Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Wages of Centralism

Back in the mid 19th century a cabal of Bostonians decided to centralize the education of children in the Bay State into a state board of education. This plan would lower the crime rate by 90 percent, promised Horace Mann, the "father of the common school." Over the decades schooling for American children changed from the education favored by parents to the education favored by the upper middle class. It evolved from a combination of babysitting and basic literacy and numeracy that prepared most children for an entry into apprenticeship and work in the early teens to the present system of government child custody, in which parents are legally required to surrender their children for a twelve year term without possibility of parole. Not surprisingly, the system fails to educate children well, and particularly fails to educate the children of barely literate parents.

Given how well centralism worked in education the educated elite decided that the same principle should apply to a variety of other social activities from the economy to health care. In the 1940s liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith developed the idea of "countervailing power" in which the Big Units of business, labor unions, and government would negotiate outcomes in the national economy by the weight of power. It seemed to work well for a few years, but in fact ended up pledging the wealth of the nation for unaffordable benefits. Thus the Big Unit corporations pledged future profits that turned out to be insufficient to pay for worker pensions. Big Unit unions looted profitable corporations and reduced the steel industry and then the automobile industry to contemptible shells. Big Unit government created entitlements to pensions and health care that have resulted in an unfunded liability of $100 trillion.

The problem is that Big Unit politics hollows out the mediating institutions that provide the real strength and resilience of society. Big Unit administrative centralism reduces everything to a conceit of elite competence, an assumption that you can design an effective, adaptable education system for all children. It reduces business corporations to crony capitalists, cringing for political favors. It reduces the luxuriant web of self-help social welfare organizations to a bare government safety net. It tempts people to wither their family and social connections and obligations and rely in the first place upon government benefits.

We can see the wages of centralism by looking at the society wide numbers. People who rely primarily upon government benefits present significant social pathologies. Marriage in the upper middle class is about as prevalent as ever; marriage in the lower 20 percent is off from 83 percent to 48 percent. Back in the 1950s 96 percent of men were in the labor force, and only four percent were not in the labor force either working or looking for work. Now 20 percent of men are out of the labor force, and for men without a high-school education 35 percent are absent from the labor force.

The century from 1848 to 1948 was called by F.A. Hayek the century of socialism. The years before 1848 were years of preparation for socialism; the years after have been years of exhaustion. But the problem is that socialism is not and never was "social," or, in the words of John Dewey, the Great Community in which to conduct a discourse among citizens about their communal life. Socialism has always been an elite ruling the many through administrative centralism, and administrative bureaucracy is, by design, a system for controlling people, not for discourse among people.

The great irony of our age is that precisely the system that the educated elite has been fighting against for 150 years is the system that is, in the true sense of the word, "socialist." It is the combination of a free, property-owning economy where the "discourse" is conducted through economic actors communicating in their buying and selling, producing, advertising, borrowing, lending, and investing. It is achieved through political actors discussing the limits of force, and through cultural and moral actors discussing the meaning, the "why" of it all.

But that is what the educated elite cannot bear, for a truly "social" society would deny the educated elite its "leading role." It would be reduced to merely one voice among many.

The breakthrough moment for modern humans will be the moment when they smash the power of the educated elite and demand to live in a world purged of the totalizing strangulation of political hegemony. Humans are social animals, not servile animals, and it's about time we refused the humiliating wages of centralism.

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