Ross Douthat writes a very important column observing that for all the populist anxiety about the consolidation of power in the hands of governmental and financial elites and the accompanying theatrics, power is inexorably moving toward the top and the center. Excerpt:
From Washington to Athens, the economic crisis is producing consolidation rather than revolution, the entrenchment of authority rather than its diffusion, and the concentration of power in the hands of the same elite that presided over the disasters in the first place.
The panic of 2008 happened, in part, because the public interest had become too intertwined with private interests for the latter to be allowed to fail. But everything we did to halt the panic, and all the legislation we’ve passed, has only strengthened the symbiosis.
From the Troubled Asset Relief Program to the stimulus bill, from the auto bailout to health care reform, we’ve created a vast new array of public-private partnerships — empowering insiders at the expense of outsiders, large institutions at the expense of small ones, and Washington at the expense of state and local governments. Eighteen months after the financial crisis, the interests of our financiers, C.E.O.’s, bureaucrats and politicians are yoked together as never before.
This is the perverse logic of meritocracy. Once a system grows sufficiently complex, it doesn’t matter how badly our best and brightest foul things up. Every crisis increases their authority, because they seem to be the only ones who understand the system well enough to fix it.
Is it possible, then, that civilizational complexity is a threat to liberty? If we think of civilizational complexity like an asset bubble, it becomes necessary to keep the bubble inflated no matter what, because the cost of a rapid deflation would be unbearable, or at least seems to us to be unbearable. Put another way, we are prepared to turn over an enormous amount of power over our liberties to the government and to transnational elites because the cost to us in safety and comfort is too great. When I say it like that, it sounds harsh, and I don’t mean necessarily to condemn others. I don’t mind at all people condemning the massive bailouts as immoral, but they had better understand what would have happened absent the bailouts — the deep and widespread suffering that would have come about through the economic collapse. Nevertheless, the fact that to most people, whether they admit it or not, the bailouts were inevitable tells us something about how illusory our liberties really are, in part because we are not prepared to bear the cost of maintaining them. You don’t believe me? Good luck to the politician who tells people that we have to raise taxes and cut spending to balance our books, or forfeit America’s future freedom of action to China and its international creditors.
How long can this go on? Does history give us any examples of a highly centralized government run by managerial elites that decentralized itself peaceably, in the absence of a collapse? This calls to mind a post from last month about Joseph Tainter’s book on the collapse of complex societies. I quoted Clay Shirky’s remarks on Tainter’s thesis:
Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.
In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake–“[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.
When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.
Ross’s column is about problems caused by centralization of the power elite being responded to in the only way our system knows how: by intensifying and strengthening the dynamic that made the system so unhealthy. A system so complex and interlocked that a mortgage bubble collapse in southern California can trip a massive global recession, and which, in turn, can only be saved by doubling down on the dynamic that mortally imperiled it, is a system that’s far more precarious than it appears.