Lessons from the long October

This year, October seemed to last for two months, with enough drama for four. The first half featured the partial government shutdown – a political victory for Democrats. The second half featured the Obamacare rollout fiasco – a political victory for Republicans.

Yuval Levin agrees with Ross Douthat that the juxtaposition of the shutdown and the launch of the exchanges has put on display the deficiencies of both populism and technocracy. We have seen, Levin says, “something like the worst or weakest face of each:”

On the one hand, it seems that populist rhetoric cannot substitute for a policy agenda and expectations of a public revolt cannot replace a political strategy for achieving concrete goals. Voters are looking for political leaders who will address their concerns, not just channel their frustrations, and even many voters who agreed with the Republicans about the gross defects of Obamacare did not seem to think that shutting down the government was the way to do something about them.

At the same time:

It seems that technocratic hubris about the capacity of government to manage complexity and arrange the world just right is turning out not to work well either. The technical failures of the exchange websites raise grave alarms about the technocratic vision at the core of Obamacare.

That technocratic vision begins from the notion that we already possess the knowledge it takes to run an efficient health-financing system and all that remains is to apply that knowledge from the center, with the government defining the insurance product strictly and then compelling insurers to sell it, compelling consumers to buy it, managing the countless assorted variables and pressures involved, and calling what results a market. . . .

The fact that the people charged with making all this happen cannot properly manage the development of a web site does not prove the proposition false, of course, but it surely calls for very deep doubts—and the failure of the enrollment site also raises real and practical obstacles to the implementation of the new system.

Going one step (if not several) further, Levin contends that “abject populism [and] gross technocracy” are “in a sense sides of one bad coin:”

In their extreme forms, the forms we have seen this month, both populism and technocracy assume that the answers to our most profound public problems are simple, and are readily available.

One assumes that the people possess these answers, and that they are denied the power to put them into effect by some elite that wants to oppress them; the other assumes the experts possess these answers, and they are denied the power to put them into effect by a system that empowers heedless and prejudiced majorities or the venal economic interests of the wealthy over the attainment of the objectively obvious good of the people.

Levin argues that the two forms converged in the progressivism of a century ago, which has been revived to some extent today:

The progressives pursued populist political means to technocratic policy ends. They expected their technocratic ideas to be popular, and so they expected populism to lead to more expert government.

Technocracy and populism would together undermine the power of the moneyed interests, freeing our government from corruption by the wealthy and thereby making it both more democratic and more rational. Those moneyed interests, the progressives argued, were protected by our constitutional system, which, with its slow-moving mechanisms and counterbalanced institutions, made any kind of change very difficult to bring about.

Our Constitution is, indeed, a barrier to both technocratic government and direct democracy. That’s because, as Levin puts it, the framers viewed “both populist and technocratic politics [as] expressions of a modern hubris about the capacity of human beings—be [they] experts or. . .the people as a whole—to make just the right governing decisions.”

Accordingly, the Constitution “is built upon a profound skepticism about the ability of any political arrangement to overcome the limitations of human reason and human nature, and so establishes a system of checks to prevent sudden large mistakes while enabling gradual changes supported by some reasonably broad and longstanding consensus.”

There’s much more, but the following quotation from Hayek summarizes the point Levin is making to conservatives:

Liberty in practice depends on very prosaic matters, and those anxious to preserve it must prove their devotion by their attention to the mundane concerns of public life and by the efforts they are prepared to give to the understanding of issues that the idealist is often inclined to treat as common, if not sordid.

We know that the left won’t learn the lessons of the long October. But Levin finds reason to believe that some conservatives, including Sen. Mike Lee, will.

Please read the whole thing.


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