All Commentary
Monday, April 4, 2016

The Political Crackup

The old order is going away and that's a great thing


Join the crowd if you are feeling bummed about this year’s election season.

The likely nominees for both major parties have never been more unpopular than they are today. This is one reason that our times seem so grim. The New York Times published this chart to make the point.

At the same time — no coincidence — government has never been less popular. See this Pew report:

Meanwhile, for the first time, new attention is being paid to the Libertarian Party primary election. Perhaps it will fall to this previously marginal party to absorb some of the political energy out there. The John Stossel program on Fox Business featured a debate between would-be nominees. Maybe this will be the party’s year. If there doesn’t seem to be much at stake in the mainstream choices, why not use your vote to make a statement that might be heard?

But of course the American political system is rigged to be a duopoly. It is winner take all. The Libertarian Party is not likely to change that, but it can introduce a bit of chaos by serving as a spoiler. In that case, it can’t but make a valuable contribution to the continuing crackup of the system.

The events of the past few years have unfolded gradually in real time, but quickly in the sweep of American history. At what point did the political system’s bad PR become so entrenched? Maybe we can date it from the Obamacare mess. Half the country has always opposed it and that hasn’t changed. But polls also show that fewer people support it than ever before. This is right. It’s the biggest uptick in regulatory/welfare control in a generation, and it’s been a mess.

Or maybe the crackup dates from the financial crisis of 2008 and the Washington response. Housing was supposed to be the great asset that would never fall. Whoops. Then they spent trillions of dollars to patch up the financial system and only ended up generating lackluster growth at best. GDP since then has trended toward a flat line. And real median household income is today what it was 20 years ago. Just by looking at that data, you could anticipate serious political upheavals.

 Or perhaps it dates from the events of 9-11 and the response to them. The never-ending wars have not brought security but more radicalization, insecurity, and a migration crisis. Trump, for example, stunned many when he openly said that the Iraq War was a disaster, but his statement also connected with people.

Actually, This Is Great

The political crackup taking place before our very eyes is widely seen as terrible news. But why? It’s actually wonderful to see, and seems almost inevitable in retrospect. The less people are trusting of government, the more people seek trust in themselves, their neighbors, and their communities. That government on net adds ever less value to our lives is apparent in ways it hasn’t been in our lifetimes.

In practice, our daily lives depend ever less on government services. We live on smartphones and mobile applications that government did not invent. We communicate more broadly and aggressively than ever thanks to private services that have broken up the old opinion cartels. We work in content clouds that no one in Congress invented. More Americans are choosing riding sharing, homeschooling, and private arbitration. Cities are selling off property to private investors. Employers are using services that are global in reach. Some people are just leaving for good.

This is a reaction to a government that has long presumed that it knows better than members of society. Liberty has suffered. It’s hardly possible to do anything today without dealing with some government mandate, restriction, or prohibition. Every sector of life has been compromised under this model of government planning and intervention. 

The Coming End to a Paradigm

The idea of a state that knows no limits to its power is what the historian of science Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm. This is a theoretical presumption concerning how the world does or should work. The experiment began with labor laws, factory regulation, income taxes, central banking, and war on a global scale. It proceeded with prohibition, fiscal manipulation, the building of the welfare state, and grand national programs for retirement. And of course this is joined with ever-increasing taxes and monetary depreciation.

The theme of this paradigm is unmistakable. It said that if we just get intelligent people in power and give them enough resources, they will always do a better job than the market or the social order in bringing about the best possible life for everyone. And so, the state has been on the march, taking over more and more of life. It’s been brought to us by politicians of all ideological stripes. Whether they claimed to be left or right, they always had an agenda. And it always impacted our lives in the negative.

Kuhn says that paradigms fail when too many anomalies become readily apparent. The theorists promised that the current paradigm would explain, yet it turns out only to confuse. It is supposed to improve life, when it only ends up increasing suffering. It is supposed to stabilize, when it actually creates chaos. When the real world fills up with anomalies, this injures the credibility of the paradigm, which eventually collapses.

What Displaces the State?

How exactly does this happen? It is unpredictable. But if we look at recent upheavals against state control — the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reform in China, the Arab Spring — the collapse of credibility of the political class and its works is a necessary step. The political system stops performing. People turn in a different direction.

A way to look at the seemingly depressing outlook on politics is that it masks a lovely trend in precisely this direction. And unlike in the past, we really do have all the tools we need today to make a vibrant, productive, and prosperous anarchy work for everyone.

So if the political process is dragging you down, there are many paths to a cure. Go to a local tech meetup and meet the wonderful minds behind a new world being born. Go visit a thriving business and see how people are able to overcome every barrier. Check out next-world applications like Open Bazaar and Ethereum. Here is the source of life and energy in the world. It’s also our future.