Plutocracy: The Alternative to Caesarism?
Thoughts on Elon Musk Buying Twitter, and the Simple Case for Rich Guys as the Answer to Neurotic Bureaucratic Tyranny
In his response to my “Why is Everything Liberal?”, Scott Alexander noticed that I made something of a case for Caesarism. The argument goes that democracy can’t represent the will of the masses, who are indifferent to politics and busy with their own lives. It must therefore reflect the views of an activist/bureaucratic/journalistic class. Some call this the “managerial class,” but I don’t like that term as I think it’s too broad and implies that everyone with a college degree or who works in a white-collar profession is actually taking part in running society. In reality, it’s a very small group that matters, and there’s nothing that guarantees that whatever we call this bureaucratic class will have political preferences that if enacted will help rather than harm society. So, under right-wing Caesarism, you have Erdogan or Orban do the full-time job of making sure that the art museum isn’t smearing menstrual blood all over the floor, criminals aren’t being released without bail, and your kids aren’t being taught to question their gender identity, because that’s not the kind of society most people want to live in and that’s what you get if you don’t do anything and leave these decisions to “civil society.” Instead of being ruled by say an unrepresentative 1-2% of the population, you put your trust in one man and his lieutenants who are presumably less neurotic and subject to certain mind viruses than those who would otherwise be running things. That allows everyone else to go about doing things like starting families, going on vacation, and developing hobbies instead of bothering with politics and becoming like the activists who want to ruin everything.
All that being said, I’m more inclined to political realism than I am a political philosopher, and I think it’s unlikely that we’ll get anything resembling a functioning Caesarism in American politics. The country is too big and diverse, and power is too divided across the three branches of government, between them and the administrative agencies, and between the feds and the states and localities. For better or worse, we’re stuck with “democracy,” i.e., rule by a small class of people rather than a strongman. Moreover, even though it sometimes seems that almost anything is better than being ruled by wokes and corona hysterics, we have to respect the historical record here, and it provides little basis for thinking that dictatorship is a good alternative to democracy in the long run. Until recently I thought China was a major counterexample, but it’s still sticking with Zero Covid. Of course I’d favor using executive power to go after federal employees and force them to behave differently when feasible, but regulations of any great complexity and depth will require a reliance on left-wing bureaucrats and judges to interpret and enforce the law.
Note that my argument doesn’t depend on any kind of moral distinction between dictatorship and democracy, as I don’t feel moral arguments make any sense here. To me, there’s nothing inherently ethically superior about a system where you get a 1 out of 200 million voice in who the president is as compared to one where you get 0 in 200 million. The former is close enough to round to zero, and I’m sort of puzzled by those who would pretend there is a great moral question here, even if we ignore the fact that in reality it’s the bureaucratic class – increasingly cross-national and unrepresentative of those they rule over – that runs things in democracies anyway.
So democracy is bad, and the alternative is probably bad too and unrealistic. But Elon Musk buying Twitter suggests another way.
It’s been funny to watch the left-wing meltdown over the news, and enjoy the backlash to that meltdown. The fact that the left has come to define democracy as “whatever we want to do in the moment” is probably too obvious to go over at this point, though Freddie deBoer is always worth reading. More interesting is a certain kind of moderate and populist-conservative response that doesn’t like the path that Twitter has taken, but argues nonetheless that the fate of free speech shouldn’t depend on the whims of billionaires. According to one author writing in The Spectator,
Wouldn’t it be better if we re-integrated liberal norms about free speech into elite education and the media? That way, progressives might stop perceiving free expression as a right-wing talking point and remember how central it has been to social progress…Twitter rediscovering neutrality is unlikely and intensified regulation perhaps undesirable but either is better than relying on the benevolence of billionaires.
Yes, the best possible solution is that everyone becomes reasonable and everything starts working well. But in the real world, institutions are subject to pressure, and almost all of that pressure is constantly coming from one direction. And the fact that it’s the same in every country – that the mind virus of wokeness infects the bureaucratic class of practically every developed Western democracy – indicates that there’s something deeper going on than simply the people who believe in liberal norms losing in a marketplace of ideas.
What if wokeness is best understood as institutions responding to a certain kind of organized pressure? It’s not just women’s tears. One can think of similar dynamics in the triumph of LGBT; if arguing with someone who is clearly a woman is hard enough, imagine the complications involved when you can’t even tell which sex you’re dealing with. In The Civil Rights Era: Origins and Development of National Policy, 1960-1972, (highly recommended) the historian Hugh Davis Graham convincingly argues that – in contrast to the nice sounding conventional wisdom that violence usually hurts a cause – it was inner city riots that originally convinced policymakers in Washington to go beyond color blindness and adopt policies like affirmative action and minority set-asides in order to buy social peace. Tom Wolfe’s novels were in large part dramatizations of this dynamic. Whether policies like affirmative action and minority set-asides are actually useful towards achieving social peace is beside the point; self-styled “community leaders” do a good job of convincing politicians and bureaucrats that they are. We saw something similar happen in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, where the harder communities rioted, the more convinced institutions became that they had to listen to activists who could claim to speak for them.
In this model of the world, wokeness is just bureaucratic and institutional responses to whoever causes the most destructive riots and cries the loudest, an insight that can be applied to democracy more broadly. In an ideal world, executives at Twitter would just read well-argued pieces in online magazines like The Spectator and become convinced that free speech is important. I think that’s unrealistic because we did not get here through argumentation, but through a small minority of activists making the most noise, with the ostensible justifications for whatever institutions have wanted to do to cave in to their pressure coming later. It would be a mistake to see the post hoc justifications themselves – a genuine commitment to equity, an attempt to overcome past discrimination, defending the lives of “trans kids,” etc. – as driving the phenomenon of wokeness or most other Current Things.
When it comes to questions like how to moderate speech on Twitter, in the end a decision is going to be made somewhere. To simply say “I don’t want billionaires doing it,” is not an answer. Would you rather it be the Twitter “Trust and Safety Council”? What kind of people are drawn to such jobs? Or should it be government that regulates speech? If you think so, be honest and make the case for the wisdom and benevolence of federal bureaucrats, and the journalists and activists who have the most influence over them. That is not a winning argument, at least for non-leftists, which is why those who want government to play a large role here tend to have trouble explaining how the specifics of their preferred system is supposed to work.
When I started down the academic path, I took the conventional view that universities were broken, and what we needed were better ideas to displace the ones that are wrong. As I got to know fellow academics, I came to a different conclusion, and realized that the political leanings and pathologies of the system were inherently parts of its constitution. A profession divorced from any kind of real world accountability was always going to draw a certain type. As I’ve pointed out before, it’s not a coincidence that the same institutions that are the most woke are also those that have been the most hysterical about the coronavirus. I suspect government draws many of the same kinds of people, as it is similar to academia in having few objective standards and limited expected income over a career, with relatively high compensation in the forms of status and job security instead. It’s worth mentioning that almost 90% of billionaires are male. In the federal government, women make up 43% of employees, and they are now half of assistant professors, meaning academia is on the path to complete gender parity. We talk about “strongmen” and “tech bros” but “feminized institutions” for a reason.
In summary, while reserving the right to elaborate further at some point in the future, I’ll just note that a short case for plutocracy, or rule by the wealthy, can look something like this. The concept of “democracy,” is at best too ill-defined to be a guiding principle for governance, as can be seen by the fact that there are wide disagreements about what the concept even means, with differences between tribes predictably reflecting political divides. We have to make a choice regarding who gets to decide important questions. Caesarism says let one man leading the government do it, but that has well-known problems and is inconsistent with the American political tradition. Plutocracy has the fewest problems, mainly because rich guys are smarter, less neurotic, and have higher testosterone levels than activists and bureaucrats, and they have achieved their success through market processes, which is more indicative of an ability to solve problems than success in academia, government, or activism. Someone who builds rocket ships, or founds PayPal, or gets oil out of the ground is likely to have better ideas on how to run society than someone who has successfully navigated a bureaucracy or whose career has been based on succeeding at “peer review,” or writing words on paper that are approved by other people who have also gotten where they are by writing words on paper that were approved of by others who wrote words on paper, etc. Moreover, unlike Caesars, economic elites can’t start destructive wars on their own. Plutocracy is not a perfect system, but if one rich guy just buying Twitter solves the problem of internet speech against the wishes of nearly the entire bureaucratic class, we will have to consider that a strong argument in its favor.
Please see Russia in the 1990s as one example of the problems of unrestrained, ground-up plutocracy as a means of running a society.
American plutocrats come per-housebroken as a result of operating under a strong state, so they don’t really show the full vices of the plutocratic form.
Even a dictator would need to rely on a vast bureaucracy. The difference is that a dictator has lots of power over the bureaucracy, but the merely elected government in the US has little power over the bureaucracy. So the obvious thing to do here is to increase the influence of the elected government over the bureaucracy. Appoint the right judges, and give the president the power to veto or change any rule issued by any administrative agency, within the limits of the agency's authority created by congress. For instance all the disparate impact stuff from the EEOC could be overruled by an EO.