The first time I read Mencius Moldbug, I chuckled. There was something Voltairean about him. Though Unqualified Reservations was a vanilla-looking blog, I could still imagine a curmudgeon with an ink well and quill, furiously scribbling about this or that shibboleth, pulling no punches, suffering no fools. Moldbug gave it good and hard to progressives, libertarians, and conservatives alike. For this, he was eventually anointed High Priest of the “Dark Enlightenment.”
Moldbug, it turned out, was the nom de guerre of software developer Curtis Yarvin, and since he discontinued blogging, his star only seems to have risen, especially on the “post-liberal” Right. He’s spoken for over an hour to Fox’s Tucker Carlson; he’s appeared on Michael Anton’s Claremont Institute podcast the American Mind; and most recently he’s written longform essays for Compact and UnHerd. If you’re a basement-dweller with a webcam and a mic, he might just show up for a chat.
Yarvin maintains visibility on the podcast circuit because his message is wildly different from the sort of hash most intellectuals sling these days. Historically literate and well-read, Yarvin has absorbed the writing of thinkers like Thomas Carlyle and James Burnham and arrived at a philosophy that has been variously described as “neoreactionary” or “neo-monarchist.” America’s Founders, he maintains, got it all wrong—liberal democracy is a busted flush, and what the United States needs is the strong arm of an American Caesar to bring order to the prevailing chaos. His writing is vibrant, provocative, occasionally witty, and undeniably original. After all, until Unqualified Reservations appeared, who was arguing that Europe’s Dark Ages offer a set of organizing principles to which humanity ought to aspire?
Yarvin’s worldview is a bracing middle-finger salute to every major political tribe. Nevertheless, he explains his curious beliefs better than any troglodytic MAGA-head, pious progressive, or dogmatic libertarian. He treats social-justice progressives with slightly more contempt than the other two, but sometimes sounds like an old-school progressive—albeit one wrapped in royal finery. In short, Yarvin imagines the president as a technocrat with a scepter. Not MAGA but MEGA: Make Elizabeth Great Again. No, not Elizabeth Holmes (although Yarvin draws a good deal of inspiration from Silicon Valley)—he’s talking about Queen Elizabeth I.
Many Moldbug readers have grown up a lot since the days of Unqualified Reservations. Still, anyone who reads or listens to Yarvin today will find a devil-may-care but erudite geek with a sense of humor that doesn’t typically accrue to folks with his IQ. But without the Moldbuggian mask, one finds decidedly less style. And the substance? Well, this can be divided into three parts.
I. The Good
Yarvin is no dummy, and some of his diagnoses of what ails America are perceptive. Sometimes, he is right for the wrong reasons, and at others he is right for the right reasons. His most persuasive contention is that democracy simply doesn’t work very well, and he has a lot of fun butchering this sacred cow and lancing its inconsistencies, hypocrisies, contradictions, and myriad failures.
Democracy, he points out, tends to produce a tyranny of consensus or a tyranny of the majority. And here, he surely has a point. Excluding those who apotheosize democracy, most of us are painfully aware that our system shores up an oligarchy—a peculiarly American collusion between power and money. Corporate types are attracted to government types, and true power slinks from that coital bed. The upshot is that elections are mostly rituals that permit us to shed teardrops into the ocean and hope the tide will turn. It rarely does.
And yet the idea of “democracy” is so widely and reflexively revered that the word’s utterance can trick the mind. The American Founders knew better because they had studied the bloody histories of demagogy in Greece and Rome. They saw elections as necessary evils to be tolerated but checked, and sought to mute the excesses of the people and the powerful. But Yarvin has very little time for Enlightenment dandies like Jefferson or Madison. He thinks they should never have let democracy in the door at all.
American democracy, he notes, has produced an expert class of authoritarians who squat on different perches but somehow sing from the same sheet. He calls this amorphous grouping “the cathedral”:
“The cathedral” is just a short way to say “journalism plus academia”—in other words, the intellectual institutions at the center of modern society, just as the Church was the intellectual institution at the center of medieval society.
This secular version is composed of the Ivys, the New York Times and the Washington Post, and other institutions that, though not formally connected, benefit from maintaining in-group solidarity and genuflecting before power. Those in the cathedral have remarkably similar outlooks:
The mystery of the cathedral is that all the modern world’s legitimate and prestigious intellectual institutions, even though they have no central organizational connection, behave in many ways as if they were a single organizational structure.
Though I prefer Jordan Hall’s exposition of the Blue Church, Yarvin’s description of the cathedral is on point. There is little cost to any given mandarin for being wrong and enormous benefits for toeing the party line. The elites who make up the cathedral’s priesthood understand at some level that their prestige and benefits accrue not from independent thinking or the rigorous pursuit of open inquiry. Groupthink pays in both money and access.
Yarvin also argues that democracy overlaps so significantly with politics that, on most occasions, the two terms are interchangeable. The latter’s connotation helps dispel the former’s. Politics, after all, has issues. But while these criticisms are frequently thought-provoking and well-observed, it is hardly news that democracies are flawed systems. “The best argument against democracy,” Winston Churchill once remarked, “is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” However, he also acknowledged that:
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…
So, what is Yarvin’s preferred alternative?
II. The Bad
At the center of Yarvin’s thesis is a cluster of unworkable ideas, first among which is that America should be “run like a startup.” He appeals to the idea that Silicon Valley CEOs have proven their agency as managers, and that unicorn executives (excluding, presumably, those who fail) have demonstrated that they can assemble the resources and people required to create and steward successful enterprises. From this observation, Yarvin makes a series of leaps to “war-time CEOs” like Elon Musk and compares them to monarchical presidents such as FDR.
It’s probably unfair to refer to Yarvin as a fascist, especially as that particular f-word has been beaten bloody by people across the political spectrum. But there are serious problems with the very idea of running a country like a startup. Consider the wisdom of the late economist Steve Horwitz, who wrote:
The fascists agreed with socialism’s desire not to leave markets to spontaneous ordering forces, but they thought the nation-state should direct the economy, not the workers. Both capitalism and socialism involved conflict, not cooperation. The same third-way thinking, and some of the same structures, were present in the first two years of the New Deal in the United States. The cartels of the National Recovery Administration were modeled after Italian fascism, and FDR and Mussolini were mutual admirers.
Yarvin refers a lot to FDR to make his case for an American monarchy. And he is correct to point out that Roosevelt circumvented several checks and balances that would have interfered with his potency.
But potency at what? Executing the New Deal? As economic historian Amity Shlaes argued in his 2007 book, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, FDR failed utterly at running the economy. Economies can’t be run like machines nor firms, and the notion that FDR got us out of the depression, as cathedral textbook authors are fond of telling us, is a myth. Given Yarvin’s command of history, it’s surprising to find him appealing to FDR’s presidential efficacy while ignoring all the New Deal’s failures. In reality, FDR and his “brain trust” sucked at central planning.
Furthermore, the CEO of a massive multinational is different from a startup CEO. The latter is trying to overcome the gravity of liftoff, while the former is trying to stay in orbit. These are two different skillsets. If Yarvin wants to argue that America needs an Eric Schmidt (big company) instead of a Sergey Brin (startup), would that help make his case? That idea would be more plausible, but it misses the mark even so.
The problem with the CEO-king is that the United States is too big and too complex for monarchs, CEOs, and presidents alike. Yarvin claims to have read and been inspired by the great 20th-century economist Ludwig von Mises. Yet Mises understood that the knowledge required to design, run, fix, or operate an economy would fry the neural circuitry of any single person or group.
Complexity scientist Yaneer Bar-Yam put it this way:
The ideological battles of the past century cannot capture what is happening today. In those battles the competition was between individual and state rights, and between dictatorship, communism, socialism, and democracy—various ways of balancing the invisible system of economic self-regulation with the intentional decision making of policymakers. A new concept is needed that transcends those frameworks.
Monarchism, of course, doesn’t transcend those frameworks either. So, following Bar-Yam, we must ask ourselves:
Why should governments fail? Because leaders, whether self-appointed dictators, or elected officials, are unable to identify what policies will be good for a complex society. The unintended consequences are beyond their comprehension. Regardless of values or objectives, the outcomes are far from what they intend.
Bar-Yam sounds like the Austrian economists Yarvin claims to have read. But Yarvin’s prescriptions for national CEOs or monarchs are likely to crash and burn in whatever administrative ordering of society he imagines. Even if a CEO-king is good at beating back checks on power or overcoming deep-state obstructions, he will never be smart enough to design, run, or fix a complex adaptive system. As Horwitz reminds us in “Companies are Not Countries,” “the perspective of the businessperson is not helpful for understanding economies as a whole.”
III. The Ugly
Startup CEOs and multinational execs share a commitment to profitability and a mission (telos). But whole societies rarely have a telos. Apart from Let’s not allow our enemies to take us over, national goals and five-year plans are the stuff of fascism.
Yarvin is fond of referring to the Manhattan Project and the Apollo missions as examples of what a more potent CEO-monarch could accomplish. And like too many others enchanted by complicated (but not complex) technocratic achievements, Yarvin doesn’t discuss profits, opportunity costs, or the invisible graveyard of projects that might have arisen from smaller experiments with the same capital.
He thinks a CEO-monarch will be able to do awesome things like make a Hoover Dam, create atom bombs, and put a man on the Moon. He thinks countries ought to have more such national goals, which the CEO-monarch should dream up. His court would act like NASA’s mission control–only for the whole of society. The king’s subjects and their tiny aspirations would have to be sacrificed on the altar of kingly caprice.
Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek—whom Yarvin dismisses as Mises Redux—left us with a couple of really important ideas that militate against oligarchy and monarchy alike:
To some extent every organization must rely also on rules and not only on specific commands. The reason here is the same as that which makes it necessary for a spontaneous order to rely solely on rules; namely that by guiding the actions of individuals by rules rather than specific commands it is possible to make use of knowledge which nobody possesses as a whole. Every organization in which the members are not mere tools of the organizer will determine by commands only the function to be performed by each member, the purposes to be achieved, and certain general aspects of the methods to be employed, and will leave the detail to be decided by the individuals on the basis of their respective knowledge and skills.
Hayek thus reminds us that there are limits to a CEO’s knowledge, too. Complexity overwhelms mortals. That’s why more and more corporations are turning to scalable management philosophies that don’t require an executive superbrain to function. Hayek adds (and this is important):
If anyone did ever succeed in fully organizing such a society, it would no longer make use of many minds but would be altogether dependent on one mind: it would certainly not be very complex but extremely primitive—and so would soon be the mind whose knowledge and will determined everything … there would be none of that interplay of many minds in which a lone mind can grow.
In much of his work, Hayek not only warns of societal-scale teloi, but he also leaves us with the cosmos/taxis distinction. CEOs are best suited to taxis, which is a planned order. Cosmos is self-organizing, which is an emergent order. The socio-economy is cosmos, not taxis.
Yarvin has previously expressed admiration for Deng Xiaoping, but one wonders what he makes of Beijing today. Xi Jinping is sino-forming the world, after all, even though he isn’t an especially great CEO. Don’t Xi and the CCP nevertheless display the attributes required of a CEO-king? There are certainly no whiggish checks on power to prevent the premier from doing what needs to be done. So we get smartphone recordings of 30 million citizens shrieking under house arrest in Shanghai. Harrowing news of Uyghur abuses has become commonplace. And China’s social credit system is a great panopticon that automates compliance from Xi’s loyal subjects. If we assume all are edicts from Xi, does Yarvin find them kosher? If not, why not?
Apart from the international pissing contest that was the Apollo program and the bombs that ended the war with Japan, Yarvin avoids discussing what specific powers an American monarch ought or ought not to have. We can certainly imagine a monarch or president directing armies in wartime. Historically, a commander-in-chief offers swift, coordinated action under such circumstances. But such powers also mean a monarch who acts like Putin.
Yarvin reminds us that the United Parcel Service (a multinational corporation) would destroy the United States Parcel Service (a federal agency) if they were allowed to compete head-to-head in the market. He’ll get no argument from me on that point. But if there is no market, then there is no competition and little profit motive. Indeed, UPS would be unlikely to fare any better in a situation where its revenues originate in forced taxation rather than consumer choice. The incentives would be a wreck.
To be fair, Yarvin insists that his preferred monarch would be “accountable.” After all, these monarchies would be set up like corporations, with subjects as shareholders and boards of directors capable of bringing emergency correctives to any CEO-king who oversteps. But otherwise, Yarvin argues, the managing monarch must be able to roll up his sleeves and get things done. We’ve already covered some of the problems with that notion, but we still have to address whether an “accountable monarchy” would be better than (a) what we have now (oligarchy+cathedral) or (b) what the Founders intended.
Imagine an America “ruled” by CEOs, in which governance is a market phenomenon. In such a market, people can choose their governments. We can then imagine a plethora of independent city-states that offer bundles of governance services in a competitive environment of small jurisdictions. If this is what Yarvin is driving at, then his approach is awkward and his focus is misplaced. Like polymath techie Balaji Srinivasan, Yarvin ought to deemphasize the CEO-king schtick and highlight competitive governance.
Indeed, if there were hundreds of jurisdictions offering services through real contracts, we might find ourselves in a situation far better than the distorted, top-heavy system we tolerate. Titus Gebel of Free Private Cities has been a legal innovator in this space, and the idea deserves consideration. But being a private city manager is not the same as ruling over 350 million souls.
In Spiral Dynamics (SD)—a model of psychosocial values development first advanced by Clare Graves—the basic theory is that people (and peoples) change over time according to certain life conditions. If you don’t like Spiral Dynamics, you can appeal to similar ideas, such as those advanced by Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan. All such theories share the basic idea that our psychosocial development changes according to levels of complexity.
But let’s use the SD framework as shorthand, along with degrees of complexity through time:
According to SD, human civilizations have become more complex over time. Such progress has been intermittent and heterogeneous, but some people have managed to ascend.
Yarvin is preoccupied with the West and with America, specifically. Corresponding to our increased complexity, we have seen changes in people’s core values as their life conditions have changed. It’s fair to say the average American is a laggard in keeping up with this complexity, and there might be cognitive limits to reaching the spiral’s second tier. In any case, those clustering in Blue, Orange, and Green are fighting the culture wars, which has the effect of trapping them in their battle trenches. Like Yarvin, first-tier affinity groups appreciate neither increased complexity nor the idea that prior stages have value in different contexts.
So, Yarvin’s monarchism has two major problems. First, he wants the West to revert to prior stages of psychosocial development—Blue/Orange—even though such a reversion would not align well with just how complex the world has become. His prescriptions risk destroying the emergent complexity beyond his ken. Otherwise, he is holding out for a super-genius, the likes of which we’ve never seen in the White House. Whether we accept the cathedral’s version of democracy or Yarvin’s accountable monarchy doesn’t matter. Neither deals effectively with complexity.
Second, embracing politics involves overlooking morality—specifically what I refer to as internal morality. In my book, The Decentralist: Mission, Morality and Meaning in the Age of Crypto, I implore readers to turn inward to rediscover six timeless moral practices. Too many have been abandoned in favor of cheap partisan preening. Morality ought to be a daily practice, not an abstraction occasionally plucked from the air. When Buddhist monks practice ahimsa, they don’t pay lip service to ethical rules or count on the state to keep people in line—they live nonviolence moment-to-moment in thought, word, and deed. Practice internalizes morality. Yarvin, on the other hand, is another “man of system.” He’s not only preoccupied with the One True Way but is preoccupied with the external—that is, with his favored form of political organization. It’s as if the entire domain of morality doesn’t exist. If it does, he’d rather not talk about it.
The whole point of Decentralism is that no one possesses The One True Way. As we move into an age of greater governance pluralism, we’ll need morality more, not less. A moral order shored up by the many will allow more people peacefully to experiment with different forms of organization, as opposed to authorities imposing a monolithic order from on high. Some firms are already moving away from CEOs and top-down management hierarchies to thrive in the Age of Complexity. We must evolve beyond the nation-state and the associated trap of figuring out who is most fit to run it. Far from finding the right monarch, we must instead establish protocols that allow communities to self-organize peacefully according to their various missions and conceptions of the good. We need more rules and fewer rulers.
But that will require more of us to take an inward turn. Rediscovering the timeless Moral Spheres means we can create more peace, freedom, and abundance together through local experiments in community and mutual aid. Hobbes notwithstanding, we have labored too long under the illusion that our presidents, kings, CEOs, or oligarchs must rule us and therefore become some ideal mix of angel and strongman. This creature lives among unicorns and faeries.
As authoritarianism rises around the world, centralization does too. We must figure out how to expand our sovereignty and practice our morality in a manner that will probably strike Yarvin as something akin to hybridizing Buddhism with Whiggism. Something like this:
[T]o secure these rights [the pursuit of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government… [Emphasis mine.]
Yarvin might be right that the Founders took a wrong turn with the Constitution. Maybe America would have been better off with 50 or more smaller jurisdictions run by benevolent dictators without legislatures. There are, after all, examples of benevolent dictators such as Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein. Sadly, though, most dictators are not all that benevolent. (Besides, both Hans-Adam II and Lee Kuan Yew are admirers of Hayek.)
As time goes by, fans of Curtis Yarvin may come around to the view of my friend, Phil Magness, who described Yarvin as “Ignatius J. Reilly in real life.” The American Republic, after all, is and has always been a confederacy of dunces arrayed against monarchism. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned or not fashionable enough. But I think Jefferson was onto something with the consent of the governed.