Tuesday, April 17, 2012

James Q Wilson

A profile of James Q Wilson at The New Criterion


James Q Wilson, #3, Division and New Politics

“We would certainly tolerate no different system [democracy] in our own states.  Yet most people are disenchanted with the way it works.  One reason is that our rulers now manage so much of our lives that they cannot help but do it badly.  They have overreached themselves.”

Kenneth Minogue, The Servile Mind

To some people government appears as a vast reservoir of power which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it.  They have favorite projects, of various dimensions, which they sincerely believe are for the benefit of mankind, and to capture this source of power, if necessary to increase it, and to use it for imposing their favorite projects upon their fellows is what they understand as the adventure of governing men.  They are, thus, disposed to recognize government as an instrument of passion; the art of politics is to inflame and direct desire…..

The man of [conservative] disposition understands it to be the business of a government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down.”

Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, On Being Conservative

It is curious to me that in James Q. Wilson’s examination of increasing division in American politics and culture http://porcupinehuddle.blogspot.com/2012/03/james-q-wilson-1-how-divided-are-we.html  he no more than touches on, if that, his earlier essay American Politics, Then and Now. http://porcupinehuddle.blogspot.com/2012/04/james-q-wilson-2-american-politics-then.html   The two are clearly connected or to be more specific increased polarization is almost inevitable after the change in politics which Wilson describes.

To repeat, Wilson identifies the causes of increasing polarization in political parties realigned ideologically, in the change from mass media to more niche focused coverage, and in the replacement of material/economic type interest groups by moral/ethical issue groups.  That is fine, so far as it goes but incomplete.  In the first post, I pointed out that he left out the clear break in ideology that took place in the sixties.  But Wilson’s description of the change in how the political system operates is at least an equal contributor to division.

It is difficult to see how an all encompassing federal government can lead to anything other than division and polarization, never mind one which operates without the implicit restraint of a “concurrent majority.”  This is particularly true if that style of politics is new rather than how it’s always been.  As the two quotes that open this post suggest, increased division is baked into the cake of the new politics that Wilson describes, i.e the politics of liberal-progressivism.

James Q Wilson, #2, American politics, then and now

The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is 2,700 pages long, has a significant impact on healthcare variously estimated to constitute one sixth the U.S. economy, passed both the House and Senate on pure party lines, and is to this day unpopular in public opinion surveys.

In the title essay, American Politics: Then and Now, James Q. Wilson describes a transformational change in how our political system operates from an earlier era.  That earlier era is for Wilson best described by John Fisher’s 1948 essay which states that the unwritten rule of American politics is the concurrent majority.  “No important decision would be reached without the concurrence of each interest vitally affected by that decision.”  Put another way, it is Madisonian; liberty preserved by faction restraining and or combating faction.

In Wilson’s description the politics of a concurrent majority was the result of a number of system attributes.  First, there was a high relative cost to using the political system as against the private sector to get what you wanted.  Access to political influence was difficult and the inclination of political actors was in the direction of saying no, rather than change.  Political parties were strong and dominated by party bosses, congressional action was in the hands of senior committee men--quite often conservative southerners-- and the committees operated behind closed doors.  The relevant interest groups were large, economic interests.  Above all was the restraining question of whether the question or proposed reform was a proper matter for the federal government. 

Until rather recently, the chief issue in any congressional argument over new policies was whether it was legitimate for the federal government to do anything at all.  That was the crux of the dispute over Social Security, welfare, Medicare, civil rights, selective service, foreign aid, international alliances, price and wage controls, economic regulation, and countless other departures from the past.”

As described by Wilson the current system operates very different.  Of most importance, the barrier as to whether something is properly a federal concern is no more.  Once the initial law is passed, the issue of legitimacy disappears, and except in those few cases where the Supreme Court later holds the law unconstitutional, does not reemerge.”  Additionally, political parties are far weaker with stronger, more secure, more independent, politicians.  The legislative process is more open.  The handful of large, economic interest blocs are severely weakened and joined by numerous single issue constituencies and advocacy groups in favor of extending already passed initiatives.

The result is a politics that is far more ideological.  It is a politics with the attributes of “a human crowd—to move either very sluggishly or with extreme speed.”  Wilson notes that in such a political system “a highly influential group is the ‘New Class’ those with high levels of education and professional occupations.”  They are able to craft and promote ideas, to move the system from sluggishness to speed.  And here again, one notes the power of Michael Oakeshott’s description of rationalism in politics.  In that essay Oakeshott described it as “the politics of the felt need” and his description of the rationalist as someone who “who doubts everything but his own reason” is an accurate description of the “New Class.”

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

More on constitutional law and slippery slope arguments

I posted earlier http://porcupinehuddle.blogspot.com/2012/03/behaviorial-economist-and-tendentious.html on Prof. Thaler’s point dismissing slippery slope arguments, and brought up the story of successive changes in the recipe for cookies.  A recent post on Commentary http://www.commentarymagazine.com/2012/04/04/liberal-libel-of-the-court/#more-790183 includes this quote from Justice Antonin Scalia:

“If you … read a brief filed in a constitutional law case, you will rarely find the discussion addressed to the text of the constitutional provision that is at issue, or to the question of what was the originally understood or even the originally intended meaning of that text. The starting point of the analysis will be Supreme Court cases, and the new issue will presumptively be decided according to the logic that those cases expressed, with no regard for how far that logic, thus extended, has distanced us from the original text and understanding.” [my emphasis]