By Arnold Kling
The ruling class’s appetite for deference, power, and perks grows. The country class disrespects its rulers, wants to curtail their power and reduce their perks. The ruling class wears on its sleeve the view that the rest of Americans are racist, greedy, and above all stupid. The country class is ever more convinced that our rulers are corrupt, malevolent, and inept. The rulers want the ruled to shut up and obey. The ruled want self-governance. The clash between the two is about which side’s vision of itself and of the other is right and which is wrong. Because each side — especially the ruling class — embodies its views on the issues, concessions by one side to another on any issue tend to discredit that side’s view of itself. One side or the other will prevail. The clash is as sure and momentous as its outcome is unpredictable.
It is a long essay, worth reading in its entirety, although I am going to emphasize where I do not share his sentiments. I put the essay in a class that I call “neo-reactionary.” Other writing in this vein ranges from the best-selling (Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism) to the obscure (Mencius Moldbug’s old blog posts) to somewhere in between (Arthur Brooks’ The Battle, which I still have not read.)
I call the outlook neo-reactionary because it is sort of like neoconservatism with the gloves off.
Some core beliefs that I share with the neo-reactionaries:
1. At its worst, Progressive ideology is an ideology of power. It justifies the technocratic few infringing on the liberty and dignity of the many.
2. At their worst, Progressives are intellectual bullies. They delegitimize rather than attempt to persuade those who disagree with them.
3. American government has become structurally less libertarian and less democratic in recent decades. For example, Codevilla writes,
The grandparents of today’s Americans (132 million in 1940) had opportunities to serve on 117,000 school boards. To exercise responsibilities comparable to their grandparents’, today’s 310 million Americans would have radically to decentralize the mere 15,000 districts into which public school children are now concentrated. They would have to take responsibility for curriculum and administration away from credentialed experts, and they would have to explain why they know better. This would involve a level of political articulation of the body politic far beyond voting in elections every two years.
Amen. I live in one of those mega-school districts, which gives unbridled power to the teachers’ unions. The widely-unread Unchecked and Unbalanced has much more on this theme. (Note to intellectual bullies: please do not confuse nostalgia for decentralized school districts with nostalgia for “separate but equal.”)
Where I part company with the neo-reactionaries (and for all I know, Jonah Goldberg parts company a bit as well) is on the following:
1. Brink Lindsey has a point. The Progressives are not wrong on everything, and conservatives are not right on everything.
2. Tyler Cowen has a point. Manichean, confrontational politics is a dubious project. Questioning your own beliefs can be more valuable than issuing a call to arms to those who share them.
3. Tyler Cowen has another point. Do not think that the majority of people are libertarians. Both Codevilla and Arthur Brooks assert, with evidence I regard as flimsy at best, that two-thirds of the country is on their neo-reactionary side. I strongly doubt that, and even if it were true I do not believe that democratic might makes right.
I think that ideology is partly endogenous. I do not think that it is an accident that an ideology of rational technocratic control grew up as America urbanized and as enormous scale economies emerged in the industries made possible by the internal combustion engine, the electric motor, radio, and television. I do not think it is an accident that the Progressive ideology will be challenged as the Internet starts to alter the economy and society, reducing the comparative advantage of mass production and mass media while increasing the comparative advantage of local autonomy and individual expression. The Internet serves as a constant reminder of the wisdom of Hayek.
We live in interesting times.