Pulling the Plug (On the legitimacy of the federal government)
There is a famous phrase in American politics: “the consent of the governed.” It is an important phrase. It is the essence of political legitimacy.
Throughout most of history, the consent of the governed has been grudging. People put up with the political system they live in. They think it is not worth their time to fool around with politics. The overwhelming number of people throughout history have ignored politics except its special election times. This has been a wise attitude. Salvation is not by politics.
The only society in history that has enjoyed nearly full-time interest in politics by the masses was classical Athens. It was a society that rested economically on slavery. Athens committed suicide through its empire and war. Alexander “the Great” had no trouble defeating Athens and Sparta. He was not a democrat. He had studied democracy under Aristotle, and he had contempt for it.
Classical Athens believed in salvation by politics. That religion did not last a century.
What most people want most of the time is to be left alone by civil government. They do not want to be bothered by the technical details of civil government. This always benefits political insiders and the small fraction of the population that is actively involved in politics.
CONSENT IS NOT GUARANTEED
We forget what should be obvious: grudging consent is nevertheless consent. People grouse about the government, but they rarely get involved in politics except to vote in major elections.
People groused about the government in the Soviet Union. The government even had a humor magazine that allowed a certain amount of criticism of local bureaucrats. It was titled Krokodil. People went into slave labor camps for open criticism of the Communist Party, but the Party allowed a certain latitude of criticism of the bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are always a problem for politicians. They can successfully resist political change. Politicians never trust bureaucrats, any more than the general public does. This is one of those rare examples of the shared wisdom of the general public and politicians.
The Soviet Union and its satellites in 1989 constituted the largest continuous empire in history, and it was also an enormous empire in terms of the number of people under its control. Yet it fell in 1991 almost without bloodshed. There was no organized revolution. But the Communist elite at the top had lost the will to govern. The Soviet Union had suffered a major military defeat in Afghanistan, 1979-88. Then its client state, Iraq, had its military destroyed in February 1991. Iraq used Soviet weaponry. The Soviet generals saw that the high-tech weapons of the United States had made Soviet military technology obsolete. When an empire that is based on military conquest and military control can no longer win on the battlefield, it has reached the end of the line — the party line. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev gave the world the greatest Christmas present in history. He shut down the Soviet Union. The empire was no more.
This event had been predicted in a 1970 book by Andrei Amalrik, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? The hypothesis was considered inconceivable when it was published, yet it missed the date by only seven years. He was not sure whether the Soviet Union would disintegrate into anarchy or become a federation. It became a federation.
The Russian people had grudgingly accepted the legitimacy of the USSR right up until its last day. What happened was that the elites at the top lost faith in the system. That was certainly true after 1980. It took only a decade for this loss of faith at the top to translate into the complete breakdown of the Soviet Empire.
Today, all across the West, voters have upended the political elites. In Great Britain, Brexit was the first sign. It caught the elites by surprise. But what happened this month was another sign. Prime Minister May believed in May that she could call a snap election and solidify the control of the Conservative Party over Parliament. In fact, the Conservative Party lost control of Parliament this month. Now she is trying to build a coalition government through an alliance with a really seriously conservative political movement, one launched in 1970 by a true critic of modern politics, Rev. Ian Paisley. He was a firebrand anti-Catholic preacher in Northern Ireland. While the party today is not as radical and as far to the Right as it was under Paisley, it is anti-abortion, anti-elite, and anti-establishment. May is going to have to eat a big heaping of crow to put together a new government.
How could any British Prime Minister make a bonehead move like this? This is one of the classic bonehead moves in the history of British politics. This one is going to get into the textbooks. She completely misjudged the electorate. She hadn’t a clue as to what the voters were ready to do to her in her party. She did what was considered inconceivable as recently as a month ago. She made Jeremy Corbyn look presentable. She guaranteed the survival of his leadership of the Labour Party.
She is a mush-mouth person of limited intellectual abilities. She is a lifetime politician. She has no ideology. She also has poor political judgment. She is paid to have good political judgment.
The elites are losing touch with the electorates all over the West.
In the United States, the presidency is literally being undermined today. There are about a half a dozen investigations of Trump going on in Congress. He is unlikely to be impeached, and unlikely to be convicted if he is impeached, but it is clear that his presidency and his aspirations have been dropped into the ashcan of history. He is not going to get any cooperation from Congress. He is going to spend his entire presidency under siege.
The people who support him now know the truth: Washington is completely corrupt.
Washington has been completely corrupt for well over a century. This is nothing new. Mark Twain wrote about it in the late 19th century. The difference is this: Washington invades every area of our lives today. It is doing what the public generally does not want it to do: interfere. The public wants to be left alone. The public does not want to concern itself with politics. But the breakdown of consensus is pushing politics onto the front pages of the few newspapers that still publish printed editions.
We are watching what appear to be preteen boys arguing over marbles in the school yard. The stakes are so low, and the rhetoric is so high, that people who normally don’t pay much attention to politics cannot get away from it.
The devoted followers of Hillary and the devoted followers of Trump will never be able to get this settled politically. The country is now politically divided. Short of a war or a catastrophe economically, there is not going to be much unity.
THE POLITICS OF PLUNDER
There is going to be a tremendous economic setback in the next recession. When that comes, the federal government’s share of spending is going to increase. People will desperately look to the government for bailouts. The public will continue to grant legitimacy to the federal government for as long as the government sends checks out. The government will send out large checks to the elite, but it will have to send out enough checks to unemployed people to justify its existence. The welfare state will grow, and this will be its last hurrah. It is going to reach the bottom of the well. The blood is going to be drained out of the still solvent political turnips.
Sometime over the next 20 years, the discretionary portion of the federal budget will fall to zero. Then politics will be a matter of taking one slice of pie away from an entrenched special-interest group, and transferring this slice of pie to another entrenched group. New groups will not be allowed into the pie-slicing operation. New programs will not come into existence. New spending on non-discretionary programs of the federal government will not occur. Non-discretionary components of the federal government’s budget will disappear.
The welfare state will then be a political battlefield. Each group will attempt to extract its pound of flesh from the Federal Reserve System or investors in Treasury debt. Interest rates will finally start back up. Interest payments by the federal government will escalate. Politics will then become a war among the special-interest groups, each of which will be desperate to drain more wealth out of Washington.
At some point, Washington is not going to be able to send out the promised checks to all of the members of special-interest groups that have been promised these checks. That is when legitimacy will be revoked by the voters. That will be the end of the consent of the governed.
The governed are willing to put up with an arbitrary federal government for only as long as the checks keep coming. The voters’ grudging support of the federal government and the major political parties is completely dependent on the ability of the government to extract loot from one group and send it to members of the other group. This is the politics of plunder. Politics has been the politics of plunder. But the level of plunder, and the dependence of those who are dependent on plunder, is now on a scale in the United States that it has never been before.
All over the West, welfare states are reaching the limits of the public’s willingness to accept another round of plunder. The politics of plunder is at last hitting the famous brick wall. The public consents to be governed today only on this basis: each group extracts its promised share of the loot. When this promise is broken, special-interest groups are going to revoke their consent. They are going to go into resistance mode.
Here is the famous bottom line: when special-interest groups cannot extract any additional wealth through political plunder, politics will then shift to retaining the existing level of looting. But this will not be possible fiscally. Politics will then be based on whose sacred cow is going to be slaughtered next.
We have seen this already: the USSR in the 1980’s. The Soviet Union finally ran out of wealth to extract.
Before the year 2050, the politics of plunder will be restructured radically. With every slaughter of an additional sacred cow, another special-interest group is going to revoke legitimacy to the federal government.
When the federal government starts pulling the plug on Granny, Granny and her peers are going to pull the plug on the political legitimacy of the federal government. That will be a great day indeed.