The story thus far at The Permanent Problem: Capitalism in the 21st century has triumphed globally and there are no viable alternatives in sight, but its powers as an engine of social progress have been faltering. We have achieved material plenty in the rich democracies, but translating that into widespread flourishing thus far eludes us. Technological progress and economic growth are sputtering; society is riven by a new class divide along educational lines, with the elite thriving on one side while a contagion of social disintegration spreads on the other.
This is the conversation America needs to hear. Much has been written about "performative politics" and celebrity in America, but no one seems to understand the culture it has created. Thanks for the effort.
Lots of good points. But "expressive rationality" sounds pretty much like "creation science".
And casting "Medicare for all" as some kind of crazy radicalism is problematic, to put it mildly.
The younger right, which is far more interested in culture and aesthetics than its predecessors - see the fascination with architecture and BAP-y hard bodies - has no problem diving head first into this shift to expression and identity.
Most of the practitioners of "expressive rationality" are much better at expression than rationality. Indeed, I wouldn't apply the term at all to the right, which shares fascism's attraction to irrationality. I guess it works fairly well for parts of the academic left: at least those who are capable of generating the slogans parroted by others.
Your essay refers to American politics and supposed values. I agree with the majority of your comment, however I live in the UK and everything you pen here applies equally to our political and economic realities also, a western problem not confined to US alone I fear.
One tractable structural problem is the bad incentives baked into large-scale elections. We need large-scale democratic governance, but large-scale elections are not the only way to get that: jury-like citizen assemblies and sortition are another path, and might address both performative politics and disempowerment of ordinary people. I wrote about that, trying to synthesize a bunch of recent thinking about alternatives to elections:
As one of the comments says, I don't have any great ideas about how to get there from here other than "do local pilots to prove the concept," but having an inspiring alternative direction has some value in itself.
Great writing & thinking, thank you.
Another terrific analysis, Mr Lindsey. You should follow my substack The Neoliberal Standard. It’s all about moving political thought in America in a more pro-growth, responsible, fiscally conservative direction. I’ve referenced your book The Captured Economy in a few blog posts. You might enjoy
While certainly politics has continued to get much worse for all the reasons you mention, given public choice dynamics and political ignorance, the fundamental dynamics are old. Mancur Olson showed the basic democratic dynamics that resulted in politicians catering to special interests. Getting partisan publics to froth at the mouth over symbolic cultural issues while the special interests get their goodies given to them is certainly not a new phenomenon, even if it is more egregious these days.
The constitution was designed to reduce the extent to which these dynamics would be destructive, but in the 20th century those constitutional safeguards against government overreach were gradually eroded. The reason figures such as Hayek and Buchanan shifted to constitutional design were because they realized that in the absence of adequate constitutional safeguards, public choice dynamics inevitably led to "demosclerosis," in Jonathan Rauch's felicitous phrasing.
I became depressed about politics when I learned public choice in the 1980s. Since then, no negative outcome has been the least bit surprising. Spend trillions on foreign interventions killing innocent people while making things worse off? Yep. Spend a trillion on the drug war, killing many thousands of people, imprisoning millions, while destroying civil liberties. Yep. Reward special interests endlessly with subsidies and regulatory favors while claiming to be acting in the public interest (bootleggers and baptists 101)? Yep. And so on. Will politics 5 years from now still be mostly cultural symbolism while special interests continue to enrich themselves? Yes, predictably.
The safest bet is that we will have a fiscal crisis/catastrophe/collapse at some point in the next few years (5-15?), with an unknown degree of suffering and violence associated with it. But neither party shows the least bit of seriousness towards avoiding such an outcome. I have zero expectation that the federal government will solve any problems effectively in the foreseeable future.
After that collapse, our best hope is to dramatically reduce the scope of federal government so that we can rebuild dynamism. Lotus and Bennett's America 3.0 is the best vision here,
If not, we'll slog on as some variation on Argentina or Detroit, Chicago or SF, with anyone who can afford to escape doing so, and the rest suffering through whatever mediocre hell awaits.
In the meantime, the school choice revolution will prepare a larger percentage of young people for social mobility in an uncertain future despite the nightmare that awaits many. Through digital work, creative and entrepreneurial workers will continue to do well as long as they can compete globally. Beyond software dev, American branding, marketing, design, and cultural production has an edge that is likely to last for some time to come. I expect many of our teens are likely to be early adopters of new AI technologies in ways that will continue to leverage their creative and entrepreneurial skills to keep ahead of most of the rest of the world. Those with access to the right kind of cultural capital, either through their families or through innovative schools that provide such access (affordable to all thanks to ESA programs), will do fine.
Jurisdictions globally, new and existing, will provide more places for those who can afford to escape to do so. Expats and digital nomads will live in a world of jurisdictions competing for the capital and talent they bring. Maybe a few states in the US will manage to remain competitive despite the federal level disasters. If Native tribes obtain enough legal autonomy to avoid federal legislation they may become really exciting hubs of dynamism as the rest of the US stagnates. But anyone depending on the federal government to do the right thing is likely to be screwed.
Another great read. Can anything be learnt of the pragmatists of north east Asia in the late 20th century? A different world entirely but there may be a valuable sentiment from that time that is of use today.