Tuesday, April 17, 2012

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.”

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