The latest much-ado-about-nothing crisis passed, with a result that should seem familiar. In 2008, Americans were told that if the TARP bill (a $787 billion taxpayer-funded welfare handout to large banking institutions) wasn’t passed, the stock market would crash and massive unemployment would follow. After an unsuccessful first attempt to pass the bill amidst angry opposition from constituents, the bill passed on a second vote. Subsequently, there was a stock market crash followed by massive unemployment.
This time, our political/media cabal told us that if Congress was unable to pass a bill to raise the debt ceiling, that the government would not be able to meet its short term obligations, including rolling over short term bonds with new debt. U.S. debt would be downgraded from its AAA status, and a default would be imminent. After the melodrama, Congress passed the bill raising the debt ceiling. Standard and Poor’s subsequently downgraded U.S. Treasury debt anyway, and deep down everyone knows that a default is coming as well, one way or another.
We are seeing the end of a paradigm. Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that anomalies eventually lead to revolutions in scientific paradigms. His argument holds equally true for political paradigms as well.
A paradigm is a framework within which a society bases its beliefs. For example, people at one time believed that the forces of nature were the work of a pantheon of gods. Sunlight came from one god, rain from another. The earth was a god, as was the moon. With nothing to disprove the premises of the paradigm, it persisted. People went on believing that sunlight and rain were the work of sun and rain gods because there was no compelling reason for them to believe otherwise.
However, within any paradigm there are anomalies. Anomalies are contradictions – phenomena that cannot be explained within the framework of the paradigm. People have a startling capacity to ignore or rationalize away these anomalies. While it may defy logic to continue to believe that rain comes from a rain god even after evaporation and condensation has been discovered and proven, people would rather ignore the anomalies and cling to the paradigm than face the fact that the paradigm is false.
Once there are too many anomalies, the paradigm fails, and a new one must take its place. This new paradigm renders the old one absurd, even crazy. At some point in the future, people will look back on the political paradigm of the 20th and early 21st centuries in just this manner. There is at least one thing that will be quite obvious to them: centralized government is insane.
Consider the premises upon which this present paradigm relies: All facets of society must be planned and managed by experts. The judgment of the experts trumps the rights or choices of any individual. The choices made by the experts will result in a more orderly society and greater happiness for the individuals who comprise it. There will be better results from one small group of experts controlling everyone than multiple groups of experts controlling smaller subgroups of society.
Of course, libertarians reject every one of these assumptions on its face. A free society does not tolerate “planning” or “management” by anyone. All choices are left to the individual, as any attempt to plan or manage his affairs amounts to either violation of his liberty, looting of his property, or both. However, let’s assume that the first three assumptions of the present paradigm are valid and merely examine the last. Even that does not hold up to scrutiny.
Suppose an entrepreneur starts a business. At first, his market is local. He opens retail outlets that are managed by store managers. The entrepreneur is the CEO of the company and manages the store managers. Even at this point, the CEO must trust day-to-day decisions to his managers. He has no time to make everyday decisions as he tries to grow his business. The managers do this for him and he concentrates on strategic goals.
His business is successful and soon he begins opening outlets outside of the original market. He now has a need for regional managers to manage the store managers. He manages the regional managers and leaves the details of how they operate within their regions to them.
The business continues to grow. With retail outlets in every state, there are now too many regions for the CEO to manage directly. The CEO appoints executive directors to manage larger regions, each comprising several smaller ones. There is an executive director for the west coast, another for the Midwest, and another for the east coast. Of course, the CEO has the assistance of his corporate vice presidents who manage sales, operations, human resources, and other company-wide functions from the corporate office.
Now, suppose that one day the CEO decides to fire the executive directors, the regional managers, and the store managers. He will now have the salespeople, stock clerks, and cashiers for thousands of retail outlets report directly to him and his corporate vice presidents. Would anyone view this decision as anything but insane?
As silly as this proposition sounds, this is a perfect analogy for how we have chosen to organize society for the past century. The paradigm rests upon the assumption that every societal problem can better be solved if the CEO and his corporate staff manage the cashiers and the salespeople directly. Like all failed paradigms, anomalies are piling up that refute its basic assumptions.
This paradigm assumes that centralized government can provide a comfortable retirement with medical benefits for average Americans, yet Social Security and Medicare are bankrupt. It assumes that a central bank can ensure full employment and a stable currency, yet the value of the dollar is plummeting and unemployment approaches record highs (especially when the same measuring stick is used as when the old records were set). It assumes that the national government’s military establishment can police the world, yet the most powerful military in history cannot even defeat guerrilla fighters in third world nations. It assumes that the central government can win a war on drugs, yet drug use is higher than at any time in history. It assumes that experts in Washington can regulate commerce, medicine, and industry, yet we get Bernie Madoff, drug recalls, and massive oil spills.
Hundreds of years ago, the prevailing medical science paradigm assumed that illnesses were caused by “bad humors” in the blood. Based upon that assumption, doctors practiced the now-discredited procedure known as “bleeding.” They would literally cut open a patient’s vein in an attempt to bleed out the bad humors. As we now know, this treatment often killed the patient, George Washington being a notable example. Most rational people today view the practice of bleeding as nothing short of lunacy.
Ironically, this is a perfect analogy for the paradigm of centralized government. The very act of a small group of experts attempting to manage all of society drains its lifeblood. It is the un-coerced decisions of millions of individuals that create all of the blessings of civilized society. It is the attempt by a small group of people to override those decisions that is killing society before our very eyes. Someday, people will look back on our foolishness and laugh as we do now at the misguided physicians who bled their patients to death. The present paradigm is dying. The revolution has begun.
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.