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Is State Protection a Threat to Liberal Democracy?

The world is awash with predictions about the impact of COVID-19 on life in the liberal democracies—from more online shopping to less globalisation, from higher taxing governments to more working from home. But most analyses compare 2020 with 2019 and examine the immediate changes wrought by the pandemic alone. Long-term, COVID-19’s impact may turn out to be considerably greater.

To fully appreciate the potential consequences of this pandemic we need to examine it in the wider context of the last two decades. It must be seen as part of a series of developments over that period that, collectively, could transform liberal democracy more dramatically than is currently predicted. Those developments have driven the physical and economic insecurity of citizens to levels never previously experienced in the modern liberal democratic state. COVID-19 may be a tipping point for insecurity. Self-preservation may be the new priority that triggers a radical transformation of what the citizens of liberal democracies demand from the state and what the state delivers. Taken too far, that transformation of the citizen/state relationship could spell the end of liberal democracy.

Peak liberal democracy

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes described life in a pure state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He argued that in return for protection the people must surrender their rights to an absolute sovereign power. This “social contract” is the only way to achieve political order and for the individual to enjoy peace and security. Modern liberal democracy developed over the next 350 years, the result of a continuous struggle between the masses and their rulers. That struggle saw the slow transfer of power and rights from the latter to the former through the vehicle of the state. The result was a winning amalgam of the nation state (which provided personal safety), the liberal state (a wide range of rights and freedoms), the democratic state (political power that is accountable to the populace), and the welfare state (a raft of financial benefits and social services).

By the year 2000, life for most citizens in the world’s liberal democracies was anything but “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” They enjoyed safe, secure lives and were healthier and wealthier than both their forebears and the citizens of all other forms of state. As it had been for millennia, the world was full of war and famine, disease and terror, but these problems seldom had any impact on the lives of the fortunate citizens of the liberal democracies. In 2000, it looked as though Francis Fukuyama might have been right when he argued that liberal democracy was the “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.”

The rise of insecurity

Unfortunately, things began to change around the turn of the century. The first major development was the arrival on American soil of Islamist terrorism on September 11th, 2001. Over the previous decades, liberal democracies had experienced domestic terrorism and isolated cases of international terrorism. But the scale of the 9/11 atrocities, and the intention of its architects to spread fear of another devastating attack anywhere and at any time, heralded a new era. Terrorism had two serious consequences for liberal democracies. First, it elicited heightened and widespread concern for personal safety, and a sense of physical insecurity. Second, it led governments to introduce far-reaching anti-terror laws in areas like surveillance, search, and detention, many of which contravened longstanding civil liberties. Significantly, most citizens appeared happy to concede personal rights in return for more security.

The second major development was the Great Recession of 2007–09. Until the COVID-19 induced economic collapse, this was the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In many liberal democracies, it resulted in GDP contraction, increased unemployment, falling house prices, bank failures, and government debt crises. Particularly in Europe, the latter often led to fiscal austerity, which in turn meant further financial hardship. Like terrorism, the Great Recession had two serious consequences. First, the realisation that the financial system is volatile and that economic stability is precarious, created an unprecedented sense of economic insecurity. Second, it demonstrated the power of state intervention. Policymakers acted quickly to support the financial system and stimulate economic activity. As with terrorism, most citizens of liberal democracies welcomed government intervention when it was directed at protecting them.

The third major development was global warming. According to NASA, “19 of the 20 warmest years all have occurred since 2001.” While this has not caused a single catastrophic event comparable to 9/11 or the Great Recession, it has resulted in more frequent and more extreme fires, droughts, and storms. The consequences of climate change for liberal democracies are still emerging. It is accepted as a “major threat” by a majority of the population in most countries. It may not yet be seen by many as an immediate threat to their personal safety, but events like the 2018 Californian wildfires and the recent bushfires in Australia have demonstrated the dangers ahead. There is rising anxiety about climate change. Younger people are the group most affected. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion reflect the growing sense of insecurity and increase in demands for government action. The government response to those demands has varied widely in different liberal democracies—there have been extensive interventions in some which include the imposition of carbon taxes, offers of renewable energy subsidies, and moves to close down coal mines and coal burning power plants.

Between 2000 and 2019 life changed significantly for the citizens of the world’s liberal democracies. To varying degrees, terrorism, economic shock, and global warming introduced new and substantial insecurity into lives of relative safety and certainty. The inevitable response was to demand state protection, and the understandable reaction of governments was to provide it. That meant greater government intervention in the economy and an expansion of the powers of the security state.

Plague in the 21st century

As 2019 drew to a close, the first reports appeared of a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China. Less than six months on and the world has changed forever. The novel coronavirus has produced two disasters—the worst health crisis since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918–19 and the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. It is still too early to know when and how the health and economic crises will end and what the final toll will be. Already the disease itself has caused illness and death on a massive scale; the domestic lockdowns have caused untold mental health problems, deferred medical treatment, domestic violence, and disrupted education; and the economic shutdown has caused vast unemployment, lost income, stunted careers, bankruptcies, and business failures.

Health insecurity has skyrocketed. People across the liberal democratic world are worried about their own health and that of their family and friends. Even in those countries that seem to have the virus under control, there is fear of second and third waves of infection. Citizens have expected governments to protect them from the disease. Governments have responded by exercising extraordinary powers of control and restraint. They have closed national borders, instigated weeks-long lockdowns, and introduced rules on everything from social distancing and working at home to funeral attendance and the wearing of face masks. Some are employing or preparing to employ tracing apps to monitor the movement of their citizens. Significantly, most citizens have complied with the controls imposed to protect their health.

Economic insecurity is at record levels with many people struggling financially and facing an uncertain future. Public expectations of state economic protection have been high. The calls for government intervention are everywhere. In 1986, Ronald Reagan said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” In 2020, these are the words that everyone wants to hear. As journalist George Monbiot put it, “it may not be true that there were no atheists in the trenches, but there are no neoliberals in a pandemic.” Ideology is reemerging only now as countries debate how quickly to move out of lockdown. A recent survey across six liberal democracies shows that people overwhelmingly look to the state to address the economic emergency. Sociologist John Falzon expresses the view of many: “we have a right to expect government to do what markets cannot, namely, achieve collectively what we cannot achieve alone: social and economic protection for all of us.”

Governments and central banks have intervened to a remarkable extent to support individuals and businesses. They have adopted a range of extreme measures including paying businesses to retain their employees, purchasing government and corporate bonds, bailing out companies, increasing social welfare payments, providing funding to the banks, and even paying “helicopter money” direct to citizens. Governments are spending staggering sums and incurring frightening debts. Populations are being scarred and traumatised by these two crises. According to Census Bureau data in May reviewed by the Washington Post, “a third of Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression… the most definitive and alarming sign yet of the psychological toll exacted by the coronavirus pandemic.” That was before anyone had heard of George Floyd.

As if a plague of death and illness and an economic collapse were not enough, COVID-19 is also contributing to a serious deterioration in Sino-American relations that may yet herald a new Cold War.

A post-postmaterial future?

Surveying the wreckage of 2020, things look very different to 2000. Citizens in the world’s liberal democracies now face an array of new or vastly expanded threats—terrorism, climate change, economic volatility, pandemics, and geopolitical instability. This is not just business as usual, the standard ebb and flow of historical events. It represents a level of citizen insecurity not previously experienced in the modern liberal democracies. And these are just the major developments over the last 20 years. Other emerging threats include refugees flows, artificial intelligence/automation in the workplace, cybercrime, and nuclear proliferation. (The first two can have benefits but it would be a mistake not to recognise that they are perceived as threats by many people.)

The key point is that all these developments impact the physical and economic security of citizens. They represent material threats. In his 1977 book The Silent Revolution, political scientist Ronald Inglehart looked at the concept of “postmaterialism.” He argued that, as a result of rising affluence, the values of citizens in Western countries “have been shifting from an overwhelming emphasis on material well-being and physical security toward greater emphasis on the quality of life.” Non-material values such as self-expression, autonomy, and gender equality became more important as people took physical and economic security for granted.

Looking back, we can now see that 2000 represented peak postmaterialism in the liberal democratic world. In 2020, physical and economic security are no longer a given. They are being reprioritised by citizens increasingly concerned with self-preservation. We may be entering a new era of “post-postmaterialism.” If the development of liberal democracy over the centuries has been a story of citizens making demands on the state—for personal safety, freedom, political power, welfare—what does our new age of insecurity mean for the next chapter? What will citizens want more of from their governments going forward? The obvious answer is protection—protection from terrorists, pandemics, extreme climatic events, economic hardship, and war. And today’s high maintenance citizens, products of a culture of market consumerism, will not be backward in demanding that protection.

The pressure on governments may be compounded by specific characteristics of the old and the young. The former constitute a growing proportion of the population and they are particularly susceptible to physical threats as shown by the current pandemic. They are also keen voters and are likely to bestow electoral support on parties that offer them protection and security. The young represent a different set of potential problems. According to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and journalist Greg Lukianoff, today’s young have been coddled by a culture of “safetyism” that has attempted to shelter them from adversity. The danger is that this has reduced their resilience. One group may be especially troubled—those who left school or finished university during the Great Recession or the coronavirus pandemic. A disproportionate number will suffer the long-term negative effects of unemployment. Many of the young, like the old, will be keen voters for state provided protection.

State protection comes at a price

Surveilling citizens can help in the fight against terrorists, but it reduces privacy. Monitoring citizens facilitates the control of disease, but it impinges on freedom. Taxing citizens funds relief from economic hardship, but it appropriates private property. So, here is the dilemma: In order to provide physical and economic protection to its citizens, a liberal democratic state must transgress core liberal tenets like privacy, freedom, and respect for private property. This is not a new problem. As part of our complex social contract, we recognise that there are no absolutes. Trade-offs are required. Restrictions on freedoms are accepted to prevent one person harming another. Taxation is accepted to fund an appropriate level of government services and redistribution. Democratic politics is the process by which these trade-offs are negotiated. They have evolved over time.

The crucial question is whether or not the dramatic change in the nature and level of threats over the last 20 years, capped off by the shock of the dual COVID-19 crises, will trigger a revolutionary shift in those trade-offs and a transformation of the citizen/state relationship. It is too early to tell but there are certainly signs that many citizens may be prepared to surrender significant political and economic freedoms in return for greater physical and economic security. Philosopher John Gray argues that in the current emergency “being shielded from danger has trumped freedom from interference by government” and that “those who believe personal autonomy is the innermost human need betray an ignorance of psychology, not least their own. For practically everyone, security and belonging are as important, often more so.” If Gray is right, increasing demand for protection from physical and economic insecurity may lead to a weakening of the “liberal” in liberal democracy.

Of course, the rights and freedoms we associate with liberalism are themselves a form of protection—against other citizens and, importantly, against the state itself. To the extent that any of these are surrendered for greater physical and economic protection, it is a case of trading one form of protection for another. A rational citizen would do that after appropriate consideration of the relative threats to their security. If the risk of dying in a pandemic or terrorist attack is assessed to be greater than the risk of being damaged by the state, protection against the latter might be sacrificed to secure protection against the former. The scales in that assessment have changed over the last two decades—a period of relatively benign governments and domestic peace but rising threats from external sources.

But historian Yuval Noah Harari offers a sobering example of where technology might take state protection. He foresees “under-the-skin surveillance” that would enable the state not just to track an individual’s location but to monitor their reaction to news. Algorithms could predict the likelihood of an individual committing terrorism or breaching pandemic restrictions. The state might then take appropriate action against potential offenders. History and the experts tell us that once the state assumes surveillance powers, they can be difficult to reverse.

The calls on the state for greater economic protection are at least as strong as those for greater physical protection. This is hardly surprising given two major recessions within just a dozen years. These calls take many forms and are often ideologically neutral—from higher wages and more generous welfare benefits to tax concessions and more industry subsidies. The price of all this economic protection receives much less attention. The apparent ease with which governments have taken on colossal debt to fight the latest downturn has encouraged many to think that the state’s capacity to borrow is virtually limitless and practically costless. Philip Stephens, journalist and director of the editorial board of the Financial Times, perfectly captures the spirit of the times:

To watch governments throw trillions of dollars into the fight to prevent economic collapse is to appreciate just how absurd was the preoccupation of recent decades with balanced budgets, public deficits, and debt-to-GDP ratios.

Capitalism clearly remains the best system for ensuring the efficient allocation of resources, but the last 20 years have seen our current version of it stumble badly. The Great Recession revealed many weaknesses—dangerous volatility, speculative derivatives markets, and institutions “too big to fail.” Now the coronavirus pandemic has revealed many more—supply chain fragility, consequential inequality, and the precarious nature of the gig economy. This recent history will make it difficult for states to resist calls for ever-greater regulation, higher taxation, trade protectionism, and government spending. Change is needed, but liberal democratic states should be wary of going too far down that path in order to meet public demands for economic protection.

Be careful what you wish for

Social commentator David Brooks argues that “the plague today is an invisible monster, but it gives birth to a better world.” Let’s hope he’s right. But we need to recognise that this is a moment of danger for liberal democracy. Its citizens have experienced growing physical and economic threats over the last two decades. This has made many of them fearful and insecure. They want more state protection, and they might get it from politicians who want their votes. The risk is that doing so would eliminate some of the precious rights and freedoms that made liberal democracy “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” in the first place. Protection at the cost of a planned economy and a surveillance state would be no protection at all.


Ross Stitt is a freelance writer. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of Sydney. You can follow him on Twitter @ross_stitt.

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash.


  1. A quick point of order- in relation to weather events and many of the other extreme natural disasters we are constantly bombarded with- the IPCC has low confidence that any of the events have been caused by climate change, although it is likely that some have been exacerbated somewhat. Regardless, the answer is to increase material wealth and well-being, as the casualties for relatively developed nations in these scenarios is negligible.

    And there’s the rub, because, although the media hasn’t covered it extensively, the global disruption to supply systems caused by COVID has doubled the number of people in the developing world living in food insecurity from 130 million to 260 million, when the bulk of those experiencing food insecurity before were experiencing it before. If there is positive thing COVID can teach us, beyond our general state of unpreparedness and the fragility of our supply systems, it that any attempt to impose the type of consumer austerity which some advocate would also have the unintended consequence of plunging the worlds most poor and vulnerable into absolute poverty.

    If we don’t want to see a reversal of the over one billion people raised out of absolute poverty by markets and capitalism, then we must understand that the emphasis should be on shifting to sustainable industries and converting our container fleets to less harmful fuels. Apart from anything else, switching from synthetics to crops such as cotton in the textiles industry, for example, represents a rather smart from of sequestration.

  2. A recital of trite redundance. Planted axioms, contradictions, non sequitur, a maze really. It is to be expected “political science” will produce this sort of thing by default.

    The academy is not going to help you, people. It is a time for frame breakers, and idol smashers. They are not going to be right every time, just as academics are not going to be wrong every time, but they will help you most at this time.

    There is blood in the streets.

  3. Yes it is state protection that is a threat to liberal democracy. State protection is a product of conservative thought and action. If all ruling power was based in the federal government any threat to liberty could be counteracted by a single federal law or rules which only takes the winning over of just the federal governing body. For instance if all rules came form the federal legislator the current George Floyd incident could have been solved a long time ago, no later than 2009-10 when the democrats had all three branches of the federal government. But, no, the states had control of the police and who it interacts with the public especially the minority communities. With central control there would be only one way for the locals to react to the public. This same idea can be used in every aspect of local life. Central control would mean that every citizen and resident legal or not would be treated the same as every other person. The same would be for gender choice, sexual orientation and even social aid to those who need it. All would be treated. Even resources could be moved form areas where resources are greater to the areas where resources are lesser.
    Every one would be treated equally, each would receive what is need and would contribute what they can!

  4. Help me understand, please, what would be the magic mantra in federal law that would “solve” the “George Floyd incident”?

    If you are being ironic, bravo! this is polished, consummate irony. :slight_smile:

  5. Neither the state, nor protection as concepts have been taken seriously by the author.

    What is the state and its relation to protection? What is a liberal democracy? Without clarity as to either, the article depends on readers’ ideological frame for its arguments.

    The problem (the article’s question raises) is “preference substitution” - freedom vs state coercive control. To what extent should the state substitute individual decisions with over-riding directives? As to why, the question is the extent to which the state knows better, assuming human agency can be ignored. What extent, rate of coercive suppression of risky behavior is acceptable?

    The rhetorical templates center around rights over freedom, competing rights, maximizing health, maximizing wealth distribution etc - to each partisan, their own.

    Within the notion of preference substitution the COVID-19 pandemic should be viewed as:

    Writing on March 17, Ioannidis had this to say (link):

    That huge range markedly affects how severe the pandemic is and what should be done. A population-wide case fatality rate of 0.05% is lower than seasonal influenza. If that is the true rate, locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational. It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps off a cliff and dies.

    Could the Covid-19 case fatality rate be that low? No, some say, pointing to the high rate in elderly people. However, even some so-called mild or common-cold-type coronaviruses that have been known for decades can have case fatality rates as high as 8% when they infect elderly people in nursing homes. In fact, such “mild” coronaviruses infect tens of millions of people every year, and account for 3% to 11% of those hospitalized in the U.S. with lower respiratory infections each winter.

    Governments chose to substitute individual threat assessments (billions of people, and their individual choices) with its dictates. The author like many attributes the economic carnage to the pandemic (ominous sounding word meaning nothing except widespread disease without regard to severity):

    Now the coronavirus pandemic has revealed many more—supply chain fragility, consequential inequality, and the precarious nature of the gig economy. This recent history will make it difficult for states to resist calls for ever-greater regulation, higher taxation, trade protectionism, and government spending. Change is needed, but liberal democratic states should be wary of going too far down that path in order to meet public demands for economic protection.

    Throughout the essay this is the pattern. The author does not recognize who is the object of protection. Who is the state protecting against? Be it terrorism, to financial recessions, extreme debt, the cause-effect is completely ignored.

    COVID-19, and the state response to it was business as usual - It wasn’t an aberration, not an extraordinary response to an extraordinary situation.

    Protection isn’t protection when it is internecine warfare between cliques wielding, and enjoying the fruits of state capture.

  6. Protection/security was initially about conflict with other nations. Government was to secure rights, not to ensure no bad outcomes, including disease, could arise. Death was accepted.

    Government was to create equal protection, not tiered laws that benefit some at the expense of others and nobody was above the law.

    Government was to tax all the same to provide for the common good.

    Government clearly cannot stop bad things from happening, but it can create a legal framework so free people can plan accordingly and get relief after being abused by others who break those laws. Winners advanced society; losers were an example not to follow or to learn from. Government was about ensuring a stable and level playing field, not helping some players at the expense of others (aka “cheating”) and constantly changing the rules to satisfy mob rule (democracy).

    All of these western values are no longer of interest in the west. China and Singapore may be the real future…capitalist totalitarianism. Today, rights, liberty and equality are not even defined as used for hundreds of years. Like how “defund” apparently doesn’t mean to stop funding. Rights now include being given free things that others are forced to provide; you have rights to expensive and everyday things (housing, food, clothing, education, medical care and medicines, jobs). Liberty means being free from want. Equality means equal opportunities so all have the same starting line, along with a belief that this will also lead to equal outcomes.

    Why bother fight for liberty and equal protection when there is no culture worth saving? Perhaps most prefer to be a content slave following orders than to be a struggling free person responsible for choices freely made. The future can decide for itself whether those wester values were actually wise and fight for them back. At least then, bravery, struggle, self-determination and pride will be in play again.

  7. Yeah, I don’t think that Mtumbe hoeing his yams is going to die if I don’t buy another mobile phone or walk instead of driving. The Western world brought itself up out of illiterate manual labour subsistence farming without anyone else having to buy lots of useless junk, I think the Third World can do that, too.

    Now to the article.

    Surveilling citizens can help in the fight against terrorists, but it reduces privacy.

    It actually doesn’t help much. Blanket surveillance rarely catches anyone doing anything serious, that’s what targeted surveillance is for. We know blanket surveillance is useless, because like torture, if it weren’t then the government would be screaming its success to the heavens, “and this is the guy we caught that way!” The absence of any such examples tells us it’s useless. But targeted surveillance does work - they get a tip, they focus on someone. And that’s why we’ve long had search warrants of various kinds.

    In order to provide physical and economic protection to its citizens, a liberal democratic state must transgress core liberal tenets like privacy, freedom, and respect for private property.

    Yes, but not as much as is commonly supposed these days. Taking the surveillance example again, we managed to get through a global war against two genocidal totalitarian regimes without anywhere near as much surveillance and restrictions of civil liberties as we have now against a much smaller threat.

    Likewise, we previously assured a good quality of life for the poor with a much smaller fraction of a much smaller national product. Taking Australia as an example,


    Now, I think we can agree that the state of education, healthcare and general infrastructure in 1900 was probably lower than most of us would like to live with. So government doing 5% of the economic work is not enough. But how about the 1950s, was is so awful then? And bear in mind too that 20% of 1955’s GDP was a lot less than 20% of today’s.

    In everything there exists diminishing returns - and eventually diminishing returns become negative returns. Around Australia, for example, state schools get ongoing spending of $10-$18k per student. And the interesting thing is that the worse-performing schools get more money - they’re trying to boost their performance. The thing is that it doesn’t work very well. Once you have a qualified teacher, a blackboard, a rain-proof room with some chairs and desks, and pencil and paper - well, that’s most of the difference schools can make, because it mostly comes down to the parents’ background and involvement. We could double spending on schools but we wouldn’t find the students all finishing high school at nine years old.

    Much the same applies for healthcare, public transport, military equipment, and so on and so forth. You do need a certain minimum amount of spending for a decent quality of life, but past that you get diminishing returns, and a lot of self-serving bureaucrats producing nothing.

    As an example, this week my son went back to school after 11 weeks of being homeschooled during the lockdown. On the first day back, a note appeared in the his diary that the deputy principal wanted him to have an official schoolbag. We never bothered getting one because our son loses and breaks things, and the official ones are expensive, and anyway the uniform policy has shirt, trousers etc required, but the schoolbags only encouraged. The deputy principal followed this up with a phone call to my wife this morning.

    But note: the children have had 11 weeks away from school. Some of them have seen their parents’ marriages break up. A very few know someone who’s died from covid. They haven’t seen their grandparents in 3 months, and barely seen their friends, and those only in the last couple of weeks. Some are stressed from their parents’ stress, some are stressed on their own behalf. They’ve missed 11 weeks of school. Some students will have thrived under homeschooling and really be ready to skip a school year, others will be miles behind and need extra help. There’s a global pandemic.

    Amidst all this drama, and nearly 400 students to deal with, this guy found time in his day - in two of his days, in fact - to address first in writing then in a phone call the important issue of my son’s schoolbag.

    I can say with confidence that the portion of the school’s budget going to his salary could safely be slashed without compromising the welfare or education of the students. He has nothing better to do. The teacher wasn’t concerned, and in fact in years of his being there, no teacher has previously commented on it. That’s because teachers are busy doing something more important - actually teaching. Which is, you know, the purpose of the place.

    As you increase spending on things like healthcare and defence and education, you are able to hire many intelligent and useful people, and buy some useful things. But you also find that useless people and useless equipment weasel their way into your system and make themselves a place there.

    This is of course Pournelle’s Iron Law,

    Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people":

    First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

    Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

    The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.

    Now, Kyle’s Corollary to Pournelle’s Iron Law states,

    Past a certain point, increasing the budget tends only to increase the number of people in the second group.

    This is derived from Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, who managed to improve the quality of life in his city while spending less than a Western city mayor would spend on a few miles of tram line, who said,

    “If you want creativity, take a zero off your budget. If you want sustainability, take off two zeros.”

    And we can see this in our everyday lives, too. Why is it that people in my dusty garage gym with some $5,000 worth of gear get better results than people in globogyms with $500,000 of gear? Because humans do badly when we have too many choices. Constraints lead to success. In a globogym I can use this piece of equipment, or that, or go to this class, or that, or… or… or… and so I end up doing nothing. In a garage gym with a barbell and plates, I can… er… well, squat, press and pull. That’s about it. And so I set to it and do it.

    Constraints are what leads to success, but we in the West are constantly demanding to have no constraints. And this comes back to Geary’s comment, which is a demand for no constraints on consumption. But as we have seen, unconstrained consumption and spending do not lead to good outcomes.

    Now, simply reducing spending on things would not necessarily improve them. After all, at my son’s school, who would be deciding where to cut spending? The principal and deputy principal. And like the CEO with the company needing to make cuts, it would never occur to them to make themselves redundant. They’d simply find the most annoying teacher and get rid of them - and the most annoying teacher is probably the one who tells them to shut the fuck up about schoolbags and other irrelevant nonsense and leave her alone to teach the kids. And so, in a dysfunctional system (one which has fallen to Pournelle’s Iron Law), cutting spending only increases the proportion of useless unproductive freeloaders.

    What’s needed in such a case is simply to wipe the slate clean and start again. If I said, “I want you to start a school,” and I gave you a piece of land with a powered watered building on it and $100,000 for staff, would you start by hiring a deputy principal? How about a groundskeeper? A diversity co-ordinator? A chaplain? Well, no - you’d hire a competent teacher. Maybe you’d even figure out some offer like letting them lodge in the building and hire two.

    Now, obviously we don’t often have the chance to start again from scratch. But it is nonetheless a useful exercise. Australia’s income tax system has 6,000 pages in it. If you were to write an income tax system from scratch, would you need 6,000 pages? No, that’s simply what’s accumulated over the years as people asked for special consideration and exceptions and bonuses, some politician bribed some small fraction of the electorate to get himself back in - and that politician is long gone, and that small fraction has long forgotten about him and moved on to other issues.

    In other words, we certainly need a state to provide for our collective welfare, the common good. But I think we need less of a state, not more. Likewise, we need to consume, but given that two-thirds of the West are overweight or obese, most of us need to consume less, not more.

    Constraints make lives better.

  8. I thought Curly4 was being ironic. No-one could possibly believe all that stuff, could s/he?

  9. I read until “…global warming … has resulted in more frequent and more extreme fires, droughts, and storms” and stopped. I know a lot of places, which publish these outright lies. Why shall I add Quillette to them?

  10. Individual violent interference predates nations.

    You seem to mean freedom, from your post. The concept of a “right” inevitably relies on outcomes, notwithstanding the mental gymnastics usually resorted to.

  11. “Protection against terrorism.” One of those things that often come up immediately. Obvious task for the government, right? We should be foolish not to to give the intelligence service some more power to protect us from this apocalyptic threat called terrorism.

    The practice: terrorism is completely insignificant as a cause of death compared to practically any other cause and “protection against terrorism” has paved the way for the NSA tapping about every phone in the world, and a number of Western armies wasting lives, money, and time in Afghanistan, only to increase the likelihood of terror attacks.

    The real joke: a government is not even capable of providing protection against terrorism.

    From Robert Conquest, ‘Reflections on a Ravaged Century’, 1999:

    It is not enough to show that a situation is bad; it is also necessary to be (1) reasonably certain that the problem has been properly described, (2) fairly certain that the proposed remedy will improve it, and (3) virtually certain that it will not make it worse.

    PS: in the Iraq case, Bush failed at step (1).

  12. The facts on the ground would tend to contradict your assertion:

    Every successful country in the world went through a period where, in order to bootstrap themselves up into a developed economy, they needed to sell their labour and agricultural surpluses in order to transition. There are literally South East Asian economies which a generation ago had 14 year olds making trainers in factories, which are fully developed by Western standards and now have significant sectors employing the type of very high value labour, which Government Revenue Services drool over.

    Plus, many analysts overestimate the broader value of capital generation at the expense of undervaluing the broader benefit of productive labour. This is a mistake, because otherwise how did China manage to transform itself into an economic superpower, when the wafer thin 6% profit margins from their manufacturing exports barely covered risk, inflation and taxation?

    As stated in my previous post, I don’t think we can continue on our current course of consumption, but if we were to aim for more sustainable methods of production, such as shifting from synthetics to cotton wherever possible, then Africa would be one of the main beneficiaries. Without comparative advantage, trade and the ability to sell the goods created by productive labour, then we are finished as a global civilisation.

    The impact of consumer austerity would be incalculably worse for those in the Developing World than in the Western World, where at least socialist style compulsory work schemes and would ensure subsistence living. For those in the Developing World the evaporation of labour paired with a total lack of social safety nets would be a domino collapse plunging them back into absolute poverty. Remember Africans wouldn’t be growing cocoa beans, if they had better sources of employment. Besides which, the cocoa bean might not be worth a great deal at source, but it creates a huge amount of value as it is transformed into consumer goods.

    If we really want a more sustainable future, we should lobby Amazon to allow us to search for white and brown goods by manufacturers warranty. I’m pissed off with buying fridges which have shelves that collapse after five years, or doors that fall off after ten. Until recently, I had a fridge that was the same age as me, which had lasted for over forty years. Designed obsolescence was a con, even before we started thinking about the carbon footprint of manufacturing and the fact that many commodities, like copper, are becoming scarcer and scarcer.

    Globalisation might have had an incredibly negative effect on the working and lower middle classes in the Developed World, but for the world’s poorest it has been nothing short of miraculous:


  13. It is more noxious than the statistical irrelevance, the absolute lack of justification. Terrorism is parasitical on state patronage. Criminal offences with some (state recognized) political demands = terrorism. A peculiar feature of so called liberal democracies, where thugs by virtue of their claimed motivation wield more power than the entire population.

    Most officials, if one looks carefully, recognize what terrorism is about. That it depends on the state and media working together to be effective. They know intuitively that terrorism is terrorism because it is treated as such.

    You can’t suppress crime. The most effective protection against terrorism is to refuse the invitation to cooperate with the propaganda attempt. That should be the real insight attributable to the Conquest quote re terror.

    The “War” on Terror simply elevated a motley group of half-state financed would be losers to world prominence, on a supposedly equal footing with the USA (the exact outcome AQ desired). Rather humiliating for states to compare themselves to terrorists.

  14. Especially in less liberal countries the word “terrorism” is subject to hyperinflation.

  15. “Can” and “will” are two very different things. The fact is that these people have been conditioned over recent years to build smartphones because it was more lucrative. And as we discovered when 3M failed to instantaneously increase PPE output a hundred-fold, it is not easy to transition to a new economy.

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