By Joel Kotkin
In a rare burst of independence and self-interest, the California Legislature, led by largely Latino and Inland Democrats, last month defeated Gov. Jerry Brown’s attempt to cut gasoline use in the state by 50 percent by 2030. These political leaders, backed by the leftovers of the once-powerful oil industry, scored points by suggesting that this goal would lead inevitably to much higher fuel prices and even state-imposed gas rationing.
Days later, however, state regulators announced plans to impose similarly tough anti-fossil-fuel quotas anyway. This pronouncement, of course, brought out hosannas from the green lobby – as well as their most reliable media allies. Few progressives today appear concerned that an expanding, increasingly assertive regulatory state, as long as it errs on the “right side,” poses any long-term risks.
Rule by Bureaucrats?
Welcome to the new age of authority, in which voters’ mundane concerns are minimized, and the bureaucracy – backed by an elected executive – rules the roost, armed with full confidence that it knows best. Nor is this merely a California phenomenon. Rule by decree has become commonplace in Washington, D.C., as President Obama seems to dictate policies on everything from immigration to climate change without effective resistance from a weak Congress and a listless judiciary.
While no modern leader since President Richard Nixon has been so bold in trying to consolidate power, this centralizing trend has been building for decades. Since 1910, the federal government has doubled its share of all government spending to 60 percent and grows ever more meddlesome in people’s daily lives. Its share of GDP has now grown to the highest level since the Second World War.
Similarly, the European Union’s bureaucracy – unelected, largely unaccountable and, increasingly, on a powerful ideological mission – has expanded enormously and now determines the basic direction of its member states. Other models for democratic dictatorship can be found in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Venezuela and Bolivia, as well as Argentina.
Iran, our new best friend, also is ruled from above, although in its case by religious autocrats. For its part, China sells itself as proof that authoritarian rule works. Rather than produce a liberal “end of history,” the 21st century is becoming something of a springtime for dictators.
Enter the Peronista pope
In the West, the authoritarian impulse increasingly draws on the old progressive notion of government by experts. For at least a century, influential parts of the intelligentsia – starting with the great futurist H.G. Wells – imagined a society controlled by what he called “the new republic,” in which a select group of the most talented and enlightened citizens controlled society, largely undercover, unelected but all-powerful.
Government by expert has one fundamental problem: It does not inspire the masses. But now, with Pope Francis lining up with green stalwarts, environmental kingpins like hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer can now merge their greenness with religious faith, ideology with theology. After all, what can be better than combining scientific certitude with papal infallibility?
Of course, some elements of the pope’s message may be less endearing to the super-rich green capitalists. Perhaps some wayward acolyte might suggest that we could help the poor more by confiscating the holdings of the rich, or even suggest the immorality of a few living very large while telling the rest of us to live ever smaller.
The oligarchs, of course, are unlikely to embrace a Bernie Sanders-style social democracy. Instead, they may find more-useful models in the Middle Ages, before distinctions between theology and science first deepened. In that era, the Church governed both fact and fantasy. The Church also concerned itself with the poor, but studiously avoided challenging the very economic and social order that often served to keep them that way.
One casualty of the new alliance of the scientific establishment and the church could be free thought and debate. In the new atmosphere, those who dispute the “truths” shared by the scientific establishment and the papacy could face increasing demonization, if not worse. Indeed, one progressive, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehorse, has openly suggested that those who criticize the climate change agenda should be subject to federal racketeering charges.
Ironically, the biggest losers in this shift may be the very people with whom Francis so often tries to identify. Higher energy prices affect poor and working-class people far more than the affluent in places like San Francisco. The pope even attacks air conditioning as close to immoral, an idea that might not be so popular with people in California’s interior or in the steaming cities of his native Latin America, where people suffer tremendously for lack of affordable electricity.
The real question is: How do you improve things for the poor when the environment demands less economic growth? One way is to transfer existing wealth from “rich” countries to the poorer ones, as advocated by some European activists. Another would be to adopt a variant of Peronism, the state ideology of Argentina, named for Juan Peron, the elected dictator who rose to power in the mid-1940s. The roots of Peronism, as historian Robert Crassweller points out, lay in a culture shaped by the class system of Spain and the influence of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, rather than Anglo-Saxon principles of competition and self-reliance.
Peronism’s core ideal lies in providing social justice through the redistribution of wealth. It’s odd that this ideology has such legs since Argentina has been one of the world’s greatest economic failures, tumbling over the past century from rich-country status to a second- or third-world country. Neither would many hold out Russia, Venezuela or Iran as economic paragons.
Yet these failures may not dissuade the well-connected capitalists who have flourished under state-dominated systems in places as varied as Venezuela and Iran. A draconian climate regime certainly enhances the fortunes of capitalists such as Elon Musk, as well as other Silicon Valley and Wall Street supporters who seek to force consumers and business into purchasing expensive, often-unreliable renewable power from favored wind and solar projects.
The growing synergy of official science and religion with the state represents a unique threat to our way of life. It threatens open debate with an insistence on orthodoxy, a blinkered approach that could block more effective ways to deal with both climate change and inequality. More important still, it represents a potentially mortal threat to a constitutional system that, for all its imperfections, has served us well for 226 years.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University in Orange and the executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism.
This article was originally published by The Orange County Register on 10/4/15