(Bloomberg View) -- This article was adapted from a speech given at the “Disinvitation Dinner,” an event sponsored by the William F. Buckley, Jr. program at Yale University.
I want to reflect on the problem of being an old guy who has convinced himself that the American project is dead. By “the American project,” I mean the continuing effort, begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals, families and communities to live their lives as they see fit as long as they accord the same freedom to everyone else, with government safeguarding a peaceful setting for those endeavors but otherwise standing aside.
It’s not dead because of the last few elections. It’s dead because the Constitution no longer serves as a serious limit on government power, and hasn’t for a long time. It’s dead because we now have a vast extra-legal administrative state-within-the-state that de facto creates its own laws -- cop, prosecutor, judge and court of appeals rolled into one, the antithesis of democracy. It’s dead because since the 1970s Washington has increasingly become indistinguishable from the way a kleptocracy operates, with access to power and to results contingent on payments for that access and those results. It is dead because of the institutional sclerosis that takes hold as special interests -- what James Madison called “factions” in Federalist Paper No. 10 -- lock in the goodies that today’s American government is permitted to dispense. That institutional sclerosis is the reason we’re never going to get a simple tax code or a sensible health-care system. There’s no cure for advanced institutional sclerosis, short of losing a total world war. The American project as originally conceived is dead, and it’s never coming back.
Of course, this kind of thinking is what old guys are famous for. The world is falling apart. The good old days are gone. Get those kids the hell off my lawn. My problem is that I believe all this and yet I can also step outside myself and see how predictable my attitude is, which is why I feel compelled to take on a role that is uncomfortable for me: Being optimistic.
There is a way for a new incarnation of the American project to preserve freedom. It won’t be the same institutionally or legally. But it can still go a long way toward allowing people to live their lives as they see fit.
I have found that a good place to start is by asking myself, “What do I have to complain about? How is government getting in the way of my life?” And the answer is -- for me personally -- not much. I understand how much trouble the government can be if you’re in the financial industry trying to cope with the Dodd-Frank Act, or if you want to build a house on a lot that the Environmental Protection Agency has decided is wetland, or for any number of other reasons. I understand how important the federal government’s foreign policy decisions are if you are the parent of a child serving in the military.
But the fact is that in my own life, the federal government plays hardly any negative role at all. Neither Donald Trump nor Barack Obama has done anything that has gotten in my way. De facto, life is still pretty good for a lot of Americans. We still have the freedom to live life as we see fit.
Now compare how little the government limits our quotidian freedom with how much events in the private sector have worked to expand it. The invention of Uber. The existence of Amazon.com. Google Maps on our smartphones. In my line of work, life has been transformed for the better over the last 35 years. In the early 1980s, when I was working on “Losing Ground,” my book about the limits of social welfare programs, all the statistics I used had to be taken from the tables of statistics that the government chose to publish. If they didn’t publish them, I was stuck.
Fast-forward to today, and there’s me on Amtrak with a laptop that includes the complete raw data files for all the Current Population Surveys going back to 1960, not to mention the capacity to instantly access through the internet the full text of virtually any technical article on any subject published in English. My professional life is orders of magnitude better now than it was 35 years ago.
Just about all of us have seen similar improvements in our quality of life over the last few decades -- improvements that, when you stop to think about it, reflect augmented freedom. The government hasn’t been the cause of that augmented freedom, but it still amounts to more freedom rather than less.
Here’s another reason for optimism: Think of the ways in which government oversight is being replaced with noncoercive private oversight. For example, there’s the increasing ubiquity of videos of everything: millions of smartphones, millions of security cameras. Is some of that scary? Absolutely. But on balance, I think we the people are going to end up on the positive side of the ledger.
Historically, the interrelationships of crime, the police and the public were among the toughest for a free society to handle. The rule of law requires that some government body have a monopoly over the right to physically coerce people, but the police power is inherently subject to abuse. Citizens have needed a way to protect themselves from cops who abuse their powers. Equally, cops who are just trying to do their job need a way to go about their work without getting hit by bogus charges of misconduct.
Both police officers and citizens can now have that protection in the form of cameras. Experience to date has been a win-win proposition. It doesn’t work perfectly, as some high-profile cases of police shootings have shown. But those same high-profile cases are on every officer’s mind, and that’s good. As time goes on, it’s not going to be just police who need to worry about bad behavior being recorded. So will every corrupt bureaucrat, plus the larger number who misuse their authority to browbeat the people they are supposed to serve.
Now for a topic where optimism is really hard to come by: the polarization of America. I’m thinking both of political polarization, whereby it is obligatory to think that people who disagree with you politically are not only wrong but also evil, and also of the isolation of the elites who run the country, living in a handful of power centers and their culturally gated communities.
The optimism is hard to come by in this realm because the prospects for bridging either the political or class forms of isolation are so remote. It appears that most people who have strong political feelings genuinely don’t want to hang out with anyone who disagrees with them. And most people in the new upper class don’t see what’s in it for them to leave their enclaves and spend more time with ordinary Americans. But let me make a few observations that are at least mildly optimistic.
The first is that traditional American civic culture is alive and well in vast stretches of this country. Here I’m going to use myself an example, and it’s going to make me sound way too self-righteous. I don’t know of a way around it; I apologize. I live in a small town in the middle of agricultural and blue-collar Maryland. Two weeks ago, I was standing at an intersection in the middle of nowhere, with an orange vest and a red flag, acting as a marshal for a 10-kilometer race organized by one of my neighbors to raise money for a charity that maintains a local Civil War-era church. As the runners went by, puffing and panting, they would nonetheless thank me for my service. Across the road was a father with his three little girls, waiting to cheer their mother when she went by. It was straight out of Norman Rockwell. That kind of stuff happens all the time. Last year, a neighbor had a chemotherapy regimen that lasted a few months. Her husband and son are clueless about cooking. A hot dinner showed up at their house every day during those months, prepared by other families in town who had set up a rotating calendar on the internet. My town is not unusual.
Yes, the bad news about a lot of working-class America is true. There is demoralization and social problems that didn’t exist 25 years ago. We’ve watched teenage girls where we live have babies without husbands, and boys get hooked on drugs, many coming from families that never imagined they would face those kinds of situations with their children. The problems are real. But nostalgic, Tocquevillian America is still out there. Did Trump get elected with votes from angry white people? Yes, but a lot of that anger had nothing to do with hatred of minorities or immigrants. It was the anger of the same people who are deeply engaged in the lives of their friends and neighbors in the ways that made Alexis de Tocqueville marvel at American civil society in the 1830s. They are quite reasonably angry at elites who don’t understand them, who condescend to them, who refer to flyover country and rednecks. I submit that Trump was elected not by angry narrow-minded xenophobes, but by angry citizens of Tocquevillian America. And the fact that Tocquevillian America is still so widespread is one of our best reasons for optimism.
But here’s another: It’s not just Trump voters who recently have begun to see the merits of a diverse America that leaves communities alone to live life as they see fit. In a way, America is becoming culturally diverse today in the same way it was pre-World War I, when ethnic groupings across the country led to neighborhoods, cities and even entire states that functioned in culturally very different ways. In New York City alone, the Italian-born population at the beginning of the 20th century was larger than the combined populations of Florence, Venice and Genoa, mostly packed into the Lower East Side. A few blocks to the east were half a million Jews, culturally living a world of their own. There were the huge Irish and Italian sections of Boston, German cities and towns of Wisconsin, Scandinavians in Minnesota, Latinos in New Mexico.
Today, places like Portland, Oregon; Burlington, Vermont; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and many others have distinctive cultures of their own that they want to preserve -- not grounded in ethnicity, but in the tastes and preferences of the New Upper Class on the left.
Today’s America is once again a patchwork of cultures that are different from one another and often in tension. What they share in common with the cultures of pre-World War I America is that they require freedom. In one way or another, the members of most of the new subcultures want to be left alone in ways that the laws of the nation, strictly observed, will no longer let them. They are potential members of coalitions with Tocquevillian America to promote a new version of federalism.
How might those coalitions come about? Here’s another reason for optimism: A lot of people on the left have become as disillusioned with government as people on the right. They may still advocate government programs that the right opposes. But the systemic incompetence of government is becoming more and more widely accepted.
Outside of government, much has changed since the days when Detroit could sell all the cars it could make despite shoddy workmanship. Globalization and the creative destruction it has fostered have brought sweeping changes in the private sector -- changes that government has refused to impose on itself. Even as the private sector discovered it could not afford unionization if that meant tight work rules that stifled increases in productivity, the public sector unionized and doubled down on limits for how long people could work and at what tasks. Even as the private sector realized that defined-benefit pensions could bankrupt them, the public sector locked in ever-more-generous pensions. Even as more people in the private sector worked beyond age 65, the public sector lowered the age at which civil servants could retire with full benefits. Even as competition and insecurity became routine in managerial jobs, the public sector made it almost impossible to fire anyone for anything. People in the private sector have watched the public sector shelter itself from the challenges that the private sector had no choice but to face.
Furthermore, government has sheltered itself at the public’s expense. Cities with budgets that have ballooned over the last few decades don’t fix potholes or collect garbage nearly as well as they did in the 1950s. The same law enforcement system that has generous retirement packages for police in their early 40s may not have enough patrol cars. In the same school system where teachers with seniority make close to six figures, regardless of their performance, students may not have enough textbooks.
These are not things that just conservatives notice. Everyone does.
And so the last, peculiar reason for optimism. The economy and the culture are leaving government behind. We increasingly agree that government doesn’t know how to play well with others, but is so sclerotic that we can work around it. And “we” does not mean just people on the right, but large numbers of people who would never dream of voting for a Republican.
The central truth of my pessimism is that the ideal behind the American project, of free people living under a benevolent limited government, is never going to reach maturity. It is dead. The central truth of my optimism is that government is still at the periphery of my daily life -- that I can live in the presence of Supreme Court justices who exasperate me, bureaucrats who enrage me, members of Congress who seem devoid of courage and principle, and a president who in my opinion is in need of some really good meds -- and nonetheless go about living a wonderful life through the institutions of family, community, vocation and faith that are the wellsprings of human happiness.
In part, I am able to do that because I have human and financial resources that enable me to continue to live my life as I see fit. And that leads me to my final point. Elites throughout history have had that ability.
What made the American founding unique was that we broke with history. Liberty and the pursuit of happiness were no longer to be privileges for the few but the unalienable rights of all. All Americans, high and low, were to be left free to live life as they saw fit.
That was the essence of the American promise. For the first century-and-a-half of our history, the nation kept that promise for white Americans, mostly for white men. For the last half of that period, the nation started to make good on it for black Americans and women. From the 1930s onward, however, the promise was intermingled with other priorities and agendas. Most of them were admirable in themselves. But the promise itself was overshadowed and is now almost forgotten.
Young Americans do not have power to resurrect Madison’s vision of how the promise would be kept. But they do have the power to restore the vitality of the promise and to make good on it in new and creative ways. I will cheer them on from my rocking chair. If I can get those kids the hell off my lawn.
Charles Murray, an American Enterprise Institute scholar, is the author of “By the People,” “Coming Apart” and “Losing Ground, and co-author of “The Bell Curve.”
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