Maintaining the Flow

In a round-table at the New York Times on why some have picked Woodrow Wilson as their bête noire in the last several years this passage leapt out at me:

Here is Wilson’s description of the Founders’ view in his “New Freedom”: The ideal of government was for every man to be left alone and not interfered with, except when he interfered with somebody else.” Wilson was exaggerating (the Founders favored government support of education, for example), but he is right about the gist of their approach.

Referring to his own time period, Wilson continues, “Life is so complicated that we are not dealing with the old conditions, and that the law has to step in and create new conditions under which we may live.” In other words, the Founders’ idea of protecting property rights is outmoded. We need a government that intrudes into and even micromanages the private sphere.

IMO that’s a succinct summary of the progressive vision and the heart of modern day progressives’ problem. It’s a vision which I suspect was much more effective 50, 60, or more years ago than it is now. As Wilson put it “life is so complicated that we are not dealing with the old conditions”. Today’s conditions are so much more complicated than they were in Wilson’s day that government regulation, social engineering, and economic engineering of the Keynesian sort have lost much of whatever effectiveness they once possessed. As Walter Russell Mead noted in a post from a few days ago:

The trouble is that most of the 20th century Democratic solutions won’t work very well in the vastly changed economic landscape of the 21st century. Whatever one thinks of Keynesian economics, the benefits of deficit spending were clearly greater in the 1930s (when the US was essentially a closed economy) than they are today. If Americans have more money to spend, they are likely to go down to Walmart and buy something from China. The multiplier effect of government spending is weaker than it used to be.

Worse, the disastrous growth of public sector labor unions and years of political pandering by shortsighted and selfish politicians have made government a much less effective tool than it used to be. Per-pupil spending no longer bears much relationship to educational outcomes; if we double spending on teacher salaries we are not likely to double, or perhaps even to improve, educational standards. The extraordinary cost of government in union-dominated, politically dysfunctional states like California, New York and Illinois imposes crippling tax burdens on local economies. Firing state employees and slashing the wages and pensions of those who remain will do more for these states, sadly, than bulking up state spending on exciting new programs.

Government investment to promote economic growth is also less promising than it used to be. The accelerated pace of technological innovation makes it harder to predict where the economic future lies; think of the French investment in the once famous ‘Mini-tel’ system, destined to be destroyed and made worthless by the rise of the Internet. Government planners, even Harvard-educated ones with Truly Gigantic Brains, are simply not able to predict what technologies will really matter twenty, ten or even five years down the road.

In my view we need a change of emphasis on what government should be about. Rather than placing impediments in way of the free flow of information, trade, capital, and transport there should be more attention to maintaining those flows. Today’s conditions are too complex for any experts, however benign or capable, to manage. The greater their efforts to impede the flow the more likely they are to be swept away by it.

We should view our military and particularly our navy as it was historically, as a means of maintaining the free flow of trade and transport. We should view our system of intellectual property as one that fosters the creators of new ideas rather than as one that aims to restrict the free flow of ideas, largely to the aggrandizement of the owners of ideas, frequently large companies. A main objective of our foreign policy should be to sweep away the barriers to trade, including our own rather than as a means of promoting the status quo. Our system of taxation should be one that supports commerce and creative destruction rather than one that aims to maintain the wealth of those who are already wealthy.

Unfortunately, our political system, rather than one that encourages and represents the aspirations of the American people is increasingly one in which battle lines drawn decades ago are fought over again and again, like vast squads of reenactors continually restaging the Battle of Gettysburg, all the more surreal because the real battles of today go on around them, unheeded.

Today’s octopi aren’t the railways. They are Big Government, Big Business, and Big Labor, locked in an unhealthy collaboration to expand their own wealth and influence.

5 comments… add one
  • TastyBits Link

    Maybe, the 20th Century solutions never worked. Maybe, it is time for a re-evaluation of Depression Era policies. Maybe, post-WWII prosperity masked the dysfunction. Maybe, everybody else has caught up with the US, and just maybe, the truth is becoming painfully obvious. We give ourselves a lot more credit than we deserve.

    As to the complications of the past, I suspect it may have been a little more complicated than we believe. For many, Ancient History is any time before the Grandfather. We are amazed at the Ancients: The Romans had running water and indoor plumbing; the Egyptians built the Pyramids; the Greeks were able to calculate the circumference of the Earth.

    Somehow, we were able to get to the Moon and back with 300 year old Math & Physics, but a 200 year old Government Framework is obsolete. True, Newtonian Physics cannot produce an Atomic Bomb, and the US Constitution cannot produce a “Progressive Utopia”. But, are we really better with either?

    Of course, what do I know? When Occam’s Razor is applied, I believe that the TOE is a lot simpler than M-Theory, but who am I to question my betters.

  • steve Link

    The nation and politics are so different now than 100 years ago that I find discussions about Wilson and the present to be largely irrelevant.


  • PD Shaw Link

    “the Founders favored government support of education, for example”

    How would one prove that if one could not quote from Jefferson, and aside from unsuccessful attempts to revise the Virginia Constitution what can Jefferson practically speak to? I certainly could be wrong, but I think this sounds like the typical selective quotation one usually reads from the Right.

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