Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Matt Yglesias took this post by Arnold Kling to task yesterday, accusing Kling of " in practice [being] blind to the interests of non-whites, of gays and lesbians, and of women."  Here's Kling:
American government has become structurally less libertarian and less democratic in recent decades. For example, Codevilla writes,
The grandparents of today's Americans (132 million in 1940) had opportunities to serve on 117,000 school boards. To exercise responsibilities comparable to their grandparents', today's 310 million Americans would have radically to decentralize the mere 15,000 districts into which public school children are now concentrated. They would have to take responsibility for curriculum and administration away from credentialed experts, and they would have to explain why they know better. This would involve a level of political articulation of the body politic far beyond voting in elections every two years.
Amen. I live in one of those mega-school districts, which gives unbridled power to the teachers' unions. The widely-unread Unchecked and Unbalanced has much more on this theme. (Note to intellectual bullies: please do not confuse nostalgia for decentralized school districts with nostalgia for "separate but equal.").
I think the problem here is really a severe one for conservatives; it's the same problem that we saw during the Kagan hearings, when Tom Coburn suggested that the high point for liberty was 1980 -- which seems a rather odd case to make for the Party of Reagan.  As I said then, 1980 does manage to avoid the bigotry problem that Kling dives into, but of course it doesn't do the other things that conservatives really want.  I'm sure the counterargument is simply to say: yes, yes, we know that segregation was terrible, and so what we want is a color-blind, gender-blind, sexual-preference-blind version of 1940/1980/1955/1908.  But where does that get you?  As a conservative, you're now in the trouble of trying to idealize a past that you're admitting didn't exist -- and if you're honest, you're admitting that it didn't exist in major, central, overwhelming ways, so that a generic "I wish things were now as they were then" just doesn't work without constant apologizing and parsing and exception-making.  

Actually, though, I want to approach this in a different way.  Yglesias talks about the" interests of non-whites, of gays and lesbians, and of women."  I don't think that's responsive to what Kling is talking about.  In principle (although obviously not in fact when we're talking about 1940, United States), it is possible to structure a system in which the interests of all are respected, even though only a few govern.  Thinking in terms of interests, then, misses why Kling is so wrong about 1940   Kling isn't talking about interests; he's talking about the basic idea of self-government.  Specifically, what Kling wants is a past in which self-government really worked.  But what took place in 1940 wasn't successful, proper, ideal self-government, and there's really no getting around that.  What took place in 1940 was exclusionary.  Women weren't (for the most part) allowed.  African Americans weren't allowed.  Many other ethnic or religious groups were either excluded or marginalized.  Self-government is for citizens, and the majority of Americans in 1940 were not, for the purpose of self-government, full citizens.

Now, you'll note that women, for example, had achieved full formal citizenship by 1940.  That's not sufficient.  Full, real, citizenship in a democracy means the ability to fully participate in self-government, and that wasn't the case for women in 1940.  They were, to use the word that Kling uses, structurally excluded -- they were by government and private norms, rules, and customs prevented from acquiring the skills of self-government.  The same was true in most cases for African Americans in 1940, even in those parts of the nation in which formal barriers to the vote were removed.  The same was true, although to a lesser extent, for members of quite a few ethnic groups, and for Catholics in many places, Jews in most places, LDS in most places, and open atheists and adherents of non-Christian religions.  This isn't just about exclusion from office (although that's a big part of it), but once again it's about -- as with women -- privately and publicly enforced norms and rules that prevented people from becoming, or even having the chance to become, the sorts of people who get to be included in self-government.  If you aren't allowed an education, if you're excluded from various professions, if you're barred from the social circles from which those who participate in self-government are chosen, then you really are structurally excluded from democracy.  One can also make a case -- I would -- that enforced closeting of gays and lesbians prevented them from becoming full citizens. 

(1940, by the way, strikes me as a pretty terrible candidate for self-government nostalgia.  By 1940, progressive reforms and various other things had already yielded a significant decline in the parties, which were and always have been the best mechanism for integrating newcomers into the political process.  Moreover, if you think that progressive-era reforms were bad for democracy -- and I do -- well, by 1940, those are already in place.)

I'll add...I don't really know anything about the history of school board governance and school board consolidation, but I'm willing to bet that a good chunk of those school boards were controlled by small, self-perpetuating oligarchies, not by any open participatory process, in which various people in town were excluded even beyond the groups I've talked about here. Not all, but a lot.  I really do have a lot of interest in the ideal of self-government that Kling seems to be talking about.  But the ideal needs to be of inclusive self-government if we're going to consider a polity featuring that sort of system to be a full, proper, healthy democracy.  I do think that there are real difficulties when thinking about this's not at all clear what exactly, in many complex circumstances, counts as properly inclusive.  But the major violations rampant in 1940, or 1910, or earlier dates overwhelm the other democratic portions of the system.  I'm sure that for those who were full citizens, it felt as if what was happening was self-government.  The truth is it was in large part an illusion of democracy.

Look, we obviously want to be able to say, with Tocqueville (who recognized some but hardly all of the illusion) that, say, Jacksonian democracy was democracy, as opposed to whatever other forms of government existed around the world at that time.  Regular readers know that I'm as impressed as anyone with Madison and the rest of the Framers.  So I wouldn't insist on calling the 1940 version of things some sort of proto-democracy...but, really, from where we are and where we want to go, that's not an inaccurate way of looking at it.  Yes, I fully agree that a Progressive vision of a government of experts is highly problematic; even if it perfectly assesses and fulfills everyone's interests, it still isn't self-government in important ways.  But while the bureaucracy problem is a very serious one for those who take democracy seriously, it isn't the only important issue.  One simply cannot exclude (in various ways and degrees) well over half the population and still call what remains healthy self-government.  And because the ability of some to self-govern has always, going back to the Greeks, been dependent on such exclusion, it's not good enough to just say "except for..." or "but of course..."   Instead, those who care about democracy need to grapple with issues of exclusion and the real challenges and complexity of inclusion, if what they really want is healthy self-government.  And if they do, they'll realize that in important ways the United States is far more democratic in 2010 than it was in 1960, or 1940, or 1900, or 1860.

(By the way, the book that I think best shows this is Robert Wiebe's Self-Rule, a celebration of 19th century democracy that ends practically every paragraph with an "except for the blacks, and the women, and the American Indians" sort of disclaimer.  I exaggerate, but it really does show the knots you get yourself into if you want to celebrate the democratic elements that were in a sense really there in the pre-Progressive era without ignoring its severe limitations).


  1. Jonathan, I think I can help you out here. When libertarians say that 1980 or 1940 or 1880 was the high point for freedom, they really mean it. They value property and wealth above all else, and if the political and social arrangements that best protect property require discrimination that's a trade they're happy to make.

  2. Quite apart from race and other exclusions, what on earth makes Kling think there is some inherent virtue to dinky little school districts? It was in that supposed golden age of little red schoolhouses that Mark Twain said 'First God made idiots; that was for practice. Then he made school boards.'

    Small, self-perpetuating oligarchies sounds about right (again, even apart from the broad exclusions of the era). Even now, I haven't a clue about what local school board candidates stand for - it is a down-ballot race on which there is minimal press coverage and information. (And, in California, 'nonpartisan,' meaning I can't even vote for the D's as less likely to be creationist cranks or whatever.)

    My experience is that, in general, the local governments 'closest to the people' are the least accountable, due to their obscurity.


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