True Populism

Populism, according to Wikipedia,

refers to a range of approaches which emphasise the role of “the people” and often juxtapose this group against “the elite”. There is no single definition of the term, which developed in the 19th century and has been used to mean various things since that time. Few politicians or political groups describe themselves as “populists”, and in political discourse the term is often applied to others pejoratively….

[T]he ideational approach … defines populism as an ideology which presents “the people” as a morally good force against “the elite”, who are perceived as corrupt and self-serving. Populists differ in how “the people” are defined, but it can be based along class, ethnic, or national lines. Populists typically present “the elite” as comprising the political, economic, cultural, and media establishment, all of which are depicted as a homogenous entity and accused of placing the interests of other groups—such as foreign countries or immigrants—above the interests of “the people”. According to this approach, populism is a thin-ideology which is combined with other, more substantial thick ideologies such as nationalism, liberalism, or socialism. Thus, populists can be found at different locations along the left–right political spectrum and there is both left-wing populism and right-wing populism.

Just as “the elite” isn’t homogeneous, neither is “the people”. True populism therefore demands a decentralized polity, according to the principle of subsidiarity:

[M]atters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.

This is a conservative principle because deciding matters locally means that they are usually handled in accordance with social norms that prevail locally, and which reflect local conditions. This is in contrast with one-size-fits-all “solutions” imposed by distant officials who have no appreciation of local knowledge and norms, and who — in any event — are usually hostile to those things.

Subsidiarity is also, in theory, a libertarian principle. Too many self-styled libertarians, however, are quick to abandon the principle in favor of state-imposed rules that favor their views about how “society” should be organized. Thus — and to the detriment of social comity and stability — we have state-imposed abortion, a state-imposed edict to honor same-sex “marriage”, state-imposed “tolerance” of unsafe sexual acts, the rending of families by lax divorce laws, and on and on.

It is populist resentment of elite dominance that enabled Trump’s electoral victory. “Drain the swamp” is a good part of it. The rest is mainly a desire for the preservation (or restoration) of traditional American culture, the protection of which requires selective immigration and strong defenses.

The principle and spirit of populism — and its enemies — is captured by Bertrand de Jouvenel in his 1945 epic, On Power: The Natural History of its Growth:

Every Power is sure to attack centrifugal tendencies. But the behaviour of democratic Power offers in this respect some peculiar features of a striking kind. It claims its mission to be that of liberating man from the constraints put on him by the old Power, which was the more or less direct descendant of conquest. But that did not stop the Convention from guillotining the Federalists [in the French Revolution], the English Parliament from wiping out, in some of the bloodiest repressions of history, the separatist nationalism in Ireland, or the government at Washington from launching a war such as Europe had never yet seen to crush the attempt of the Southern States to form themselves into a separate unity….

This hostility to the formation of smaller communities is inconsistent with the claim to have inaugurated government of the people by itself, for clearly a government answers more closely to that description in smaller communities than in larger. Only in smaller communities can citizens choose their ruler directly from men whom they know personally. Only in them can justification be found for the encomium pronounced by Montesquieu:

The people is well fitted to choose …. The people knows well whether a man has often seen active service and what successes he has won: therefore it is well equipped to choose a general. It knows whether a judge attends to his duties; whether most people leave his court satisfied; whether or not he is corrupt: therein is knowledge sufficient for it to elect a praetor…. These are all facts which make a public square a better-informed place than the palace of a king.

But the new men whom the popular voice has made masters of the imperium have never shown any inclination to a regime of that kind. It was distasteful to them, as the heirs of the monarchical authority, to fritter away their estate on subordinating themselves. On the contrary, strong in the strength of a new legitimacy, their one aim was to increase it. Against the federalist conception [the Abbe] Sieyès [1748-1836] was their mouthpiece: “… a general administration which, starting from a common centre, will reach uniformly to the remotest parts of the Empire — a body of laws which, through its elements are provided by the body of citizens, takes bodily form at as distant a level as that of the National Assembly, to whom alone it belongs to interpret the general wish, that wish which thereafter falls with all the weight of an irresistible force on those very wills which have joined in the formation of it.” [Liberty Press edition (1993), pp. 286-288, links added, emphasis in original]

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Is Liberty Possible?

I must begin at the beginning, with my definition of liberty:

A state of liberty exists where people cohabit an extensive geographic area in peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior. The condition of peace requires mechanisms for thwarting fraud, coercion, and aggression inside the group, and from without. The condition of willing coexistence requires a combination of mutual restraint and mutual forbearance, that is, a general willingness to accept certain of others’ foibles and, in return, to honor certain constraints on one’s own behavior — even beyond fraud, coercion, and aggression.

Inherent in that definition, and essential to its fulfillment, are four things:

  • the general observance of evolved and evolving social norms and, accordingly, their enforcement through social censure
  • an accountable, minimal state, dedicated to the protection of its citizens and the enforcement of those social norms — and only those norms — that rise to the level of statutory law (e.g., acts that are generally recognized as fraudulent, coercive, and aggressive)
  • voice, the opportunity for dissent from social norms and laws (though not the right to have one’s dissent honored)
  • exit, the right to leave without penalty.

That we do not have liberty in the United States should be evident in the number of statutes and regulations that a far-from-minimal state imposes on us. With a few exceptions — most notably and laudably in the area of civil rights for blacks — liberty has been in retreat since the onset of the Progressive Era in the early 1890s. For, contrary to Fourth of July oratory, America has descended into statism. And, pace the The Star Spangled Banner, America is the land of the regulator and the home of the regulated.

Those of us lucky enough to have experienced life in small cities, towns, and villages in the 1940s know that something like liberty is possible. Ironically, and tragically, the small-town ethos that undergirds liberty has been the object of pseudo-intellectual scorn since the days of Main Street and Babbit.

Apropos the small-town ethos, I once said:

Think of life in a small town where “eveyone knows everyone else’s business.” The sense of being “watched” actually tends to foster liberty, in that it discourages crime. As a result, one’s life and property generally are safer in small towns than in large cities. By the same token, the sense of being “watched” can seem oppressive; one feels less free to do things that might draw social opprobrium, even if those things do no more than offend others’ sensibilities.

Why should everyone in a small town have to put up with small-town mores for the sake of a safer, saner life, you may ask? Well, if you don’t like small-town mores, fine, pack up and go to the big city, but don’t forget to take your handgun (if you’re allowed to have one in the big city), and keep your life and homeowner’s insurance paid up. (Alternatively, you can stay in the small town and try, through example and persuasion, to change its mores so that there is greater tolerance of social diversity.)

It seems to me that America began to lose its way as urban political machines came to dominate national politics in the early 1900s. It is true that populism, from which arose Progressivism, had its roots in small-town and rural America. But Progressivism and its later incarnations (“liberalism” a.k.a. “progressivism”) have hijacked the anti-elite rhetoric of populism in the service of a different kind of elitism: the “technocratic” regulation of personal and business conduct by puritanical, falsely omniscient bureaucrats.

Even in the unlikely event of a string of electoral victories by a Republican Party restored to its small-government roots, it seems unlikely that America can “go home” again. Urbanization — which leads citizens (wrongly) to believe that government must regulate our daily lives — is irreversible, barring an environmental or industrial catastrophe that throws us back onto the land.

Then there is the deep inculcation of statist habits of thought by schools, universities, the media, and various organizations with “progressive” agendas (e.g., teachers’ unions, labor unions, and issue-oriented organizations like AARP). As a result, a truly minimal state is beyond the imagination of most Americans.

Finally, there is the law itself, through which the “progressive” agenda has infiltrated almost every kind of decision made by Americans in their personal and business lives, from cradle to grave and from planting crops to disposing of waste. An electoral and intellectual revolution would have to be accompanied by a legal one, but the wheels of the law grind slowly and often in perverse ways.

Is liberty possible? Liberty, as I define it, seems impossible. All we can hope and fight for are second- or third-best outcomes. I would settle for an America like that of the 1940s and 1950s, with an overlay of equal treatment under the law (but not in private matters) for all citizens — even the putative white-male majority.

Modernism in the Arts and Politics

David Friedman has a theory about the “modern” movement:

Suppose you are the first city planner in the history of the world. If you are very clever you come up with Cartesian coordinates, making it easy to find any address without a map, let alone a GPS—useful since neither GPS devices nor maps have been invented yet.

Suppose you are the second city planner. Cartesian coordinates have already been done, so you can’t make your reputation by doing them again. With luck, you come up with some alternative, perhaps polar coordinates, that works almost as well.

Suppose you are the two hundred and ninetieth city planner in the history of the world. All the good ideas have been used, all the so-so ideas have been used, and you need something new to make your reputation. You design Canberra. That done, you design the Combs building at ANU, the most ingeniously misdesigned building in my personal experience, where after walking around for a few minutes you not only don’t know where you are, you don’t even know what floor you are on.

I call it the theory of the rising marginal cost of originality—formed long ago when I spent a summer visiting at ANU.

It explains why, to a first approximation, modern art isn’t worth looking at, modern music isn’t worth listening to, and modern literature and verse not worth reading. Writing a novel like one of Jane Austen’s, or a poem like one by Donne or Kipling, only better, is hard. Easier to deliberately adopt a form that nobody else has used, and so guarantee that nobody else has done it better.

In other words, if you can’t readily do better than your predecessors, you take the easy way out by doing something different — ugly as it may be. And you call it “progress.” As I wrote here:

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the visual, auditory, and verbal arts became an “inside game.” Painters, sculptors, composers (of “serious” music), choreographers, and writers of fiction began to create works not for the enjoyment of audiences but for the sake of exploring “new” forms. Given that the various arts had been perfected by the early 1900s, the only way to explore “new” forms was to regress toward primitive ones — toward a lack of structure…. Aside from its baneful influence on many true artists, the regression toward the primitive has enabled persons of inferior talent (and none) to call themselves “artists.” Thus modernism is banal when it is not ugly.

Painters, sculptors, etc., have been encouraged in their efforts to explore “new” forms by critics, by advocates of change and rebellion for its own sake (e.g., “liberals” and “bohemians”), and by undiscriminating patrons, anxious to be au courant. Critics have a special stake in modernism because they are needed to “explain” its incomprehensibility and ugliness to the unwashed.

The unwashed have nevertheless rebelled against modernism, and so its practitioners and defenders have responded with condescension, one form of which is the challenge to be “open minded” (i.e., to tolerate the second-rate and nonsensical). A good example of condescension is heard on Composers Datebook, a syndicated feature that runs on some NPR stations. Every Composers Datebook program closes by “reminding you that all music was once new.” As if to lump Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven.

All music, painting, sculpture, dance, and literature was once new, but not all of it is good. Much (most?) of what has been produced since 1900 is inferior, self-indulgent crap.

As it was in the arts, so it was in politics. Yes, there was sleaze before 1900, and plenty of it. But presidents, members of Congress, and justices of the Supreme Court generally remained faithful to the Constitution, especially its restraints on the power of the federal government. Then along came populism and “progressivisism” — the twin pillars of political modernism in the United States — and down went liberty and prosperity.