Conquest’s Second Law

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

I’ve mentioned Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics before:

  1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
  2. Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
  3. The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

Recently Andrew Sparrow of The Guardian linked to my post while discussing the British Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

By coincidence, Samo Burja of More Right recently discussed Conquest’s Second Law:

It seems difficult to even have a bird watching society or cycling club, let alone a church or book club that doesn’t eventually end up spending its resources on pushing the ideological goals of Progressivism. If you can’t think of an example of such leftward drift at all stop reading now to compare Henry Ford to the Ford Foundation.

The most promising explanation, Burja suggests, relies on James A. Donald’s model of leftism as Phariseeism:

He uses the word Pharisee to mean a person who reckons that since he is holier than you, you should obey him. If this is an effective strategy you will see competitions among them to be holier than each other. He proposes this holier than thou spiral as a rough fit for what we know about how American Progressivism evolved from American Protestantism. The carriers of Puritan descended memeplexes where becoming holier and holier until they became holier than Jesus. This requires either claiming the same title for yourself or demoting him from the position of Son of God. They chose the latter, giving him the new title of Chief Community Organizer and having done so where free to demonstrate holiness by advocating violently freeing slaves, outlawing alcohol and rebuking St. Paul’s advice on marriage. After a short trip along this branch, the only way to escalate is a smooth transition from being Unitarian to being holier than that fictional god person in general. Welcome to liberal secular humanism.

If you aren’t very good at bird watching, or programming, or painting, or cycling gaining status by signalling holiness via progressive causes and initiating a local instance of such a spiral seems a good strategy. If so, it is likely one our social brain evolved for, it could easily be sensed and enacted without our conscious mind even noticing we are doing so. This is a plausible reason why this could sooner or later corrupt all institutions, it just takes a small push, under the right conditions that come about, sooner or later, for the ball to start rolling.


  1. So that leaves clubs that are either A) very hard by objective measures to get into and stay in; or B) very unpleasant (on the surface) to be in; or C) (trivially) both.

    Type A: master chess club
    Type B: Amish

    Check, neither of these clubs tend leftward. In fact, they are quite apolitical. The trick will be to form a political club (say the Good Governance Club) that is very hard to enter, hard to stay in, and also somewhat unpleasant and unattractive to the outside, and starts out and remains pretty much apolitical. Seems do-able.

  2. Erik says:

    I want to spell out a very close and explicit analogy to a real event:

    Suppose a craftsman joins a workshop in medieval Spain and says “We should pray more!” Nobody wants to be the one to reject this demand, because that might annoy the Inquisition. Thus, productive enterprises turn into ‘prayer mills’ (by analogy to ‘diploma mills’) that aren’t focused on craft, and aren’t even good at holiness because the craftsman agitating for this isn’t a priest.

    Similarly, a coder walks into a github project in progressive America and say “We should use gender-neutral pronouns!” Nobody wants to be the one to reject this demand, because that might get you fired. Thus, productive enterprises turn into…

  3. Handle says:

    Here’s Scott Alexander’s take on thresholds and Pharisee-like ‘rhetorical superweapons’:

    But if one side has a superweapon, it’s impossible to argue for the other. If the threshold starts at forty, and one doctor says “But we can’t be the sorts of monsters who would refuse a potential cancer patient live-saving surgery!”, and this argument is a deeply-ingrained part of medical culture and the other doctors don’t want to be tarred as cancer-sympathizers, then the threshold goes to 30. Then another doctor brings up the same argument, and the threshold goes to 20. Soon the threshold is at zero and they’re referring rashes and hay fever for surgery and no one can protest because they don’t want to look Pro-Cancer.

    If it is impossible to ever say “You know, the social justice people make some good points, but on this issue here they’ve gone too far,” then the threshold on all of those questions above just keeps inching downward until it hits zero.

  4. Handle says:

    Also, it’s interesting to note that when conservative groups kick out heretic conservatives, it’s for being insufficiently holy on the left’s terms. And when the left does it, it’s in the same direction. So, for example, DailyKos censors the very progressive Ted Rall of all people.

    “This is what the Democratic Party has come to: so unable to face criticism, whether from left or right, that they stifle opposing voices.”

    “Anyone familiar with me and my work knows I’m not racist. My criticisms of the president are unrelated to his race, and to say otherwise in the absence of evidence is disgusting.”

    And then he goes on to prove his progressive, anti-racist bona-fides. Too late, Rall!

  5. Becky says:

    What I have observed is that most non profit organizations want members (lots) and make it easy to join. There isn’t a test; the financial and time cost is low. (Nick B. noted). These are prime for hijacking. An existing organization comes with name recognition, public good will, resources, and it is faster. The fact that the new leaders do not hold the same values is not important. All they need is a thread of commonality. The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, MADD, and most recently, the Boy Scouts are examples. It also is seen in some church denominations where the laity is conservative and the leadership liberal.

    A former vice president of the company I used to work for said he could destroy our company easier from the inside than the outside. Very true. He used to work for the competitor and when he came to work for us, it only took about 5 years after he became president.

  6. The funny thing about Erik’s analogy, and I’m sure he realizes it, is that it never happened that way in Spain. Joyent is better at implementing the inquisition than the actual Inquisition. And nobody but a bunch of cranks and crackpots (i.e., nobody) even notices.

  7. Erik says:

    I think that’s in part because the Spanish Inquisition’s job wasn’t what is normally associated with it: in the above hypothetical, they’d crack down on holiness-guy if anyone.

    And why?

    Quick historical recap: a thousand years ago Spain was invaded by southern Muslims, five hundred years ago the Spanish finish the Reconquista where they drive the Muslims out, and about that same time, the Spanish set up their Inquisition partly to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
    One of the reasons for it happening in the first place was Jews, Muslims and other outsiders posing as Christians to get inside Christian Spain and open the gates to invaders, so the Spanish Inquisition was to keep particular watch for fake Christians, such as recent converts and crypto-unbelievers who didn’t live out the faith that they so loudly and publicly professed.
    And so, a man who puts on the affectation of a workplace pseudo-priest, without either doing his work or studying to become a real priest, looks likely to be an unbeliever who is trying to fit in and Doing It Wrong.

    I’m reminded here of a passage in Chesterton’s Thursday, where the villain tells of posing as a bishop and crying ‘Down! down! presumptuous human reason!’ whereupon he is quickly revealed to be a fake, because real bishops don’t say that. (I’m told there’s a similar theme in the Father Brown books, but I haven’t read those yet.)

  8. William Newman says:

    Nick Steves writes “Joyent is better at implementing the inquisition than the actual Inquisition.”

    It seems to me that Joyent is analogous not to an inquisitor, but to a vintner or ship captain who promptly fires anyone who is clearly and stubbornly heretical. Does anyone have evidence that throughout the existence of the Spanish Inquisition it was safe and ordinary for an ordinary vintner or ship captain to express willingness to keep e.g. stiffnecked Muslim, Jewish, or Protestant employees? I don’t know for certain one way or the other — the few bits and pieces I know about the Inquisition have to do with going after the very powerful, not people running enterprises of 80 employees, and I know enough to be cautious about whether politically charged morality tales are literally true. But I know as a general rule, not so much specifically in Spain but in various places in Europe, it was not an entirely safe era for disagreeing with local authorities about issues like whether the Pope was holy or was more likely the anti-Christ.

    (Possibly I’m misunderstanding the analogy; e.g., maybe it is arguing that refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns is a triviality compared to, e.g., being a stiffnecked religious nonbeliever who refused to participate in the official religious rituals, so the point would be perhaps that Joyent has a higher bar for its employees than the Inquisition had for its subjects?)

  9. Erik says:

    I can’t speak for Nick, but in my case it’s not Joyent specifically that I’m comparing to an Inquisition; it’s the wider constellation who publicized Stephanie Grace’s private, speculative email and subjected her to a torrent of abuse and links to cow porn until she publicly recanted, who called James Watson a stupid ignorant racist and otherwise targeted him with two minutes’ hate until he retired from Cold Springs, etc, Jason Richwine, Larry Summers, Pax Dickinson, Helmuth Nyborg, etc. Ideological missteps result in expulsions, firings, exclusions, permanent black marks on record, etc.

    It certainly wasn’t safe to have a Jewish employee throughout the time of the Spanish Inquisition, but that has more to do with the Alhambra Decree of 1492 which expelled all Jews from Spain. Not sure about the others.

  10. Isegoria says:

    The Inquisition was an attempt to stop unjust executions of heretics, according to Thomas F. Madden.

  11. Isegoria says:

    I’m having trouble imagining a Good Governance Club that wouldn’t attract Progressive members.

  12. William Newman says:

    Searching the Madden article for ‘property’ and ‘forfeit’ I find nothing. Cynic that I am, the allegations that I had heard about heretics forfeiting property sounded plausible and left me with a high standard of proof for claims like “was an attempt to stop unjust executions of heretics,” unless they are intended to be read as “was in part an attempt…”.

    Asking Google about ‘inquisition forfeit property’ leads me to people talking about it but I don’t know how to determine quickly whether it’s obviously correct or such baseless lies that of course Madden didn’t deign to refute it or what.

    Incidentally, at this view from 30,000 feet, the Star Chamber looks rather similar, so while this has been framed as a question about Catholicism, this may be a question about increasingly absolute monarchy in the period.

    OTOH, if it is considered a question about tolerance in strongly Catholic countries, I’ve run across various historical anecdotes involving dissenters variously fleeing to Switzerland, Holland, England, and arguably France, but I don’t seem to remember any fleeing to Spain. If e.g. fugitive Bible translators knew that fleeing to Spain would be a fatal mistake, then it seems to me that the government — though perhaps not specifically the Inquisition — was repressing dissent rather more vigorously than ours.

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