Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Positive Feedback

Niall Ferguson, a prolific and controversial English historian, raised a considerable ruckus a few years ago by suggesting that the British and perhaps everybody else would have been better off had the Germans won the First World War, In his more recent books on economic history, he practices a different sort of revisionism. Noting that genuinely democratic governments have historically redistributed wealth from the Few to the Many, sometimes in an economically inefficient or self-defeating way, he writes as if this kind of politics was somehow a pressing issue in the 2000s. One can readily concede that populist regimes can go overboard for egalitarianism at the expense of growth or individual freedom and yet wonder what it betokens that an Oxbridge type is sounding that particular tocsin just now when the only thing remotely democratic about our rulers is their anti-elitist rhetoric. “It’s true we’re going to screw you, but we’re going to flatter you while we’re at it.”

Political wisdom is intelligence speaking to the hour. At this point, rehearsing the theoretical disadvantages of popular government is taking the wrong side. It behooves us all now to be democrats, small d and big d, not because of our traditions, principles, or even inclinations, but because our society has gotten itself into a trap and we need to get out of it. Vastly too much political and economic power has been concentrated in a relatively small group of true believers. The social system of checks and balances—the constitution that really matters—has broken down. Votes can’t compete with dollars when dollars can be converted more or less directly into votes. Public opinion can’t effectively oppose irresponsible government when it is under the spell of a ubiquitous and monotone mass media. Commercial corruption on a mass scale cannot be policed by prosecutors and judges who share in the swag. Even religion, which sometimes summons up the voice of conscience, serves instead to still the self-doubts of the oligarchs and provide selfishness and violence a convenient supernatural sanction.

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