‘Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,’ said the Rat. ‘And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all.’ – Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Sam Smith has a post that speaks to me in a way that most things one reads do not; it is one of those rare pieces that casts light on a subject you’ve been long-pondering but can’t quite articulate, cutting quickly to the beating heart of the matter and leaving well-rattled the bones of old ideas. This, in the wake of Freddie’s post, have gotten me thinking quite a lot, which is an unusually hazardous business when one has small children, and suffers from sleep-deprivation and the like. But I will give it my best.
The crux of Smith’s argument is that the left has become too enchanted with centralized solutions and that the elite in general – both left and right, government, corporate, and media – will continue this march toward centralization, continue their power grabs, and that this will have profoundly illiberal and negative impacts on the country, on Americans and their communities, and on the future of our democracy; and that this has been going on for quite some time. Humans are not machines, and the process of governing cannot be carried out like the manufacturing of a car. Scale and efficiency do not translate well in the tangle of human arrangements.
There are several factors speeding the shift away from democratic devolution, not all of them political:
– For example, there has been a huge increase in the number of lawyers in Congress and elsewhere in the federal government. Lawyers tend to be technocratic control freaks more than ideological ones. But the effect is much the same and has helped to produce more federal laws since the late seventies than we had had in our first 200 years.
– The explosion of MBAs have also helped, up from around 5,000 a year in the 1950s to around 150,00o in the past decade.
– The takeover of the liberal movement by a grad school elite that sees itself as far brighter than much of the country, of superior virtue, and which believes that as long as you can manage something you can make it work. In many ways. Barack Obama – bringing us into our third decade of uninterrupted presidency by a Harvard or Yale graduate – epitomizes this approach not just in his manner but in his obsession with data, assessment, tests and legislative complexity. The foregoing not only fail empirically; they annoy the hell out of much of the rest of the country. Further, the liberal elite with increasing frequency can be heard speaking of less powerful and educated Americans in a manner reminiscent of white southerners of a pst time talking about blacks.
– This shift blends perfectly with corporate and conservative values producing, regardless of which party wins, a result that varies only between the plutocratic and the oligarchic. Thus we have bipartisan test tyranny in our schools, with Arne Duncan leading for the Democrats and former Bush Ed Secretary Margart Spellings saying things like, “States were not bold enough in seeking meaningful and disruptive change to confront school failure.” You may recall that “inadequate boldness” provision of the Constitution, right?
Given the cultural character of the modern liberal there is little hope that any positive change will come from that source any more than from the now bizarrely childish leadership of the Republican Party.
Further, both are fully under the sway of a completely corrupt campaign financing system. Essential to keeping things under control in this system is concentrating the bribes in as few places possible, preferably mostly in Washington. The less power elsewhere the better.
The liberal media repeatedly suggests that any decentralization of power is a step back towards a Civil War definition of states rights and that opposing federal concentration is the sole purview of the reactionary right.
This is, of course, nonsense and one needs to look no further back than the left of the 1960s to find examples of a progressive approach to devolvement of power.
Still, realistically, it is left to populist progressives, Greens, libertarians, independents, and localists ranging from lettuce growers to school board members, to declare the practice of democracy not the privilege of an elite but the right of every citizen.
This is not a matter of either/or. The goal is to found in the concept of subsidiarity, which argues that government is best carried out at the lowest practical level.
Smith’s discussion of FEMA’s botched attempts to map the Maine shoreline, and the subsequent local revolt, remind me a great deal of James C. Scott’s discussion of the homogenization brought about by government naming conventions and other centralized efforts to create order out of a disordered world at Cato Unbound. Writes Scott:
To follow the progress of state-making is, among other things, to trace the elaboration and application of novel systems which name and classify places, roads, people, and, above all, property. These state projects of legibility overlay, and often supersede, local practices. Where local practices persist, they are typically relevant to a narrower and narrower range of interaction within the confines of a face-to-face community.
Not long ago I wrote a post explaining why I am not a conservative; since that time I’ve felt pretty disenchanted with the left. Small “l” libertarianism has been my preferred poison, but something about libertarianism has always left me unsatisfied – not necessarily many of the ideas one finds within libertarianism, but on both a spiritual and intellectual level I feel as though I am missing something, coming up short somehow. Perhaps I am too much the romantic, or too skeptical of replacing the public sphere with the private. I do not want to see the corporatization of public schools. I don’t believe that education should be driven by profits. I am drawn to the libertarianism of localist thinkers like Bill Kauffman, and to the traditionalism of thinkers like Russell Arben Fox, and to the liberalism presented in Smith’s post. I think society is best comprised of little platoons tackling their own giant tasks.
In any case, I have felt exceedingly uncomfortable on both the left and the right and as a self-described libertarian. Perhaps this is because I am essentially not a conservative despite my love of all things traditional, but rather a liberal of the mold Smith is writing about, one not at all well-represented in current political discourse for whatever reason (and I do not know the reason).
The key to understanding my politics is that I am a romantic and am therefore always dissatisfied. I am not fond of the ‘bland rationalism’ of contemporary liberalism even while I admire its wonkish rigor; nor do I find myself wooed by the cheap-talk of the reactionary talk-radio right. The conservative movement, I suspect, will be the downfall of the very philosophy it portends to uphold. I want something more from politics than is perhaps possible; I want something from the modern world which is perhaps only a fiction of history. I think there is profound tragedy in the loss of tradition, of folkways and local practices.
When I was a child I was dismayed by the realization that wherever I went, however far I walked, I would come across a road. Those mountains in the distance were not refuge from the modern world; they were scarred across with ski lodges and tourists. I drowned myself in fantasy novels and other books. I refused to disbelieve in fairies and dragons (ask me now and I would tell you I cannot say either way; on fairies I am agnostic). I loathed cars and guns and many other accoutrements of our age. I wanted to throw the Ring back into Mount Doom. But, of course, I could not even make it to the brink. This is my conservatism; my liberalism springs from my belief in the goodness of man and our ability to govern ourselves and improve the world at least a little bit with every passing of the proverbial torch.
As Smith notes, the modern liberal movement has been captured by a “grad school elite that sees itself as far brighter than much of the country, of superior virtue, and which believes that as long as you can manage something you can make it work.” And perhaps this is the problem with neo-liberalism, really: not that it is too bottom-up but that, in practice if not in theory, it is too top-down, that those who have been its most prominent advocates have misunderstood its purpose and have helped give rise to an enormous concentration of wealth and corporate and political power, bulwarked by a sympathetic and self-serving media.
Meddlers and busy-bodies on the right and the left threaten not only one another’s values, but the values they themselves hold dear – separation of church and state benefits the religious and non-religious alike, after all. While I realize that all laws are moral and have moral implications, and that all public dollars will carry with them the moral weight of those footing the bill, I nevertheless believe that fewer laws and regulations lead to greater moral autonomy, and that dollars spent at the local level will have the greatest impact and carry the greatest moral weight. And so I embrace a liberalism that emphasizes autonomy and voluntary association, civil society and local empowerment over the unwieldy central state apparatus and its corporate favoritism. Shoring up power in the hands of fewer and fewer people and institutions has profound unintended consequences, even while some central, gravitational force is nevertheless necessary in any system of subsidiarity.