Elites Always Need a "Big Thing"
it makes them feel important
Now that our august senators have passed the Inflation Reduction Act with its tax increases and clean energy spending, we normies have to ask: Why?
Really, if clean energy is such an vital need shouldn’t we just leave the market to decide?
Or, if climate change really is a problem, won’t we do the right thing when it is time to “adapt” to the new, warmer Planet Earth?
See back in the day, I read Discordant Harmonies: an Ecology for the 21st Century by Daniel Botkin. He made the unexceptional argument that the climate changes in all time scales. And the best thing is to adapt when the climate changes. Botkin is a plant biologist, so he notes that if the climate changes really fast it might change too fast for the trees. For, if the Earth gets warmer, the trees will need to migrate towards the poles. So we may need a new Johnny Appleseed to scatter a few seeds to help the trees migrate.
But adapting in advance? Maybe not such a good idea. For if the climate forecast is off by a generation or two, then we will be forcing today’s generation to solve a problem that won’t show up till the next generation. Is that really fair? Is it just?
And really, humans are much better at pitching in when things go south than in planning for the future on the assumption that all our predications are correct.
But here’s the thing. Ruling classes and elites always need a “big thing” to validate their political power.
You see, if there’s no emergency, no frightful peril just around the corner, then maybe we don’t need to be running quite as much money throught the government to fight the frightful peril.
And even if there isn’t a frightful peril the rulers really like a nice big project for the peasants to work on and for the rulers to show up at the ribbon cutting.
The whole point of Marxism was for educated scions to direct traffic and save the proletarians from a fate worse than death. The whole idea of the administrative state was for the educated class to guide the peasants to make sensible rational decisions. The whole idea of public power was… well, probably that since electric power was the Big Thing after World War I, that the educated elite wanted to direct traffic and take credit for building massive dams on the Columbia River and in the Tennessee Valley.
Back in the 19th century the Big Thing was public education featuring the “common school.” How’s that working out in the 21st century?
In the Great Depression our leaders were all-in on helping the workers that had been disgracefully exploited by economic royalists.
After World War II our elite was all in favor of building interstate highways until they were all in favor of not paving the nation over.
In the 1960s our leaders were all in favor of ending racial discrimination. Then, with the civil rights laws enacted, they were all in favor of discriminating on the basis of race and sex in order to right the wrongs of the past.
They were demanding we prepare for a new Ice Age until they were demanding that we act to stop global warming. They were for nuclear power until they were against it. They were against disfiguring the environment with ugly polluting oil wells until they were for building gigantic wind farms all across the Great Plains. They are shocked, shocked by the effect of humans on coral reefs, but all in favor of offshore wind farms.
I think that ruling classes everywhere always need some Big Thing to rally the nation and put it to work. But it must not be too hard. Just some Big Thing that the rulers can spend money on and solicit contributions from eager would-be contractors.
But does the new Big Thing ever really matter? The glorious hydro-electric plants on the Columbia sure made electricity pretty cheap in the Pacific Northwest: thanks federal taxpayers! Was nuclear power a good idea in the 1950s? Maybe, but it sure got gummed up with complicated regulations and brought to a halt by environmental activists.
And now I read that China is wondering whether its National Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund is really such a good idea. As Japan eventually decided that its MITI was not such a good idea after all.
Of course, that is what my Four Laws, part two is all about: Hayek’s notion that an administrative bureaucracy doesn’t have the bandwidth to direct the economy.
The point is that the economy doesn’t work by elitists directing traffic on the Big Thing from above. The economy works with ideas “emerging” from the fog of uncertainty and new ideas, and a million adaptations by market participants, both on the buy side and on the sell side. And sometimes it’s a good idea for the ruling class to step in and deal with “externalities.”
But, on the other hand, the elites always need some Big Thing to direct so that they can convince the rest of us that they matter.
I think it is time for some genius to develop a Big Thing theory and line up a bunch of pretty harmless Big Things for our rulers to direct. Stuff that really doesn’t matter, doesn’t cost too much and that isn’t going to wreck the economy or kill millions of birds. But that makes the rulers feel that they matter.
And here’s a final thought. Is the elite obsession with the Big Thing similar to Gollum and his “precious?”