I want to point readers of this blog to Noah Smith’s generous review of The Revolt of the Public (ROTP), posted a couple of weeks ago. I would characterize the piece as “critical engagement” – for an analyst, the ideal treatment of your work. A standing ovation is a wonderful thing, but when it’s over you are left there, smiling awkwardly, wondering what to do next. If you are booed off the stage, on the other hand, all you can do is go home and have a good cry. But critical engagement means that your ideas are moving forward, are in fact leaving their author’s grasp, so that you must think harder and move faster if you want to catch up with your own intellectual offspring.
That, in any case, was the way I felt on reading Smith’s review.
Here I want to re-examine the relationship of modern government to the revolt of the public, in light of what Smith had to say about it. An entire chapter of ROTP is dedicated to “The Failure of Government.” Smith believes this is much too bleak a view of the matter, and makes the case that “government often gets things done.”
What follows, however, shouldn’t be construed as a disputation or defense of the book, but rather as my reflections on Smith’s critique: my attempt, if you wish, to move forward and think harder about the origins of our current predicament.
How Can We Tell When Government Has Failed?
Smith offers empirical evidence on behalf of modern government. Some of it is, I think, indisputable: governments have built highway systems and paid for cheap, near-universal health care. Other claims are more controversial: that government has been responsible for a reduction of poverty, for example. But even if we grant all of these achievements, a troubling question presents itself. To what extent is the failure or success of government susceptible to empirical evidence? Stated somewhat differently: what is the relation between statistical data and legitimacy?
A standard of judgment divorced from reality would seem like the definition of lunacy. A government that fills its jails with opponents and pauperizes its people, like the regime in Venezuela for the last two decades, must be considered a failure. Venezuela, of course, is an extreme example of statistical disaster – and what I find interesting about it is how many people, both inside and outside that country, would reject the imputation of failure. The regime there still has defenders who would presumably bring up non-statistical factors – benevolent intentions toward the poor, say – to keep critical data out of the jury’s hands and so arrive at a much more favorable verdict.
A government’s success or failure isn’t derived from a number. It’s an opinion based on something – and that something can shift ground in a most disconcerting fashion. It can be economic growth measured in GDP. It can be a government’s embrace of a particular ideology, as is the case with Venezuela and socialism. It can also be an event – World War II and the Vietnam War determined the success and failure of several American administrations.
The turbulence of our moment in history adds to the confusion. We are clearly in a time of transition, as industrial society devolves into a flatter, faster, and less tangible digital model of organization. Our statistics look backward to the industrial age: they miss or mis-measure much of the current reality. Like so many aspects of contemporary life, the economy, Arnold Kling once told me, has become increasingly illegible.
Statistics like GDP or the unemployment rate are immense aggregates that create the illusion of a single national reality. They follow the first commandment of the industrial age: one size fits all. Yet every day we are more fractured and fractious in our opinions, if not in our social lives. Most of us are migrating away from the crowded Center to solitary islands of identity, and our political judgments are being transformed in the process. It is entirely possible for magnificent GDP numbers to conceal shadowy patches of unhappiness and pain. It is entirely possible for unhappy groups, though small in numbers, to assemble online, storm into the streets, and taint with failure an elected government. That has been the trajectory of the Yellow Vest Movement in France. The people involved in the movement were invisible to the statistics, and probably represent a minority view: but they have pulled Emmanuel Macron, and his soaring ambitions, crashing to the ground.
In the darkling plain of our divisions, reality itself is a battleground. Every standard and measurement dissolves in an acid bath of distrust. The triumphs of high modernist government, which Smith cites, are turned into evidence against contemporary decadence and failure. Nobody believes that government today could build the interstate highway system.
I remain comfortable with the two frameworks for success and failure I put forward in ROTP: government’s claims of competence and the public’s expectations of government. Both include subjective elements – but both can be measured to some extent. I’ll deal with expectations below. About government’s claims to competence I will say only that these are spun out of our expectations, but tend to be sincere. Barack Obama claimed to know to the decimal point how his stimulus would reduce unemployment, even though such projections could be falsified by events – as, in fact, they were. When Donald Trump enthuses about his “big, beautiful wall,” he probably means it. We have trained our politicians to self-delusion, and so increased the likelihood of failure.
And failure, alas, is likely. How can I know that? Because an unimpeachable witness has told us: government itself. On becoming president, Barack Obama looked back to the previous administration and spoke about our “collective failure to make hard choices,” our schools that “fail too many,” our “nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable.” When his turn came, President Trump reviewed the work of the Obama administration and perceived an “American carnage” in which “Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed.”
The odds are high that Trump’s successor, regardless of affiliation, will not have nicer things to say about his time in government.
What Drives the Public’s Alienation?
I have described the public as spurred primarily by negation, sometimes tipping over into nihilism. Smith disagrees with this characterization. “Recent protests in the U.S.,” he writes, “have not been completely nihilistic – often, they’ve motivated real, concrete policy changes.” Occupy Wall Street, he maintains, led to financial regulations. The Black Lives Matter protests inspired police reforms. The Tea Party forced Obama to cut spending.
These connections seem pretty tenuous to me, but in any case I am concerned with the public’s temper rather than the policy trimmings of the elites. And the public never takes yes for an answer. Does anyone suppose that OWS protesters were satisfied with regulations ordained from the top of the political establishment? Or that Black Lives Matter militants have been mollified by police reforms, any more than Tea Partiers were by the sequester?
Protests triumph or peter out – but the public is never satisfied. I can’t think of a single instance of an insurgency disbanding because of policy concessions. The Israeli tent city protesters rejected legislation that addressed their concerns. Many refused even to speak to the government. The Yellow Vest Movement has rumbled on after the original grievance, a fuel tax, was eliminated. The crowds that gathered in Tahrir Square to demand the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak were back to demand the same of his duly elected successor, Mohamed Morsi.
Modern government, that vast pile of procedural machinery, has no way of transacting with the public’s action-hero aspirations.
Harking back to an old, sound concept, Smith suggests that the revolt of the public may well be a “revolution of rising expectations.” That’s accurate enough. The public craves perfect justice and meaningful identity. It seeks to make France fraternal and America great again. Yet it is condemned to drudge in the workaday world instead: a source of alienation and despair. The rebels have been mostly well-fed and well-educated. They rage for existential reasons beyond the reach of politics. In a landscape denuded of true authority, they turn to power, in the form of government, and place the blame. Failure under these conditions is inevitable, and triggers the urge to smash at anything that blocks the way to utopia – notably, the institutions of government.
It is at this point that the nihilist – the public as destroyer of worlds – appears on the scene.
How the public has arrived at its extraordinary expectations is a question for which I have no answer. No government has ever delivered the Kingdom of Heaven, and no government – not even Venezuela’s – has failed at every undertaking. So the question is begged: success or failure, relative to what? If we wish to stick close to the facts of human experience, I can think of just two axes along which this judgment can be plotted: that of the past and that of currently existing governments. Donald Trump’s administration can be compared, illustratively, to Abraham Lincoln’s in the 1860s or to Theresa May’s in Britain. Every other method, in my opinion, must lean on abstractions that verge on the fictional.
Yet our quarrels today are remarkably empty of examples from the world or from the past. We gesture towards “iconic” moments, good and evil – the beaches of Normandy, Jim Crow – but to an astonishing degree we are devoid of interest in any place or time other than our own. We are all surface and no depth – all skin, without bone or muscle. Unlike previous radical movements, like Marxism, which were obsessed with history, the public in revolt views the past as worse than an irrelevancy: it’s the mother of all injustice, to be abolished rather than understood. The consequences have been predictable. Tattered old ideas, like socialism and nationalism, are advocated in a vacuum of historical context, as if they were invented yesterday.
Of course, nothing has changed in reality. We are still caught in the coils of history. We are simply unaware of it. We behave like sociopolitical stroke victims. An organism in that condition will tend to make bizarre decisions.
At this juncture, we enter the realm of morality: never a comfortable place. But if untethered expectations lead beyond government failure to nihilism, then we really should pause to examine the part each of us play in the drama. To cite a well-known example: behavior on social media can be atrocious. The elite response has been to blame the platforms involved, and demand filters to prevent privacy infringements, hate speech, fake news, etc. Some wish to “break up” social media, as if they could re-impose the silence of pre-digital times. That’s way too easy on them and on us. The collapse of human decency online can’t be bandaged over with algorithms or anti-trust threats. It must be starved of an audience, one user at a time. The burden is personal, not technical or political. It falls on me – not thee.
The fault, dear reader, is not in Facebook, but in ourselves – and so, I believe, is the fix.
Are We Slouching Into Darkness or Racing to the Dawn?
The question of government failure is hopelessly entangled with potent, long-term forces that are changing us by the hour. There is an almost comical disproportion between the pettiness of political life and the enormity of our social transformations. The actors strutting on stage look small, deluded, self-important. They are overwhelmed by the backdrop: we glimpse, behind the players, a tremendous firestorm of technological innovation, irrevocable, unpredictable, thundering with strange new voices. The public rants about failure because government can’t meet its fantastic expectations. The elites mourn democracy’s death in darkness because the public is now ascendant. Even for polar opposites – cats and dogs – negation is the protected gathering-place.
The industrial mode of organizing humanity is retreating in disorder before the whirlwind of change. How much ground it will yield, and exactly where or when – these are open questions. Nothing is predetermined. Everything will depend on our personal choices. I have frequently described the encounter between industrial institutions and the digital age in violent terms, as a collision, a conflict, a war of the worlds. In my zeal to explain the elements of our political turbulence, I may have overdone the rhetoric. History rarely deals in either-or. Industrial and digital are interpenetrating far more than they are colliding. A good Hegelian would expect a synthesis to be engendered by this dialectic – the birth of a new, future-facing model, neither one thing nor the other, a creature of the dawn. That scenario seems at least plausible to a non-Hegelian like me.
The task at hand is to re-form and vivify the institutions of liberal democracy. Through all the years in the wilderness, we, the chosen people of this tortured epoch, must sustain and convey our covenant against the dead hand of the elites and the vandalism of sectarians. The promised land is not a place but a time: that happy morning when the public is once again reconciled to the system.
If government failure and the broader crisis of authority are, to a considerable extent, a function of unrealistic expectations, then we must ask what we can realistically expect from our political institutions. The promises of candidates must be measured against the limits of human knowledge, rather than accepted as a down payment on utopian dreams. Elite claims of competence must be regarded with skepticism. No movement, however passionate or single-minded, can save the earth. No politician, however eloquent, can endow an empty soul with meaning. No government will ever validate your identity. These are spiritual hungers, best left for religion to satisfy.
A whole literature has blossomed that insists we know a lot less than we think. I’ll name Paul Ormerod, N. N. Taleb, Duncan Watts, and Tyler Cowen as my favorites in this bracing genre: their arguments overlap and draw the boundary-lines of what can be promised. We should turn to these writers when confronted with the Amazonian flood of political and policy prescriptions that aim to fix everything from the climate to obesity. They will remind us that miracles, like meaning, are the province of religion. Any attempt to make a religion of power will reprise that 70-year run of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” called the Soviet Union. Failure will then be complete, and come attended by murder.
If even expert knowledge is too frail to lean on, can any government deliver the changes needed to reconcile the public to our democratic institutions? This is actually a portentous question: our riddle of the Sphinx. I’m not sure I have a confident answer – but I know that I like Tyler Cowen’s.
In Stubborn Attachments, Cowen acknowledges that we exist in a state of “radical uncertainty.” The future is, and must remain, contingent. (Paul Ormerod will say, flatly, that “it is not in our power to ordain the future.”) What follows?
Tolerance should follow. Since even the wisest lack access to revealed truth, we should respect all opinions offered in good will. The elites aren’t Platonic guardians. They can see no better or further than the rest of us, and should therefore speak carefully – and humbly – about the future consequences of proposed programs. The public, for its part, should treat online discussions as tests of character rather than occasions for primal screams. That jerk you disagree with on Twitter could well turn out to be right.
A reinforced sense of the importance of morality should follow. Since we are radically uncertain about the long-term consequences of our actions, we must choose in the moment between right and wrong. Human life thus becomes high moral drama, riven with doubt and self-judgment, rather than a series of mechanical moves engineered to obtain predictable outcomes.
For government, the most important implication of Cowen’s uncertain world concerns the crafting of policies and programs. Even if the policy goal is clear, the way there never is, so the marching orders should include a great deal of trial and error and the possibility of self-correction. To avoid the fatal illusion of a steady-state reality, big, ambitious programs must advance one step at a time. We need not surrender to cynicism or despair. Government can play its part in bringing about the changes needed to reconquer the public’s loyalty – but it must show greater flexibility between ends and means. “Our attachment to particular means,” Cowen writes, should be “highly tentative, highly uncertain, and radically contingent.”
I find myself wanting to live in the adventurous world Cowen describes: and it may be that I already do.
Where, finally, do we stand?
The public’s quarrel with government, and its perception of failure, is driven as much by elite behavior as by an assessment of how political institutions have performed. The generation of elites that was young when industrial giants roamed the earth is now failing, literally and physically. Its enjoyment of the large corner offices within the pyramid will soon go the way of all flesh. Many expressions of extreme political despair coming from the elites can be ascribed to a panic of mortality. Young people are displacing old. The latter have had their day. Of the young, an analyst should say as little as possible, other than to wish them the best of luck.
When I consider our unsurpassed affluence, high levels of education, and freedom from oppression, I’m inclined to agree with Noah Smith that the rumors of government failure have been greatly exaggerated. That is the perception nonetheless. Part of the responsibility falls on political rhetoric: confident claims of competence too often crash and burn against Cowen’s contingent reality. In part, as we have seen, failure is a function of the utopian hopes of the public. These are largely subjective factors. A naïve observer would imagine that they can be easily changed. I can only say that I have plowed this particular field for many years now – and it has been my experience that nothing is harder to change than a human mind.