Conservative writer Ross Douthat has managed to produce a column garnering praise from both libertarians and liberals. The subject: the consolidation of power. He argues that while it "feels" like we're in the middle of a "populist movement," what with the Tea Parties, Greek riots, and the Goldman Sachs case, we're actually letting superficial narratives "[obscure] the real story of our time. 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." There's a pattern, argues Douthat, who look at at everything from financial regulatory reform to inaction on executive power to torture:
Taken case by case, many of these policy choices are perfectly defensible. Taken as a whole, they suggest a system that only knows how to move in one direction. If consolidation creates a crisis, the answer is further consolidation.
It's not just a phenomenon of the Obama administration--the failure of the FBI and CIA, he points out, produced The Department of Homeland Security--but it does seem to be speeding up. Douthat calls it 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."
Many commentators have seconded this view, though some dispute the idea that the consolidation of power after disasters winds up making further disasters more likely.
- I'm With You Up Until the End "The broader theory is right on," agrees The Atlantic's Derek Thompson: "governments often respond to crises by giving themselves more power." He's more skeptical, though, of the idea that "these fixes make us more vulnerable to future crises." For example, "are we more vulnerable to national-security attacks in May, 2010, than in August, 2001, because of the Department of Homeland Security? That's a pretty controversial claim, if he's making it." He likewise challenges Douthat's seeming inclusion of green energy subsidies and health care reform as a response to the financial crisis. Finally, he points out that, on the larger scale, "the growing centralization of government" doesn't necessarily seem to make "the economic system more vulnerable [to crisis.] ... The boom-bust cycle of the more decentralized 1800s and early 1900s was significantly more volatile than the relative moderation of the last 30 years."
- Mostly Right, Except About Increasing Vulnerability "[Douthat] uses a rhetorical move that I've noticed fairly frequently among conservative commentators sympathetic to Obama's agenda but discomfited by the growth in government," observes The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, who raises the same objections as Thompson. Douthat says he finds the policies "defensible" on a "case by case" basis, but is uncomfortable with the trend as a whole. Klein lays that side-by-side with something David Brooks says that looks very similar. "It's a sentence that absolves the writer of having to say what he or she would've done differently," argues Klein, "which makes broad-brush criticism a lot easier."
- How Do We Reverse This? E.D. Kain at True/Slant is on board, but wonders how the consolidation can be reversed: "we’re at a point where simply removing government from the picture will likely not produce a level playing field at all." He suggests "the first effort of reform, then, should be one of information. We should work to make information as transparent and widely dispersed as possible. After that, I’m really much less certain of the next steps. Should we move tax burdens back toward states and local governments, work toward competitive federalism? Can we do that before we reform entitlements and defense?"
- What If This Is About Modernity? "Douthat fingers meritocracy as the culprit," writes Elrod In at The Moderate Voice, but perhaps "the answer is deeper: modernity itself." He points to the theories of Max Weber, who "noticed a century ago that modernity tends to produce bureaucratic structures of administration that exist merely to serve the bureaucracy itself." It's not just that bureaucrats are interested in self-preservation, but that the "logic of modernity" means "our existence is governed by increasingly sophisticated mechanisms of resource distribution that most of us neither control nor understand," leading more and more to the "consolidat[ion] [of] power in the hands of experts."
- Complexity Itself the Problem "Is it possible, then," wonders Rod Dreher, "that civilizational complexity is a threat to liberty? ... 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 article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.