This feels like a populist moment. Americans are Tea Partying. Greeks are rioting. Incumbents are being thrown out; the Federal Reserve is facing an audit; Goldman Sachs is facing prosecution. In Kentucky, Ron Paul’s son might be about to win a Republican Senate primary.
But look through these anti-establishment theatrics to the deep structures of political and economic power, and suddenly the surge of populism feels like so much sound and fury, obscuring the real story of our time. From Washington to Athens, the economic crisis is producing consolidation rather than revolution, the entrenchment of authority rather than its diffusion, and the concentration of power in the hands of the same elite that presided over the disasters in the first place.
Douthat characterizes the elite as meritocratic later in the essay, which is accurate as far as it goes. But it’s worth remembering what merit we’re talking about: by and large our Wall Street overlords are from the elite colleges and universities of America. So the merit that we’re talking about had a lot to do with taking a test very well one Saturday morning in spring (which separates one group of hard-working from another, with some degree of arbitrariness); and had a lot to do with being the biggest hustler among a group of hustlers in that group of elite test takers.
Are admissions for these elite universities accurate? Well enough, I guess, for that stage of life, but development is a jagged path that everyone traverses differently: some slow at first and quickly later; others the opposite. So it’s silly to use these elite institutions as a proxy for deeper intelligence when the real story is more complicated.
And then it’s worth asking why this elite—your Feds, Treasuries, Wall Streeters—has been perpetuated. Well, the answer is that no one died and elected them king—they seized it. Democracy doesn’t touch the management of the Fed for some very good reasons. And as is well known to viewers of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and The Dark Knight, crises provoke the need to give more power to already-powerful people, so that they can resolve the mess. Crises are no time for a squabble, so enough power is needed and enough deference is needed to cut the bullshit.
This tendency has become especially acute for two reasons. The first is, as Douthat notes, that the world has become so complex that only the experts who got us into the mess understand the mess well enough to extricate us. The second is that the squabbles that necessitate handing over power to unaccountable figures have become more intense and harder to resolve. These squabbles are borne of, what? Entrenched interests who have benefited from public largesse; antiquated governmental rules and norms; a disinterested media. All of these things weigh in favor of more power to elites and less to democratic institutions theoretically controlled by the people (more of my thoughts on the subject here.)
The problem, of course, is that once you give power you have to trust the unaccountable figure to give it back. For some reason we are trusting the Fed with the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, though it showed little interest in curbing abuse in the financial market during the bubble years, and though the mission of the Fed is distinct from the proposed mission of the CFPA: the Fed, purposefully unaccountable, is gaining more power and isn’t giving anything back.
I wish more was made of the classical figure Cincinnatus. After being elected dictator by the Romans to fight neighboring tribes, he won and promptly resigned his office and returned to his farm. As the story is told, he didn’t want power for its own sake but as a temporary thing to be cast off when possible. It’s an attitude I wish we’d cultivate more.