In his last post, the Recovering Bureaucrat looked at the divergence between our human evolutionary trajectory toward greater connectivity and accountability at the collective level, and the severe strain of narcissism preventing this development at the leading edge in the Advanced Sector.
The founding of the United States represented a quantum leap in the human condition by establishing a home for exploration of true self government. The people of England’s American colonies were the first to act upon several centuries of the maturing revolutionary thought that the individual has supreme authority and autonomy, not tribes or their aristocracies. They were committed to establish and perfect what Lincoln later called “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The Founding Fathers understood that the success of this experiment would ultimately require that an ongoing majority of Americans master personal self government, for only a citizenry capable of measuring happiness in the context of both personal and social wellbeing could govern itself wisely. They called this capacity virtue. "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion,” John Adams famously announced in 1798. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
The leaders of the founding generation had few illusions about human nature, the commitment to individual liberty notwithstanding. The failure of the Articles of Confederation and the vigorous debate about the Constitution were rooted in the quandary of how to establish a government with sufficient safeguards against what these men understood to be a natural human tendency toward tyranny. “All men having power,” James Madison argued in 1787, “ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.”
The challenge was—and is—that a nation of equal citizens is a nation of men having power of themselves, and the understanding and application of that power is definitely not the same from person to person. Some people have superbly mastered themselves and behave with great enlightenment in their civic duties, while others have barely left the narcissism of childhood.
The paradox of a nation of equally free citizens governing ourselves while possessing a wide range of civic virtue led the Founders to create a unique structure of government to withstand the impact of this spectrum of moral capacity. Thus they intentionally invented divided government, not only at the national level (for which the post-New Deal Left has designed the Church of the All Powerful State) but vertically as well. They responded to a well-founded dread that too much power might ultimately be ceded to an ever-tyrannical national government by severely limiting its powers, reserving those not specifically enumerated in the Constitution to the people or their state governments.
One doesn’t have to be an ideologue to see the validity of their fears in today’s very confused and deeply divided America.
The plain problem is our human failure to develop to the level of mass civic maturity necessary for our experiment in self-government to be declared a success. This is a simple feature of human evolution. We are where we are.
Since the disruptive impact of industrialization transformed our country from a society of Jeffersonian yeoman farmers into a dynamic urbanized polyglot supported by unprecedented increases in wealth and luxury, a significant number of Americans have been willing to support curbs on individual liberty in return for the perception of security against potential bankruptcy and ruin. The Populist movement that sprang up in the aftermath of the Civil War promised to defend the farmers of the west against the robber barons that built and owned the railroads. It set the stage for the trust-busting progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century.
Flaws of Progressivism
The Progressives argued that liberty was endangered by the power of industrial combines and financial trusts, and sought to use the muscle of the national government to reduce their perceived impact on human wellbeing. Walter Russell Mead, in his perceptive analysis of the collapse of the “blue social model,” calls this “Liberalism 4.0.”
Classically, liberals considered an unholy alliance of church and state as the prime enemy of freedom. In the late 19th century, however, the rise of huge industrial corporations seized pride of place as a threat to individual liberty; 20th-century 4.0 liberals began to think about the state as a possible ally to defend individuals from unaccountable private power. The liberalism of Theodore Roosevelt and men like William Allen White was defined by their response to these challenges. Democratic government needed to ensure a level playing field, to fight for basic equality of opportunity.What escaped the notice of these “mediating classes”—but not that of their conservative opponents—was that they themselves carried the same flaws as those with whom they did political and economic battle. And as they gained power, they conflated the conservatives’ commitment to the founding principles with the deleterious impacts they perceived that an “unfettered individualism” had visited on the economy and the environment. Over time, by gradual rejection of the power and value of the original American dedication to “the proposition that all men are created equal,” the American Left lost its commitment to liberty and became increasingly instead hucksters for statist paternalism.
There were other problems, too, and they grew after World War I. Agrarian America had been a relatively egalitarian society when it came to incomes; the Industrial Revolution and mass immigration threatened to divide society into paupers and millionaires. Agrarian America had also been relatively homogeneous in culture: Protestant and British, or from relatively similar cultures in northern Europe, like those of Germany and the Netherlands. A society including millions of impoverished urban workers from radically different cultural backgrounds could not be run as in the past; the situation grew even more complex as millions of African Americans left Dixie for big Northern and Midwestern cities.
The progressives and liberals who created 20th-century liberalism did their best to address these and similar problems in ways that would preserve as much as possible of the old liberal heritage in a new world. The development of a professional, bureaucratic civil service and the regulatory state were intended to preserve individual autonomy and dignity in a world dominated by large and predatory corporate interests. At the same time the challenges of modernization and urbanization (public health, food safety, and provision of newly necessary services like electricity and gas) could best be met through public services and, in some cases, regulated private monopolies. The emerging professional and managerial classes were not just middle classes in the sense of standing between the rich and the poor in income and status; they were mediating classes who sought through the state, the universities and the learned professions to erect a balance between the interests of the wealthy and those of the workers.
And thus was born what the Recovering Bureaucrat calls the Church of the All Powerful State (CAPS).
The disruptive forces unleashed by the industrial revolution have, the CAPS’ efforts to the contrary, expanded throughout the entire globe. The civil war between the reactionary forces of tribalism and aristocracy against individual sovereignty-based republics that was ignited with the Protestant Reformation and the concurrent rise of capitalist forms of political economy rages on in ever-mutating battles. It is an epic battle, for on the one hand few can deny that the capitalist political economy based on individual liberty has unleashed wealth worldwide that no one two centuries ago is his wildest dreams would have imagined; on the other hand, this dynamic continuously disrupts social, cultural, and economic stasis, always threatening both breakdown and breakthrough.
The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter spoke the unavoidable truth about the centrality of change in his 1942 masterpiece Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy:
Capitalism, then, is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary. And this evolutionary character of the capitalist process is not merely due to the fact that economic life goes on in a social and natural environment which changes and by its change alters the data of economic action; this fact is important and these changes (wars, revolutions and so on) often condition industrial change, but they are not its prime movers. Nor is this evolutionary character due to a quasi-automatic increase in population and capital or to the vagaries of monetary systems, of which exactly the same thing holds true. The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers, goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates.It is essential to understanding today’s titanic economic political struggles to grasp the underlying belief that drives the Left: that the benefits of capitalism are simply not worth the spiritual and environmental costs. The cyclical nature of capitalist expansion and contraction, reliable features of our industrial capitalist forms of political economy since at least the mid-nineteenth century, unfortunately offers significant unpredictability in both the timing of the ups and downs and their magnitude and duration.
. . . The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.
Boomers Squander the Inheritance
The Baby Boomers were blessed—and, as it turns out, cursed—by an unprecedentedly long period of significant and steady economic expansion. It is all but impossible to appreciate the unique position the United States found itself in on VJ Day in 1945. Our triumph in World War II initiated a sixty-year Pax Americana during which even the Soviet empire at its height could do little to impede. And while we certainly experienced business cycle downturns, they tended to be brief with even greater bounce backs. This period coincided exactly with the birth and hegemony of the Boomer generation, and thus we grew up accustomed to the gravy train and expecting it to roll on forever.
We had no way of knowing how much of an outlier in human history this period of extended bliss was. The great American writer Robert Heinlein warned us in 1973 that
[t]hroughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded—here and there, now and then—are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.But even if we had had the intellectual fortitude to agree with his assessment, we neither did nor could have the emotional capacity to grok it. The seeds of the next era of creative destruction—the Information Age—planted by Einstein and the quantum physicists in the beginning of the 20th century began to bear fruit in the 1980s, the Age of Reagan and “morning in America.” Shortly after he left office the Soviet empire collapsed finally and completely, and we thought that a new clearing had been created for what President George H. W. Bush ingenuously called “the new world order”—the Pax Americana Universalis.
But it was not to be. We had the savings and loan fiasco and the dotcom bubble, and the collapse of the Japanese economy and outsourcing of American manufacturing. And when the air was rudely let out of the real estate bubble in 2008, we were completely unprepared to suck it up and use our gifts and advantages to get to work creating something even better.
Now graft the psychospiritual insecurity this rollercoaster ride has imposed on the average citizen, who despite his middle class status has little defense against the actual results of the creative destruction, onto the exponential transformation unleashed by the Information Age and globalization, and we have the makings of a mass backlash against the very system that created the unprecedented wealth generation capacity of these same individuals.
All of the demagoguery from the Left about “the 1%,” “income inequality,” and “the rich must pay their fair share” finds its origins in the increasing fears that too many Americans (and Europeans) live with in our rapidly transforming world. These fears are arising on a mass basis at a time when the combination of the postmodern assault on the supremacy of the European Enlightenment with the supplanting of literary learning by television and video. We therefore have the conditions for at least a medium-term triumph of social democracy in the United States.
It is difficult to fault people for this preference. Who among us would prefer to brave unceasing storms and darkness rather than be warm and secure? Our founders and ancestors did, but their choices were radically different. They had to choose between tyrannical suppression of individual dreams and pioneering a new way of life in a strange and wild continent. We their descendents are the lucky beneficiaries of their choices, but their very success eliminated for us the experience of tyranny, and since we have no collective memory of it, we have the luxury to fear something else.
Heinlein, writing in 1987 about the unrest beneath the surface of American society, foresaw the crisis we now find ourselves in.
The America of my time line is a laboratory example of what can happen to democracies, what has eventually happened to all perfect democracies throughout all histories. A perfect democracy, a “warm body” democracy in which every adult may vote and all votes count equally, has no internal feedback for self-correction. It depends solely on the wisdom and self-restraint of citizens . . . which is opposed by the folly and lack of self-restraint of other citizens. What is supposed to happen in a democracy is that each sovereign citizen will always vote in the public interest for the safety and welfare of all. But what does happen is that he votes his own self-interest as he sees it . . . which for the majority translates as “Bread and Circuses.”It is obvious that we in the Advanced Sector have entered a “bread and circus” world. As the public discourse has steadily emptied itself of logic, morality, and mutual respect, it its place have come bling, endless non-sequiturs, ad hominem attacks, and gossip in ever-mutating forms and cacophony. The current obsession by the Church of the All Powerful State and its MSM amen chorus about “gun control” is just the latest diversion from our actual problems and challenges. The commotion has nothing to do with its subject; it’s merely a political version of our mass addictions to shallow entertainments.
“Bread and Circuses” is the cancer of democracy, the fatal disease for which there is no cure. Democracy often works beautifully at first. But once a state extends the franchise to every warm body, be he producer or parasite, that day marks the beginning of the end of the state. For when the plebs discover that they can vote themselves bread and circuses without limit and that the productive members of the body politic cannot stop them, they will do so, until the state bleeds to death, or in its weakened condition the state succumbs to an invader—the barbarians enter Rome.
The RB has written elsewhere about the impact of the combination of the postmodern assault on reason with the replacement of literacy by video in its many guises. This has helped exacerbate our collective fears about the future and greatly enabled our mass flight from the accountability that alone can turn things around.
We no longer have a general commitment to the virtue our Founders understood to be the sine qua non of a democratic republic. We no longer have a mass political party ruthlessly committed to the cultivation of civic virtue as its primary mission. We still see occasional eruptions of reaction to the steady dumbing down of our public discourse—think Ross Perot, Ron Paul, and the Tea Party—but the RB has no illusions that a 21st century Lincoln is waiting in the wings to catalyze the achingly necessary “new birth of freedom.”
Heinlein once observed, “The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.” The Church of the All Powerful State, which desperately wants people to be controlled, is in ascendance, and its opponents are dispirited and unorganized. Barack Obama has yet to meet his match, and the collapse of the Republican Party may allow him to establish the social democracy that he and so many of our fellow citizens think we need.
But this will be a Pyrrhic victory. The human spirit, beset as it may be by fears and illusions, is nonetheless designed for transcendence. The history of our species demonstrates that, as Winston Churchill remarked in rallying his countrymen to the fight against Hitler, “while we toil through the dark valley we can see the sunlight on the uplands beyond.” Like the English in 1941, we will never surrender. Ultimately, because everyone seeks freedom and authenticity, no current of darkness can extinguish their flame.
So the RB is not discouraged. Appreciation of the dynamics of human evolution suggests that it just may be necessary to our next expression of freedom to enter into dark times for an extended period, so that a new generation, having actually experienced the spiritual ravages of serfdom, can build upon the evolutionary breakthroughs of the original American experiment in self government and once again allow the better angels of our nature to lead us to a new realm of liberty and prosperity.