Thursday, February 17, 2011

Between Freedom and Administration

When a corporation declares bankruptcy, it is common to say that it is operating "under administration." It is a polite way of saying that the corporation is no longer free to direct its own affairs. It operates only at the pleasure of its creditors acting through the courts. Administration means subjection.

In a similar way, Jean-Francois Revel, writing The Totalitarian Temptation in the bleak years before Ronald Reagan when it seemed that democratic capitalism was dying and that communism would take over the world, or at least participate as full partner in the future, wrote of the essential fragility of the totalitarian state. It must act with force and severity because it does not serve the hopes of its citizens, he wrote. Totalitarian states are fragile and brittle; their administrative structure makes them rigid and slow to adapt to changing conditions and needs.

The democratic state, on the contrary, ever since its birth in the three branch theory of Montesquieu in the 18th century, is a system that disperses and devolves power into separate and flexible institutions. From the three-branch state of executive, legislative, and judicial powers, Revel suggests six new powers that have arisen since the 18th century: business power, union power, media power, police power, military power, and diplomatic power.

Now I like to work from Michael Novak's three-sector model: political, economic, and moral/cultural, so it immediately appears to me that his nine-power model is clearly deficient in the moral/cultural realm. He leaves out, as a Frenchman well may, churches, fraternal associations, charitable groups, cultural associations, organizations that are not formed either for economic enterprise nor for political purposes.

But his differentiation of the executive power is interesting and useful. The chief executive is commander-in-chief, but under democratic capitalism there is a clear separation between the civilian leadership of the armed forces and the uniformed armed services themselves. This separation is intended as a separation of powers to prevent military dictatorship; it keeps the army out of politics and hopefully keeps the armed services from too much meddling by the politicians. The police power is also a deliberate separation from the unified executive. The idea is to limit the power of the executive to use the police power for political purposes, to criminalize and weaken the opposition. Notice that the separation of military and police power from the executive is a big deal to our liberal friends, and a credit to them.

Yes, but what about separating the administrative power from the executive, so that the operation of government departments is kept at a distance from elected politicians and their desire for the power to reward their friends and punish their enemies with government largesse.

This, perhaps, is the next stage in political evolution. It is easy to see why our present ruling class, the educated elite, has little interest in curbing the executive's influence over administration. Administrative centralism is the very life blood of the modern state. Our modern educated youths organize their lives to succeed in the system of administrative centralism, with its credentialism, its ticket punching, and its social power. A vast media empire is devoted to the boosting of the cultural and political power of the high fliers that go to selective colleges, establish reputations as political or foundation staffers or young academics, and then become honored experts, mandarins in the administrative welfare state, and the authors of the complex administrative initiatives that are offered in season to mitigate the administrative failures of a previous round of administrative innovation--the consequences of the law of unintended consequences.

The effect of the system of administrative centralism is similar to its extreme version, the totalitarian state. It solves every political problem with compulsion, with a new schedule of administrative regulations, and new subsidies and penalties. Each new ratchet of compulsion rigidifies and fragilizes. It sets society up for a fall, for the whole point of practical politics is to stop people going off and doing things without permission.

But the lesson of the modern era is that humans are social animals that can achieve amazing things when you give them the dignity and the freedom to innovate and serve their fellow humans without the club of administrative centralism. The whole apparatus of prices and ownership and credit and profit is a spontaneous human social organism that strongly encourages people to serve the needs of their fellow humans. The differentiated universe of social cooperation is a vibrant organism of life; the centralized administrative pyramid of the unified state is a mechanism of lifeless automation and compulsion.

The great challenge of the next generation is a moral/cultural one. It is to proselytize a new faith in freedom and dignity, and to marginalize the false faith in unity and compulsion. For the lesson of the 20th century is that centralization and compulsion through political power is a temptation of Satan himself. That was what Satan famously offered Jesus Christ: power over all the world.

But Christ said No; get thee behind me, old chum. And you can see why, not just from a moral point of view, but a practical point of view. Everything that political power touches turns to stone. Olease, for God's sake, keep politics and compulsion out of it; we humans are social animals, not regimented ants.

Just look at the commanding heights of the poltical sector. Government pensions are a mess, and about to bankrupt the states. Government health care is a mess as people massively overuse health care that is "free at the point of delivery." Government education has been on a decline for a century, as nobody values education that is free, and the failures lead to more and more regimentation and compulsion and the universal incarceration of children in government educational facilities. Government welfare is a joke, a program that could not have been better formulated if its intention had been to destroy the culture and the families and the work skills of the poor.

So what do we do? What is the first step back to freedom and dignity and away from administration and compulsion? Stay tuned; the best is yet to come.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Beyond Blame

If we want to understand who to blame for the current cock-up in government, it is easy: our liberal friends.

It is liberals that have championed the neo-feudal welfare state and its politicization of everything.

Yes, of course, years ago liberals had noble thoughts about helping the helpless. But because their social vision did not extend beyond the administrative model of the absolute monarchs, their noble initiatives have inevitably descended into simple patronage politics. Politicians bid for the votes of the voters by dangling benefits before them. Inevitably, they offer more than the economy can deliver, and so, at some point, the government runs out of money to tax, borrow, or print.

So far so good. But there is a question ultimately more interesting and more uplifting than the tawdry question of blame. After all, all governments are a mess, stumbling from one disaster to another. All governments. Even in its heyday in the 19th century, the British Empire was a succession of disasters. First there was the mess of the Crimean War. Then there was the Indian Mutiny, called, in India, the Uprising. Then there was Gordon in Khartoum, followed by the Boer War. What a mess!

No, my question is: what is it about the belief system of our liberal friends that led them into the blind alley of the administrative welfare state? What was it that allowed them to imagine that their big government would be any different from the big governments of history? What made them believe that the vast expansion of government would be anything other than a moral and cultural disaster? What made them think that you could have liberation, dignity, and justice with a big overweening government? After all, the whole point of a good belief system and its moral universe is to help its believers and practitioners avoid the common pitfalls of self-delusion and hypocrisy. A good religion should be a prop, and help you live a worthy and a meaningful life. It should not lead you into a reactionary political system and a swamp of hypocrisy.

In my view the big problem is that our liberal friends cannot see that their moral and political enthusiasms are, in the strict sense, religions. They think that they have grown beyond the superstitions and the narrowness of religious belief. In fact they think that religion is on its way out as people come to rely on science and reason instead of fanciful belief in gods and spirits.

In fact, of course, the history of the modern era is the story of one secular religious movement after another. You can start with the French Revolution and its cult of Reason. Then there is Romanticism, a belief that there is something deeper than reason that explains the nature of life. There is socialism in all its variants, the nostalgic idea that we can return to the Garden of Eden of perfect, eternal community. There is Comte and his Religion of Humanity. There is fascism, the nostaglia for the tribe and the kindred. There is Nietzsche and the Ubermensch, the extraordinary individual. There is the cult of creativity, the transformation of the natural generative urge into a metaphor of non-physical creation. There is the puritanical environmentalist movement that seeks to purify and save a polluted and corrupted world. It goes on and on.

Our liberal friends fail to understand that the meaning of life, its telos, is always a mystery. We do not know our human purpose, if we have a purpose. We do not know how we should act in order to survive and flourish. We do not even know if human survival is warranted. What we have is faith. We believe that certain ways are the best way to survive, to flourish, and to create a moral society. In the day-to-day social life we try to work out what is best for us, best for our families, best for our larger social groupings, and best for the world. In the arena of national politics, liberals believe in certain liberal folkways and conservatives believe in certain conservative folkways. It seems pretty certain that the other guys have got the wrong end of the stick and are likely to bring the nation to disaster. And because government is almost always a train wreck in progress, the governing class must bear the weight of the blame.

In the United States, over the last century, the educated class of liberals, progressives, creatives, secularists--whatever you want to call them--have dominated politics and culture. It is their ideas that drive the government, with its trillion dollars a year in government pensions, its trillion dollars a year in government health care, its trillion dollars a year in government education, and its three-quarters of a trillion dollars a year in government welfare. It is liberals that dominate the universities, liberals that dominate the entertainment media. They have caused the current crisis because they lacked the self-consciousness to realize that they, just like everyone before them, have a religion. It's a secular religion, for sure, but religion all the same. When you take your religion and you breathe it into all the organs of government, legislating morality with that secular religion, then you break down the separation between church and state, between the political sector and the moral/cultural sector. Of course, you don't believe that. You think that only right-wing preachers and right-wing politicians can create a theocracy.

But it takes a remarkably narrow and pinched understanding of the modern age not to understand that, in socialism and communism, and now in environmentalism and the climate change movement, we have what we have often had in the past, militant religions enthusiastically pursuing a vision to save the world from sin.

Monday, February 7, 2011

ObamaCare and the Bigger Question

Why do liberals believe that the only way to improve the delivery of health care is by more compulsion? That is, after all, the assumption behind ObamaCare.

There are millions of people without proper health insurance, say liberals, the millions of the uninsured. We propose to correct this with a system of subsidies paid out of taxes and mandates and administrative regulation. In other words, faced with the problem that many people lack the means to acquire the middle-class approach to health care, government should force the nation to supply health insurance to them.

The liberals get to this position through a political narrative of inequality and oppression. They observe that many people cannot afford the social goods of health care and education. They conclude that the reason is injustice. It may be that a minority--racial or ethnic--has been historically marginalized. It may be that employers exploit their workers with low pay and limited benefits. It may be privilege, that certain groups have access to desirable social goods because of their parents' social and economic position. It may justs be that skilled people can afford more than unskilled people. Or there is the poverty-line argument. It takes a certain amount of money for a family to afford the basics of food and shelter, and society should assist those people that fall below that standard.

But in all cases, our liberal friends make the same leap. If there is a deficiency, it should be made up by a government program. Our liberal friends do not seem to understand what they are saying when they do this. They are saying that there is no way of providing social goods except through a lot of force and compulsion.

Oh really?

Many of the arguments that liberals make, of course, begin by assuming that force is needed. If you make the inequality argument, you are saying that only a certain degree of inequality is just, and that inequality in excess of that standard requires government intervention. The marginalization argument and the employer exploitation argument imply that discrimination, a veiled form of force, is abroad and probably can only be corrected by countervailing force.

The conservative argument is that, while exploitation and privilege certainly abound in the United States, they are not absolute barriers to a decent life. Uneducated immigrants and kids from single-parent families have a hard row to hoe. But they can and do get ahead. Indeed, they mostly do. In fact, we add, if you look at the numbers you learn that it is very difficult to be poor in America if you finish high school, get married, and don't have a child in your teens. That expresses the notion that even with a basic education, you can earn a decent wage in America to get food, shelter, and modest luxuries.

The question we wish to open is this. Why do we assume that "social goods" should be delivered through government? "There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state," says Prime Minister David Cameron. In fact, as social animals, humans derive much of their feeling of self-worth and meaning from contributing to social enterprises, whether in a work team, a family, a church, or a benevolent association. Conservatives believe that it is part of everyone's duty to be aware of the needs of people they know, and to work to help them when they need help. These services are best delivered person to person, face to face. Failing that, it is best to deliver them through small, local organizations rather than big bureaucratic administrations. Failing that, it is better to deliver services through big non-profit associations than big government departments.

Why is that? Why is it better to help the helpless and the less fortunate face to face rather than through a big organization? It is partly because each person is an individual, and has specific and personal needs that are not easily accommodated to the rules and procedures of a large bureaucracy. It is also because people feel a larger obligation, both in giving and receiving in a personal face-to-face relationship. People feel more obligated to do the right thing around people they know. With a bureaucracy, they find ways to game the system, because nobody will know, and nobody will care.

There are some social goods, perhaps many social goods, that can only be delivered using force. But conservatives believe that, for the headline social goods of pensions, health care, education, and welfare, a sharply reduced government share would be beneficial to all: to those that must step up their help for their fellow citizens to those receiving help from their fellow citizens. It's the social thing to do.

Conservatives believe that ObamaCare will either get repealed or it will lead to a meltdown in health care. We believe that there has to be a better way than force.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Liberals Administering Prosperity

President Obama talked a Reaganesque line in his State of the Union speech about business and innovation. Here's his paean to business.

Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS. Just think of all the good jobs -- from manufacturing to retail -- that have come from these breakthroughs.

Notice the "but". But government needs to step in to fund basic research, to plant the seeds of the internet.

Here's where our liberal friends smuggle their statism in the back door.

The internet, Mr. President, was invented through DARPA research because the Pentagon thought that the government needed a communications network that could survive interruption in nuclear war. In other words, the government invented the internet for reasons of defense. The government paid for semiconductor research because it needed lightweight electronics for ballistic missile guidance. In other words, the government was looking after its own needs, and its core responsibility of defense.

But this is an imperfect world. Politicians and experts aren't satisfied by the mundane tasks of defense. They want to save the world. That's how we get from defense research to climate-change research. But saving the world is not a government task. Saving the world is a religious task. It's the job of people with a moral mission, not a defense mission. Moral missions, of course, are much more fun. You can divide the world into the good guys and the bad guys, and you can lead a moral crusade against the bad guys. But never mind about that. Government doesn't just want to lead people on moral crusades; it wants to feed every child and put two cars in every garage.

The big problem, in other words, is mission creep. And when government gets into mission creep in the economic sector it starts building technological and economic white elephants. Mission creep leads to waste and corruption and to crony capitalism. Government doesn't make people more prosperous. It just gives money to its supporters, and stiffs the rest.

This really isn't hard. Government should stick to its basic functions and people in political life should stick to the dull and dutiful job of defending society from enemies that want to kill us or defraud us. The fun job of saving the world should be left to moral leaders. And the hands-on job of innovation and making new products should be left to businessmen, scientists, engineers, marketers, designers, salespeople, and investors.

When government tries to get into the business of innovation and basic research not related to its core functions, it makes a mess. That's because government is force, politics is power. Business is different. Business is about imagining and then creating products and services. Business is about listening to consumers and responding to their every whim. Leave business to business, and concentrate on applying force on them when they do something criminal. Otherwise, leave them alone, and above all, don't tempt them into crony capitalism.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Indictment

For the last century and a half everyone has been whaling on the middle class--the bourgeoisie, the factory owners, the booboisie--and tremendous fun it has been. As with most calumnies there was a grain of truth in the indictment of the middle class and everything it stood for. The bourgeoisie, dignified and free, had in the industrial revolution transformed society from an agricultural age to an industrial age. Millions of lives had been transformed; completely new ideas and practices had sprung out of the ground; untold wealth had been created. But there was a terrible cost. Millions of people found themselves toiling and working in satanic mills in squalid slums on the edge of want and starvation; if that was the bottom line of the industrial age, it needed radical surgery.

That was the judgment of a new class that emerged out of the revolutions of 1848, the educated middle class radicalized by the turmoil and the suffering of the high industrial revolution in Europe. These people were young, they were educated, and they were idealistic. They saw that the toiling masses that wove the textiles, mined the coal, forged the steel, and drove the railroad locomotives worked and lived on the edge of poverty in conditions little short of hellish. What was the point of the new age of rights and liberties, of inventions and manufactures, if they could not lead to concrete improvement in the lives of the masses? They decided that political revolution, or at least radical reform, was needed to create a better society.

A century before, educated young men like John Wesley and George Whitefield had chosen a different path. They had led farm laborers and mechanics into a social movement of aspiration and responsibility. They believed that the lower orders had the ability and the virtue in them to rise and to prosper even without political transformation. But the 1848 generation of educated youth believed that it was the system that prevented the workers from rising. To the youthful Karl Marx, the old agricultural order, in which the feudal lords had exploited the serfs, had given way to more of the same, a new system of oppression in which the bourgeoisie exploited the industrial proletariat. In response to this perceived injustice, the 1848ers constructed a political vision that would raise them, the educated class, to political hegemony as permanent guardians of the proletariat. Practical activists, they adapted the political structure of the absolute monarchs of the 17th century for their own use. These monarchs had needed expensive standing armies to maintain their power, and that required a revolution in the organization of the state. It needed discipline, loyalty, a rational organization, and money. The monarchs found they had to cut through or circumvent the web of institutions separating them from their subjects and tax them direcly. To do that they needed a state bureaucracy staffed by professional administrators. Just like its parallel military organization, the state bureaucracy came to control the individual citizen as the military bureaucracy controlled the individual soldier.

Sounds familiar? Yet that is exactly what the generation of 1848 decided, as they worked to build a system that could deliver rights, benefits and programs to the helpless workers. They needed a system of administrative centralism to control society and extract the resources they needed to right the injustices of an unjust age.

Of course, the 1848ers were wrong. The workers were not condemned to everlasting poverty. They began to prosper steadily in the second half of the 19th century, perhaps assisted by legislation. Maybe we never needed the 1848ers and the educated political class.

Too late: now we are stuck with them and their system unless we rise up and change it. Because their system of of administrative centralism is unjust.

The modern central administrative state is just as unjust as the state bureaucracies of the absolute monarchs, and for the same reason. A society in which the major activities of life have been brought under the direct administration of a political ruling class is necessarily unjust, for it collapses political society into an administrative organ that is nothing more than the instrument of its ruler.

Thus we can say that the administrative welfare state that the post-1848 educated class, now out liberal friends, have imposed upon the American people is an abomination. It is deluded, for it attempts to solve a problem that never existed. It is unjust, for it puts a thumb on the scales of justice to advantage politically favored groups over others. It is cruel, for it substitutes government compulsion for voluntary cooperation and responsibility. It is wasteful, for it rejects the efficiencies of the market for the rigidities of government. It is corrupt, for it favors its well-connected supporters and politically powerful interests over the unconnected and the unorganized.

The administrative welfare state, the regime of administrative centralism invented by the absolute monarchs and perfected by the post-1848 educated class, is the rule of injustice. Once it was royal injustice; now it is liberal injustice.

It is an abomination, and it shall not stand.