Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium

In democratic countries, Gurri hints at a vicious cycle under way. Insiders, including elected leaders, fail to live up to the public's unrealistic high expectations. This leads the public to lose trust in insiders. This distrust is fomented and exploited by outsiders, who charge insiders with incompetence and corruption.

To the insiders, the outsider challenge to their authority comes as a surprise and an affront. Their instinct is to see outsiders as illegitimate, lacking credentials, and not having gone through the organizational processes of information filtering and competition for position. However, the insider reaction comes across to the public as arrogant and repressive, and it often backfires. In desperation, insiders make more extravagant promises, reinforcing the phenomenon of expectations that are impossible to fulfill.


The dominant strategy of the outsiders is to focus on the negative, exposing and denouncing the failures, imperfections, and corruption of the insiders. On the left, this means heaping blame on the institutions of capitalism and free markets. On the right, this means heaping blame on the institutions of government. Neither side will propose, much less implement, an effective reform agenda. Instead, the only thing that the outsiders can accomplish will be to undermine the trust in and effectiveness of both markets and government.

To avoid this tragic outcome, both insiders and outsiders will have to adopt different strategies. Insiders will have to address what I call the discrepancy between knowledge and power, meaning that centralized power is incongruous with democratized information.5 Insiders will have to cede authority, rather than seek to centralize and expand power. They will need to seek to devolve more decisions to local governments. Moreover, at the local level, existing governments will have to become willing to tolerate, and even to foster, competition from other institutions, such as charter schools, that are capable of providing government services.

Outsiders will have to change our strategies as well. We will have to temper our demands and our rhetoric. We must learn to accept that institutions can be flawed and yet be worthy of our respect. Imperfections and bad outcomes should not be taken as proof of conspiracy or evil intent. We should pay less heed to those who only can pour out condemnation and blame. We should instead give higher praise to those who seek ways to experiment and to fix.

- Arnold Kling's review of The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium by Martin Gurri

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