The court jester is probably a familiar image. It’s the guy dressed in the weird leotard juggling and telling jokes at the local Renaissance fair. As is often the case, the historical character has been warped by our own confusion about history. We can blame Shakespeare for that, I suppose. The general idea has remained intact. The guy hired by the ruler to entertain the ruler and the court.
Modern times brings us the Cult Jester. This is a guy, but it can be a gal, who says and writes foolish things that flatter the Cult of Modern Liberalism. As in the old days, they come in different types. An example of the natural fool is the comedian/satirist. Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert and Bill Maher are examples of guys who pass themselves off as clowns mocking greater society, but they are really selling flattery to the Left. Their audience barks and claps like trained seals, a part of the performance, as the fool says nasty things about the enemies of The Cult. Satirists are almost always the most fanatical conformists.
The licensed fool is a different thing. These are the people hired by the big propaganda organs of the Left. Thomas Friedman is a classic example. His career is all about ingratiating himself to elites. He passes himself off as a intellectual, writing books on big topics and columns on hard topics. Yet, it is clear he has only a cursory understanding of the material. It is a balancing act. He reports detailed findings from experts and then ruminates in broad generalities about the implications. The latter is always a pitch for some fad popular with his keepers. As a result, his work is perpetually sophomoric.
David Brooks is a slightly different take on the licensed fool. He holds the William Safire Chair at the NYTimes. The Grey Lady likes to keep a “conservative” around to maintain the facade of objectivity. It is never a flame-thrower like Mark Steyn or Ann Coulter. Those types are far too proletarian for the Times. Instead they prefer the refined musings of non-threatening guys who happen to hold a few unconventional opinions. Brooks, like Safire, is first and foremost an elitist. That’s never in doubt. That means his eccentricities on a narrow range of public policy debates can be safely broadcast, more as a conversation starter than a challenge to the orthodoxy.
Anyway, that long wind up was spurred by this column from David Brooks.
It’s now clear that the end of the Soviet Union heralded an era of democratic complacency. Without a rival system to test them, democratic governments have decayed across the globe. In the U.S., Washington is polarized, stagnant and dysfunctional; a pathetic 26 percent of Americans trust their government to do the right thing. In Europe, elected officials have grown remote from voters, responding poorly to the euro crisis and contributing to massive unemployment.
According to measures by Freedom House, freedom has been in retreat around the world for the past eight years. New democracies like South Africa are decaying; the number of nations that the Bertelsmann Foundation now classifies as “defective democracies” (rigged elections and so on) has risen to 52. As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge write in their book, “The Fourth Revolution,” “so far, the 21st century has been a rotten one for the Western model.”
At first blush, this seems reasonable. But, the lament is distinctly elitist and progressive. The failure to ram through more and more regulation and the publics failure to love the state fully is what has poor Davey in the dumps.
The events of the past several years have exposed democracy’s structural flaws. Democracies tend to have a tough time with long-range planning. Voters tend to want more government services than they are willing to pay for. The system of checks and balances can slide into paralysis, as more interest groups acquire veto power over legislation.
Across the Western world, people are disgusted with their governments. There is a widening gap between the pace of social and economic change, and the pace of government change. In Britain, for example, productivity in the private service sector increased by 14 percent between 1999 and 2013, while productivity in the government sector fell by 1 percent between 1999 and 2010.
These trends have sparked a sprawling debate in the small policy journals: Is democracy in long-run decline?
This is where the poseur makes his appearance. Again, to the untrained it sounds like Brooks is up on the serious intellectual debates. Yet, he provides no evidence, other than he maybe read a review of the book, The Fourth Revolution, by two reporters from The Economist. That’s called signaling. He’s letting his tony readers that he hangs with the swells who read The Economist.
A new charismatic rival is gaining strength: the Guardian State. In their book, Micklethwait and Wooldridge do an outstanding job of describing Asia’s modernizing autocracies. In some ways, these governments look more progressive than the Western model; in some ways, more conservative.
In places like Singapore and China, the best students are ruthlessly culled for government service. The technocratic elites play a bigger role in designing economic life. The safety net is smaller and less forgiving. In Singapore, 90 percent of what you get out of the key pension is what you put in. Work is rewarded. People are expected to look after their own.
Actually, there’s nothing new about any of this. China’s “iron rice bowl” has been with us for seven decades now. In the West. corporatism has been kicking around for a century. Positive Liberty, embraced by the American ruling elite, has been with us since the fifties. Outside the cloistered places Brooks travels, the Custodial State has been a hot topic for two decades. My goodness. It is as if the man has been living in a cave.
These Guardian States have some disadvantages compared with Western democracies. They are more corrupt. Because the systems are top-down, local government tends to be worse. But they have advantages. They are better at long-range thinking and can move fast because they limit democratic feedback and don’t face NIMBY-style impediments.
Most important, they are more innovative than Western democracies right now. If you wanted to find a model for your national schools, would you go to South Korea or America? If you wanted a model for your pension system, would you go to Singapore or the U.S.? “These are not hard questions to answer,” Micklethwait and Wooldridge write, “and they do not reflect well on the West.”
So how should Western democracies respond to this competition? What’s needed is not so much a vision of the proper role for the state as a strategy to make democracy dynamic again.
The answer is to use Lee Kuan Yew means to achieve Jeffersonian ends — to become less democratic at the national level in order to become more democratic at the local level. At the national level, American politics has become neurotically democratic. Politicians are campaigning all the time and can scarcely think beyond the news cycle. Legislators are terrified of offending this or that industry lobby, activist group or donor faction. Unrepresentative groups have disproportionate power in primary elections.
As we always see with the Cult Jester, they always end up flattering their keepers. Our ruling class would love to transform our societies into a neo-fuedal one like we see in Asia and South America.
The quickest way around all this is to use elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions to push populist reforms.
The process of change would be unapologetically elitist. Gather small groups of the great and the good together to hammer out bipartisan reforms — on immigration, entitlement reform, a social mobility agenda, etc. — and then rally establishment opinion to browbeat the plans through. But the substance would be anything but elitist. Democracy’s great advantage over autocratic states is that information and change flow more freely from the bottom up. Those with local knowledge have more responsibility.
Finally, hilarity ensues when even his keepers realize Brook has the IQ of a goldfish. What he proposes has never worked, but it has been tried many times in many places. The results have either been laughable failure of monstrous bloodbath. An elect working for the volk is an old tune Herr Brooks.