Two Nations, Under Mammon
William Galston has written an important column in the Wall Street Journal, devoted to an assessment of Tyler Cowen’s new book, Average Is Over. The book tells of a coming(?) nation of two economic classes, the meritocratic elite and an increasingly poor, even third-world economic class of underemployed who gather in large ghetto areas (e.g., Texas) with poor public services but plentiful distractions (think: internet porn, 24/7/365 football, and soon-to-be legalized marijuana delivered by e-joints).
Aficionados of science fiction know that Kurt Vonnegut predicted this world already in 1952, with the publication of his first novel, Player Piano. There he describes with chilling accuracy this world ever-more coming into view—one divided between a meritocratic class with all the right degrees (even the secretaries will have Ph.D.s in a credential-inflated future) and the “Reeks-and-Wrecks,” who a visiting dignitary from the Middle East insists on calling “Takaru”—“slaves.”
We should be unsurprised, as Galston seems to be—shocked, shocked!—that this world comes ever more clearly into view. Indeed, as domestic policy advisor for President Clinton, Galston assisted in the expansion of this social and economic arrangement, participating in one of the most libertarian administrations the world has ever seen. According to Cowen, “technology” is displacing middle-class workers into either a shrinking class of “winners” or a growing class of “losers,” but assuredly, part of that “technology” is a regime of free-trade agreements and a host of other government incentives that have supported the infrastructure of globalization and worker replacement.
This inconvenient fact makes Galston’s closing paragraph a real howler: “Whether by accident or design, Mr. Cowen’s book represents a fundamental challenge. To government-hating, market-worshiping conservatives, it poses a question: If this is the consequence of your creed, are you prepared to endorse it? To liberals and progressives: What are you going to do about it? And to all of us: Is this a country you would want to live in?”
It is altogether risible that Galston, or anyone, thinks there is any significant difference between Republicans and Democrats in this regard. One need only look at the widening chasm of income inequality under Obama who—as a candidate running for his first presidential primary—dispatched Austan Goolsbee to Canada directly after pretending to be a populist for rust belt voters in the 2008 Michigan primary, to assure the Canadians that he would do nothing to touch NAFTA.
The fact is that this project was readily discernible to the likes of Vonnegut in 1952 and Michael Young (author of The Rise of the Meritocracy) in 1958, and national and international elites have been busy constructing this world ever since, regardless of political label. The Right laments the decline of “family values” as it supports economic policies that support this arrangement (even as it has garnered votes from those displaced by an increasingly rapacious economy, attracted to its message of traditional values. Notably, many of these voters simply stayed home during the last election, rightly perceiving that neither of the major candidate was in their corner.). The Left laments the income gap, and proposes various forms of social welfare that will cushion the blow, all the while even more enthusiastically constructing the meritocratic society and populating government and leading thinkeries with Ivy League “winners.” These button-down hipsters increasingly accumulate in a select number of urban echo-chambers described most recently by Charles Murray, where they lament the rise of a growing underclass while sipping $7 lattes. These social policies are purportedly to be supported by a tax base of theoretical future citizens that are not being born, a logical outcome of an aggressively expanding and government-subsidized sexual revolution, contracepting, gay marriage, and abortion culture advanced by the very same Left.
I would add two additional observations to Galston’s justified worry about the future of the Republic. First, it has never failed to strike me that it is libertarians (perhaps of a certain stripe) that advance an “inevitability” thesis. Cowen, according to Galston, argues that “resistance is futile.”
There’s nothing we can do, says Mr. Cowen, to avert a future in which 10% to 15% of Americans enjoy fantastically wealthy and interesting lives while the rest slog along without hope of a better life, tranquilized by free Internet and canned beans.
This echoes similar arguments, advanced by libertarian Lee Silver in his book Remaking Eden, that a post-humanist future of biotechnologically enhanced humanoid creatures will come to pass, whether we wish it or not. Similarly, he predicts a future not only of two classes, but of two races: unenhanced humans who become a servant class to their enhanced overlords, and increasingly “perfected” humans who, as their mastery of human biology becomes ever-more complete, even begin to entertain the notion that the God that was once imagined by the underclass is none other than the creature staring back at them in the mirror.
Thus, a philosophy that places in the forefront a theory of human liberty arrives at the conclusion that certain historical, technological, and economic forces are inevitable, and it is futile to resist them. One might bother to ask the Amish if this is true, but they didn’t go to Harvard. Clearly, they don’t value human freedom, since they are not on the historical merry-go-round to inevitable human liberty—and degradation.
The second point worth asking is whether, in some deeper way, this increasingly discernible “future” is in any way related to current government and civic dysfunction. We are, of course, all prone to explain contemporary debates in terms of electoral strategy and personality dysfunction. But if, in fact, we are in the midst of a re-definition of the basic nature of the American polity—from a republic to a banana republic—then we should not be surprised to witness some inevitable political disruptions, dislocations, and even wild and undisciplined opposition to the unfolding arrangement. While the Tea Party receives unending scorn from the chattering classes, forgotten in the mist of time (well, in the course of only five years) is that the anger of this uprising was fomented by the not-unsubstantiated suspicion that there was a deep collusion between government and economic elites in the nation (and beyond) that existed to assure that their growing take would be sustained by policies and even government fiat. This fact, often hidden from plain view by political coverage worthy of ESPN, was exposed in 2008 to ordinary Americans who “played by the rules,” and suddenly plainly saw that their betters had brought their casino to the brink of catastrophe but that access to the levers of power and wealth assured a soft landing, while ordinary citizens were increasingly stripped naked and exposed in a ravaged landscape.
Five years later, with economic disparities growing and social mobility shrinking, the elites regard these voices as unwashed rubes, while cheering for the brief but wholly confined movement of “Occupy Wall Street” that succeeded in—nothing. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have been wholly shorn of a language and tradition by which they could properly protest the current arrangements. Such a tradition would be found in democratic populism, stressing decentralized political and economic arrangements in which policies and national priorities are first and foremost oriented toward the dignity of self-government, not get-rich-quick schemes in which the winners win and the losers move to Texas. But instead we debate whether government or corporations are to blame, while our betters increase their take and enjoy the show.
Lost amid all the discussion of Pope Francis’s many recent statements is the following remark that he offered in the interview with Eugenio Scalfari in La Republicca:
Personally I think so-called unrestrained liberalism only makes the strong stronger and the weak weaker and excludes the most excluded. We need great freedom, no discrimination, no demagoguery and a lot of love. We need rules of conduct and also, if necessary, direct intervention from the state to correct the more intolerable inequalities.
“Liberals” may celebrate the Pope as a liberal, but he is a deep critic of liberalism in its bipartisan form, a set of arrangements by which the State supports the growing strength of the strong and bribery of the weak, in the form of social welfare that poorly substitutes for care of the community, and unceasing entertainment.
Galston is correct to raise alarm bells about this “inevitable” future. But there is currently no major figure in the public sphere that sees with any clarity the deep collusion of the all key players in its construction. So we continue down a road that will give rise to two nations, the winners wringing their hands all the way to the bank, the losers narcotized on a steady diet of cheap and deforming delights.