Today’s David Brooks column is terrible as history or political semantics, but it nearly makes a minimally sensible point.
First the terrible part.
When historians look back on this period, they will see it as another progressive era. It is not a liberal era–when government intervenes to seize wealth and power and distribute to the have-nots…. It’s a progressive era, based on the faith in government experts and their ability to use social science analysis to manage complex systems.
So to be clear, according to Brooks, the progressive era, which saw Congress and the state legislatures adopt constitutional amendments for the direct election of senators, an income tax, and the enfranchisement of women, wasn’t a time when government redistributed wealth and power to the have-nots. This seems obviously wrong in a way that would earn an undergraduate an F.
The less terrible point here is whether we should trust expert panels to regulate complex phenomena.
This progressive era amounts to a high-stakes test. If the country remains safe and the health care and financial reforms work, then we will have witnesses a life-altering event. We’ll have received powerful evidence that central regulations can successfully organize fast-moving information-age societies.
Now, “regulations” can’t ever actually “organize” anything, but let’s let this infelicity pass and instead venture some observations from actual history. Central regulatory agencies can become insensitive to the broader public, instead getting cozy with the industries they’re meant to supervise. Consider for example the Federal Reserve, which owes its decentralized structure to a progressive-era impulse to create a system responsive to local interests. But there’s little evidence that the Minneapolis Fed better represents the little guys, the debtors of the Midwest, than say the New York Fed or the central Federal Reserve Board.
What seems to have worked better in American history, and which many actual historical progressives actually preferred, is regulation by rule rather than regulation by expert discretion. If you could craft a clear and specific law that applied to a clearly defined, specific constituency, you could avert specific wrongdoing, or so the argument went. And so the highly specific Clayton Antitrust Act turned the Sherman Antitrust Act into a more useful tool to prevent business monopoly and anticompetitive practices. (Not a perfect, or even necessarily a good tool, but a more useful one.) And so, for example, the regulations in the Banking Act of 1933 generally referred to as Glass-Steagall laid out clearly what commercial banks could and could not do, making banking a dependable public utility for the next sixty or so years.
Thus the story of progressive regulation seems to be that it works better when Congress gives regulators clear rules to enforce. There is at least some evidence (see the Volcker rule) that elements of the current progressive coalition understand this history. But Brooks doesn’t get there in this column, principally I fear because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and doesn’t care to find out.