Thursday, December 17, 2015

Building a Cathedral and American Politics

Ever wonder why the left is always falling head over heels for their nominee. Or how Tom Friedman can have a, no masterpiece was written by committee, attitude towards American democracy. In 2008 Barack Obama, a man whose resume could fit on a credit card, was FDR and JFK wrapped into one glittering package. His election would halt the rise in the oceans and redeem the American experience. The too easy answer is that this is just power worship. The allure of getting to tell other people what to do. But a less cynical explanation is hiding in plain sight. Hiding in fourteenth century Florence to be exact.

At that time the elites competed with each other by building cathedrals rather than big governments and the grandees of Florence were a bit over-extended. The crossing space of the cathedral--a little over 144 feet--exceeded the technological know-how for building free standing domes. A hundred years after construction had begun, when the dome could no longer be put off, a competition is held to find a solution. Brunelleschi wins and his solution for a free standing dome is still an engineering marvel.

Here in the Western democracies we are now in the position of holding semi-regular competitions called elections to find the person who can put 'a roof' over the vast government that we've created as monuments to our humanity, our capacity to care. And it isn't at all surprising that progressives, far more invested in the government project, are far more invested in finding an 'architect or engineer' to complete the project. Thus, the extravagant celebration and hopes attached to the election of Barack Obama and before him Bill Clinton.

Nor is it surprising that our political Brunelleschies are looked for in the ranks of the relative unknowns. If the known, experienced politician had the solution wouldn't we have seen it by now? The one thing we can deduce from our familiarity with establishment politicians with all of their government experience is that they don't have the answer.

The analogy also suggests why the conservative argument that ambitious government programs have failed and can't work seem to persuade only other conservatives. Even if the progressive can be persuaded of failure he will tack on a 'not yet' qualifier. Here it has to be admitted, the conservative is working against American optimism. Hayek's knowledge problem is just a big data application from being resolved. Like the Florence Cathedral the pursuit of the outsized goal doesn't require a ready solution as one is sure to turn up if we just keep the faith.

It was Patrick Moynihan who observed that "somehow liberals have been unable to acquire from a lifetime of experience what conservatives seem to be endowed with at birth: namely, a healthy skepticism of the powers of government to do good." The remark is truer today than when he made it as is the gap between our commitments and the revenue to pay for them. And so the outsized hopes pinned on political candidates continue and the more acute our problems become, the wilder and more frantic our search for a miracle worker.



No comments:

Post a Comment