Yes, it really is that good.
The book is entitled The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure, and it lives up to its title in spades.
Williamson, whose usual perch is at National Review and whose writings have established him as perhaps the best thinker on economics practicing in the New Media today, delivers on a theme we’ve explored here at the Hayride often – particularly since the 2012 election.
Namely, that the current model of governance we live under in America is outmoded, wasteful, incompetent and broke, and not particularly because of any negative character traits in our political leadership – though certainly our leaders don’t lack for negative character traits. But that amid the inevitable wreckage of that model of governance, namely the Industrial Age coercive welfare state, is an opportunity to build something which will greatly outperform it in its death throes and lead the way for an economic and societal boom like nothing we’ve seen before.
This isn’t thinking particularly unique to Williamson. We’ve referenced it several times before – as it has appeared from several sources Williamson doesn’t actually mention in his book. We’ll note them here because independent of Williamson’s outstanding work they stitch together the makings of an ideology which could well replace the Reagan conservatism of the 1980’s and 1990’s as the Republican Party and conservative movement’s dominant, and governing, philosophy of the new century.
That sounds grandiose, but it could well be accurate.
The first time we ran across this line of thinking on a large scale was in a post-election speech given by Bill Whittle, whose response to Obama’s re-election was to essentially say “screw it,” and to suggest to conservatives that we disengage in the political system as currently manufactured and re-engage in the culture as a means of recapturing the imagination of the American people. But Whittle also noted a grand opportunity in the speech. As we described it in our post on the subject…
He borrows from former Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), who laid out history in three major waves. The first wave was the agricultural revolution, in which humans went from being hunter-gatherers to farmers and as a result could develop things like stable communities and stable institutions, but most of all the concept of individual freedom. That first wave ultimately produced the American revolution and the documents, values and philosophy which underpinned it, and created the most successful society in the history of the planet. The second wave, the industrial revolution, produced a centralization of society and a vertical command structure of its government, complete with agencies and bureaus and hundreds of thousands of pages of rules to be enforced at gunpoint.
But that second wave is over. We’re in the information age now and we have an industrial-age government which is broke. Its days are numbered if it’s not already gone. Whittle says let the Left cling to their outmoded model; the Right should move on and create Information Age institutions which reflect society as it is and outperform the Left’s institutions. He discusses ideas like the one he has where for $9.95 a month on your credit card you can fund a private-sector space program, and if two percent of the American people would be willing to sign up that program would likely be able to put astronauts back on the moon. But there are other manifestations of things along these lines – virtual universities over the internet, networks allowing for people to market their skills and do work outside of the confines of what we would currently define as a “real job,” and so on. Society is moving in that direction, and almost none of our governmental, Left-dominated institutions have the ability to keep up with those changes.
Thus, the post-government future. Our side is perfectly poised to prosper in it; the Left is not.
The video of Whittle’s speech embedded at the link is well worth your time; it’s tremendously entertaining, inspiring and full of interesting thought. Whittle distilled it into an Afterburner episode right after the new year and predicted a new governing model would soon emerge to match the Information Age which is fast enveloping our economy.
But what came next to our attention was a lecture by Prof. James Piereson at the American Enterprise Institute in December, which put the McCotter-Whittle perspective in an historical context. Piereson didn’t share the Agricultural Age/Industrial Age/Information Age construct as his model, but he came to the same conclusion about the present time. He says we’re about to enter the fourth era of American governance as opposed to McCotter/Whittle’s third era…
In it, James Piereson, the president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, outlines a view of American history as having been shaped by three great disruptive upheavals – the Jeffersonian revolution of 1800, which led to American territorial expansion and settlement, the Civil War of 1860-65, which brought in a free-market capitalist regime which led to massive economic growth, and the New Deal era beginning with the onset of the Great Depression in 1930, which saw the creation of the welfare state and an internationalist foreign policy.
And the three eras he describes were marked by the dominance of what he calls “regime parties,” meaning that in the first era it was the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian Democrats who held sway over the national discourse and drove national policy and the Federalists and later Whigs weren’t capable of beating them without accepting their formulation of what American politics was all about. In the post-Civil War era, it was the Republican Party which dominated American politics; even when Democrats managed to get elected in presidential politics you saw a greatly restrained view of federal power and responsibility where public policy was concerned (see Grover Cleveland as a perfect example). This was offset to a small degree with the rise to power of Teddy Roosevelt and later Woodrow Wilson (Roosevelt was a Republican, but as we saw he was less-than-representative of the party’s political ethos of the time), but the Harding-Coolidge regime of the 1920′s was more emblematic of the earlier Republican administrations than those of the previous decade’s Progressive era.
And in the New Deal era we currently live in, while Republicans have had some degree of success getting presidents elected, they have failed to change the dynamic of interest-group politics and the runaway entitlement state created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and exploded by Lyndon Johnson. Even Ronald Reagan couldn’t put much of a dent in the fundamental public policy regime he inherited from Jimmy Carter.
But Piereson believes we’re at the end of the New Deal era. He believes Barack Obama is a vestige of a dying era – and he’s believed that even though he’s thought Obama would be re-elected for some time and saw that prediction vindicated last month.
He thinks the New Deal era is on the way out because the numbers don’t add up and the country’s economic performance simply isn’t good enough to generate public confidence in the regime. He believes a major upheaval is coming, and the result of that upheaval puts our political character into the fire. What comes out of that fire is anybody’s guess.
Which brings us to Williamson, who doesn’t explicitly embrace any of these historical constructs as the foundation of his book. Nor does he reject them; Williamson’s idea is to state that the current model of American government is broken and broke, that it can’t be saved and that there’s something better we can use which still adheres to the principles of our founders and our idea of individual liberty – and in fact might be truer to that model than anything you see in mainstream politics today.
After a succinct but fairly comprehensive examination of just how bad the problem of political debt has become and the trillions of dollars government – Williamson likes the word “politics” to describe the public sector rather than “government,” because in his thinking “politics” better represents the petty, stupid and vicious character of most of what the public sector does than does “government,” which people still think of as a necessary and benificent entity worthy of our support – will never be able to repay, Williamson embarks on some very interesting departures from status quo thinking in imagining ways to deliver goods and services to those who need them without the coercion of taxation and regulation.
He recounts some terrific anecdotes to show the stupidity and incompetence of central planning and “politics” in producing sound outcomes – like for example the story of Ori Feibush, a coffee shop owner in Philadelphia who, faced with the moronic city government attempting to fine him for the impromptu garbage dump in the vacant lot next door to his property (that, as it turned out, the city owned), decided after a nearly-endless series of bureaucratic encounters to clean up the garbage dump at his own expense and replace it with a small park that had the effect of making his coffee shop a lot more desirable business locale. After tens of thousands of dollars spent on Feibush’s part, the city of Philadelphia predictably demanded of him, on pain of imprisonment, that he restore the site to its previous condition – garbage and all.
That, Williamson says, is politics. And he equates it to violence, because politics will produce one of two outcomes among those it affects: compliance or men with guns at your front porch.
But politics doesn’t particularly work, he says. And he offers another anecdote – namely, that when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of Columbia University he was confronted by two sets of architects wishing to design a system of sidewalks around the campus. Eisenhower, being the practical man he was, resolved the controversy by listening to neither set and instead building no sidewalks for a year but rather allowing students to tread paths over the grass on their own and then laying down the sidewalks where those paths emerged.
In other words, the market led, and Eisenhower, in his role as governing authority, followed.
That’s a construct today’s Left can’t even contemplate, and since the Left has been busy dominating the public sector and its institutions for the better part of a century it’s a reason why the Left can’t compete with 21st century reality – in the thinking of McCotter, Whittle, Piereson and Williamson. Because as Williamson says, politics doesn’t work.
What does work? Williamson is a bit disdainful of the old conservative refrain that the free market works, but that seems to be a critique of “free markets” as a political messaging device more than anything else. Because his ideas are nothing less than market-oriented, if perhaps with a twist.
As an example, here’s Williamson on Social Security…
In 2012, the average Social Security benefit ran just over $1200 a month. For that, you’re taxed 12.4 percent of your take-home pay from your first day of work until your last. All but a small group of high-income workers pay that tax on nearly 100 percent of their income. Compare that to this: A married couple, each earning ten dollars an hour and investing only 10 percent of their earnings at a modest 5 percent return, retires with an annual income of about $50,000 a year – assuming they never touch the nearly $1 million principal they’ll leave to their children…
A pension system in which workers spend fifty years investing in the real marketplace and earning real returns will radically transform everything from retirement planning to corporate governance – and will shift trillions of dollars in capital away from politics and into investments in real goods. Most important, such pensions would be heritable – enabling the building of multigenerational wealth in communities in which that currently does not exist. Solving the problem of poverty among the young begins with solving the problem of pensions for the old. We can do that for less than most Americans are paying in Social Security taxes today.
And here he is on health care, interestingly enough reaching back to a time before the creation of New Deal government programs to find voluntary associations which provided a quite workable and sustainable system which facilitated, rather than distorting, the market…
Before the New Deal, a surprisingly large number of Americans were covered by social insurance plans – plans that existed entirely outside the sphere of formal politics. These programs offered a surprising array of services: life insurance, hospitalization, medical benefits covering everything from doctors’ fees and hospital charges to wages lost due to illness or injury, survivors’ benefits, old-age pensions, and even care at retirement homes. And these were not programs for the rich, but for the working class and the poor: Their members were disproportionately low-income laborers, immigrants and African-Americans. There were administered on a nonprofit, voluntary, peer-to-peer basis by community associations of a sort that have, unfortunately, all but disappeared, and the resurrection of which would offer a very attractive alternative to the declining entitlement state. Familiar fraternal organizations such as the Masons, the Elks Lodge and the Odd Fellows, together with smaller groups and organizations specific to particular ethnic and immigrant populations, included an astonishing number of Americans in the first half of the 20th century: About one in three Americans over the age of twenty-one belonged to such groups; that number, however, understates their prevalence, since many of those members were the heads of households whose wives and children were covered by the social insurance policies they offered.
The social insurance policies offered by voluntary organizations, Williamson says, managed cost far better than today’s combination of corporate behemoth insurance companies and the public-sector leviathan. And that was before the advent of the Internet and the explosion in availability of information it contains.
The book is replete with ideas like the ones described above, in which people might choose to escape “politics” as a means for securing social benefits. But what Williamson is careful to make clear is that he doesn’t pretend to have all the answers; what he’s suggesting is that once you get out of the box of “politics” and open up your mind to the alternatives – in which people in an information age have the tools to enroll in consensual activities which secure private goods currently being delivered by the public sector – it’s possible to come up with all kinds of ways to revolutionize and improve the status quo.
Three areas currently comprise the majority of government spending, namely retirement, health care and education. Those three areas also represent the three pieces of the economy which are most influenced or controlled by “politics.” And those three areas are the three most dysfunctional in our economy, where inefficiencies and incompetence do battle with seemingly-intractable public policy debates over minutiae like sex education or contraception mandates.
Those are minutiae because – and this is crucial – these are market issues rather than policy issues. And it’s even more crucial that conservatives recognize them as such.
There is no point in arguing over whether public schools insist on sex education for kindergartners. The point is in debating why some entry-level political hack on a school board should have a say over whether anybody’s five-year old should be finding out about anal sex in a classroom. That’s a parent’s decision, pure and simple, and a political model in which a parent is subservient to a politician or a bureaucrat in resolving it is a model which has no place in a 21st century society.
And in such an example as that is the salvation of the conservative movement.
In the 1980’s, toward the back end of the Industrial Revolution era, Ronald Reagan perfected a conservative politics based on a three-legged stool of national security/anticommunism, social conservatism and free markets/limited government. That basic political model is still very powerful, but as a messaging engine it has grown stale with an American public that has (1) heard it all before and (2) has been poisoned by the Left’s hegemony over the culture into thinking of it as racist, homophobic and serving the rich at the expense of the poor.
But when you bank the Reagan model as a foundation upon which American conservatism still rests but update it to reflect a 21st century ideology, you come up with something on which McCotter, Whittle, Piereson and Williamson might all agree as the future. Namely, an emphasis on depoliticizing and decoercivizing American life.
It means moving away from the welfare state before it destroys the economy, and incentivizing and empowering those for whom social services are necessary to find those services through voluntary organizations – perhaps not charities of old, but community organizations built for the current century and living within social media.
It means cobbling together health care alternatives that may include elements of health savings accounts, the old fraternal organizations’ social insurance plans and concierge medicine.
It means embracing the burgeoning explosion in availability of educational options to completely replace the current failing model of politics-dominated public education. We’re moving into the Information Age, and that means an Industrial Age educational delivery system largely invented in 19th-century Prussia and copied by the early American Progressives is not just a bad idea but a laughable insult, and it’s anything but a surprise that the results delivered by such an anachronistic and self-serving system are pathetic. When homeschoolers produce results that completely outstrip public schools spending more per student than the ritziest private schools, what you have is a system which has incontrovertibly failed.
It also means that conservatives probably need to rethink social conservatism – not in the sense of changing attitudes about things like abortion or gay marriage or drug policy, mind you; those positions are the morally correct ones and should remain. But the delivery of those positions, in an age in which we move away from coercive institutions on a host of other facets of American life, might need to change.
We’ve talked to some degree about the need to become “cultural” conservatives first and social conservatives second. Meaning that seeking to produce the result through a campaign of moral instruction or cultural messaging, and winning hearts and minds outside of the coercive construct of politics, might be more properly the path to victory.
A cultural conservatism, which isn’t exactly what Williamson – who is more of a libertarian – advocates, doesn’t seek to deny people the freedom to act poorly. Cultural conservatism is loud and outspoken about the evils of an abortion, for example, but outside of highlighting the abuses of a Kermit Gosnell and howling “is this not murder? Never visit such a disgusting practitioner!”stops short of demanding the end to legal abortion and focuses on taxpayer funding of the practice.
And the bargain it seeks with the American people is this: the Left will regulate every facet of your life, from the salt in your food to the gas in your tank, and it will demand an ever-increasing share of your income to facilitate its appetites for power. Moreover, the Left will insult you by stealing the fruits of your labors in exchange for the guarantee of a pittance in welfare, health care, education and so forth, and its futile attempts in providing that pittance will break the public fisc in your lifetime.
We offer something else – options. You can design your life as you please, within a wide space of available choices. We won’t limit those, and we will keep government intrusion into those choices at an absolute minimum. You’ll keep more of your money and since we’ll limit the scope of government to something so small the idea of a budget deficit in peacetime is largely unthinkable the effect will be an economy so dynamic anyone can get rich. But because the safety net we’ll provide will be a lot smaller – almost nonexistent by today’s standards, and you’ll need to supplement the government’s offerings with what the voluntary networks of the civil society offer, you’re going to need to plug into the civil society. That means a lot more responsibility for good behavior; it means that you’ll want to live the social conservatism you hear us espouse, and it will be more important for you to adhere to as much of it as possible since the government no longer will be available to serve as your daddy.
It’s your choice. But know this – our way works. Their way doesn’t. In our way is freedom, and in their way is tyranny.
Choose, but know this: we’ll escape tyranny one way or another. And the Left can’t contain free people forever. Its failed systems and fiscal incontinence prove it.
That’s a conservatism similar to Reagan’s, but its message is more in tune with an iPhone/Facebook generation – and that’s what the Republican party and the conservative movement are desperately searching for.