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.