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Gridlock, masses and inertia

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted January 12, 2009

GridlockAs politics has become more professionalized all over the United States, one of the side effects has been gridlock. Put simply, "gridlock" is a dissolvent of political leadership. It lengthens the time between the announcement of a political agenda and its implementation, and also increases the risk that the original agenda will either be adulterated or blocked entirely. In the American political structure, gridlock can common-sensically be attributed to members in both houses of Congress collectively asserting their prerogatives vis-à-vis the Executive. The briefly-gridlocked TARP plan suggests another cause: an agreeable Congress being deflected by voters' protests. Whatever the structural cause, it seems unique to democratic republics given a two-party-state framework. A parliamentary system like Canada's only has recurring gridlock under a minority government, like the one Canada has now; it's only possible if there are more than two parties.

This merely structural explanation, though, seems dissatisfying to many: instead, gridlock is often perceived as a failure of leadership at some level. It's also common-sensical to either blame the President or a supposedly obstreperous Congress, but that oft-attributed failure of leadership has deeper roots. The political philosophy that has gotten the number of the problem is actually classical Toryism.

Toryism of this sort divides general society into the High and the Low. The High is composed of a small minority of elites, who are vastly over-represented in the governing class. This kind of political philosophy is renowned (or notorious) for its discreet disdain of the common run of mankind, particularly when said discretion slips a little. The usual justification of such a division – that the elites have pre-won the right to govern through means that vary from polity to polity – can be put aside for a more economics-compatible one: what are called the "elites" are specialists, whose specialty is governing. Like any specialists, their wings have withered along the way to dream fulfillment: in a class-based society, these specialists are often called "effete," "inbred" or some such. Many of those other terms are, of course, uncomplimentary.

"Snob" always seems to be one of them. In fact, whatever snobbery exists in a particular governing elite is largely defensive in character. We all have, or at least have had, a spot of the freeloader in us. Whatever walk of life we come from, we always bump into the temptation of success garnered without effort. A lucky few do seem to realize that dream, but in almost all cases find that any such success is evanescent. The instant phenom of this sort is often the beneficiary of beginner's luck.

In the everyday world, these instants often fade fast. The ones who don't are typically people who have hewed to the norm of practicing in secret. The general public does tend to admire effortless performance, or style, so people who aspire to style in their craft go along with this demand by honing their craft out of most everyone's view. Consequently, it does take a certain level of imagination to see that today's stylishness is the result of yesterday's self-discipline.

Most people, lacking this insight, have had to learn it the hard way. How many have been tempted by an effortless performance into believing that they themselves can duplicate it right off the bat? "Monkey see, monkey do" is the proclivity behind this kind of harmless vainglory…the kind that is shaken off after several pratfalls make clear that there's some kind of substance behind style. Even if it's substance that some think of as nothing more than a waste of time.

Most of us have had a spate of the vainglories, and most of us shake them off. There do, however, exist some for whom vainglory has become a kind of addiction. Serious status vainglory is one of those addictions. The ranks of the status-vainglorious are found in what the Tory would consider the Low, although the more careful ones do distinguish between the salt-of-the-earth and the status-vainglorious. The latter are known by several terms in the Tory lexicon, all of them uncomplimentary.

The most charged one in political philosophy is "usurper," even though usurpation is genuinely frightening only if it deplaces a kind of political system where blame assumption is found at the top. In practical terms, the classical virtues associated with the aristoi – dutifulness, stoicism, rectitude, etc. – amount to a group of people becoming professional blame assumers. They doing so keep a kind of rough subterranean equality within the system, through tying higher status to extra burdens. Members of the true High tend to see the state of being envied as a call to duty, not as a valid reason to dismiss the enviers out of hand. Even if backbiting is ostensibly dismissed as mere cavil (to use a British term) or as mere jealousy (the American alternative), the higher sort is trained to be unable to ignore it completely over time. Duty still calls.

The opposite of this philosophy is old-style American republicanism, of a sort which seems odd today. This kind of republican recoils from what the elites call social duties, as engendering dependency. We may laugh at a term such as "predatory charity," but an old-style American republican may not have. The idea that blame assumption is akin to the King's Shilling trick would have resonated back in the days when Thoreau was still alive. The current, perhaps denatured, echo of it is the ideal of placing the blame only where it belongs.

In a system where the privileged earn their privileges through a socially-oriented deontic ethic, the potential usurper is someone who believes that life at the top is all privilege and no duty. Like the fellow who thinks that a few sessions' with of air guitaring makes him a worth replacement for Eddie Van Halen, the potential usurper thinks that a few rote responsibilities is enough to govern. In the ordinary world, as noted above, a certain number of pratfalls are enough to bring any such conceit to a halt.

In the realm of governing, though, the usurpative type is a real danger. The government is the only institution that can initiate physical force legally, so a full-blown usurper can restrain, jail, or even kill off any perceiver of a plan's pratfalls. In the last three hundred years, there have been more than a few examples of such tyranny.

There are two ways to prevent such usurpation. One way, more associated with the past than with now, is to restrict governing to a specified caste or class. Confinement to a caste is done through legal means, and confinement to a class is done through cultural norms that can be bent in exigent circumstances. In order for such a system to work, the members of said ruling class have to be – well, effete. (Effete people govern mildly.) They also have to be pre-broken to their high harnesses.

The other solution, more characteristically American, is for the aristoi to avoid politics. Doing so removes the danger of a "low man raised to a high place" seizing the reins, because government offices are no longer considered to be high places. Hence, the status-vainglorious have to try their luck elsewhere.

It's a neat resolution to the problem, as there's no need to restrict democracy at all for it to work. As long as the High abjure the seeking of government office, the field is made clear for the ordinary merit system to work when selecting government officials. In practical terms, it confines the governing class to the category not often mentioned in classical Toryism: the Middle.

One of the consequences of this resolution, though, is to leave no generally honored place in government. For the most part, this consequent is agreeable because most high hands would be used for, er, pragmatic purposes. The presumption that the high-handed are either hoity-toity or self-righteously hypocritical (if not both) does nip a lot of factional schemes in the bud.

On the other hand, it also euchres out any kind of leadership that requires deference from the others in government. In short, having regular Joes and Janes as political leaders means that any grand design, however needed, will likely be bogged down by…gridlock.

In the final analysis, gridlock is a price paid for being governed by regular people. Whether knowingly or not, someone who seriously bemoans the lack of "leadership" in such a system is really asking for the patrician class to come on in and assume the reins. It should never be forgotten that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a listee in good standing in the Social Register; John F. Kennedy, if not, might as well have been. Anyone lacking such polish has to depend upon good, old-fashioned earmarking to get the logs rolled – as does the real thing when (s)he doesn't have a lock on the confidence of the general public. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.


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