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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dedicated followers of fashion (they are pretty clueless)

As a teenager interested in markets, mostly stock and commodity markets, but also economics I read the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal everyday.  Within a few years it was quite clear to me that the matters described and analysed in many instances were not even adequate as after the fact explanations.  The conventional wisdom was not to be taken at face value.

Motivated by intense curiosity I pursued better explanations of how the world actually works.  This allowed me to see beyond the statist assumptions that were so big a part of elite non-thinking.  I didn't even know the word statism back then.  My sense was that there were gains to be had in greater centralization but only up to a point.  

In a recent post  by my coblogger about resilience and collapse, I made a somewhat glib comment about how there were forces running counter to the trends of centralization that seem so irresistibly powerful.

In an article by Walter Russell Mead, The Crisis of the American Intellectual he expresses concern over having reached that point.  Because of his views he gives more credit to the Mandarins regarding past progress than I would, but here is some of his take on the matter:

Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state.  The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day.  An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor.  The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators.

 Most American intellectuals today are still shaped by this worldview and genuinely cannot imagine an alternative vision of progress.  It is extremely difficult for such people to understand the economic forces that are making this model unsustainable and to see why so many Americans are in rebellion against this kind of state and society – but if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and the institutions of twentieth century progressivism.  The promises of the administrative state can no longer be kept and its premises no longer hold.   The bureaucratic state is too inefficient to provide the needed services at a sustainable cost – and bureaucratic, administrative governments are by nature committed to maintain the status quo at a time when change is needed.  For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large.

So there you have it.  The foundational assumptions of American intellectuals as a group are firmly based on the assumptions of the progressive state and the Blue Social Model.  Those who run our government agencies, our universities, our foundations, our mainstream media outlets and other key institutions cannot at this point look the future in the face.  The world is moving in ways so opposed to their most hallowed assumptions that they simply cannot make sense of it.  They resist blindly and uncreatively and, unable to appreciate the extraordinary prospects for human liberation that this change can bring, they are incapable of creative and innovative response.

None of this is a great surprise to anyone who bothered to work things out rather than blindly parroting the ideas of the intellectuals.

(h/t Maggiesfarm)


Bret said...

From what I can tell, speech related to politics is becoming ever more shrill. I think that one of the reasons for that is that, like Mead, many progressives understand instinctively that they "cannot at this point look the future in the face." It must be very scary.

Peter said...

I agree entirely, Howard, that the left has become hopelessly stuck in a bygone era, has no understanding of the profound changes society has undergone since the eighties, is increasingly in the realm of voodoo economics and that,in their frustration, is gravitating dangerously to ideologial rectitude over empirical reality. In other words, the left has basically become nostalgic reactionaries. But let's not ignore the power of nostalgia.

That being said, I must suggest some of your other comments carry the danger of following in their path of ideological servitude. Firstly, the suggestion that you, due to hard work and study, have "worked things out" is redolent of too much leftist patronizing about their superior cognitive and intellectual skills. Secondly, while I certainly agree a properous economy is one that lets entrepreneurs flourish, I have no interest in "transferring power" to them. To be frank, as a class, while no doubt talented, they aren't necessarily the most intelligent, honourable or compassionate people around. How about we let them do their thing, give them merited awards 'n stuff, and turn our thoughts to bolstering popular democracy---warts and all.

And, finally, I always thought it was leftists who talked with disarming confidence about what "we" need to do to secure our straightline high road to the future. Conservatives used to be humbler than that.

I look forward to your new book: "What's the Matter With Massachusetts?".

Howard said...


Please don't confuse the tone and implications of Meads' words and mine. That said, my choice of words was not the best. The "worked out" phrasing was meant to imply hard work, not superior intellect, since I am frequently confronted with wilful ignorance from very bright people who are not willing to do the homework. Bret can bear witness to this. All that I have is my best understanding and a willingness to see things differently when presented with additional information.

Any "we" is implied by Mead, not anything that I wrote. If my leanings toward some form of ordered liberty constitute a prescription that "we" should follow then perhaps I'm guilty as charged.

Bret said...


Regarding "work things out", I've had a gazillion conversations with Howard on this topic and what he's saying is not that he's "worked things out" as in having all the answers (he'd agree that would be impossible to fully achieve) but rather that he's at least giving thought to a wide range of topics and pursues alternative and hopefully "better explanations" of how things work. His statement stems from our interactions with a number of friends who just have absolutely no interest in ever thinking about things beyond what the NY Times tells them and we find that non-curiosity and/or laziness frustrating. One doesn't need superior cognitive and/or intellectual skills. One needs simply to put in some effort and try. (As an aside, this doesn't include folks like Harry who does put in a huge amount of effort studying history and thinking about things - that Harry comes to different conclusions than us doesn't bother us nearly as much as people who refuse to do any thinking in the first place).

Assuming you want a prosperous economy and given that you seem to agree that letting entrepreneurs flourish is at least somewhat important in achieving that, you may not need to explicitly transfer power to them, but you do need to take away some power from the bureaucrats who are stifling job creators which will inherently shift the balance of power from government to at least parts of the business class. Mead writes "transfer" and I think that's all he means by that.

So who are "the most intelligent, honourable or compassionate people around"? Politicians? Media? Scientists? Priests? Who?

Mead is a leftist (or perhaps a milquetoast moderate), not a conservative, so he doesn't have to be humble.

Lastly, "What's the Matter With Massachusetts" would require many, many volumes that would fill a whole library. A single book would hardly make a start.

Bret said...

Oops, guess I should let Howard speak for himself.

Hey Skipper said...

Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state.

All in all, you have to admit that it worked — the Blue Social Model did ameliorate certain, relatively discreet, problems that we certainly wouldn't want to see return.

For example, it is hard (for me) to see how there was any plausible alternative to Social Security. At the time, lifespans were increasing, but many people didn't have the means, or capability, to save along the way for a tolerable retirement. Creating a pay-as-you-go income replacement program greatly reduced grinding poverty among the elderly. A similar case could be made for the inception of Medicare.

And the bureaucratic approach has worked to get around free-rider problems — the Clean Water and Air Acts, for instance.

However. Collectivists need to balance those successes against some manifest and expensive failures having long term tragic consequences. Practically everything having to do with the Great Society has been a disaster.

I think is is possible, and not particularly difficult, to reasonably well describe the classes of problems that government is uniquely situated to solve (or at least make less problematic). Confining government to those problems is the challenge, in large part because those enamored of the Blue Model simply can't understand that they don't know enough, and aren't smart enough, because both things are impossible, to do what they think they are knowledgable and smart enough to do.

(And that is even before getting to whether there are now probably far better ways to do things like Social Security.)

[Peter:] Secondly, while I certainly agree a properous economy is one that lets entrepreneurs flourish, I have no interest in "transferring power" to them.

The answer is to transfer power from wherever it is to nowhere, and no one.

Peter said...


There are some leftists worth reading, including the late Tony Judt, an old style British Labourite who was a fierce critic of marxists and much of the modern left. He made what I believe is a pretty compelling case that the postwar "consensus" that led to the basics of social security (old age pensions, unemployment insurance and some kind of basic healthcare) in the West did not just come from abstract leftist notions of statist redistribution, or even naive visceral compassion, but also from a broad acceptance of the fact that the political extremism and low respect for democracy of the previous decades was born in large part of want and destitution, and that the consequences were horrific. It is also true that postwar Europe was prostrate and that both the social welfare state and state investment in reconstruction were both economically successful and led to a steady decline in the attraction to communism, which was considerable and worrisome. We can try to pretend it wasn't, but it was. I'm not at all sure that the resurgence of conservatism that began in the eighties would have happened if society still looked like it had in the thirties.

What bugs me about glorifying entrepreneurs as a class and looking to them for political leadership, or attributing some kind of deeper societal wisdom to them, is that I really don't want to be under the sway of anyone who, as an axiom, equates the good of the country with his/her personal success. Even Adam Smith recognized that the commercial classes were not fonts of honour, duty, morality, charity, culture, reverance, etc. and that, if these were integral components of civilization, they would come from elsewhere. No society is going to be composed entirely of entrepreneurs, and to attribute some kind of disinterested intellectual primacy to them is no different that attributing such to scientists, the military, intellectuals, artists, professionals, bureaucrats, etc. I've argued often on many blogs against glorifying those, but I'm not going to kick them down the ranks of our modern lords spiritual and temporal to make room at the top for entrepreneurs.

Moving to the empirical, there are also a lot of already-powerful ruthless pricks and near sociopaths among them. I don't begrudge them their financial successes, which I see as both a good and key to our prosperity. But I'm not surrendering my political voice or critical judgenment to the likes of Donald Trump, Ted Turner or Steve Jobs, thank you very much.

Ideology is a bit like iodine. We can't live without it, but too much will kill us. Many, many of the problems and idiocies of the left stem from their continued dogged fidelity to abstract ideological precepts that conflict with what their lyin' eyes tell them. Conservatives are supposed to be more grounded in empirical realities, but of late I've become concerned we're following the same path and will be likewise rejected by the middle. Isn't that one important reason why Romney and the GOP lost?

Harry Eagar said...

That Bismarck, such a leftist.

My question is, if antistatist methods are going to work so well in the future, why did they work so badly in the past? (And if you're going to discuss this, you'd better know your Mayhew.)

What has changed in their justification?

Susan's Husband said...

Yes, actually, Bismark was somewhat of a collectivist. Hard to describe the inventor of the modern welfare state otherwise.

As far as I can tell, anti-statist (or anti-collectivist) methods did not work badly in the past, they created more wealth, health, and prosperity by orders of magnitude than anything else humanity has tried. Although, perhaps you consider that "badly".

Bret said...

I wasn't aware that the anti-statist methods of the founders of the United States worked so poorly in the past.