The Gödelian Limit of Political Formalism

It is a straightforward corollary of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem that no strict formalization of political theory can possibly adequate to the multifarity of human reality, either in the most general terms or, a fortiori, in the particular and peculiar. Only a very informal formalism respecting genera, types or sorts of political order – as democracy, monarchy, etc. – is practical. When it comes to the formulation of concrete policy for a particular concrete polity, then, only the most general recommendations can make good general sense. And even a good general recommendation based on the eternal verities of human society must be tweaked if it is to fit a particular society in its given historical condition.

This is why the general conservative deference to local traditions is the most appropriate political attitude. It is the opposite of a theory. It is rather a method. It is comparable to trying to understand the behavior of an animal species by observing its members in the wild and letting them alone, rather than by dissecting or running experiments on them. Or, it is like devising a detailed diet and exercise plan for the idiosyncrasies of an individual athlete, rather than trying to map out a detailed plan that will work for all humans, period full stop. Or, it is like applying a few time tested general principles to plan a building fitted to its environment, rather than designing an ideal house or farm plan that will work well everywhere.

[Concrete creaturely being is inherently local per se; a nature can be concresced only in a certain definite locus, with idiosyncratic causal inputs. Location is not simple, to be sure; but only God is not at all local. Ideas can be implemented concretely only with complete specific definition along all dimensions.]

Deference to local traditions – and, at the limit, to the local traditions of each individual person – is an effect of the Catholic social doctrine of subsidiarity. It is the only way to succor individual men and women, or a fortiori any of the social organs that supervene upon them. The implementation of any Political Theory of Everything – including even strict libertarianism – necessarily results in totalitarian tyranny, that rolls over local idiosyncrasies like a juggernaut. It is the implementation of a Procrustean Bed. And this is to impose everywhere a monoculture that in many places, and due, if to nothing else, then to geographical differences, simply cannot work very well.

This is why there can be no global government. It is also why no government can be perfect in its execution of justice; for government as such involves adjudication between subsidiary social organs, in pursuit of social harmony according to some scheme of justice – of morality and right political order – that government per se cannot but presume must properly rule with just authority over disparate subsidiary social organs that are somewhat dissimilar in their own notions of justice. Only when all such social organs, up and down the social hierarchy, ascribe to a common cult, and so to a set of general principles about how society should go, is even good government ever possible.

8 thoughts on “The Gödelian Limit of Political Formalism

  1. Pingback: The Gödelian Limit of Political Formalism | Reaction Times

  2. When this gawd-awful mess of a “body politic” has finally collapsed on itself, this should be a must read for the rebuilders (our grandchildren?).

  3. Indeed. It’s been over 4/5 of a century since Godel demonstrated the limitations, yet there are many who have doubled down on the ridiculous and counterproductive endeavor of having government do all things by fiat.

    • Dear Dave, thank you for that. In the interest of furthering the discussion (with someone in the “know”), what exactly is wrong with the current arrangement? And also, will you say whether you prefer “democracy” to Monarchy, representative Republicanism, etc.?

      • People, especially those on the left, always assure me that a mechanistic technocracy could solve all problems. I’m not at all convinced by that:

        I do not see any form of government as ideal, or immutable, or free of problems. I surely do not share the current adoration of “democracy”, whatever they mean by the term. It is no incantation that summons forth angelic powers, as many seem to believe.

        Rather, democracy tends to mitigate toward short-term thinking. Whereas a monarch would have a vested interest in the future weal of the realm, elected politicians’ interests are vested only so long as they are in office. Their incentive, therefore, is to grab while they can, whether for themselves or for their partisan cause.

        Whatever the form of government, it cannot be all things to all people. It must know its limitations. Before the advent of the modern nation-state kings tended to be restrained in what they tried to accomplish. The US representative republic had a Bill of Rights that today most everyone is determined to ignore. The idea of government as one aspect of life among many has given way to the view of it as an all-controlling deity. That smacks of idolatry.

  4. Gödel’s incompleteness theorem isn’t the only limit.
    Russell’s paradox and Turing’s halting problem also provide insight into political formalism.
    For example, the collective choice of government never halts on a single political form.
    It was known as “Kyklos” in ancient Greece.
    Man as a thinking engine (Turing machine) encounters some problems that are “undecidable”.

    Wikipedia has good summaries of “undecidability” and “kyklos”, if you’re interested.

    Russell’s paradox, Gödel’s theorems, and Turing’s halting problem took more than a half century for mathematicians to really understand.
    Only recently have set theory and model theory been identified as a foundation of the mathematics for ordinary people.
    Bottom line is;
    * one must carefully choose the axioms by which one justifies his beliefs.
    * there are no axioms for choosing axioms
    Informed choice is not an attribute of postmodern culture.

  5. Where you find a fence, build it into a great wall.

    Where you find a trough, dig it into a valley.

    Where you find a hillock, raise it into a mountaintop.

    Render the natural contours of being obvious and emphasized; that is both the observance and execution of gods will.


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