Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Tocqueville's Other Book: Why Administrative Centralism Doesn't Work

Last week I posted an enthusiastic piece about Alexis de Tocqueville's other book, The Old Regime and the French Revolution. The end of the book looks forward to Volume 2, about the Revolution itself. But Tocqueville died, at 53 from tuberculosis, before writing it.

But never mind, because his Old Regime is a masterpiece. It says that top-down centralized bureaucratic administrative government can't work. Let us rehearse the three reasons why.

The first reason is the one we know as the knowledge problem, after Hayek. In Tocqueville it is illustrated by the insanity of the central government in Paris having to OK the expenditure of funds to repair a church steeple in some tiny village. You just cannot direct the details from the center; there simply isn't enough bandwidth and the bureaucrat in the center just cannot know all the details specific to a problem in a little village way out in la France profonde.

The second reason is the natural tendency of any government to divide and conquer. The last thing the monarch or dictator wants is the squabbling groups and clans to unite against him. The French king did it by handing out privileges and tax exemptions to the nobles with one hand as he took away their powers with the other hand, and he handed out jobs in the bureaucracy to the middle class. Everybody hung on like grim death to their privileges, and everyone hated everyone else for their privileges. So when the French king needed the nation to be united, it wasn't. We can understand why US presidents all talk about "we are all Americans" right after winning a hard-fought election. They all know that the divisions and the enmities of a hard-fought election make it much harder to govern. All of them except Obama.

The third reason is that, when people are drawn into a legislature as representatives of the people, they have to compromise to get things done, and they get to know about other peoples' views and problems. So they compromise; so they buy the support of fence-sitters. That's what the social scientists tell us. When you put Americans into a room to solve a problem they will do it by trying to deal with everyone's objections and needs.

Obviously, the way not to do it is the Obama way, of passing Obamacare so we can see what is in it. Of fiddling with immigration law using executive action. Of just telling schools to come up with gender-neutral bathrooms. Never mind whether Obamacare is a good idea, or unlimited immigration, or transgender-friendly bathrooms. Edicts from the top just won't work; they make people mad. The way you do it is by slow and painstaking negotiations by representatives of the people so that, as much as possible, everyone's needs get addressed.

Obviously, if you govern a country through legislatures all the way down from nation to village there is not a lot of stuff you can do, because of the limited bandwidth of all deliberative assemblies. Maybe that is an argument for limited government, rather than an argument for replacing the inefficiency of deliberation with the efficiency of administration.

Even if administration were efficient, which it is not.

Because there is another way of doing things. It is called the market system.

Today Jonah Goldberg has a piece longing for a new constitutional conservatism. No doubt.

But the time to talk about the constitution and the meaning of conservatism is after the election. We are sitting here in the ruins of the previous constitutional conservatism, so it's going to take a while to get it going again.

And really, there was nothing wrong with the old constitutional conservatism except for one thing. We conservatives thought, after Reagan, that we had won the argument for limited government and low taxes and deregulation. But we were wrong. Barack Obama represents a strong current in the educated elite of this country, and he and it really believes in its divide-and-rule identity politics, and really thinks that the way to govern is through national edicts on everything from sexual conduct in universities to bathroom policy in schools.

Obama and the left are wrong, but we are in a mess, and it will take a generation to build a conservatism to sweep it away.

We should have realized that you never win the argument, not forever. We conservatives, we bourgeois, are people that are not that interested in power. But there is always a new generation coming up that is very interested in power.

The trouble is that it takes power to push back against the devotees of power, so it takes a while for the limited-power people to get woken from their slumber and get on the job of pushing back against the latest movement of power worship.

And you have to keep up the rhetoric for freedom, for accepting the decisions of the market, for limited government, and you have to keep it up every day, forever.

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