Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


While populists fiddle, Rome consolidates power

posted by Rod Dreher

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.

More:

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.

And:

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.



Advertisement
Comments read comments(20)
post a comment
Nick the Greek

posted May 17, 2010 at 1:25 pm


You might want to rethink that headline. It put me in mind of an olde-timey Catholic-basher warning about a Popish plot. But maybe that’s just me.



report abuse
 

John in Austin

posted May 17, 2010 at 1:32 pm


I think it is quite possible that civilizational complexity threatens liberty. Not only does it promote the consolidation of authority that Mr. Douthat’s column describes, but it also broadens the appeal of all forms of fundamentalism (including the secular varieties).
(captcha: “to nattiest”; Rod, I hope you are dapperly dressed today, in spite of your miserable allergies!)



report abuse
 

Steve K.

posted May 17, 2010 at 1:36 pm


Oswald Spengler has a lot to say about civilizations that become complex and rigid, and invariable the result according to him is also collapse. The Decline of the West is worth the read.



report abuse
 

Artie

posted May 17, 2010 at 1:39 pm


“…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.”
How does anyone know with any certainty what would’ve happened absent the bailout? Those making the loudest case for the bailouts were the ones who were chiefly responsible for the crisis – Paulson, Bernanke, Geithner, Big Banks and the Fed.
If we would have experienced widespread suffering absent the bailout, it would seem that the bailout(s) has only deferred the real suffering, passed the tab to the next generation of taxpayers. Many have said we would be better off taking our lumps now rather than adding even more crushing debt.
Until someone can prove otherwise, I’m convinced the real suffering has only been deferred and intensified.



report abuse
 

Oeno

posted May 17, 2010 at 2:44 pm


The column instantly brought to mind Tocqueville’s thoughts on the French Revolution and numerous commentators on the Russian Revolution. The revolution, far from bringing peace and harmony, ends up consolidating power and a refinement of the techniques of the old regime that were considered so problematic.



report abuse
 

BMX

posted May 17, 2010 at 2:57 pm


How are populists “fiddling,” Rod? Would it be better if they just shut up or if they just said “yes massa” to everything the power-elite ever had to say? I know you’re no fan of the tea party movement, but would we really be better off if we had absolutely no dissent whatsoever from the status quo? My sense is that dissent, even in a less-than-ideal or less-than-optimum form, is better than no dissent at all. I gather that’s also Ross Douthat’s view — Douthat who has been much more fair-minded and nuanced on the tea party movment than you.



report abuse
 

rj

posted May 17, 2010 at 3:07 pm


Civilizational complexity may be a threat to liberty in that it expands the power of national/global elites, but it’s not as if that invasive power was never exercised. Previously, we had a thousand little local tyrannies with capricious leaders, arbitrary biases and horrific injustices protected by secrecy and threats of banishment or shunning. If I had to choose between the Salem Witch Trials, Boss Tweed and a top tax bracket 2% over where it is now, I’d go for the taxes.
Gotta serve somebody, I guess.



report abuse
 

Lord Karth

posted May 17, 2010 at 3:26 pm


Mr. Dreher, @ 12:20 PM, writes:
” 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.”
Just like in your SCOTUS-on-civil-confinement-ruling thread, no ?
“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.”
I’d say there is a 30-50 % chance that we will get that economic collapse rather soon, given the recent attempts the Europeans are making to bail out the profligate Greek economy. What the great economic powers—including the US—are trying to do is to maintain the illusion of debt-financed “prosperity” that has been in place for the last 15 years or so. The problem is that such an illusion CANNOT be sustained, under any circumstances. There is simply not enough productivity to be skimmed off to finance all the various special-interest spending programs people want.
Mr. Dreher, your grounding in economic history may be deficit to the task at hand. In case you don’t recall, the 1920 recession was characterized by both sharpness and shortness; the Harding Administration basically did nothing, and GNP dropped 10-15 percent for about a year. The economy bounced back very rapidly after that. Perhaps this is the approach we need to reconsider.
Your servant,
Lord Karth



report abuse
 

stefanie

posted May 17, 2010 at 3:31 pm


Rod: s it possible, then, that civilizational complexity is a threat to liberty?
Yes. Civilization has many benefits; it is also extremely fragile. A genuine civilizational collapse isn’t going to look like a “world made by hand;” it’s going to look like The Stand, probably *without* Mother Abigail.



report abuse
 

Rod Dreher

posted May 17, 2010 at 3:41 pm


BMX: How are populists “fiddling,” Rod? Would it be better if they just shut up or if they just said “yes massa” to everything the power-elite ever had to say? I know you’re no fan of the tea party movement, but would we really be better off if we had absolutely no dissent whatsoever from the status quo?
That’s not what I’m saying at all. The point is not that dissent is wrong; the point is that the Tea Parties are a sideshow, and for all the Sturm and Drang over the bailouts, the consolidation of power in the hands of the governmental and financial elites continues without a hitch. I was speaking recently to a fairly well known conservative writer and thinker, who confided that he worried that the populist right’s penchant for ill-thought-out, emotional and inchoate responses to very real problems was going to end up being a greater threat to the things conservatives care about in the end, because they’re going to serve, however inadvertently, as both a diversion and a mask for the elites. What he meant was that as long as there is no serious and thoughtful leadership among the resistance, those establishmentarians of the left and the right will be able to continue to consolidate power, because they will be able to point to the crazypants right as an example of the kind of people who object to their “responsible” actions. You follow?



report abuse
 

marif

posted May 17, 2010 at 4:29 pm


Rod,
If you haven’t read this Clay Shirky post, I highly recommend doing so:
http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2010/04/the-collapse-of-complex-business-models/
(It extends well beyond just business models.)
Apologies if I got this link from your blog in the first place! Can’t remember how I wound up reading it.
-M



report abuse
 

BMX

posted May 17, 2010 at 5:01 pm


But, Rod, the push back has got to start somewhere. Without the tea party movement, I doubt we’d be discussing this at all. The tea party movement has pushed the Ross Douthats of the world to start sniffing the wind for the smoke from Rome as it burns. And the Ross Douthats of the world have now started pushing the New York Times readers of the world to likewise start sniffing the wind. I don’t see how the moral of that story is that it’s the tea party movement — of all things — that ought to be the primary object of the commentariat’s scorn, as it has been a primary object of your scorn as perhaps, of late, and overly conventional and overly acquiescent member of said commentariat. If not for the tea party movement, the mainstream media narrative would likely be nothing at all but what a marvelous job that marvelous young man Emperor Barack has done in saving Rome from burning to the ground. I fail to see how that would be a better turn for things to have taken than the one they took. I fail to see how the biggest problem facing us in this crisis is not the crisis itself but rather the way in which certain responses to the crisis — certain forms of recognition that there is, in fact, a crisis going on — are faulted, even as halting first steps in the right direction, all for not meeting some overly-fastidious and rather prissy standard that pearl-clutchers set. You follow? You dig?



report abuse
 

Rod Dreher

posted May 17, 2010 at 5:13 pm


What on earth are you talking about? I haven’t mentioned the Tea Partiers at all since this new blog began back in January, and to the extent that I mentioned them before, it has always been in the context of the foolishness of their style of protest, not in defense of the established interests, which I have a long record of objecting to (have you not kept up with my constant “Are We Rome?” drumbeat, which started before the economic crash? The idea that it was the Tea Parties that made Douthat and others start thinking about the centralization of power is risible. Many libertarians and Ron Paul followers were onto this issue long before we had any Tea Parties. How in the world are you getting the idea from Douthat’s column that it’s about scorning the Tea Parties? His is not a column about Tea Parties.



report abuse
 

Turmarion

posted May 17, 2010 at 6:17 pm


Nick the Greek: It put me in mind of an olde-timey Catholic-basher warning about a Popish plot.
Actually, it’s the Illuminati….fnord….
Rod: Is it possible, then, that civilizational complexity is a threat to liberty?
Yes; possible and likely.
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?
I’m a history buff, and I can’t think of a single one, though I’m willing to be proved wrong.
CAPTCHA: morasses importance Cue Twilight Zone music….



report abuse
 

BMX

posted May 17, 2010 at 6:57 pm


Rod,
I never said Douthat’s column was about scorning the tea parties. Douthat, to his credit — as I mentioned before — is one of the very few members of the mainstream commentariat, yourself included, who has not done that, at least to some degree. Your suggestion that I said otherwise is either the result of your not having read my comments closely enough for it to be wise to weigh in or else it’s just a strawman to distract from what I meant to be constructive criticism of your post. As for libertarians, Ron Paul, etc, it’s a misnomer to discuss them as if there weren’t a very, very large overlap between them and the tea party movement. There are libertarians and Ron Paul supporters who aren’t tea party and there are tea party fans who aren’t libertarians or Ron Paul supporters, but there’s a very large overlap between the two sides. In some ways, the tea party movement is simply one indication of the kind of critique of centralized power put forward by libertarians like Ron Paul — and by others from non-libertarian directions — is reaching a critical mass. If all the tea parties did was to bring a marginalized critique of centralized power to the center stage of public discourse — and I suspect that that’s all they will do — well, that still not nothing, and it certainly isn’t fiddling while Rome burns. More like being among the very first to do anything all to help with putting out the fire.



report abuse
 

Jon

posted May 17, 2010 at 7:22 pm


Re: Oswald Spengler has a lot to say about civilizations that become complex and rigid, and invariable the result according to him is also collapse.
It’s the rigid part that is the problem, not the complex part. The two are not at all closely linked. You can have a society which is simple and rigid too; or one that is complex and yet highly flexible.
Re: If we would have experienced widespread suffering absent the bailout, it would seem that the bailout(s) has only deferred the real suffering
Oh good grief, by that logic, we shouldn’t make any effort to treat epidemics when they occur since everyone is ultimately going to die someday anyway.
Re: How are populists “fiddling,” Rod? Would it be better if they just shut up or if they just said “yes massa” to everything the power-elite ever had to say?
Um, maybe they need to educate themselves and propose real solutions not just whine and scream and carry on like two-year-olds in full tantrum mode.
Re: case you don’t recall, the 1920 recession was characterized by both sharpness and shortness
It was also an end-of-war recession which occurs when govermments cease spending boatloads of cash on a war effort, soldiers muster out to civilian life and a bunch of restrictive war regulations are repealed. The economy goes loco from the shock, then rights itself. A very different dymanic from other recessions we are more familiar with in our day (or the Great Depression).
Re: A genuine civilizational collapse isn’t going to look like a “world made by hand;” it’s going to look like The Stand, probably *without* Mother Abigail.
But you’re going to need something like a nuclear war, an asteroid impact or a super-volcano eruption to get that level of collapse. Even the European Dark Ages were more the result of a natural catastrophe (a tremendous volcanic eruption in the 6th century producing a worldwide deep-feeeze and famine followed by plague) than by the barbarians overwhelming Rome. And in the 14th century– hardly the most sophisticated era– an event with the lethality of the Black Death did not cause a “collapse”. Neither did the World Wars of our age. So no, civilization is not fragile: there is in fact a higher order inertia involved here, with a huge “momentum” behind it and it would take a massive and unprecedented (for historical times) external blow to overcome it.



report abuse
 

steve

posted May 17, 2010 at 8:37 pm


“Mr. Dreher, your grounding in economic history may be deficit to the task at hand. In case you don’t recall, the 1920 recession was characterized by both sharpness and shortness; the Harding Administration basically did nothing, and GNP dropped 10-15 percent for about a year. The economy bounced back very rapidly after that. Perhaps this is the approach we need to reconsider.”
Watching Glenn Beck are we? There is really no comparison between that crisis and our current one. This has been debunked so many times it does not merit a link.
As to your question about centralized economies changing, there are many historical examples. China owes most of its recent growth to embracing some markets mechanisms. Russia decentralized, some. Canada greatly reduced its federal spending. Heck, read Grand New Party. We have greatly deregulated since the 50s. Just think about the Phone Company.
Steve



report abuse
 

Rod Dreher

posted May 17, 2010 at 10:37 pm


Hmm. Funny how BMX, Peter Clark, Mr. Moto and Margot Jones all have the same IP. I banned Peter Clark for not knowing how to carry on a conversation with people without getting excessively political and rude. Before you post here again, BMX, prove to me somehow that you aren’t Peter Clark. You have my e-mail address: rdreher (at) templeton.org



report abuse
 

Johne312

posted April 30, 2014 at 4:43 pm


Regards for helping out, superb information. feedddfedkbe



report abuse
 

Johnc261

posted April 30, 2014 at 4:43 pm


I do agree with all the ideas you have introduced for your post. They are really convincing and can certainly work. Still, the posts are very brief for newbies. May you please extend them a bit from subsequent time? Thank you for the post. deddgcaeggda



report abuse
 

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the beliefnet.com terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to beliefnet.com and may be used by beliefnet.com in accordance with the agreements.



Previous Posts

Another blog to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Rod Dreher. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here is another blog you may also enjoy: Most Recent Scientology Story on Beliefnet! Happy Reading!!!

posted 3:25:02pm Aug. 27, 2012 | read full post »

Mommy explains her plastic surgery
In Dallas (naturally), a parenting magazine discusses how easy it is for mommies who don't like their post-child bodies to get surgery -- and to have it financed! -- to reverse the effects of time and childbirth. Don't like what nursing has done to your na-nas? Doc has just the solution: Doctors say

posted 10:00:56pm Jul. 21, 2010 | read full post »

Why I became Orthodox
Wrapping up my four Beliefnet years, I was thinking about the posts that attracted the most attention and comment in that time. Without a doubt the most popular (in terms of attracting attention, not all of it admiring, to be sure) was the October 12, 2006, entry in which I revealed and explained wh

posted 9:46:58pm Jul. 21, 2010 | read full post »

Modern Calvinists
Wow, they don't make Presbyterians like they used to!

posted 8:47:01pm Jul. 21, 2010 | read full post »

'Rape by deception'? Huh?
The BBC this morning reported on a bizarre case in Israel of an Arab man convicted of "rape by deception," because he'd led the Jewish woman with whom he'd had consensual sex to believe he was Jewish. Ha'aretz has the story here. Plainly it's a racist verdict, and a bizarre one -- but there's more t

posted 7:51:28pm Jul. 21, 2010 | read full post »




Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.