Another dissenting voice

Skepticism grows about the wisdom of locking down whole populations as the response to a disease outbreak, in particular when it comes to the neglected issue of the civil liberties that are being thrown in the trash thereby:

Politicians are there to take difficult decisions, by weighing up all the expert advice and choosing a policy with the least worst outcome depending on the options available. But in the current crisis over coronavirus, the damaging impact of drastic interference in our civil liberties has apparently barely been considered at all.

Since the nationwide lockdown was announced we have had no right of association, and so political parties, trade unions, businesses and every other form of organisation outside the state has been severely disrupted, if not destroyed. This has occurred with barely a whimper of protest from the political class.

Worse, it has been cheered on by most of the national media, with their shrill calls for lockdowns and punishments for people going about perfectly lawful activities. Thankfully, there are now some voices raised about particularly stupid examples of police harassment of dog owners, and the constables ignoring actual crimes while investing in drones to harass moorland walkers.

Emergencies create vast opportunities for abuses of power, and reasons can always be found to strip away your liberties. The lockdowns being inflicted across the West are ostensibly temporary but with moveable and sometimes vague expiration dates. While the restrictions will (presumably) eventually be lifted, they can and therefore will be imposed again during another (real, imaginary or self-inflicted) crisis. We are told that staying at home and practicing social distancing makes everyone safer by flattening the curve, such that going outside to socialize with your friends or make an unnecessary trip to the store is selfish and even tantamount to murder. After all, computer simulations show that if you don’t cooperate, we’re all gonna die. But is that true? And even if it can be proven that surrendering our freedom of movement, property rights and freedom of association to the state, even temporarily, saves lives – is that cost worth it? Everybody seems to think so, but if everyone felt the same way in, say, 1776, would there be a United States?

Networked Confucianism

Masonic Eye of Providence

John Robb describes China’s now-infamous social credit system as the world’s first “networked tyranny.” Allow me to coin the term “networked Confucianism” to describe the same system.

Combine Confucian ethics with modern surveillance technology and social networking, and this is what you get:

China’s plan to judge each of its 1.3 billion people based on their social behavior is moving a step closer to reality, with Beijing set to adopt a lifelong points program by 2021 that assigns personalized ratings for each resident.

The capital city will pool data from several departments to reward and punish some 22 million citizens based on their actions and reputations by the end of 2020, according to a plan posted on the Beijing municipal government’s website on Monday. Those with better so-called social credit will get “green channel” benefits while those who violate laws will find life more difficult.

The Beijing project will improve blacklist systems so that those deemed untrustworthy will be “unable to move even a single step,” according to the government’s plan. Xinhua reported on the proposal Tuesday, while the report posted on the municipal government’s website is dated July 18.

According to the Party, the overall social credit system will “allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

China’s greatest philosopher might have approved:

When Confucius was asked 2,500 years ago what a ruler needed to govern a country, he said 信credit, faith, or sincerity; food 食; and an army 兵. But if he could only have one, it would be the first 信. The Chinese character we translate as “credit” has thus long been a core concept of Chinese governance. […]

At first glance, the official goal of the SCS appears to have little to do with financial credit. It is “construction of sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity, and judicial credibility” (State Council 2014), which is more a call to embrace traditional Confucian moral virtues than a vision for high-tech governance. The plan document cites a laundry list of social ills that stem from the lack of trust and trustworthiness at all levels of a fragmented Chinese society. These include tax evasion, factory accidents, food and drug safety scares, fraud, academic dishonesty, and rampant counterfeiting of goods.

A defense of economic nationalism

Darren Beattie provided (in 2017) a much-needed defense of the ideological foundations of economic nationalism:

It is entirely possible therefore to support tariffs, immigration restrictions, and various other restrictions on the free market in a manner that benefits the American worker and that is also consistent with the highest respect for individual freedom, enterprise, self-reliance, and other virtues of capitalism.

He makes a great point about the Cold War context which spawned free-trade ideology:

The Soviets who posed an existential geopolitical threat to the United States embraced a generally classical Marxist philosophy that was both an economic and a moral doctrine.

Free-trade doctrine provided an ideological foil to an expansionist Marxist regime. From that standpoint, it has served its purpose.

But today’s threats of concentrated power do not seem to conform to the “government dangerous, private sector benign” picture as easily as they may have during the Cold War. This is because 1) the distinction between public and private seems to no longer apply to many of the most powerful sectors of the economy, and 2) new forms of technology have enabled equally dangerous concentrations of power to accrue in the private sector (think of Silicon Valley). So, with the end of the Cold War, we must reevaluate the relationship between economics and liberty.

Furthermore, several structural features in the economy have accelerated since the end of the Cold War that severely threaten the middle class, whose robust health is often considered indispensable to a culture of individual freedom.

It is also indispensable to political stability.

Beattie is right that the public discourse is very superficial on this issue, as I pointed out with reference to trade policy in my post on Ian Fletcher’s book Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace It and Why. In fairness, trade policy is boring and makes for poor clickbait. Also, most pundits and politicians have absolutely no clue about economics. Fortunately, this article is free of economic jargon and just addresses the ideological assumptions underpinning most people’s thinking on the trade topic.

Direct-democracy-as-a-service

Luigi Di Maio and Davide Casaleggio

Luigi Di Maio and Davide Casaleggio

A brief explanation of Italy’s Five Star Movement, which won the biggest share of the vote in this month’s general election:

Davide Casaleggio is one of the top leaders of the Five Star Movement. He is president of the Rousseau Association, which created the movement’s digital platform. […]

Our experience is proof of how the Internet has made the established parties, and the previous organizational model of democratic politics more generally, obsolete and uneconomic. The Five Star Movement garnered around 11 million votes in the recent election. Each vote cost us about 9 cents — a cost covered by micro-donations from about 19,000 citizens who donated a total of about $1 million, supporting all the costs of our election campaign. For the traditional parties, according to the political group More Europe, a single vote cost nearly one hundred times more, about $8.50 per vote.

The platform that enabled the success of the Five Star Movement is called Rousseau, named after the 18th century philosopher who argued politics should reflect the general will of the people. And that is exactly what our platform does: it allows citizens to be part of politics. Direct democracy, made possible by the Internet, has given a new centrality to citizens and will ultimately lead to the deconstruction of the current political and social organizations. Representative democracy — politics by proxy — is gradually losing meaning.

The platform also allows registered users to choose parliamentary candidates through online voting and to propose, discuss and vote on legislative initiatives which, if approved, are submitted to parliament. This is direct democracy on the intraparty level, it’s very cutting-edge and frankly very cool. I suggest keeping an eye on Italian politics as I think they are simply ahead of the curve on this, and much of the West will soon catch up.

Anti-politicians

Beppe Grillo

Italy’s Beppe Grillo

The enigmatic Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, or M5S) is now Italy’s biggest political party:

One person notably absent from the Five Star Movement’s triumphant celebrations at a plush hotel in Rome in the early hours of Monday morning was Beppe Grillo, the comedian who less than a decade ago founded the party that seized the biggest share of the vote in Sunday’s inconclusive election. […]

Grillo, who was instrumental in turning the movement built by a rabble of rebels into Italy’s strongest political force, said in January that unless it won an outright majority in the election it should remain in opposition. “It would be like saying that a panda can eat raw meat. We only eat bamboo,” he said of the prospect of sharing power.

But Di Maio, said to have been groomed by Grillo for the leadership, has other ideas. On Monday he said he was open to talks with all political parties, and he has already presented his would-be cabinet – a list of what he calls “anti-politicians”.

In light of the news from Italy, I remembered this prescient article by Francesco Sisci — from April 2013:

Italy over the past century was a staging ground for experiments with new political solutions that had global consequences. Fascism was born in Italy in the 1920s, although it also flourished elsewhere and caused the start of World War II. In the 1970s, the Italian pro-Soviet Communist Party supported coalition governments that included pro-American parties, showing that communism could be adapted to a democratic environment. Thus, it inspired reforms in Gorbachev’s USSR some years later, something that led to the collapse of communism in Europe altogether.

One then wonders whether the new Italian political entity the “5 Star Movement”, created by comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, will also lead to something else – and what that could be. The “5 Star Movement” scored a huge success in the recent Italian elections while refusing to reach out to voters through talks and debates on TV, the traditional means of political campaigning for the past five decades.

It canvassed votes by means of old-fashioned public meetings and by modern web chats and Tweets shot through the Internet and mobile phones. He and his followers explained that this is the new web democracy. In fact, there is something extremely modern in Grillo’s political movement. Certainly, US President Barack Obama understood the importance of the web and relied on songs spread on Facebook and Twitter slogans. But he still went on TV and engaged in all the traditional campaign activities.

Grillo, conversely, refused TV appearances, political debates, and even interviews in the Italian press, and this magnified his image, bringing him almost 25% of the vote. The Internet is and was the ground for internal debates. Candidates were selected through mock elections on the web among Grillo’s supporters; policy discussions were held in web chats rather than in smoky rooms. There were no meetings, no cells, and no steering committees.

Actually, this is not the only new element of Grillo’s party. Contrary to all past practices, Grillo and his main partner, Gianroberto Casalegno, chose not to run for parliament. Notwithstanding that, these two extra-parliamentary leaders control all their elected deputies in parliament through a series of binding agreements. Meanwhile, the few top leaders decide the party line in informal gatherings on phone calls. It may not sound good – the party looks more like a private entity than an organization to promote political change and effective popular participation – but it has so far provided an organization that works similar to, if not better than, the old party systems.

Social networking is devouring the political systems of the West, starting in Italy and the US. It’s easy to imagine that in another five or 10 years, online networks will have taken over the machinery of the major parties, turning politicians into puppets for internet movements/mobs. Which may or may not be an improvement over the existing, obsolete party systems.

In any case, China’s prescience in censoring the internet more severely than Saudi Arabia is now clear. China’s rulers are extremely uninterested in dealing with uncontrollable, socially networked movements that could destabilize the country and threaten the Party’s grip on power, so it has opted to wall off China from huge swaths of the global internet.

Under this brutal logic, all major foreign social media platforms are blocked, and the domestic platforms are heavily censored and monitored. Weibo, the closest thing to Twitter, has recently been chastened (again). The closed nature of WeChat, which now has a billion active monthly users, does not lend itself to hashtag activism. There will be no Beppe Grillo on China’s watch.

Striking while the iron is hot

Just about everyone has something to say about the recent political news out of China. This limerick pretty much sums it up:

I was impressed by this analysis by Jerome Cohen, expert on Chinese law and government, who (rather amazingly) practiced law in Beijing back in 1979:

Xi’s move will have a profound effect on world order. It will enable him to move more boldly and increases the risk of his acting arbitrarily and perhaps mistakenly in international relations. It will surely hinder China’s efforts to be respected for “soft power” as well as military and economic prowess.

Xi decided to strike while the iron is hot rather than wait for later in his new term when increasing problems might have made the change more difficult. His brash step has undoubtedly aroused profound concern among the elite. Many high Party personnel, bureaucrats, judicial officials, lawyers, intellectuals, academics and business people, mindful of the past Maoist dictatorship and the increasingly repressive and arbitrary government under Xi, have seen this coming and now, in social media and other informal ways, are showing their anxieties and opposition.

But not many public signs of protest can be expected, since he has stifled free expression in the past few years.

At least it’s a relief to be able to quit pretending that the spread of liberal democracy has ushered in the end of history. Nope, the party is just getting started… and it’s gonna be lit….

Term limits

Impressive shilling here:

What’s more, America’s belief in the redemptive value of term limits merits further examination. In some political jurisdictions, it has helped bring in new blood; but, in others, it has replaced seasoned leaders with fresh nonsensical amateurs, to the detriment of good governance.

Indeed, in the 20th century, most assessments of presidential performance would place Franklin D. Roosevelt, our 32nd president, at the top of the list. He was elected not just to three terms but four. In 1951, the 22nd amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, which seemed like a good idea at the time; and perhaps even more so now. But there were moments in-between when America had its doubts about the constitutional dogmatism of having to force someone out of office who was doing the job well.

The problem with citing America’s “doubts” about the wisdom of term limits to defend another country’s scrapping of term limits under completely different circumstances is that it’s risibly stupid. With the notable exception of FDR, the consensus in the US has always been that a president should not hold office for more than two terms. What this signifies is not a “belief in the redemptive value of term limits,” which is just a dumb strawman, but a profound unwillingness to be ruled by another monarch.

Formal term limits weren’t needed for most of American history because the informal convention of a two-term limit, established by Washington, prevented nearly all presidents from even seeking a third term until FDR. After FDR was elected for an unprecedented four terms, Congress adopted the 22nd Amendment creating a formal two-term limit in 1951.

The key point here is that Americans decided it was time to slap some term limits on their leaders, and then did so. The 22nd Amendment was enshrined in the Constitution through a lawful, public and consensual process, which required ratification by three-quarters of the states of the Union. And public opinion is strongly against repealing it.

Compare this process to the shady, unilateral power-grab that is the topic of Tom Plate’s article, and laugh.

Sakdina: a prototype social credit system

Reading about the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya, which reigned from 1351 to 1767, I was struck by a description of the feudal ranking system called “sakdina” that was put in place by King Trailok in the early 15th century. Here’s the Wiki summary:

Sakdina (Thai: ศักดินา) was a system of social hierarchy in use from the Ayutthaya to early Rattanakosin periods of Thai history. It assigned a numerical rank to each person depending on their status, and served to determine their precedence in society, and especially among the nobility. The numbers represented the number of rai of land a person was entitled to own—sakdina literally translates as “field prestige”—although there is no evidence that it was employed literally. The Three Seals Law, for example, specifies a sakdina of 100,000 for the Maha Uparat, 10,000 for the Chao Phraya Chakri, 600 for learned Buddhist monks, 20 for commoners and 5 for slaves.

China’s rulers may have learned something from Thai history, because they are now rolling out a dynamic, interactive, socially networked sakdina system for their own people. It is called the social credit system.

Whether it can successfully keep 1.4 billion people in line, in an advanced, high-tech and globally connected society, remains to be seen.

Social credit system

I used to think that between the two great dystopian novelists, Huxley was more prophetic than Orwell. Not so sure anymore:

First envisioned in the mid-1990s, China’s social-credit system would assign a ranking to each of the country’s almost 1.4 billion people. Unlike a Western rating based on financial creditworthiness, China’s social-credit backers want their system to be all-encompassing, to evaluate not just financial matters but anything that might speak to a person’s trustworthiness. In modern China, “trust-keeping is insufficiently rewarded, the costs of breaking trust tend to be low,” a 2014 Chinese government document describing the government’s plans notes.

The social-credit system aims to change that – raising the penalties for poor conduct and the rewards for deferential behaviour.

It is the most ambitious attempt by any government in modern history to fuse technology with behavioural control, placing China at the forefront of a new kind of authoritarianism, one that can mine a person’s digital existence – shopping habits, friends, criminal records, political views – and judge them according to the state’s standard of reliability.

One early encounter with the system is described by a Chinese journalist who found himself on a government blacklist after he (inadvertently) defaulted on a court fine:

What it meant for Mr. Liu is that when he tried to buy a plane ticket, the booking system refused his purchase, saying he was “not qualified.” Other restrictions soon became apparent: He has been barred from buying property, taking out a loan or travelling on the country’s top-tier trains.

“There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to,” he said. “What’s really scary is there’s nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

More details on that here.

Another example of the nascent system at work:

It is hard to imagine a more perfect system of social control. This is not so much ruling with an iron fist as ruling with a joystick. The largest society in the world is being turned into a video-game simulation.

The social credit system seems perfectly adapted for a Confucian, group-oriented society, which also happens to lead the world in mobile payments and video surveillance. Of course, China is not the only country on the road to socially networked repression.

One possibility that occurs to me is that the government could use this apparatus to tackle China’s demographic crisis by pressuring people to have more babies. This piece in Wired talks about how Alibaba’s Sesame Credit (a potential precursor to the nationwide system) factors people’s shopping habits into an assessment of their character, an example being that “Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.”

What if “a sense of responsibility” was defined to include having two or more children, and the nationwide social credit system linked your “score” to how many children you have and the age at which you have them? I could easily see this being rolled out if more traditional pro-natalist policies fail to boost China’s birthrate to an acceptable level. (Note that China ended its one-child policy in early 2016, allowing all married couples to have two children.) In fact, I would be surprised if it hasn’t already been considered.

This all reminds me of the “credit poles” from Gary Shteyngart’s 2011 dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story. As he explains:

A credit pole is a way for the government to know what your creditworthiness is, because the big problem in the society is that nobody has enough credit. Credit poles are found on sidewalks in major metropolitan areas, and as you walk by they tell you what your credit rating is.

And:

The apparat is worn around the neck as a pendant, and it has what’s called RateMe Plus technology. Let’s say you walk into a bar; it says, “OK, you’re the third-ugliest man in here, but you have the fifth-best credit rating,” things like that. Everyone is constantly ranked and constantly assessing everyone else’s ranking, which is similar to the society we already live in.

Life imitating Shteyngart…