CRB: Progressively worse

The Claremont Review of Books has just published its new (Spring) issue. I reviewed the issue in galley to pick out pieces to roll out for Power Line readers this week (subscribe here for $19.95 and get online access thrown in for free). The issue weighs in at 114 pages. It took me a little longer than usual to get through the issue, which actually arrived in subscribers’ mailboxes late last week. I picked two essays and two reviews that I thought readers should find of interest.

First up is William Voegeli’s essay “Progressively Worse.” Subhead: “Activist government’s crisis of competence.” Bill is author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State (with a foreword by Steve Hayward), senior editor of the CRB, and the magazine’s regular essayist. He seeks to elevate our view of the eternal crisis of ginormous government. In this essay he begins with the current administration:

The Biden Administration’s shock-and-awe statism—trillions of dollars in additional federal spending for COVID relief, infrastructure, and economic opportunity—is not being devised from scratch. According to the Los Angeles Times, Democrats in the White House and Congress are treating California as both a “de facto policy think tank” and an “inspiration.” Former governor Gray Davis told the paper that Vice President Kamala Harris, the first California Democrat elected to national office, will be “sharing ideas, innovations, and breakthroughs from California that might help solve problems on the national level.”

The more you know about California’s recent governance, however, the less enthused you’ll be about replicating its policy triumphs on a national scale. Dan Walters, a journalist who has covered California government for more than 50 years, wrote in 2020 that the Golden State is beset by a “crisis of competence.” As a result, government agencies’ “chronic inability to provide rapid and efficient service—to simply do their jobs—has created boundless frustration and anger.” His list of particulars is long and depressing: accounting systems that don’t mesh; housing programs that don’t mitigate homelessness; a high-speed rail initiative that the Times, once an enthusiastic supporter, recently called “the project from hell”; schools that don’t teach; a power grid that takes sabbaticals.

Bill gives us the long view:

Progressives like to think of themselves as forward-looking—thinking about tomorrow, candidate Clinton said in 1992, by way of Fleetwood Mac. Or, as Clinton’s hero John F. Kennedy declared in 1960, the modern liberal “welcomes new ideas” because he is “someone who looks ahead and not behind.”

But yesterday is not gone, Kennedy, Clinton, and Fleetwood Mac to the contrary notwithstanding. William Faulkner was closer to the truth when he said that the past isn’t even past. Its continuing, pervasive effects frustrate progressives’ desire to confine retrospection to criticizing our ancestors’ misdeeds or surpassing their achievements.

In particular, progressivism pays scant attention to its own past. Unending difficulty follows from the assumption that the earlier history of activist government provides nothing but vindication and encouragement for today’s progressives who want even more activist government. As sociologist Nathan Glazer wrote at the dawn of the Great Society, “How one wishes for the open field of the New Deal, which was not littered with the carcasses of half-successful and hardly successful programs, each in the hands of a hardening bureaucracy.”

It’s a long essay, all of it here and all of it worth reading.

Responses