The New Road to Serfdom

In one of his final pieces of correspondence dated June 24, 1826, an ailing Thomas Jefferson regretfully declined Roger Weightman’s invitation to join him in Washington for the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson lamented his absence from the celebration of “the blessings & security of self-government.” These blessings, Jefferson intones, ensure that “all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man… the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god… these are grounds of hope for others.” But Jefferson’s confidence in the rise of equality, liberty, and self-government is now very much in doubt according to Joel Kotkin’s new book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism. To Jefferson’s republican aspirations, Kotkin counters with evidence that a new class of rulers intend to boot and spur contemporary serfs, for their own good, of course.

Kotkin argues that the economic, social, and political aspects of our period compare well with feudalism. And that means, according to Kotkin, that we are stagnant and increasingly ruled by a disconnected elite on behalf of their notions of justice and virtue, regardless of what majorities might actually desire. He describes the feudal period in Europe that existed roughly between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of independent city-states in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as a static society, governed by Catholic orthodoxy, accompanied by economic and demographic paralysis. I would argue, however, that this period, particularly its legal systems as documented by Harold Berman in Law and Revolution, was illusorily stagnant. It is hard to argue that political and economic modernity built itself anew and on top of nothing, however self-congratulating this thesis has been to many across the centuries. Lest we forget, much of political modernity in the West, from its onset in the sixteenth century, has been absolutist and uncompromising, unlike medieval England, to take one example, which had limits on monarchy, a practice of representation, and the rule of law.

I can still take Kotkin’s point here. Economic growth in England and in the Netherlands really does explode in the late eighteenth century, producing the much-remarked L-shaped hockey-stick expansion that revolutionized living conditions and commerce in the West. Moreover, this manner of existence builds on the notion that commerce is itself a good thing, which requires the extension of a certain liberality by political institutions to individuals and corporations who become free to trade. As Kotkin repeatedly underscores, it presupposes that economic growth, the creation of a middle class, property ownership, capital accumulation, technological development, and the rule of law are positive goods.

Kotkin’s provocative definition of neo-feudalism as “a new form of aristocracy developing in the United States and beyond, as wealth in our postindustrial economy tends to be ever more concentrated in fewer hands” is part of an overarching argument about a malignant inequality that grips us, he claims, along with a new nobility ruling us from its position at the apex of this pyramid. His claims about economic inequality pick up where most do in the 1970s, where he states that the majority of income growth was taken by the top 1 percent “and especially the top .l percent” for the next two decades. In the twenty-first century gains for the top 1 percent have only magnified. Everyone else lost ground. I’ll come back to this observation later because I think it is incomplete and is a striking weakness in his argument. But it is a happy fault, precisely because growing incomes should help counteract Kotkin’s largely accurate observations about the ruling class that does want to herd us in their preferred pins.

The wealth that has led to the creation of a new oligarchy, who aren’t legally privileged as such—although that too is debatable—affords them power over public policy and, crucially, culture. This oligarchy, Kotkin observes, similar to the medieval period, has the support of a cognitive elite or “clerisy.” Today’s clerisy is comprised of a rather obvious global set of “culture creators, academia, the media, and even much of what remains of traditional religious institutions.” For those who doubt that last bit, check the latest Twitter ruminations of Pope Francis, who seems to think himself the Humanitarian Pope rather than the Catholic Pope.

The oligarchs and the clerisy reinforce one another on globalism, environmentalism, identity politics, migration, highly-managed commerce, among other issues, and on the things they denigrate like nation-states, patriotism, certain “retrograde attitudes,” and cultural conservatism, generally. They attend largely the same universities, live in the same cities, share the same politics, and reside in neighborhoods separate from the hoi-polloi. They believe they have earned their privileges, and they are content to show their virtue not by creating new universities, seminaries, churches, schools, hospitals, libraries, and parks, as past American business tycoons have done, but by humanitarian deeds for equality writ large or, as Kotkin notes, newfangled attempts at trans-humanist technology. The most worrisome aspect is their contempt for middle-class virtues and for economic growth.

The contemporary oligarchs benefitted, indeed made their fortunes on entrepreneurialism and venture capital, but the policies they support and the politicians and activists they bankroll, would pull the growth ladder up from those who aspire merely to a single-family home, steady private sector employment, modest income and asset growth, and children. Here, Kotkin looks heavily in the direction of Silicon Valley mandarins who support green energy, densification policies, higher taxation rates (which they evade, personally and professionally), hiring foreign skilled labor through temporary programs, and vaguely defined “social justice”. Kotkin also opposes free trade to the extent that it offshores industrial jobs which he sees as key to middle class incomes.

The book’s most powerful chapter focuses on California as an incarnation of the feudalist dystopia that Kotkin is trying to prevent. That state’s nexus of policies has steadily turned the former growth engine of the American economy into a stratified society of wealthy landowners on the coast, tech billionaires and millionaires in Silicon Valley, and entertainment and media moguls in southern California. Progressives see California “and especially Silicon Valley, as the harbinger of a better, greener, more egalitarian future.” Kotkin points to California’s Gini ratio—the measure of inequality of wealth distribution between the richest and poorest—which is one of the highest in the country, while “the gap between middle and upper wages has become the widest in the nation.” Still, we should not be surprised at this in a state led by tech entrepreneurs who have been handsomely rewarded by consumers for their skills. Their gains, and those of the people who manage and develop their companies, will far outpace most wage-earners, and given the concentration of techies in Silicon Valley, such measures of inequality shouldn’t be earth shattering. What is pathetic is the lack of attention to the conditions for overall job creation in the state.

Kotkin remains on firmer ground when he cites the lackluster job growth in the state, particularly in the middle range of income, coupled with the extensive regulations, restrictions, licenses, and taxes that have made living in California so difficult for the middle class. He provides convincing, if not chilling evidence, for his feudal thesis when he notes the relative lack of concern for broad and diverse sectoral economic growth by its political and economic elites. Finance and tech aren’t enough. Kotkin describes the former California economy of agriculture, home-building, aerospace, entertainment, which has slowly dissipated. He observes, “Since 2010, 80 percent of all jobs created in the state have been under the median income, and half of these under $40,000, a poverty wage in a high-cost state.” Growth has become an aspect of deplorable, old-fashioned capitalism. Does California’s leadership want home and energy prices to be affordable, taxes manageable, and job growth a regular part of their state? You wouldn’t know it from the evidence. A fact confirmed by the slow-motion exodus of middle class families from the state for nearly two decades, which also likely explains the top-bottom nature of California politics and its strident leftism. You once moved to California in search of the American dream of work, income growth, a home, and good communities and schools. Now, if you seek those things, you likely leave. Texas will take you in.

Kotkin rightfully places his finger on a phalanx of attitudes, beliefs, and practices of our recently ascendant economic elite and their apologists and allies in the symbol-mongering institutions.

Kotkin argues, as many do on both Left and Right, income gains no longer accrue to those outside the top income quintile. He also focuses on the income and wealth gains of the top 1 percent, which far surpass most workers. However, I don’t think this claim flies for most American earners. Measuring and comparing income is complicated: What years do you compare? What counts as income? What deflator do you use? I also do not dismiss the challenges of automation or that free trade poses to certain groups of workers and communities. But the evidence isn’t nearly as one-sided as the wage stagnation thesis poses. Economist Michael Strain details in his new book, The American Dream Is Not Dead, wages for “production and non-supervisory employees” since 1990 have increased by thirty-four percent. Wages for the median wage earner since 1990 have grown by twenty-four percent. Americans in the bottom ten, twenty, and thirty percent of income have seen their wages increase by thirty-six, thirty-four, and twenty-nine percent, respectively over the same period. Stagnation is largely a 1970s and 1980s product of measurement, plus the use of Consumer Price Index (CPI) which exaggerates inflation and under-counts purchaser adaptability to price changes, leading to a lower measure of wage growth than the personal consumption expenditure index (PCE), the preferred guide of the Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget Office.

Our author also indulges in the intergenerational downwardly mobile thesis, which, if warranted, is a significant repudiation of American expectations. Will millennials outperform their parents in income? Kotkin says that only fifty percent of those born in the 1980s will do so, down from ninety percent for those born in the early 1940s. But is it surprising that nine in ten of those born in the 1940s would dramatically outperform their fathers who labored during a Great Depression? Citing Strain’s research, we do still see seventy-nine percent of sons raised in the bottom quintile out earn their fathers, while almost seventy-five percent of sons raised in the twenty-first through fortieth percentiles out earn their fathers. That’s real mobility. Only a third of sons in the top quintile will stay there. The pole of success is greasy, that’s a good thing, and somewhat inconsistent with a finding of entrenched oligarchy. The effectual truth of Kotkin’s observation comes down to millennial economic disappointments, I think. Many of them have worthless degrees, loads of debt, and they are struggling with the whole “adulting” thing. But like their grandparents and great-grandparents, the way forward is to develop “true-grit,” to work, and to save, and not wallow in leftist psychology and politics as too many of them do.

He is correct to pinpoint California as an early example of neo-feudalism. The Golden State is exactly the destination the Left has for America as a whole. Kotkin’s thesis is bolstered by considering how the new oligarchs act when they confront dissenters. Consider their near universal rejection in Britain of Vote Leave and the campaign waged by political, judicial, and media elites—stretched across parties—to suppress what should have been the natural consequence of that vote. They were finally repudiated by an election in December 2019, three years after the referendum. Similarly, President Trump’s tenure in office has been marked not only by his ridiculous tweeting, but by a hoax of Russian collusion allegations foisted on his campaign and office by political, legal, and media elites bent on thwarting, if not destroying, his presidency. They nearly achieved their aim of driving him from office but have still managed to hobble Trump from the beginning. Kotkin is therefore right to worry that our new elite will ride roughshod over the people it governs. His case only gets stronger when we consider the performance of many governors who enforced lockdown confinements, only to ignore them when the politics of protests and riots made then inexpedient.

We can take our measure, though, from what has disciplined the oligarchy: democracy. We need more of it. The current governments in Poland and Hungary aren’t perfect by any stretch, but their democratic legitimacy compared to the lack of such legitimacy for the European Union is striking. A similar fact holds for Britain’s exit from the EU. The politics of the COVID-19 virus exposed the hollow reality of the EU dream for more Union. The nation-states and their inherent powers to govern were needed and exercised. The crucial question to the people of liberal democracies is whether they wish to recover the link between freedom and virtue, political liberty and responsibility. If they do, they will again realize “the blessings and security of self-government” that Jefferson evoked fifty years after the Declaration of Independence.