3.6.10

NO DIVINE RIGHT FOR PHILOSOPHER KINGS. Glenn Reynolds proposes a hypothesis.

The Tea Party movement is part of something bigger: America’s Third Great Awakening.

America’s prior Great Awakenings, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, were religious in nature. Unimpressed with self-serving, ossified, and often corrupt religious institutions, Americans responded with a bottom-up reassertion of faith, and independence.

This time, it’s different. It’s not America’s churches and seminaries that are in trouble: It’s America’s politicians and parties. They’ve grown corrupt, venal, and out-of-touch with the values, and the people, that they’re supposed to represent. So the people, once again, are reasserting themselves.

There is, indeed, plasticity in the social order. The timing, however, is not that of an Awakening, it is of a Fourth Turning. The two religious Awakenings Professor Reynolds refers to came during Second Turnings, a common time for questioning institutions, particularly churches. The Protestant Reformation, the Puritan Awakening, the eighteenth century Great Awakening, the nineteenth century Transcendental Awakening, the Chautaqua Awakening, and the Consciousness Revolution of the 1960s all fit those patterns.

The creation of new institutions, which might be what the Tea Party envisions, is a Fourth Turning phenomenon. Michael Barone captures the tension that will have to be resolved.
Over the past 14 months, our political debate has been transformed into an argument between the heirs of two fundamental schools of political thought, the Founders and the Progressives. The Founders stood for the expansion of liberty and the Progressives for the expansion of government.

It's an argument that has been going on for a century but was largely dormant over the quarter-century of low-inflation economic growth that followed the Reagan tax cuts. It's been raised again by the expand-government policies of the Obama administration and Democratic congressional leaders.

Those policies, thoroughly in line with the Progressive tradition, have been advanced by liberal elites in government, media, think tanks and academia. The opposition, roughly in line with the Founders tradition, has been led by the non-elites who spontaneously flocked to tea parties and town halls. Republican politicians have been scrambling to lead these protesters.
It is that, but behind that is the pressure for greater individual autonomy working against the social order established over the past 150 years or so, in which hereditary kings gave way to philosopher kings.
The Progressives have always assumed that people needed safety nets and would welcome dependence on government. The public's clear rejection of the Democratic health care bills has shown that this assumption was unwarranted. Americans today prefer independence to dependence on government, just as they did 200 years ago.

All this was supposed to have been consigned to the past long ago. The Progressives of the early 1900s -- Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, New Republic founder Herbert Croly -- argued that in an industrial era of mass production and giant businesses, ordinary people were helpless and needed government's guiding hand. It would be more efficient, they argued, for centralized, disinterested experts to administer national institutions than to let chaotic markets operate freely and to observe the Constitution's horse-and-buggy limits on government power. The Founders were out of date.

The Progressives had their way for much of the 20th century. But it became apparent that centralized experts weren't disinterested, but always sought to expand their power. And it became clear that central planners can never have the kind of information that is transmitted instantly, as Friedrich von Hayek observed, by price signals in free markets.

It turned out that centralized experts are not as wise and ordinary Americans are not as helpless as the Progressives thought. By passing the stimulus package and the health care bills the Democrats produced expansion of government. But voters seem to prefer expansion of liberty.
There might be, in those tea parties and in some manifestations of popular opinion, resentment by ordinary people of that Credentialed Elite. That's not the most important dynamic at work. (David Brooks's talk about an educated class is a sideshow. The simplest way to expand the population of people who can reason as well as the Cognitive Elite is for all common schools to prepare their students as if they were going to matriculate at Harvard, and for all non-elite and non-selective universities to teach and research as if their graduates were going to hold key positions.)

And never mind the motives of the Cognitive Elite.
[President Woodrow] Wilson, once a professor of political science, said that the Princeton he led as its president was dedicated to unbiased expertise, and he thought government could be "reduced to science." Progressives are forever longing to replace the governance of people by the administration of things. Because they are entirely public-spirited, progressives volunteer to be the administrators, and to be as disinterested as the dickens.
Let's grant all these things: there can be Disinterested, Honest, and Wise People (although Public Choice theory suggests not for long.) The fundamental problem is that Disinterested, Honest, and Wise People who propose to do what is for the best of everybody are denying freedom of action to others.
As contemporary as these developments may seem, it is equally important to recognize how traditional, indeed classical, is the question that lurks inside the problem of the new class: intellectuals and power, enlightenment and politics, conceptual thinking and lived life. From one point of view, the rise of the new class involves the priority of thinking—not any thinking, however, but a technocratically foreshortened, instrumentalist, and administrative thinking—over the lifeworld of everyday interactions, communities, and traditions, and the orders of human nature. It is the assertion of the primacy of logic against the complexity of living, and it runs the risk therefore of collapsing either into an irrelevant ineffectiveness, an idealism incapable of grasping the real, or a destructiveness, when it tries to refashion ways of life into its own invented programs. Human communities frequently show resilience and creativity, and they can survive more than one expects; but those existential resources are not infinite, and aggressive programs of social engineering can eventually destroy the patterns of living, the structures of meaning—the families, communities, faiths, nations, cultures, traditions—when they try to control them.
The article is courtesy Volokh's Kenneth Anderson, who notes,
Pop sociologists on the Left like David Brooks or Thomas Friedman — and many journalists on the Right, too — are instinctively and correctly drawn to these kinds of knowledge class categories. They have some terms but no theory; and theory is sometimes necessary to understanding, social theory, and not just surface theories of economic rationalism.
That theory might not be the generational morphology of Fourth Turning, and I might be off base suggesting that the Technocratic Vision is contrary to longer term tendencies. I suggest, however, that some organizing framework is superior to none.

No comments: