A few weeks ago, I did a post pointing out that the quality of public policy was declining sharply during the 21st century. I see similar arguments all over the place. The Economist has a long article on trends in Latin America that points to a serious deterioration in the quality of governance.  Voters there are increasingly choosing really bad candidates on the far left and the far right over more sensible technocrats. 

Tyler Cowen has a piece in Bloomberg, suggesting that public attitudes are to blame:

My fear, quite simply, is that we have entered an age in which the popular taste for good political outcomes, and fair political processes, is much weaker than it used to be. You might think that people would always want at least decent political outcomes, but that hypothesis has gotten increasingly hard to defend in the last 10 years, both in the US and globally. Attachment to democracy, for instance, seems significantly weaker, as does love for capitalism. People’s tastes are being pulled in different directions, whether it be the Proud Boys or the extremely woke.

All of which is to say, a rather simple and unglorified possibility is becoming more likely: People have stopped wanting good things to happen.

I suspect that is correct, but it begs for an explanation.  Tyler points out that there are no obvious answers:

I realize this explanation is banal and does not hold much emotional appeal. Many people prefer conspiracy theories, or tightly structured theoretical hypotheses, or to pin the blame on some particular political faction, usually one they oppose. Or they focus on some very specific issue, such as climate change.

I view all of those problems, real though they may be, as downstream from the more fundamental issue: Why haven’t our systems of government responded better to whatever particular dilemmas concern us most?

One possibility is that good periods occur when the public learns “lessons” from previous mistakes.  When I look back on my life, I can recall certain lessons that grew out of historical events.  In school during the 1960s, the lessons of the first half of the 2oth century loomed large.  We were taught:

1. Authoritarian nationalism was a great evil, which had led to two world wars.

2. McCarthyism was also viewed as evil, resulting in a sort of “cancel culture”.

As I got older, there were additional lessons:

3.  The Chinese Cultural Revolution was seen as an example of egalitarianism run amok, as innocent people were shamed merely because they had wealthy ancestors.

4.  By the time I left graduate school, socialism was increasingly seen as being discredited (although the capitalist welfare state was still viewed positively.)

When I see modern conservatives touting the advantages of authoritarian nationalism or trying to overturn democratic elections, I am shocked by what seems to me to be an ignorance of history.  I get the same reaction when I see progressives call for a sort of cancel culture, or price controls, or identity politics where some groups are shamed for being “privileged”. 

Don’t these people know anything about history?

We need to remember that not 1 person in 20 is serious about education.  Even many straight A students are just going through the motions to get good grades in order to get a good job.  We should not expect the public to understand what’s wrong with nationalism or socialism.  Why should they?

In the decades after WWII, any American politician sounding like an authoritarian nationalist would have been rejected in the way an immunized body rejects a foreign virus.  Ditto for socialist ideas after the Soviet Union collapsed.  But immunization doesn’t last forever.

In the past, we’ve had to go through some very painful historical events in order for the general public to learn its “lessons”.  Is there a less painful way to immunize the public against bad ideas? 

PS.  Surely Putin’s recent actions constitute some sort of lesson for the public, albeit an extremely painful one for the Ukrainian people.  It triggered a rare piece of good news—the decision by Sweden and Finland to join NATO (and increasing support for NATO in the Pacific.)

Happy 4th of July!