Conquest's Law, Power, and Draining the Swamp 1

Draining the swamp didn't work - so, what's filling it so quickly?

The first rule of what to do when finding yourself in a hole is famously - Stop digging!  And conservatism - indeed, America as a whole - has not been in a hole so deep and dark in our lifetimes, with our Federal government completely ruled as it now is by sworn enemies of everything that has made America great.  Change is coming like a runaway Mack truck bearing down on us, complete with Democrat talk of re-education camps and firing squads.

How did we reach these dire straits?  We can hear the rising chorus of "It's all Donald Trump's fault!"  Sorry - that's utter nonsense, just as it's a complete cop-out to blame Barack Hussein Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton.

All of those presidents had deep and profound flaws as leaders.  Yet each was elected freely and fairly, not once but twice.  The fault, if any, lies with an electorate that was willing to vote them in in the first place, and then to reward them with a second term.

Whether the electorate desired to reward President Trump with a second term is hotly disputed and will probably never be conclusively known - and with that statement of purest fact, we consign this article to eternal Google oblivion; you'll have to use to find it.  So be it!  Let's move on.

Regardless of the truth of the election results, though, it is indisputable that at least 75 million Americans voted for The Donald.  If you believe him to be literally Hitler, then large swaths of our country are populated by literal Nazis.  If, like us, you believe those to be slanderous lies, then the inescapable truth is that large swaths of our country are populated by slanderous liars.  Either way: we are the furthest thing possible from the "E Pluribus, Unum" - out of many, one - that our Founders envisioned.

The problem is, the hole we are in is so exceedingly deep and dark that it's very difficult to discern which way is up and down.  Which direction should we stop digging in?  Which direction should we start digging in if we're ever to hope to get out?

In such a case, and given that nothing we do at this exact moment is likely to change our nation's trajectory one iota, we may as well take the time to sit down on a handy hard object, presumably a symbolic rock adjacent to a metaphorical hard place, and ponder: how exactly did we get here?

The Road Behind Us

A question, indeed, that much of conservative punditry is pondering, with varying results - most of which center, yes, on blaming Donald Trump.  Let's just pass over that as it's being amply covered elsewhere.

We recently became aware of a very lengthy article at Gray Mirror making an argument we haven't seen before explaining how our institutions became so polluted over many decades.  It's well worth a read in its entirety, but toward the beginning, it makes an interesting point:

In 1951, Harvard, Yale, the Times and the Post were on the same page. But Yale in 1951 was on nowhere near the same page as Yale in 2021. If you could teleport either Yale into the other's time zone, they would see each other as a den of intellectual criminals.

So it's not just that everyone - at least, everyone cool - is on the same page. It's more like: everyone is reading the same book - at the same speed. No wonder all the peasants are seeing conspiracies in their soup.

We've never been much for conspiracies, but these paragraphs pierce to the heart.  The Ivy League of the early 1950s in many ways informs Scragged's sensibilities - respect for evidence, a belief in orderly free speech and the spirit of free inquiry motivated by an unbiased search for truth.

As the author points out, though, there is literally no resemblance between anyone in those elite institutions back then and anyone there today - not in what they believe, nor teach, nor practice, nor the way they live their lives, nor the way they expect others to live their lives.  Even the arrogance has changed: Harvardians of 1951 believed themselves to be the best, of course, but did not feel themselves called to impose their beliefs on every individual person in the country.  Today they expressly do.

As we see it, our elite institutions are the source of a massively gangrenous intellectual infection which is well on the way to destroying its host, our nation.  Back then they certainly weren't, though as William F. Buckley famously documented, the virus was present and eager to take over.

So latent problems were observed 70 years ago and every day since, yet the disease has done nothing but grow, metastasize, and dominate over all that time.  How did those august institutions, and our country as a whole, get from there to here?

An obvious answer was pithily formulated by the British historian Robert Conquest, in the second of his Three Laws of Politics:

Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.

That seems like it explains everything we see.  The NRA has not moved toward leftist gun control, in fact, they have done precisely the opposite as the years roll by.  The Right to Life groups have not come round to promoting abortion.  But everything else in our society - entertainment, publishing, news, the entire education system, corporations, even religions except the very most fundamentalist - have done exactly as Dr. Conquest's law would predict, and become irremediably left-wing.

But a moment more of thought reveals that this Law is not an explanation of why, any more than Newton's Laws explain why the apple falls from the tree.  They simply observe that it does, and that's all.

Which is all very well as far as it goes, and more than adequate if one simply wishes to catch a falling apple, but revivifying a terminally ill republic is a larger task.  Gray Mirror continues with another enlightening analogy:

Yale has declined. Yale is made of people and ideas. It is quite implausible that psychometric tests would show a great difference in the intelligence of its students and professors between 1951 and 2021-and they might well come out in favor of the latter.

Which suggests that any problem is with the ideas-that bad ideas in the humanities have in some way flourished at Yale (and everywhere else)-like toxic green algae in a once-blue mountain lake. Now why would that happen?

It must be related to the pattern of selective advantage in this marketplace of ecology. Maybe a nearby pig farm has unleashed a flood of sewage into the lake. Pig manure is a nutrient which alters the pattern of selective advantage in the lake, making it easier to exist as a stinking algal bloom and harder to flourish as a happy rainbow trout.

Given that, almost to a (wo)man, our nation's leading intellectuals are adamantly opposed to anything remotely resembling the historic Western intellectual traditions of their past, this analogy is compelling.  What, though, represents the pig farm and the unstoppable flow of manure?

It surely can't be bad ideas generally - there were, if anything, even more bad ideas floating around at the end of the Middle Ages, yet our modern world was able to be created one step at a time by basing progress on actual factual observable and repeatable facts instead of wishful thinking.

Similarly, it cannot be mere lust for power or personal aggrandizement, that's been with us since mankind descended from the trees if not earlier.  What's changed?

The Spiderman Axiom

Gray Mirror goes on into further illustrations and examples of fictional nations with differing forms of government and how they failed, with an extended discussion of the corruption of power within them.  Here is where we take his thoughts and part company to reach new insights: the problem isn't power, authority, or even responsibility.

We'd generally agree that individuals and institutions who have power, and a lot who don't, wish to increase their power by whatever means are to hand.  Right?  A mayor would like to be the Governor.  A senator would like to be President.  A bureaucrat would like to be promoted; one who's already at the top of his agency lobbies to increase the budget and the scope of its authority.

This is why governments and bureaucracies in general tend to grow until they kill their hosts - it's in the best interests of everyone on the inside for them to do so, until the entire society collapses at once.

Yet there's an odd drawback to accumulating power, as Spiderman's motto reminds us:

With great power, comes great responsibility.

Does it, though?  Ordinary Americans are oppressed by an increasing number of perverse rules, regulations, diktats, and, of course, ever-increasing taxes.  Yet when the people petition for redress of grievances, who is held responsible for those grievances?  Nobody, not even elected officials.

This is part of the fury that drove the wrongheaded and counterproductive Capitol riot: tens of millions of Americans believe, with good cause, that their election was stolen by vast fraud with no recourse.  Their elected legislatures refused to take action; so did every single court from the bottom to the top.  Nobody in power is held to account; quite the contrary, worried citizens are harshly told to shut up or else.  There is power, but no responsibility.

And here we start to see glimmerings of what's gone wrong in our nation.  Spiderman had it backward: with great responsibility, goes great power, and not the other way 'round.

What does this mean?  Again, to quote Gray Mirror:

The fundamental rule of success as a bureaucrat is that while it is important to get credit for things that go right (everyone in the process will get credit), it is essential to avoid blame for things that go wrong. Fortunately, decision by process spreads and multiplies the thrill of success, while it diffuses and dilutes the sorrow of failure.

But if he can export accountability and responsibility outside the government itself, the bureaucrat feels like he is dumping this toxic waste in the deep ocean. Or in a blue mountain lake.

Long ago, the President of the United States was personally responsible for hiring, managing, and firing every single person that worked for the Federal bureaucracy, as well as all commissioned general officers in the military.  He appointed every last one of them, and he could fire any of them at will.  Without this power, Lincoln could not have won the Civil War.

If any Federal official or agency did something really bad, the line of responsibility was crystal clear: it was ultimately the President's fault.  He, in turn, demanded of his cabinet officials to at least keep sufficient eye on their subordinates as to prevent anything really awful from taking place under his watch.

Presidents could be, and were, held responsible both at the polls and by history.  Ulysses Grant, for instance, while never considered to be anything less than personally honest, nevertheless bears the blame for profound corruption throughout the government under his administration.

That doesn't work today, and for a good reason: the President no longer has much if any control over the bureaucracy and everyone knows it.  He can appoint the very topmost leadership, but neither he nor they can fire career civil-service workers even if they are working directly against his policies, as has become standard practice under any Republican administration.  What were the Trump years, but Mr. Trump trying manfully to keep his promises while every last government worker fought tooth and claw to prevent him from doing so?

The problem is worse than that, though: Bureaucrats cannot be fired except for the most extreme of malfeasance, because our world is so impossibly complex that no bureaucrat can reasonably be expected to understand it on their own.  Instead, they must consult with credentialed experts - mostly, academically credentialed experts employed as professors in universities.  So long as he can cite a study by Dr. Boffin PhD saying that X should be done, a bureaucrat is almost completely safe from paying any price should X prove to be disastrous.

Thus, the responsibility for policy X leaks from the bureaucrat to the unanswerable professor - who, after all, is employed to teach students, not to run the government, and cannot be blamed if some incompetent bureaucrat botched the implementation of his magnificent ideas.

Yet by attempting to outsource undesirable responsibility, without realizing it, the bureaucrat has actually outsourced his effective power.  In the old days, a government official had a wide degree of latitude, which could be exercised to great contentment and even acclaim as long as it was handled wisely.

Today, bureaucrats are boxed in by The System of red tape just as much as anyone else, and now are all but required to cite Dr. Boffin PhD before doing anything at all.  Dr. Boffin now has all the moral responsibility and most of the effective power, but still no legal or practical responsibility whatsoever.  The blame for failure just accumulates and stagnates in a giant festering condemnation of The System - or, as we know it today, The Swamp as a whole.

So our current problems can be blamed on arrogantly incompetent college professors? Well, there's certainly plenty of those around, but we're trying to understand our destructive process overall, not blame individuals or even entire job categories.

Enough swamp-diving for one day!  We'll pick up our muck-rakes again in the next article in this series, and dig a bit deeper in the slime.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Bureaucracy.
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