Democracy is failing. People in the West are losing their faith in the ability of governments to force meaningful change. So what do we need? More government!
That is the view of columnist David Brooks in a recent piece for the New York Times. He believes that technocratic elites would better able to get on with the business of planning our lives if they were rid of the meddling interference of the citizenry. The only thing holding them back all these years has been the tiresome need to pander to our capricious needs. If only we would shut up and let the elites get on with their work, we could be living in the Age of Aquarius.
Taking inspiration from ‘The Fourth Revolution’, a book by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, Brooks recommends something called the Guardian State: a model found in Asia’s “modernizing autocracies”. He looks forward to the best students being “ruthlessly culled for government service”, and the technocratic elites playing “a bigger role in designing economic life”. I can hardly wait.
Brooks is big enough to admit that his system would be “unashamedly elitist”, but it’s not all bad news for freedom junkies. In this brave new world, there would be more democratic accountability than before. That is, if your idea of democracy involves creating unaccountable agencies, tasked with prodding and poking the government into action. If, however, you believe that individuals should be free to pursue their interests without deferring to the wisdom of experts, you’re out of luck. After all, that’s the kind of crazy talk that landed us in this mess in the first place.
When Big State fanboys look for answers to our problems, they invariably start by asking the wrong questions. Brooks takes it for granted that issues like schooling, healthcare and social mobility are responsibilities of the government, so he is concerned with helping it get a firmer grip on them.
As a proxy member of the ruling elite, he has long since re-imagined his disdain for the great unwashed as concern for their welfare, and considers it his duty to put policy-makers on the right path. So when the public loses faith in the redemptive qualities of government, the answer is not to contemplate a change of tack, but to conclude that we haven’t gone far enough.
The elephant in the room that Brooks is studiously ignoring is that government doesn’t work. He mentions that productivity in the British private sector increased by 14 per cent between 1999 and 2013, while falling in the state sector by 1 per cent between 1999 and 2010. But he doesn’t conclude from this that the state sector is a busted flush, which is structurally incapable of achieving the private sector’s achievements. He is too married to the idea that the government and its cheerleaders should be at the centre of public life to admit that they don’t belong there.
It doesn’t take an economist to understand that when individuals are sheltered from risk and accountability, they lack any incentive to be efficient or productive. Unless they are exposed to the continuous feedback of the marketplace, they can never understand its shifting dynamics, or gauge the public’s boundless demands. It follows, then, that no elite, no matter how large or knowledgeable it might be, will ever be as effective at meeting our needs as millions of individuals interacting voluntarily in pursuit of their own interests.
Legal expert Richard Epstein wrote that “the study of human institutions is always a search for the most tolerable imperfections”. The terrible fear for David Brooks and his ilk is that the most tolerable state can be achieved without their help. But even if it could, the kind of top-down technocracy they favour is profoundly illiberal. It treats sovereign humans as childlike creatures, who are in need of the guidance and support of their self-appointed betters. Diplomas and good intentions don’t give anyone the right to play God.