What’s Government Done For You Lately?
If national politics were an app, its user ratings would be epically low and no one would download it.How sustainable is the policy model of the 20th century in the digital age? Not very. The failures of the status quo are becoming too obvious and the costs too intense. This represents a sea change. Something has to give.
Let’s start with the two grandest policy initiatives of our time: Obamacare and the wars in the Middle East that began with the Iraq War. The failures of both have much in common. They both began with high ambitions, expert consultants, massive resources, huge public-relations pushes, and the power of the state behind them.
According to conventional thinking, they were guaranteed wins for everyone. All Americans would get improved health insurance. The whole Middle East would be invigorated by democratic institutions and despotism would die out.
Both have proven to be catastrophic failures, generating results far worse than if neither had ever happened. This is no longer a controversial statement but the new conventional wisdom.
The Same Error
Here is the core error of the 20th century: the belief that government can accomplish anything with enough intelligence, resources, and power.What went wrong? What always goes wrong when elites imagine they can control the world with intelligence, resources, and power. Eventually intellectual arrogance confronts a part of reality it cannot control. Reality fights back and wins. The ruling class is left to scramble, make excuses, attempt lame fixes, and finally and quietly acquiesce to facts of life.
Here is the core error of the 20th century: the belief that government can accomplish anything with enough intelligence, resources, and power. It afflicted regimes all over the world from Lenin’s 100 years ago to Obama’s today (and this will also be true of any probable successor). This theory built massive bureaucracies, justified vast wars, and drove the creation a legal and regulatory apparatus of unprecedented imperial reach.
The faith survives today, though with ever less conviction. Failure after failure has even sown doubts among ruling-class intellectuals and mainstream politicians. But because so much of the state apparatus – and the strategies that collect money from the public to fund it – are based on this model, a shift away from the paradigm will not come easily.
A New Model
For today’s young people, their cultural detachment from this model of government is palpable. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for a 20-year old to watch the political debate. People raised in the digital age live in a world of curated choice powered by human volition. The capital goods that were once owned only by elites have been brought to everyone through innovation and market-based democratization. Anyone now can be a movie maker. Anyone can be a publisher. Everyone has as much access to information as anyone else. Anyone can even make a new currency.
The world they love most is social media. It was not created by legislation. It never received government funding. No bureaucracy approved it. It is largely unregulated by any coercive institution. It is an ever-evolving landscape of communication anarchy managed not by powerful politicians but by code slingers and entrepreneurs who are subject only to verdicts rendered by consumers. The absence of top-down control is the driving energy. And it works for everyone.
Decisions over where they live, what they eat, what they own, what they wear, who they date, the entertainment they choose – in short, the whole of their lives – are informed by an information flood pouring in and out of mobile digital devices, advising them and rating every conceivable good or service based on whether it offers life improvement.
In the digital world, no one is in charge. No one person or institution exercises decisive verdicts over winners and losers. This is left to the network, which is a distributed system of information gathering and processing that sees greater wisdom in the cumulative judgements of many rather than a central authority. For this young generation, this is how the world becomes a better place, one choice at a time.
Two Models, Worlds Apart
Look at your paycheck and see how much the old system costs.The distance between this model of social management and what is on display in national politics could not be more vast. They listen to the candidates promise to restore the past. The vision is essentially revanchist. The ideological left and right are determined to reclaim the territory they believe they have lost. When the scene is not clownish, it is highly suggestive of insider deals and outright corruption. If national politics were an app, its user ratings would be epically low and no one would download it.
How can these two visions of the world coexist? They do so for now, but the costs are ever more evident and the benefits ever more elusive. Look at your paycheck and see how much the old system costs. Young people getting started in their careers worry about rent, utilities, car payments, and health care. And yet they look at their paystub and see huge amounts extracted from them. They have no choice, unlike every other area of their life.
Crucially, the benefits of government spending and control are nowhere obvious. The prestige of federal projects seems to have evaporated. Think of it. Earlier generations saw power plants, huge dams, federal highways, space exploration, and epic struggles on the international stage. It’s been a very long time since anything like these high-profile displays of government awesomeness appeared in public life.
Government on the Cheap Is Over
The biggest dreads of people today all involve encounters with government.Looking back over the 20th century, Americans seemed to experience a huge gain from government programs at costs that seemed relatively low or were, at least, well disguised through a variety of tricks from inflation to withholding taxes to debt accumulation. But these salad days are over. The costs are ever more intensely felt in the 21st century while the benefits elusive to non-existent.
Social Security? It’s laughable. Job training? Come on. Space exploration? It’s being done privately. Technology? Nothing is more ham-handed on tech than government bureaucracies. Foreign affairs? The wars have created vast messes. Medical care? Please. Consumer product quality control? This is now managed by apps. The biggest dreads of people today all involve encounters with government: DMV, TSA, IRS, and so on.
The Dreadful Election
And to top it all off, there is this election. Never have the top two candidates been so unpopular. It’s gotten so bad that the act of voting itself is morally painful. There is no right thing to do. The choice you make is based on fearing a worse outcome, not because you desire the world that the candidate promises to create. Thi sis a premodern condition, something that prevailed in an age of deprivation and the clamor for survival. It has no place in the 21st century.
There are too many features of the 20th century model of statecraft that no long apply in the 21st century.Centuries ago, David Hume explained that all government – even with vast power – is only sustainable if the population has some sense that it does more good than harm. The presence of consensus at some level is the key to regime stability. What happens when the practical and moral credibility of government falls and falls to the point of disappearance? You have a true paradigm shift.
There are too many features of the 20th century model of statecraft that no long apply in the 21st century. Everyone raised in the digital age is aware of this, however inchoately. No system of government can long survive the sheer volume of anomalies that are breaking up the current policy paradigm. Something must change.
What good has government done for you lately? If you can’t answer that question quickly, you see the core problem of contemporary life and begin to discern the answer for the kind of society we need to build in the future.