[edited and tempered a bit–EC]
I’ve wanted to talk about something that’s been simmering for a long time in my mind, namely the obvious institutional dysfunction of the West in the face of Muslim, particularly Shia, tribal fortitude.
There are two kinds of societies: unstructured, tribal societies, and structured, institutional societies. The Bush Administration’s Iraq odyssey has allowed vibrant contrast between tribal and institutional societies.
Charisma is the currency of a tribal society; money is the currency of institutional society.
In a tribe, any person’s leadership ability is contingent upon how well he husbands the lives and resources of his tribe in the face of external threats, up to and including throwing himself on the rails to save his family/ unit/ clan/ tribe. A leader’s credibility is based upon 1) his ability to forecast and surmount future threats, and 2) his perceived willingness to die for the tribe’s sake to surmount such a threat — the fact that, as he gambles with his tribe’s lives, he sees his own life no differently from lesser members of the tribe. So, tribal societies generally produce very astute gamblers as leaders.
Institutional societies produce exactly opposite leaders. People rise through institutions by public competence and private ‘politicking’ (what a tribal society would call ‘treachery’). Winning the leadership lottery of an institution is defined by strategically timed risk avoidance, whereas tribal leaders are defined by strategic risk-taking.
Institutions can attain heights of complexity and ‘sophistication,’ be it in the form of weaponry, markets, technology, art, or social ritual, which tribes can only, rarely, hope to rent. For that conceit, institutions pay a steep price. They are extremely slow to adapt to anything. Institutions can scale up intellect, but unlike tribes they cannot scale up trust. Institutions are hamstrung by internal political jockeying to a much greater extent than are tribes.
Because testosterone and charisma are pretty closely correlated, “demographic change” is never a tribal problem. Children are necessary to perpetuate and augment the tribe, and are totally encouraged. People who have difficulty producing children are accepted, but not treated as well. People obviously incapable of producing children, i.e. homosexuals, are ostracized, unless they show exceptional fighting ability/ stand up for themselves. Institutions, which put a premium on an individual’s “paying dues” of time at the expense of everything else, disproportionately produce leaders with few or no children. Institution-driven government policy overwhelmingly discounts from future investment (of which children are a big part) to the present.
Tribal leaders see much more meaning in death — or, in the case of black US tribes, very long-term imprisonment — than do institutional leaders. They know that even if their lives’ works ‘end’ in death, their sacrifice will reflect well upon their “peoples” ie their children.
Because tribal leaders are judged by their ability to defeat external challenges and encroachments on a continuous basis, and are not protected by legal or institutional formalisms, they react immediately and overwhelmingly to, for example, attempts to steal the property of the tribe.
So, institutional societies produce too many “leaders” eager to take credit for vanquishing small risks over small time horizons, and very large risks over extremely long time horizons (i.e., blame/credit cannot be fully allocated until after the leader in question is dead).
You can see where I’m going with this. The Muslim world is defined by its tribes, and the West is defined by its institutions. It would be over-dramatic to call Iraq a clash of civilizations, but it still is, sort of. Who has been winning? Iran certainly hasn’t been losing. The US seems to be holding firm, except that public support for the war has completely collapsed, and the state of the US government’s balance sheet is much worse than any agency seems to realize.
The US government really reminds me a lot of Citigroup: every agency further amortizing the future, on the assumption that, if its bets don’t pay off, every other agency will take cuts for that agency’s mistakes. In musical chairs, somebody has to lose.
I have been raised by, and have benefited from, a structural society. I would like to believe in it. However, Western institutions’ schizophrenic, ill-informed dysfunction has offered a pathetic contrast to the Iranian model. Every all-in challenge by Hezbollah has been met with pathetic procrastination by Israel, the United States, and proxy tribes seduced by Western institutional promises. Olmert’s Israel, which talks about negotiations as it’s hit by Palestinian Katyushas every day, is a particularly dramatic exposition of this, although the rest of the West suffers the same myopic affliction to lesser degrees.
Tribal elements of the West, i.e., Israeli settlers, lower echelons of the US Army Mormons, US “white trash,” and others who for all their faults are proud enough to put their flesh on the line for their homelands, nonetheless can’t help but feel that the institutions which purport to represent them only waste any lives they offer, on the altar of the Kadima/State Department cult of peace.
The “uncultured” “barbarian” tribes have been bleeding the West dry for the last five years. Western firepower is overwhelming, and could have imposed prohibitive costs on Iranian militia-style maneuvering years ago. Why hasn’t it? As if any negotiation can erase the fact that the Western empire has no clothes, and will not defend itself despite getting its teeth spattered onto Beirut’s pavement. [*]
I think Western governments’ increasingly aggressive discounting of the future is a direct byproduct of the institutionalization of Western society. Today, for example, big agribusiness is stealing $300 billion in plain sight. How is this sustainable — let alone acceptable? Is there a point at which it becomes moral to kill these people? S&P has already stated that a Fannie/Freddie bailout alone would cost $400 billion to $1.1 trillion, and would jeopardize the US’s AAA bond rating. There just isn’t the money for these expenses anymore.
Governments discount youth’s earnings in many ways. Government mandated barriers to entry are overwhelmingly protectionism for existing workers at the expense of future workers, and force youth/future workers to seek poorer alternatives. America’s gigantic intergenerational liabilities are another such tax on youth. I posit that growth of government has directly depressed Western birthrates. US native birthrates are collapsing in line with continental Europe’s, as is its growth of government. [**] There is a yawning gap between deep pessimism of Western youth, especially in the United States, and relative optimism of the 55+ crowd. The two groups are facing very different arrays of future liabilities and future payments, that’s for sure.
Maybe that’s the difference. You hear about all the rent seekers all the time, but you don’t hear as much about the ones that are rising. I don’t know. There is an awful lot of rent-seeking going on, but nobody outside the financial industry seems to have a clue about it, or what it will mean for future generations. This has really, really Never Happened Before, except in Japan, and the results were very bad–especially for birth rates.
Maybe you could say that institutions are a necessary evil for especially big societies. In any case, they are no match for the Mideast’s tribal collectives, epitomized by the extremely high-trust tribal institution Hezbollah. The West’s leaders are no match for Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah at all. Sure, there are those who might be if they had the backing of even a cohesive minority of their society, such as Petraeus, but they don’t, because there is no critical mass willing to risk as Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah are. So we continue fighting this stupid, never-ending war, losing money, face, and men all at the same time.
There’s something about the West that makes it unwilling to win wars, and I don’t know what it is.
Or, maybe I should just rename my blog “a neoconservative, mugged by doomsterism.”
[*] again, the notion of action being important now is premised upon a Republican loss in the 2008 presidential election, something approaching a foregone conclusion, which hasn’t seeped into the conventional wisdom yet.
[**] One should take into account the relatively enormous US local governments, nonprofit sector, and government contractors when arriving at a size of US government. The latter two in particular have exploded over the past eight years.
The sum total will likely surpass 40 percent of GDP this year, and will explode in an Obama Administration as opaque liabilities from the financial bailout make themselves more apparent later.
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