Discover more from Richard Hanania's Newsletter
The Reactionary Case for Democracy
Towards a Nietzschean Liberalism
People often ask me how I reconcile my more Nietzschean views and classical liberalism, which means support for not only markets, but even democracy and the oft mocked “rules based international order.” Many thinkers who believe in things like the importance of IQ and the dominant impact of heredity tend to be more partial towards monarchy or some other kind of dictatorial system. I’m thinking here of BAP, Yarvin, and their admirers among the reactionary right.
Since we’re reconciling Nietzsche and Liberalism here, we can call my philosophy Nietzschean Liberalism. The Nietzschean part consists of the following beliefs.
Just as intelligence, a moral sense, aesthetic appreciation, and other factors place humans above animals, some humans are in a very deep sense better than other humans.
Society disproportionately benefits from the scientific and artistic genius of a select few. An important goal of government and public policy is to channel their energies in productive directions and leave them free to pursue their missions.
As confirmed by modern behavioral genetics, heredity is the dominant force behind human variation.
Egalitarian ideology and concerns over what is called “social justice” are primarily driven by ugly instincts, namely envy and feelings of inferiority.
While all rational beings must be utilitarians to some degree, everyone has non-utilitarian commitments. The best ones put an emphasis on beauty, freedom, and progress, rather than pleasing supernatural beings, fealty to some “natural” order, the glorification of imagined communities like nations, or equality of outcomes.
If these five propositions aren’t consistent with your interpretation of Nietzsche, I think you’re wrong, but I’m not a philosopher so to me the question isn’t what a guy in the nineteenth century actually meant but whether a set of ideas should be accepted or rejected. These are my views, even if they weren’t Nietzsche’s himself (though they were).
If you agree with the items on the list above, you probably favor monarchy, fascism, or “something worse.” Yet this is a mistake. Nietzscheism must be tempered with classical liberal insights, rooted in economics, political science, history, and psychology. The main ones are as follows.
Markets and democracy are the best forces ever discovered for pushing ahead with the creative destruction necessary for human progress.
Even extremely flawed or limited human beings can still have much to contribute to society due to the miracle of the division of labor. There is thankfully no need therefore to turn towards ideas that involve incapacitating or repressing large numbers of people, with the relatively few criminals among us being the exception.
Human nature is not so bad that collectivist and egalitarian ideologies are always going to be prevalent among the masses. They simply need to be protected from cancerous ideas that make them a threat to progress, which come from both the right and left. Somewhat paradoxically, democracy does a pretty good job of this relative to other systems.
Good and Bad Arguments for Democracy
The Nietzschean case against democracy seems to go something like this. Democracy rests on the idea that people are smart and well-meaning. Since they’re actually dumb and often driven by envy, democracy is a bad form of government.
But read The Federalist Papers, and you’ll see one argument after another for elected government alongside a deep pessimism about mass sentiment. The case for an open political system doesn’t depend on an overly rosy view of human nature. Rather, there are two main arguments that make more sense. First, elections and democratic institutions like a free press can be seen as ways to aggregate information and to encourage responsible governance. Again, this doesn’t depend on people being smart! One of the most consistent findings from political science is that elections are to a large extent determined by the state of the economy. Therefore, at the very least, democratic leaders have an incentive to care about making their citizens wealthier and not going too far in running, or in some cases, extinguishing, their lives. As RJ Rummel’s study of mass killings has shown, when governments massacre their citizens in massive numbers, they’re practically always dictatorships. Voters might like socialist theories, but they seem to use very simple heuristics that are better than whatever processes dictators use to make decisions. The second argument for democracy is that it’s a way to ensure peaceful transfers of power, a virtue that is easy to take for granted in the first world, even though it solves a problem that has been a major source of civil strife throughout history.
There are all kinds of theoretical reasons why democracy might not work well. When I was younger and a kind of standard reactionary, I was taken in by Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: The God That Failed. A libertarian and a hereditarian, Hoppe argued that monarchy is a superior form of government because, while a democratic leader has an incentive to loot the country and only seek out short-term gain, a king will want to maximize growth and pass on a strong and healthy realm to his offspring. Sounds good in theory. A look at the historical record, however, shows that, in general, political and economic liberalism have gone together. I think part of the problem with Hoppe’s theory is that it gets the story of incentives wrong. In a world where a dictator had a 100% chance of passing on his realm to an heir, then it might make sense. But authoritarian leaders end up having to spend much of their time figuring out how to stay in power, and they usually determine that it’s better to rule over a poor and miserable country than to try to maximize economic growth and potentially have your head on a spike. This is why North Koreans don’t have the highest living standards in the world, despite having a hereditary system of government. Three generations of the Kim family so far have decided that the best way to stay in power is to keep their nation starving and isolated, and they’re probably right on that front. The Gulf Arab monarchies interestingly made a different calculation, and that has worked out relatively well, but it required a lot of luck, namely the existence of the American global empire and being fortunate enough to sit on a sea of oil.
Even if dictators had the right incentives to maximize wealth and stability, which they seem not to, this only brings us back to the information problem. Authoritarians have a terrible time getting accurate information about what is going on in their countries, and knowing what to do with it. This is of course a problem with democracies too, but it seems to not be as bad there. Last year, an important paper showed that if you compare reported GDP growth to what you can see from lighting in satellite data, dictatorships have much better official numbers than what can be verified. The Economist put together a nice graph demonstrating the point.
Incredibly, this effect is so large that GDP per capita in autocratic countries might be less than half what the official numbers suggest! This not only shows that studies that purport to show a positive connection between authoritarianism and growth might be flawed, but also demonstrates the problem of getting accurate information more generally. Either dictators are cooking the books themselves or, much more likely, there are miscommunications somewhere in the system in which bureaucrats and officials in non-democratic states find it more beneficial to lie. The Hoppe view that says that monarchs might have the right incentives doesn’t help get us to desirable outcomes if they don’t even have accurate information on which to act. And yes, I know that in America many Republicans and Democrats judge the state of the economy by who happens to be president at the time, but we still collect pretty good economic numbers, swing voters still care about what they say, and reality at least has a place at the table.
One of my favorite examples demonstrating how democracy succeeds through simple heuristics on the part of voters comes from the 2020 Democratic primaries. The stock market tanked when Bernie Sanders won Nevada, and then shot up after he dropped out. Most Americans agree with many of Sanders’ socialist views. But if he ever became president, he’d have to govern reasonably or the economy would collapse and he and his party would soon be swept out of office, even if each individual policy he adopted had majority support. Something like this almost happened in Venezuela. The people voted for Chávez, the country became much poorer, and his successor Maduro had to basically abolish democracy in order to stay in power. It would’ve been nice if the voters weren’t stupid enough to elect Chávez in the first place, but if the country could have maintained its democratic institutions Venezuelans would have then corrected their mistake.
This is similar to a common far leftist critique of democracy, which is that it ends up to a large extent being rule by global capital. I agree with this, but think rule by global capital is far superior to rule by the views of the masses. In many ways, dictators are more subject to mob rule than democracies are, because they limit the impacts of markets and therefore remove a check on mass sentiment. Polls show the governments of China and Russia constantly having higher approval ratings than those of Western democracies. Those countries are in a sense then actually more “democratic” than the US, which is why they make such terrible decisions. Of course, when it comes to revealed preferences, a topic I discuss below, more people want to leave dictatorships than democracies.
I used to be very bullish on China. Three years ago, I saw a high IQ nation that believed in meritocracy and didn’t have many of the brainworms associated with Europe and America like radical feminism, identity politics, and sympathy for criminals. I’d also done a bit of reading on the Chinese system, and was impressed by how they seemed to promote government officials based on performance. Given its remarkable growth over the decades, I thought that Beijing would come to dominate its region, if not the world.
Then the government showed a series of pathologies that could be traced to its authoritarian system. The Zero Covid policy came to be personally associated with Xi Jinping, and was held on to for way too long. Chinese growth has slowed down. Its birth rate has collapsed, or maybe they just started reporting their numbers more accurately, again demonstrating the information problem that dictatorships have. Xi now talks about “shared prosperity” and nationalist goals as more important than growth, which is the kind of thing stupid politicians in the West say, but market forces and elections thankfully prevent them from implementing their ideas.
Modern China was the best chance the anti-democracy crowd had to prove their ideas could work. If I was going to set up a dictatorship back when I was anti-democracy, it would’ve been something like the Chinese system, with the use of standardized tests, merit-based promotion, and a government made up of a lot of guys with STEM degrees with no special efforts made to recruit minorities or women. And yet that system has failed. Not only that, but it has failed in ways consistent with what would have been predicted by what I’ve previously called “normie theories of democracy.” For more on the revealed shortcomings of China and Russia and what they mean, see my essay on 2022 as the year of Fukuyama.
The Unexpected Virtues of an Open Society
You shouldn’t trust the people, and you shouldn’t trust elites. It’s better to trust processes and institutions where incentives are aligned and there are mechanisms for revealing and aggregating information. Dictatorships have shown little historical ability to create, foster, or protect such institutions and processes, while democracies have done a comparatively better job.
In many ways, polarization and decentralization are great strengths. I think back to covid, when I spent a lot of time complaining about the stupidity of both sides, with conservatives going anti-vaxx and liberals being too in favor of masks, school closures, and other non-pharmaceutical interventions. But looking back, I think it was probably too much to expect one side to get everything right. Maybe the best you can hope for is a divided country, where one side takes the position that “covid is the most dangerous thing ever” and the other says “covid is nothing”, and from there we can run some experiments and see what happens. All fair and intelligent observers now understand that “pro-vaxx, anti-NPI” is the correct position. But that only became obvious because Red America and Blue America both went their own separate ways, providing clear and unambiguous evidence on how we should approach the next pandemic. Maybe we haven’t sufficiently learned our lesson, but we have a better chance of doing so than just about anyone else.
The state of global fertility is an existential risk to humanity, both in terms of quantity and quality of births. I think the solution is going to be found through the use of technologies like IVF, surrogacy, embryo selection, and hopefully even artificial wombs and genetic engineering. No government will ever support these things, because governments of all kinds reflect popular will to some extent, and humans are subject to the naturalistic fallacy. What hope is there, then? The best case scenario seems to be a government that is so enfeebled or distracted by trivialities that it simply takes a hands-off approach and lets market forces do their work without it noticing what is going on. There used to be a trope on the Nietzschean right that China would wholeheartedly embrace biotech solutions to its population problems, but I don’t buy it. Everything I’ve seen from China in the Xi era indicates that its governing philosophy is tied to a dumb form of “traditionalism” and egalitarian levelling, and its policies in the biotech space seem to be following that general pattern.
In contrast, in the US, bipartisan compromise, which it would take to pass legislation, is impossible on anything having to do with reproductive issues. Many liberals oppose genetic enhancement because they generally hate good things, while conservatives don’t like it because god or something. Yet despite both sides having problems with reproductive technology being used to improve humanity, IVF has taken off, and surrogacy and embryo selection are legal in the US, even though all restrictions that do exist should of course be lifted. In general, democracies have more freedom in this space than dictatorships do, and polarization probably helps explain why. People are distracted by fighting over immigration or pronouns or whatever, and the right’s pro-life fanaticism ends up making liberal institutions rely on a libertarian rhetoric of choice on reproductive issues, which leads to results like allowing embryo selection and surrogacy, things that leftists would be uncomfortable with if they had to consider them directly.
When I say that conservatives and liberals both oppose genetic enhancement, I should emphasize that there is a difference between people’s views when it comes to their individual choices and their political beliefs. If you had a referendum on whether parents should be able to select which embryos to implant based on IQ or predicted beauty, most people I’m sure would vote against it. But if given the choice, I think few would fail to act on such information. Bryan Caplan has said that markets do good things that sound bad, while governments do bad things that sound good. This is just one example of that broader phenomenon. Most Americans support restrictions on immigration and trade, policies that make people worse off, because they’re misinformed and racist, but when given the choice of what products and services to buy they do the humane and rational thing by choosing based on quality and price. And when people weren’t paying much attention to software as an industry, talented men were able to build Google and Amazon, but now that they’re seen as powerful and successful they’re being attacked by the government.
Thankfully, because we live in a liberal democracy, there are limits to how much agents of the state can do. Amazon can hire the best lawyers, who can drag this thing out for years, at which point technology and markets may have progressed to the point that many of the issues at stake in the case will be moot, and it may even win. That’s not an ideal scenario; you want Google and Amazon to keep innovating and improving people’s lives without being distracted by government persecution, but it’s better than what happens in places like China where the state can suddenly and with force wreck its tech industry.
This is similar to the idea that immigration hurts social capital, and therefore arguably makes small government more likely. Some misunderstood this point, thinking that I was saying that we can predict what the ultimate political impact of immigration will be, whereas I think we can’t. Given the obvious and massive economic benefits that result when people move to more productive countries, it is restrictionists who have the burden of showing sufficiently negative higher-order effects, and they’ve never been able to do that. In addition to the standard arguments for porous borders, ethnic diversity can be seen as another factor introducing instability and division into society, which make people less likely to unify around shared goals.
Accepting liberal institutions is part of a general recognition that it’s too much to ask for people to have the right ideas, whether you put your faith in the masses or a technocratic elite. The best results have generally come from government being limited, and leaving a wide space for individual choice. Rather than reflecting the will of the people or any such nonsense, democracy is chaos, and chaos is the midwife of progress.
Richard Hanania's Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.