Learning from a Long October

Published October 31, 2013

National Review Online

This past month has been among the most dramatic in quite a while in our politics. October 1 was the first day of what turned out to be a 16-day government shutdown, and it was the first day of Obamacare’s launch. The first half of the month was focused on the shutdown, and was something of a nightmare for Republicans. The second half was focused on Obamacare’s woes, and has been something of a nightmare for Democrats. In the process, we have been given an opportunity to learn something important about our political life.

As Ross Douthat noted earlier this month, the juxtaposition of the shutdown and the launch of the exchanges has put on display the deficiencies of both populism and technocracy. We have seen something like the worst or weakest face of each.

On the one hand, it seems that populist rhetoric cannot substitute for a policy agenda and expectations of a public revolt cannot replace a political strategy for achieving concrete goals. Voters are looking for political leaders who will address their concerns, not just channel their frustrations, and even many voters who agreed with the Republicans about the gross defects of Obamacare did not seem to think that shutting down the government was the way to do something about them. The basic argument at the core of the strategy, moreover, was a kind of populist contradiction: that this was the last chance to do something about Obamacare because once it started the country would become addicted to the subsidies it offered, and that it would be possible to do something about it now because the country so detested Obamacare that a shutdown would force the Democrats to defend the law in ways they could not sustain. Neither of these arguments was true, I think, and the combination — a mix of overconfidence and excessive fear about the character of the people — was ultimately incoherent. The resulting confrontation and government shutdown gained Republicans basically nothing, and could have cost them more than just some popularity points if the Democrats had better leaders and some substantive goals of their own.

On the other hand, it seems that technocratic hubris about the capacity of government to manage complexity and arrange the world just right is turning out not to work well either. The technical failures of the exchange websites raise grave alarms about the technocratic vision at the core of Obamacare. That technocratic vision begins from the notion that we already possess the knowledge it takes to run an efficient health-financing system and all that remains is to apply that knowledge from the center, with the government defining the insurance product strictly and then compelling insurers to sell it, compelling consumers to buy it, managing the countless assorted variables and pressures involved, and calling what results a market. The idea that this kind of approach could address the immense problems of our system, could reach the right balance of risk in the newly created insurance exchanges, could avoid immense unintended consequences, and could result in a desirable balance between quality and cost is the dubious proposition that the Democrats, on a strict party line, have decided the country should test. The fact that the people charged with making all this happen cannot properly manage the development of a web site does not prove the proposition false, of course, but it surely calls for very deep doubts — and the failure of the enrollment site also raises real and practical obstacles to the implementation of the new system. The first and surely easiest test has gone far worse than anyone expected, though the ultimate outcome remains to be seen.

Maybe the technical failures will be addressed quickly, and the technocrats could then confront their real tests. Maybe they will not. But either way, we have been witness already to a dramatic failure of administration. Some of the responses to this calamity offered in defense of the technocratic vision — I think my favorite has been the notion that Medicare is a model of simplicity (!!) that Obamacare should have followed — suggest that the gravity of what this test may reveal has not yet begun to sink in, but I do think some on the left are slowly coming to grips with what anything short of a swift and stunning turnaround would portend for them. October has been far worse for the Left than for the Right.

If abject populism or gross technocracy were our only options for governing ourselves, the experience of this past month would be enough to leave us in despair. And it does sometimes seem as though we imagine those are our options. But I think the past month should actually be cause for hope that we might see beyond these two dead ends. Not only are technocracy and populism not the only choices we have, they are not really quite alternatives at all: They are in a sense two sides of one bad coin.

In their extreme forms, the forms we have seen this month, both populism and technocracy assume that the answers to our most profound public problems are simple, and are readily available. One assumes that the people possess these answers, and that they are denied the power to put them into effect by some elite that wants to oppress them; the other assumes the experts possess these answers, and they are denied the power to put them into effect by a system that empowers heedless and prejudiced majorities or the venal economic interests of the wealthy over the attainment of the objectively obvious good of the people.

The hubris they have in common has sometimes brought populism and technocracy together — in fact the combination of the two makes for a workable definition of the ideology of the American progressive movement a century ago, and of some of its offshoots today. The progressives pursued populist political means to technocratic policy ends. They expected their technocratic ideas to be popular, and so they expected populism to lead to more expert government. Technocracy and populism would together undermine the power of the moneyed interests, freeing our government from corruption by the wealthy and thereby making it both more democratic and more rational. Those moneyed interests, the progressives argued, were protected by our constitutional system, which, with its slow-moving mechanisms and counterbalanced institutions, made any kind of change very difficult to bring about.

And that system, our constitutional system, also seems to assume that technocracy and populism are two sides of the same coin. But whereas the progressives championed both technocratic government and direct democracy, the Constitution stands opposed to both. As the Framers saw it, both populist and technocratic politics were expressions of a modern hubris about the capacity of human beings — be it of the experts or of the people as a whole — to make just the right governing decisions.

The Constitution, by contrast, is built upon a profound skepticism about the ability of any political arrangement to overcome the limitations of human reason and human nature, and so establishes a system of checks to prevent sudden large mistakes while enabling gradual changes supported by some reasonably broad and longstanding consensus.

That such a system is far from populist should be obvious. In Federalist 63, James Madison says plainly that the constitutional architecture involves “the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity” from directly governing. But that does not mean that it imagines the purpose of government is to enable technical experts to manage society. The framers were disdainful of the potential of technocrats whose abstract expertise was often of value only in what Alexander Hamilton calls, in Federalist 28, “the reveries of those political doctors whose sagacity disdains the admonitions of experimental instruction.” And even those with expertise in administration should not be given too much power. In Federalist 68, Hamilton argues that, while good administration is very important, the idea that the best-administered regime is the best regime is a “political heresy.” There is much more to government than administration.

Thus expert omniscience could not be trusted to check the excesses of popular passion, and public omniscience could not be trusted to check the excesses of expert arrogance. In the view of the framers, there is no omniscience; there is only imperfect humanity. We therefore need checks on all of our various excesses, and a system that forces us to think through important decisions as best we can. Both the desire for a popular uprising (rather than an electoral victory) and the desire for immense administrative authority (in the face of the separation of powers) are in tension with the vision underlying our system.

But that does not mean that our constitutional system seeks to ignore the needs and wishes of the public or to deny the potential of ably wielded government power to help meet them. On the contrary, Madison, in Federalist 62, argues that “A good government implies two things: First, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.”

That suggests that American politics ought to pursue ends that might rightly be termed populist — ways of improving the life of the common person and enabling him to improve his circumstances — but not by means that are populist. Those means should take account of the limits of our knowledge and power, and so seek gradual, targeted reforms to address discrete problems in ways that seek to capitalize on dispersed knowledge, maximize the freedom of such knowledge to grow through trial and error, and minimize the potential for large mistakes to be made.

In politics, such means can be found in our constitutional system itself, and political actors should pursue their goals through that system, not around it. In government and administration, such means present themselves as policies that seek to build on civil society rather than replace it, that aim to gain knowledge through market mechanisms rather than assuming we already know all we need to, and that take relatively modest steps rather than bold and confident leaps.

That means that this approach requires a real engagement with policy particulars that resists the inclination to technocracy — a mastery of some technical matters in the name of sustaining the preconditions for a free and happy nation. Champions of American liberty too often recoil from such engagement with policy particulars, but they suffer for that tendency. As Friedrich Hayek put it, “Liberty in practice depends on very prosaic matters, and those anxious to preserve it must prove their devotion by their attention to the mundane concerns of public life and by the efforts they are prepared to give to the understanding of issues that the idealist is often inclined to treat as common, if not sordid.”

The Right in America is much in need of a recovery of this approach today, and such a recovery is beginning in some quarters. Some people engaged in this work emphasize the populist character of the ends they seek and the libertarian character of some of their favorite means; some emphasize the reformist nature of its approach to policy and the profound conservatism of its basic character; some just see it as the embodiment of American constitutionalism. They may differ in some particulars, but they are on the same track, and I think it is the right track.

These reformers are still few in number and modest in influence, but the lessons of the past month suggest that needs to change. That’s why it’s a good thing that the month ended with this exceptionally promising and constructive speech by Senator Mike Lee — a politician much involved in the Republican excesses of the past weeks, but who for some time (well before the shutdown fight) has made it clear he also sees the way forward.

It has been a long and rough October, but who knows what November may bring, and what future Novembers may too?

Yuval Levin is Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the founding editor of National Affairs.

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