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"pet analogies"



Since today's post is all about making abstract ideas concrete, let me share one of my little "pet analogies" with you guys. Institutions are like a work-out routine, while a nation's elites and sub-elites are the body itself. If nothing else, this highlights the proper metaphysics of politics - the concrete individuals that rule have primacy over institutions, which are the relevant ideas they share. A ruling elite is also a complex system made up of semi-independent parts, some more essential than others - like a body, except for the fact that your liver's not volitional.
The best part of this analogy, however, is that it highlights the temporal relationship between elites and institutions. If you haven't worked out in years, and you try to lift a few hundred pounds, you'll destroy your back - if you try to force a tribe of Bedouins to adopt the American Constitution within a generation, you'll destroy their entire society. Whether we're talking about a body or a society, you have to identify and accept its identity if you want to effect change upon it.
Improving one's body is a long-term virtuous circle. You adopt a specific exercise routine, which makes your body a little better. This small improvement makes the previous routine obsolete and counter-productive, while making new, more intense routines available and desirable. Institutions set the rules of the political game, ultimately selecting the members of the new ruling class among current sub-elites, and opening room for new sub-elites to be formed out of the masses and of demoted members of previous elites.
US history provides us with perfect examples of these cycles. Starting out as a British colony, the US had lousy institutions - so lousy that they allowed their sub-elites to replace the British monarchy entirely. The resulting system was a spectrum, with slave-owning sub-elites who were no better than the British on one end, and truly honest businessmen on the other. In terms of Founding Fathers, think of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson on the slaver-scumbag side, John Addams and Thomas Paine on the honest-productive end, and Ben Franklin and Alexander Hamilton somewhere in the middle.
These elites, however, held a better ideology than the people they represented - Jefferson, for example, condemned slavery on principle, despite being a slave owner, and representing slave owners. Through their writings and actions, these men set up institutions which would select for better rulers in the future. It became increasingly easy to succeed as a businessman, and increasingly harder to remain a slave-owner - a virtuous cycle of good institutions selecting better rulers, who improved those institutions, culminating in the civil war, the end of slavery and the anti-imperialist views of Abraham Lincoln.
The very flaws on those institutions is what allowed the US to decline. Basing the rights of the individual on some sort of divine will, and not Man's nature itself, made it possible for a new caste of secular bureaucrats to justify their statist ideologies at the turn of the 20th century. Intellectuals like C.S. Peirce and William James started to associate the respect for the individual with old-school Christian superstition, peddling their collectivism as "science".
The Father's failure to explicitly condemn any and every governmental interference in the economy by principle, likely due to their short-term need to fund the newly established government, was the practical breach those men needed. By introducing anti-trust laws, the Progressives changed the rule of the game, making it easier for bureaucrats to replace businessmen as a ruling class. By introducing the fed and the practice of federal subsidies, they made sure that crooked "businessmen" would gradually replace producers in running the economy for the rest of the century. By importing from Prussia the current education system, based on socialization rather objective knowledge, they ensured that both the masses and the elites would be dumber by the generation, and more easily manipulated - a vicious cycle of bad institutions, selecting bad rulers, which in turn replaced them with worse institutions.
This is essentially why I don't like Libertarian/Objectivist "purism" when it comes to politics. Politics is a long-term game, and as long as there is the possibility to introduce better institutions, which will select better political players in the future, it makes sense to establish short-term alliances with whoever is seeking to replace the current ruling class, be it left-wing socialists or right-wing christian nuts.
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