May 31st, 2013

Browncoat party

This Is Not Awesome

EDIT, A YEAR LATER: My opinion has improved over time. It's a very good book even if it wasn't the one I wanted it to be.

Kevin Williamson is one of my favorite bloggers on the National Review Online site. He focuses on one of my main worries--the horrible expanding deficit--and provides useful facts and analysis. So when he came out with a book (The End Is Near And It's Going To Be Awesome) I was immediately interested. I read the Kindle sample, liked it, and bought the whole thing.

Now I've finished it and I'm very disappointed. The book has three main points:
1. There's no way the US government can keep the promises it's made, even if taxes go up to 100%.
2. Political organizations screw up most of the tasks they try to perform.
3. Bottom-up groups can do almost all of what we've been depending on the central government to do.
Williamson does a great job of proving all three points. He did a good enough job to shock me on #2, not with the content but that this is being supported and promoted by National Review. Since when did WFBjr's heirs start putting out anarchist manifestos? I suppose Williamson might qualify it as minarchism, but I'm a minarchist and this was a big slug of 150-proof anarcho-capitalism. Not that polite Friedmanite stuff either. This was "politicians are crooks, taxation is theft, and the police are another gang." No ritual praise for "our heroes in uniform" in this book. In fact, the only allusion to uniformed heroes is in connection with NYPD cops convicted of rape. Did the NR suits read this before they did all those ads for it?

So far it sounds like something I'd enjoy, and I did like each chapter. Nothing particularly new in the philosophy for me or any regular reader of Reason mag but he wrote it well. It's probably a great introduction to libertarian philosophy for the National Review crowd.

So here's the book: "The current situation is totally unsustainable and will collapse. When we have a decentralized system letting people set up their own arrangements it's going to be awesome."

Notice the lack of anything describing how we get from point A to point B? Apparently Williamson is assuming that the collapse of the central-planning state will make the majority of the population realize that they shouldn't have been depending on the government so much. I find this . . . let's be polite . . . excessively optimistic.

Eventually the US government is going to hit the fiscal wall. There might not be lenders willing to offer up an eighteenth trillion dollars for the next year's debt. Or states unable to finance their pension systems may collapse without a federal bailout. Or rising interest rates might squeeze the rest of the budget. Or the taxpayers might actually go Galt, halving revenues. In any of those cases there will be tens of millions of people expecting to get a check from the government to keep them fed and healthy . . . and it won't arrive. Those people will be unhappy, justifiably so. They'll also be surprised, with less justification. In any case they will be very angry.

So what happens when a government unable to carry out its functions is confronted by a large chunk of the population waving torches and pitchforks? History shows there's several possibilities:

A. Private Enterprise: The people decide to do without the government and start solving problems on their own. Arguably the American Revolution is a precedent for this to some degree, if not a bloodless one. Pulling it off would require leadership to provide examples and innovators coming up with some practical options for them to implement. I'd really hoped to see a chapter or ten on this in the book.

B. The Man on Horseback. Turn to a Great Leader to solve the problem, and sweep all legal obstacles out of his way. The first half the 20th century saw a bunch of that. There's clearly support for that in the country today. Obama's most extreme fans are one example. The Republicans who seized on Herman Cain or another outside figure until they saw the feet of clay are another. Even the individualist Libertarians formed a cult of personality for Ron Paul and are letting his son Rand inherit it.

C. Civil War, aka Fighting Over the Scraps. There'll still be some money coming from the Feds and it'll go to those with the most clout. There's enough people in this country who've been declaring the other side to be the epitome of evil that there's ready recruits for anyone wanting to make it a shooting match. This is my worst nightmare. There's a lot of mechanisms that reward politicians and activists for increasing the tension between the sides, none that reward them for creating cross-party ties. That's something that could push us toward drawing blood before there's a collapse.

D. Anarchy, the very brief interlude before Feudalism or Warlordism. If the collapse is bad enough there may be no institutions left to fight over. Then we'd be pulling together localized groups under leaders who push for survival rules. It seems to be the human default. It also means starving in poverty because we don't have enough interconnection to maintain modern technology, or even steam-era technology . . . which is also the human default.

E. Singularity. If we have enough technological breakthroughs before the collapse comes we can support pensioners for pennies a month, including their body-repair nanobots, and revenue will keep increasing from the new yet-unimagined industries. My preferred solution, since it's a lot easier to pull off than A. (Yes: I consider inventing universal assemblers easier than persuading the majority of the US population to not suck on the Federal tit)

When I saw the title of Williamson's book I expected it to have some ideas on achieving option A, or at least ones for avoiding B, C, or D. Instead there's praise of how wonderful things can be once politics is out of the way. I feel like a Roman worried about the approaching Visigoths getting a speech about the glories of the Renaissance. Yes, it'll be beautiful. I'll care once we're past the Dark Ages.