Welcome to TP Ideas‘ weekly roundup of the best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.
So let’s get started.
1. “Machines V. Lawyers” — John O. McGinnis, City Journal
One of the more remarkable changes of the information economy has been the way white collar workers, long thought to be safe from automation, are now seeing their jobs eaten away by the rise of ever more sophisticated computational technology. Over at City Journal this week, John O. McGinnis did a long-form look into how these forces are affecting lawyers, and what the future of the profession may be.
McGinnis identifies five major areas of the profession being overtaken by computers: discovery, document searches, legal forms, compiling simple briefs and memos, and legal analytics. But he also sketches a theory of political economy in which these changes could push American governance in a more small-government and libertarian-friendly direction:
In the twentieth century, lawyers continued to wield power, but the direction of their influence in economic affairs changed. Since the birth of the modern regulatory state and social democracy, lawyers have had incentives to increase and revise legislative mandates; they became the technocrats of regulation and redistribution. The more a nation intervenes in the free market, the more in compliance costs and transfer payments that lawyers can expect to receive. As a result, lawyers don’t tend to be strong proponents of economic liberty or even of a stable rule of law. Their interest frequently lies in legal complexity and the uncertainty it brings.
The decline of lawyers may therefore prove a boon to the rule of law and to market norms. Computational innovators benefit from capitalism’s process of creative destruction; their new applications transform industry after industry. Their success lies with a stable rule of law and relatively light regulation. True, once successful, innovators become incumbents and may seek to use government to hamstring new entrants. But the dynamism of technological acceleration will make it difficult even for big government to hold back waves of new “disruptions.”
Unspoken in McGinnis’ argument, but lying underneath it, is the field of public choice theory. It’s an analysis of government that sees policy decisions not as rational or principled decision-making, but as attempts to secure benefits for particular groups by shifting economic advantages through the use of policy. Many conservatives see it as a critical lens for understanding American governance. McGinnis’ piece backs into that concept in an interesting way, by pulling together both the advance of technology, already-observable changes, and the history and concrete experience of one particular American profession.
2. “An Older Definition of the American Dream” — Anna Sutherland, Family Studies
Christopher Lasch was an American historian who offered a particularly vivid account of the decay of American culture, as it’s been caught between the hammer of market and the anvil of the growing bureaucratic state. Not surprisingly, smarter conservatives love to cite him. But Lasch was a complex thinker, and this week Anna Sutherland dug into his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, and pulled out an argument that challenges left and right alike.
In short, Lasch went through the history of American discourse and determined that concern with “social mobility” is a recent phenomena. In the Founders’ time, he argued, “equality of opportunity” meant a genuine equality of cultural station amongst all Americans, with equal access for all to education and the shared civic discussion of ideas. Only after the Industrial Revolution did Americans come to understand “opportunity” as the ability of someone to rise from poverty into wealth.
Whether Lasch is correct about the historical definition of the American dream I am not qualified to say. But I believe his criticism of the ideal of social mobility has merit. If life at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder is bad enough that our lack of mobility is a “major problem” in the eyes of Americans, then we should do more than help a larger minority of low-income people to escape it. After all, no matter how much mobility we have, there will always be people at the bottom. [...] Reviving civic involvement and widening access to good education may be more difficult tasks than improving the material situation of the poor, but they are just as crucial to the formation of an egalitarian, democratic society.
I would add one more element, unmentioned by Lasch, that such a society requires: strong families. The wealthy today stand a good chance of forming lasting marriages, and their children typically do not see their parents break up; both generations reap benefits from this stability. Yet among Americans with less than a college degree, divorce remains common, having children outside of marriage is the new normal, and an increasing number of kids see their parents repeatedly start and end new romantic relationships (with unsurprising negative consequences for the kids’ mental health and academic achievement). In a strong democratic society, a stable, loving family would not be a luxury good. Enabling more Americans to form such families — as most surely hope to do — is yet more complicated than improving schools, but if we aspire to reviving the American dream as Lasch defines it, then it’s not an optional task.
It’s worth noting that Revolt of the Elites also explicitly condemned economic inequality as incompatible with genuine community. But with the rise of the professional creative class as a major component of the Democrats’ coalition, it’s safe to say as many liberals as conservatives buy into meritocracy as a value to be pursued. Sutherland rightly points out that Lasch’s dismissal of that quest upends the assumptions of both sides, and suggests the job of repairing America’s social fabric will be a matter of cultural as much as economic reform.
3. “Crony Capitalism and the Tyranny of Small Decisions” — Andrew Quinn, The Federalist
“Crony capitalism” is a phrase that’s been on the lips of conservatives and Republicans for a year or two now. What Andrew Quinn recently did at The Federalist was put some real meat on the bones of the idea. He lays out a concrete definition of crony capitalism, some concrete metrics for spotting it, and economic work to tease out its measurable impacts on society and the economy. In particular, Quinn leans on work by Edmund Phelps, who identified “corporatism” as a third way between capitalism and socialism, one based on a technocratic management of economics by government and business cooperation, done on a case-by-case basis.
What Phelps also claims, however, is that societies that embrace corporatism see measurable negative impacts on everything from innovation to market capitalization to employment to job satisfaction:
Phelps’s research shows that the toxicity of governing by ad hoc analysis can itself be unmasked through analysis. Even if convincing PowerPoints can be constructed for each isolated instance of picking favorites, it is clear from 10,000 feet that societies that generally reject such distortions outperform societies that generally welcome them. We need to think about our economy in this overarching way and develop general principles. We need to actively choose the kind of forest we want and let that inform which trees we plant.
“The tyranny of small decisions,” a phrase coined by Alfred E. Kahn, is frequently used by critics of capitalism to bludgeon the system. They apply it to environmental degradation, suburban sprawl, and other alleged market failures in which a multitude of small, individually rational choices add up to something disastrous.
But while progressives are eager to deploy this phrase, it ricochets back onto their worldview with brutal force. What pundits call “cronyism” and economists call “corporatism” is the costly, destructive outgrowth of a thousand small choices that each looked centrist and reasonable enough in its own, dedicated op-ed.
The old saw is that conservatives are ideologues who seek to shape society to a pre-conceived and abstract ideal of social order, while liberals are pragmatists who simply seek the best policies for increasing human welfare. The interesting thing about Quinn’s piece is it’s an argument that pragmatism itself comes with unintended consequences: a build-up over time of overlapping laws and regulations unconnected by an overarching vision, which slowly suffocate the American economy’s ability to function at its best.
It should be noted that, contrary to Sutherland’s implication, Lasch does discuss the health of families in Revolt of the Elites, arguing they’ve been harmed by the growth of markets and government alike. That said, Sutherland’s recommendations for repair certainly resonate with Lasch’s argument.