing with university administrative structures is punishingly tedious and slow. Same for trying to pass a bill. In the end, both sides can agree on a compromise that is just a skeleton of how it was originally conceived, that leaves no one happy. If the goal is results and decisiveness, the last place you want to look is politics or academia. Business is the opposite of that, in which expediency and efficiency are prized.

By August 2017 Bannon was gone and left as much of a lasting impression on the Trump administration as a pebble dropped in the ocean. Same for Thiel who despite his wealth was also equally infective and whose cabinet picks and policy ideas were passed up. The wall never got built, and jobs were not returned to America. As for Mr. Yarvin regarding Covid, it’s evident given Trump’s perceived lackadaisical response that he hadn’t taken to heart the former’s recommendation for drastic, nation-wide action. None of these people in any way had any lasting effect on policy. Government does not want to be shaken up or run like a business. The stakes for government are higher than for business, so slowness and indecisiveness are probably virtues. A government error can affect way more people and have way worse consequences overall than a failed product launch or misjudging a market.

Government, for all its flaws, more or less, is working in the sense that order and stability have not collapsed, and people seem content. Sub-optimally, yes, but compared to much of the rest of the world, things could be worse. Sentiment comes in waves…the biggest story now is SCOTUS, not Ukraine, which like Omicron was relegated to the media dustbin after failing to live up to its initial hype, as I and others predicted. One day, we’re appalled by our government, and the next day we don’t care because something new has come along to take our attention away, like Elon and Twitter. A well-functioning government, in the end, only means we’re not appalled everyday.