Rebuilding America After Trump

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A worker cleaning the facade of the former Trump Plaza casino after removing the Trump lettering. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

Election 2016 may mark the end a relatively stable, prosperous, post-war political system. Cracks in the old order have been spreading for years and our response has been a series of improvised fixes with duct tape and glue. Some version of Trump, from the left or the right, was probably inevitable. Perhaps this dangerous disruption offers an opening for many traditional liberals and conservatives to search for common ground.

What if conservatives were right about the threat to liberty posed by a massive, ever-expanding bureaucratic state? What if liberals were right about the vital importance of a social safety net, environmental protection, and cultural diversity? In a sense, Trump’s victory seems to have simultaneously vindicated both sides of the political spectrum.

If we have the audacity to reconsider our alignments, a new political coalition could emerge from this crisis. Market-oriented business interests may finally discover their common cause with the social justice activists, shedding the baggage of old policy assumptions. If the left could move beyond a neo-Marxist insistence on central control and the right could abandon their laissez faire economic fantasies, we might unlock a new toolbox. Perhaps solutions to our thorniest public problems have been hiding right under our noses.

In our enthusiasm for democracy as a value we often overlook its weaknesses. Democracy is good at delivering accountable leadership. It is terrible at delivering effective leadership. As a culture grows more democratic in its orientation, the ability of its government to perform complex tasks, like centrally managing a $1.6trillion healthcare industry, declines in pace. Democracy has a crippling problem with expertise.

Ask government to perform tasks too complicated for democratic oversight, and we face an unavoidable tradeoff. Either abandon many vital policy ambitions or insulate government decision-makers from voters. Would you want your doctor’s surgical choices to be determined at each step by the results of an open, democratic election? Decisions on which instruments to use, location and size of incision, prescriptions, imagine them all submitted to a public vote.

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To be clear, laissez faire offers no solution. Returning to our medical scenario, what if there were no oversight of a doctor’s practices? At first glance, it might sound better than ‘surgery by democracy,’ but how long would it take for a medical establishment stripped of public accountability to grow corrupt and dysfunctional? Balance is key. Striking that balance calls for humility in our expectations for government.

A small-scale, agrarian economy had limited use for government expertise, but the complexity spawned by capitalism and urbanization created strains on the old order. We responded to those strains with an innovation: Bureaucracy. Specialized institutions broadly accountable to elected officials, yet otherwise free to make expert decisions gave us new capacity to meet public needs.

Public bureaucracies gave us safety in our food supply and medicines. They gave us mechanisms to limit fraud in our capital markets and control pollution. They gave us the capacity to develop a professional education infrastructure, safe air travel, and thousands of other benefits that would have been impossible through direct, democratic, legislative oversight. All of these innovations were critical to the development of ever greater, more broadly-shared wealth and freedom. In its time, “big government” was a crucial ally in the growth of human liberty.

Bureaucratic expertise has limits that were anticipated by Friedrich Hayek. He wrote The Road to Serfdom during World War II in resistance to growing calls for political and economic centralization under the guidance of experts. He warned that ambitious efforts at central control, no matter how well-intentioned or popular, would be ultimately be thwarted by complexity:

It would be impossible for any mind to comprehend the infinite variety of different needs of different people which compete for the available resources and to attach a definite weight to each.

We might all agree that we want a certain highly detailed and complex government program enacted, but a truly responsive political system will be pulled in a million directions as legislators struggle to build its intricately detailed machinery. Think of the story of the Affordable Care Act. From “death panels” on one side to the demand for “single payer” on the other, an originally clear mandate disintegrated into a muddle as the vast spectrum of conflicting and often misinformed interests each got their say on the details. Hayek further explained:

The inability of democratic assemblies to carry out what seems to be a clear mandate of the people will inevitably cause dissatisfaction with democratic institutions. Parliaments come to be regarded as ineffective “talking shops”, unable or incompetent to carry out the tasks for which they have been chosen.

Public frustration over the inevitable failures of their elected representatives eventually threatens democratic legitimacy. Sooner or later, the deadlock is broken by a demagogue. A leader rises, promising to purge the ineffective “elites” and enact demanded reforms by pure force of will. His reckless machine is powered by the cheapest available fuel:

To weld together a closely coherent body of supporters, the leader must appeal to a common human weakness. It seems to be easier for people to agree on a negative programme – on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of the better off – than on any positive task.

Sound familiar?

Fortunately, men like Hayek, Milton Friedman and others spent their lives devising means to escape this doom loop. It is important to recognize that Hayek was fiercely critical of laissez faire capitalism. He embraced laws to manage externalities and improve living conditions. He supported pollution controls, a minimum wage, and safe working conditions. He acknowledged that government isn’t the only potential source of oppression and that government action is necessary to maintain a free market. As he explained in The Road to Serfdom:

The liberal argument does not advocate leaving things just as they are; it favours making the best possible use of the forces of competition as a means of coordinating human efforts. It is based on the conviction that, where effective competition can be created, it is a better way of guiding individual efforts than any other.

Hayek and similar thinkers explored ways to construct markets to achieve goals like environmental protection and the social safety net, while limiting the burden of complex, ponderous, unresponsive bureaucracies. For decades we have tried and failed to manage the dangers of mass gun ownership with a mountain of minutely detailed and largely unenforceable rules on every aspect of the industry. What if we replaced this approach with a simple alternative – require every gun owner to qualify for and maintain liability insurance?

Instead of tasking thousands of bureaucrats with writing rules for carbon emissions, we could place a tax on those emissions and allow polluters to trade credits achieved from emissions reductions. Instead of paying billions of dollars to support an enormous bureaucracy tasked with deciding who deserves government assistance, we could replace that archaic structure with a universal basic income.

With a renewed emphasis on federalism, perhaps we could grant California the autonomy to further develop its vibrant, technology driven, urban environment while also giving Mississippi the freedom to do, well, whatever it does. Humility of ambition might expand our possibilities.

No political party or bloc has embraced these ideas, but someone should. Smaller government might, in the end, deliver policy solutions that eluded central planners in a previous era.

Liberals loved big government when they still held out hope of controlling its levers. Conservatives loved laissez faire until it brought out the pitchforks. With almost every instrument of government under the influence of the most dangerous political figure of our era, perhaps we are all more open to hear Hayek’s warnings and consider his advice.

Our political crisis might open a window for figures on the traditional left and right to build a new way forward based on values they hold in common. If have the boldness to revisit old assumptions, we might find that much of our apparent ideological polarization is a mirage. At this point, we have little to lose from effort at dialogue.

Chris Ladd, former GOP Precinct Committeeman, author of The Politics of Crazy and creator of PoliticalOrphans.com