The Western experience with increasing economic inequality cannot be generalized worldwide.
Keep Calm and Self-Govern On
Decades from now, historians might well refer to this era as The Great Hand-Wringing. Certainly, the nation faces serious challenges, from the tragic spike in “deaths of despair” and too-low labor-force participation rates among able-bodied men to massive student-debt loads and yawning economic inequality. But in the not-too-distant past, we’ve also survived world wars, riots and the Great Depression. In hindsight, I suspect this period will seem unusual not for its problems so much as the alarmism with which they were met.
The infamous article “The Flight 93 Election” made the case that the 2016 election was the last chance to save America. Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed argues it is time to abandon the approach to political philosophy and economics that shaped much of the West for centuries. Writers for the New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, The Financial Times, The Guardian and other publications have written about Brexit and its influence on Britain and Europe in “existential” terms. The “post-liberal” movement on the right shows precious little fidelity to longstanding institutions like pluralism, local democracy, and viewpoint-neutral access to public facilities. Climate change is, for some on the left, proof of eschatology.
Fortunately, among the writerly class, there have been a few sanguine forecasters short-selling the apocalypse. Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West lauds and aims to preserve “The Miracle” at the heart of the last half-millennia of previously unknown liberty and wealth. Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is buoyant about modern progress. Though not exactly a beach-read, Torben Iversen and David Soskice’s dense new Democracy and Prosperity similarly brings the sunshine.
The recent rise of populism and nationalism have called into question the stability of modern-day democratic capitalism. Voters here and abroad are raising basic questions about how wealth is distributed, the degree to which local ways of life are respected by this economic system, and whether elected officials still care about citizens and communities or would prefer to appease major corporations and political elites. And as the authors note, a wide array of academics have, for generations, seen the relationship between advanced capitalism and democracy as “deeply problematic.” They include the “great theorists,” such as Marx, Schumpeter, Hayek, Polanyi, and Poulantzas, as well as contemporary commentators like Streeck, Piketty, Buchanan, and Tullock.
But Iversen and Soskice see free markets and modern states as mutually reinforcing. The authors, looking at nations that industrialized in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the economies that emerged after World War II, find that advanced capitalist democracies are not only sturdy but also self-correcting. Such societies last in large part because steely-eyed voters enjoy capitalism’s results, and aspirational voters appreciate its promise. As a consequence, political leaders, wanting to stay in power, help capitalism function via supportive institutions, education programs, and redistributionist and social insurance policies. In this way, capitalist economies, democratic regimes, political parties, and modern nation states are in a kind of symbiotic relationship. The opening of the Seven Seals will have to wait.
A significant part of the book explains a sophisticated, if complicated, evolutionary theory of industrialization, democratic representation, organized labor, and the provision of public goods.
Academic readers with a particular interest in the history of guilds, the emergence of proportional representation, or the roots and consequences of technical education programs will find much to chew on. The authors also counter the academic argument that advanced capitalism is “footloose”—that behemoth multinational corporations can up and move when a host government passes policies counter to the firm’s interests. If true, this would give such firms enormous leverage over democratic governments loath to lose jobs and investment. Iversen and Soskice tamp down such industrial-nation fears of globalism by arguing that key component parts of advanced capitalism (such as knowledge-based companies, clusters of skilled workers, and social networks) are immobile, firmly embedded in successful geographies in supportive nation states. In other words, the four horsemen aren’t going to ride off with a knowledge-based economy.
But for lay readers—especially those concerned about the governing implications of recent major economic changes and today’s high-voltage politics (domestically and abroad)—Democracy and Prosperity offers some hope. Indeed, I believe it gives us a way of understanding, or at least being charitable to, the new “national conservatism” movement.
Iversen and Soskice believe capitalism gets wobbly when groups of citizens decide that contemporary conditions have caused this economic system to no longer benefit them and to offer little promise of benefiting their children. Indeed, such sentiments can be geographically concentrated; despite their overall advantages, technological innovation and a dynamic, knowledge-based economy can lead to specific areas’ losing jobs to automation and off-shoring and missing out on the wage growth, skill clustering, and social-capital formation enjoyed by places like Silicon Valley, Boston, and New York. When those left behind no longer recognize contemporary capitalism as a reliable engine for economic mobility, they respond with populism. But, importantly, they don’t embrace a burn-it-down brand of populism; they are not, the authors note, generally advocating for socialist revolution. Instead they agitate for a set-things-right brand of populism designed to maintain capitalism but make it work for them. In this understanding, there is strong baseline public support for capitalism, democratic voice forces the state to facilitate capitalism’s success, and when capitalism stops delivering, populism jolts government into action.
Here we get to one of the book’s countercultural arguments—that democracy is a valuable, powerful force because it gives the people a sense of efficacy. I’ve noticed of late that democracy seems to have fallen out of vogue with all stripes of the intelligentsia. Devotees of data-based decision-making and standard-issue technocrats believe governing is a science that can be fouled up by run-of-the-mill voters. Sophisticated observers of elections in the United States and Europe over the last few years are gobsmacked by citizens’ ostensibly mad decisions. George Will’s new libertarian book is borderline scornful of democracy; he believes that voters are generally uninformed, that “sentimentalists” for democracy fail to appreciate that it “produces unfortunate results because voters’ views are foolish but honored,” and that “majority rule is not the point of the American project” anyway.
The mighty seem to have forgotten (or believe they are refined to disregard) that people like self-government. And the people like it precisely because not everything that matters can be captured by cold, hard data; because elections are the way they can say out-loud things that elites don’t want to hear; and because sentimentality for democracy is tantamount to respect for our fellow citizens.
In other words, I see democracy as agency. In Iversen and Soskice’s retelling, voters have, for generations, made a conscious decision to support capitalism generally. And, more recently and more specifically, their elected officials have made conscious decisions to foster the growth of information and communications technology and to not (at least yet) aggressively deal with economic inequality. In the latter case, the authors argue that if critics are frustrated by the lack of new taxation or redistribution, the blame belongs at the feet of voters, not capitalism—“greater equality,” they write, “is a democratic choice.” Moreover, their argument that capital and skilled labor are firmly planted in nations also strengthens the hand of voters: Employers and workers might threaten to flee to other nations if their home government increases taxes or regulation, but that threat is idle. For reasons related to education, assortative mating, social bonds, complementary skill sets, institutions, and more, they are tethered to their geographies. So, far from being captive to economic actors, voters have enormous power to shape economic conditions.
Viewed through the lens of Democracy and Prosperity, the recent emergence of “national conservatism” appears as a rational, if not predictable, consequence of contemporary politics and economics. That is, Americans support capitalism as a general rule. But factors such as wage stagnation, wealth concentration, and the loss of blue-collar jobs have convinced some number of citizens that capitalism is currently failing to generate adequate results, and that its prospects of generating better results for their children are equally dim. Hence, the flirtation with tariffs, wage subsidies, restrictive immigration rules, and an industrial policy. Misguided as these policies may be, they would, in this understanding, be a democratic expression of economic discontent and a path for voters to reshape, not abolish, contemporary capitalism.
In short, Democracy and Prosperity casts citizens and their self-rule in a flattering light: People appropriately appreciate capitalism, they elect officials to nurture it, those elected officials respond to popular will and, when economic results disappoint, voters turn up the political heat without boiling over.
I believe today’s denigration of democracy is unbecoming and unwise. It is an insult to our history and our neighbors, and it underestimates the smarts of voters and the brilliance of federalism and localism. But apocalyptic thinking is equally unbecoming and unwise. It suggests that our predecessors were ignorant or reckless, and its panicked predictions invite radicalism.
It is time to recognize that anti-democratic sentiments and hysterical prognostications and proposals are both the result of an elite’s outsized self-regard. Condescension to others and certainty about your own dramatic assessments and interventions is hubris in action. Humility and prudence enable us to be grateful for our inheritance, appreciate others’ wisdom, and put our trust in ongoing, judicious, incremental reform.
In other words, keep calm and self-govern on.