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Word count: 981

Reading time: 4 minutes

Keywords: democracy, authoritarianism, populism, lock-in, technology, policy, global catastrophic risk, climate change, existential risk

Audiobook length: 7hrs 39mins (at 1x)


David Runciman is an English academic who teaches politics and history at Cambridge University, where he is Head of the Department of Politics and International Studies. He is the author of several books, including The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present, and is host of the weekly Talking Politics podcast.

I recently enjoyed reading this book and I think it had many relevant and interesting ideas for effective altruists and people interested in positively shaping the future. I think the book is excellent, and if you liked this summary, I would recommend supporting it by going out and buying it!


1. Coup?

We should not fear a return to the 1930s. We should not expect coups in the future to look like the past for three reasons: violence has declined, we are much richer than before, and our institutions have learnt the lessons of the past.

The bigger threats are from the decay of our institutions. Instead, Nancy Bermeo argues that democractic backsliding has become more prevalent since the Cold War. In particular, Runciman argues that ‘executive aggrandizement - when elected strongmen chip away at democracy while paying lip service to it - looks like the biggest threat to democracy in the twenty-first century’.

Conspiracy theories, post-truth, and populism are likely to increase. Populism claims that democracy has been stolen by elites, and that the people need to claim it back. This view becomes more prevalent when people feel that they have lost out, and is associated with rises in inequality.

2. Catastrophe?

There are three main ways modern civilisation could destroy itself: through weapons of mass destruction, from fatal environmental degradation, or by the lock-in of bad values such as in totalitarian states. Runciman gives as examples for each three: Silent Spring, Hiroshima, and Hannah Arendt’s famous piece ‘on the banality of evil’.

These three issues are caused more by inattention than attention, and so democratic systems may struggle to address them:

  • Climate change poses a serious threat to future civilisation, but it is too diffuse and uneven for people to feel its effects clearly and respond to them. This makes consciousness-raising harder.
  • Though during the Cold War, the nuclear threat was a popular topic of discussion. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) had two million members at its peak, but now has fewer than a few thousand
  • The threat of totalitarianism remains present, and historians such as Timothy Snyder, have argued that democracy complacency led to Weimar Germany

Runciman argues that these three threats remain real, and that democracy may not be able to address them. It might be that the end of civilisation comes before the end of democracy. He quotes Bostrom:

“democracies will find it difficult to act decisively before there has been any visible demonstration of what is at stake. Waiting for such a demonstration is decidedly not an option, because it might itself be the end"
Nick Bostrom, Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards

Runciman then discusses the ‘rarefied atmosphere’ of existential risk, making reference to Parfit, Bostrom, and the AI alignment problem. Some people argued that democracy ended when the atomic bomb was created - it was the biggest lever on the future, and it was outside of the hands of individuals. Runciman argues that ‘democracy cannot control existential risk’.

3. Technological takeover?

In this chapter, Runciman looks at models of the state as a machine, going back to Hobbes’ Leviathan, and considers how the internet could facilitate direct democracy.

Runciman argues that the states’ leviathan is what is needed to address corporate capture and regulate entities such as Facebook and big oil companies. Individuals have a limited ability to tackle these behemoths.

In reality, David cannot beat goliath - you need another goliath in the form of the state. The leviathan of the people as a collective is the only thing big enough to take on the large organisations and externalities threatening civilisation. [I'm reminded of Founders Pledge's emphasis on policy as the best route to making progress on climate change, and also Bruce Schneier's quote in the 80,000 Hours podcast, which I've pulled out below, where he says that policy responses pushing back on banks was the only way to improve security for individuals.]

However, Runciman argues that the information age has tended to reinforce authoritarian states rather than undermine them. For example, China’s universal credit system, and algorithmic bias and discrimination risk entrenching bad values and inequality.

While direct democracy is appealing, it can have terrifying and disastrous consequences (for instance the general public supports the return of the death penalty). There is an open question of how more responsive technology can integrate with democracy to deliver better outcomes.

4. Something better?

Some contemporary intellectuals claim that democracy is leading to highly reactive and jingoistic politics, and that maybe we should consider alternatives, namely:

  • Pragmatic authoritarianism - one of the strengths of authoritarian states is that they can move quickly and decisively, and this could be a good way to avoid imminent threats. But utilitarianism can quickly become authoritarianism, and the justification of expediency creeps quickly to enabling rulers and tyrants beyond reproach.
  • Epistocracy - defined as rule by knowledgeable people, this is a variant on technocracy. Rule by technocrats is derided as being all about the machine and not about human lives. Epistocracy, by contrast, claims to appreciate the important things, but to be governed by wise people. The problem is that wise people are just as prey to cognitive biases as everyone else.
  • Liberated technology. Runicman discusses accelerationism - a sort of pro-growth futurism distinguished from de-growth environmentalists. This could greatly expand our moral concern. Parfit argued that our clinging to personal identity led to a lack of compassion for those distant from us in space and time. But strong revisionism risks tearing apart institutions and sensibilities that are there for a reason. In 1919, the Italian Partito Politica Futurista merged with Mussoli’s fascists.

Runciman concludes that, of the three options, democracy maintains a good option. The randomness and change in democracy avoids lock-in of bad situations, such as authoritarian states.

Longer-term, liberated technology may offer us better experiences than democracy currently does, but that the downsides could be more terrible than anything we’ve known. Which route we choose, and what the future looks like, is up to us to decide.

Further reading

Bruce Schneier: But you, Mr Economist, understand the notion of externalities and a bank is not going to fix the problem if someone else has the problem. So, I mean, in 1978, in the United States, we passed the Fair Credit Reporting Act. And one of the things it did, is it limited liabilities for credit card losses to the individual to $50. And this was a game-changer in credit card security. Before that law, credit card companies would basically charge the user for fraud. Your credit card got stolen or lost and you were stuck with the bill until like the two weeks until the company could print the new little book with bad numbers. When Congress passed that law, suddenly the credit card companies were absorbing all the losses. They couldn’t pass it to the consumer.
Robert Wiblin: And they fixed it very fast.
Bruce Schneier: But they did so many things that the consumer could never do. So think of what they did. Real-time verification of card validity. Microprinting on the cards. And the hologram to make them less forgeable. Shipping the cards and a PIN to the user in separate envelopes. Requiring activation from a phone that was recognized. Now, if you’re a user and you’re getting those losses you couldn’t implement any of those things.
But the credit card company could. They just never did because they never suffered the losses.
Robert Wiblin: Give the cost to the group that can do the most to fix the problem is just an obvious approach.
Bruce Schneier on the 80,000 Hours podcast





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Good writeup, thank you!

It strikes me that the populist claim ("...that democracy has been stolen by elites, and that the people need to claim it back") is plainly true in the US. I guess my quibble would be that there has never really been true democracy in the US; for most of our history, large groups have been excluded from democratic processes. While almost everyone can vote now, there are still large barriers to voting (e.g. it's not a national holiday, you often have to register in advance, non-citizens can't vote, etc.). Voting also has a lot less impact than campaign contributions and other political spending, which are obviously a factor of wealth. There was a Princeton paper that found the wealthy are many times more likely to achieve their desired policy goals (https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746). Michael Bloomberg is now trying to openly buy the presidency and might succeed.

Does the author engage substantively with this point? I've seen establishment academics poopoo populism, lumping together the right and left-wing versions of it.

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