Notes on the Philosophy behind the Princess Navina Books
These tales of Princess Navina's
encounters with fanciful governments have the appearance of children's books,
yet behind the pictures and the fun, political scientist James Payne has
advanced a well-developed theory of what's wrong with government—and what
needs to be done about it.
these slender volumes, Payne explores the theme that government programs are
never what they seem. Because social and economic life is so complex,
politicians and citizens react to policies not on the basis of what they are,
but in terms of what they assume them to be. This was the point developed by
Walter Lippmann in the 1920s to explain the failings of democratic government (Public
Opinion, The Phantom Public, etc.). “Those who formulate the laws,” wrote Lippmann, “are men, and, being men, there is an enormous disparity between the simplicity of their minds and the real complexity of any large society.” Today we would have to edit Lippmann's observation to add “and women,” but the general point still stands. Rulers do not deal with the real world. Instead they rely on subjective impressions, impressions that are heavily influenced by wishful thinking and prejudice—and by rhetoric. As Gustave Le Bon put it,“In politics, things are less important than their names. To disguise even the most absurd ideas with well-chosen words often is enough to gain their acceptance.”
modern welfare state is built upon this fabric of rhetoric and illusion.
Neither the public nor the politicians grasp the real costs and long-run
consequences of the fine-sounding policies that fill the statute-books. In
truth, government is not a problem-solver. It is an institution that allows
far-away people to believe they are solving far-away problems.
the first book of the series, Princess Navina Visits Malvolia, Payne uses a simple device to dramatize the
subjective character of policy views. He assumes a country where the rulers
seek to do harm! What policies, he asks, would they adopt if this were their
For one thing, he suggests, they would try to discourage innovators. After all, one of the best ways to keep a country backward and miserable is to demoralize the entrepreneurs, inventors, and artists who advance commerce and culture. So Malvolian rulers have implemented a “prosperity fine” that penalizes the earning of income. Its purpose is to rob creative and energetic people of the fruits of their labors. The fine is set up on a graduated basis: the more you earn, the higher your penalty. It has been designed to be complex and illogical, so that, as the Magog of Malvolia gleefully claims, “everyone has to work long and hard to try to figure out what their fine is, always haunted by the fear of doing it incorrectly and going to jail.”
But wait a minute! This harmful, vexing prosperity fine is exactly our modern progressive income tax. The princess is prompted to ask how modern lawmakers, who seek to do good, end up embracing the same policy as the Malvolian rulers, who seek to do evil. She is told that the difference between a prosperity fine and a progressive income tax lies in how policy makers view them. “It's all a question of intentions,” Baron Kolshic tells the princess. The doltish baron fails to comprehend that this explanation damns politics as a fictional, and hence inherently corrupt, undertaking.
Making Indignity Palatable
In Princess Navina Visits Mandaat,
Payne broadens this theme. Mandaat is a country where rulers have gone on a
regulatory binge. Payne invents a few fanciful regulations, but in truth, there
is no essential difference between Mandaat and the United States. The
Mandaatians believe, just as Americans do, that every problem can be solved
through government regulation. Like Americans of today, the Mandaatians are
aware of the folly and illogic of regulation, but are strangely sheep-like in
the face of its indignities.
The Mandaatans are complacent because they are swayed by appearances. As their guide in Mandaat explains, the purpose of legislation is not to make things better. It is “reassurance,” to convince the public that some higher power cares about them and is dealing with their problems. When the princess notices that lawmakers haven't even read the laws they are voting on, their guide declares that this is normal because, as he says, “If they waited until they knew what they were voting on, they would never get anything done” (the quotation copies a remark made by Senator Russell B. Long in 1975 in a tax committee meeting).
The princess finds this irresponsible, but, as the guide points out, her criticism assumes that government is a rational system for solving problems. Since it's really a device to create the illusion of control, the more laws that are passed—read or unread, wise or unwise—the more reassured people will be. Regulation in Mandaat is thus revealed to be an absurdity, yet the public, swayed by “well-chosen words,” accepts it.
How to Ruin a Country and be Popular
In Princess Navina Visits Nueva Malvolia, the third book of the series, Payne begins to suggest the solution to
intellectually bankrupt government. In Nueva Malvolia, a former colony of
Malvolia, the rulers have the same old creed of trying to ruin the country, but
they also have to win elections. So leaders have to make their nefarious
policies seem popular. They accomplish this by pretending to have good
intentions and claiming that the harmful policy has a beneficial effect.
account is especially provocative because Payne has gone to American politics
for his policy examples. For example, he takes the case—reported in the Washington
Post in 1996— of a successful
after-school club in Virginia which was closed down by the federal Department
of Education because it was not gender neutral. In Nueva Malvolia, the same
policy—wrecking the mentoring club—is adopted by evil politicians
who want to hurt children. But they hypocritically justify it to the public by
pointing to good intentions (promoting sexual equality), and the public goes
along with their specious arguments.
intellectual acrobatics further dramatize the inherently subjective character
of public policy. Government programs areníƒÙt simple tools for solving problems,
shiny levers for social engineers to pull. They are mental constructs
confusingly linked to the vast, obscure social world. Masses of people can love
them without knowing hardly anything about them.
An Alternative Vision
overcome the problem of prejudice and ignorance in governmental affairs, Walter
Lippmann proposed the creation of panels of experts in each field that would
instruct the politicians what to do, and tell the public what to think.
Seventy-five years after he urged this idea, it remains sadly unrealistic.
The solution to the destructive subjectivism of politics, says Payne, is less politics. As the princess learns from an episode in Mandaat, the real problem isn't the low caliber of public officials. It's the overpowering complexity of government itself. “The problem with Mandaat,” she concludes, “is that it has too many laws, too many for anyone to manage properly.” In Nueva Malvolia, she deepens her understanding of this point. “What's wrong with politics is that everyone's trying to fix things from a distance. No wonder they blunder. When you tend things right under your hands,” she says, alluding to a small volunteer project she carried out in Nueva Malvolia, “you can succeed.”
In this way, Payne proposes a radical
decentralization of social problem-solving as the way to avoid the myth and
misinformation inherent in government. In the fourth volume of the series, Princess
Navina Visits Voluntaria, Payne fleshes out
this model with a country that has no government in the conventional sense.
Traditional government activities, from police and education to the promotion
of science and art, are carried out by small-scale voluntary groups, commercial
firms, and neighborhood associations.
drawing his examples of voluntary action from actual practice, Payne shows that
Voluntaria is not a fanciful utopia but a reasonable extension of ideas and
practices already visible in our world. With the model of Voluntaria, Payne
concludes a devastating critique of government's cumbersome policy making with
a positive vision of an alternative arrangement.