If you have been reading this blog regularly, you’ll know I’m skeptical about the long term prospects of the managerial revolution. It’s not just that technocrats have a poor history. Even allowing for the miracle of the meritocracy to correct past errors, the very nature of technocracy is antithetical to nature. It requires constant care and maintenance to keep it running.

As with anything that requires constant repair and defense, the cost of maintaining it eventually consumes all benefit. At the point of diminishing returns, it becomes a question of when, not if, it collapses. The most obvious example is the Roman Empire. Once they ran out of profitable people to conquer, they were left with the expense of empire, but no new revenues to offset those expenses.

To quote Gibbon’s summary of the decline of Rome:

“The number of ministers, of magistrates, of officers, and of servants, who filled the different departments of the state, was mul­tiplied beyond the example of for­mer times; and (if we may bor­row the warm expression of a con­temporary) ‘when the proportion of those who received exceeded the proportion of those who con­tributed the provinces were op­pressed by the weight of tributes.’ From this period to the extinction of the empire it would be easy to deduce an uninterrupted series of clamors and complaints. Accord­ing to his religion and situation, each writer chooses either Diocle­tian or Constantine or Valens or Theodosius, for the object of his invectives; but they unanimously agree in representing the burden of the public impositions, and par­ticularly the land-tax and capita­tion, as the intolerable and in­creasing grievance of their own times.”

I’m offering that up for the new readers, of which there are many, so you can know where I’m coming from when critiquing stuff like this from Ramesh Ponnuru, who is the dean of the “reform-o-cons.” To be fair to Ponnuru, he is one of the few in the Buckley Conservative ecosphere that has not made a fool of himself over Trump. He has been rather sensible in his opinions and forthcoming about his motivations. The sad fact of modern life is most public men do not come upon their opinions honestly.

Even so, Ponnuru is a technocrat who spends his days imagining technocratic solutions to the problems of the technocracy. Therefore he focuses on the technocratic stuff like moving commas around the tax code or crafting new regulations to fix prior regulations. For the men of the managerial class, every answer is a recursive solution that aggregates more and more to the managerial class, at the expense of those outside their class.

The result is a weird myopia that seems to come naturally to the bureaucratic mind and it is on display in this bit from the column.

But if some reform-conservative premises have been vindicated, reform-conservative policies have played almost no role in those primaries. Senator Rubio did the most to embrace those ideas. In mid 2014, he started echoing reformist themes: the need to apply conservative thinking in fresh ways, the potential of conservative reforms to reduce the cost of living and thereby make a difference in people’s lives. He came out for an Obamacare replacement that made it possible for nearly everyone to purchase at least catastrophic coverage while deregulating the system. He sponsored legislation allowing people to finance higher education in new ways. And he advocated tax relief for middle-class parents, not just high earners (although his plan also gave high earners very large tax cuts). He did not talk about these initiatives very much, however, perhaps viewing them as helpful in a general election rather than in a Republican primary. Rubio talked about his tax plan twice in the debates, both times in response to criticism. He was more associated with his 2013 immigration bill and a very hawkish-sounding foreign policy than he was with any domestic agenda. He came across less as an innovator than as a younger, more articulate, and Hispanic version of George W. Bush. He ended up doing well among affluent, college-educated Republican voters but not connecting with the more economically stressed and disaffected voters he needed.

That bit of self-delusion is probably popular with most members of the managerial class. It also shows why this phenomenon is inherently unstable. The only acceptable responses to the challenges facing America are those that require a massive jobs program for the members of the managerial elite and those seeking entry into the system. Reforming or reducing the managerial class is off the table, even when it is the source of social dysfunction.

Therein lies the central defect of the managerial revolution. It is a headless version of Diocletian’s innovation. Instead of a bureaucracy in support of the emperor, it is a bureaucracy in support of itself. It commands no loyalty outside of those it serves, which is strictly the managerial class. Policy proposals have as their underlying motivation the desire of the writers to send their kids to Princeton. If anyone else benefits, that’s a happy accident.

Class awareness brings with it the myopia you see in the Ponnuru column. The Left side has dropped their interest in economics because they can no longer imagine what it is like to be subject to the rhythms of the economy. They have no need to know. The right side has dropped the flag waving and calls to patriotism because they no longer know anyone who cares about those things. All that matters is advancement within a system that has no top. It is a snake eating its tail.

20 thoughts on “Ouroboros

  1. Anybody interested in a 10 minute read that covers this particular waterfront? How about a precis of the history of the rise and fall of civilizations? Try this:


    I quote the closing paragraph:

    “The great line of demarcation in modern politics, Eric Voegelin used to point out, is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.”

  2. “For the men of the managerial class, every answer is a recursive solution that aggregates more and more to the managerial class, at the expense of those outside their class.” Perfect!

    Every once in a while that fat little NORK threatens to send nuclear armed missiles to take out greater Washington DC, yet he might be disappointed to find out that many Americans would not be greatly alarmed at that prospect.

  3. Peggy Noonan wrote an obituary for the GOP in yesterday’s WSJ:

    “I had not been laughing at the splintering of a great political party but mourning it. Something of me had gone into it. Party elites seemed to have no idea why it was shattering, which meant they wouldn’t be able to repair it, whatever happens with Mr. Trump.”


    Ponnuru is a good stand-in for those myopic Party elites Noonan mentions. That he can drone on and on at this date about the brilliant but unrealized potential of Marco Rubio only highlights a lack of comprehension that’s more than a little disturbing.

    • Most of these people live in places that are nothing like the rest of the country. A guy like Ponnuru lives in a pleasant Northern Virginia neighborhood around people like himself. He is completely submerged in the world of politics, think tanks and the people who populate those worlds. More often than not, they are married to someone in the business. All of them have resumes that look strikingly similar. Insularity turns into indifference and then open hostility to the people outside their world.

      • And yet they are always surprised when the objects of their hostility reply in-kind (or perhaps more over, several fold).

        I can’t decide if these folks are so stupid and blind that they cannot envision themselves hanging from lampposts, or if they’re so arrogant that they assume they’ll be the ones dictating who’s hung.

        Either way, when the reckoning finally comes, these toolboxes, down to the very last man, will all be quite surprised.

      • Can you write more about your experiences living around Tyree and Laquisha and how you kept your family safe from “yoof?”

        I live in a yuppie area. My “peers” – as it were – all married and had 1.5 kids much later and drive their kids to and from yuppie striver activities constantly. The others are widows of the previous generation. I don’t know how much longer I can take it. Living in a marginal borderland between yuppiedom and the yoof seems like a better preparation for the South African future that surely awaits us.

  4. ZMan, first, thanks for reading this crap so we don’t have to. That said, of course I couldn’t resist going to the source material and examining it myself…God help us. Ponnuru uses the word “conservative” exactly 25 times (I counted), as if the word even has any kind of literal meaning anymore. It’s more like a totem that he (and everyone else at NRO) invokes to rally their readers against enemy spirits. His discussion and analysis of the Rubio candidacy is revealing. Sensible people understand that Rubio is a smarmy little party-boy faggot, a stunted adolescent whose appeal is obviously limited to similarly emotionally- and intellectually-retarded people who think they are voting for Student Body President; and if you presume that there are sensible people running the Republican Party, then their opinion of their own constituents must be awfully low. But Ponnuru bloviates cluelessly about Rubio for three paragraphs, leading nowhere and concluding nothing. If you can’t even grasp that Rubio is the Derek Zoolander of American politics, how can you grasp anything? I feel like Mugatu reading when I read crap like this. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbKBWtoH93Q

    • “Sensible people understand that Rubio is a smarmy little party-boy faggot, a stunted adolescent whose appeal is obviously limited to similarly emotionally- and intellectually-retarded people “- Buckaroo Banzai

      I’ve always considered myself sensible.

      How do you know your characterization of Rubio is true? Do you personally know him or know someone who can vouch for your characterization?

      • Rubio isn’t tough to figure out for anybody who even bothers to make an effort. In that way, he’s very similar to Obama or Ted Cruz. Maybe you haven’t bothered to try? I hope that’s the case. Step One, ignore what politicians say; Step Two, take a close look at where they came from, what they’ve actually accomplished (hint: nothing, for all three), and who they’ve associated with.

  5. It’s simple system identification. Given a set of inputs and a set of outputs the inputs get converted to, you can tell exactly what the system was designed to do. If Lean Suck Sigma produces a hefty bill for consulting fees and not much else, guess what it was designed to produce?

    • Very perceptive article. Whether one likes him or not, and whether he meant to or not, history will credit Mr. Trump for exposing this.

  6. “It is a snake eating its tail.” Sure strikes me as also the law of the lowest common denominator, those oligarchs couldn’t recognize it if it hit them upside the head. Did I just kind of repeat myself?
    Hey, I’m just one of the dirt people, what do I know.
    Wave the Magna Carta, The Declaration of Independence, or the idea of secession under their noses, see what happens. that will tell you all you need to know. But whats going to happen will be a lot uglier and violent if they don’t smarten up right quick.

  7. Congress was eager to create this massive bureaucracy because it allowed them to abrogate their responsibilities. Most federal agencies simply create new laws with zero oversight by Congress, even though in theory all the agencies are overseen by Congress.
    So when the EPA creates another job killing, economy-depressing, poverty-creating law based on the ideology of the leftist enviro zealots who inhabit that agency, those in Congress have a convenient excuse and say, “it’s not my decision, it’s out of my hands, sorry.”
    Frankly, the ONLY solution is to dissolve almost every single federal agency and allow the states to handle their own problems and establish their own laws and regulations.
    Of course, some states (California, NY, Illinois, Pa., Vt., RI., Mass., etc. ) will choose economic and/or social suicide, but some and maybe most will not. At least the option will be available for folks to relocated to states that offer the most opportunity.

  8. One of the problems that comes with a headless managerial class is that eventually Caesar finds it or maybe it finds Caesar. As the marginal value of new initiatives falls to zero, the managers look for someone who can “cut through the red tape.” Caesar becomes the protector (and sometimes purger) of the managers, and they cement his hold on power.

    I agree with Severian that complexity is the enemy of liberty. Federalism was supposed to solve that, but a Civil War and a Great Depression gave the managers and centralizers the openings they needed and they’ve never had any serious opposition until the Tea Party. Even that has been pretty ineffectual. Trump has given a rather inarticulate voice to anti-managerialism. “The future lies ahead,” as Criswell used to say!

    • Agreed. Federalism at least limits the “iron rice bowl” phenomenon, and de facto rule by regulatory bureaucracies. Tainter and Turchin have some fancy words for it, but you can boil it down to the Iron Law of Bureaucracies: from the moment it’s created, a bureaucracy’s #1 goal is to perpetuate the bureaucracy. And its corollary: the longer a bureaucracy exists, the further down the priority list its original function goes. That’s how Detroit went from the richest per capita city in America to beyond Thunderdome in a generation — it tracks exactly GM’s descent from “world class auto manufacturer” to “retirement plan / lobbying organization that occasionally cranks out a crappy car.”

  9. “The most obvious example is the Roman Empire.” Archaeologist Joseph Tainter made a similar point, with a zillion examples from all over the globe, in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies (well worth getting, if you’re near a university library, though it’s one of the most depressing books you’ll ever read). His larger point is that complexity itself causes collapse — the marginal utility to civilization of tax-code comma-rearrangers is nil, in fact negative, but it’s a good living for individuals, so more and more people flock to it…. repeat as needed for all sectors, cultural, political, educational, and social, as well as economic. Peter Turchin calls this “overproduction of elites,” and says that when your society goes all-in on it, you’re done within a few decades, a century or two at the outside (I’m not trying to argue from authority here; I simply agree with you, and want to point out to the interested some places where similar theories to yours are argued at length).

    • The Tainter book is a must read. I have referenced in the past. It’s a little tedious, being an academic work, but well worth the time.

      I have not read much of Turchin, but I’ve been meaning to read his books.

      • I thought I remembered you mentioning it. I find Turchin a little overblown — and, having had to read “cliometrics” from back in the 1970s, I’m pretty leery of anyone who wants to discover a “science of history.” Some really interesting stuff to chew on, though. Reading them both makes me want to take a second look at monarchy — an elite that *knows* it’s an elite, and ruthlessly polices itself, prevents a lot of damage. Otherwise you get the Kevin Williamson / NR Cuck / Faculty Lounge phenomenon — folks who are The Man by any conceivable measure, basing their entire identity on sticking it to The Man. The loudest complainers about “the 1%” are “the 2%;” the rest of us get to watch trustafarians battle other trustafarians for the right to run our lives for us.

    • It is well known that a bureaucracy (hives of managers and technocrats) is created to solve some problem that morphs into self-perpetuation as the only problem that needs consideration.

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