Monday, December 20, 2010

Spreading the ideas of political freedom and market capitalism

It is important to continue to recall the nature of the ideological battle that was the Cold War. Millions have come of age with no experience of that time and will only know the Cold War through history books if they know anything about it at all. The struggle to spread the ideas of political freedom and market capitalism continues, but in a very different way. We need new words, concepts, and visions to appeal to people around the world.

The Cold War, for example, was won by the U.S. and its allies not so much by military means as by spreading the ideas of political freedom and market capitalism to other regions that, in the words of strategic thinker Stanley A. Weiss, "helped suck the lifeblood out of communism's global appeal," making it incapable of meeting the widespread yearning for a better and more-open life.

What's often forgotten is that this was mostly done by liberals.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Is "federalism" really the solution?

"Federalism" is often touted as a solution to our problems. Usually what people mean by "federalism" is a bias towards state and local governance in opposition to federal governance. I've come to think that this is a phony issue. First of all the same citizens who elect federal office holders also elect state and local office holders. So the idea that there is something uniquely pure and republican about local and state politics is ridiculous. There is no value distinction between these levels of government.

Second, state and local governments have been run just as incompetently as the federal government. In my state there are many local governments that are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the state government has been passing its budgets on smoke and mirrors. There is nothing about local and state government that justifies the romance and fantasy that is propagated by advocates of "federalism."

The federalism argument is rooted in a mid-20th century opposition to a big federal government. Opponents were looking for any alternative to big government and they latched on to "federalism" as a tactic to oppose big government by claiming that local and state government should have priority. But in my state, local governments are struggling with roles and responsibilities that were organized in an industrial society that no longer exists.

So just saying "federalism" doesn't solve any problems. This is why I've lost patience with libertarian and conservative rhetoric about federalism. Libertarianism and conservatism as movements have been dominated by intellectuals who have little practical experience with governance. How many have been city managers struggling with the challenges of local governance? Libertarianism and conservatism have been so focused on opposing the industrial-age managerial liberalism, that they never really addressed how to govern an industrialized society. Classical liberalism is a pre-industrial variety of liberalism and it offers little guidance for the challenges we have faced over the past hundred years.

We need to think about how to apply liberal principles to 21st century realities.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs"

Walter Russell Mead is a great resource. I've come to really enjoy reading his blog at The American Interest. The thing that resonates with me is that he recognizes that we are in a significant transition period, which has been a main theme of my thinking for the past several years. The people who are going to make a difference are those who are creatively thinking about the new world that is coming into being. It won't be the progressives, conservatives and libertarians who are all trapped in outdated, 20th century, industrial age ideologies. It is a very difficult task to convince people that their inherited ideology is not the one true way. It requires a kind of suspension of disbelief to recognize that there are legitimate modes of thinking that have not yet been imagined. And then to begin the adventure of trying to imagine them.

America has everything it needs for success in the twenty-first century with one exception: a critical mass of thinkers, analysts and policy entrepreneurs who can help unleash the creative potential of the American people and build the new government and policy structures that will facilitate a new wave of private-sector led growth.  Figuring out why so many of our intellectuals and experts are so poorly equipped to play a constructive role — and figuring out how to develop the leadership we currently lack — may be the most important single thing Americans need to work on right now.

Regular readers of these posts know that I think that the world is headed into a tumultuous period, and that the United States is stuck with a social model that doesn’t work anymore. 
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But the biggest roadblock today is that so many of America’s best-educated, best-placed people are too invested in old social models and old visions of history to do their real job and help society transition to the next level.  Instead of opportunities they see threats; instead of hope they see danger; instead of the possibility of progress they see the unraveling of everything beautiful and true.

Too many of the very people who should be leading the country into a process of renewal that would allow us to harness the full power of the technological revolution and make the average person incomparably better off and more in control of his or her own destiny than ever before are devoting their considerable talent and energy to fighting the future.
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First, there’s ideology.  Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state.  The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day.  An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor.  The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators. The modern corporation was supposed to evolve in a similar way, with business becoming more stable, more predictable and more bureaucratic.

Most American intellectuals today are still shaped by this worldview and genuinely cannot imagine an alternative vision of progress.  It is extremely difficult for such people to understand the economic forces that are making this model unsustainable and to see why so many Americans are in rebellion against this kind of state and society – but if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and the institutions of twentieth century progressivism.  The promises of the administrative state can no longer be kept and its premises no longer hold.  
The bureaucratic state is too inefficient to provide the needed services at a sustainable cost – and bureaucratic, administrative governments are by nature committed to maintain the status quo at a time when change is needed.  For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large.

This doesn’t mean that government becomes insignificant.  The state will survive and as social life becomes more complex it will inevitably acquire new responsibilities – but it will look and act less like the administrative, bureaucratic entity of the past. 
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So there you have it.  The foundational assumptions of American intellectuals as a group are firmly based on the assumptions of the progressive state and the Blue Social Model.  Those who run our government agencies, our universities, our foundations, our mainstream media outlets and other key institutions cannot at this point look the future in the face.  The world is moving in ways so opposed to their most hallowed assumptions that they simply cannot make sense of it.  They resist blindly and uncreatively and, unable to appreciate the extraordinary prospects for human liberation that this change can bring, they are incapable of creative and innovative response.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The European type of conservatism being alien to the American tradition...

Hayek on Conservatism:

Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called "liberalism" was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense. This already existing confusion was made worse by the recent attempt to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character.

It is significant that Hayek understood what many Americans do not: that conservatism is alien to America. That the Founders were not conservatives. That the republican ideology on which America was founded is not conservative. That the ongoing improvisation that is the American Experiment is not, nor has it ever been, conservative. We are in a significant transition period right now. In order for us to innovate the next iteration of the American Experiment it is necessary that we strip out the conservative and New Left ideologies from our thinking. We need to see clearly with fresh eyes and we can't do that as long we remain attached to these ideologies.