Thursday, December 11, 2014

Toward A Theory of Euvoluntary Political Exchange

I had a fun little back-and-forth with SMBC cartoonist and BAHFest organizer Zach Weiner yesterday on Twitter. You can read it here if you're so inclined, but be forewarned: it got silly and a bit scatological pretty quickly. The non-silly modified transcript went something like this:

Z: Are any lawmakers going to do anything about the CIA torture report?
S: What would you have them do?
Z: Punish transgressors. Credibly commit to punish future transgressors.
S: Torture has been around for thousands of years. How will a little extra punishment help?
Z: WTF are you talking about? We successfully outlawed slavery. We can successfully outlaw torture.
S: Slavery still exists, all we did was force it underground.

And then Adam G joined the conversation and it quickly devolved into jokes about the political economy of seasteads (check for yourself if you don't believe me).

It struck me that Zach and I must have very different game theoretic models underpinning our views of how and why the state exists. By suggesting that punishing torturers would produce better behavior, I think Zach basically subscribes to the notion that the telos of the state is to govern, that the sovereign is generally the product of Lockean bargaining, Hobbesian entrepreneurship, or Rousseauian foresight. Zach appears to hold a wildly popular view, both inside the academy and among the general public, that people who hold political power—the power to coerce others—are endowed according to the Enlightenment-era principles described by Jefferson in the DoI:
Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed
To Zach, and indeed to any American you'd poll with probably greater than 95% likelihood, this sentiment is accurate. The government is legitimate if and only if it serves the interests of the people, if perhaps not always their direct will. How widespread is belief in this model? I've heard my patron here at EE [obliquely] reference it more than once. If there's anyone in the world I most closely agree with on matters of political economy, it's Michael C. Munger.

But on this matter, I part a bit with first-principles theories of political organization. It might be that the sovereign arises to solve some thorny collective action problem, but that doesn't say very much about what it does once it sticks around. In this sense, I find myself much more closely aligned with Hume, that the continued existence of the sovereign is to encrease his own opulence and dominion. If good public law and order happens to arrive along with this pursuit, all the better, all the more euvoluntary if you will. However, a lifetime of casually following politics, of noting the periodic lapses in ethical behavior of the political elites, of surveying historical episodes of malfeasance, of noting the curiously acceptable practices in politics that are outright illegal in the private sector (insider trading is the most benign example that springs to mind), I find it nearly impossible to conclude that the state exists to serve anyone other than itself.

If the popular model is correct, if Zach is correct, the CIA (and whatever other organizations who've not had extensively-redacted reports publicized) is acting aberrantly when its agents force food and water into the rectums of prisoners with sufficient vigor to result in hemorrhoids, anal fissures, and rectal prolapse. Punishing those who are not acting in concert with the fundamental principles of the organization is sufficient to ensure compliance. Contrarily, if my model is correct, if Hume was right, and the state exists to encrease the dominion of the sovereign, there was no wrongdoing. At least not in the hidden, hermeneutical mission statement of the agency. If I'm right, the only person committing heresy is the whistleblower. If I'm right, Snowden is a criminal, not Rogers. If I'm right, whistleblower statutes need to (a) exist and (b) have no real capacity to protect whistleblowers. If I'm right, prosecutions would be Soviet-style show courts. If I'm right, the only way to ensure that torture is ended is to abolish the CIA entirely, along with the numerous other unaccountable federal agencies that enjoy wide discretion and little Congressional oversight.

However, I am not the hegemon of Plato's Cave. I do not have the luxury of indoctrinating the young while calling it "social studies." I cannot convince you that my model is correct and the popular model is as fanciful as a chocolate unicorn riding a pumpernickel skateboard across a peppermint half-pipe. All I can do is gently encourage you to revisit from time to time the basic model you have for political authority and to ask if the patterns you see in political activity reflect your hypothesis or if they might be better explained by an alternative.

We all want a more euvoluntary relationship with those vested with political authority. To get there, it might be worth reconsidering the terms of the implicit contract. T/F, explain.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?