by Bruce Thornton
How our technocratic elites have discarded traditional wisdom.
The most consequential change in the history of our political order has been the shift from a Democratic Republic to a Technocratic Oligarchy. In the former, the Federal government is limited, and its powers checked and balanced by the Bill of Rights, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the sovereignty powers of the states. In the latter, power is expanded and concentrated in the Federal government and executive agencies staffed by “experts” whose knowledge and judgement are supposedly superior to the practical wisdom, common sense, unalienable rights, and traditional self-government of the sovereign people and their representatives.
After nearly a century of the ever-expanding concentration and reach of federal power, with the Biden administration we have reached the inflection point where that power is becoming the very tyranny the Founders sought to prevent. What else do you call it when, to advance the interests of a partisan faction, the National School Boards Association, the Attorney General marshals the FBI, along with several other federal agencies, to investigate parents who are exercising their Constitutional rights to question and demand accountability from locally elected state school boards that lie beyond the Constitutional authority of the federal government?
This transformation from Republic to technocracy has been going on for over a century.
Early in progressivism’s rise there were explicit calls for technocratic control housed in the executive branch’s bureaus and agencies. Professor Woodrow Wilson in 1887 counseled the country to “open for the public a bureau of skilled, economical administration” comprising the “hundreds who are wise” empowered to guide the thousands of American citizens who are “selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish.”
Progressives like Herbert Croly in 1909 argued that to achieve this rule by experts “does demand an increased amount of centralized action and responsibility,” which in turn requires, Croly continued, that we “discard the strong, almost dominant tendency to regard the existing Constitution with superstitious awe, and to shrink with horror from modifying it in even the smallest detail”––even though when Croly wrote, there had already been 18 Amendments “modifying” the Constitution. And Walter Lippman in 1914 linked the argument for technocracy to professional training in the “human sciences,” for “the great triumph of modern psychology is its growing capacity for penetrating to the desires that govern men’s thoughts.”
These early progressives describe the foundations of today’s Technocratic Leviathan: a “living Constitution” needing to be adapted to the rise of new “human sciences” such as psychology, sociology, economic, and political science (NB); and the transfer the power to govern from the sovereign people and their representatives, to self-selected, unaccountable bureaucrats.
For nearly a century the “managerial elite” of federal technocrats have increasingly colonized our federal institutions, and left a record of serial failure. The Biden administration, and its knee-jerk rejection of Donald Trump’s efforts to rein in federal regulatory hubris, in less than a year has recorded even more failures at home and abroad by the “hundreds who are wise.”
Economic policy, dealing as it does with numerical data and statistics, creates the illusion of scientific certainty and objectivity. But as with everything involving human beings and their passions, interests, and irrational motivations, there is no “science” of economics, no matter how useful its data can be as empirical evidence.
Remember when Barack Obama’s economic brain trust proclaimed that GDP growth would not rise above 2%? Except for the pandemic year of 2020, every year of Trump’s presidency saw growth above that alleged limit. Instead of economic science, then, there are competing political factions that use the federal fisc and manipulated statistics to advance their ideological preferences no matter the costs and dangers to the nation’s economy as a whole.
Take, for example, the Democrats’ latest proposed spending binge. This bill to allocate over $5 trillion comes after about $5 trillion already spent so far on Covid relief. The national debt has ballooned to $30 trillion, 128% of GDP, a ratio more typical of failing economies. This clear and present danger to our economy is rationalized by pseudo-scientific and dishonest “theory.” Modern Monetary Theory, for example, asserts,
Monetarily sovereign countries like the U.S., U.K., Japan, and Canada, which spend, tax, and borrow in a fiat currency that they fully control, are not operationally constrained by revenues when it comes to federal government spending.
Put simply, such governments do not rely on taxes or borrowing for spending since they can print as much as they need and are the monopoly issuers of the currency. Since their budgets aren’t like a regular household’s, their policies should not be shaped by fears of rising national debt.
All you need is common sense to see that this “theory” is a specious rationale for increasing progressive spending on its “social justice” agenda, a grift for redistributing other people’s money, including that of the unborn, for partisan power. Even Dickens’ spendthrift Mr. Micawber knew better: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
Then there are the false claims used to sell these reckless policies to the voters. One of the most frequent is the appeal to people’s envy and resentment by asserting that the “rich” need “to pay their fair share.” This canard has been exposed multiple times, most recently in this recent Wall Street Journal column by Phil Gramm and Mike Solon. “In no other country,” they write, “do the rich bear a greater share of the income-tax burden than they do in the U.S.”:
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data show that the top 10% of American households earn about 33.5% of all earned income but pay 45.1% of all income taxes, including Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes. That progressivity ratio of 1.35 is far higher than in any other country. The ratio in France is 1.10. In Germany it’s 1.07, and in Sweden an even 1. In the last OECD study, in 2015, the top 10% of earners in the U.S. paid 45% of all income taxes. In France, the top 10% only paid 28%. In Germany they paid 31% and in Sweden 27%. Conversely, the bottom 90% of earners in the U.S. paid 55%. The bottom 90% of earners in France paid 72%. In Germany it was 69% and in Sweden 73%.
Similarly, the Democrat talking-point that the Trump 2017 tax-cuts favored the rich also ignores the data: “The Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office found that the 2017 tax cuts made the American tax system more progressive and, according to the CBO, the ‘highest quintile’s share of federal taxes was 0.5 percentage points higher in 2018 than in 2017.’” It’s not numerical data per se that is the problem, but its misuse and distortion, as when data on consumption are ignored when defining “income inequality.”
Science and expertise have nothing to do with these partisan policies. But human nature does. As far back as ancient Athens the idea of political equality had degenerated into radical egalitarianism, the “equality of result,” or what today’s “woke” call “equity.” And since, as James Madison observed, “The most common and durable source of faction, has been the various and unequal distribution of property,” the party of centralized power seeks to redistribute other people’s money to leverage the resentment that follows the “unequal distribution of property,” which reflects individual differences in talent, virtue, hard work, and sheer luck.
Abroad, our “rules-based international order” similarly reflects pseudo-science and partisan prejudices. One feature of this “postmodern” foreign policy is the fetish of “diplomatic engagement.” Ignoring the inherent conflicts among sovereign nations pursuing their diverse interests and visions of the good, the globalist foreign policy establishments assert that “diplomatic engagement” through multinational agreements and treaties, and supranational institutions, can maintain peace and order without force. Such faith ignores the great diversity, and often zero-sum conflicts that arise from radically different cultures, traditions, faiths, histories, values, and mores.
The serial failures of this peculiar idealism have been numerous just since World War II: wars in Korea and Vietnam, ethnic cleansing and massacres in Africa and the Balkans, the rise of Islamic jihadist terror, and the geopolitical adventurism of Russia and China––none were prevented or even mitigated by “diplomatic engagement” or supranational institutions reliant on American military power. Indeed, these “postmodern” shibboleths, especially in the case of China, have furthered and facilitated the ambitions of illiberal and totalitarian regimes.
Recently the debacle in Afghanistan has become the poster child for feckless diplomacy. Our diplomats and other representatives have been meeting with spokesmen for the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, to coordinate efforts to neutralize terrorist groups like ISIS. But at the same time, the Taliban leadership announced that there will be no cooperation with the Americans. That arrogant dismissal was met with the State Department’s weaselly diplo-speak calling the Taliban spokesmen “candid and professional.”
Worse yet, the Taliban continue to play our State Department for fools, using soothing rhetoric to misdirect us from their brutal deeds. As CNN reports, “Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told CNN: “We have not decided about women’s affairs or rights yet, but we are discussing.” Meanwhile,
So complete was the Taliban’s military victory that they have little incentive to compromise, nor bargain with Afghanistan’s warlords. They have moved quickly to snuff out dissent, whether from social activists, rebels in the Panjshir valley or Salafists who practice Islam differently from the Taliban.
As the West, particularly the U.S., tries to leverage foreign aid and international recognition in order to change the Taliban’s behavior, these traditionalist Muslims are returning to enforcement of brutal sharia laws, as Jim Geraghty reports: “Foreign Policy magazine confirms that, ‘The Taliban’s Sharia is the most brutal of all. The Afghan government is imposing punishments that have no comparison elsewhere in the Islamic world.’ Summary executions, stoning of women, and beheading and cutting off the hands of accused thieves have returned; court cases and juries are no longer part of the legal system.”
The diplomatic delusion propagated by our national security and foreign policy “experts” has seriously compromised our war against jihad over the last twenty years. Slaves to failed paradigms based on questionable assumptions about human nature, they have squandered opportunities to decisively confront our enemies, especially the Iranian theocracy that for 40 years waged war against us and our allies in the Middle East.
Yet here we are, with the Biden administration desperately seeking to renew the craven Iran nuclear deal, even as the mullahs, sensing our civilizational failure of nerve, reject contemptuously our “diplomatic outreach,” even as their proxies abroad wreak terrorist mayhem, and their centrifuges at home keep spinning their way to nuclear weapons capability.
These are just two examples of how our technocratic elites and “experts” have discarded traditional wisdom about human nature that has been confirmed for millennia; and perpetuated dubious ideas contrary to common sense and empirical evidence. As a result, our prestige and clout abroad has been diminished, and our economy at home is facing a fiscal armaggedon––a double blow to our superpower status, and a further erosion of our political freedoms.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.