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May 8, 2011
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Bigwigs and Double-Domes

The intransigence in US politics today is remarkable – uncomfortable and dangerous. How will it resolve itself?  David Brooks, of The New York Times, wrote last week that Americans must “find ways to moderate solipsistic tribalism and come up with tax and welfare state reforms that balance economic dynamism and social cohesion.”

Brooks pins his hopes on what he calls the republican virtues of checks and balances, as opposed to majority-rule principles of democracy – consensus-seeking among countervailing powers, self-restraint and civic virtue. He thinks that the breakthrough, “if there ever is one,” will come from Senate leaders “or some commission of Establishment bigwigs.”

I think resolution more likely will come from a series of elections.

When disputatious feelings are as strong as those of the present day, competing stories are involved – in this case, the grand narratives that the historian Frank Manuel called philosophical histories, meaning the reduction of the past to an order, a prediction of things to come.

Although we are all constantly telling stories on our own, and contributing to the stories of others, the most extensive and authoritative social narratives are produced by scholars – double-domes, in political parlance.

These professional thinkers, who these days are almost always university professors (no one else has the temperament or time to do the work required to be persuasive), operate at the other end of the spectrum from the bigwigs, who are nevertheless dependent on their views (in deep and sometimes inscrutable ways).

Present-day scholars in turn are almost inevitably contributing to tapestries of thought whose dominant motifs were fashioned long ago by theologians, philosophers, historians, novelists, legal and political theorists, economists and other social scientists.

This battle of ideas goes on today at many levels. Businessmen and bankers give money to universities that agree to give courses about Ayn Rand, for example. But, at least in most industrial democracies, the most widely shared framework for thinking about the direction of history, as communicated by everything from high school history texts to sit-coms to political dogma, probably resembles a story told by the sociologist Thomas Humphrey Marshall (1893-1981), of the London School of Economics. He set it out in a famous lecture in 1949 at Cambridge University, published the following year as Citizenship and Social Class.

Marshall began by asserting that there is “ a kind of basic human equality associated with the concept of full membership in a community which is not inconsistent with the inequalities that distinguish the various economic levels of society” – that is, legal rights exist that are  assigned to all  citizens, rich and poor alike.  The key concept was citizenship. In pre-modern times, he noted, it had been limited to small elites. He then described what he called “an evolution of citizenship which has been in continuous progress for some 250 years” in industrial democracies – from civil to political to social rights.

Civil rights were associated with the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century – liberty, freedom of speech, equality before the law, the freedom to own property and, with the rise of the bourgeoisie and the decline of feudalism, the right to work

Political rights that emerged in the nineteenth century began mainly as the extension of rights that the well-to-do already possessed — the right to vote was accorded to larger and larger segments of the population, to working men at first, and eventually to women and minorities.  Gradually they extended to include the right of workers to negotiate less arduous working conditions.

Social rights were mostly a creation of the twentieth century, though their beginnings were to be found earlier – education, welfare, safety, old-age security and, eventually, health care.

A whole new class of rights of citizens had begun to be articulated by the time that Marshal died, those associated with the environment, complicated because they tended to be global or nearly so:  clean air and water, in particular;  freedom from the more extreme effects of climate change; a shared commitment to species diversity and landscape preservation.

With its supposition of an equality that exists quite apart from economic status, citizenship is a powerful story. What story stands in opposition to it?

I’m no expert, but the alternative narrative seems to be a preoccupation with individual liberty and economic efficiency. In its modern form it appears to be about fifty years old, as well. There is the novelist Ayn Rand, of course (though few thought of her as a serious party to the debate until recently). The journalist William F. Buckley wrote in 1955 that his new magazine, National Review, “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

Among economists, Friedrich Hayek offered a kind of counsel of caution, if not outright despair:  “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” (Imagine an ecologist writing that.)  A more coherent program, laid out in 1962 by Milton Friedman, in Capitalism and Freedom, offered a how-to guide for  those who “oppose new government programs and who seek to reduce that already unduly large role of government.”

Friedman and the economists have, in certain respects, clearly won the day.  China and Russia  have joined the world economy. The industrial democracies are experimenting with reforms he advocated, everything from all-volunteer armies to tearing up the public schools with vouchers. We understand far better than we did fifty years sago ago what we can and cannot do. The next round of philosophical histories will take the form “What we know now.”

But there is not much of an argument from history in Friedman. And T.H. Marshall hasn’t gone away.  So what I expect between now and, say 2020, is that in a series of elections Marshall’s vision will once again become the clearly dominant one. There will be plenty of blue-ribbon commissions and negotiating groups along the way.  But, by and large, the issues will be settled in Congressional and presidential elections, along the lines by which they have been settled over the last 250 years. There will be many battles. One influence of tribe, the mainstream, will grow and that of the others, the populist Tea Party and the ants-in-the-pants Left, will shrink.

Social Security will be rebalanced.  Health care will become more regulated, more effective, and relatively less expensive (at least compared to the trend). A sensible consensus regarding greenhouse gases and energy policy will take shape. The US economy will regain its competitive edge. The budget will return to (countercyclical) balance.  People will stop complaining as much about their taxes. And the opposition to the broad consensus that emerges eventually will return to what it was in the 1950s – marginalized, a minority of crackpots on the fringes.

The Republican Party today contains two factions. Its energetic populists are maddened by the twenty years of defeat since Bill Clinton entered the White House (never mind the confusing presidency of George W. Bush). Its mainstream figures, the few that are left (of whoim the Times’ Brooks is generally representative), have been rendered timid and unreliable by the threat posed by the insurgents.

But the anti-tax, anti-government view that was – usefully – rendered palatable by Ronald Reagan has run its course. By, say, 2020, it will be time for something else – the kind of responsible conservatorship of realized gains with which Dwight Eisenhower succeeded Harry Truman in 1953. To be cautious is one thing. Yelling Stop!, much less Back Up!, simply will not persuade a majority of voters.

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2 Comments

  1. Denis Drew wrote:

    “education, welfare, safety, old-age security and, eventually, health care”

    What Marshall left out was the perpetually hidden dimension — at least on this side of the Pond: rebalancing the LABOR MARKET.

    Don’t import sector-wide labor agreements from the rest of the better paid world — “the mainstream” will never repossess the political or economic muscle to achieve all of the above (may never even figure out what is happening to them — they sure don’t have a clue now).

    Monday, May 9, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

  2. mike shupp wrote:

    I agree with the notion that elections will eventually produce some consensus economic understanding in the US, but I suspect it may take longer than you hope — likely 50 or 60 years, perhaps a century — and it may not turn out as you seem to hope, with a triumph for “citizenship.”

    You might consider that conservative economists (Arnold Kling, Tyler Cowan, for example) are increasing willing to proclaim that long-term unemployed individuals will never be gainfully reemployed, and in fact don’t deserve employment because their “productivity” is nil.

    You might also consider that conservatives generally agree that there is a HUGE underground economy in the US filled by tens of millions of illegal immigrants, off-the-books workers and merchants, voluntarily “unemployed” and other welfare recipients, and criminals. As conservatives see things, this illegal economy is lubricated and fueled by government transfer payments; it follows that cuts in social spending of almost any sort can have nothing but beneficial results because they will allow tax revenues to be returned to the hard working and productive people who actually create the nation’s wealth. I.e., for every elderly unemployed miner coughing his lungs out in an old folks home in West Virginia that a liberal can see, conservatives can find a prosperous wetback with a lunch trunk route in Modesto or an “unemployed” bricklayer moonlighting in the roofing business.

    We are not going to reach a consensus about the reality of this under-the-table economy in any time as short as a generation.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 1:48 am | Permalink

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