Saturday, April 19, 2014

C Wright Mills, America's Elite, and the Wisdom of Third Parties

I finished reading C. Wright Mills's Power Elite over the past couple of weeks.  Published in 1956, the book offers more insight into current events than most contemporary commentary.  Mills says that there are three levels of power--lower, middle, and upper--and that the pluralism upon which most political science focuses is characteristic of the local (lower) and Congressional (middle) levels. Although interest groups function on the lower and middle levels, there is little diversity at the upper level.  The upper elite does, of course, contain advocates of different social orientations and degrees of socialism, but the underlying viewpoint is stable.  The upper elite that runs America is comprised of presidential appointees selected from the broader power elite, which Mills depicts as coming from multiple sources: the Metropolitan 400 or social register types, the corporate rich, and the senior officers in the military.

When Mills wrote the book, the military and the military budget were more important than now.  Mills was unaware of the Fed's role (hence the centrality of banking interests) in the subsidization of the power elite and the US governmental system. As a result, he understates the importance of banking interests, which Murray Rothbard and Ronald Radosh tease out in their New History of Leviathan and that James Perloff illustrates in his Shadows of Power.

Mills  briefly describes the central role of the white-shoe law firms and investment banks, but these were more central in the 1950s than Mills describes them; they have become  more so since Nixon's ending of the gold standard in 1971.

According to Mills, the president and his advisers select the highest-level elite from the various groups within the power elite.  During the Kennedy years social and intellectual elites, represented by the Bundys, Dean Rusk, and Robert McNamara (recommended by fellow Skull-and-Bonesman and partner of Prescott Bush at Brown Brothers Harriman, Robert Lovett ) were dominant.  More recently, much as in the days of George Washington, bankers like Henry Paulson (who parallels but is not the intellectual equivalent of Hamilton) have been dominant.

The upper elite interacts within itself, and typically there are one or two degrees of separation between any two members.  Mills  does not claim that there is any sort of conspiracy, for that would be foolish.  Rather, each takes cues from the other.  Conformity derived from educational-and-university experiences obviates the need for overt conspiracy.

The last few chapters move from analysis to broadside as Mills criticizes what he calls the crackpot realism of America's narrow-minded upper elite.

Mills's depiction of America as having moved from a public liberal to a mass society is on point.  His emphasis on the mass media as transforming Americans from a free, imaginative people to a nation of cowed serfs (my word, not his) is also on point.  Mills is not that far from writers like James Perloff, who writes about the Council on Foreign Relations.  No president since Hoover has been independent of  the CFR.   That does not imply conspiracy any more than the leadership of a modern corporation's interacting with each other is a conspiracy.  The elite interacts and forms opinions. Its mindset, like that of leading university professors, is conformist, lockstep, cowardly, and lacking in vision.

Mills offers little hope for those who care about America or hope to see a change from the current trend. It occurred to me that his book was the inspiration for Eisenhower's 1961 speech about the military-industrial complex.   If Mills is right, then a useful long-term strategy in politics is to support third parties.  Another is simply to jump ship and move to a smaller country in which a mass culture and an elite bred to narrow-minded arrogance and the subjugation of a foolish mass of TV-news-viewing idiots won't exist because of the smaller scale.

In the Federalist 10 Madison argued that America's large scale was an impediment to the formation of faction.  As transportation and communication modernized, universities began to serve as the proving ground for elite conformity and groupthink.  The power of America's elite is made possible by large scale combined with modern communication methods.  The Internet and other postmodern developments, such as community activism, pose a challenge to America's mass culture.  Nevertheless, as long as Americans continue to support the two mass parties and as long as at least a plurality of Americans derive their news from mass-market newspapers and television,  the trends that Mills observed will continue to escalate.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

An Inconvenient Truth: Bill Maher Resembles a Rat

I've not watched the comedian Bill Maher for more than a few minutes, but HBO has been running advertisements about his show.  The advertisements make me want to cancel HBO.  The material on Netflix, such as Zoey Barnes's murder on House of Cards, is at least as good as the HBO programming. Who needs HBO?

Why have television and the entertainment industry, which have always emphasized attractive appearance over substance, elevated an announcer as ugly as Maher? After looking at his ad a few times, I thought of a deeper philosophical question:  Why does a television network sponsor an announcer who  looks like a rat?

Maher's predictable, politically correct views are the obvious answer.  Other commentators who have the patience and stomach to watch his show have described his tasteless humor and his bigoted remarks about others' religious beliefs. Putting an announcer on HBO who makes distasteful remarks about Blacks or Jews is unthinkable, and rightfully so.  Putting an anti-Catholic bigot like Maher on television is acceptable to the ignorant left-wingers at HBO.

HBO's programs  aren't good enough to compensate for Maher, and in addition to the outlandish cost of Comcast's services, Maher offers an excellent reason to terminate cable television service. Many of the left-wing and pro-Fed blogs consider Maher to be "brilliant."  In the same way the coarse, realist art under communism and the cliched neoclassical art under Hitler were held up as "brilliant" in those totalitarian lands. When media is state controlled, the coarse, ugly and mediocre are elevated, especially when they serve the state.

Scott Harrington Interviews Langbert and Marnell

Lincoln Eagle publisher Mike Marnell and I appeared on Scott Harrington's Speak Out show on WKNY in Kingston, NY.  It aired on March 29, 2014. The discussion concerned education and politics.  Scott's a great guy, and we had a ball.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Fallacy of Whig Libertarianism

Writing in Reason, Alex Stevenson reviews a debate about continued UK participation in the European Union (EU).  Stevenson gives a useful overview of a new British political party, the United Kingdom Independence Party, and he questions whether participation in the EU is relevant to libertarianism. Stevenson holds on to an antiquated left-right dichotomy: He reasons that in the past the left opposed the EU, so there is no reason for libertarians to oppose it now. He claims that centralization is not a libertarian issue.

Bertrand de Jouvenal's On Power outlines the emergence of the unitary state from the decentralized fiefdoms of the Middle Ages.  De Jouvenal shows that a decline in freedom coincided with the growth of the unitary state under Louis XIV, the Sun King, and Henry VIII, and continued centralization led to further diminution of freedom. In his Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, Murray Rothbard shows that 17th century mercantilism in Spain, France, and the UK led to inefficient, anti-libertarian outcomes.

The dream of a centralized Europe goes back to the Romans, the inventors of the mixed economy and government-business partnerships.  Today's European and American economies are modernized versions of Rome, and the blessings of modernity were largely developed in the United States and Great Britain before the current, antique levels of centralization emerged.

Looking at the big picture, Charlemagne's conquest of much of Europe and Hitler's Third Reich were halting attempts to reestablish Rome. The EU is a third attempt.  No attempt, including the EU, has been libertarian in nature. Centralization of power is neither left nor right, but it is anti-libertarian because  centralization of power leads to abuse of power. It does so because citizens in a large, centralized state face high costs of organization, so protest becomes difficult.  In contrast, compact special interests with access to the central bank and high benefits per capita from organization can organize efficiently.  Centralization leads to skewed outcomes that benefit elite interests.  Smaller scale increases the benefit per capita from organization by general citizens.  Citizens' monitoring of and resistance to special interests increases as the scale of government decreases.

In the UK the Whigs began as the country party, and they originated many libertarian ideas.  In the US the Whig Party, which used the country party's name, was a court party and a reaction to Andrew Jackson's democratic and libertarian views.  By Jackson's time the courtly Federalists and country anti-Federalists were gone, but remnants of the anti-Federalists' views survived, including in the South, so when South Carolina threatened to secede in 1832 over its demand to nullify the Tariff of Abominations, Jackson threatened them with military force.

Jackson, then, was no libertarian, but he was too libertarian for the remnant of the Federalist Party, which Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln's mentor, led by the 1820s.  In 1832 Clay founded the Whig  Party, the party of  a centralized bank, centralized power, subsidized banks, subsidized railroads, increased tariffs, big government, public works, and government waste.

The American Whigs have always claimed to be for freedom: Today's Republicans, like Mark Levin and Mitt Romney, continue to claim so just as today's Democrats continue to call themselves "liberals," a term that had been applied to libertarians in America until the 1890s.

While claiming to favor freedom, the Whigs--both today's Democrats and today's Republicans--are anti-libertarian, while a minority of decentralizers has tended to be libertarian.  The reason that decentralization fosters liberty even when some of the smaller units adopt anti-libertarian policies is that government cannot be measured as just a quantity.  The government that governs least is not the most libertarian government if it is imposed by force; it is fundamental to Lockean libertarianism that government be derived from the consent of the governed.

A government that governs an increasingly large population finds that it has a decreasing ability to derive consent from the governed.  If America had conquered the heart of Mexico instead of just California and Texas, it would have imposed less government on the Mexicans than they have since imposed on themselves. Nevertheless, as Thoreau points out in Civil Disobedience, such an action would not have been libertarian because it would have involved force rather than consent.  As the scope of a governed territory grows, the likelihood of consent diminishes.  A single government cannot represent the diverse needs of a large number of people.  In 1787 America had three million, mostly Christian, mostly white, mostly English citizens. The governments of about half of today's states govern larger, more diverse populations.

In economic terms there is only one real-world governmental utility curve; it reflects the sum of public choices about government's use of violence.  At the same time each citizen has his own utility curve, and culturally convergent groups, nations, communities, and peoples share utilities, so the distance from each individual's utility curve to the government curve is smaller under self-rule than it would be if strangers were to impose their values from without.

The imposition of an American state, albeit with a lesser quantity of government, would have been more divergent from the Mexicans' preferences than the Mexicans' own government has been even though there would have been less government under American imperialism. Hence, less can be more.  In the same way, the imposition of a centralized state on diverse Europeans leads to greater divergence from each group's preferences than would exist under decentralized, nationalist rule.  Scale increases coercion.

Decentralization not  only leads to freedom because it leads to competition among governments, but it  also leads to freedom because of a greater likelihood that a given government will reflect its citizens' preferences. The EU, like Rome, imposes a unitary set of preferences on all of its citizens. The sum of the distances of the preferences from the stated policy is greater than would be under a greater number of decentralized states.

As the power of Brussels increases, additional threats to liberty will emerge. The centralization of power will lead, as it did in the United States, to suppression of consent.  Suppression of consent in the United States led, within four decades after the Civil War, to suppression of  a wide range of rights, and within five decades to the founding of a central bank, an income tax, and an imperialistic foreign policy linked to the central bank and the income tax.

The Whigs, who in the post-Civil War, Mugwump era claimed to be libertarians, had ended government by the consent of the governed through the Civil War; they have since relentlessly extended the scope and power of the state, just as de Jouvenal describes. (De Jouvenal discusses FDR toward the end of his monumental work.)  For the past 120 years Whig liberalism has amounted  to government by experts who shape and control public opinion through a centralized media and enforce special interests' dictates  to a manipulated majority.