The limits of the center-right consensus

Every so often, David Brooks comes very close to getting it, but he’s never quite willing to take his arguments to their logical conclusion. Like back in March, he wrote that “The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent.” Or this week:

The answer is to use Lee Kuan Yew means to achieve Jeffersonian ends — to become less democratic at the national level in order to become more democratic at the local level. At the national level, American politics has become neurotically democratic. Politicians are campaigning all the time and can scarcely think beyond the news cycle. Legislators are terrified of offending this or that industry lobby, activist group or donor faction. Unrepresentative groups have disproportionate power in primary elections.

The quickest way around all this is to use elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions to push populist reforms.

This is an obvious contradiction, and Larison calls him out for it:

Brooks doesn’t explain how making the federal government even less responsive and accountable than it is now will improve or strengthen local government. It’s just supposed to happen. If Brooks’ idea were ever put into practice, it would likely to generate even stronger resentment of the entire political system, and it would produce a backlash against the concentration of power at the federal level.

 *****

On Tuesday evening Mark and I caught a think-tank salon double feature, starting at AEI to see Economist editors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge talking about their new book The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State (not to be confused with Herr Dugin’s Fourth Political Theory), followed by F.H. Buckley on his new book about the “rise of crown government in America.”

In a sense the two were polar opposites of one another; in person the two Economist editors had the same eternal optimism that characterizes the magazine’s editorial voice, whereas Buckley’s talk consisted mostly of gloomy aphorisms. On a conceptual level too, though all were deeply concerned about structural deficits and entitlement sustainability, the two Brits’ contention was essentially that Reagans and Thatchers eventually come along to fix these things.

And yet, if the postwar West demonstrates anything, it’s the ability of democracies to decay resiliently. In the Q&A Mark raised the possibility that America could easily muddle on with high inflation and unemployment for years; there isn’t some sort of Reagan kill switch to flip when things get especially bad, and the exigencies of our quadrennial presidential elections mean that the right man for the job could take several cycles to come around.

They claim the challenge for the West — to “get fit,” as they put it, for a competition with Chinese authoritarian capitalism that represents a “much more profound” challenge than the Soviet Union ever did — is an existential one. They pointed, somewhat suspiciously, toward Indian PM-elect Narendra Modi’s stated desire to emulate Chinese growth, as indicating the stakes involved. Shinzo Abe is also concerned.

The trouble is that eventually social-democratic turpitude gets so bad that the inevitable reaction is too immoderate for good classical liberals like Micklethwait and Wooldridge to support — witness the Economist’s hostility to Modi. They’re also somewhat hostile to decentralization in general — during the talk, Micklethwait expressed doubts about the scalability of Singapore-style public services.

So, we seem to have reached an impasse. We are told to wait for a budget-cutting savior — somehow put in power by an electorate that gets more economically left-wing every election — at which time, pace David Brooks, a cadre of expert technocrats will balance the budget, enact populist tax reforms, and deign to grant the states some token of decentralization. Maybe they can set their own drinking ages again, or something.

Does this strike you as a wise course of action? Does it make any sense at all?

In America, what seems clear is that getting out of our social-democratic morass requires a withdrawal of consent at the state level, where political power still lies with the Republicans. The tea party seems to be coming to the conclusion that an Article V convention is the best way to accomplish that, though the devil is in the details (wording of the petitions, exactly what amendments will be up for debate, etc). For what it’s worth, here are some that have been debated; I’m much more enthusiastic about the first four than the last two:

  • Repeal the 17th Amendment to make senators accountable to their states, not parties and special interests.
  • Repeal the Apportionment Act and bring the size of Congress more in line with a country of 300 million people. If progressives object that this would be unruly, that’s simply a reason for them to meet less often.
  • An amendment to allow a majority of state legislatures to veto tax increases.
  • Some sort of repeal amendment, to make sure there is some state-level recourse for things like Obamacare, which has a somewhat dubious provenance.
  • A Niskanen/Amash-style balanced budget amendment that allows some countercyclical spending.
  • Repeal the 26th Amendment — States should be able to set their own voting ages, because screw you kids.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge suggest to today’s right-thinking progressive that today’s overburdened social democracies raise the question of, ‘what is the state for?’ In other words, what is the minimum amount of services we expect it to provide for people. This is inherently threatening to the sort of person whose answer is always ‘more’ and ‘by any means necessary.’ And in a country as notoriously moderate and deliberative as the U.K., maybe that conversation is possible, but neither American party seems interested in having it.

The Article V-ers are asking a very different, nomocratic question: How can we arrange the structure of American government to produce better outcomes in the long-run, and mitigate the short-term bias problems of democracy? I’m not sure our center-right thought leaders are quite as serious. To the extent that those in power aren’t willing to talk about this kind of structural reform, extraconstitutional means of withdrawing consent do start to become more attractive.

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