Monday, March 7, 2011

Bill Whittle's Three Ages Theory and Mine

If you want to explain the world simply and dramatically, the best way is usually through a Three Ages theory: first there was a golden age, then things got screwed up, and now the new age will restore the goodness of the old age in new ways.

Bill Whittle has just done this with a YouTube video, "The End of the Beginning."

His three ages start with the Agricultural age, when the invention of agriculture and settled life allowed the development of the city state, government, and money. In the United States and its constitution this created a society that was open, horizontal, decentralized. But then came the Industrial age and the robber barons. They bribed politicians to favor themselves and their monopolies (see picture of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Morgan here). To challenge this corruption of the system came the Progressives to build up a central government power to challenge the power of the robber barons. But now comes the Information age, that is "horizontal, independent, light, fast, agile, decentralized, local, smaller, cheaper." For this age the Progressive menu and its powerful government and labor unions is a corrupt remnant of the Industrial age.

My Three Ages theory is different, because I think that the idea that the robber barons were corrupt and politically powerful is mistaken.

In my view it was understandable in the 19th century to imagine that the industrial barons could be dangerous, but the events showed that they were not. Let's take the four robber barons pictured in Bill Whittle's video. John D. Rockefeller was only interested in bribing politicians when he needed political permission to, e.g., build pipelines from Pennsylvania oilfields to the Atlantic ports. Rockefeller retired from active business in his 50s and turned to philanthropy. Cornelius Vanderbilt was a railroad man that built the powerful New York Central from New York to Chicago out of a bunch of smaller railroads. Again, Vanderbilt had to get land for his ventures and land means politics. Vanderbilt was not a philanthropist. Carnegie was an unpleasant fellow, but he built the steel industry and gave us cheap steel before selling out to J.P. Morgan for a fortune in bonds. He ended his life as a philanthropist. J.P. Morgan was at the apex of banking and specialized in railroad bankruptcy. Railroads were commonly built upon and wing and a prayer, and often collapsed from too much debt. Morgan cleaned up the financial messes: "morganizing," it was called. As Morgan got older he built a large art collection and gave most of it to the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan.

The point is that none of these robber barons were particularly interested in political power. They were interested in their businesses, and when they got older they turned to philanthropy. Moreover their monopolies were short lived. Rockefeller had a huge monopoly in oil, but as soon as the Progressive trustbusters started after him wildcatters found oil in Texas. So that was the end of the oil monopoly. Carnegie and US Steel? Yes, but it was challenged by Bethlehem Steel. Vanderbilt and the New York Central? Challenged by the Pennsylvania Railroad. But what about big central government? Who was there to challenge its monopoly power?

So my three ages theory is different. In the hunter-gatherer age society was horizontal and egalitarian. But the invention of agricultural society and its wealth created a vertical society of lords, empires and temple religions that ended with absolute monarchs, bureaucracies, and state churches.

On my view the third age is the industrial age, the age of revived horizontal and egalitarian society. It releases enormous economic powers but those powers are not threatening in the way that emperors, temple priests, and central bureaucrats were and are. That's because in the last half millennium we have developed a political philosophy of separated powers, to keep the power of the economic sector separate from the political power and the religious, or moral/cultural power.

The Progressives built their politics upon an illusion, that the industrialists were more than an economic power. The industrialists were a political power to be feared, and could only be defeated by a countervailing political power. Thus they built a centralized political power that was way more powerful than it needed to be in order to deal with the new economic power. The result is all around us, in a dollar worth about one percent of its value a century ago, a vast political patronage structure that has revived the peonage of the feudal era with big government pensions, health care, education, and welfare. On top of the political structure is a corrupt and venal educated class that just hasn't a clue about its cruelties, its corruption, its wastefulness, its injustices, and its delusions.

We don't need a unified political system with extraordinary powers. We need a separation of powers between the political sector, the economic sector, and the moral/cultural sector.

Modern liberalism is a political movement committed to a unitary political power that has, in its extreme versions, brought unimaginable miseries on billions of people. Modern conservatism is a political movement that hates the unitary state and is committed to the new vision of a society of separated powers, a society not just a state.

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