Arnold Kling  

Mencius Moldbug vs. Thomas P.M. Barnett

Charter Communities... Reflections on the Evolution i...

I'm Kindling The Pentagon's New Map, an infamous book from 2004 by Thomas P.M. Barnett. I liked this paragraph (on p. 129).

A Chinese friend of mine who had been active in the democracy movement explained..."Before Tianenmen, we believed that freedom is 90 percent political and 10 percent economic. A few years later, we came to realize that freedom is 90 percent economic and 10 percent political." You may find my friend's change of heart troublesome, but think about your own daily life and then try to tell me that second formula isn't a better description of how things really work for the vast majority of Americans.

Agree or disagree?

By the way, I'm still not sure how I feel about Kindling. Something tells me I would have absorbed Barnett's book in an hour or less if I'd had the paper version. With the Kindle, I've spent a few hours with it, and I'm still less than half way through.

I find Barnett quite irritating. He reminds me of McKinsey consultants. He is in love with PowerPoint decks and thinks of briefings, particularly his own, as world-historical events. He reeks of Harvard.

Still, he does have the McKinsey skill of coming up with snappy formulations. For example, he describes three layers, which he calls system, nation, and subnational entity. Systems are broader than a nation state. Think of the international trading system, which he incorrectly associates with the WTO, rather than also including the many informal rules and standards that have been developed by the private sector. Or think of the international communication system, including the Internet. I also think of major religions and major social movements (such as women's liberation) as phenomena of the system level.

Barnett's big claim to fame is his view that the trouble spots in the world are failed states that are disconnected from the key systems (largely economic and information flows). These states are prone to violence, either committed by the leaders or by subnational entities that are beyond the leaders' control. The trend is for U.S. forces to be engaged in these failed states (what he calls the Gap). Barnett is a big advocate of retooling our military and related foreign policy instruments to be more effective at intervening to fix the countries in the Gap.

The way I would describe it is that Barnett's thesis is that failed states are like swamps, and terrorists are like the mosquitoes that breed in swamps. He wants to drain the swamps by whatever means works best, including occasionally the military. (Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion overlaps in several places with Barnett.)

Barnett says that his view is a "middle way" between: the goody-goody left, which in my terminology wants to give foreign aid to treat the malaria but does not want to try to drain the swamps; and the isolationist right, who wants to stay out of the swamps and take steps at our borders to keep out mosquitoes.

Which brings me to Mencius Moldbug, who in this post argued for the isolationist right view of how to achieve whirled peas.

every government is legitimate and sovereign. All governments are de facto. Their borders are defined by the power of their military forces. If two states disagree on their borders, it is up to them to settle the dispute.

Moldbug would have us focus on the nation-state, and ignore the system layer that crosses nations as well as the subnational entities. So, if a subnational entity in Gaza fires a rocket at Israel, Moldbug would have Israel treat the rocket as if it were launched by the nation-state of Gaza, at which point all restraints are off.

The basic principle of classical international law is that every citizen of an enemy state is an enemy.

I suspect that this solution would not work in practice. For one thing, hardly any country's government (least of all, Israel's) is Jacksonian enough to operate that way.

More broadly, I just don't think that the nation state is up to the job that this "classical international law" assigns to it. Barnett's other layers, the system and the subnational entity, are indeed much more important nowadays. The system makes us so interdependent that drawing lines at national borders is undesirable in many ways. I would not want to have the U.S. have to go it alone in terms of intelligence gathering or tracking terrorist finances, for example.

The subnational entity is another complicating factor. Even if the Russian mafia were to attack several Americans, I do not think we would want to declare war on Russia. If a Palestinian faction launched a rocket that killed an American visiting Israel, would we declare war on Gaza? It could make more sense to declare war on Israel, for failing to protect the American in its territory.

I'm not ready to sign up for Barnett's program to cure the world's trouble spots. Fortunately, this is not a foreign policy blog, so I don't feel I have to come up with a better idea.

Going back to the quote about economic and political freedom, I think it raises very interesting questions. I could see the United States heading toward (or already being) its own type of oligarchy, with a powerful, corrupt government that nonetheless allows us enough economic freedom to get by. Will the U.S. and China converge?

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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Bill Stepp writes:

"Political freedom" is an Orwellian contradiction.
To be free is to be free of the State and hence politics. Freedom means economic freedom, which is based on natural rights and the rule of law.
Freedom has nothing to do with politics, which is about political elections and the governmental process. All governments are criminal gangs and politicians are either actual or would-be criminals--robbers and often murderers.

Economic freedom always preceded political freedom, historically. We forget sometimes that political freedom is not an end in itself, but is supposed to be the means to maintaining personal and economic freedom.

liberty writes:

Both of the prior comments are exactly right. Just to add a quote from Hayek that explains it well:

"Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends."
- F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom

Economic freedom is the foundation, political freedom a potential process, a tool to help bring freedom, it cannot be the end in itself. Socialists tried to be democratic - they tried to have political freedom, but it was impossible without economic freedom.

I can't think of a single instance where political freedom led to economic freedom and prosperity. I can think of many where economic freedom led to political freedom. Most of these involve the British Empire. I'm not sure what this would mean for foreign policy, but I think it is always a good idea to promote free trade and eschew sanctions and tariffs.

Les writes:

You say: "If a Palestinian faction launched a rocket that killed an American visiting Israel, would we declare war on Gaza? It could make more sense to declare war on Israel, for failing to protect the American in its territory."

You are completely mistaken. Israel abandoned Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, not Israel.

For the U.S. to attack Israel, would be a huge blunder because (a) Israel is a stalwart U.S. ally, and (b) Nothing would reward Hamas more for killing an American than for the attack and destroy Israel (which is the main aim of Hamas).

I am astounded at your ignorance, arrogance and presumptuousness in pronouncing judgment on something you know nothing about.

Kurbla writes:

These terms are not well defined, but with some reserves about meanings of the phrases, political freedom.

Reason - if you really do not like some regime, whatever the reason - and you have political freedom, you can leave the country. That's your political freedom. If you have not political freedom, and those in power start to look at you with hate, I do not think economical freedom can help you.

"I can't think of a single instance where political freedom led to economic freedom and prosperity."

Think Eastern Europe (if market is what you consider to be economical freedom.)

Patrick writes:

I agree that economic freedom is far more important. The founders believed the political freedom would protect economic freedom. They got that one pretty wrong.

After reading Moldbug's posts, and studying more about the history of World War I and World War II, the idea of a democratic China now officially terrifies me. Most Americans do not remember what a jingoistic democracy looks like, since we indoctrinated the jinogism out of Western Europe and Japan after WWII. But a democracy where the majority of people are jingoistic is a very scary thing. Can you imagine what the spy plane crisis would look like if China had its own Bill O'Reilly?

Kurbla writes:
Socialists tried to be democratic - they tried to have political freedom, but it was impossible without economic freedom.

Which socialists? Do you think USSR and company? No, they didn't tried to be democratic - they avoided democracy consistently, because people didn't share the visions of their communist leaders. If majority of people were communists, then maybe they'd go for democracy. Maybe not. We cannot know.

liberty writes:


You may be right about the extreme case of not being able to leave the country (although that would also hinder your economic freedom, so you would not have complete economic freedom, but would have extreme lack of freedom politically, so its not quite a fair case).

However, your example of Eastern Europe is totally backwards. It was the opening of the economies that led to the political change. It was due to the teetering and tumbling of the socialist systems under weight of partial reform that began to open the countries up politically and make them ripe for revolution. Economic freedom came first in every case.

liberty writes:


That simply isn't the case. Socialist leaders did aim for democracy, although of a unique sort. You are correct that they wanted to squelch dissent by non-communists and that they put communism before political freedom in the short run. However, their long-run aim was to be more democratic, not less, and they believed this was possible through economic control - because social economic control was to lead to a different sort of economic-freedom, where people would be equal and free of need.

There were extensive town hall discussions throughout both the War Communism period and the collectivization period aimed at bringing the common man into the production decision process. They truly believed that they were going to be more democratic than the fake bourgeois democracy under capitalism.

Under Lenin, the common man could go to see Lenin himself with his inventions, to get party backing to invest common funds in huge new production lines (like the famous pine cones energy source). Despite fear of dissent, the communists aimed at pure democracy.

Kurlba writes:

You cannot call pre-revolutionary Romania or East Germany states with considerable "economical freedom". You can suppose, however, that even very small economical freedoms inevitable cause development of the political freedom, but then we cannot explain why it didn't happened earlier, because there was lot of such reforms in socialist country, for example NEP, or Tito's reforms in 1950's.

Also, under that supposition, we cannot explain establishment of the left or right dictatorships in the states that really had much more economical freedoms than Eastern Europe had in 1980's - for example in Latin America during whole 20th century or Europe prior to WWII. If even very small economical freedom inevitably causes political freedom then such loss of political freedom should be impossible.

Some common sense seems to be that political will is not determined with level of economical freedom, although it is certainly one of the factors in its formation. On the other side, dominant political will almost completely determines the level of economical freedom.

Kurbla writes:

Liberty, I completely agree with your last post that communist aimed for democracy, however, not with previous post that they tried to introduce democracy but that it didn't worked due to lack of economical freedoms.

liberty writes:


Under NEP there was a lot more political freedom - there was more freedom of speech, for example, and more dissenting voices within the party. It was still a very planned economy, though not obviously a completely planned economy. The "commanding heights" planning included collective ownership of the majority of large scale business, and price controls and directives controlled agriculture, etc.

If the communists wanted democracy, but did not allow it, then what is your hypothesis as to why it did not occur - just dissension? Nothing to do with control over the economy? Remember that public ownership of media makes free speech impossible; public control over education makes free thought impossible; public ownership of firms makes free action impossible. As Hayek says (quoted above), economic control is control over all life.

It was, of course, economic control that people most disliked: they had submitted to autocratic rule - a single political party - before. And they don't seem to mind it now. Dissent against the communist party plan - economic control - was the major concern for Bolsheviks. They expected that if they pushed that line hard enough, they would reach their Utopia and political freedom would come; instead they had to keep repressing people in order to put through their platform, and their platform itself was the major control over people's lives. Utopia never emerged, and only when the economic controls were loosened could dissenting voices be heard.

Alex Tabarrok writes:

My first thought when you said you were kindling the book was that you were burning it.


Dr. T writes:
I could see the United States heading toward (or already being) its own type of oligarchy, with a powerful, corrupt government that nonetheless allows us enough economic freedom to get by. Will the U.S. and China converge?
That certainly seems possible. Our national government (it stopped being a federal government when the Supreme Court ruled that every activity can relate to interstate commerce) continuously comprises a larger share of the economy. Through taxes, inefficiencies, bribes, and corruption it indirectly controls increasing amounts of the non-government economy. Through direct legislative means and regulatory creep, it continuously limits our liberty and reduces our privacy. With China loosening its economic control, I can see our two nations converging within fifty years. That's good for the Chinese, but I would prefer to avoid this fate. Is there anything short of a revolution that will prevent the continuing rise of government power and loss of individual liberty?
Falcon writes:

It is pointless to separate the economics and the politics of 'freedom', because (in the long-run) a direct correlation exists. After living in China for a few years, I've decided that the recent increases in overall urban standards of living have undoubtedly stunted the desire for political freedom. Money can satiate the desires for political freedom, but the source of that money is found in China's (and the USA's)willingness to open herself to the international community. While China's reform and opening up have been slower than some Western countries would prefer, these policies have allowed the Chinese people to experience luxeries unimaginable under the oppressive regimes of Mao and his communist comrades.

Kurbla writes:
If the communists wanted democracy, but did not allow it, then what is your hypothesis as to why it did not occur - just dissension? Nothing to do with control over the economy?

It didn't occurred because majority didn't wanted communism, and communists knew that introduction of democracy means end of their system. So, obviously, they were unable to introduce democracy - and not to destroy their system.

That's why we do not need additional hypothesis to explain it. Although it does not refute the hypothesis.

Public media and freedom of speech? I think it depends on the dominant political will. If it is strongly pro free speech, then I do not see who can prevent such freedom. If dominant political will is so-so, then sure, private media make important difference. And if dominant political will is strongly against freedom of speech, then private media cannot save it.

Kudzu Fire writes:

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liberty writes:


"That's why we do not need additional hypothesis to explain it. Although it does not refute the hypothesis."

But, as I pointed out above, during some periods a significant effort was made to introduce democracy of a communist sort. According to the Marxist belief system, democracy that allows you to choose to be oppressed by the capitalist class is not democracy at all. Democracy is when the people can determine production, determine their own lives by voting for what, where and how things should be done.

Hence, a single communist party in the political system wasn't undemocratic. Only to the extent that the people's voices couldn't be heard within the political/economic process was the system undemocratic.

The people's voices could not be heard, as it turned out, but that wasn't because the rulers were concerned about dissent. It is because you can't plan an economy democratically (inputs and outputs need to match, etc) and you can't retain freedom when the state owns everything, including newspapers, and is the sole employer.

That is why political control is about economic control.

liberty writes:

Kurbla: "Public media and freedom of speech? I think it depends on the dominant political will. If it is strongly pro free speech, then I do not see who can prevent such freedom."

This analysis omits the part where the strongly pro-free speech government, with complete ownership of the media, degenerates into a propaganda machine.

Again, the Bolsheviks were hard-core pro-free-speech at the beginning. I'm not making this stuff up, there is piles of evidence to support that; not only from pre-1917 but also from the early years, from NEP, etc. It isn't because of dissent only either, the communists needed to get the word out about their plans, they needed to rally the people behind the new society, they needed to spread information, etc.

They allowed dissenting opinion to various degrees until the first 5 year plan. Once they took on complete economy-wide planning, they needed to mobilize newspapers just as they mobilized everything else, and dissent was not conducive to getting the job done.

-- in an otherwise free economy, where the media is the only thing government owned, the degeneration happens somewhat differently: people in media want to please the government, so they print what they know their superiors want, or what will get someone re-elected, or something that will aid rent-seeking or fee collecting, or bribery... etc. (this all occurs under communism too) But there is still degeneration.

Institutions determine how human nature - which is always the same - is directed.

State ownership of media ends free speech, just as state ownership of all production ends all freedom.

PurpleSlog writes:

Barnett has a lively blog here:

Kurbla writes:

Liberty, you are factually wrong about Bolsheviks and free speech. They were for free speech IN THEORY, but they started to suppress it immediately. Look what Emma Goldman said:

I learned that the Anarchists had virtually helped the Bolsheviki into power. Five months later, in April, 1918, machine guns were used to destroy the Moscow Anarchist Club and to suppress their Press. .

Citation from Wikipedia ...

Two weeks after the October Revolution of 1917 Gorky wrote: "Lenin and Trotsky don't have any idea about freedom or human rights. They are already corrupted by the dirty poison of power, this is visible by their shameful disrespect of freedom of speech and all other civil liberties for which the democracy was fighting." After his newspaper Novaya Zhizn (Новая Жизнь, "New Life") fell prey to Bolshevik censorship, Gorky published a collection of essays critical of the Bolsheviks called Untimely Thoughts in 1918. (It would not be published in Russia again until the end of the Soviet Union.) The essays call Lenin a tyrant for his senseless arrests and repression of free discourse, and an anarchist for his conspiratorial tactics; Gorky compares Lenin to both the Tsar and Nechayev. Lenin's 1919 letters to Gorky contain threats: "My advice to you: change your surroundings, your views, your actions, otherwise life may turn away from you."

There are a lot of such examples that prove that bolsheviks supressed free speech from very beginning.

Now, I agree that if dominant political will degenerates, it can transform public media into propaganda service. However, it means little, because if dominant political degenerates it can transform private media into propaganda service as well. It happened many times. But there is no logical necessity that it must happen.

liberty writes:


When did I say that they didn't suppress speech from the beginning? I said "to various degrees" at various times, dissent was tolerated.

You appear to have missed my point about communist democracy.

You also claim that politicians can transform private media - but that is much much more difficult than transforming media which you own and control.

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