July 21, 2010 1 Comment
This post by David Foster at ChicagoBoyz has turned into a pretty useful roundup of opinions and contributions on the ‘progressive’ class of elitists that many of us seem to have independently/simultaneously been identifying and complaining about. (In true progressive-class fashion, my linking to that link is partially self-serving and incestuous, because it links to me….).
The left is fond of the concept of market failure (e.g. ‘pollution’). This is usually not because they are well versed in the technical meaning of market failure per se, nor do many demonstrate the ability to identify and intelligently argue for market failures. Rather, the left perceives (probably correctly) that calling something a ‘market failure’ might be a cheap/easy means of cajoling and swindling a decisive chunk of the populace into letting them use government to intrude upon, distort, and control markets, which, of course, is what they really wanna do regardless.
But the concept of market failure is intellectually sound, namely, the possibility of market patterns in which everyone pursuing their self-interest rationally leads to an overall outcome which is worse than some other possible outcome (to be precise, not Pareto-optimal). The classic example is a factory that pollutes, the pollution being an externality borne by society at large that won’t be priced into the factory’s product (absent some sort of Pigovian tax). It can be debated whether this or that cited example of a ‘market failure’ really is one, or whether its definition begs the question, but the concept is worth thinking about.
I think nowadays we need a twin concept: democracy failure. Presumably, democracy, like markets, is supposed to optimize outcomes for people in some way or another. (Otherwise, why do we have it?) So then, just as with market failure, democracy failure could be defined along the lines of, a (self-sustaining or sustained) pattern that can emerge in democratic governance in which the outcome is undesirable in some appropriately-measured way.
This would all have to be firmed up, and there would be the usual disputes over definitions and all, but for starters it seems worth pointing out that today we observe in our ‘democracy’ some patterns that seem both self-sustaining and sub-optimal: the rise of the ‘Smart’ crowd or mandarin class controlling bureaucracy and perpetuating their own power; wealth massively accruing to the capital city chasing privilege, rent-seeking and corruption in a time of recession and deprivation for the middle class; on the voter/’buy’ side, large swathes of the electorate electing a man they knew virtually nothing about to be the chief executive primarily because of his skin color, fantasies they had made up about him, and/or this fluffy-opiate Youtube video; rising inequality concentrated in a super-rich class characterized by massive self-indulgence and waste combined with a state of utter denial about their self-centeredness that usually goes hand in hand with a belief in their own benevolent progressivity. (Arnold Kling has more charges in his docket against the state of our democracy here. )
The point is that these patterns and tendencies all tend to feed on each other and sustain – increasingly so, it seems – a certain malign social arrangement. In this arrangement we see
- an elite ‘progressive’ class of super-rich, condescendingly supersnobbish elites on top with ever-increasing power (smoothly bouncing between corporations and government, blurring the lines between the two, living and passing on to their children lives of unprecedented comfort, prestige, and privilege), with
- credentials to ‘certify’, and ‘correct’ ideologies that flatter them, that they deserve that power and ratify the highly delusional views they all have about their benevolence and ‘progressive’ superiority, which
- insulates them with an ironclad sense of entitlement to their high status and wealth (they deserve it because they care, or are Smart, or aren’t racist, or…), even as
- their privilege and comfort is fed by extracting – more and more in violation of the rule of law and the social compact, but rather due to cozy arrangements and privileges – ever more wealth, power and status from an electorate, an electorate made up mostly of people who are either
- simply unable to remove this elite from power and claw back some of their rights/property, or
- actively and willing ceding power to this elite due to various romantic or fantasy views they have about governance and society, views that can be very seductive (because they flatter those who hold them into thinking they are Smart), views which are
- nurtured – at times consciously – by the elite for obvious self-serving reasons: the more the democratic electorate holds these romantic views, the more power/wealth will accrue to the progressive elite, to the ‘Smart People’.
Read down this list and then start back at the top. Repeat a couple of times. Each seems to feed on the previous. There seems no way out of this loop, either. So imagine what sort of society these tendencies will perpetuate. Is it the sort of society of equally-protected rights, rule of law governed by a blind justice, opportunity for all, and widespread prosperity usually connoted (rightly or wrongly) by the term ‘democracy’?
One key here seems to be that in this setup the elite progressive class is always, in everything they do, convinced they are doing good. This frees the conscience as they get super-rich and super-adulated while they constrain the rights, movements, and property of regular people in the name of their supposed ‘liberal’ ideology. It’s like cancer: individual cancer cells are just perpetuating themselves and reproducing, actions which taken in isolation may be supposed to be characteristic of good health and life. Yet the net effect is a tumor that gets bigger and bigger and overwhelms the body. And (or, it could be equally said, because) the body’s natural immune system doesn’t fully recognize, or at least cannot counter, the threat.
Our progressive elites obviously don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, nor do a large percentage of the people from whom the rents are being extracted. And that is part and parcel of the problem. Our democracy is susceptible to this Smart People tumor, to this form of progressive-elitism. A problem which, seems to me, is an example of democracy failure.
What’s the remedy for democracy failure? Well offhand I’d say if the cure for market failure is democratic government, the cure for democracy failure ought to have something to do with markets. But I’ll have to think about it a bit more, because I’m sure there’s got to be more to it than that.
But maybe not much more.