Lawrence Lindsay distrusts, despises Washington’s best and brightest. He refers to them derisively as a new ruling class. He readily acknowledges that he, having directed President George W. Bush’s National Economic Council, was and in many ways remains a member of that class, but he goes on to argue fluidly and forcefully against it, contending that as a group these people are neither as capable as they pretend nor as good, that ultimately they care little about the country and aim primary to extend their own power and prestige. The United States, he argues, would do well to rid itself of their influence, and, in the concluding chapters of the book he outlines some radical constitutional as well as procedural suggestions on how it might do that. This reader only regrets that this otherwise readable and insightful book focuses too narrowly. Its concentration entirely on progressive politics understates the pervasiveness of this class’s power and so also the extent of the threat it poses.
While implicitly admitting that the country has always had a ruling class of sorts, Lindsey sees a special danger now. In the past, the constitution’s emphasis on personal liberty and limited government protected the public from the excesses of its would-be rulers. Indeed, he makes a compelling case that the founders wrote the constitution with this purpose expressly in mind, a response to the British abuses against who they had rebelled. But in the past 90-odd years, progressive campaigners, politicians, and a compliant judiciary have managed to twist the constitution and erode these safeguards. Their strategy rested on claims, going back to Woodrow Wilson if not earlier, that the modern world’s complexity had outstepped the competence of Congress and the structure of representative government framed by the constitution, that government, to do its job, needs to empower a host of experts in its bureaus and agencies. Stepping into that role, the ruling class that Lindsey so distrusts has managed to sweep aside many of the constitution’s safeguards and has acquired coercive powers antithetical to the founders’ intentions.
The book is at its best when it goes on to debunk this class’s claims to special ability, showing conclusively how these so-called experts have failed to deliver on the good government they have promised. In a series of chapters that constitute the bulk of the book, Lindsey lives up to his reputation as a man who can handle statistics deftly and explain their meaning clearly. He shows how, for all the rulers’ expressions of concern, income equality has widened for almost 50 years, through both Democratic and Republican administrations and, tellingly, more in the former than the latter and the most during Barack Obama’s terms in office. These experts, he demonstrates, have mismanaged the nation finances, both the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, and worse, hid the mismanagement under the cover of altered procedures and accounting rules. The ruling experts have failed as well to improve the nation’s educational standards, have allowed the nation’s physical infrastructure to deteriorate, and have fostered instability in financial markets. It would be hard to do worse
Though fun, understandable, and hardly inaccurate, this focus on progressives and progressive causes nonetheless constitutes the book’s chief weakness. Progressive politics and politicians, to be sure, bear much of the blame for this rise of incompetence, but in reality, the destructiveness of this ruling class goes beyond progressives or their causes. These same self-dealing experts have also risen through Republican and so-called conservative ranks. They have a powerful presence in business, finance, academia, and the non-profit sector. Worse, wherever they reside, they manage to cooperate with each other to promote themselves at the expense of balanced, limited, constitutional government.
Such destructive cooperation is on display all the time, but was most stark during the financial collapse of 2008-09. During that emergency, the ruling class’s experts at the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and in academia worked closely with their fellows in business to implement a raft or radical policies. They claimed that the emergency demanded all their actions. Whether that is true, whether they helped the country will remain a matter of dispute for years to come. What, however, is not a matter of dispute is how their actions managed to increase their power and influence. Government experts actively helped their colleagues in the most powerful financial institutions maintain their positions through massive transfers of taxpayer funds as well as unprecedented and some say dangerous Federal Reserve policies. Government and academic experts also helped their ruling class colleagues in finance enlarge their power base by facilitating their acquisition of smaller financial institutions, at fire sale prices. In return, the ruling elite in finance cooperated as government experts enlarged their regulatory sway and control over the nation’s finances. This was more crony capitalism than progressive politics.
Broadening the book’s focus to include these other aspects and antics of the odious ruling class would have made it longer and more complex, but it would have also have made it more compelling. As it is, Lindsay’s exclusive focus on progressives makes it too easy to dismiss his arguments as a Republican or conservative rant. A broader treatment would have prevented this. It would also have resonated more with people’s experience, would have justified the urgency with which Lindsey writes, put his suggested solutions into clearer perspective, and, more importantly, might have helped build a bigger constituency to demand accountability and rid the country of this group’s corrosive influence.