In the last couple of years I’ve been writing about the death of the blue social model. By that I mean that the characteristic form of 20th century industrial democracy has come unglued, and that the advanced industrial democracies around the world must adjust to basic changes in the way the world works.
For those who missed those earlier essays or want to take another look at them, the American Interest put out a summary; you can read it here. Briefly, the idea is that after World War II America was organized around a group of heavily regulated monopoly and semi-monopoly companies. AT&T was the only telephone company; there were three big networks, three big car companies and so on. There was very little foreign competition, and these companies were able to offer stable, lifetime employment to most of their workers. The workforce was heavily unionized, and the earnings of the big companies were divided between shareholders, managers, workers and government in a predictable way. An intellectual and administrative class of planners, social scientists and managers ran the big institutions and administered the government.
Several forces came together to break up this system. Foreign competition, first from rebuilding Germany and Japan after World War II and then from low wage newly industrializing countries around the world, eroded the market position of companies like the Big Three auto manufacturers. The rise of offshore banking eroded the tight financial controls of the postwar era. Growing consumer impatience with the high prices and poor quality offered by monopoly companies like the telephone monopoly led to political pressure to deregulate and introduce more competition. Technological change, especially in information processing and communications, led to disruptive changes that shifted the advantage to nimble and lean companies and left the bureaucratic, slow moving giants of the Blue Age behind. American society became increasingly individualistic, with both the left and the right rebelling against the authority of experts and bureaucrats.
As a result, the old way of doing things doesn’t work anymore. Some of the changes—like the multiplication of gadgets and rise of the internet—are widely considered to be wonderful things. Others, like the rise of instability in financial markets, the polarization of incomes and the consequences of the collapse in manufacturing employment for blue collar employment and wages, are much less popular. But the reality is that there is no going back to blue; Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall and he can’t be patched up. The question is what do we do now.
The “death of blue” theme has gotten a lot of attention. Hundreds of thousands of readers have come to these posts, and they’ve been discussed widely in the blogosphere and in print. AI ran several responses to these ideas in an issue last year. A common theme in these responses, and it’s a fair point, is that I’ve said more about why the blue model is failing than about how we can build something new. While a new social model doesn’t spring full grown out of somebody’s head like Athena emerging from Zeus, it’s still worth trying to think about the ideas that can help us move forward into the new kind of society that we must now build and one of my new year’s resolutions is to take a stab at describing what a post-blue social model might look like.
The first thing to say about a post-blue social model is that it will be liberal. That is to say it will be a further exercise the development of the concept of “ordered liberty” that has been the guiding light of Anglo-American civilization since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The synthesis of enlightened, forward looking governance resting on the acknowledged and inalienable liberties of the people at the heart of the liberal vision remains the best foundation humanity has yet found for running a society in a world of rapid change. The next stage in our history will see us living this vision more fully and working out the consequences more radically in changing conditions, but the core concepts will carry the stamp of the liberal tradition that so profoundly shapes American life. I’ve written about the four stages of liberalism we’ve seen since 1688: the Whig liberalism or liberalism 1.0 of the Glorious Revolution itself, the 2.0 republican liberalism of the American founders, the 3.0 liberalism (sometimes called Manchester liberalism) of the nineteenth century with its emphasis on universal suffrage and a laissez-faire state, and the 4.0 progressive liberalism of the twentieth century. What we need to think about now is liberalism 5.0, a recasting of this modern heritage for the information-based economy of the 21st century.
At the heart of the enduring liberal ideal is a truth that is often forgotten in today’s political debates: the relationship between order and liberty does not have to be zero sum. More government can mean less freedom, and more freedom can mean less government—but things don’t always work out that way.
At one level this is obvious; people don’t so much surrender their liberty by forming a government and agreeing to live in an ordered society as they defend it. Life in an anarchy governed only by the law of the jungle is less free than life as a member of a democratic commonwealth. But this non-zero sum relationship holds in other ways. To have the freedom to drive at 65 miles per hour on an interstate highway, I must accept a lot of rules and restrictions. But the end result of all the requirements about driver’s licenses, insurance, registration and traffic laws is that I can go much faster and farther than I could in a state of nature. There is more order and more liberty in a modern industrial democracy than there is in the forest where our ancestors lived.
The secret of Anglo-American civilization has been its ability to combine the two elements of order and liberty at successively higher levels of both. To think constructively about our future we shouldn’t be thinking about a zero sum tradeoff between order and freedom; we should be thinking about how to build the kind of order that extends our liberty in new and important ways.
An example of this thinking might involve new approaches to illegal drugs. As we’ve argued on this site, simply abolishing all drug laws is likely to create serious problems, but the status quo can hardly be called satisfactory. What’s needed isn’t the abolition of all laws about drugs but the creation of a legal, social and regulatory infrastructure that provides for more personal liberty about drugs but guards against certain potential consequences of the wider use of the these drugs: strong penalties for sales to minors, routine drug testing in many jobs, taxes on drug sales to support treatment for addicts, greatly expanded DUI laws and enforcement procedures and a major overhaul of the drug prescription system. There would have to be methods established to test newly created recreational drugs for safety and there would have to be laws aimed at preventing narco-trafficking cartels from dominating the legal drug business. There presumably would be zoning laws to keep drug dispensing retail outlets away from schools. There would be mandatory warning labels and, one suspects, there would still be stiff penalties for violating the restrictions that remained (selling to minors, reselling prescription painkillers, black market sales without paying tax, selling bootleg meth instead of the official, certified stuff and so on).
People would have more freedom to take drugs recreationally than they do now, and there would likely be many fewer people serving jail time for drug offenses, but we might also have more drug laws and a larger enforcement and treatment complex than we do now. The social order would be more complex, but the zone of individual freedom would grow.
Intellectual property law is another field in which the right kind of law limits freedom in some ways but when properly framed a good system of intellectual property law gives more freedom than it takes. The right kind of intellectual property laws (and it is by no means clear that our current lobby-devised laws are the right ones) provides protection to creators and owners of intellectual property so that more new property will be created. I lose the right to download unlimited content from the internet for free, but in return I have much more content from which to choose. Government power and individual freedom in this case grow side by side.
The 21st century, if we get things right, won’t see either the triumph of an all-powerful government or the return of the Articles of Confederation. The government will do more than it does now, and regulate activities that are unheard of today, but individuals will have more choices than they currently do and their rights and their property will be better protected.