An Alternate Vision Of The World, Finally Getting A Chance To Play Out

In my youth (I'm talking about the 1950s through the election of Reagan in 1980), there really were not two competing political visions for the United States.  Instead, there was near universal acceptance of the idea that the federal government could fix all the problems of the people by hiring "experts" and giving them authority to enact regulations together with piles of taxpayer money to spend.  OK, an occasional cranky economist might stand up and ask a question from time to time (Milton Friedman anyone?); but with a huge majority the economics profession was also completely on board with the program.  Among Republican presidents, Eisenhower never lifted a finger to try to roll back anything about the New Deal, and Nixon was as much in favor of "big government" in domestic affairs as any Democrat.  Meanwhile, both houses of Congress were completely controlled by Democrats from 1955 to 1980.  The Congressional Republicans did not have much of an alternative message.  Basically, their pitch was that they would slow things down and avoid some of the worst excesses of their opponents.  

I know I'm exaggerating, but not by much.  Goldwater in 1964 did try to articulate an alternative libertarian vision, and ended up not only losing badly himself, but also giving the Democrats strengthened Congressional super-majorities to get much of their agenda enacted.  It's no accident that Medicare, Medicaid, and much of the War on Poverty date from the years immediately after the Johnson landslide in 1964.

And even in the years following Reagan's election, the push-back started slowly, with as many set-backs as victories.  Reagan never experienced Republican control of both houses of Congress, and neither of the two Bushes had much appetite a tug of war against the bureaucracy or against the prevailing Washington groupthink of bureaucratic expertise.  When Republicans took control of Congress in the 1990s, and again in the 2000s, it seemed like their main program was not to push back against the bureaucracy, but rather to give some of the infinite piles of money to "our" friends rather than "their" friends.

I give all this background to put into context the current hysteria and frenzy that has greeted the Trump presidency.  Even though plenty of people disagreed with Obama on many issues, there was never anything like this.  For that matter, I and many other conservatives and libertarians have plenty of disagreements with Trump -- as to trade protectionism; as to whether a "balance of payments deficit" is a bad thing and whether such a thing can be "fixed" by "better trade deals"; as to whether a big wall on the Mexican border will accomplish anything meaningful for the money; as to whether massive "infrastructure" spending is a good idea; as to many details about immigration; and so forth.  

But are these the issues that are motivating the desperate primal screaming that we have been seeing the past few weeks?  I don't think so.  None of the issues just mentioned (with the possible partial exception of immigration) is the kind of thing that normally generates this kind of emotion.  The thing that generates such emotion is the push back against the bureaucracy and and the parasites in government-funded agencies and academia.  Suddenly, many people who have spent their lives doing what they perceive as "good" with taxpayer-funded salaries and grants are being told that it was all a bad idea from the get-go.  Their funding could be cut!  Their lifetime sinecure could be gone!  They could lose their jobs and their livelihoods!  They might have to compete for jobs and customers in the private sector!  The Democratic Party could lose its taxpayer-backed funding (from public employee unions, particularly teachers unions)!

How many of the current crop of protesters and rioters represent people actually on the government gravy train?  With the exception of a few who have been outed (like the UC Berkeley employee involved in planning riots, or the professor of "lobster porn" at the big NYU demonstration), it's hard to get any numbers.  But what is clear is that the bureaucracies are organizing internally to "resist" the results of the last election.  The New York Times had a big article on the front page of the Sunday edition, headlined "'A Sense of Dread' for Civil Servants Shaken by Trump Transition."   The article describes the "intensity of feelings" among the bureaucrats that has become "raw" as they realize that incoming political appointees in many cases question the very missions of the agencies.  

Or, consider this piece by Victoria Taft at the Independent Journal Review on February 2, describing various groups of federal employees holding meetings to plan "resistance" and "work slowdowns."  Or, from the Washington Post on January 31:

The resistance is so early, so widespread and so deeply felt that it has officials worrying about paralysis and overt refusals by workers to do their jobs.

So far, almost none of the administration's predicted push back against the bureaucracy has even occurred.  But, as the new cabinet secretaries slowly get confirmed, will we actually be getting a chance to see an alternate vision of the world -- a vision without bureaucratic micromanagement of every aspect of our lives -- get a chance to play out?  One can only hope.