The progressive dream, described by Walter Russell Mead, of governments "guided by credentialed intellectuals [who would] play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor" is currently in its death throes. Government by the "best and brightest" does not work.
The bureaucratic social welfare states of Western Europe have for decades proven economically sclerotic compared both to the United States and the developing countries of Asia. And today they are rapidly going broke. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy announced last year, "We can't finance our social model anymore."
In an attempt to emulate the European model, the United States has incurred four trillion dollars in debt under President Obama, over 25% of that accrued in the entire history of the republic, and suffered the humiliation of the first downgrade of America's credit rating in response. Local and state governments have amassed trillions more in unfunded pension plan obligations.
Once indulged, the temptation to turn every good and service into a "human right" proves irresistible and the list of such "rights" infinitely expanding. The Rothschild tent protestors have simply joined the process at the very end. Eventually, however, as Europe is discovering, the money runs out.
THE SCHEMES DEVISED by the progressive "best and brightest" become increasingly complex and unworkable. Obamacare, an effort to redesign every aspect of American health care, one-sixth of the overall economy, is a case in point. The thousands of waivers issued so far – mostly to political allies who were the most ardent advocates of Obamacare – testify to its poor design. President Obama's promise, "If you are happy with your present health insurance, you can keep it," will become a mockery, as private businesses prepare to drop employee coverage in droves.
The Global Green Carbon Treaty, designed by those promoting climate change as an imminent threat to the viability of mankind, constitutes, in its flight from reality, today's version of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Treaty outlawing war. It would require developing countries to voluntarily limit their economic growth, and implementation would depend on the creation of a world government to monitor the greenhouse output of every factory, farm, and car in the world. The Council of Foreign Relations' Mead writes, "the sheer expense, complexity and unwieldliness of the GGCT" render its adoption a near impossibility.
The bureaucracies upon with the progressive state depends inevitably take on a life of their own; they grow without adapting to changing circumstances. The American social security system, designed at a time when the life expectancy of primarily male wage earners was 58, to ensure that those who had worked hard all their lives not spend their last few years in penury, is unsustainable as life expectancies have increased by two decades or more.
Initially well-designed programs morph into something else to serve their respective bureaucracies and the industries symbiotically linked to those bureaucracies. Fannie Mae, for instance, went from making mortgages more easily available to middle-class couples to actively pushing mortgages on the uncreditworthy – abetted by the housing industry – until in brought the entire American financial system crashing down.
WESTERN SOCIAL DEMOCRACIES are founded on a sordid bargain. In return for providing ever larger swaths of the population with a growing bag of goodies, the grateful recipients acquiesce in the rule of the "best and brightest." As Theodore Darlrymple trenchantly observes, "Swedish Social Democrats understood long ago that if more than half the population became economically dependent on government, either directly or indirectly, no government of any party can easily change the arrangement."
The result of that bargain is not only bankruptcy, but the decline of national human capital. The more government does for people, the less they do for one another or themselves, even to the point of being unwilling to defend themselves. (Witness the negligible Western European military budgets.)
Social commentators across the political spectrum have finally awakened to the cost of multi-generational welfare dependency. The recent looting in England and "flash mobs" of black teenagers who terrorize whites or suddenly descend on upscale stores like locusts in the United States – both utilizing their hand-held social media devices to organize – reflect the result of welfare policies: "a layer of young people with no skills, education, values, or aspirations," in the words of British essayist Max Hastings. "They have no 'life', as we know it; they simply exist." In their view, things just happen to them; they are never responsible for their lives in any way.
Darlrymple, who knows the British underclass well from his more than a decade working as a prison psychiatrist, describes young people who have never tasted a morsel of food or worn a garment paid for by money earned. Six hundred thousand Britons have reached 26 never having worked a day; 17% of British youth are not in school, working, or in training programs. But dependence does not breed gratitude; only a sense of entitlement to more.
Far from arresting cultural decline, Great Society social programs in America appear to have accelerated it. By nearly every measure – unemployment, graduation rates, achievement on standardized tests, drug use, teenage pregnancy – American inner cities have declined since 1970. Black economist Walter Williams relates that as a young man he slept in his cab in the Philadelphia between shifts. Today that would be suicidal.
Stable, two-parent families were far more common in the Harlem in which Williams' fellow economist Thomas Sowell grew up than they are today. Support for single mothers encouraged black men to evade responsibility for their children. Seventy per cent of black children today are born to single mothers. Welfare also broke the connection between work and advancement that even the most menial entry level job supplies.
Until the enactment of the first federal minimum wage law in the 1930, rates of black unemployment were lower than that for whites and the duration of their unemployment shorter. Over the last decade, the three largest American cities have shed 700,000 jobs. The progressive preference for a more orderly, non-polluting, bureaucratic society, requiring licenses and permits for every activity, has resulted in few and fewer of the urban metal shops and small businesses that formerly employed poorly educated blacks – admittedly in unpleasant conditions and at low wages, but at least providing first rung jobs towards future advancement.
THE RESULT OF THE MANIFEST FAILURE of the modern social welfare state has been a crisis of confidence in elites. Former Jerusalem Post editor Bret Stephens engaged in the ultimate lese-majesty in daring to ask in the Wall Street Journal "Is Obama Smart: A case study in stupid is as stupid does?" Obama, he argued, lacks both Socrates' definition of the highest form of knowledge – knowledge of what one does not know – and the primary Aristotelean intellectual virtue of prudence, which requires experience.
Having been told that the government could print nearly 800 billion dollars and distribute those dollars efficiently – in large part to Democratic political constituencies – and then having witnessed unemployment soar a full point higher than the peak promised by Obama, the public is in no mood to trust in his superior wisdom or believe that more government is the cure for the failure of the dramatic increase in government under him.
The elites and their enablers in the mainstream media, educated in the same schools and raised on the same creed, have reacted with outrage to those questioning their superior wisdom. Republican legislators are jihadists intent "on blowing up our government," according the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne. The New York Times Paul Krugman lashes out at the media for even bothering to report economic prescriptions contrary to his own, even those that bear the imprimatur of fellow Nobel Laureates. Senator John Kerry criticized the media for covering the Tea Party at all, despite the fact that a quarter of the American public identifies with its views.
"[T]he progressive belief that human beings can be perfected through the rule of experts," observes the Hoover Institutes's Peter Berkowitz, has run smack against the public's rejection of progressive dictates, provoking progressive contempt and outrage. But the public is right. The progressive elites are but the latest avatars of the builders of Tower of Babel, who imagined themselves equal to G-d Himself.