I originally published this on Musings and Rough Drafts, in December 2019. I'm posting it here, because I'm interested in folks' thoughts.
[Epistemic status: speculative essay, perhaps too speculative to be appropriate for LessWrong]
Lately I’ve been reading (well, listening to) the Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, which is something like a realpolitik analysis of how power works, in general. To summarize in a very compressed way: systems of power are made up of fractal hierarchies of cronies who support a leader (by providing him the means of power: the services of an army, the services of a tax-collector, votes that keep him in office) in return for special favors. Under this model, institutions are pyramids of “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” relationships.
This overall dynamic (and its consequences) is explained excellently in this 18 minute CGP Grey video. Highly recommended, if you haven’t watched it yet.
One consequence of these dynamics is how coups work. In a dictatorship, if an upstart can secure the support of the army, and seize the means of revenue generation (and perhaps the support of some small number of additional essential backers) he gets to rule.
This often happens in actual dictatorships. The authors describe the case of Samuel Doe, a Sargent in the Liberian military, who one night, with a small number of conspirators, assassinated the current dictator of Liberia in his bed, seized control of the treasury, and declared himself the new president of Liberia. Basically, because he now controlled the money, and so would be the one to pay them, the army switched allegiances and legitimized his authority. [Note: I think there are lot of important details to this story that I don’t understand and might make my summary here, misleading or inaccurate.]
Apparently, this sort of coup is common in dictatorships.
But I’m struck by how impossible it would be for someone to seize the government like that in the United States (at least in 2019). If a sitting president was voted out of office, but declared that he was not going to step down, it is virtually inconceivable that he could get the army and the bureaucracy to rally around him and seize / retain power, in flagrant disregard for the constitutional protocols for the hand-off of power.
De Mesquita and Smith, as well as CGP Grey, discuss some of the structural reasons for this: in technological advanced liberal democracies, wealth is produced primarily by educated knowledge workers. Therefore, one can’t neglect the needs of the population at large like you can in a dictatorship, or you will cut off the flow of revenue that funds your state-apparatus.
But that structural consideration doesn’t seem to be most of the story to me. It seems like the main factor is ideology.
I can barely imagine a cabal of the majority of high ranking military officials agreeing to back a candidate that lost an election, even if that a cabal assessed that backing that candidate would be more profitable for them. My impression of military people in general is that they are extremely proud Americans, for whom the ideals of freedom and democracy are nigh-spiritual in their import. They believe in Democracy, and rule of law, in something like the way that someone might believe in a religion.
And this is a major stabilizing force of the “Liberal Democracy” attractor. Not only does this commitment to the ideals of America act in the mind of any given high ranking military officer, making the idea of a coup distasteful to them, there’s an even more important pseudo-common knowledge effect. Even if a few generals are realpolitik, sociopathic, personal expected utility maximizers, the expectation that other military leaders do have the reverence for democracy, and will therefore oppose coups against the constitution, makes organizing a coup harder and riskier. If you even talk about the possibility of seizing the state, instead of deferring to the result of an election, you are likely to be opposed, if not arrested.
And even if all of the top military leaders somehow managed to coordinate to support a coup, in defiance of an election result, they would run into the same problem one step down on the chain of command. Their immediate subordinates are also committed patriots, and would oppose their superior’s outright power grab.
The ideology, the belief in democracy, keeps democracy stable.
Realpolitik analysis is an info hazard?
Indeed, we might postulate that if all of the parties involved understood, and took for granted, the realpolitik analysis that who has power is a matter of calculated self interest and flow of resources (in the style of the Athenian’s reply to the Milians), as opposed to higher ideals like justice or freedom, this would erode the stabilizing force of democracy, which I think is generally preferable to dictatorship.
(Or maybe not: maybe even if everyone bought into the realpolitik analysis, they would still think that democratic institutions were in their personal best interest, and would oppose disruption no less fervently?)
I happen to think that the realpolitik analysis is basically correct, but propagating that knowledge may represent a negative externality. (Luckily (?), this kind of ideology has an immune system: people are reluctant to view the world in terms of naked power relations. Believing in Democracy has warm fuzzies about it.)
There’s also the possibility of an uncanny valley effect: If everyone took for granted the realpolitik analysis the world would be worse of than we are now, but if everyone took that analysis for granted and also took something like TDT for granted, then we would be better off?
When implementation diverges from ideal
The ideology of democracy or patriotism does represent a counter-force against naked, self interested power grabs. But it is a less robust defense against other ideologies. The governmental system can be subverted if a large contingent becomes committed to Communism, or Christianity, or something else, and that commitment is higher than the commitment to the abstract ideals of democracies.
Even more threatening is when the application of an ideology is in doubt. Suppose that an election is widely believed to have been fraudulent, or the “official” winner of an election is not the candidate who “should have won”. (For instance, a situation in which a candidate wins the popular vote, by a huge margin, but still loose the electoral college.) In cases like these, high ranking members of the military or bureaucracy might feel that the actual apparatus of democracy is no longer embodying the spirit of the democracy, by representing the will of the people.
In a severe enough situation of this sort, they might feel that the patriotic thing to do is actually to revolt against the current corrupt system, in the service of the true ideal that the system has betrayed. But once this happens, the clear, legitimized, succession of power is broken, and who should rule becomes contentious. I expect this to devolve into a chaos, and one where many would make a power grab by claiming to be the true heir to the American Ideal.
In the worst case, we the US degrades into a “Waring states” period, as many warlords vie for power via the use of force and rhetoric.
Some interesting notes
One thing that is interesting to me is the degree to which it only matters if a few groups have this kind of ideology: the military, and some parts of the bureaucracy.
Could we just have patriotism in those sectors, and abandon the ideology of America elsewhere? Interestingly, that sort of looks like what the world is like: the military and some parts of the government (red tribe?) are strongly proud to serve America and defend freedom, while my stereotype of someone who lives in Portland (blue tribe) might wear a button that reads “America was never great” and talks a lot about how America is an empire that does huge amounts of harm in the world, and democracy is a farce. (Although, this may not indicate that they don’t share the ideology of Democracy. They’re signaling sophistication by counter signaling, but if the if push came to shove, the Portlander might fight hella hard for Democratic institutions.)
In so far as we do live in a world where we have the ideology of Democracy, right in exactly the places where it needs to be to protect our republic, how did that happen? Is it just that people who have that ideology self select into positions where they can defend it? Or it it that people with power and standing based on a system are biased towards thinking that that system is good?
Conclusion: speculative generalization to other levels of abstraction
I bet this analysis generalizes. That is, it isn’t just that the ideology of democracy stabilizes the democracy attractor. I suspect that that is what narratives / ideologies / ego structures do, in general, across levels of abstraction: they help stabilize equilibria.
I’m not sure how this plays out in human minds. You have a story about who you are and what you’re about and what you value, and a bunch of sub parts buy into that story (That sounds weird. How do my parts “buy into” or believe (in) my narrative about myself?) and this creates a Nash equilibrium where if one part were to act against the equilibrium, it would be punished, or cut off from some resource flow?
Is that what rationalization is? When a part “buys into” the narrative? What does that even mean? Are human beings made of the same kind of “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” relationships (between parts / sub-agents) as institutions are made of (between people)? How would that even work? They make trades across time in the style of some rationalists?
I bet there’s a lot more to understand here.