Is Washington Irrelevant?

Presented at Reason Foundation Policy Breakfast Washington, D.C.


One way to describe the topic of this conference is to say it's about "devolution." But that term implies that Washington holds most of the power and influence in society and is gradually giving up little bits of it. And that's not exactly true.

So I want to talk about a more powerful phenomenon—evolution, the way we build our future bit by bit long before policy makers get around to noticing. Then I'll discuss how reactions to that evolution are creating a new political-intellectual-cultural landscape defined less by traditional left and right than by attitudes toward the future.

I'd like to start by addressing you less as a political writer than as a manager. Many of you are undoubtedly under the impression that Reason magazine is located in Los Angeles. There are good reasons to think so, starting with the address on our stationery.

But Reason's staff is increasingly scattered all over the country. We've got an editor in New York City, another one soon in Huntsville, Texas, and I myself spend a week a month in Evanston, Illinois, outside Chicago. These aren't bureaus we've set up to cover various regions—Rick Henderson here in D.C. is our only bureau correspondent. Rather, these farflung operations represent bargains, deals we've struck with each other.

Like many other businesses in "knowledge industries," Reason is becoming something of a virtual workplace, a network of people who don't necessarily see each other every day between regular hours. It wasn't always so. When I came to Reason 10 years ago, the operating assumption was that you were in the office, at your desk, from 8:30 to 6:00, or you must not be working. That was, after all, the assumption of most American business, and Reason was pretty conventional in its management.

The question is, What changed? How did we get to the point where people could be working from half a continent away?

We could start with the Internet, of course, and that would be the hip thing to do. (Talking about the Internet would also allow me to mention, as I always do in these speeches, that Reason ran its first cover story on the regulation of cyberspace in January 1991.) But the Internet is neither necessary nor sufficient. When you're talking about satellite offices, the Net is just a speedier substitute for the phone and Federal Express.

And therein lies one clue. Better communications do matter. It matters that Fred Smith created FedEx to compete with the post office. (It particularly matters if you're based in California and have to allow a week for the mail ponies to cross the prairies.) It matters that Bill McGowan beat down the Bell monopoly to create MCI, giving us both lower long-distance bills and a huge investment in high-capacity fiber optic lines. It matters that it's no longer illegal to put a "foreign attachment" on your phone, which means you can have a fax machine or modem in that satellite office. A lot of institutional changes had to happen—a lot of government-protected monopolies had to be broken—before we could live in a world where little magazines like Reason could have editors scattered around the country.

But an even bigger part of the story has next to nothing to do with the government. It lies in the changing relationship between employers and employees, a relationship based not on lifetime loyalty but on shared purpose and open bargaining.

Unlike the Organization Men for whom much of Washington appears to be pining these days, Reason's editors have options outside a single organization and have commitments outside the workplace—starting with commitments to equally ambitious and accomplished spouses. If I as a manager want to maintain the best possible staff, I have to accommodate those commitments. This represents an enormous change. One of the striking things about traditional corporate careers is that they assumed that employees would never look outside the company for other opportunities, would never even pay attention to the outside world.

And I've been a journalist long enough to remember when two-career professional couples were new, the subject of countless articles meditating on what they portended for corporate policies. I've also been a journalist long enough to remember when large news organizations were just beginning to deal with the issue internally, and not always liking the fact that they could no longer move reporters around at will.

These changes are part of larger trends in work life, trends with their roots in the dissatisfactions of the 1950s and '60s. They are, on the whole, very good trends, but like all changes they are disruptive and entail costs as well as benefits. And the culture of Washington—the culture of political control and crisis-driven media—emphasizes only the costs, to the point that we now have an incumbent president running in good economic times not by taking credit (deserved or not) but by telling everyone to be scared and miserable. The unplanned, out-of-control, choice-driven future is not popular around here.

Washington is fundamentally a reactive city, a place that follows the public while pretending to lead it. Once work life began to change, then and only then, did we find people in Washington rushing to say something about it: to condemn the changes, to praise them, to "manage" and guide them.

Which brings me to my larger theme: As those of you who read Reason probably already know, I believe that the traditional left-right spectrum is increasingly unsatisfactory at explaining today's political and intellectual alliances. It is much more useful to think of a spectrum—a landscape, really—divided between proponents of stasis and proponents of dynamism, between people who want to stop, reverse, or plan the social and economic future and people who embrace an open-ended, unpredictable, incrementally improving future created by individual choices.

One small example: Nothing expresses the conventional left-right dichotomy more than Crossfire. And the first Crossfire of 1995 was devoted to the future: not the future of the new Republican Congress, or of Bill Clinton's political career, but the future in general. The show turned into a love-in between Pat Buchanan, the host on the right, and Jeremy Rifkin, the guest on the left.

Both were convinced that the future is bleak and that soon the only jobs left in the economy will be for brainiacs. Both wanted vigorous government action to restore what they perceived as the economic stability of past eras. And both were taken aback by their newfound alliance. They kept saying things like, "You sound like a Pat Buchanan column" and "I find myself…agreeing with Pat…, which gives me alarm."

I wasn't a bit surprised, however. I've been using Buchanan and Rifkin for years to illustrate the party of stasis. Indeed, they are among the purest representatives of one camp within that grouping: what I call Reactionaries, people who want to reverse change and restore the real or imagined past. They aren't as extreme as the Unabomber, but they're thinking along similar lines, longing for the supposed stability of a world without economic or technological change, fearing what the Unabomber's manifesto called the "reckless ride into the unknown."

There is another important static camp—the Technocrats. These are people who want to manage the future, to plan it from the top down—people who dislike open-endedness and unpredictability, who are for "change," but only as designed and dictated by the "best experts," with no thought of unintended consequences, dispersed knowledge, or complex feedback. Ira Magaziner and Ross Perot are, in different ways, classic Technocrats; it's no accident that both like to dictate not only how the government should run things but how other people's businesses should work.

The most important Technocrats in our political history are the people who coined the term, the turn-of-the-century Progressives who used engineering rhetoric and engineering models to argue that government experts should regulate our society and economy to ensure "efficiency" and equity. Many engineering-minded Progressives believed that diversity was inefficient and wasteful, that central planning would conserve resources. They didn't want government to own the means of production, but they definitely believed in top-down direction.

Our politics are still shaped largely by the Progressives' faith in technocratic competence. So the most common political response to the unknown future is still the promise to manage change, to provide security, to guarantee outcomes. We take for granted that each new development, from the contents of popular entertainment to the latest in medical equipment, deserves not only public discussion but government scrutiny. The result is a distinct brand of stasis, one based not on eliminating innovations but on controlling them.

While the rest of society has moved on, Technocratic Washington still operates on assumptions that Friedrich Hayek described in The Road to Serfdom more than 50 years ago: the "veneration of the state, the admiration of power, and of bigness for bigness' sake, the enthusiasm for organization' of everything…, And that inability to leave anything to the simple power of organic growth.'" Or, as I like to put it, the motto is, "Got a problem, get a policy."

Now some of you may be skeptical of such claims. But, no, you're saying. What about the Republican revolution? Bigness is out. Veneration of the state and admiration of power are passe. Enthusiasm for "organization" of everything died with ClintonCare.

Yeah, right.

Now I am going to talk about the Internet, because it drives stasis pushers crazy. It had the audacity to become big and important before the regulators noticed and it remains, as one horrified op-ed writer put it, "an international computer web tying together about 30 million people [yet] governed by no one." She called for "firm direction."

She isn't alone. Washington, left or right, lusts to exercise "firm direction."

Since we're discussing lust, consider the question of protecting children from "indecent" material on the Net. (First, a clarifying aside: "Indecency" is not "obscenity." Indecency is a legal category that covers material that is constitutionally protected if printed but illegal to broadcast because it is deemed inappropriate for children. Indecency is Howard Stern and Nancy Friday, not pedophilic photos, which are already illegal under ordinary obscenity law. End of aside.)

The Internet censorship debate was a paradigmatic clash between static and dynamic world views. Social conservatives campaigned for a federal regulation prohibiting all such speech—a single, static standard. Having defined a "problem," they produced a "solution," though not one any credible observer believed truly enforceable. A worldwide, decentralized network of potentially anonymous computers is not as easily regulated as a few broadcasters licensed by the FCC.

Internet activists, by contrast, saw the issue as a question of helping families enforce their own norms. They assumed that a new medium would produce a wide variety of content, meant for diverse audiences. And they assumed that if families wanted to keep sexual material from children, software would be developed to do the job and would be marketed either as add-on products or as features of information services. A diverse medium would produce a dynamic response to consumer demands—as long as there were no barriers to innovation.

Anti-censorship groups therefore supported bills to grant legal protection to information services that screen out potentially offensive material; merely providing a "family-friendly" service would not subject the carrier to the relatively strict libel standards applied to edited publications. Chris Cox, who sponsored the original bill with then-Congressman, now-Senator, Ron Wyden, put it this way in a press release: "By facilitiating the use of new technologies that put control in the hands of the online user, we have removed the barriers preventing corporations from acting responsibly, and from complying with the demands of their customers."

This indirect approach is typical of the dynamist solutions Washington culture has so much trouble understanding. It looks for broken feedback loops—in this case, a legal threat that would stop businesses from serving customers—and tries to close them. The approach may seem roundabout, but it in fact preserves the direct connection between actions and outcomes, between serving families' demands for protection and earning a profit.

Such hands-off, feedback-oriented policies are politically confusing. They blur left-right distinctions, drawing "conservatives" like Chris Cox into alliances with "liberals" like Ron Wyden. Because they try to improve institutions and processes, rather than decree results, such indirect approaches anger allies, who expect Republicans to come down on the side of social control and Democrats to be suspicious of markets.

In the Internet case, Washington—true to its Technocratic culture—built a bipartisan alliance in favor of stasis. Now, in theory at least, I could go to jail for two years for publishing a book review quoting Howard Stern on the World Wide Web.

So is Washington becoming irrelevant? That depends on who you are and what you mean. David Packard is, as Rick suggested in his talk (quoting my recent editorial), far more important than Ed Muskie, his legacy far more enduring. The really important things that happen in America happen elsewhere. They grow up little by little from millions of small, decentralized choices. Those choices, not politicians pontificating about TV shows they've never seen, are what builds a "culture."

But Washington is still relevant. In a positive sense, it is here that we as a nation create the stable underpinnings that allow dynamic processes to go forward. "The task of the lawgiver," Hayek wrote, "is not to set up a particular order but merely to create conditions in which an orderly arrangement can establish and ever renew itself." That "merely" is the height of understatement—constitutional design is a difficult, and admirable, business.

Unfortunately, that is not the only way in which Washington remains relevant. There is also, as the Internet example suggests, the relevance of arbitrary power.

When the 16th-century French government tried to stamp out the trade in Protestant books, the new technology of printing—and the zeal for profit—withstood the challenge, just as encryption and anonymity will probably dodge Internet censors. Thanks to their political connections, none of the larger printing houses were even punished. "What did it matter, under these circumstances, that a printer here or there was arrested, or even burnt? To be effective the repression would have to have been much more severe, and even then it might still have failed." write two historians of the period. Government was "irrelevant" to book printers. Unless, of course, you happened to be one of the unfortunate ones burned at the stake.