Muck and Mystery
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May 07, 2010
Credulous Skeptics

Authoritarians who rant about libertarian mobs are frightened and confused.

Americans are and have always been credulous skeptics. They question the authority of priests, then talk to the dead1; they second-guess their cardiologists, then seek out quacks in the jungle. Like people in every society, they do this in moments of crisis when things seem hopeless. They also, unlike people in other societies, do it on the general principle that expertise and authority are inherently suspect.
It isn't expertise that is suspect, it is the experts who claim expertise but show themselves to be incompetent bumblers that are suspect. It is the lack of expertise that is the issue. Authority is indeed suspect since it is entirely devoid of expertise.
This, I think, is the deepest reason why public reaction to the crash of 2008 and the election of Barack Obama took a populist turn and the Tea Party movement caught on. The crash not only devastated people’s finances and shook their confidence in their and their children’s future. It also broke through the moats we have been building around ourselves and our families, reminding us that certain problems require a collective response through political institutions. What’s more, it was a catastrophe whose causes no one yet fully understands, not even specialists who know exactly what derivatives, discount rates, and multiplier effects are. The measures the federal government took to control the damage were complex and controversial, but there was general agreement that at some point it would have to intervene to prevent a worldwide financial collapse, and that without some sort of stimulus a real depression loomed. That, though, is not at all what people who distrust elites, who want to “make up their own minds,” and who have fantasies of self-sufficiency want to be told. Apparently they find it more satisfying to hear that these emergency measures were concocted to tighten government’s grip on their lives even more. It all connects.
This is as good an example of authoritarian confusion as any. The financial and political collapse is global, not just a US problem, and the collective response of political institutions has not helped. The problems remain and are even more threatening than before since the debts run up by the supposed "experts" have drained society of the capacity for further response while making the financial system even more unbalanced.

Obama and company were quickly and completely de-pantsed, revealing their complete inadequacy and impotence, echoing the 9/11 2001 events that so profoundly altered the Bush presidency. The Bush administration responded by making grand but inept gestures that spilled blood and treasure for little or no benefit, the Obama administration did much the same, spilling much more treasure. Bush was bad, Obama is worse.

This is the problem. The Tea People don't have an answer, don't have an alternative grand narrative to replace that of the bumbling Democrats or Republicans. Their point is that grand narratives are bunk. The experts have little expertise and should have modest narratives commensurate with their meager talents. The scope and scale of institutions need to reflect the skills and capabilities of their bureaucrats. Grand narratives just make bigger messes.

Posted by back40 at 07:46 AM | culture

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