Sunday, January 27, 2013

Our Reactionary Progressives

One of the few nice things about the Left and its current tribune President Barack Obama is the dependable sameness of their worldview and the arguments they use to defend it.  Mr. Obama’s recent Inaugural Address, while bringing absolutely nothing new to either his ideology or his rhetoric, at least had the virtue of being forthright, unabashed, and honest.

All of the progressive misunderstanding of America’s founding principles and of market economies were repeated again.  All of the conflation of the radical power of individual rights and responsibilities with social democratic communitarian longing was reliably restated.  All of the fear of unregulated creativity and trade by people pursuing their happiness was disguised by a prescription for coercing the commons.  All of the unwillingness to face, much less address, unpleasant truths was again airbrushed with lofty, vapid appeals to brotherhood and egalitarianism—all a veritable Idem Ordo Sinister Seclorum.  While we aren’t quite courageous enough to lip-sync The Internationale, we can certainly hum it softly.

Several thousand miles to the west and three days later, a wilier and craftier exponent of the same progressive creed, California Governor Jerry Brown, delivered another apologia in his State of the State address.  In line with the President’s in-your-face leftist triumphalism, Mr. Brown crowed that his policies of defending the blue social model have “once again confounded our critics” so that now “California is back, its budget is balanced, and we are on the move.”  But Mr. Brown, unlike Mr. Obama, has no Republican opposition to deal with; on the other hand Mr. Brown, unlike Mr. Obama, has an awareness of the danger of hubris.

Given the dynamics and direction of the world political economy, the Left and the MSM—which constitute the Church of the All Powerful State (CAPS)—have ironically become the home of reactionary political power.  The Democratic Party leadership under Mr. Obama, with no visible dissent anywhere in its ranks, stands athwart history and defiantly yells “No!” to reforming, much less replacing, the blue social model.  And their enablers in the MSM do the relentless flack work necessary to rally the troops and demoralize the opposition.

As the Recovering Bureaucrat, along with countless others, has stubbornly chronicled, this bizarre state of affairs is the culmination of 140 years of organized “progressive” politics.  This arose out of long-standing Jacksonian suspicion of big institutions as a reaction to the rapid industrialization of the United States after the Civil War, but only gained permanence in American governance after the election of Franklin Roosevelt led to the New Deal.  For almost four decades, like a series of hurricanes FDR and his Democrats so thoroughly transformed the country’s political landscape that neither the founders nor Andrew Jackson would recognize their own work. 

The more worrisome situation is what appears to be a slowly expanding number of Americans who either agree or have simply acquiesced by tuning out.  Neither the rise of talk radio nor the intrusion of Fox News into the MSM seems to have deflected this trend.  Indeed, polling data of attitudes and opinions of the youngest cohort of adults indicate strongly that the Left has convinced them fairly emphatically that a benign government should be allowed to take care of them.  As Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass puts it,
Young voters clinging to the Democratic Party will cry one day, and pull out their hair when they realize the costs of trillions upon trillions in debt and the effects of inflation.  But for now, they're busy tweeting and getting their politics from Comedy Central.  When they wake, don't be surprised if they start talking about death panels for everyone older than 60.  By then, of course, it'll be too late.  So the Democratic message—give us free stuff because rich, white guys are evil—is effective.
The trend toward mass adoption of this mantra, reflected in the results of the presidential race, has perhaps emboldened folks like Mr. Obama and Mr. Brown to drop even the pretense of bipartisanship and go for the main chance, presuming that the current political geometry will only move even more in their direction.

At least Governor Brown was willing to sound the note of caution that Mr. Obama ignored.
This means living within our means and not spending what we don't have. Fiscal discipline is not the enemy of our good intentions but the basis for realizing them.  It is cruel to lead people on by expanding good programs, only to cut them back when the funding disappears.  That is not progress; it is not even progressive.  It is illusion.  That stop-and-go, boom-and-bust, serves no one.  We are not going back there.

The budget is balanced but great risks and uncertainties lie ahead. The federal government, the courts or changes in the economy all could cost us billions and drive a hole in the budget. The ultimate costs of expanding our health care system under the Affordable Care Act are unknown. Ignoring such known unknowns would be folly, just as it would be to not pay down our wall of debt. That is how we plunged into a decade of deficits.

The Inescapable Progressive Paradox

This, of course, is the paradox of the progressive platform.  Only actual wealth can produce the surpluses from which taxes can be extracted; steadily expanding wealth will produce commensurate tax revenues without impacting the profit and reinvestment essential for growth.  When wealth creation collapses but tax rates—and the borrowing that pays government expenditures in excess of tax collections—do not, then taxation begins to eat into the surplus.  A regime that privileges government spending at the expense of wealth creation becomes an oligarchy of rent-seekers, which historically has leeched onto progressive politics to make a mockery of its goals of social justice and equality of outcome.

This occurs because of the huge blind spot bedeviling the progressives: the assumption that the redemptive power of enlightened good intentions exempts them from the foibles of humanity that the rest of us benighted souls are cursed with. 

Walter Russell Mead in his latest essay on the decline of the blue state model, notes how the generation of the progressives of the Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR era “saw the march of history as inexorably leading to greater popular power and autonomy, and believed that the only wise option for elites was to prepare the masses to exercise the power that must soon fall into their hands—whether they were ready or not.”
Thanks to the enlightened leadership of gentry liberals, the common people would become better educated, more politically aware, more economically productive and more able to take their fate into their own hands.  The liberal tradition is one in which elites, very much aware of their privilege and not at all inclined to throw it away, justify their privilege by linking it to a political program aimed at, in the long run, making a less privileged society.  . . . The classic liberal paradigm saw this leadership not just as the right and decent path; it was the only path.  To resist the decentralization of power and social leveling was hopeless; the majority was going to win in the end no matter what the elite did or thought.  The only question is whether the majority would come to power angry, bitter and incompetent—like the French and Russian revolutionaries—or educated, thoughtful and humane.
This presumption, nurtured in the bosom of the early 20th century WASP elite of New England and New York, was coherent with post-Civil War enthusiasm for the transformative power of science.  If the world behaved, as Isaac Newton described, like a machine, then all problems could be solved by discovering the appropriate mechanics and applying the lessons.  Solutions to even economic or social problems could be determined and managed by well-trained and dispassionate experts.

Enthusiasts in every field of human endeavor were animated by their faith in this scientific truth.  Even industry was impacted by people like Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose theory of scientific management introduced mechanical principles to manufacturing and laid the foundation for the mass production pioneered by Henry Ford that did so much to make American industrial might hegemonic in the world economy.

Of course, it was difficult to argue with the results, which helped underwrite the progressive transformation of American politics after 1932.  The onslaught of the Depression made voters willing to believe that government experts would be able to apply their superior knowledge to fix the economy, if only they were given sufficient power.  And thus FDR and his fabled Brain Trust experimented boldly and chaotically to find the right government magic to restore wealth creation and prosperity.  That they never actually did so somehow failed to make skeptics of the citizenry, at least not for several generations.

But the inexorable truth was that the slow shift of responsibility for maintaining America’s genius and success from the citizenry at large to a cadre of self-proclaimed experts was a debilitating one.  It led inevitably to today’s America where we have lost our ability to think boldly and act brashly as inventors, wealth creators, and visionaries.  Further, it has ensconced the rent-seekers in power in Washington, with their thinly-disguised disdain for fly-over America with our guns and our ever rapacious contempt for the physical environment—including our personal health.  The exponential growth of federal and blue state regulations is the experts-know-better credo run amok.

Mead politely calls this “a condescending approach.”  But,
[f]rom the standpoint of America’s blue meritocracy [i.e., the Church of the All Powerful State], this vision of the future is both humane and inevitable. Economic development is disempowering the many and empowering the few; and there is nothing that can be done about that. The only decent and fair thing to do is to make a trade. The few will be taxed for the sake of the many, and in return the many will accept the wise guidance of the few.

. . . Liberalism now has nothing to do with attacking or eroding the power of the liberal elite; as long as that elite carries out its duty to share with the masses and accepts that its children must in turn earn their own place in the elite rather than simply inheriting one, the elite has no further need to democratize.  The long job of social evolution, the fight against entrenched power going back to Magna Carta is over.  It has done its job, it has brought us into the golden age of absolute and permanent meritocracy.  The best now truly rule.

Gentry liberals today see something different: the “ungifted” majority is the object of their pity and care, rather than a force that demands their respect and even their fear.  As they contemplate what post industrial society will look like, they are filled with pity for the incompetent losers, the untalented, those who will only be able to get jobs as pool boys and cocktail waitresses in the post-manufacturing world.  Industrial society saw the workers as a rising irresistible force whose interests could not be ignored; post-industrial liberals seem to see the common folk as a collection of sad and weak losers whom the strong must protect.
Read in this context, the speeches of Mr. Obama and Mr. Brown make perfect sense.  When Mr. Obama says, “we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges: that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” guess who will dictate that “collective action”?  His subsequent interview with the editors of the New Republic answers that question emphatically.  (The interviewers' equally narcissistic softball questions demonstrate perfectly the symbiosis between the MSM and the left-wing oligarchs.)

Mr. Brown, whose lifelong experience in government has taught him to be a bit more circumspect than Mr. Obama, nonetheless shares his elitist view that his progressive faction knows what’s best for the little people: the “one-third renewable energy mandate; the reform of workers compensation; the reorganization of state government; protecting our forests and strengthening our timber industry; reforming our welfare system; and launching the nation's first high speed rail system”—all were dictated by the state’s one-party leadership, which got the state into the fiscal mess that Mr. Brown denounced.  Shakespeare himself couldn't make this stuff up.

Perhaps Mr. Brown can be more circumspect because, unlike the President, none of his Republicans has the slightest power to derail his blue state vision in which, as Professor Mead puts it, “we will both need and be able to afford an ever-more active redistributive state.”  It remains the job of us in the “ungifted majority” to acquiesce and accept with grace and gratitude the snake oil prescribed by the Church of the All Powerful State.

The Left's Rent-Seeking Leeches

And so the rent-seekers make cause with the progressives.  Here in California the unholy alliance is government unions, trial lawyers, and environmentalists with Hollywood and Silicon Valley, rent-seekers all.  Over the years they have driven out manufacturing, reduced the middle class, destroyed the education system, and impoverished the state’s public infrastructure.  But not to worry; they financed an aggressive and successful campaign to induce voters to raise taxes in the name of fiscal prudence!  Joel Kotkin, who has written extensively on the collapsing blue model in California, recently noted that this is just the latest act in “a bizarre political farce.”
In the immediate future, we should expect more of the same from our one-party government.  Flush from the passage of Prop. 30, tax increases backed by public sector unions, there is little to restrain them beyond occasional resistance from Gov. Brown. Having made California's income taxes the highest in the U.S., legislators and local officials are already busily concocting new taxes, fees and another spate of bond issues to prop up the nation's most-cosseted public sector, and, of course, fund its rich pensions at the expense of mostly middle-class taxpayers.

. . . But it's not only taxes that will depress growth. Our Mad Hatter one-party, public-sector-dominated state seems keen to press its regulatory assault on employers and job creators. With climate change-related legislation certain to boost already high energy costs, we also can expect industries, from food processing to semiconductors and aerospace, to continue heading to friendlier locales.
So what is most curious to the Recovering Bureaucrat is not that left-wingers are in bed with the rent-seekers; it’s the increasing incidence where the majority of us appear willing to become wards of this “ever-more active redistributionist state” and enable the rent-seekers and the downward spiral of wealth creation that always follows.  Conversion of the majority to the Church of the All Powerful State has implications that are fearsome to contemplate.

But the fact remains that this progressive faith is based on the demonstrably unsustainable assumption that, quoting Prof. Mead again, business “tycoons and the very successful minority will be so rich, thanks to their continuing gains from globalization and technological change, that they can pay progressively higher taxes to fund basic services and middle class jobs for enough of the rest of the country that something like a middle class society can be preserved.”

The RB prefers to think that this wishful thinking is a symptom of the enormous transformation humanity is experiencing, brought about by the rise of the Information Age with its reorganization of global wealth creation and distribution.  Our resistance to change is a psychospiritual design feature that applies both to us as individuals and as mass humanity.

The United States, which has been the consistent leader of global change for almost seventy years now, is particularly stressed by global dynamics.  We have no vision for growth and breakthrough over the next decade; all we have is the reactionary program of the progressives.  Perhaps the willingness of many of us to believe in the potency of the snake oil stems in part from the lack of the call from a more compelling vision of the possibility of an even better life than that of the postwar Pax Americana

But that possibility already exists and is being invented in bits and pieces, starts and fits, trial and error all over the globe.  Because the paternalistic utopia of the Church of the All Powerful State cannot be sustained over even the intermediate run, sooner or later Americans will awaken from this mass lassitude and seize again the moment.

It is perhaps sad to foresee that the progressives will be unable to resist the hubris that Jerry Brown is warning them to eschew.  But hubris is the fatal flaw of the progressives; their faith that they have transcended human nature and have acquired objective truth about the human condition will be their downfall.  That humans have known the fatal attraction of this siren song since the days of Euripides and Aristophanes offers but a paltry balm to those wise enough to accept it.  It is, in the final analysis, a universal human foible.

And so let none of us find solace when the progressive bubble finally collapses; what we conservatives know is that we are all in this together, and that true collective action comes only from agreement and not coercion.  For in truth we are all responsible for the state of affairs we find ourselves in, and only when a majority of us are willing to face this unpalatable reality will the possibility of transcendence materialize.

This is why America matters and why we must unflaggingly oppose the schemes promoted by President Obama, Governor Brown, and their allies—because America as envisioned by the Founders and improved by Abraham Lincoln is big enough to survive the progressive detour.  It is why over the centuries America prospered out of proportion to the rest of the world; those willing to promote them anew will generate a new birth of freedom and prosperity.

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