Monday, October 1, 2012

Nothing New: Liberals in Denial

In his review of Charles R. Kesler's I Am The Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism Mark Lilla does us all a favor.

He shows us just how deep in denial our liberal friends remain.

He starts by sneering at Kesler's story-so-far, which tells a story of Hegel (and the big state) leading to Wilson (and the updated Constitution) through FDR's New Deal to LBJ's Great Society, "bringing with it existentialist self-absorption, moral relativism and passivity in the face of the new administrative state."  Lilla, you see, thinks that blaming German ideas for the mess in America is a case of "blame the Kraut."

On the way, he fails to mention Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, which is probably where Kesler got most of his "blame the Kraut" stuff.  Does that mean that this self-described "centrist liberal" never read it?  It's an outrage, eh Jonah?  Because, whether they know it or not, and I suspect they prefer not, liberals get all their stuff from the Germans, from the big state to the government schools to the government-run social welfare.

So then Lilla makes his pro-forma rhetorical concession towards the conservative narrative.  Yes, the Great Society did overreach, he admits.  But Ronald Reagan really did change things.
Reagan did in fact restore (then overinflate) America’s self-confidence, and he did bequeath to Republicans a clear ideological alternative to Progressivism. But he also transformed American liberalism. As an author named Barack Obama once wrote, Reagan “put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” By delegitimizing Great Society liberalism and emphasizing growth, he forced the Democratic Party back toward the center, making the more moderate presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama possible. Reagan won the war of ideas, as everyone knows.
OK. Let's concede this.  Ronald Reagan did force Bill Clinton to pretend to be a centrist.  And then, after a two-year lurch to the left, Newt Gingrich did force Clinton to the center.  But Reagan didn't win the war of ideas.  Nor did he transform American liberalism.  The point about Barack Obama is not that he is moderate, but that he represents a flood of 30 years of liberal ideas dammed up by the prestige of Ronald Reagan.

Liberalism transformed?  Let's take a look.

  • Are liberals converted to the idea of low tax rates and sound money?  No and No.
  • Are liberals converted to the idea of minimal regulation that recognizes Hayekian reality that the man in Washington can't run the economy, because he can never have sufficient bandwidth? No.
  • Are liberals ready to back away from the administrative state and reinvigorate civil society and the little platoons?  A solid No.
  • Have liberals begun to realize that race politics is poison and that Affirmative Action and diversity imprison minorities in a liberal plantation?  Definitely No.

So how in the world can "centrist liberals" like Mark Lilla think that they represent a sort of common-sense consensus while conservatives are hyper-ventilating extremists?  You know the answer.

Because everyone that elite liberals know agrees with them.

You'd think that, with the imploding welfare states of Europe before their very eyes, with Grecian default just a matter of time and Catalonia threatening to split off from Spain, that liberals would be getting second thoughts about their project, but chaps like Mark Lilla remind us that the end-of-dynasty elites seldom see the end coming.  They are like the Bourbons, who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.  Or as Fred Bauer from the Daily Caller writes:
In the life of almost all civilizations, a time comes where, as Yeats put it, “things fall apart.” The internal principles and assumptions that used to seem to work begin to break down.
That's where we are with liberalism.  Step by step liberals built their administrative welfare state, from Social Security to unemployment to government schools to centralized health care.  And it was good.

The idea that the whole thing was a ghastly mistake, a denial of the basic social and cooperative instincts of humankind, that it lasted as long as it did in spite of all the wonderful programs and policies and cosy liberal sinecures: that is unthinkable.

The trouble is that if we are to get through the next few years without a serious crack-up--as in serious inflation and/or debt default--then liberals have to come out of denial and buy into the idea that conservatives have a point.

But "centrist liberals" like Mark Lilla remind us just how deep in denial our liberal friends remain.  And that means that things have to get worse before they get better.  Probably a lot worse.

The whole problem can be epitomized in the flatulent idea that the rich should pay a little more in federal taxes.  Let's think through what that means.  It means that the wealth created by the rich should be put to work in government spending rather than in creating new businesses and new consumption items.

Really?  Is there anything more important right now than in creating a new boom in businesses and jobs?  Is there really anything the government is doing right now that is more important than getting the animal spirits of businessmen revived?

We know, because the last century amounted to a petri dish experiment to prove it, that the administrative state is a horrible mistake.  It is a monument to the conceit of the educated elite.  Maybe "centrist liberals" haven't woken up from their nap after consuming the Sunday New York Times yet, but there are leftist thinkers that have ripped up the idea and the practice of the administrative state.

There is Juergen Habermas, the residual legatee of the Frankfurt School, who talks about "internal colonization" in his Theory of Communicative Action.  There is James C. Scott who talks in Seeing Like a State about the aesthetic pretensions of high modernism, how modern elites have tried, again and again, to force society into the mold of their elegant administrative vision, simplifying complex social structures to make them "legible" and thus controllable by a ruling elite.

The significance of Habermas and Scott is that they confirm the Hayek thesis, that human society is too complex to reduce to an administrative state.  While Hayek merely asserts that the administrative state is impossible, Habermas and Scott show how the modern educated elite has attempted  to simplify society to make it amenable to administrative control.  In Habermas, the judgement is that the administrative state is flawed because it results in "internal colonization," a colonial state like the colonies of British India and Africa; in Scott the judgement is that the administrative project has notoriously failed, time and time again, resulting in famine and misery, from the enclosures of Europe to the collectivizations of Asia and Africa.  Obamacare, on this view, is yet another attempt to make real, messy health care conform to the elite's exquisite aesthetic vision of health care.

The reason that every dynasty seems to be followed by a "time of trouble" issues from the stupidity and blindness of late-dynasty elites.  They just cannot bring themselves to see that everything they so lovingly created is crumbling down around them.  They use every last ounce of their political power to keep their hegemony going until one day the whole thing collapses and the barbarians rush in.

And the people perish.

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