How the left embraced elitism
Over the past generation, global capitalism has produced the greatest reduction in human poverty in history. Over the past 10 years, American capitalism has produced 20 million new jobs. The productive dynamism of capitalism is truly a wonder to behold.
But economic growth alone is not enough. Growth alone does not translate into economic security for the middle class and the less skilled. Growth alone does nothing to reverse the social decay afflicting communities across America.
This reality is transforming the political debate — and shifting everything leftward. Among conservatives there are now a bevy of thinkers who are trying to find ways to use government to reduce inequality, promote work and restore community.
For example, in the lead essay of the conservative journal National Affairs, Abby M. McCloskey notes that the family you are born into and the neighborhood you live in have a much stronger influence on your socioeconomic outcome than any other factors. Her essay is an outstanding compendium of proposals designed to strengthen family and neighborhood.
Pell grants could be used to pay for vocational and apprenticeship training and not just for college. The federal government could support a voluntary national service program by paying people, once in their lifetime, to work for a year at a local nonprofit. The tax code could be tweaked so that people with no income tax liability could receive a cash credit for making charitable donations.
These proposals are activist but humble. It’s not the federal government centrally deciding how to remake your community. It’s giving communities and people the resources to take responsibility and assume power for themselves.
As many conservatives have shifted leftward, so have progressives. From Bill Clinton through Barack Obama, Democrats respected market forces but tried to use tax credits and regulations to steer them in more humane ways. Obamacare was an effort to expand and reform private health insurance markets.
That Democratic Party is ending. Today, Democrats are much more likely to want government to take direct control. This is the true importance of the Green New Deal, which is becoming the litmus test of progressive seriousness. I don’t know if it is socialism or not socialism — that’s a semantic game — but it would definitely represent the greatest centralization of power in the hands of the Washington elite in our history.
The resolution is unabashed about this, celebrating and calling for more “federal government-led mobilizations.” Under the Green New Deal, the government would provide a job to any person who wanted one. The government would oversee the renovation of every building in America. The government would put sector after sector under partial or complete federal control: the energy sector, the transportation system, the farm economy, capital markets, the health care system.
The authors liken their plan to the New Deal, but the real parallel is to World War II. It is the state mobilizing as many of society’s resources as possible to wage a war on global warming and other ills. The document is notably coy about how all this would be implemented. Exactly which agency would inspect and oversee the renovation of every building in America? Exactly which agency would hire every worker?
But the underlying faith of the Green New Deal is a faith in the guiding wisdom of the political elite. The authors of the Green New Deal assume that technocratic planners can master the movements of 328 million Americans and design a transportation system so that “air travel stops becoming necessary.” (This is from people who couldn’t even organize the successful release of their own background document.)
They assume that congressional leaders have the ability to direct what in effect would be gigantic energy firms and gigantic investment houses without giving sweetheart deals to vested interests, without getting corrupted by this newfound power, without letting the whole thing get swallowed up by incompetence. (This is a Congress that can’t pass a budget.)
If this were ever put into practice, there would have to be several new Pentagons built to house the hundreds of thousands of new social planners. The elite universities would have to be transformed into technocratic academies in which the children of the rich were trained so they could be dirigistes for the state.
The authors of this fantasy are right that we need to do something about global warming and inequality. But simple attempts to realign incentives, like the carbon tax, would be more effective and more realistic than government efforts to reorganize vast industries.
In an alienated America, efforts to decentralize power are more effective and realistic than efforts to concentrate it in the Washington elite. The great paradox of progressive populism is that it leads to elitism in its purist form.
The impulse to create a highly centralized superstate recurs throughout U.S. history. There were people writing such grand master plans in the 1880s, the 1910s, the 1930s. They never work out. As Richard Weaver once put it, the problem with the next generation is that it hasn’t read the minutes of the last meeting.
Brooks is a New York Times columnist.