I Am a Barbarian

Scott, James C. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.

Scott has hit another metaphorical grand slam with this one, a worthily disconcerting follow-on to his earlier work. I have previously read (in order of publication, rather than the order in which I encountered them) The Moral Economy of the Peasant, Seeing Like a State, and Two Cheers for Anarchism, and found them congenial. Scott is particularly good at encouraging a non-elite viewpoint deeply skeptical of State power, and in Against the Grain he applies this to the earliest civilizations. Turns out they loom large in our imagination due to the a posteriori distribution of monumental ruins and written records—structures that were often built by slaves and records created almost entirely to facilitate heavy taxation and conscription. Outside of “civilization” were the “barbarians,” who turn out to have simply been those who evaded control by the North Koreas and Venezuelas of their time, rather than the untutored and truculent caricatures of the “civilized” histories.

By these criteria, the United States of America is predominately a barbarian nation. In the order given above:

  1. Its population is notoriously mobile, with several percent, well over 10 million people, moving across a county line, typically tens of kilometers, each year. This adds up; two-fifths of Americans do not live in the state they were born in, hundreds of kilometers distant. Most Americans make at least one round trip by air each year, totaling thousands of kilometers. Tens of millions of people travel during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend alone.
  2. Tocqueville noted the relative absence of a cultural-economic-political center to the US in the 1830s. Although the nation is now far more urbanized, even the “inner elite” of political liberals, as Charles Murray has noted, are concentrated in four metropolitan areas (NYC, DC, LA, SF Bay) rather than one. In The Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck wrote that the assassination of, at most, 25 key figures would have meant the immediate end of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. By contrast, something as drastic as the physical destruction of Washington, DC might not dissolve the United States. And only a third of its state capitals are the largest city in their states; most are built-to-suit “company towns” of the state government and have little or no other significant economic activity.
  3. As I hardly need explain to this audience, our borders are far from closed. Access from Canada is laughably easy, and it’s obviously not much harder in places along the border with Mexico. I doubt that most small watercraft approaching our coasts would, or could, be intercepted. Ordinary Caribbean tourism is of sufficient volume to, as I well know, import vector-borne diseases into the US. At least half a million “visitors” overstay their visas each year.
  4. Every wave of immigration in American history has provoked anxiety about cultural incompatibility and inadequate assimilation. None of the supposed backlashes have resulted in “ethnic cleansing” or large-scale conflicts. Approximately 0.001% of the US population is “White Nationalist”; if evenly distributed geographically, there would be only one such person per county.
  5. For all the complaints, many of which I have repeated over the years, American commitment to freedom of expression remains globally exceptional, and we rank very near the top in feasible environments for entrepreneurship. There is no conscription, and Abolition was carried out over a century and a half ago.
  6. Among many other categories of self-determination, a right to individual self-defense is widely recognized, extending even to personal possession and transport of high-capacity, long-range firearms in most circumstances. Individual empowerment in personal and business decisions is the norm.
  7. The US has avoided the “resource curse” and has little dependence on commodity sales in general. Its economy is mixed and, as part of its geographic variation, immensely diverse. Manufacturing remains significant, more so than many people realize, although automation has limited employment in that sector.
  8. See Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America for a somewhat whimsical but insightful depiction. Advantages conferred by this diversity include vast logistical capabilities and a massive, and massively distributed, storehouse of Hayekian “local knowledge.” Less comfortable, but still advantageous, is the diversity of outlook; New England is not much like South Florida, which is not much like the High Plains, which is not much like the Pacific Northwest.
  9. As I have written elsewhere, meteorological and seismic risks in the US are sizable but well-managed. The death rate from the 2017 hurricane season in the affected areas was ≈10-5; compare the destruction of Galveston in 1900, where it greatly exceeded 10-1. Wildfires in California look scary and certainly cause heartbreak, but their death rates are similarly tiny. Supposedly catastrophic anthropogenic climate change has basically no chance of affecting this.
  10. Actually, the broad sweep of American history appears not merely resilient, but antifragile, gaining strength and capability from shocks. The process, to be sure, may be neither swift nor painless. But—to consider two very different kinds of shock—few people would not prefer 1951 over 1931, or 1988 over 1968. And I’m old enough to remember when the problems of the late 1960s and the entire decade of the 1970s were considered hopelessly intractable.

So how do we become even better “barbarians”? Assuming the attributes discussed above to be strengths, contributing to the long-term survival and prosperity of the US, and assuming our “opponents” to be a mix of natural phenomena and “civilized” nations, a strategic-defense portfolio might look something like this:

  1. Beware of travel-related infrastructure commitments that are not easily reversible or that benefit only a small subset of the country (“high-speed” rail, I’m looking at you). Make projections to anticipate what actual support needs might be in a few decades, given incipient technologies. Consider especially the likelihood of ever-more-ubiquitous telecommuting, drone deliveries and taxis, 3D printing shading into nanofabrication, and supersonic or even hypersonic air travel. Will we need roads?
  2. Do not merely allow, but mandate telecommuting for Federal, and possibly state, jobs that don’t require face-to-face customer contact or the movement of physical objects. Disperse back-office functions from DC (and maybe state capitals) to the hinterlands. Eliminate geographic concentrations of key functions wherever possible.
  3. Immigration numbers should not be targeted or otherwise manipulated. No H-1B visas or other attempts to attract supposed desirables, no “diversity lottery” virtue-signaling—but for those who wish to commit to permanent residency, simplify, simplify, simplify. Typical naturalization times should be a few years, perhaps 2-3, rather than the current 7-15. A straightforward process will have a much better chance at both voluntary compliance and effective enforcement.
  4. The challenge is, indeed, successful cultural assimilation to our “barbarian” values, especially by high-fertility immigrants, upon whom our continued Darwinian fitness depends (American TFR is otherwise below replacement level, putting us on a trajectory like that of Japan). All immigrants are not created equal, and segregated concentrations of second-generation descendants, in particular, may require special attention.
  5. The qualitative simplification mentioned in #3 above should be extended to as many interactions between citizens and the State as possible. Taxes, especially, should be utterly predictable, with all that that implies about eliminating deductions and exemptions and combining different assessments into a single, easily calculated tax, especially at the Federal level. Detailed, prescriptive economic regulations should be scrapped. Large market incumbents should not be allowed to regulate their incipient competition out of existence.
  6. Political participation should be isonomic, that is, without regard to socioeconomic status. Require voter ID, but eliminate voter registration altogether (see North Dakota) and use “election ink” to prevent multiple voting. A general commitment to ἰσηγορία aside, lawmaking must remain within the bounds of a government of strictly enumerated powers; no majority however large should be allowed to restrict customary American freedoms.
  7. Rigorously enforce the Commerce Clause against the states to make the US a truly free-trade zone internally. As mentioned above, prevent large market incumbents from suppressing incipient competition through ostensibly quality- or safety-oriented legislation. Minimize licensing requirements and regulatory barriers, including zoning, to make it as easy as possible to start a business or to get hired. End all forms of Prohibition. Externally, pursue a policy of unilateral free trade.
  8. Keep the nation intact. Suppress secession attempts early, before doing so will be bloody and expensive. Lower or eliminate barriers to trade with and travel to other nations, especially those geographically nearby, or even far away if Anglospheric in language and culture. Strive to create and maintain the largest possible zone of easy contact.
  9. Allow a robust, competitive risk-management industry to flourish. Be reluctant to promote taxpayer-backed insurance schemes, if any. Carefully subsidize research into natural hazards, including not only relatively conventional meteorological and seismic phenomena but also extreme solar events, potential Earth impactors, and novel epidemiological threats—and construe “epidemiological” to include computer viruses. Maintain a clear deterrent against state-sponsored attack and seek to develop effective responses to hybrid warfare. In military expenditure, emphasize day-to-day readiness and beware of capital-intensive technological blind alleys.
  10. Carefully promote education emphasizing resiliency, margins, continuous process improvement, an abundance mentality, and all the preceding aspects of “barbarism.” Raise awareness of the structural disadvantages of “civilization.” Teach American history as a series of challenges, essentially successfully met—so far.

This prescription is broadly libertarian but notably departs from the doctrinaire in some respects. Higher immigration is not pursued as such; “barbarian” cultural attributes are actively promoted, especially among second-generation populations; state and local governments are subject to prompt overrule if they become too “civilized”; secession/balkanization/civil wars are actively prevented; a military with global reach is maintained; strategic research is subsidized.

The general rule is: you may still, and often should, respond with alacrity to both exogenous and endogenous threats—but not as a “civilized” state would. Overdependence on perimeter defenses, and overcentralized power with its temptation toward coup or civil war, are to be avoided.

7 thoughts on “I Am a Barbarian”

  1. If I recall, SF editor John Campbell offered a similar analysis half a century ago, but with three categories documented and one projected. He began with TRIBESMEN, who progressed to a state of civilized CITIZENS, who were replaced with individual BARBARIANS, and who, it was expected, would in turn be replaced by a new category. From the perspective of Barbarians the new guys would look like Citizens, but very odd ones.

    Campbell of course expected Americans to be the neo-whatever.

  2. One of the major motivations of the Constitution was to keep the government “massively decentralized” but most of the guardrails have been smashed, first after the Civil War and through the Progressive Era, and then most completely by the “one-man, one-vote” monstrosity. Once that feature is gone, can any of the others long endure?

  3. “But—to consider two very different kinds of shock—few people would not prefer 1951 over 1931, or 1988 over 1968”
    I dunno. Most people in any small to medium city would pick 1968, before all small retail in their downtowns evaporated.

  4. There are things to be said in favor – like having milk, eggs and other dairy stuff delivered to home. The delivery guy would even come in and stash it in the refrigerator – if we were short, he would stock up on our regular items. My mother kept the last delivery service going in the LA area for this service. Mid-1980s, if my memory serves.
    She was usually home in the mornings, or the back door was unlocked at the time.

  5. I like civilization. It’s stomped barbarians pretty well every time they fought, although everything changes and barbarians can bring down a failing one. Otherwise, have fun in the cold and dark chasing rabbits, or whatever it is you do for fun. ;)

    I’m feeding a lot of animals right now. They are not used to snow here and I have birds, a couple of rabbits and some rats who are just making it.

  6. Hi, Mr. Manifold,

    I didn’t understand one of your glancing sub-points in recommendation #6 above: “A general commitment to ἰσηγορία aside, lawmaking must remain within the bounds of a government of strictly enumerated powers; no majority however large should be allowed to restrict customary American freedoms.” That sent me to my Liddell-Scott for a moment, but I worked out the vocabulary. However, I’m not clear on why freedom of speech/opinion is to be left out of the larger suggestion. Wouldn’t that commitment be included definitely within the limits on powers?

  7. John Campbell’s editorial is on the web here

    The stages are “tribal, barbarian, citizen” with barbarians coming before citizens, rather than after as Pouncer recalled. So from the editorial: “As a rough guess, it’s highly probable that the next stage of cultural evolution will appear, to us, to be Barbarism, and be a horrible, degenerate, loathsome system indeed.”

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