Saturday, March 31, 2018

Pro-Civilization and the New Right

I. Introduction

Political blogging is a dead genre. Its corpse is kept animated by ancient thirty-somethings left behind by a snapchat world. It’s fine whisky in an age of vodka and gatorade. 

Yet I have the stubborn impulse to keep alive this tradition of my people. I can’t help myself. Left idle, my hands start typing up new political ideologies. it’s a gen X thing.

The purpose of this post is to identify and define a new ideology: Pro-Civilization.  “Pro-Civilization” is an adjective I’ve been hearing lately in right-wing tech circles, and I find it evocative. Let’s uncork a bottle of #ProCiv, swirl it around the tongue, and see what impression it leaves. For me, it is one of the most intriguing vintages to come out of the modern Right. So I want to define it, examine it, and signal-boost it. 

By no means do I want to be on the hook for defending the whole of the political Right. Lord knows it has its share of bathtub swill. The question “why bother with the Right at all?” is a fair one. If you’re reading this, then you probably live in a place where the Right is not exactly the winning team. You aren’t going to win yourself any friends or social status by sticking around. Your local dominance hierarchy is best climbed by clicking the “x” button at the top of this browser tab. 

But if you’re the type of curious individual that just can’t help but poke around in dusty, overlooked corners seeking nuggets of insight, then stick around. 

Image result for whisky glass

II. What is it

Let’s start with a thousand foot overview. 

If the #ProCiv faction had a mission statement, it would be something like “create a great civilization that endures for a very long time”. It’s not defined by a set of policies or cultural practices, but rather it’s defined by a way of judging them. Each new innovation is asked the question: “does this increase the chances of our long-term thriving and survival?”. 

Pro-Civilization is characterized by a low time preference. It supports systematic and long-term thinking. It is downright bloodless compared to activist strands of Left and Right. It is also pragmatic; policy discussions are outcome-focused rather than morality-focused. 

I find political debate within ProCiv groups to be refreshing. Is immigration good or bad? Gun control? Abortion? Within a ProCiv group, one side of these questions may be more popular than another, but there is no moral stigma associated with arguing the less popular side. Debate proceeds by arguing that one policy is better suited than another for building and maintaining a good society over a long time horizon. Historical analogies are commonly employed as supporting evidence, and someone who is well-versed in a large range of historical periods and data sets gains social status. To be ProCiv leads to having interesting and brainy conversations ranging over the Byzantine Empire, Malthusian population models, superorganisms, science fiction, and evolutionary psychology.

This style of debate is in sharp contrast to that mainstream left and right-wing groups that have “Politically Correct” answers to every question - if you’re on the Left, then immigration is good, guns are bad, and abortion is good. If you’re on the Right, then your opinions are flipped. From what I have seen, there isn’t much debate. Moral feelings are the primary way that policy positions are solidified. To have the correct opinion is morally good, to argue for the unpopular opinion is to be morally suspect. Homogeneity is maintained through threat of punishment or ostracism. The rare appeals to evidence are one-sided - partisans seem unaware of evidence that would be offered to support the opposing point of view. 

The Pro-Civilization view fits in comfortably within Arnold Kling’s “Three Languages of Politics” model (there’s now a book). He argues that libertarians, the liberal/left, and the conservative/right often cannot understand each other in debates because they are using three different moral languages. For libertarians, the primary moral concern is about freedom vs. coercion. For the Left, it’s oppressors vs. the oppressed. And for the Right, it’s Civilization vs. Barbarism. ProCiv is an unapologetic and enthusiastic embrace of civilization as the primary moral concern of political systems. 

III. Details

Now that we have introduced this rare whisky, it’s time to get closer to examine its flavor and scent. Does it taste sweet on the tip of the tongue? Does it leave a hint of charcoal in the back? Is there an aroma of honey, gasoline, or some mix of both? 

(For the Jacob superfans out there, yes, this is the second time that I’ve used the whisky metaphor to describe a freshly minted political ideology. But it’s been nine years since the last time, so I’m giving myself permission to double-dip.) 

I should note that much of what follows comes from my own head. Some of it comes from conversations I have been part of or overheard. But what I’m describing is a tiny cultural trend. There is no ProCiv Institute with an official 20 point platform. I’ve had to use my own powers of extrapolation to fill in the gaps. 

The sets of policies and cultural attitudes favored by #ProCiv don’t fit neatly on the Left/Right American political spectrum. For example, it favors both large amounts of economic libertarianism (an American right-wing position) and environmentalism (an American left-wing position). Libertarian economics are needed because the wealth and power of a society largely come from productive market activities. In the long run a nation is either pro-market or prey for those who are. Environmentalism is needed both because destruction of the natural world threatens human civilization, and also because the natural world is part of humanity’s artistic and spiritual heritage. ProCiv is not interested in merely preserving human life for the long run, but also some amount of cultural continuity. 

Pro-Civilization has a complex attitude towards risk. It supports taking more finite short-term risks and putting more resources towards reducing long-term, unbounded risks. It’s a big proponent of projects that reduce existential risks to humanity, such as Elon Musk’s attempts to plant human civilization on Mars. A multiplanetary society is much more likely to survive than a single planet one. You can’t build a long-lasting civilization if you get sent back to the stone age or worse by getting unlucky on some existential risk. 

As for short-term risks, ProCiv takes a bolder approach than mainstream political movements. In democracies, lawmakers are incentivized to favor policies with short-run payouts and long-run costs, especially if they represent competitive districts. Voters are impatient for benefits and long-run costs seem fictional. Pro-Civilization has exactly the opposite bias. It prefers to pay costs in the present in order to reap future benefits. 

For example, ProCiv probably favors a daring approach to institutional reform. Institutions like governments, universities, and the health care system represent society’s collective intelligence. When they are operating well, society is effective, productive, and nimble in addressing crises. When they are operating poorly, they can suck up infinite money while producing less and less benefit, a process sometimes referred to as “institutional sclerosis”. There is good evidence that American institutions are quite sclerotic. Infrastructure is slow to build and expensive compared to the past. Education and medicine are skyrocketing in price while most of that extra money goes to hiring administrators and regulatory compliance. A ProCiv point of view advocates for paying the cost to make bold reforms now in exchange for upgrading our collective intelligence to manage the challenges of the coming decades. 

Culturally, Pro-Civilization favors getting married and having children, for two reasons. First, having children lowers an adult’s time preference and ties his plans to the world that continues after his death. Second, the well-raised children of the present, and especially the children of the current elite, are going to be the people responsible for navigating the ship of humanity along a precipice of destruction as our technology gets more and more powerful in the coming decades. The crises of the future will be decided by the well-prepared, competent humans we create now. 

Pro-Civilization is skeptical of romantic innovations that are justified by appeals to the pleasure and utility of the current generation of adults at the cost of family stability and child-rearing. It’s critical of the hedonistic infinite-adolescence of adult culture in many modern urban environments. It seconds Jordan Peterson in believing that the meaning in life comes not from the pleasures one enjoys, but from the responsibilities one carries. A 40-year-old should be doing something to contribute to the next generation, not bouncing from music festival to music festival. Doing both may be a fine option, as long as the responsibilities are prioritized first. 

To avoid writing more than my audience will be willing to read on pro-civilization tendencies, beliefs, and positions, I finish this section with a list of things that get the #ProCiv seal of approval:

  • The Hoover Dam
  • Chesterton’s Fence
  • Tokyo
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Meritocracy
  • Switzerland
  • Space elevators
  • Cathedrals
  • Ancient Hindu temples
  • Capitalism
  • Marriage and babies
  • Classical art and music
  • Oxford libraries
  • Dense urban cores
  • City skylines
  • The evolutionary mindset
  • The Long Now Foundation
  • Religion (especially old religions)
  • Philosophy (especially old philosophy)
  • Preparing for Black Swan events
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Transhumanism

Pro-Civilization aesthetics tend to be a mix of the new and the old. Its ideal is high civilization in harmony with nature, as if Chinese economic dynamism were mixed with Western environmental ideals. Perhaps Singapore does it best. The ProCiv vision is that 10,000 years from now, cyborg teenagers will be playing a Bach chamber music recital on a green school lawn on a terraformed planet in a nearby solar system. Or in a simulated uploaded colony ship. Or in whatever form human civilization will take. 

IV. Where it goes wrong

As a creature of the Right, pro-civilization suffers from the problems that right-wing ideologies have. I wrote about the generic Left-Right axis and the pros and cons of each side in this previous post

In short, the great problem of the Left is changing too fast and throwing out lots of traditions and institutions that work in pursuit of some imagined utopia. 

The great problem of the Right is changing too slowly, stagnating and failing to address changing conditions. Chesterton's fences crowd the landscape and you can't really drive anywhere. The Right procrastinates on overthrowing unnecessary oppression and is slow to adopt neutral or positive social changes. Whereas on the Left change is assumed to be good with little thought of the consequences, on the Right change can be rejected even when the expected value is positive. 

On the order-chaos spectrum, the failure of the Left is too much chaos and the failure of the Right is too much order. The Left might institute a terrible dystopia, but its philosophy of permanent revolution includes the seeds of its own undermining. The Right might make a terrible dystopia that really lasts. 

Personally, some of the people I know on the pro-civilization Right seem like real squares. I think they’d be more creative and productive if they allowed a little chaos into their lives. 

V. Relation to other things

I’m calling ProCiv an ideology of the political Right because that’s where it’s coming from currently. But as with all ideas that one favors, I hope it grows in popularity enough to transcend the eternal Left/Right hellmatch and thrive on both sides of the spectrum. It has enough deviance from the rest of the Right that it does not seem impossible for a Left faction to adopt it. In the past, when the foundations of the modern world were being laid, the Pro-Civilization mindset would have been on the progressive/left side of the spectrum. 

VI. Conclusion

I’m a political Taoist. I don’t hold any particular political position, but rather a meta-position that goes something like this: conflicting ideologies support different often-conflicting human values. Picking one over the other is a losing move. Rather, the right thing to do is to try to find the happy balance between them, allowing that balance to change in an ineffable dance with the circumstances of existence. 

So I’m not suggesting anybody adopt #ProCiv wholesale. But its variety of bloodless, long-term thinking is definitely of value. For me, it represents the best flavor of the Right. It’s the reason for not completely ignoring the Right half of the spectrum altogether. Let it be in balance with your other political values, and I think it will lead you to a better place.