Arnold Kling  

What I've Been Reading

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Yet another book on World War I. David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer. His thesis is that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was a pretext for two wars that had been previously planned. One was an Austrian war against Serbia, and the other was a German war against Russia and France. Fromkin makes a convincing case that the war resulted less from diplomatic mishaps than from deliberate efforts on the part of key elements of the German and Austrian military and diplomatic leaders.

Not a must-read, but here are a couple of excerpts: 1)


[even prior to the war,] violence was endemic in the service of social, economic, political, class, ethnic, and national strife

2)

The wars were about power. Specifically, they were about relative ranking among the great European powers...Both Germany and Austria believed themselves to be on the way down. Each started a war in order to stay where it was.

If what is dangerous is a country that believes that is on the way down but thinks it retains just enough military power to halt the decline, then the U.S. could be pretty dangerous over the next couple of decades.

The latest issue of The Atlantic talks a lot about America in decline. However, I see the articles as driven less by long-term analysis and more by the short-term Progressive narrative. Given that our President is now Obama and not Bush, we can no longer blame problems on American leadership. Instead, the country has become ungovernable because of Fox News (Paul Starr's article, not yet on line). Or, as The Washington Post puts it, the President is having a hard time getting his message across.

The Progressive narrative is that when Republicans are in power, blame the leaders. When Democrats are in power, blame the country. The James Fallows cover story in The Atlantic bemoans our creaky political system. His implicit thesis is that the Progressives know what's best, but our obsolete institutions prevent them from doing their thing.

The Progressive narrative will not even admit the possibility that:

--when it comes to global warming, the scientists who are being objective and the scientists who are driven by a political agenda may not be on the believer side and the skeptic side, respectively.

--The financial crisis came not from deregulation but from active government policies and conscious decisions related to home ownership and bank capital standards.

--the bank bailouts may have served mainly to bail out banks, and the stimulus may have served mainly to bail out state and local governments. Neither may have been effective at reducing unemployment.

--there is little or no room to reform health care by increasing government's role. Most of the meaningful health care reforms are more oriented toward markets.

The Progressives long for a world in which they can make decisions without facing a skeptical public. That was in fact the world of 1914, in which, as Fromkin points out, leaders were able to make decisions autonomously and in secret, while the public was easily deceived and manipulated into providing support.

It is my thesis in Unchecked and Unbalanced that the Progressive ideology is in a state of decline, because in the age of the Internet knowledge is becoming more dispersed, which makes elite technocratic government less effective. Perhaps, like the German and Austrian military leaders of 1914, the Progressive elites are at their most dangerous when their status is threatened.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

Could you please provide an example of James Fallows blaming leaders for American decline during Republican years?

Your "progressive narrative" seems very convenient, but not well backed up. It seems to me that people have been talking about dysfunctional government long before Obama came into office.

But given your "progressive narrative" thesis with regard to Fallows's article, you must have something specific in mind. Could you share it?

Daniel Kuehn writes:

That challenge is probably too easy - I'm sure he blamed leaders during Republican years.

We should be blaming leaders in Republican and Democratic years, and we should be highlighting dysfunctions in the system in Republican and Democratic years. And I'm sure Fallows has blamed both the leaders and the system in Democratic and Republican periods. I guess what I'm getting at is that you sort of just declare what Fallows does and what this "progressive narrative" is, and maybe just declaring it suits you but I honestly have no idea what the hell you're talking about.

Tom West writes:

Arnold, this sounds like the inverse of the progressives that were certain that GWB and other conservatives would cancel the elections of some such nonsense when it was clear their reign was coming to an end.

To my eye, such accusations sound silly coming at it from either direction.

As well, your points are essentially asking progressives to acknowledge that the truth might lie somewhere in the center and more importantly, that they may not know the truth.

This is fine, but if they *did* acknowledge such uncertainty about their policy decisions, they wouldn't be progressives, they'd be centrists.

More to the point, any side that doesn't have people who are absolutely certain about the truth of their position is never going to succeed. If I'm 75% certain a policy is going to be beneficial, I'm never going to have a chance to enact it against the opposition of people who are 100% certain that the policy is wrong. The populace may not like the fanatics on either side, but they'll rarely support someone who has *no* fanatics on their side.

Policy decisions and political success is like a tug of war. The end decision may be in the middle, but woe betide you if you have no irrationally certain people pulling their hearts out on your end.

I may be to the left (especially here) in my beliefs, but lack of certainty in the absolute truth of my beliefs would make me a liability in a political arena. That's been made explicitly clear a number of times in my youth :-).

Lord writes:

Reads like standard Republican blather. Perhaps they should start looking at the world as it is rather than as they wish to believe it were. I don't see any problem with progressives confusing facts and ideology, just a belief facts triumph in the end. Nor with artificial public/private dichotomies that have to find fault with the public to preserve faith in the private, but rather an understanding the public is another human institution with the same foibles as private and that crises may be unavoidable. That the stimulus was too small from the start, but more likely would have been too small whatever the size because this is simply beyond the capability of government to provide and that stabilization was always the most that could be expected. Nor that governments and markets are two separate entities and more of one means less of the other rather than both needing and reinforcing each other, and that markets are not self organizing or have the same values as desired individually. Rather we see a nuanced reasoned insight that sees both what might be accomplished and its limitations and a caricatured black and white, good and evil, that resorts to base labels when arguments fail them.

SydB writes:

"then the U.S. could be pretty dangerous over the next couple of decades."

e.g. the Iraq war which Mr Kling supported and conservatives spearheaded?

"The Progressive narrative is that when Republicans are in power, blame the leaders. When Democrats are in power, blame the country. "

Wait. I remember conservatives and religious leaders bemoaning the declining morals, the lack of christian values, etc during the Clinton years. In fact, did not two of our major religious leaders blame American for 9/11 (you know, the lesbians and abortionists)? Yes they did.

"the bank bailouts may have served mainly to bail out banks, and the stimulus may have served mainly to bail out state and local governments. Neither may have been effective at reducing unemployment."

You've not been reading progressive blogs or writers. That is THE progressive narrative at many of them.

"The Progressives long for a world in which they can make decisions without facing a skeptical public."

This is boiler plate. All leaders prefer a subservient public. Hence the Bush administration's "we create reality" mind-set.

"It is my thesis in Unchecked and Unbalanced that the Progressive ideology is in a state of decline, because in the age of the Internet knowledge is becoming more dispersed"

I can't help think this thesis is simply your desire, not something based upon facts on the ground.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

SydB -
RE: "I can't help think this thesis is simply your desire, not something based upon facts on the ground."

Here here!

I came back and was surprised to see how much push-back came up. I was expecting people would be criticizing my initial point!

Sure would be nice to hear some justifications from Arnold about now. The consensus seems to be that his concerns come across as baseless.

Jim Glass writes:

... what is dangerous is a country that believes that is on the way down but thinks it retains just enough military power to halt the decline ...

The greatest danger ever in this regard was the Soviet Union. (And it was, considering the Soviets' history from day one of using force to grab territory etc., to prop itself up, and recent revelations about its internal politics in its last days.) We were lucky. Appreciate it.

The comparative danger from the US is nought. Whom are we going to start a World War or nuclear war with to prop up our position? If we were going to nuke the French for dissing us we already would have.

As for talking a lot about "America in decline" when haven't the chattering classes been yammering on about this?

Brocephus writes:

SydB and Daniel:

"I can't help think this thesis is simply your desire, not something based upon facts on the ground"

It would be hard to base a theory like this on "fact". The general point is that a progressive leader believes in the power of "experts", which in many ways is at odds with a democratic process. The decentralization of knowledge and information (i.e. the internet) brings this incompatibility to the forefront.

I would concede that Bush II often acted like a technocrat himself.

Chris writes:

Kling: "then the U.S. could be pretty dangerous over the next couple of decades."

SydB: e.g. the Iraq war which Mr Kling supported and conservatives spearheaded?

Probably not a good example, since the US actions were less about expanding power (or halting its decline) than about dealing with a medium-term terrorist threat. If I understand correctly, the principal goals were to eliminate the risk of WMD being transferred from Saddam's government to a terrorist organization, and to intimidate other powers in the region into slowing/halting their WMD programs. This appears to have worked with the Libyan fission bomb effort, and may have slowed the Iranian one.

Kling: "The Progressives long for a world in which they can make decisions without facing a skeptical public."

SydB: This is boiler plate. All leaders prefer a subservient public.

I can't agree with this. In fact, much of the rationale for limited-government conservatism comes from the idea that an *active*, *moral*, and *self-disciplined* citizenry do not require much intervention on the part of government; rather, they will self-organize and find more efficient and effective solutions than government could impose. This relates to the earlier comment about conservatives bemoaning the decline of moral values in America: as the citizens become less moral they need increasingly pervasive government and therefore suffer a loss of liberty. Conservatives also tend to suspect that pervasive government *produces* moral decay, so you can end up with a vicious cycle.

Daniel Kuehn: Sure would be nice to hear some justifications from Arnold about now. The consensus seems to be that his concerns come across as baseless.

I don't see a consensus here.

SydB: I remember conservatives and religious leaders bemoaning the declining morals, the lack of christian values, etc during the Clinton years. In fact, did not two of our major religious leaders blame American for 9/11 (you know, the lesbians and abortionists)? Yes they did.

I don't remember any such assertions on the conservative side (not that that means they weren't made). I'd be curious what the rationale would be to which connects lesbians and abortionists to the terror attacks; it's not obvious.

I do clearly remember hearing America blamed for the attacks by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Lord: Nor with artificial public/private dichotomies that have to find fault with the public to preserve faith in the private, but rather an understanding the public is another human institution with the same foibles as private and that crises may be unavoidable.

Actually, it's been argued fairly convincingly (in EconTalk, by several guests) that the public and private sectors behave rather differently with respect to the incentives faced by individuals within them, and that the public sector tends to produce different, and probably much worse, foibles than the private.

DavidW writes:

"Both Germany and Austria believed themselves to be on the way down."
This hypothesis is highly unlikely, for Germany at least, and can be easily debunked by simply checking out the economic data of that time. Germany was about to outperform pretty much everyone else around. The 'way down'- angst was rather the reason for the British to side with her colonial 'competitor' France. Just check the economic data of those days.

fundamentalist writes:

I have read in Nial Ferguson's book on WWI that Austria had been looking for a pretext to take control of Serbia for many years after it gained independence from the Ottomans.

Really nice summary of the Fallows article in Atlantic! Progressives have double standards for everything.

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