Why the American Whig Party Cannot Be Revived

David Brooks has declared his ideology to be that of an American Whig because he believes in energetic government to promote economic mobility. He contrasts this stance with that of both libertarians who want to reduce government to promote freedom and progressives who want to increase government to expand equality. Brooks has company: a broader movement is trying to revive Whig ideals.

But replicating the old American Whig ideology in modern America is not plausible because of changes in our social and political world. First, there was simply a lot more opportunity to enhance economic mobility in nineteenth century America. While that America was more meritocratic than Europe, it was nothing like our modern meritocracy, powered by standardized testing and intensively competitive markets, that provides a powerful social escalator. Then there were still many barriers to talent rising to the top that might be cured by public goods. Internal improvements allowed people outside of large cities to trade for greater profit and enhanced social position. The movement for basic public education opened up opportunities for those who might not otherwise get any chance to learn how to read and write.

But in the United States of today, a basic education is open to all. Now it is certainly true that all K-12 schooling varies in quality, but reducing that imperfection still offers less of an opportunity for increasing social mobility than did the absence of such schooling. For instance, a recent study has suggested that going to selective and private schooling in England did not appreciably improve A-level results over those who went to comprehensive schools. There were hints in the study that the reasons for the lack of a boost from the best schools was that differences in performance reflected differences in innate intelligence. As Richard Herrnstein suggested in his book, IQ in the Meritocracy, once the environment is made more equal, inherited differences in intelligence will tend to entrench a cognitive elite. The assortative mating by intelligence that higher education encourages further increases this tendency. Energetic government can do little about this entrenchment, unless it wants to regulate marriage partners.

Second, it is doubtful that energetic government in our day is the best way to reduce the barriers to social mobility that remain. The Whigs were also importantly the party of social deference, where ordinary folk were encouraged to follow the ideas of social improvement hatched by their betters. But we live in the free wheeling democracy that Jacksonian Democrats, the Whigs’ opponents, created. And Jacksonian democracy turns out necessarily to be a special-interest democracy, because strongly democratic governments are naturally responsive to special interests and relatively indifferent to rationally ignorant voters. Thus, they tend to create programs that give concentrated benefits even if they have diffuse costs.

Take education. Money spent on public education largely benefits its concentrated producers, the teachers, and not its diffuse consumers—students. Indeed, public sector teachers unions turn out to be an obstacle to educational reform. Thus, the best hope for improving educational mobility today largely lies in what would generally be considered the libertarian program—reducing the role of government through creating charter schools and/or vouchers. Similarly,  libertarian assaults on the widespread licensing requirements may provide the best project of all for maximizing social mobility in a cognitive meritocracy.

It has become proverbial to say that some political movement or other is as dead as the Whig Party. The Whig Party (and its program) is surely as dead as itself.