Populism, tea parties, constitutions, climate change

Does the U.S. face a period of indiscriminate populism in its political life? New York Times columnist David Brooks thinks so:

Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year. The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.

…The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy — with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.

When I got to end of the column I said to myself, “Okay, so Brooks thinks the financial crisis has created a general crisis in social authority.” But look closely: Brooks doesn’t actually mention the financial crisis or the recession at all. He provides a prediction without a shred of diagnosis. He doesn’t, technically, get beyond mentioning a “sour mood” in pinpointing the reasons for populist reaction.

I don’t know that his story holds up. Is opposition to abortion stronger in the United States now than it was in, say, 1982? There are a lot of evangelical Tea Partiers, but what appears to make the Tea Partiers different from the old Moral Majority is precisely the lack of shared religious premises. The premise is, “Get off our backs.” The movement is an instinctual, angry resistance to political engineering by centralized, distant authority, whether it’s the engineering of communities, individuals, or small businesses.

To a first approximation it looks libertarian. It’s actually subsidiarist: it’s against big central authority because it is big and central, not because it’s authority. Procedurally, a lot of libertarians are practical subsidiarists on the grounds that this is the best way of broadly guaranteeing liberty. Small local authorities have natural limits to their power (they can’t become totalitarian), they can be shamed by comparison to immediate neighbours, and they are easier to vote against with one’s feet. But subsidiarism should not be confused with libertarianism or classical liberalism. They are, to some degree, orthogonal quantities.

And in some ways they are inherently in tension with one another. In the U.S. context (and in ours), some federal interventions, Roe v. Wade being an obvious example, are designed to protect the individual from her community. The essential comic heart of all American politics, beating loudly in the breasts of every Tea Partier, is that the U.S. Constitution is the big, centralized, dumb, unconditional, non-local authority to end all such authorities—a personal guarantee, to every living soul from sea to sea, of liberal republican government whether he likes it or not. The Constitution is often considered to have the stamp of divinity upon it, and is spoken of that way even by people who may not literally believe such a thing; and every party cites the Constitution (leaning on its spirit or its letter, as the occasion requires) against every other, just as opposition parties in monarchies used to argue that the king needed “rescuing” from his evil advisors.

(Don’t snicker too loudly, by the way: Canada shall end up that way before too long. We have already seen our Charter of Rights dissociated from the modest, limited intentions of its framers, some of whom are still alive, and cited against them. The document is acquiring a nimbus of divinity before our eyes.)

Anyway, what was I talking about? Right, David Brooks. He raises the interesting possibility, though tacitly, that the economic train wreck of 2008-09 may have helped promote or dignify climate-change doubt. Politicians and policymakers, listening carefully to the best advice of a consensus of accredited experts and considering the implications, led us headlong into a bramble of bad mortgages and crazy debt-commoditization instruments over the objections of a few commonsensical skeptics. But don’t worry: when it comes to the climate, those same educated people are really really sure they’re right!

There are all kinds of reasons laymen should beware of making a connection like this, but some certainly are. To the degree that the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis is a product of “hard science”, that science does not deserve to be compared to macroeconomics, where first principles are still poorly confirmed and subject to wide disagreement. “Hard science” is, in general, the most successful intellectual project in the history of the species. On the other hand, there’s hard and then there’s hard. AGW actually involves a chain of propositions ranging on the “hardness” scale from stainless steel to porridge, it can only be as strong at most as the weakest of those propositions, and any practical policy recommendation concerning AGW inherently involves another layer of goopy softness. There is also the problem that the “hard science” reaches us largely through summaries and reports concocted, and perhaps distorted (consciously or otherwise), by the politicians and policymakers at the front line of the process.

The science-media-politics network (I sound like a Tea Partier calling it that, I guess) deserves trust: it has helped bring us out of a world of hookworm, typhoid, and killer smogs. It also had us eating trans-fatty margarine instead of butter in the name of health for 20 years, waiting in terror for a North American heterosexually-transmitted AIDS epidemic that never turned up, and gulping Vioxx like candy. In other words, what we have is a good old-fashioned Hegelian dialectic: we forget very easily how much “expert” scientific knowledge invisibly enhances every hour of our lives, and yet “experts” working at the margins of established knowledge do sometimes grow overconfident and execute pratfalls. This, I guess, brings us only as far as where Andrew Coyne already started out.

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