Friday, August 22, 2008

Why Politics Leaves You Cold

The American political ideology is Progressive in the early twentieth century sense. Both political parties, the Democratic and the Republican, are heirs to Progressivism. But Progressivism was and is alien to at least two of the three primary American political belief systems. It is in part derived from European social democracy, and its emphasis on centralization is alien to all American political culture that is rooted in agrarian and small town life. Progressivism was brought to America in the late nineteenth century when many Americans (as many as ten thousand), such as John Dewey, attended German universities as graduate students. Progressivism was in part a reaction to the growth and power of large companies. It reflected an impulse to substitute government and centralized planning for free market processes. The argument that dominated the Progressive era was that big business had too much monopoly power and government was necessary to manage that power. Progressivism also emphasized local economic improvement such as housing reform and, as well, reflected professional interests in fields like law and medicine. Progressivism denied the viability of the small community because corporations had become international and small business could no longer compete with big. It argued for an activist federal government and ultimately the transfer of economic power from villages, towns and states to the federal government in order to better manage big business. Progressivism elaborated on many traditional themes in American culture, such as its emphasis on efficiency and morality, but it modified them by arguing that national legislation was needed to achieve them. The Republican Progressives, such as Herbert Hoover and to a lesser degree William Howard Taft, emphasized efficiency. Taft focused on application of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to big business. Hoover favored the use of governmentally guided but voluntary cartels to restrict production and eliminate waste. In contrast, the Democratic Progressives, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, emphasized the moral aspect of Progressivism, Wilson with respect to international relations and the League of Nations and Roosevelt with respect to labor relations, work relief, business regulation and social security. Wilson cartelized American industry during World War I, but dismantled the cartels after the war. Like Wilson, Roosevelt attempted to cartelize industry under the National Industrial Recovery Act, but this 1933 law was declared unconstitutional. Thus, today's Democrats favor more government at the federal level, believe that government is more efficient than the market and advocate regulatory systems that cost small firms more than large firms to comply as a proportion of sales. The Republicans say they favor less government, but inevitably expand it, argue that markets are more efficient than government but increase the intensity of regulation anyway. Both parties favor monetary expansion that transfers wealth from workers to business owners and stock holders. Where monetary expansion does not provide a sufficient subsidy, direct bounties are increasingly available to big, but not to small, firms that fail.

Thus, both Democrats and Republicans favor a corporate-centered economy. Democrats use the Progressive rhetoric of morality while Republicans use the Progressive rhetoric of efficiency. But the Democrats are not particularly supportive of morality and the Republicans are not particularly supportive of efficiency. Both favor subsidies to big business; both favor a central bank that provides subsidies through inflation; both favor offering a privileged position to business; and both are responsive to the university ideology of elite America--the urban, collectivist, morally skeptical and issue-oriented culture of the news media, the mass-conformist urban culture and of universities.

American political culture at most loosely conforms to Progressivism, and it is puzzling as to why Americans have favored the modernist, large scale programs that Progressivism has to offer. It may be that the expansionist ethos of the frontier finds expression in the government expansionism of Progressivism. But government solutions reduce efficiency and have led to declining real hourly wages.

In a wonderful book, American Federalism: A View from the States*, Daniel Elazar argues (p. 113) that there are four key values in American culture: efficiency, commerce, legitimacy and agrarianism. The four values generate three underlying political cultures: individualistic, moralistic and traditionalistic. It is evident that although Progressivism stood for efficiency early in the twentieth century, today's economy has evolved past its chief solutions, scale, bureaucracy and hierarchy. Likewise, The evolution of technology has rendered the centralized media less relevant to public policy debate. Governments cannot manage large scale programs efficiently because the flexibility needed to organize an agency runs up against conflicts of interest and moral hazard, and the absence of incentives to encourage efficient operation. Progressivism leads not to efficiency but to inefficiency.

The three political cultures that Elazar describes, individualistic, moralistic and traditionalistic (p. 115) are as follows. "The individualistic political culture emphasizes the conception of the democratic order as a marketplace. In this view, government is instituted for strictly utilitarian reasons...politics is a business...politicians are interested in office as a means of controlling the distribution of the favors or rewards of government rather than as a means of exercising governmental power for programmatic ends..."

The individualistic world view does not lend itself to Progressivism unless there is widespread popular demand for Progressive reform. It encourages private initiative and is ambivalent about bureaucracy.

Elazar writes that "(t)he moralistic political culture emphasizes the commonwealth conception as the basis for democratic government. Politics, to the moralistic political culture, is considered one of the great activities of humanity...Consequently, in the moralistic political culture both the general public and the politicians conceive of politics as a public activity centered on some notion of the public good and properly devoted to the advancement of the public interest."

Elazar does not distinguish between moralists who advocate individualist solutions, such as the Libertarians, and moralists who advocate Progressive solutions. It would seem that increasingly the Progressives do not have a corner on this.

The Progressives built on the moralistic impulse, but there are some crucial differences. "The moralistic culture is localistic: the strong commitment to communitarianism characteristic of moralistic political culture leads to channel the interest in government intervention into highly localistic paths. A willingness to encourage local government intervention to set public standards does not necessarily reflect a concomitant willingness to allow outside governments equal opportunity to intervene...The moralistic political culture's major difficulty in adjusting bureaucracy to the political order is tied to the potential conflict between communitarian principles and the necessity for large-scale organization to increase bureaucractic efficiency, a problem that could affect the attitudes of moralistic culture states toward federal activity of certain kinds" (p. 118).

Finally, "(t)he traditionalistic political culture is rooted in an ambivalent attitude toward the marketplace coupled with a paternalistic and elitist conception of the commonwealth...Like its moralistic counterpart, the traditionalistic political culture accepts government as an actor with a positive role in the community, but it tries to limit that role in securing the continued maintenance of the existing social order" (p. 118). Government is viewed as a means of maintaining the existing order and a governing elite re enforces its own position. Participation in politics is viewed as a privilege and competition between elite-dominated factions characterizes party competition.

Elazar argues that centuries-long migration patterns from New England, which was characterized by the moralistic commonwealth culture; the Middle Atlantic, which was characterized by the individualistic culture; and the South, which was characterized by the traditional culture determined the political cultures of states in the 1980s. Elazar traces the migration patterns across the country, and argues that the Western states had cultures that combined the cultural values of the settlers.

Of the three cultural values, the one that is closest to Progressivism is the moralistic. In particular, the moralistic culture is issue-oriented and favors bureaucracy and government intervention. But Progressivism dispensed with the Puritan religious values that infused the early New England communities, and many Americans have not. Moreover, the attempt to impose a commonwealth culture on Americans who deviate sharply from the value system suggests problems, such as alienation. Moreover, the value system that Progressives advocate deviates sharply between Democrats and Republicans. Within the Democratic Party there are more mainstream and more elitist elements, who introduce a culture that does not correspond to the three cultures. Political correctness, identity politics and group rights, progressive education and dislike of the United States have become institutionalized cultural values among American elites but have little to do with legitimacy, agrarianism, efficiency or commerce. University trained elites have tended to view communities as clay to be molded rather than as ecological systems composed of human beings who are ends to themselves.

The mechanics of Progressive government necessarily deviate from the differentiated American political cultures. A single government that accrues substantial economic power must develop specific policies. And as the three cultures plus the elite, university culture, all have distance from each other, the single Progressive culture must as well have distance from all the others. As the complexity of policies and the size of government expands, the sum of the distances from the various American political cultures must also expand. Politics no longer reflects human values, but rather the views of the media, university elites and the outcome of struggle among moralists, individualists and traditionalists. The result may be said to be representative government, but it is an increasingly distant government. Progressivism placed too much Federal in Federalism.

*Daniel Elazar, American Federalism: A View From the States: New York, Harper and Row, 1984.

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