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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.

Reader Discussion

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on June 27, 2018 at 10:54:50 am

While we're at it, we might note that the first great "internal improvements" wave of the 19th century, the canal era, saw virtually all of the states get into the business of building canals. Essentially each of those efforts except for the Erie Canal was a fiasco: the canal companies went bankrupt, and taxpayers across the country ended up on the hook. There followed the railroad boom, in which all but one of the transcontinental railroads--built at great, nay enormous, public expense--went bankrupt.

One is hard-pressed to explain why such as David Brooks find dirigisme so alluring. For politicians like Henry Clay, the Tip O'Neill of the 19th century, statism is a means of self-advancement, but how do we account for people like Brooks? If we're charitable, we can put it down to a combination of reading too much old campaign propaganda and ignorance of the old programs' results.

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Kevin Gutzman
on June 27, 2018 at 12:45:55 pm

Lots of things sound good in theory but prove to be inadequate in practice. Socialism and government intervention sound good, but triumphant success always seems to be just over the next hill. Bureaucratic oversight of sentiments and attitudes sounds like a practical approach to harmonious society but somehow wrong-think manages to breach the barriers. The reasons for this are fundamental and unalterable.

First, as I have said before, there is an important class of problems that cannot be solved by direct, or what appear to be the simplest means: e.g. you cannot manage inflation with price controls; you cannot level trade deficits with tariffs; you cannot eliminate the culture of poverty by giving people money, you cannot make someone more intelligent by force, etc. The coercive power of the state is inherently limited; not only does reality have a vote, it has a veto.

Secondly, all true progress, whether biological, social, technological, economic or whatever results from optimizing mechanisms Biology features the optimizing mechanisms of sexual reproduction and senescence to optimize a species's ability to adapt to new environments. Markets optimize the determination of prices. And as I have claimed before, competition is an optimizing process for processes, and collaboration is an optimizing process for resources. This is why there must be a healthy balance of each within a society, but in general, why neither pure socialism nor pure capitalism is viable. Each is necessary but not sufficient. But for some reason the committed socialist keeps trying. He believes, wrongly, that central control is an optimizing mechanism, and it is, but it only optimizes central control. Resort to "experts" and grandiose sounding committees, and even democracy does not remedy the underlying infirmity because it is an infirmity of all types and styles of government, all political philosophies and all manners of continuous government.

That infirmity is this: there is no optimizing mechanism that produces optimum government. Those mechanisms that do exist select out those who are optimized for obtaining and maintaining power, not optimizing the use of that power for the benefit of the people. This fact afflicts all manner of leadership selection from heritable monarchies,to democratic republics, to oligarchies, aristocracies, plutocracies, etc. This state of affairs is not surprising because those who do attain power would prefer that the method by which that happened endure, regardless of its effect on the polity. Imagine that you become a leader, but suspect that you are not the optimum leader. Would you want an optimizing mechanism that finds the better person for the job? Powerful people prefer systems that keep them in power. There are rare individual exceptions of course, the Cincinnatus who returns to his plow, but such are anomalies.

Theories such as those suggested by Mr, Brooks will always lurk as long as those such as the new socialists and progressives continue their Sisyphean search for the leadership that will get the ideological square peg into the practical round hole, believing that the coercive power of the state, in just the right measure can force perfection, contrary to the limitations imposed by reality.

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z9z99
on June 27, 2018 at 19:59:00 pm

But of course Brooks of the New York Times is a Whig, and the party is not dead, just renamed. Whig ideals, goals and policies are those of American Progressivism, aka the Democrat Party since FDR, and akin to Marxism in its theory of history.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on June 27, 2018 at 22:59:32 pm

z9z99, interesting little lecture, well-stated, re the reality of inherent limitations on political power as an optimizing mechanism.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on June 28, 2018 at 10:47:14 am

Z:

Now, now....

"...the new socialists and progressives continue their Sisyphean search for the leadership that will get the ideological square peg into the practical round hole"

You are. of course, forgetting about The One. You know, The One who was going to lower the level of the Seas, the Great and Wise Obamination.

surely, you can discern that the round hole is now square after all his ministrations. Painful though it may have been, surely it must be conceded that it was all necessary for the Greater Good and the Forward March of History and Progress!!

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on June 28, 2018 at 11:25:02 am

"That infirmity is this: there is no optimizing mechanism that produces optimum government. Those mechanisms that do exist select out those who are optimized for obtaining and maintaining power, not optimizing the use of that power for the benefit of the people. "

Yep, and Yep again.

From an essay on economics BUT germane to governance as well. (after all economic / corporate activity IS a form of governance.

from "The End of Theory" by richard Bookstaber (hat tip to R. richard Schweitzer for the link)

"Each agent observes its environment and takes action accordingly....Each has a different business model, a different level of risk taking, and a different culture. Some of this will be spelled out in the governance structure and policies and procedures, some will be communicated to their investors. And during times of crisis, some of the heuristics are hard wired, without any ability for the agents to alter their course...."

In sum:

Each ACTOR has his / her own "business model" (read: aims, ambitions, etc) and will behave in accordance with those internal incentives. NO government, no matter how coercive may a) apprehend, b) control and c) affect these incentives. consequently, "reality", in the form of all those independent ACTORS, exercises a pronounced and definitive VETO.

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gabe
on July 11, 2018 at 19:50:55 pm

Whigs or not, we could use a competitive third party in the center to end the ping pong sessions where one of our current two parties is in power and the other obstructs until they can win power in the next cycle and migrate the country in the opposite direction. Some how we need to end the migration toward extremes and the divisions, and find a way to work together toward the good of our nation.

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Mike

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.