Friday, October 24, 2014

Highbrow plutocratic advocacy from Francis Fukayama

The famous neo-Hegelian, neoconservative (former neocon?) Francis Fukuyama has an article in the Sept/Oct number of Foreign Affairs, devoted to the Big Think topic, The American Distemper." Fukuyama's piece is called "American in Decay: The Sources of Political Dysfunction," adapted from his new book Political Order and Political Decay: From the French Revolution to the Present (2014).

The argument has its mildly provocative moments. He seems to be advocating (kinda sorta) a unicameral parliamentary government on the model of the French Revolution, an idea dear to European radical democrats in the 19th century, including revolutionary Social Democrats.

But that's just the neoconservative flourish on a stale but persistent Republican argument that ultimately concludes that gridlock in the national government is just what we need, until we can get to a point where we get rid of some of this annoying democracy stuff.

And, no, the radical democracy argument makes no sense in that context, which is why I pass it off as a rhetorical flourish.

Fukuyama is a scholar and he frames his arguments as such. But this article remains a highbrow statement of a stock conservative position.

He argues that the Progressive reforms of the early 20th century were good because they reduced the power of city machines that were often corrupt but also often very effective in responding to the needs of working-class residents.

Part of the idea was that professional management was superior to that of politicians, like in the Forest Service. The Forest Service, in the Fukayama version of history, was no longer influenced by politics or politicians for its first years and decades. Like, you know, the Congress that appropriates its money and writes the laws that govern it.

The Forest Service example is a setup to argue that the Progressive concept was based on "[t]he belief that public administration could be turned into a science" which "now seems naive and misplaced." This looks a lot like a simple rhetorical trick. Because in the same paragraph he warns:

The problem with scientific management is that even the most qualified scientists of the day occasionally get things wrong, and sometimes in a big way. And unfortunately, this is what happened to the Forest Service with regard to what ended up becoming one of its crucial missions, the fighting of forest fires.
So from the "science" of public management, we quickly jump to an example of those silly scientists who, in the conservative worldview, are always getting things wrong, because, heck, what does science know that you can't learn better from Jesus and the Free Market?

Then he provides us a version of the stock highbrow conservative narrative: well-intentioned programs, blah, blah, government just doesn't work that well, selfish voters, blah, blah. He also gives that perennial segregationist favorite, the meddling courts that sometimes protect individual and civil rights instead of the greed of private corporations and hedge-fund billionaires.

Timber companies and mineral extractions companies and developers would love to plunder, privatize and pollute the National Forests, and Republican Administrations in recent decades have been happy to let them do some of that. The neoliberal free-market program would privatize the whole thing, because whatever the Free Market does to them after that is by definition the best of all possible outcomes.

Fukuyama eliudes the fact of Republican obstructionism into the vague of of "powerful interest groups that can block needed change." In conservative demonology, the most dreaded and dangerous "powerful interest groups" include those notorious union bosses, public school teachers and public employee retirees. Plus those deluded environmentalists and the greedy scientists who are sucking in big bucks on the Great Climate Change Hoax.

Disregarding the allegedly sacred notions of American Exceptionalism and the divine origin of our political institutions, Fukuyama writes that "many of [the US'] political institutions have become increasingly dysfunctional. A combination of intellectual rigidity and the power of entrenched political actors is preventing those institutions from being reformed." Lets see, what group of "entrenched political actors" might there be that stand out in recent years for their rigidity and their ability to cause government dysfunction? Well, the group known as the Republican Party comes to mind. But F doesn't specify that particular, easily identifiable group in this scholarly exercise.

As usual, if you take account of the vocabulary and oblique manner of argument, the conservative narrative shows it's true face, sometimes fangs and all. In Fukuyama's case, the problem all this dang democracy nonsense:

What is ironic and peculiar about this phenomenon [governmental dysfunction] is that this crisis of representation has occurred in large part because of reforms designed to make the system more democratic. In fact, these days there is too much law and too much democracy relative to American state capacity.
And, also as usual, you're likely to feel a headache coming on if you try too hard to read this piece as a consistent argument. After complaining about the meddling courts arrogantly assuming that things like the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution were the law of the land or something, when they should have left those librul policy choices to Congress, he then complains about all the laws that Congress passed to enact librul social policies. Go figure.

And those laws give the riff-raff even more opportunity to go to court for justice, something F obviously regards as a bad thing: "Thus, conflicts that in Sweden or Japan would be solved through quiet consultations between interested parties in the bureaucracy are fought out through formal litigation in the U.S. court system."

This, of course, is boilerplate advocacy for "tort reform," aka, protecting private companies from liability for harm caused by their own actions or neglect.

And he's also explicit about who the meddling riff-raff are: "The explosion of opportunities for litigation gave access, and therefore power, to many formerly excluded groups, beginning with African Americans." Yes, even black people are sometimes allowed to go to court! Surely that can't be what our slaveowning Founders had in mind!

Why, things are so out of hand that even disabled children have been able to claim some legal protection:

For example, special-education programs for handicapped and disabled children have mushroomed in size and cost since the mid-1970s as a result of an expansive mandate legislated by Congress in 1974. This mandate was built, however, on earlier findings by federal district courts that special-needs children had rights, which are much harder than mere interests to trade off against other goods or to subject to cost-benefit criteria.
Obviously, this here democracy stuff is way, way out of hand!

But the Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United Supreme Court decisions were good because Tocqueville and Madison. But, hey, courts recognizing rights for special-needs children? Beyond the pale of decency! But at least he doesn't say that such kids have "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." So that's something.

And, well, it's just human nature to take bribes, Fukuyama argues in his oblique highbrow style. (p. 15)

And did you know that some of these here laws that Congress passes take "hundreds of pages of legislation" and require "reams of further detailed rules that will impose huge costs"? For some reason, conservatives pretend to be shocked by this. A typical international trade agreement can run to tens of thousands of pages, though. But conservatives don't bitch and moan about all the pages that requires. (And how long will the dead-tree term "reams" be able to convey any sense? Isn't it time to switch to pixels?)

Fukayama's piece is an academic example of what Paul Krugman writes about today in Plutocrats Against Democracy New York Times 10/23/2014:

For the political right has always been uncomfortable with democracy. No matter how well conservatives do in elections, no matter how thoroughly free-market ideology dominates discourse, there is always an undercurrent of fear that the great unwashed will vote in left-wingers who will tax the rich, hand out largess to the poor, and destroy the economy. ...

And now you understand why there’s so much furor on the right over the alleged but actually almost nonexistent problem of voter fraud, and so much support for voter ID laws that make it hard for the poor and even the working class to cast ballots. American politicians don’t dare say outright that only the wealthy should have political rights — at least not yet. But if you follow the currents of thought now prevalent on the political right to their logical conclusion, that’s where you end up.

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