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Properties of Successful Failed States

I've honestly never found much to get worked up over about neoreaction, one way or another. To some of my more rightish acquaintances, it's a breath of fresh air, while some of my more leftish acquaintances think it's the next great bogeyman (one wonders if the spectre of a Koch brother stumbling across Moldbug keeps them up at night). I just reflect on the political theory course I took from the reasonable Dr. Ross Lence (RIP, 2006, as it turns out) lo these many years ago, and think, We've been here before, and we'll be here again.

The main thrust of the neoreactionary argument, as I see it — or, at least the part that interests me — is that the cost of a state failing is so catastrophically large that it's really worth looking critically at how various forms of state-level organisation have emerged, risen, and fallen in the past. After all, we have actual data now on how monarchies, republics, dictatorships, and so on have weathered war, environmental disaster, economic instability, domestic instability, and other disasters — or not, as the case may be. Why shouldn't we use that to inform our decisions about how we build resilience into our social structures? Buckminster Fuller would be proud.

What I question, though, is one of the fundamental assumptions: is it necessarily all that costly for a state to fail? I'm pretty convinced the answer to this question is "no, depending on how the state is set up to handle failure." But in order to explain why, first let's talk about mail servers.

Dan Bernstein, aka djb, is the author of several highly regarded implementations of various useful things, including a DNS server, djbdns, and a mail server, qmail. The services djb writes are lightweight, secure, and not as widely used as they ought to be. That last is due to a principled design decision on djb's part that unfortunately conflicts with a lot of people's intuitions about how software ought to work: crash-only design. Crash-only design is a brute-force-and-ignorance way to satisfy Tony Hoare's dictum that the most important property of a program is that it accomplish the intentions of its user: if a process hangs, or otherwise enters an inconsistent state, it dies (or is killed by a watchdog process) and respawns in some previous known-good state, rather than trying to flail its way from somewhere in failure-space back to working order. Anything exceptional is regarded as antithetical to accomplishing the intentions of the user, as the user's intentions can only be accomplished if the service is working normally. "Time to working order" is therefore one of the variables in a process-failure scenario that you want to minimise. If you don't know how long it might take a service to recover from exceptional circumstances, it's hard to plan around that: how many inbound requests do you queue? what do other services that need it do in the meantime? But with crash-only software, "time to working order" is however long the process takes to respawn. You want it not to crash at all, but if it loses the plot, you want it to give up and restart quickly to avoid downtime.

"Brute force and ignorance" isn't an insult there, incidentally. No matter how stupid an approach sounds, if it works, it isn't stupid. There have even been serious, well-reasoned proposals for building entire crash-only systems, composed from components which understand "on" and "off" and are designed to flip from one to the other as quickly as possible.

I bring all this up because Belgium effectively has a crash-only cabinet.

The Kingdom of Belgium is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy, politically well to the left of the US but somewhat to the right of Scandinavia. Like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, our monarch's duties are mostly ceremonial, but unlike either of these, our monarch has also had to perform non-ceremonial duties in recent memory.

We've talked about Duverger's law here before, with respect to its failure case that the US experiences: in a first-past-the-post electoral system, "successful" voting eventually comes to mean "voting for one of two major-party candidates," and eventually the legislature settles into 50-50 deadlock. Belgium gets the other one. Seats in parliament are allocated proportional to the number of votes that various parties receive, which leads to a proliferation of smaller parties. The members of Parliament then have to figure out how to form a coalition of at least 50% of the seats, with the extra hitch that any seats filled by a member of a party with a cordon sanitaire around it still counts as a seat, but nobody will accept that member into a coalition. If they can't reach that 50% threshold — including if a party pulls out of a coalition later — then we don't have a cabinet and everything deadlocks.

Except we also have a watchdog process, and its name is "the monarch." If Parliament can't form a coalition, one of the royal powers that's effectively ceremonial under normal circumstances suddenly becomes really, really important. After every federal election, the monarch normally appoints a formateur to manage the process of appointing cabinet ministers. Typically the formateur is also the person expected to become prime minister, which is why this is normally a formality. But if a coalition collapses, the monarch can nominate a new formateur to establish a new cabinet, sometimes repeatedly. The cabinet was down for 589 days in 2010-2011, and it took eight tries to reboot it.

The really interesting thing about this is that not a lot of people seemed to mind all that much. A lot of politicians had soundbites about how embarrassing it was, and given that between 2007 and 2011 we had no cabinet for a total of over two years your odds of reading a "Belgium still doesn't have a government" article were pretty good if it was a slow news day, but that was about it. The postal service still operated, the military (and federal police, which we have and the US doesn't) still got paid, national parks were still open — none of the infrastructural hostage-taking that's starting to become business as usual in US budget deadlocks happened here. Beer and chocolate did not instantaneously morph into warlords and AK-47s simply because the cabinet process failed. If the executive is the State, then by that definition, Belgium has failed repeatedly within the lifetime of the average third grader.

A pedant, of course, would point out that since the monarch is the official head of state, no constitutional monarchy can fail unless the monarchy also fails. I'll accept that, and it's certainly not lost on me that I started out talking about neoreaction and am currently tolling the advantages of monarch-as-watchdog-process. I'm not sure what happens if something triggers a succession crisis during a coalition collapse (let's assume the least convenient possible world, where the entire succession hierarchy gets taken out in one shot like in that one John Goodman flick). In reality, though, it's probably something rather prosaic, like $MOST_SENIOR_SURVIVING_MINISTER stepping up into the functional role of "person who appoints the formateur" and business continuing as usual.

My point is: the day-to-day business of governance is all about continuity planning. If your government has taken responsibility for roads, or mail delivery, or power generation, it is the job of a wide variety of different people to make sure that the roads stay driveable, the mail gets delivered, or the lights stay on. More importantly, though, the processes they carry out are functionally, and should be operationally, separate from other processes like "what a cabinet does." Enforcing operational separation is a win for stability precisely because it disincentivises hostage-taking, but also because it facilitates crash-only design: if a service is becoming unstable, you bounce the damn thing, and you don't endanger the stability of the rest of the system.

Where I part from the neoreactionaries is that I don't think you necessarily have to have a monarchy, or really any form of autocracy, as the watchdog for crash-only governance to work. But this gets into a long comparative analysis between, at the very least, the Belgian, Dutch, and British monarchies, and so I think that will be another story for another time.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 14th, 2015 04:45 pm (UTC)
Your primary topic made me think about James C. Scott, and especially about his The Art of Not Being Governed, which discusses a wide swath of territory across parts of Asia where the state has only a marginal foothold and local customs enable resistance to it. At a different level, I'm reminded of Tolkien's portrayal of the Shire, which has a regular business of government headed by the Mayor, but also has a nearly completely separate system headed by the Thain and embodied in the Shire-Moot and Shire-Muster.

However, I don't think what you have in Belgium is what is meant by "failed state." I think what you describe is "failed government," which is not the same thing.

Edited at 2015-03-14 04:47 pm (UTC)
Mar. 15th, 2015 12:41 pm (UTC)

To me, it feels like something in between. "Failed government," at least the way I understand it, is something that happens pretty routinely in a multi-party parliamentary democracy (whenever a government loses the confidence of the house), and which is normally recovered from by holding new elections (although it could also be repaired through the formation of a new governing coalition within the current parliament). The Belgian situation of going for over a year and a half without even being able to form a government in the first place, is different from a normal failure of government at least in degree, if not necessarily in kind.

The fact that the Belgian bureaucracy is able to go on providing basic services even when a year and a half goes by without anyone being in a position to draft and pass a proper budget is a fine testament to the robustness of the system—more so, I think, than the role of the monarch in repeatedly appointing formateurs. (I think things might work out pretty similarly if the party leaders all just scrounged around for coalition partners in parallel.) On the other hand, I kind of agree that that robustness means that Belgium hasn't actually failed as a state, although I could see a failed state resulting from an even longer period without a government. (For example, what happens if significant numbers of top bureaucrats retire while there's no one with the authority to appoint their replacements?)

May. 11th, 2015 07:36 am (UTC)
I confess my use of "failed state" here comes from a friend's description on Twitter of Belgium as the most successful failed state in history. (I think it was in response to some slow-news-day bit of hyperbolised international coverage.)

A Facebook acquaintance remarked the other day:

In physics, power is the rate of doing work. It's fair to say that, since Congress seems incapable of doing any work, it is actually powerless. What it does instead is produce friction - waste heat. Enough heat and friction will collapse any mechanical system.

Failing to recognize this isn't anything as fancy as being anti-science. It's just ignorance in engineering.

Obviously there is a good deal of snark in this, but there's a useful observation here: physical work gets wasted in all kinds of ways (heat, sound, deformation of the tool/surface/&c), and there's more than one thing we mean, or should be meaning, when we talk about government waste.
Sep. 18th, 2016 07:59 pm (UTC)
Incidentally, I have since read The Art of Not Being Governed, and have found myself referring to it often. Thanks again for the recommendation!
Mar. 14th, 2015 04:54 pm (UTC)

Alternatively, "God save Mrs Ethel Shroake..." http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0064074/plotsummary?ref_=m_tt_ov_pl

Mar. 14th, 2015 05:59 pm (UTC)
The death blow to transhumanists' pipe dream?
It is ironic that you, of all people, should deliver the death blow to the transhumanists' pipe dream about immortality (which they share with every other sufficiently powerful and oppressive ruling class for the last one? two?? five??? millennia): humans themselves are a crash-only design.
John Edwards Cummings
May. 2nd, 2015 08:09 am (UTC)
Re: The death blow to transhumanists' pipe dream?
Now this is decidedly untrue.

Human body and mind are very demonstrably a kind of systems that, upon suffering a failure, would very much do its best to skeedadle towards some semblance of operational state (oftentimes it does not succeed and is left in a state of reduced functionality/stability till eventual termination)

Also, the question of "immortality" gets interesting if you can "quickly restart" (is the "restarted" you, uh, "you"? Is there any meaningful difference between waking up and being restored from a backup? What if every time we go to sleep our mind "crashes", and whatever "starts up" next morning is an entirely new thing that just happens to think it is the same as "yesterday-us" due to sharing the predecessor's memories?) :p

Edited at 2015-05-02 08:09 am (UTC)
Mar. 14th, 2015 07:23 pm (UTC)
this post is better than anything coming out of actual "nrx" discussion and writing.
Mar. 15th, 2015 06:29 am (UTC)
I suspect Belgium does better because its bureaucracy is designed to work without political oversight. The USA would rather most agencies NOT keep functioning in the absence of politicians giving explicit permission to keep going (in the form of budget authority). We're more afraid of tyrrany-failure than anarchy-failure.
Mar. 16th, 2015 01:23 am (UTC)
eh, we let 'crats run amok without politician oversight, though. The American 'crat-cy has evolved to smoothly subvert any wishes of specific politicians. Foseti of all people had some interesting posts on this on his defunct blog (if it's still up).
Mar. 15th, 2015 10:59 pm (UTC)

Your "main thrust" takeaway is novel!

For me, the main NRx thrust is about ruler incentives across each fairly typical year-to-year (not mostly about regime-change-crisis-proofing; though that's a great topic & deserves more attention).

When rulers (actual persons) know that they're likely out of office real soon (because coalitions keep shifting), they tend to take everything that's not nailed down & neglect/damage the things that are nailed down. NRx at heart claims that reliable continuity-of-governing-power usually produces better Stationary Bandit (as opposed to Roving Banditry) incentives.

In the West, most of the time we get surprisingly decent democratic rulers. They're far from great stewards, but they're not blatantly Roving.

When we successfully export/impose "democracy" to other places where it's newer (places that have much less cultural defenses to its particular Roving-logic built up over centuries), we often sadly watch its vicious incentives in much fuller flower.
Mar. 19th, 2015 02:56 am (UTC)
Seems to me that while what you are saying is true of the West is true of Western Europe, it is not as true of the Americas.
John Edwards Cummings
May. 1st, 2015 10:13 pm (UTC)
To the best of my understanding of neoreactionaries (and I admit that I would probably have a better chance of comprehending the thought process of an octopus or establishing a cultural bond with a xerobiological space alien with plasma-dust based metabolism*), they aren't very good at researching the mechanics of state/society failure.

There is precious little historical data suggesting that the things "neoreaction" alligns itself against (things like reproductive rights, sexual liberation and normalization of non-heterosexual behaviors, friendly immigration policies and support towards "racial"** minorities, equal rights for women, you know the drill) have caused a catastrophic failure of any past empire (usually "neoreactionaries" like to say the word "Rome" at this point, at which point it is most comfortable to remind them that "Rome" was at its peak while being a "pagan" society, and was deeply "christianized" by the time of its demise. That usually causes "neoreactionaries" to blow a figurative fuse)

It would be perfectly fine if "neoreaction" was a study in understanding (and / or preventing) State failure.

However it is not a study, or at least, not a study of state failure.

I could of course proceed to speculate what it might be a study of, but like I said, I have better chances of truly comprehending the thoughts of an octopus.

* The dust/plasma alien is not an entirely made-up thingie

** "Race" on the other hand is almost entirely a made-up thingie, in the sense that there is no reliable, non self-contradicting definition of "race" that would cover all groups traditionally believed to be distinct "races" and would simultaneously correspond to a meaningful biological taxonomic category.
May. 11th, 2015 06:52 am (UTC)
I confess I don't read much of the calls to align against $ONE_THING_OR_ANOTHER; I treat it as social signaling toward a thede I'm not part of, and therefore don't give it my attention. But, as I just alluded, I cherry-pick ideas where I find them useful; I'm still sorting out my thoughts on what (if any) the differences are between "thede" and "affinity group", for instance.

So, perhaps I'm being charitable by dint of looking only for the stuff I find interesting, which is kind of a funny way for that cognitive bias to work out. ("How systems fail" is a cross-cutting interest for me.) I have also had several long and really pretty interesting conversations with Moldbug about computability theory (we randomly ended up at the same multi-day event), and there are threads of that in the UR posts I've read. (I have not read the whole thing. Some people write too much even for me.)
John Edwards Cummings
May. 1st, 2015 10:15 pm (UTC)
Comment filter strikes again.

Should I send my DNA to livejournal, or what ?
May. 11th, 2015 06:42 am (UTC)
I figured after I approved one it would keep working, but apparently not. Let's see if adding your Facebook account works. Federation, how does it work? (I haven't actually looked yet.)
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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