Jim Henley really knows how to look on the bright side:
I’ve become a pessimist. I think our future is Argentinian: a nation’s elites can have very nice lives for themselves if the commonality is financially secure and healthy, but history shows that a nation’s elites can have very nice lives for themselves even if most people live crabbed, fretful existences. You just need more security guards or, if necessary, paramilitaries. Since the financial crisis of last year, we’ve seen that the FIRE sector will work overtime to redistribute wealth to itself while working overtime to keep from redistributing wealth elsewhere. I think that with the normalization of the filibuster in the Senate, we’ve just about completed a revolution-within-the-form that is a much bigger deal than Barack Obama’s personal failings. The government works perfectly well at ensuring the lifestyles of defense contractors and investment bankers. That is its purpose. America may have one more good bubble in it. Or we may go straight to villas and bodyguards for the comely daughters.
The fatalist in my finds this story appealing, but ultimately I don’t think it’s right. To be sure, the insularity of the American elite, and its relative imperviousness to ordinary democratic processes, is a serious problem. And it has certainly been a growing problem over the last 10 or 20 years. But I think if we take a longer view, the problems we’re facing today just aren’t out of line with problems faced by previous generations.
Consider, for example, the 1960s. At the beginning of the decade, the South was still in the grips of an entrenched southern power structure that was fighting tooth and nail to preserve Jim Crow. The Civil Rights Act was a major accomplishment, but by the late 1960s riots and assassinations made it seem like the future might hold chaos and bloodshed rather than racial harmony.
The Vietnam war was much deadlier than either Iraq or Afghanistan. Thanks to conscription, the military was able to kill tens of thousands of kids, rather than just thousands. By the end of the 1960s, there was little reason to believe the war would end any time soon.
By the late 1960s, the economy was starting to show signs of trouble too. Inflation was edging upwards and the top marginal tax rate was 77 percent. America’s transportation and communications industries had constructed cozy legal monopolies that allowed them to keep prices up and innovation down. The American auto industry was a cozy cartel not yet facing serious competition.
And let’s not forget that the 1960s were the high-water mark of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which spied on and harassed thousands of innocent people regarded as threats to Hoover or his political allies. The red scare of the 1950s was still relatively fresh in peoples’ minds, and fear of communism were used to justify repeated violations of peoples’ rights.
I think someone standing in August 1969 and looking at the coming decade would have had reason to be very pessimistic. Then the 1970s went better than anyone could have expected, at least from the perspective of making governing elites more accountable:
- Jim Crow was dismantled, and shifting public attitudes ensured it would never come back.
- The continued fiasco in Vietnam turned America against the war and eventually forced American evacuation. As a bonus, America abolished the draft, ensuring that future unnecessary wars would kill far fewer Americans.
- Watergate shattered Americans’ confidence in their government, prompting the Church Committee, which exposed the abuses of civil liberties from earlier decades. Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, strengthened the Freedom of Information Act, and laid the foundations for a (relatively) accountable government over the subsequent quarter century.
- The academic critique of America’s transportation and communications cartels got noticed by policymakers, who deregulated the trucking, airline, and telephone industries, with dramatic effects on the American economy. Japanese competition forced Detroit to start making better cars.
- Pres. Carter appointed Paul Volcker as Fed Chairman, who successfully brought inflation under control by the early 1980s.
I don’t think these were isolated developments. I think four decades of elite arrogance caused the government to finally overstep its authority so egregiously (in the form of Vietnam and Watergate) that it created a backlash that made broad, serious reforms possible.
I don’t think things are as bad today as they were in 1969. Our pointless wars aren’t killing tens of thousands of Americans. We don’t have race riots on our streets. We don’t yet have serious inflation. And as far as we know, the NSA is abusing its power less than the FBI did 40 years ago (although we may learn otherwise at some point). And if the government does continue abusing its power, I think it’s only a matter of time before there’s a Watergate-style screw-up followed by a Carter/Reagan-esque backlash.