Putting Things in Perspective

SeanPavonePhoto_21stCentAmer© CAN STOCK PHOTO / SeanPavonePhoto

It has always been my job to show my clients, readers and audiences the big picture. I identify trends, but more usefully, I identify which trends represent the constants of history, which are current manifestations of cyclical change, and which are unique phenomena of our time. (I can also help you identify similar trends and gain insight for your company.) It’s often by gaining such perspective that both the present and future come into focus.

I find three recent essays quite insightful in putting some current economic, social and cultural trends into perspective. I provide excerpts of each here.

The Reinvention of America

After years of traveling the country, James Fallows writes that the national prospect is full of possibilities that the bleak trench warfare of national politics obscures. Here is an excerpt:

I have seen the future, and it is in the United States. …

America is becoming more like itself again. More Americans are trying to make it so, in more places, than most Americans are aware. Even as the country is becoming worse in obvious ways—angrier, more divided, less able to do the basic business of governing itself—it is becoming distinctly better on a range of other indicators that are harder to perceive. The pattern these efforts create also remains hidden. Americans don’t realize how fast the country is moving toward becoming a better version of itself. …

In what under-publicized ways is America moving forward locally and regionally, while we read only about chaos and discord nationally? To summarize a few:
Civic governance.
Talent dispersal.

… Suppose you accept the idea that America is remaking itself except at the national level. What difference would that make? Here are three areas in which our reporting has changed my mind about what really matters.

First is improving connections, both conceptual and operational. Across the country, millions of people in thousands of organizations are working toward common goals, generally without being aware of how many other people and organizations are striving toward the same end. …

Second is emphasizing engagement, of almost any kind. …

Third is correcting perceptions and dealing with what is already recognized as a national emergency: the distorted picture of events beyond our immediate experience that comes through the media, professional and informal alike. …

What does America have to complain about?

Charles Murray of The American Enterprise Institute has been researching and writing on society and culture for decades. Here is an excerpt from a recent essay:

I want to reflect on the problem of being an old guy who has convinced himself that the American project is dead. By “the American project,” I mean the continuing effort, begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals, families and communities to live their lives as they see fit as long as they accord the same freedom to everyone else, with government safeguarding a peaceful setting for those endeavors but otherwise standing aside.

It’s not dead because of the last few elections. It’s dead because the Constitution no longer serves as a serious limit on government power, and hasn’t for a long time. It’s dead because we now have a vast extra-legal administrative state-within-the-state that de facto creates its own laws — cop, prosecutor, judge and court of appeals rolled into one, the antithesis of democracy. It’s dead because since the 1970s Washington has increasingly become indistinguishable from the way a kleptocracy operates, with access to power and to results contingent on payments for that access and those results. It is dead because of the institutional sclerosis that takes hold as special interests — what James Madison called “factions” in Federalist Paper No. 10 — lock in the goodies that today’s American government is permitted to dispense. That institutional sclerosis is the reason we’re never going to get a simple tax code or a sensible health-care system. There’s no cure for advanced institutional sclerosis, short of losing a total world war. The American project as originally conceived is dead, and it’s never coming back.

Of course, this kind of thinking is what old guys are famous for. The world is falling apart. The good old days are gone. Get those kids the hell off my lawn. My problem is that I believe all this and yet I can also step outside myself and see how predictable my attitude is, which is why I feel compelled to take on a role that is uncomfortable for me: Being optimistic.

There is a way for a new incarnation of the American project to preserve freedom. It won’t be the same institutionally or legally. But it can still go a long way toward allowing people to live their lives as they see fit.

I have found that a good place to start is by asking myself, “What do I have to complain about? How is government getting in the way of my life?” And the answer is — for me personally — not much. … the fact is that in my own life, the federal government plays hardly any negative role at all. …

Now compare how little the government limits our quotidian freedom with how much events in the private sector have worked to expand it. The invention of Uber. The existence of Amazon.com. Google Maps on our smartphones. Just about all of us have seen similar improvements in our quality of life over the last few decades — improvements that, when you stop to think about it, reflect augmented freedom. …

The government hasn’t been the cause of that augmented freedom, but it still amounts to more freedom rather than less.

Here’s another reason for optimism: Think of the ways in which government oversight is being replaced with non-coercive private oversight. …

Now for a topic where optimism is really hard to come by: the polarization of America. …

The optimism is hard to come by in this realm because the prospects for bridging either the political or class forms of isolation are so remote. … But let me make a few observations that are at least mildly optimistic.

The first is that traditional American civic culture is alive and well in vast stretches of this country. …

Yes, the bad news about a lot of working-class America is true. There is demoralization and social problems that didn’t exist 25 years ago. … The problems are real. But nostalgic, Tocquevillian America is still out there. … And the fact that Tocquevillian America is still so widespread is one of our best reasons for optimism. …

But here’s another: America is becoming culturally diverse today in the same way it was pre-World War I, when ethnic groupings across the country led to neighborhoods, cities and even entire states that functioned in culturally very different ways. …

Today’s America is once again a patchwork of cultures that are different from one another and often in tension. What they share in common with the cultures of pre-World War I America is that they require freedom. In one way or another, the members of most of the new subcultures want to be left alone in ways that the laws of the nation, strictly observed, will no longer let them. They are potential members of coalitions with Tocquevillian America to promote a new version of federalism.

How might those coalitions come about? Here’s another reason for optimism: A lot of people on the left have become as disillusioned with government as people on the right. They may still advocate government programs that the right opposes. But the systemic incompetence of government is becoming more and more widely accepted. …

Globalization and the creative destruction it has fostered have brought sweeping changes in the private sector — changes that government has refused to impose on itself. … People in the private sector have watched the public sector shelter itself from the challenges that the private sector had no choice but to face.

Furthermore, government has sheltered itself at the public’s expense. Cities with budgets that have ballooned over the last few decades don’t fix potholes or collect garbage nearly as well as they did in the 1950s. The same law enforcement system that has generous retirement packages for police in their early 40s may not have enough patrol cars. In the same school system where teachers with seniority make close to six figures, regardless of their performance, students may not have enough textbooks.

These are not things that just conservatives notice. Everyone does.

And so the last, peculiar reason for optimism. The economy and the culture are leaving government behind. …

The central truth of my pessimism is that the ideal behind the American project, of free people living under a benevolent limited government, is never going to reach maturity. It is dead. The central truth of my optimism is that government is still at the periphery of my daily life — that I can live in the presence of Supreme Court justices who exasperate me, bureaucrats who enrage me, members of Congress who seem devoid of courage and principle, and a president who in my opinion is in need of some really good meds — and nonetheless go about living a wonderful life through the institutions of family, community, vocation and faith that are the wellsprings of human happiness.

Misdiagnosing the Western Crisis

Dalibor Rohac writes that Trump, fake news and Russian belligerence are symptoms of the West’s disease, not its causes. Here is an except:

Trump’s attacks on international rules and institutions, Russian interference, and the continuing appeal of fake news can be seen as manifestations of the West’s political and intellectual crisis, rather than its primary drivers. It follows that much of the common response within Western democracies—from attempts by some European leaders to turn Trump into a pariah, through attempts to shut down Russian troll accounts and propaganda websites, to devising a new regulatory regime for social media—are at best Band-Aid solutions to much deeper problems. …

The West’s key problem lies in the erosion of faith in principles that bind Western societies together and impose structure on policy choices. For years, the center-right and the center-left were in basic agreement on a number of subjects—the importance of democracy and the rule of law, the market economy, a social safety net, the delegation of some policymaking authority to bureaucratic agencies and experts, and a rules-based international system—which reduced the scope for possible policy changes regardless of who was in power. Today’s center-right and center-left might still agree, but that consensus is out of sync with increasingly jaded Western electorates.

For decades preceding Trump’s election, the United States has seen a decline of trust in politics. A similar decline in trust can be seen in most organizations of social life—from universities, through churches, to television news. More and more people, as Yascha Mounk has documented, seem to be falling out of love with a democratic, representative form of government. In the first round of France’s presidential election, 40 percent of all votes went to extremists and in Italy’s parliamentary election in March, over half of all votes were cast in favor of parties that were until recently confined to the fringes of democratic politics.

A crisis of such proportions cannot be reduced to Donald Trump’s antics, Russian propaganda, or social media bubbles and disinformation. Instead, it reflects the failure of existing arrangements to deliver on their promises in a changing technological, economic, and geopolitical environment. But an equally important part of the problem is an intellectual one, namely the inability of elites to propose policy agendas that could simultaneously address the resulting problems—economic stagnation, perceived double standards for elites and everyone else, the opaqueness of “global governance”—and also command popular support.

In his new book, my AEI colleague Jonah Goldberg, like Friedrich Hayek before him, argues that our moral compasses developed to manage social relationships with around 150 people of our own tribe, dominated by an “alpha,” and not to sustain abstract rules of conduct guiding a globalized market economy, liberal democracy, and open society. From that perspective, the rise of the West, which dates back only a little over 200 years, might well be a one-off historical aberration. It has been a glorious time in many respects, but perhaps it was never meant to last. Today’s hyperpolarized politics, tribalism, wholesale rejection of expertise, resurgent bigotry and anti-Semitism, and the intolerance of the Left, could be features of a broader “mean reversion”: a return to the long-term average defining the human condition.

If true, that carries uncomfortable implications. It is impossible to sustain policies that have made us rich, free, and secure if Western electorates fail to appreciate that those arrangements are preferable to their alternatives. Furthermore, if there is a real demand for charismatic authoritarian leadership that discards the niceties of rule of law in favor of personal rule that was long the historical norm, then authoritarianism is what Western democracies will get. One hopes that Goldberg—and Hayek—are wrong and that the current crisis of ideas is indeed an opportunity for renewal and not the beginning of a long downward slide. The first step towards such a renewal is to stop confusing the disease’s symptoms with its causes.