Dreams of Canon Law

September 5, 2012

In my high school days, happily loosing myself in medieval history, tracing the rise of languages, governments, architectural styles, and nation states themselves, I dreamed of a happy life if I had been born centuries earlier, and found myself cast by fate in the role of a canon lawyer arguing for the supremacy of the pope over bishops and even kings. I dunno…it’s a project!  A mission, something to do…  Spending my days retrieving monastic forgeries and corrupt texts, coming up with novel arguments to dispossess the local feudal barbarian lord or the king of the revenue from some benefice, monastery, town, and so on. 

The papal supremecy issue was whether the pope or the regional bishops were primary – the pope was only the bishop of Rome, according to the anti-papal line, or whether the pope or the local king had control of the vast revenues of the church, the power to appoint bishops, and on and on.  It all seems tedious and pettyfogging, but momentous issues of power and money were at stake.  Sometimes the pope won, sometimes he lost. 

What’s a poor Jew-boy to do but hitch his cart to the papal star?  Not hardly…but I could dream.  I even started to learn Latin, just for the fun of it.

I just finished a book on Jean-Baptiste Colbert, The Information Master, that deals with the other side of the equation, and a later period, i.e., the effort by the secular state, specifically Louis XIV, to gain absolute power over the nobles and the church, and the role of Colbert in that effort.  The book, by Jacob Soll, describes Colbert’s relentless aquisition of documents and libraries in the service of the absolute monarchy.  Knowledge is power says the old saw, and when it came to making a legal case for the king’s right to confiscate, tax, or simiply claim all or a part of local revenue, documents were essential.  The endless battle to aggrandize Louis’ power over France was fought on paper, not on the battlefield – not since The Fronde, when he was a boy, anyway: an experience he did not wish to repeat! – and Colbert was the general.

He created archives, libraries, secret information gathering cadres, and recruited a corps of document writers, to produce an endless stream of propaganda justifying the royal perogatives.  In other words, he actively engaged in what is called today knowledge production, in the manner of think-tanks, institutes, and foundations we have now.  The monks of the medieval period were known to sometimes create deliberate mis-information, e.g. The Donation of Constantine, but Colbert relied on overwhelming his adversaries with real documents.  Often, the nobles  were unprepared:  what did aristocrats care for deeds and charters, and scribbling?  They learned the error of their ways.  Churchmen, with centuries of infighting behind them, were usually better placed to make a counter-claim, but they lost over time.

Colbert also did Louis’ dirty work, including creating the ‘overwhelming’ case against Fouquet, who had mightily pissed-off Louis.  As was typical in such affairs of state, the first arrests included paper as well as people:  whole libraries were carted off to the royal archives to deprive the victim of documentary evidence in his support, and to supply more ammunition for the king.

The book is well written, but falls into breathless comparisons between Colbert and Bill Gates, his archives and Google, that show more about Soll’s lack of understanding of database technology than anything about l’Ancien régime.  There is far too little description of how Colbert’s archives actually worked, rather than Soll’s repreated remarks that he developed many new techniques to manage the storage and retrieval of the vast amount of paper.  Indeed, there is too little discussion, I think, of how effective these efforts were:  We are told that they were crucial to Louis XIV’s absolutist project, but we are given few concrete examples of how they brought it to fruition.  I felt a suspicion that Colbert was perhaps an information-obsessed control freak who seemed more effective than he was. 

In fact, in his conclusion, Soll writes that Colbert ‘misunderstood the nature of  his own project,’ and that his penchant for secrecy undermined his goal of building an efficient state machine.  After Colbert’s death, the system fell apart, Louis perceived it as a threat to his power, and he reverted to a pre-bureacratic mode of kingship that focused on playing minsters and power centers off against one another.  So, who was the master?


Play the odds

January 4, 2010

David Brooks, the columnist I love to hate, wrote on New Years Day about the failed bomb attack on the Northwest Air jet:

…we seem to expect perfection from government and then throw temper tantrums when it is not achieved. We seem to be in the position of young adolescents — who believe mommy and daddy can take care of everything, and then grow angry and cynical when it becomes clear they can’t.

…  But, of course, the system is bound to fail sometimes. Reality is unpredictable, and no amount of computer technology is going to change that. Bureaucracies are always blind because they convert the rich flow of personalities and events into crude notations that can be filed and collated. Human institutions are always going to miss crucial clues because the information in the universe is infinite and events do not conform to algorithmic regularity. [link]

I happen to agree with him on this, and I think our social conceptions of risk are way off.  I don’t think, however, that this case is a good example of that.  A decent system should have caught that guy.  Oh well, easy for me to say in hindsight, right?  Absolutely. 

I think Brooks’ column is barking up the wrong tree.  It is so hard to make a large organization function well, and to allow the full power of individual human intelligence to be brought to bear on problems.  Organizations that handle information, quickly become, as you move up the chain, detached and mechanical in their procedures.  How can they not?  There’s all that paper, all those calls, all those lists to go through!!  Has it always been so?  Did Assyrian bureaucrats miss vital clues on food supply and impending invasions?  Did they loose their heads because of it, literally that is?

But Brooks is wrong because he doesn’t say why it is so hard to do right.  He just seems to accept it as a fact of nature – the odds are stacked against the system.  It’s hard because it goes against such entrenched political interests.  Turf wars, egos, prestige, the usual culprits.  He seems to have the attitude that, in principal, the systems are being reformed correctly, and that that their failure is an inevitable “wastage” that we must expect.  I doubt that the efforts have even scratched the surface of what should be done, and I haven’t the foggiest notion of what should be done to change it.  So maybe we agree after all?


Liberty for all

December 24, 2009

“When I am old, I shall write criticism; that will console me, for I often choke with suppressed opinions.”

Gustave Flaubert in a letter to Georges Sand

I feel compelled to unburden myself on the topic of libertarianism.  There are all sorts of people who describe themselves as libertarians, and it’s hard to make sense of the mix.

  • You have gun-obsessed Rambo-wannabees like the guy who created the picture here (Click on it to visit his blog if you have a robust tolerance for the way out!).
  • There are folks like Clint Eastwood who once remarked, “My political philosophy is simple.  Everybody should leave everyone else alone.”  Yep, good one, Clint.  That’s a real roadmap for governing a modern industrial state of 300 million.
  • There are those inpsired by the crackpot intellectual, Ayn Rand, who at least must be granted the credit for inventing a new literary genre, the philosophical soap opera.
  • And then there are thoughtful people, like a fellow I work with, who are quite reasonable but seem to revel in the libertarian cachet of ornery contrarian thinking.

I often find myself in agreement with specific critiques of libertarians, whether they are left-libertarian nearly-anarchists or right-libertarian, free market ideologues.  In fact, many of the respectable, i.e., rational and scientific, critics of the global warming point of view (AGW) are, in fact, libertarians.  But, in the end, I find it to be a bizarre and utopian political philosophy that is in full denial of the facts of human history.  As a point of view that influences the political choices you make, yes, I can see that, but anything more…?  Closer to wacko.

For libertarians of all stripes, the state, um…I mean, THE STATE, is the greatest evil.  The state, and “collectivist” actions that seek to improve life, or enslave others.  I’m all against enslavement, but I rather like improving life, even if the agent is the evil state.  Libertarians would say that’s a Faustian bargain, bound to end in the Gulag or the death camps.

Why The State?  Why not money?  Isn’t that the root of all evil?  Or…language?  Without language, no state, no money!  It’s a rather simplistic point of view.  Are they realistic in their expectations of what would succeed the present situation of vigorous state activity?  Do they care?  Do they want to revert to pre-industrial, geographically isolated “eco-regions?”  I dunno…

Sure, some state solutions fail.  Bureaucracies are cumbersome and can mutate into strange things that frustrate the very improvements they were created to bring about.  What else is new in this, the fallen state of mankind?

As a practical political philosophy, liberatarianism is hokum.  People advocating it are either naive or dishonest.  Naive if they believe that a general attempt to apply libertarian principles would result in anything other than the most powerful economic and political forces capturing the state and bending it towards their own ends, which is what they are always trying to do; or dishonest because they are part of those forces and they see libertarianism as a nifty way to pursue that goal under cover.  Mostly the former, I think, because corporate and political power has captured so much of state power today, that libertarianism is probably more of an annoyance than a help.


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