DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

David Brin's "off-axis" political suggestions

Suggestion Four: Make Government Agile

By David Brin, Ph.D.

[image from MyGlobalIT.com]

We've heard a lot about the benefits of an international economy that is globalized, fast-paced, information-driven and flatThe World is Flat 3.0. But there are also worrisome downsides. For example, when international elites and corporations can shift funds at the speed of light, jet to new locales, recharter or relocate headquarters at will and seek best deals with whatever government they like, this puts severe pressure on the two hundred slow, stodgy "legacy nations."

These older behemoths, tied to static territories and accountable institutions, have much slower reaction times. They -- and especially their middle classes -- must shoulder the burdens of maintaining infrastructure, educating the workforce, pensioning the elderly, resolving disputes, and keeping order, even as they are fast losing track of their tax base.

And now, those legacy commonwealths are being asked to rescue the same caste that called themselves financial geniuses, after they spent two decades expressing contempt for the nations that made their wealth possible.

Note that this is not exactly the same problem that was addressed in Suggestion #3. In that case, I suggested that radical transparency might reduce or neutralize the rampant and often cryptic cheating that threatens to shatter our social compact. Indeed, it is the only way that honesty, balance and trust can be re-struck without inviting waves of new bureaucratic meddling that -- well-meaning or not -- would surely open even more avenues for cheating. Ironically, folks on the right reflexively denounce radical transparency, even though it is compatible with every theory of capitalism. Indeed, it might be open market capitalism's last and best hope.

But this time, we'll shift to an issue that is a little different than using light to heal corruption. Here, I want to talk about how super-empowered and ultra-mobile elites have a new and growing structural advantage that they would retain, even if everything were transparently legal and open. It is the ancient problem of aristocratic advantage, and it is worth noting that only one civilization ever solved it -- for a while.

We're all very proud of the flat, mobile and egalitarian social order that emerged in America after the Second World War. (That is, if we squint past little problems like racism, sexism, etc.) We grew so used to it, across just two generations, that even mentioning "aristocracy" is tantamount to waging despised "class warfare." We tend to forget that, as recently as the Nineteen Thirties, even the United States used to be riven by deep and bilious resentments between the masses and those few who passed down privilege, the way their children might inherit eye or hair color.

Aristocratism is as dangerous to freedom and markets as socialism. It was the typical way in nearly all past civilizations, all times and all continents -- a relentless and all-but ubiquitous, natural attractor state -- one that is not good for democracy, freedom, or market capitalism.

Do you think that 4,000 years of feudalism, oligarchy and aristocratism -- erupting everywhere that human beings developed agriculture -- has nothing to teach us today, or that we shouldn't heed the danger of that failure mode returning? Just look at the massive propaganda effort that is hard at work nowadays, in mogul-owned media, pushing back at egalitarianism, from films and magazines that romanticize royalty to hired spin-meisters who cry "class war!" over any measure that might ask their wealthy patron families to help pay for a civilization that has been very good to them.

Compare the following two quotations, to see how far the level of discourse has fallen.

There's a reason why kings built large palaces, sat on thrones and wore rubies all over. There's a whole social need for that, not to oppress the masses, but to impress the masses and make them proud and allow them to feel good about their culture, their government and their ruler so that they are left feeling that a ruler has the right to rule over them, so that they feel good rather than disgusted about being ruled. -- George Lucas, New York Times (1999)

This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect, persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. -- Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

I cite Adam Smith -- the "father of market capitalism" -- in order to show that my statements here have nothing to do with wanting socialism! In fact, it was in support of free and creative markets that Smith railed against collusive aristocracy, which he deemed far more destructive than the occasional peasant revolts or communes of his day. (The term "socialist" wasn't used in its modern sense until 1820, after Smith had died.) The key point is that open and transparent markets are under threat from all directions. And now, with socialism already on the ropes, it is time to remember an older, more persistent enemy.

Anyone can see that momentum is building toward the re-creation of an unaccountable, quasi-feudal, aristocratic caste system -- only this time, on a truly global scale.

And no, I'm not talking about revolution, or sending tumbrels through the streets. The calm progress that our parents and grandparents made, in resolving class injustices without at all hampering the wealth-incentivized cornucopia of market capitalism should inspire us. What they accomplished, we should too, with innovative and moderate solutions. Clearly, it's time to put some fresh ideas on the table.

Let's start by throwing out the hoary old "Left-Right Political Axis," which has become a metaphor of crippling stupidity. After Republican administrations incurred 98% of all US indebtedness and economic failure, in an era when capitalism, small business and stocks always do much better under Democrats, who then is the better defender of Free Enterprise?

Perhaps we can also shrug off that insipid, strawman fear of government, at least long enough to use government for what it does best -- address acute and temporary problems. If we set aside the routine matters of defense and delivering justice, one can argue that chronic issues are where government bureaucracies tend to stagnate and fester, while well-chosen incentives can stimulate market forces to deal with such long-term matters effectively, over time. On the other hand, governments seem best suited to deal with urgencies, shocks and the unanticipated. An oversimplification, but one with few noxious or tendentious side effects.

One case in point. We should not be afraid of nationalizing failed businesses -- like General Motors or CitiBank -- so long as the intent is to offer them on the block later, when things settle down. This isn't nationalization in any radical or permanent sense.

Moreover, those who praise markets should not be offended if the people's government takes advantage of an opportunity to "buy low and sell high."

Let me conclude here with a second, possibly more lefty-sounding case in point. (Note though, that this is from a fellow who once was a keynoter at a Libertarian National Convention!) Anyone can see how badly the nation's airlines and airports are deteriorating. Now add in the grotesquely expensive and humiliating TSA security experience and you realize that we are living through a serious decline in the American way of life.

For a traditionally and joyfully mobile people, nothing like this has been seen since the collapse of passenger railroading in the sixties. Many factors are being blamed, but seldom mentioned has been the flight of the aristocracy from first class. I can barely remember the last time I encountered anybody truly rich or famous riding first class. Today, that section is for weary second-tier managers and upgrades that help the companies soak up frequent flier miles. Service has declined as a result, of course.

But the key question is: where have the rich folks gone? The answer is -- to charter and private jet terminals nearby, where they aren't frisked and probed like the rest of us. Where they need share none of our inconveniences or humiliations.

Note this basic historical fact: when the aristocracy abandons a mode of transit (or any other aspect of public life), decline sets in. Remember, these are society's most influential people -- with their own lobbyists! If they were sharing the pain, they would be the loudest and most effective at pushing for improvements.

A suggestion? At minimum, the charters and private jets should no longer be taxpayer subsidized. Indeed, this "new white flight" to private, secluded services, ought to be taxed, inspected, frisked, and probed, like any other. As a general principle, the same logic holds for countless other ways that elites have learned how to benefit from our global unrest, while floating away from responsibility, like butterflies. Like gods.

[image from Big Agile Toolkit]