On Formalism

Radish has classified me as a formalist, presumably on the basis that I think that the government should actually be in charge of the public service and the top universities, and that professors and senior public servants should be fireable for any reason and no reason, and should do as they are told.

Further, that ones that profile as unlikely to do as they are told, which most of them, for example everyone in the State Department, Justice Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency, should be fired en masse.  Further, I think that when the government passes a budget that money be spent for some purpose, this should actually cause the money to be spent to that purpose, and if it declines to allocate money to some purpose, government money should cease to be spent on that purpose, that writing and passing a budget should be an exercise of real power, with some people being funded and others defunded, rather than a tedious boring ritual resembling the Queen opening the houses of parliament.

But I don’t go all the way with Moldbuggian formalism.  Moldbug believes that governments are real, that they are naturally all powerful, that the US Government really owns the US.

Moldbug’s theory that the official description of the government should correspond to the actual reality of government.

But I think that the USG is rather like the Divine Right of Kings, a fiction that everyone pretends to believe, for fear of what would be revealed were it to vanish away – that anarchy is the natural state, and not necessarily the orderly anarchy proposed by anarcho capitalists, that the state exists only in that enough people imagine it exists, that the state, like fiat currency, is a bubble.

Moldbug’s formalism would acknowledge the reality that our elected officials are powerless muppets of no great consequence.  But would formalism reveal that anyone in the government has actual power?

I think that the formal description of the state can never correspond to reality, because if it did, the state would softly and silently vanish away.  The state lives in its myths.  It is stories that we tell each other.  Strip away the myths, you are likely to have no state at all.

The Formalist position is that the US Government owns the US, so we should figure out who owns the US government, give them shares of stock or whatever, and proceed with business.

Since the US Government has overpromised its obligations to various interest groups, the formalist position is that we should probably hold a bankruptcy procedure, in which everyone who is owed something gets some shares in place of that possibly unfulfillable obligation.  So, for example, in place of your social security, you get a small number of shares.  In place of your tenure at Harvard, you get a rather larger number of shares, but the president is now empowered to fire you. (We abandon the ludicrous pretense that Harvard, the NGOs, and the US Government are separate entities) In place of your senior position in the public service you get a considerable number of shares, but definitely get fired and replaced by someone who, unlike you,  will do what he is told, something that public servants have no background, experience, or training in doing.

If you are a senior public servant, a formalist reorganization means that you lose your ill defined power to make policy and grant special favors to interest groups, and in its place, get shares of ownership of US Government incorporated, a corporation run from the top down in a rational manner, where the organization chart reflects reality.

Well I don’t think the US Government owns the US, or that the US is kind of thing that is all that easy to own, or that the US government is a kind of thing that can easily be owned.

If we had a formalist reorganization of the US government, I don’t think it would stick.  The US Government would, like the former Soviet Union, softly and silently melt away.  People would see right through it, and it just would not be there any more.

Some people who were powerful in the previous government would grab stuff, some would not, some organized criminals would grab stuff, some big corporations would grab stuff, and some people who were smart and lucky would grab stuff.  Chances are that some sort of replacement state would re-emerge from the chaos, with some new faces, some old faces, and a lot of old faces no longer to be seen, but the final outcome would not much resemble the orderly liquidation envisaged by Moldbug’s formalism.


31 Responses to “On Formalism”

  1. […] erupts here, here, here, and […]

  2. Under their police powers, states can regulate private activities to protect or promote the public order, health, safety, morals, and general welfare.

  3. […] or a curious redefinition of the term ‘government’. Perhaps it is, as James Donald suggests, a myth, in an unwittingly(?) Sorelian sense: a belief to be judged not by its truth or its […]

  4. […] Jim’s essential observations on Sovereignty and on Formalism. […]

  5. Chevalier de Johnstone says:

    Why do you say the Right of Kings is a fiction? How could you possibly know that?

    I would say the classification as “formalist” seems accurate, as like Moldbug you tend to see form as the sole solution to social problems.

    Even in your post about belief systems, what do you focus on? Design. “Designing a belief system” — but for what purpose? You refuse to engage in the real, crusty definition of what the meaning and purpose of life is: why are we here? What are we meant to do? What, then as a society ought we to strive to achieve?

    Form follows function, but Moldbug’s formalism ignores the function. What’s the point of it all? He never says, beyond meaningless references to efficiency of material utility, which has no use in and of itself. Or is the purpose of our existence simply to eat and shit?

    Government is not a fiction, government is a tool. It is a tool a human society uses collectively to help society, and thereby the individual members of it, to achieve some ends. To say you want a “life without government” is to say you don’t want life in a meaningful human sense. I suspect what you mean is that you want a life with self-government, which is an entirely different beast from no government. (It is also not at all as attractive a concept as its proponents think.)

    In Christian society tools like government are the means to an ends which are the virtues, which make of each person a better version of themselves, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Depending on the society and its custom and culture the best government for this end might be an elective democracy or might be a king. All governments in this manner of thinking exist by “divine right”, because they are created by the divine purpose breathing through and within the society which creates them.

    You don’t have to subscribe to this specific religious doctrine, but if you persist in refusing to see government as a tool rather than an end in itself, you will never achieve anything of purpose.

    • jim says:

      Some of my commenters classify me as a techno futurist. The objective is to hold off the coming dark age long enough to make it to the technological singularity, after which the descendents of human kind will sweep through the mindless universe capturing and taking control of all the mindless energy and matter, till the universe is as full of mind as the surface of the earth is full of organic matter. Then it will not matter if the earth goes into a dark age.

    • spandrell says:

      “Government is not a fiction, government is a tool. It is a tool a human society uses collectively to help society, and thereby the individual members of it, to achieve some ends.”

      Oh god. Here come the teleologicians.

      Learn some history. The Christian society you so take for granted has never existed. It doesn’t work like that.

    • jim says:

      Government is not a fiction, government is a tool. It is a tool a human society uses collectively to help society, and thereby the individual members of it, to achieve some ends.

      If government is a tool, the one thing it is good for is making war.

      If government is inevitable, I, like Moldbug, consider the stationary bandit the least damaging form of government, which form is best approximated by a martial charismatic King who believably claims that he, and only, he was born with divine right to rule. Unfortunately, if Kings rule by right of birth, one is apt to get unmartial and uncharismatic kings, whereas if Kings rule by charisma and martial excellence, one is apt to get an oversupply.

      • spandrell says:

        I just love it when people undercut their own arguments.

        Just spell it out, Monarchy sucks.

        • jim says:

          Government sucks: More generally, there are no good solutions to the collective action problem, merely bad solutions and considerably worse solutions.

          Two collective goods that have been found to be essential are keeping the roads open, and preventing large scale hostile armed invasion. Other collective goods, not so much.

          • Baker says:

            I’d add another: To have a largest bandit so we don’t have a bunch of bandits killing each other and violating all property contracts. People want a government for stability and that’s what essentially amounts to.

            The libertarian/anarcho-capitalist dream requires the major participants are all civil enough to not turn into bandits.

        • Stump says:


          please troll elsewhere.


          • Zach says:

            I don’t think he’s trolling. His comments are short and to the point which might give the impression of trolling.

  6. JohnK says:

    Re: Rome. Noted modern scholar Adrian Goldsworthy in his 2009 book (in the US, titled) “How Rome fell: death of a superpower” (in other countries, “The Fall of the West: death of a superpower”) makes a strong case that near continuous civil war from about AD 200 on was a provably major cause, probably THE cause, of why Rome fell. He also argues that other explanations, from Gibbons on, are either improbable (contradicted by known evidence), or, given current evidence, at very least not proved, given the scanty evidence we actually have. That is, he can prove that civil war was at very least one cause, he can prove that this cause had massive and wholly plausible effects, and he shows the weaknesses of other extant explanations.

    Goldsworthy’s thesis: when the principal point of controlling the legions is to make them bloody themselves fighting other legions, and you do that because otherwise somebody else will do the same thing and/or assassinate you and then do the same thing anyway, no matter how much ruin there is in an empire, the army is eventually going to become (a) preoccupied with civil war instead of border defense and/or conquest (b) unsustainably bloodied and decimated.

    In other words, after awhile not only the chief but basically the only objective a successful emperor could pursue was sheer physical survival. Not good for the survival of the empire, even if you cared about that (which at least some emperors did). The superlative emperors could survive, plus do a little to keep things together. Nobody else could either survive or help. So it all stopped. That’s Goldsworthy’s thesis, and it should be more widely known.

    • jim says:

      The decline of art and science preceded chronic civil war, the collapse of population and the economy continued long after Rome had fallen.

      Civil war cannot explain what Gibbon described as “The second childhood of human reason”

  7. […] ‘On Formalism’ (Jim’s Blog) […]

  8. jim says:

    Moldbug cannot imagine life without government. Nor does he want anything that reeks of a shall we say dirty reset.

    I would rather like a life without government, but am rather expecting brief period of chaotic and disorderly anarchy, followed by a dirty reset.

    NO I agree with Jehu and Moldbug on a complete separation of school and state. A wall of separation between education and the government.

    And how would such a wall be enforced, when both sides want to cuddle up to the other?

  9. spandrell says:

    That it’s an illusion doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

    It’s funny that the government illusion always finds a way of happening in all large scale societies, doesn’t it? If humans are hard-wired to believe in supernatural beings, maybe we are hard wired to believe in government too.

    • Thales says:

      The two are, in fact, the same thing — or rather, the hardwiring is basically the same. Since government is just men telling each other what to do, government comes from your ears, supernatural beings from your right temporal lobe (although these days, not so much except for schizophrenics).

      • spandrell says:

        Maybe we just need ziggurats with empty thrones and landing strips.

        • jim says:

          I did suggest selecting a King by examining the entrails of a sacred bull.

        • Thales says:

          “You Can’t Go Back Home Again.”

          Without the Industrial Revolution, Christianity might have served its purpose for another two millennia. Now, oracles and prophets are red-shifting away into nothingness.

    • jim says:

      After the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, the illusion was mighty thin for several centuries.

      Utopia did not result, rather people found it difficult to resist better organized invaders, but the invaders themselves found difficulty recreating the illusion.

      • spandrell says:

        That was after devastating pests, swarms of barbarians from all sides and a breakdown of the traditional sea trading routes that shifted the economy to colder and less productive lands, hence lower population density and a greater proportion of a gene pool with less civilization experience.

        A pretty damn unlucky set of contingencies if you ask me.

  10. VXXC says:

    Moldbug cannot imagine life without government. Nor does he want anything that reeks of a shall we say dirty reset.

    Most of the reactionaries are reacting against their own offices. It’s brilliant thinking and the best on the web. But they shirk from what it will take and what this means. Basically they want to be King of their own offices and never see or hear another quota idiot or their demographics again.

    And they are most afraid of the consequences of change, and a Trial of strife and struggle. As if it can be avoided. It can’t.

    On the note of education – NO I agree with Jehu and Moldbug on a complete separation of school and state. A wall of separation between education and the government.

    Which is what they said. What I said was si est bellum, acadamaie et dicit ignit. Let their churches burn for a change. I suspect this does not please you, but winning is often ugly.

  11. Zach says:

    “Uncovers lost knowledge and dispels illusions. Seeing the world as it truly is, target is paralyzed by fear”

    A little off-topic but that card was amusing.

    Amidst the haunted forest lies… ZEUS CONAN DONALD!

  12. Red says:

    Some evidence to support you thesis:
    Saddam’s government effectively disappeared after this incident.

    A few years later it was revealed to be nothing more than a propaganda op:
    Illusion is what keeps the state going and illusion can destroy it just as easily.

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