Under the weight of parasitism

We have many ‘isms’ out there. Capitalism, Socialism, Fascism, Communism, Feminism, Malapropism… for a start.

The problem with all of them – Ok, maybe not the last, is that no matter what they claim to be they usually suffer from parasitism. Some are in fact little more than parasitism dressed up in rationalization and excuses that sound good. Some may have even started with great ideals, worthy of at least consideration. But… well, the weight of parasites grows to a killing point, or at least a crippling one.

This of course is a core theme in quite a number of my books – not only about the problem but possible solutions to it, or at least how to make the best of it.

So: what is a parasite in this context? Well, a parasite produces nothing, and derives its entire living from the host, which produces something. Now, contrary to most views, parasites are not ONLY negative. At low levels, sometimes parasites do provide protection for example -sometimes from other parasites and sometimes from other problems. The host can, with very low levels actually be better off than the same critter without the low level of parasite. The key of course is the level, and just what positives they provide. The second point is all parasites do do ONE thing well – but not for the host – and that is increase in number.

Human societies always divide between the productive and the parasites. The producers and the rent-seekers, to put it another way. Rent-seeking behavior is best explained by the illustration of the river which the local farmers use to take their produce to market. The river exists. It flows through the land controlled by a local baron, or bandit chief (often the same thing, historically). He did not make the river, or do anything useful – but he put a chain across the river and charges the farmers a fee to cross it. He adds no value, he simply extracts rent, by virtue of killing anyone who doesn’t pay. He’s a pure rent-seeker, a worthless parasite. In the normal progression of things he will increase his fee until the farmers can barely survive. His judgement isn’t always good. The farmers quality of life and ability to invest in improving their farms will suffer. The baron and his retainers and dependents (even parasites haves parasites) will have their quality of life improve, although they produce nothing.

The Baron – let’s call him Biffo, has one thing to fear: that his position as rent collector will be usurped either by the farmers or another baron who wants to collect the rent instead. So he invents pretexts as to why his rent-seeking is perfectly justified. He’s defending the farmers from Baron Bigo who would charge more. Also he protect them from bandits (such as he himself once was).

In truth the biggest ‘risk’ he is protecting anyone from is another possibly worse bandit taking over. As I said parasites sometimes protect against other parasites – not because they are protecting the host, for the host’s benefit, but because they are protecting themselves, for their own. The host’s benefit is merely collateral to their self-interest, from their point of view (this is important). Here’s the thing: if banditry was easier and more successful Lord Biffo wouldn’t have bothered with the chain.

Of course Baron Biffo doesn’t do all of this on his own. No, he has a pack of lesser parasites, who, using Biffo as their arm, seek their own rent. Call them Sir Humphrey and his minions. Originally, they wound the windlass that raised or lowered the chain, but they found it easier to force the farmers to come and do the work. To Sir Humphrey it matters not who the current boss is: he just collects the rent, and makes any actual work the problem of the victims. Lord Biffo, Lord Bigo, or the revolutionary captain of the farmers who killed them both… Sir Humphrey and minions stay in their job. In a way, the problem is more about Sir Humphrey and minions, than the Baron. You can get rid of the Baron – usually by swapping him for another. Getting rid of Sir Humph and his pack is FAR harder.

The problem, in a nutshell, is the parasites operate under the context of ‘for your benefit’ – even if they are in fact the main problem (the baron was the bandit). And, short of an infinitely large space to get away, someone will always decide rent-seeking (for your own good) is actually easier and more profitable than working and producing for themselves. So if you’re a productive member of society: there will always be some kind of parasitic class claiming to be the government and taking as much of your production as they can.

The problem then becomes one of amelioration: limiting the parasites in number and power, possibly making them do something vaguely useful (the latter is, while desirable, still less important than just limiting the parasite load). It’s not merely a question of elections: that may change Biffo for Bigo, but does nothing to Sir Humphrey and his minion-nematodes. Biffo and Bigo are greedy but it’s the sheer bloodsucking volume of rest that weaken the host and make its life a misery until it dies. Biffo and Bigo can be restrained by the mere existence of a well-armed populace (something which I feel essential for any long term thriving state). Sir Humphrey and the bureaucrats just change masters, nothing else.

The key in this -and this was a part of STARDOGS and THE RATS, THE BATS AND THE UGLY – is that despite their claims they’re doing this for you, and protecting you from this that and the next – actually, their self-interest is the ONLY way to control, limit, and even channel their behavior into something not actively harmful, and maybe even useful. This, frankly. is easier in science fiction than reality.

Typically in reality, Baron Bigo may well promise to reduce the red tape. He may even manage to reduce some small part of it. It will have a positive effect – but while Sir Humphrey and minions are in place, it will come roaring back. I suspect the only way to actually deal with Sir Humphrey and his minions short of the guillotine, is somewhat science fiction to politics as usual anyway. We know they’re inefficient at best, and that the risk they’re protecting those who pay the rent from is often trivial. It IS important to get the risks stated at least – as well as the costs in attaining the protection. Take the TSA crotch-fondlers as an example. Hijacking joined being a privateer as a career of yesteryear at 9/11. A hijackers’s success rested on the possibility of survival IF you co-operated. How many people will believe their assurances now? Zero. The cornered rats will fight. Anyone who believes they’re going to die if they co-operate, won’t.

If nothing else, showing something that has a risk of millions to one, and yet costs the the productive a fortune… is going to make them have to look for other excuses. But they’ll find those. It’s what they’re good at. Often all they’re good at. However the right motivation – and yes, sf solution – is to tell Sir Humphrey that he’s got a certain budget to split between himself and his staff. The same budget regardless of how many staff, or what they claim to do. The problem of course is if the Sir Humph’s bottom layer of control actually DOES something useful – If there are 10 managers and office staff and one road-worker who actually does something – you know who is getting fired. So it also needs to be contingent on the job getting done.

All easier said than done. But the biggest step is realizing the enormous drag of parasitic rent-seekers on society. And calling them parasites is a start.


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6 responses to “Under the weight of parasitism

  1. During the “stimulus” payments of a decade ago in the US it was Sir Humphreys who pocketed the vast majority of funds. This time around the money printed went to private people enough to obscure how much Humphreys might be pocketing. Meanwhile it’s hard to figure out how many people in government have even returned to work.

  2. The problem is that being productive means not having much time for eternal vigilence against the parasites. 😦

    • This was inspired by that Turchin thing you pointed me at. I liked some of it, agreed with some of it, but felt he mis-characterized the ‘elite’. There really are an elite – best of the best, scientists, writers, etc. They will always be too rare. He was calling ‘elite’ what I call parasites -particularly Sir Humphs – who derive their living and wealth from the power structure not their ability.

      • Different definitions of “elite”. When Turchin uses that term, he means ruling class, people who expect to wield political power. I wish I could say they’re all parasites, but it seems societies above a certain size need them.

        BTW, for those who don’t know, “that Turchin thing” is https://peterturchin.com/

        • Yes. Different definitions. I feel mine more accurate and providing less ‘cover’ for them. They have – as I said, sometimes a small value. That needs to be quantified, the risks defined, and the value of preventing them calculated. Insurers do this all the time.

  3. There is no solution in a world that small.

    In a larger worlds, Sir Humphreys daughter is married to the son of one of the local farmers. The Priest who blesses the forge that builds both the plows and the chain puts the fear of hell into all of them, and Holy Wisdom helps with the rest.

    Until everyone gets fat enough to imagine that surely this vice, this mere schmear pecadillo ough to be indulged, and not repented, and so the termites get let in again.

    And ’round and ’round we go.

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