Imagine you're an evil dictator...

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Imagine you're an evil dictator...

Postby Pfhorrest » Thu Apr 05, 2018 6:15 am UTC

(Apologies in advance that this post kind of peters out at the end. I sat down to write down thoughts I had last night this morning, and have been continually interrupted and feeling less and less coherent as I keep trying to come back to this all day).

Imagine you’re an evil dictator who has somehow seized absolute power over a country and declared all capital in the country your exclusive property. You lease out the use of your capital to the highest bidder, which naturally will be whoever can manage to make the most money off of it, since they will have the most money to offer you. But that money will have to come from genuine productive use of it, as you are effectively levying a 100% tax on property income, because nobody can turn a profit by leasing capital from you and then leasing it out in turn, since if someone would pay them more than they’re paying you, they could just offer you slightly less than that higher amount directly and win the lease from you for themselves, since you lease to the highest bidder to maximize your own profits, because you’re an evil state-capitalist dictator.

Of course you use the proceeds from that rent to pay your army to hold onto your absolute power for you. But you are a lazy evil dictator and fighting off constant rebellions from unhappy subjects is hard, so you eventually take the much easier route of just paying off your opposition, which is cheaper than paying for a bigger army to fight them off. People will more readily accept a lower amount to just do nothing, than to go fight and possibly die, so it’s cheaper to just pay the enemy to do nothing than to pay your army to maybe die trying to make them stop doing things. In other words, you use the proceeds from your rents to pay out a universal basic income and basically buy the loyalty of the people, since now they profit the more you profit. Of course those who lease the capital from you are paying you more than they’re getting back, by mathematical necessity, but they tend to be a minority of the population (since only the highest earners can win the lease auctions), so the majority of people get more from you than they pay to you, and so are loyal to you. Even those who lease capital from you and get less than what they pay you back must still be making a profit overall from leasing that capital, because they’re free to stop doing so if they’re not. The basic income that they get is basically just a discount on their rent, and they needed to be making more profit than the rent costs anyway or else they wouldn’t have won the lease from you, so the basic income is just extra profit on top of that, even to them.

You being a lazy evil dictator of course don’t want to be bothered with actually managing your people and their petty squabbles, deciding who is right or wrong in every conflict. You just want them to settle down and keep quiet and peaceful and not stir up trouble, so whatever most effectively resolves their conflicts with the least effort on your part is best. So you tell them to sort it out themselves: to democratically organize to decide how to decide who is right or wrong when disputes spring up between people, and you will instruct your army to enforce those decisions however the people democratically decide it should be done. Because you don’t care, you’re an evil dictator, you just want them to shut up about it already, so whatever decision makes the most people the happiest sounds fine to you. You of course reserve the right to dismiss the democratically elected government and demand that a different better one be formed, if you decide that the one they’ve formed already isn’t doing that job of keeping most people mostly satisfied and quiet well enough. This creates an incentive for the democratic government to use some voting method better than first-past-the-post, something that will more likely guarantee that at least a simple majority of the country are happier with the resultant decisions than the next-best alternatives.

Huh, somehow the cheapest and easiest way to be a lazy evil dictator seems to be running your country as a democracy and redistributing wealth. That’s interesting.

Now imagine you’re a citizen in this redistributivist democracy. Every time you vote for the government to do something, you’re voting for them to tell the dictator’s thugs to do something. That will require that the dictator pay those thugs to do it, which leaves him less money to pay you through the universal basic income. So you want to vote for the government to do as little as possible, except for things that will give you a greater return on your money by having the government do it than you could get just keeping that money and buying it yourself. You’re never just voting to spend someone else’s money on something that will profit you but not them, since the money comes out of what would otherwise be your basic income, and their equal basic income, since everyone gets the same.

One easy way to have the government do less and save you money is to have fewer things illegal. You the voter will have to decide, every time some topic comes up about whether or not to dick around in other people’s personal lives mandating or prohibiting certain lifestyles, whether you personally really want to sacrifice some of your income to fund that. It’s a lot cheaper to fund a government that pretty much lets people do what they want until they start hurting other people, than it is to fund a government that micro-manages every aspect of everybody’s lives. So a civil-libertarian government will tend to be the kind that you and most of your fellow voters will have incentive to vote for.

Another way to have the government do less and save you money is to have the government provide fewer services. You might think at first glance that you want more services from the government, and if you’re of an altruistic mindset you might think that having the government provide more services will be better for society. But remember again, in the society we’re talking about, the funds for those come out of what is essentially a direct cash welfare system provided to yourself and all of society in the form of the basic income. If you have the government provide some service, you get less free money from the government as a consequence, and so does everybody else. Money that could have been used to buy those services from private providers already. So unless it’s really clear that having the government provide it will be cheaper for most people than keeping the cash and buying the service themselves, it’s at best a wash, and not something you or your fellow voters are likely to want to support. Even when you do decide it’s worth it to have the government act, in those cases it’s likely to be best in the long term if you have the government make a temporary outlay of cash to set up an otherwise self-funding not-for-profit organization to handle provision of those services — something like a private business corporation but without shareholders (think the Post Office), or whose shareholders are its customers (think the Auto Club), hence no need to profit, hence lower prices — instead of giving the services away for free at the cost of an ongoing drain on everyone’s basic income forever.

Huh again. Somehow the cheapest and easiest way for a selfish electorate to run such a redistributist democracy seems to be to strive as close as possible to some kind of libertarian socialism or market anarchism. That’s even more interesting.

Now imagine that instead of a single evil dictator seizing absolute power, it’s a popular revolution, or a popular movement to create a state in a country where there is none already. The absolute sovereign from which we started is not one natural person, but a legal person composed of all natural persons in the country: a "popular sovereign” if you will. All the same lines of reasoning still apply: a lazy power-hungry populist state’s easiest route to maintaining power with minimal effort is still to redistribute the wealth it extracts from holding that power to buy loyalty, and let a democratic government manage the day-to-day resolution of conflicts between the people, the populists reserving only the right to dismiss the democratic government if it isn’t doing its job of appeasing the people well enough.

But in a country which at least nominally has popular sovereignty already, like many that exist today, you don’t even need to stage a violent coup to seize absolute power, you “just" need to mobilize a large enough segment of the populace (itself a monumental task, but still trivial compared to a real revolution). With enough political momentum to change the system from inside, you could start changing things so that these chains of incentives come into play in the states we already have.

Allow a popular vote of no confidence in the government to dismiss the current government and call for election of a new one, requiring at least a simple majority of the populace voting “yes” for dismissal, abstains counting as “no”, so only if most people are positively dissatisfied does the dismissal take effect. This incentivizes the institution of something better than first past the post elections, that will more likely result in a government that at least most people like at least better than the next best alternative. Create a special tax on property income, gradually increasing over time, that is used to fund a universal basic income, which counts as “means” for the purpose of means-tested welfare programs, automatically reducing the enrollment and hence expenses of such programs and freeing up more money, that will help facilitate the gradual reduction of all other taxes, as will spinning off as much as feasible of existing government programs into self-funding non-profit programs, equal access to which is in turn facilitated by the ever-growing basic income. And of course, gradually decriminalize all victimless crimes, end all figurative wars on abstract concepts and literal wars of aggression, and free up all that money from the military- and prison-industrial complexes to line the common peoples’ pockets even more.


This line of thought was inspired by two things. The first was thinking about how to create a stable anarchy. Some form of libertarian socialism, where everyone is maximally free and equal, seems the obvious utopian ideal form of governance, but is equally obviously unstable: random fluctuations in power tend to run away into concentrations of power until it collapses into a primitive state, the worst kind of state, where whoever has the most power just rules without disregard for the will or wellbeing of the governed. History has shown that some states over time wise up and realize that some kind of democratic representation and some semblance of welfare tend toward greater long-term stability of power, but it takes lots of time and suffering for them to come back around to that realization, so if you’re in a state that’s progressed in that direction already, it’s not worth it trying to jump ahead to something better only to have it immediately collapse into something much worse. I’ve been thinking for a long time about how it might be possible to have something more toward libertarian socialism that, if it fails, will fail safe back into some kind of social democracy, instead of failing deadly into a primitive warlord state.

The other inspiration was an account I read some years back, and am probably incorrectly remembering now, about some recent-ish political turmoil in Egypt, which in turn reminded me of the British Crown’s nominal power to dismiss the democratic government and call for a new one if it’s not doing it’s job well enough. The account of Egypt, as I recall it, was that a sitting dictator was overthrown in a democratic revolution, but in the first democratic election that followed, Islamist theocrats were the best-organized political bloc already in play and so won the election, to the dismay of a majority of the population. When it looked like that might plunge the country into the turmoil of yet another revolution, the military staged a coup overthrowing the theocrats, but rather than rule themselves, just called for another, better election, because the military wasn’t interested in actually running the country, they’re just a huge landowner that make a ton of money that way and wanted a stable country with a satisfied-enough populace just to keep that gravy train rolling.

(I don’t know how to end this because as mentioned at the top I’ve been coming back trying to finish jotting this down all day and my brain is scattered as hell by now. Discuss.)
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Re: Imagine you're an evil dictator...

Postby Chen » Thu Apr 05, 2018 11:28 am UTC

The whole universal redistribution of wealth clearly isn't the way most of these long lasting dictatorships work, so I need to question the conclusion on that being the best or most efficient way to run things. North Korea's regime has lasted a LONG time without anything like that. Crushing dissent with an iron fist and making sure the populace has no good way to fight back seems like a pretty standard way of doing things in many of these dictatorships that could easily last for the full lifetime of the dictator.

In theory a lot of the stuff makes sense but in reality people aren't fully rational actors, especially economically. You see people in the US vote Republican when it's clearly not in their best interest economically. Clearly an effective evil dictator will exploit that so that they can keep more of the money for themselves. Generally by turning the majority against "others" or the other meddling you mention it would be more "efficient" to not do. The same goes for victimless crimes. When those crimes go against people's moral beliefs (rightly or wrongly), people want them prohibited even if it doesn't directly affect them. Sure this can be considered irrational but it's reality. Maybe you could bribe people into liking it (if you allow gay marriage I'll give you $100 per year!) but even then some people may not want to accept that.

So really the whole problem with the thought experiment is that it involves people instead of fully rational (and informed) actors.

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Re: Imagine you're an evil dictator...

Postby Tyndmyr » Thu Apr 05, 2018 11:55 am UTC

Depends on your goals. If you're after improving the country, your actions will look different than if your goals are just "live my life in hedonism, and ensure nobody can oppose me".

North Korea is really terrible at the former. But for the latter, it mostly works. Just for the ruler, and the tradeoffs are terrible, but evidently, it doesn't matter to Kim. Now sure, I can buy such a government matching up with some goals, but one has only to look at the real world to realize that it isn't the goal of many evil dictators.

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Re: Imagine you're an evil dictator...

Postby Dr34m(4+(h3r » Thu Apr 05, 2018 7:11 pm UTC

The same reason dictatorships exist in the first place is the reason a democractic libertarian redistributionist economy would inevitably collapse. I honestly think it's ethological, that there are aspects of the human animal brain that dictate how people behave and that any artificial structure that doesn't take note of that will fail to achieve its desired results. Capitalism is interesting because it's compatible with the nature of the 1% but more and more disruptive to human nature the less profitable that nature is under capitalism (which may seem tautological, but only if you accept profitability as biconditionally essential to capitalism in the exact form it presently exists, and also as an unchanging primary property of people in some way. I really think there is such a thing as inherently productive traits in people, but I don't think they are well measured by current capitalism.)

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Re: Imagine you're an evil dictator...

Postby CorruptUser » Thu Apr 05, 2018 7:34 pm UTC

If I was dictator, there would be billboards everywhere saying "help keep our death squads lazy; don't act out". Other than that, I'd be a Park Chung Hee or that guy from Singapore, in that it would be awesome so long as you ignore the piles of corpses. There are no piles of corpses, shut up or join the pile!

Yeah. Don't make me dictator.

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Re: Imagine you're an evil dictator...

Postby reval » Sat Apr 07, 2018 10:36 pm UTC

Trying to think like a dictator (a.k.a. king) is an interesting exercise because it tends to illuminate long strings of historical events. One insight is that monarchy's main opponent is its surrounding oligarchy (much more than the people themselves). A king's main opponents are the barons. The main threats to a modern dictator are banks and billionaires, both domestic and international. In fact, the balance of power is often such that a "dictator" is a pathetic puppet of the oligarchs.

Michael Hudson's studies of money and debts in Mesopotamia and classical antiquity are fascinating. The Demos (people) were pulled back and forth. Five thousand years ago, oligarchs would extend credit, secured ultimately by the debtors land and personal freedom. More and more people would become debt slaves (literally), working land they had already forfeited to the oligarchs.

But this threatened the military basis of the monarch, who at this time held the balance of power over the oligarchs. Slaves do not make good soldiers. Each new monarch would declare a debt jubilee (cancellation) which freed all the debt slaves and returned their land to them. These debt cancellations stopped in classical antiquity, when Greek and Roman oligarchs effectively shifted the balance of power against weaker monarchs. The Mesopotamian "state theory of money" (also see: Modern Monetary Theory) was replaced by the "barter" or "commodity myth of money", which better suits the interests of the oligarchic creditors.

Modern power is generally in the hands of the banks and billionaires, who pretend to allow a democracy or other form of government. Strong monarchies such as North Korea are rare. A Demos that wishes to live in the hands of neither will have to develop a whole new set of ideas and forms of power. They will probably have to give up competing against each other in order to accomplish this.

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Re: Imagine you're an evil dictator...

Postby Zamfir » Sun Apr 08, 2018 12:10 pm UTC

Iran comes rather close to what you're describing, I think. They had a popular revolt, led by religious lawyers that had only a limited interest in the day to day affairs of running the country, but who also had a strong vision of what they wanted with the country, and they were not going to let voters vote against that vision.

So they instituted a kind of sandboxes democracy that's run somewhat fair as long as it stays within prescribed limits. The religious leader appoints an official body (somewhat like a supreme court) called the Guardian Council to check on democracy. It can deny candidates, remove them from office or veto their laws if they step over the lines. But within the lines they allow a fairly wide range of politicians to compete - at least, wide by the standards of dictatorships or one-party states.

Needless to say, this didn't exactly lead to libertarian utopia.

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