Heltonian Formalism: A political philosophy for better government

A few years ago, a blogger with a quirky name contrived a political philosophy he called Formalism. While I certainly do not agree with everything he wrote, I really like the idea of crafting a political philosophy that is much more in tune with how power and people actually work. I think in American politics both sides tend to be blinded by a lot of idealistic nonsense. And while I encourage optimism and working for change, too often idealism works against the grain of human nature. Heltonian Formalism is not an explicit blueprint, but rather my own collection of practical wisdom, that I have extracted from the study of past and present polities.

Here are the current Principles of Heltonian Formalism. This is a living document and I will update it as my thinking evolves:

  • Formal political structures, as defined in a written constitution or otherwise, must match the power distribution in society. If mismatched, the written constitution will be ignored or subverted, via fraud or violence. A constitution is a contract. I once received good advice about contracts: never sign a contract with someone who you would not trust to uphold a handshake agreement. The same applies to constitutions - never trust a written constitution, if you would not also trust it as a handshake agreement between the powerful factions that exist in a society.
  • A written Constitution cannot enforce itself. The real, lower-case constitution consists of a set of political algorithms that are stable Schelling points for the military and other powerful parties and institutions in society. A written Constitution is useful only insofar as it clarifies and hardens existing, defensible, Schelling points. A Constitution that is misaligned with the underlying culture and power structure of the society will be useful only as toilet paper.
  • Authority is conserved. For any possible action that impacts multiple people, some person or committee must have the ultimate decision making authority. Good governance is thus a matter of putting the decision making authority in a chain of accountability that ends with people who have the incentive, virtue, and competence needed to make a just decision. “Down with authority” is the slogan of a propagandist who wishes to decieve and take power himself. Authority will always remain – just in the hands of another.
  • Weak government is not the answer. Libertarians forget that throughout most of history the big problem was in avoiding getting invaded, bullied, sacked, or enslaved. The American Founders wisely avoid a fragmented structure such as that of Poland or the Holy Roman Empire, because such a structure succumbs to frequent invasion and pillaging.
  • A people must defend itself against bullying, invasion, and enslavement. The highest level, permanent system for organizing coordinated violence is called the state. The state military apparatus must be strong enough to deter invaders, and it must be coordinated across a territory large enough to be militarily defensible. The absence of a state will result in either invasion by a neighbor, the collapse of the scale of society back to that of a primitive feudal system, or warfare until one clan rules all.
  • Rulers chosen by a lawful process have far better records than rulers who take power through violence, fraud, or revolution.
  • Fixed share systems (such as joint stock corporations) are more efficient and less prone to conflict than non-fixed fixed systems. When voting blocks can organize and vote to transfer slices of the national pie to themselves, much squabbles ensue, and each faction will aim for policies that cost the whole polity $10 if it nets that one faction $1.
  • Electoral democracy has a paradox built into it: if the elected leaders have power over the administrative state, they can use that power to reinforce their own rule and end democracy. For instance, the political bosses of the 1800s used their authority to spend government funds in order to buy votes in future elections. But if the elected leaders do not have power over the administrative state, then you have an oligarchy run by unaccountable bureaucrats. Turns out that the Iron Law of Oligarchy is indeed iron. “Democratic” regimes have huge unelected power structures, and “authoritarian” regimes have to do a lot of coalition building and be sensitive to popular support.
  • Popular democracy is a destructive form of government because factions and parties form that expend all their energy engaged in destructive conflicts over dividing the pie, rather than figuring out how to grow the pie. Additionally, the masses lack the knowledge and ability to govern, and end up getting fleeced. Each vote matters little, so people end up voting based on feelings rather than rational interest. As a result, the system as a whole ends up ruled by mass delusion.
  • Managed democracy is not a responsible form of government, because the media, academia, and civil service are not held accountable for their decisions. Furthermore, it still has the problems of popular democracy, only in a less virulent form. Nor is there a way to self-correct. When the web of ruling institutions grows corrupt and dangerously out-of-touch with reality, there is no way to elect or appoint a new set of institutions.
  • Humans were born unequal in talent and desires. The gifts of nature were not distributed equally among the sexes or various peoples. Governance systems must select for talent, and any such selection process will produce inequalities. The never-ending attempts to purge all such inequalites will eventually destroy the ability of the government to function. For example, men disproportionately have natural abilities and disposition towards leadership. To deny this, to mandate equality of results, to push women into masculine roles, to domesticate and feminize men, only results in pain for both men and women.
  • Mass suffrage elections are virtually always a bad idea. The process polarizes the population, and causes everyone to believe in myths and propganda. There is no way that the results of an election can be channeled into the subtleties needed to make good government and good policy. In any elections where the electorate are divided among any sort of tribal lines (whether ethnic tribes, religion, cultural or otherwise), the energy will be on rallying to defeat the other tribe, rather than picking the leaders who devise the best policy for the commonwealth.
  • A symbiotic organism that reproduces with its host, is more likely to be supportive of the host rather than parasitic. Similarly, a memeplex that spreads by reproducing with its host is more likely to be beneficial to the host, and thus pro-social and pro-civilization, than a memeplex that is spread virally. Thus, the family is the optimal place for the transmision of ideas, and the health of the family is the health of the civilization. The religious and intellectual institutions that arose with a civilization, will transmit healthier ideas, than the ideas that spread via the latest fads.
  • A government is a property owner, it owns an alloidial title to a very large territory. If you wish to deny its legitimacy or redirect its flow of rents (taxes), expect violent resistance from the beneficiaries and controllers of the government.
  • Wealth distribution is both a very hard and a very easy question. It is hard because fundamentally it is about fighting over who gets the pie, and people are going to get emotional and irrational because it is useful to be irrational when organizing a political coalition to win a fight. To the extent there is common ground, we utlimately want is to incenstivize people working hard, taking risks and building businesses; while having a safety net for the less fortunate. Wealth distribution is theoretically an easy problem because we are so rich now that taxes anywhere between 10% and 60% would probably work for accomplishing both goals, if the tax structure was sane and the money was spent wisely.
  • Evil is a result, not an intention. Most evil people thought they were doing the right thing, thought they were the good guys and the people they were crushing were the bad guys.
  • Coherent governance structures are generally more responsible than fragmented structures, since in a fragmented system each faction will enrich itself at the expense of the whole. Coherence means that each institution has clearly defined responsibilities. Each institution generally has a hierarchy, in order to provide a chain of responsibility.
  • Lack of hierarcharchy does not mean freedom, it means that front-line officials can molest you with impunity. Lack of hierarchy means lack of accountability. It means that workers have many bosses to please and conflicting obligations, rather than one boss and a clear mission.
  • Subsidarity should always be a goal. Decisions, authority, and governance should always be delegated to the lowest possible level. The benefits are manifold: local leaders both best understand the problem and will face the consequences of being wrong; each locality can be an experiment that others can learn from; local populations will gain experience governing; single points of failure will be eliminated, the system as a whole will be antifragile; people will be able to find or build communities suited to their own interests and desires.
  • Property rights, free markets, and simple, negative law are essential, because they bar people from getting wealthy by stealing the pie, and therefore force people to grow the pie in order to better themselves. Property rights gives people the incentive to apply local knowledge and expertise in order to generate wealth.
  • The best governments have been strong enough to enforce property rights and rule of law over a large territory, but possessed enough wu wei to not inflict large amounts of oppressive or meddlesome positive law.
  • The Darwinian nature of all living systems may not be nice, but it cannot be ignored. If parts of the whole are not allowed to fail and be born anew, then the whole itself will stagnate and die. If individuals are systematically allowed to escape the consequences of their own actions, then the polity as a whole will be degenerate and sickly.