Sunday, October 30, 2016

On Maine and Moldbug

Continuing my foray into the illustrious brotherhood of the Froude Society, I’ve been reading Popular Government by Sir Henry Sumner Maine.

To read these books is to see the genesis of Unqualified Reservations – not that these books exactly mirror Moldbug, but one can see where some of the ideas come from. Of course, part of what makes Moldbug so fascinating for most people to read is that the ideas are so radically different to what one normally comes across. One of the meta points of Unqualified Reservations, encapsulated in the dictum to ‘Read Old Books’, is that if one reads the same thing as everyone else, one is likely to think the same thing as everyone else. Sufficiently old ideas when sincerely expressed are apt to strike you as more shocking and new than anything else you will encounter.

And the strongest all-pervading sense wherein Maine (writing in 1885) departs from modernity is his willingness to view democracy with the cold eyes of a political engineer. In the starkest terms possible, Maine writes as if the entire democratic process has no moral component whatsoever, either positive or negative. Voting is not a sacred duty, a fundamental right, an ennobling and dignifying symbol of equality, or any of the other hoary notions that today have been attached to the term. So what is it then?
Political liberty, said Hobbes, is political power. When a man burns to be free, he is not longing for the "desolate freedom of the wild ass" ; what he wants is a share of political government.

Can you imagine a more bracing tonic than that? When you say “I want to be free” or wear your “I voted” sticker, you are really saying “I covet political power”. Not so ennobling when phrased that way, is it? There is nothing wrong with power, of course. Someone has to have it. But the pursuit of it is hardly considered a morally virtuous cause.

Democracy, then, is merely one of a number of possible ways of governing the state, whose outcomes should be judged solely on those terms:
There is no word about which a denser mist of vague language, and a larger heap of loose metaphors, has collected. Yet, although Democracy does signify something indeterminate, there is nothing vague about it. It is simply and solely a form of government. It is the government of the State by the Many, as opposed, according to the old Greek analysis, to its government by the Few, and to its government by One. … Democracy is best described as inverted Monarchy.

We have grown up viewing democracy with a diet of rhetoric that resembles the way that a love poem describes a human body. And here, for the first time, is an anatomy textbook. To a modern western audience, this is a somewhat jarring perspective.

Maine is also unsparing in pointing out where the democratic principle, when analysed, fails to make sense. Firstly, if the people are actually wise in their judgments, why do their judgments have to be laundered through the process of first electing representatives, to whom are delegated general decision-making authority? This argument becomes even more forceful as the possibility of online elections makes frequent plebiscites cheaper and more practical. As Maine notes
The arguments of the French Liberal party against the Plebiscite, during the twenty years of stern despotism which it entailed upon France, have always appeared to me to be arguments in reality against the very principle of democracy.


Similar important questions get raised by the existence of second legislative chambers, such as Senates, which have different electoral rules to the lower Houses.
Nothing brings out so clearly as does this class of contrivances a fundamental doubt afflicting the whole Democratic theory. It is taken for granted that a popular electorate will be animated by a different spirit according as it is grouped; but why should there be any connection between the grouping of the People and the Voice of the People? The truth is, that as soon as we begin to reflect seriously on modes of practically applying the democratic principle, we find that some vital preliminary questions have never been settled. Granting that the People is entitled of right to govern, how is it to give its decisions and orders? …
Vox Populi may be Vox Dei, but very little attention shows that there never has been any agreement as to what Vox means or as to what Populus means. 

Maine also has some brilliant analyses of the flaws of direct democracy, though a powerful comparison to the jury system. It is a long passage, but one worth quoting in full:
We have in England a relic of the ancient Popular Justice in the functions of the Jury. The Jury-technically known as the "country"-is the old adjudicating Democracy, limited, modified, and improved, in accordance with the principles suggested by the experience of centuries, so as to bring it into harmony with modern ideas of judicial efficiency. The change which has had to be made in it is in the highest degree instructive. The Jurors are twelve, instead of a multitude. Their main business is to say "Aye" or "No" on questions which are doubtless important, but which turn on facts arising in the transactions of everyday life. In order that they may reach a conclusion, they are assisted by a system of contrivances and rules of the highest artificiality and elaboration. An expert presides over their investigations-the Judge, the representative of the rival and royal justice-and an entire literature is concerned with the conditions under which evidence on the facts in dispute may be laid before them. There is a rigid exclusion of all testimony which has a tendency to bias them unfairly. They are addressed, as of old, by the litigants or their advocates, but their inquiry concludes with a security unknown to antiquity, the summing-up of the expert President, who is bound by all the rules of his profession to the sternest impartiality. If he errs, or if they flagrantly err, the proceedings may be quashed by a superior Court of experts. Such is Popular Justice, after ages of cultivation. 
Now it happens that the oldest Greek poet has left us a picture, certainly copied from reality, of what Popular Justice was in its infancy. The primitive Court is sitting; the question is"guilty" or "not guilty." The old men of the community give their opinions in turn; the adjudicating Democracy, the commons standing round about, applaud the opinion which strikes them most, and the applause determines the decision. The Popular Justice of the ancient republics was essentially of the same character The adjudicating Democracy simply followed the opinion which most impressed them in the speech of the advocate or litigant.
Nor is it in the least doubtful that, but for the sternly repressive authority of the presiding Judge, the modern English Jury would, in the majority of cases, blindly surrender its verdict to the persuasiveness of one or other of the counsel who have been retained to address it.
A modern governing democracy is the old adjudicating democracy very slightly changed.

This is one of the great damning critiques of the modern democratic process. It is obvious to all contemporary readers what a travesty of justice it would be to substitute the modern jury system for the old one. It is also quite apparent that Maine’s final point is right – modern voting for the president looks a lot like ancient Greek justice. Is the fate of an entire people less important than the fate of a single defendant?

It is the interest in these kinds of possible modifications that makes the engineering side of Maine most apparent. While Maine is highly skeptical of democracy by the standards of modernity, by the standards of Moldbug he is actually an optimist. He thinks that democracy can be improved, and its weaknesses at least tempered by good design. For instance, he is optimistic about representative government relative to direct democracy – as he notes, “the effect was to diminish the difficulties of popular government, in exact proportion to the diminution in the number of persons who had to decide public questions.” Similarly, Maine is also enthusiastic about US State constitutions which specify formal procedures for their amendment. This is viewed as being a superior process to the ambiguity of the British process.

With the benefit of 130 years of hindsight, of course, it is easier to observe the failure modes that Maine didn’t foresee. What if, instead of formally amending the constitution, legislatures simply passed laws that exceeded the initial bounds, and then further appointed compliant judges who were on board with the ruling ideology and believed in things like ‘living constitutions’?

Or, more radically, what if the ruling party simply decided to replace the electorate through mass immigration? This has been the story of the latter half of the 20th Century. Maine understood the incentives to modify the franchise, but modifying the population itself was a leap of imagination that even he didn’t consider.

And this is where the comparison with Moldbug becomes instructive. Moldbug is a pessimist about the entire democratic process. Cthulu swims left, as the now famous expression goes. Democracy is, in other words, a fundamentally left wing phenomenon that will sooner or later produce left wing outcomes. As a result, the failure modes themselves are inevitable (according to Moldbug), not merely possible. The franchise will never be stable, as the incentives to expand it will always be present. Maine, for instance, speaks with some praise about Belgian suffrage restrictions that limit the vote to those with an education. That this would be desirable seems highly likely. But would it be stable, even if it were passed? This is the crucial question which Maine doesn’t address, and which Moldbug does quite forcefully in the negative. And when suffrage gets expanded, the decisions will shift to the lowest common denominator, or be usurped by the constant meddling with public opinion. On this last point, Maine agrees – with the mass franchise, leadership will be by “the wire-pullers”, a wonderful description of modern democratic leaders and political operatives. But Maine doesn’t get to the point of outright condemnation. To an engineer, the building that is the American constitution has survived a lot longer than what would have been predicted, and so must have something going for it. In the later stages of the US Empire, this may strike us as optimistic, but we can’t fault Maine for not foreseeing the entire future.

But the comparison with Moldbug is not universally to Moldbug’s advantage. Because, despite the large overlap between their worldviews, the two writers have one important philosophical difference. If Maine is an engineer of government, then Moldbug is more like a scientist of government. A scientist aims to develop a theory that will help him understand the world, from which practical results can then be deduced. An engineer views scientific knowledge as a means to constructing something durable, but it is only a means to an end. Kludges and rules of thumb are acceptable to engineers, but are anathema to scientists, to whom they represent only incomplete understanding.

The engineering side of Maine, which overlaps with the historian side of Froude, depicts political power as something not entirely subject to formula. One can shape it and set rules, but, like an engineer’s buildings, governing structures will eventually collapse, despite the best of intentions. In particular, the question of who holds true power in Maine's descriptions is often difficult to ascertain at any point in time, and there can be considerable ambiguity on that point. For instance, consider Maine’s description of the history of the powers of the English King:
The powers over legislation which the law recognizes in the Crown are its power to veto Bills which have passed both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and its power to dissolve Parliament. The first of these powers has probably been lost through disuse. There is not, at the same time, the smallest reason for supposing that it was abandoned through any inconsistency with popular government. It was not employed, because there was no occasion for employing it.
As to the right to dissolve Parliament by an independent exercise of the royal will, it cannot be quite confidently asserted to have become obsolete. The question has been much discussed in the Colonies which attempt to follow the British Constitutional procedure, and it seems to be generally allowed that a representative of the Crown cannot be blamed for insisting on a dissolution of the Legislature, though his Ministers are opposed to it. It is probable, however, that in this country the object would be practically attained in a different way.

This is a very different world from the world of absolute power, or even absolute certainty about the distribution of power. Even if a King starts with a given set of powers, according to Maine, he may lose them simply through lack of use. And the most shocking word here is ‘probably’. Maine is implying that because the right to dismiss Parliament hasn’t been tested in a while, we actually don’t know if it still would be followed. His descriptions of how the Cabinet ended up arising out of nothing to effectively set the legislative agenda, while the House of Commons mostly ended up questioning the executive branch, is similarly fascinating and nuanced. You can set up a system in a way, and it can actually work in that way for a while, but then at some point things might change in practice, even as the same nominal roles are all there.

This kind of real world ambiguity and nuance is sometimes missing in Moldbug’s writing. The CEO of a neocameral state is described as being all powerful, subject to the possibility of board dismissal. Presumably he can order half the population shot if he wants, unless the board fires him before it gets carried out. He won’t have incentives to do this, of course, and Moldbug makes a convincing argument that this is the only real bulwark against abuses of authority. But if our CEO deems it to be value-maximising, the power is there. Of course, at the moment our neocameral CEO is only a hypothetical figure, and so it's easy to grant him hypothetical absolute power. But how do we know that things will actually work out that way? The critique of neocameralism that usually gets leveled is 'Do we want this to happen, or will it lead to undesirable outcomes?'. But there's a second possible question - 'Even if we do want this, can we actually create it?'. I don't mean rhetorically that it's obvious that we can't, merely that it isn't a given.

In other words, when the rubber hits the road, if the CEO gives the order to fire on the crowd at the football game because he thinks it will increase shareholder value, do the security forces actually shoot? And what happens next if they don't? Until you're a CEO commanding a drone army, there’s only human beings all the way down, and either they follow, or they don’t. Sometimes, you just won’t know until you give the order. And this is a problem that, no matter how much we might like it, I suspect we can’t simply engineer away with cryptographically locked weapons. Moldbug is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, and his imagination of how different forms of government might work is second to none. But there is sometimes an absolutism in his descriptions of how governing arrangements might work that doesn’t seem to fit Maine’s descriptions of the nuances of actual power.

Of course, with the extra century's knowledge to guide us, Maine sometimes falls victim to the same trap, he’s just enamored of different restrictions. In particular, his praise for the way that the US Federal Constitution sets out specific enumerated powers and structures (relative to the ambiguity of the British system) seems to have been optimistic even at the time. If he'd written the book after FDR, I suspect there's a few sections that might read quite differently.

And if there is a general delineation of where Maine seems to be more optimistic about how formal arrangements can limit and define government structures, it is regarding America. His analysis of Britain notes much of the deterioration of democratic governance, and he hadn't yet witnessed the full decline of the previous American governing structures (other than the Civil War, which he addresses relatively briefly, and seems oddly to think of as merely a temporary disruption to the same basic structure). Noting the big difference between the two countries, Maine attributes the relative success and consistency of American governing arrangements to the fact that its powers and structures were formalised, while Britain's were mostly established through tradition and tacit understanding. With the benefit of hindsight, this makes Maine overestimate how much the formal structures actually prevented the same trends, as opposed to perhaps just delaying them somewhat, or maybe even not achieving that. It turns out the piece of paper didn’t restrict government power after all, as Moldbug has been at pains to point out.

But doubt not that Maine is brilliant, and his depictions of the folly and stupidity of the democratic process are incisive and illuminating. Skip the travesty of election coverage these next two weeks and read some Maine instead.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Cognitive Dissonance Judo and the Surprising Malleability of Beliefs

There are few things in this world more stable than a man’s self-image.

You might think, perhaps reasonably, that values and core beliefs are the heart of man – what’s right and wrong, how he ought to act.

You might think, if you’re more scientifically inclined, that facts are the core – bare understanding of the basic reality of the world from which people figure out the rest.

But the psychology of cognitive dissonance doesn’t work that way.

What is stable, rather, is the conception of self. Usually, but not always, this is based on flattery and conceit. I am clever. I am pretty. I am moral. I am loved by those around me (or at least those of good character and judgment).

Whatever you like about yourself, in other words.

And the rest of reality – morals, beliefs, the whole lot – typically gets fitted in around that.  This isn’t to say that morals don’t actually matter, of course. Just that in this fallen world we live in, men make their rationalistions in quite predictable ways.

A beliefs-centred view says that a man starts with morals – that it is wrong to commit adultery, for instance. Believing this, he refuses to cheat on his wife. Having not cheated on his wife, he views himself as a good man and a good husband.

A self-image-centred view says that a man begins with the view that he is a good man and a good husband. He has a tentative view that adultery is wrong, and because he is currently satisfied with his wife (and also because there is no convenient way to have an affair with someone hot), he doesn’t feel the need to cheat on her. Having not cheated on her, he affirms the view that refraining from adultery is an important moral issue, and a key part of what makes him a good husband.

As long as a man doesn’t commit adultery, it’s very hard to tell these possibilities apart.

But what happens when a man’s marriage starts to deteriorate, and he ends up cheating on his wife?
The beliefs-centred view is a Dostoyevsky novel. It says that he will be wracked with guilt, and view himself as being an immoral and unworthy person.

The self-image centred view says that, rather, he will update his views on what is right and wrong to maintain his self-image. Having committed adultery, adultery must not be so bad after all, at least in the circumstances when he has done it. Perhaps it’s okay if the marriage has already broken down. Perhaps it’s okay as long as nobody finds out. Perhaps it’s okay if they were going to get divorced anyway. The beliefs about right and wrong can change. The only thing that can’t change, however, is his view of himself.

Like all models, this simplifies reality. Some people, especially the more introspective and intellectually honest, really do get wracked with guilt after doing bad things. Dostoyevsky didn’t imagine it out of whole cloth.

But looking at the world, how many husbands having affairs seem to be wandering around like Raskolnikov, torn up over their infidelities and unable to get up from bed? Is it more or less than the number that seem to have a spring in their step about finally getting laid again, and don’t seem much troubled by the fact that this flies in the face of the solemn vows they took years earlier?

And all of this has a lot to do with the leftist holiness signaling spirals that seem to characterize the early 21st century so vividly.

In order to gain status over one’s rivals, and signal ever greater fealty to the principles of progressivism, modern society has the need to change one’s opinion suddenly on all sorts of matters, firmly and publicly committing to the new zeitgeist and denouncing those not on board with the program. Cognitive dissonance being what it is, the targets of progressive ire are always those recalcitrants not on board with the current program today- the kulaks still to be beaten. The targets are definitely not the exact same progressives, like themselves, who in prior years held exactly the same views as the reactionaries they now denounce. Ever hear Bill Clinton being publicly seeking forgiveness for signing the Defence of Marriage Act? Ever hear liberals renounce themselves for voting for Barack Obama in 2008 when he opposed gay marriage, even as they renounce those who vote for politicians supporting religious conscience exceptions on gay marriage today?

The need to stay high status trumps the need to stick to one’s beliefs, so the old views get jettisoned. But part of one’s self-image is usually also that one is honest and upright, someone who believes things for good reasons, not a craven fool with no fixed principles who shifts his beliefs with the merest breeze of public opinion. And so having changed views, people are positively eager to forget that they ever held their previous views. Since bare facts about the world are also easy to manipulate in the service of self-image, this turns out to not be hard to do.

As part of my low level troll’s entertainment of provoking leftist cognitive dissonance, I enjoy sometimes asking progressives enamored of the latest fashion, such as transgender bathroom rights, exactly when they started caring about this issue, and why. They almost never have an answer to this. It may be only two years ago, but their mental distortions of ego-preservation are such that these origins are shrouded in mystery, and their own previous worldview is utterly inaccessible to them. What they think now, they must surely have always thought. The alternative would be to admit that their motive for joining this latest moral imperative (even if the current stance is presumed to be correct and virtuous) in fact rests with far baser motives – following fashions, fear of being denounced themselves, signaling their virtue.  And admitting this would defeat the whole purpose.

Sure, when pressed, they can’t think of any actual conversations they held or actions they took on the crucial issue of bathroom policy before, say, 2014. But this was only because they simply hadn’t yet fully comprehended the scale of the injustice. This lack of comprehension until the New York Times came knocking might itself seem to be a blight on their moral record, but rest assured this kind of introspection is highly unusual, and nobody but the most reactionary cynics like myself is in a hurry to point it out either.

Provoking cognitive dissonance is fun, but it won’t change anyone’s mind. If you want to at least have a chance at that, you can’t fight self-image, you need to use it to your advantage. This is the judo strategy – using an opponent’s own momentum against him.

One way to do this is to force progressives to consider that they may not always be the one getting to do the judging, and will one day themselves be the judged.

In other words, take a progressive interlocutor, and ask them the following hypothetical:

Progressive causes change over time. For a long time, nobody cared about gay marriage, then all of a sudden they did. That’s fine. Let’s merely posit the following – that this process will continue. In other words, in 20 or 30 years’ time, it seems likely that progressives will have found some new moral point that they care about passionately, but which people today don’t care about at all. Who knows what it will be specifically, but assume that they will feel about it as strongly then as you, my progressive friend, feel about gay marriage now, and they will see the absence of this cause as a huge injustice. If you need to make it concrete, pick fringe views on some cultural trait and substitute it as needed as the possible change –allowing polygamy or adult incest, breaking up the family unit, lowering the age of consent to 12, mandating veganism, whatever. To be ideal, it has to be something wacky that you’ve probably never thought of, like giving the vote to children, rather than something you’ve already encountered like veganism.

So our progressive of 30 years’ time feels as strongly about this as you do today about gay marriage. You, on the other hand, believe everything that you currently do today. They will view you exactly the same way that you view people who opposed gay marriage in 1986 – as unbelievably hateful and bigoted, part of a society-wide cruelty that is almost unfathomable.

And at last, we have our question. Who’s right in this argument about voting ages or adult incest? Are you, dear progressive, hateful, bigoted and disgusting in ways you don’t even understand today, on issues that you’ve barely given any thought to, for reasons you can’t yet guess? Or is the progressive of 30 years’ time merely taking on extreme views that disrupt a reasonable and understandable social compromise today?

If it’s the latter, are you willing to commit every one of your current views to paper (no matter how infrequently you ponder them) for all the world’s future employers to see, and defend them when the social zeitgeist changes? You might get to be the Brendan Eich of 2025, fired for having an insufficient commitment back in 2016 to the cause of extending US citizenship to everyone on the planet or whatever.

At this point, one is left with only a few options.

Either one actually writes a blank moral cheque to the progressives of the future and says ‘Yes, I am hateful! I am bigoted in ways I don’t even understand! Forgive me, President Chelsea Clinton!’.

Or one admits that these changing views are not actually crucial moral issues, but in fact moral fads and fashions that people follow for reasons other than the inherent justice of the causes at issue. This, if acknowledged, begins the descent down a rabbit hole that ends up a long way from modernity.

Or one says ‘No, I’m pretty comfortable with how society is currently arranged, and don’t wish to upend everything for the whims of the progressive elite of the future’.

In the third instance, congratulations. You’re now a gay marriage opponent in 1986.

Whether this will actually change minds, of course, is far more doubtful. But I have gotten flashes of introspection out of this line of questioning, which may at least somewhat cause them to think twice about the next great trend. That’s the hope, anyway. The path to understanding is rocky and circuitous.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Long Shadow of Decolonialisation

As part of my ongoing attempts to join the illustrious brotherhood of the Froude Society, I’ve been reading ‘The Bow of Ulysses’, by James Anthony Froude.

There’s a lot of fascinating points about the overall state of the West Indies in the late 19th century. But one point that stood out for me, at least up to Chapter 10 where I am now, is the realization that the process of decolonialization started much earlier than I’d thought.

In some sense, this is a specific application of one of Moldbug’s most insightful points – that the world has been getting more left wing for much longer than most people realize. And as a result, many of the social trends that we think of as 20th century phenomena actually have roots that start much earlier. This is the kind of insight that one is likely to get mostly by reading actual historical sources. Without actually going to the original sources, the temptation will always be to just substitute the modern understanding of historical issues.

The typical narrative of decolonialism starts with the only history that most people know – World Wars 1 and 2. Britain successfully defeated the Germans in both cases, but it was so exhausted, bankrupt and out of resources that it lacked the ability and will to maintain its colonies. Hence, it granted them all independence in fairly quick succession. The start of it all seems to have been Home Rule for Northern Ireland in 1922, after which things snowballed.

This is not a silly explanation, and probably has elements of truth to it. It is indeed true, as Wikipedia will confirm, that the height of the British Empire in terms of territory was achieved in 1921

If this is the main explanation, what should we expect to be the mood in 1887, when ‘The Bow of Ulysses’ was written? We arrive on the scene when Britain had an enormous empire, having been militarily dominant in Europe for at least 80 years. Victorian England was apparently jingoistic and patriotic about its Empire, as the story goes. Presumably the Empire was a source of considerable pride and fervor.

But Froude in 1887 paints a very different picture. The West Indies are depicted as being in a state of general decay. Froude contrasts the scene in Granada with the one described by Pere Labat, a Frenchman who had visited a century earlier, and had been optimistic about what the English would make of the colony after taking it from the French:
“The English had obtained Grenada, and this is what they had made of it. The forts which had been erected by his countrymen had been deserted and dismantled; the castle on which we had seen our flag flying was a ruin; the walls were crumbling and in many places had fallen down. One solitary gun was left, but that was honeycombed and could be fired only with half a charge to salute with. It was true that the forts had ceased to be of use, but that was because there was nothing left to defend. ... Nature had been simply allowed by us to resume possession of the island.”
Froude is primarily a historian, rather than a political theorist or an economist. He has a keen eye for the nuance and differences across the various islands he visits. But even in those that have fared better, such as Barbados, there is a strong sense that decay has been building for a long time, due to an interplay of causes:
“The position is painfully simple. The great prosperity of the island [Barbados] ended with emancipation. Barbadoes suffered less than Jamaica or the Antilles because the population was large and the land limited, and the blacks were obliged to work to keep themselves alive. The abolition of the sugar duties was the next blow. The price of sugar fell, and the estates yielded little more than the expense of cultivation.”
Countries have survived economic decline, of course. But in the West Indian colonies, the economic decline has a complex relationship with the declining English population, as Froude tells it, where cause and effect run in both directions. As the islands decay, the English have less economic incentive to remain there, tending to become absentee landlords. This in turn causes their estates to decay further, which reduces the incentives of the remaining English population to stay on the island. At some point, the exodus becomes self-fulfilling – English people leave just because they expect other English people to leave.

Froude’s description of St Vincent captures this mood of slow and inevitable decline very well:
“The prosperity has for the last forty years waned and waned. There are now two thousand white people there, and forty thousand coloured people, and the proportion alters annually to our disadvantage. The usual remedies have been tried. The constitution has been altered a dozen times. Just now I believe the Crown is trying to do without one, having found the results of the elective principle not encouraging, but we shall perhaps revert to it before long; any way, the tables show that each year the trade of the island decreases, and will continue to decrease while the expenditure increases and will increase.”
How many people do you think understand that white flight began not in the 20th century American mid-west, but in the 19th century British Caribbean?

Interestingly, the paragraph above is eerily prescient in that if you alter the frankness of the language and racial attitudes, its descriptions could apply very closely to both Rhodesia and South Africa in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Declining white population relative to the black population? Check.

Slow but inexorable economic decline? Check.

Meddling with governing arrangements to try to maintain the current power structure? Check.

Ultimate futility of such changes? Check.

The St Vincent Ghost of Christmas Future does not look encouraging. It’s not for nothing that my bet about South Africa six years ago is still looking pretty good.

What is remarkable, however, is that both Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia were crushed under the weight of progressive western opinion, even in the teeth of strong efforts from the local white population to maintain the status quo. In the 19th century, there was no hegemon to push around the British Empire, and no major outside country demanding devolution of power (other than London elites). And yet the result was the same anyway. The same red/blue tribal and ideological conflict was playing out internally within London, rather than between Washington and Salisbury.

What is most striking in Froude’s descriptions, even more than the economic aspect of the decline, is the decline of will. Even by 1887, there is the general sense that people have lost the sense of quite what the empire is meant to be for. The West Indian colonies were fought over strongly when sugar was such a lucrative crop that they were valuable as a merely economic proposition. There remains a sense of noblesse oblige in remaining to secure good government for the subjects of these islands. But as the economy declines and the cost of the proposition increases, there arises a general question – what exactly are we doing all this for?
"Languidly charming as it all was, I could not help asking myself of what use such a possession could be either to England or to the English nation. We could not colonise it, could not cultivate it, could not draw a revenue from it. If it prospered commercially the prosperity would be of French and Spaniards, mulattoes and blacks, but scarcely, if at all, of my own countrymen. For here too, as elsewhere, they were growing fewer daily, and those who remained were looking forward to the day when they could be released. If it were not for the honour of the thing, as the Irishman said after being carried in a sedan chair which had no bottom, we might have spared ourselves so unnecessary a conquest.”
And remember, this is coming from someone who was for the most part a defender of Empire.

Without an obvious answer to this question, there arises a push towards general devolution of powers towards self-government. From the white populations of the islands, the primary causes seem to be quite frivolous: fashion, boredom, a desire not to be left behind, and the possibility of securing lucrative government appointments for themselves:
“Trinidad is a purely Crown colony, and has escaped hitherto the introduction of the election virus. The newspapers and certain busy gentlemen in ' Port of Spain ' had discovered that they were living under ' a degrading tyranny,' and they demanded a ' constitution.' They did not complain that their affairs had been ill managed. On the contrary, they insisted that they were the most prosperous of the West Indian colonies, and alone had a surplus in their treasury."
"They were a mixed and motley assemblage of all races and colours, busy each with their own affairs, and never hitherto troubling themselves about politics. But it had pleased the Home Government to set up the beginning of a constitution again in Jamaica, no one knew why, but so it was, and Trinidad did not choose to be behindhand. The official appointments were valuable, and had been hitherto given away by the Crown. The local popularities very naturally wished to have them for themselves.
This passage illustrates a number of points not widely appreciated in the common narrative. Firstly, the main instigators for political self-rule in these British colonies were not organized opposition from an unhappy local black population (such as was the case in the violent overthrow of the French in Haiti), but rather local English elites, who felt they personally stood to gain from the new arrangements.

But more importantly, these domestic forces on the side of political change are notable in Froude’s description for just how feeble and absurd they are. The only reason they can succeed is that a large portion of the elite in Britain have simply lost the desire to maintain the existing arrangements. As a result, the full independence obtained for these colonies in the 20th century was merely the last step in a gradual devolution of powers that began at around a century earlier. And the devolution of powers was actually quite acceptable to London elites, because they simply couldn’t be bothered with the whole thing any more. Froude describes the upshot of the meeting he talked about in the previous quote:
"The result, I believe, was some petition or other which would go home and pass as evidence, to minds eager to believe, that Trinidad was rapidly ripening for responsible government, promising relief to an overburdened Secretary for the Colonies, who has more to do than he can attend to, and is pleased with opportunities of gratifying popular sentiment, or of showing off in Parliament the development of colonial institutions. He knows nothing, can know nothing, of the special conditions of our hundred dependencies. He accepts what his representatives in the several colonies choose to tell him; and his representatives, being birds of passage responsible only to their employers at home, and depending for their promotion on making themselves agreeable, are under irresistible temptations to report what it will please the Secretary of State to hear. For the Secretary of State, too, is a bird of passage as they are, passing through the Colonial Office on his way to other departments."
World War 1 is not even a puff of smoke on the horizon, and yet the whole scene is already laid out for us. The most interesting part of reading Froude is to compare his descriptions to how events subsequently unfolded. Devolution ended up proceeding in largely the way he anticipated, but the process has a very different origin from the standard narrative today.

The larger point that emerges is that it is a mistake to judge the power of an empire, a people or a country by its territory or strength on paper. Societal decline is a slow process of erosion over decades, as institutions and the popular will get worn down. Abandonment of territory or government is in fact better understood as the last step of the process. Inertia alone will keep governing arrangements limping along long after the will to maintain them has actually disappeared. And the will to govern, once gone, is apparently a rather difficult thing to rekindle.

If all of this sounds somewhat like the latter stages of the American empire that we find ourselves living in, there is a reason. I can see why Moldbug recommended this book so highly.