Books by Codevilla, Angelo

Codevilla, Angelo. The Character of Nations. New York: Basic Books, [1997] 2009. ISBN 978-0-465-02800-9.
As George Will famously observed, “statecraft is soulcraft”. This book, drawing on examples from antiquity to the present day, and from cultures all around the world, explores how the character, culture, and morals of a people shape the political institutions they create and how, in turn, those institutions cause the character of those living under them to evolve over time. This feedback loop provides important insights into the rise and fall of nations and empires, and is acutely important in an age where the all-encompassing administrative state appears triumphant in developed nations at the very time it reduces its citizens to subservient, ovine subjects who seek advancement not through productive work but by seeking favours from those in power, which in turn imperils the wealth creation upon which the state preys.

This has, of course, been the state of affairs in the vast majority of human societies over the long span of human history but, as the author notes, for most of that history the intrusiveness of authority upon the autonomy of the individual was limited by constraints on transportation, communication, and organisation, so the scope of effective control of even the most despotic ruler rarely extended far beyond the seat of power. The framers of the U.S. Constitution were deeply concerned whether self-government of any form could function on a scale beyond that of a city-state: there were no historical precedents for such a polity enduring beyond a generation or two. Thomas Jefferson and others who believed such a government could be established and survive in America based their optimism on the character of the American people: their independence, self-reliance, morality grounded in deep religious convictions, strong families, and willingness to take up arms to defend their liberty would guide them in building a government which would reflect and promote those foundations.

Indeed, for a century and a half, despite a disastrous Civil War and innumerable challenges and crises, the character of the U.S. continued to embody that present at the founding, and millions of immigrants from cultures fundamentally different from those of the founders were readily assimilated into an ever-evolving culture which nonetheless preserved its essential character. For much of American history, people in the U.S. were citizens in the classic sense of the word: participants in self-government, mostly at a local level, and in turn accepting the governance of their fellow citizens; living lives centred around family, faith, and work, with public affairs rarely intruding directly into their lives, yet willing to come to the defence of the nation with their very lives when it was threatened.

How quaint that all seems today. Statecraft is soulcraft, and the author illustrates with numerous examples spanning millennia how even the best-intentioned changes in the relationship of the individual to the state can, over a generation or two, fundamentally and often irreversibly alter the relationship between government and the governed, transforming the character of the nation—the nature of its population, into something very different which will, in turn, summon forth a different kind of government. To be specific, and to cite the case most common in the the last century, there is a pernicious positive feedback loop which is set into motion by the enactment of even the most apparently benign social welfare programs. Each program creates a dependent client class, whose political goals naturally become to increase their benefits at the expense of the productive classes taxed to fund them. The dependent classes become reliable voting blocs for politicians who support the programs that benefit them, which motivates those politicians to expand benefits and thus grow the dependent classes. Eventually, indeed almost inevitably, the society moves toward a tipping point where net taxpayers are outvoted by tax eaters, after which the business of the society is no longer creation of wealth but rather a zero sum competition for the proceeds of redistribution by the state.

Note that the client classes in a mature redistributive state go far beyond the “poor, weak, and infirm” the politicians who promote such programs purport to champion. They include defence contractors, financial institutions dependent upon government loan guarantees and bailouts, nationalised companies, subsidised industries and commodity prices, public employee unions, well-connected lobbying and law firms, and the swarm of parasites that darken the sky above any legislature which expends the public patrimony at its sole discretion, and of course the relatives and supporters of the politicians and bureaucrats dispensing favours from the public purse.

The author distinguishes “the nation” (the people who live in a country), “the regime” (its governing institutions), and “the establishment” (the ruling class, including politicians but also media, academia, and opinion makers). When these three bodies are largely aligned, the character of the nation will be reflected in its institutions and those institutions will reinforce that character. In many circumstances, for example despotic societies, there has never been an alignment and this has often been considered the natural order of things: rulers and ruled. It is the rarest of exceptions when this triple alignment occurs, and the sad lesson of history is that even when it does, it is likely to be a transient phenomenon: we are doomed!

This is, indeed, a deeply pessimistic view of the political landscape, perhaps better read on the beach in mid-summer than by the abbreviated and wan daylight of a northern hemisphere winter solstice. The author examines in detail how seventy years of communist rule transformed the character of the Soviet population in such a manner that the emergence of the authoritarian Russian gangster state was a near-inevitable consequence. Perhaps had double-domed “defence intellectuals” read this book when it was originally published in 1997 (the present edition is revised and updated based upon subsequent events), ill-conceived attempts at “nation building” might have been avoided and many lives and vast treasure not squandered in such futile endeavours.

December 2009 Permalink

Codevilla, Angelo. The Ruling Class. New York: Beaufort Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8253-0558-0.
This slim volume (just 160 pages) is a somewhat expanded version of the author's much discussed essay with the same title which appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of The American Spectator. One of the key aspects of “American exceptionalism” over most of the nation's history has been something it didn't have but which most European and Asian nations did: a ruling class distinct from the general citizenry. Whether the ruling class was defined by heredity (as in Britain), or by meritocratic selection (as in France since the Revolution and Germany after Bismarck), most countries had a class of rulers who associated mostly with themselves, and considered themselves to uniquely embody the expertise and wisdom to instruct the masses (a word of which they tended to be fond) in how to live their lives.

In the U.S., this was much less the case. Before the vast centralisation and growth of the federal government in the New Deal and afterward, the country was mostly run by about fifty thousand people who got involved in grass roots public service: school boards, county commissions, and local political party organisations, from whom candidates for higher office were chosen based upon merit, service, and demonstrated track record. People who have come up by such a path will tend to be pretty well anchored to the concerns of ordinary citizens because they are ordinary citizens who have volunteered their time to get involved in res publica.

But with the grand centralisation of governance in Imperial Washington over the last century, a new kind of person was attracted to what used to be, and is still called, with exquisite irony, “public service”. These are people who have graduated from a handful of élite universities and law schools, and with the exception of perhaps a brief stint at a large law firm dealing mainly with the government, spent their entire careers in the public sector and its cloud of symbiotic institutions: regulatory agencies, appointed offices, elected positions, lobbying firms, and “non-governmental organisations” which derive their entire income from the government. These individuals make up what I have been calling, after Milovan Đilas, the New Class, but which Codevilla designates the Ruling Class in the present work.

In the U.S., entry to the ruling class is not, as it is in France, a meritocracy based on competitive examinations and performance in demanding academic institutions. Instead, it is largely a matter of who you, or your family, knows, what university you attended, and how well you conform to the set of beliefs indoctrinated there. At the centre of this belief system is that a modern nation is far too complicated to be governed by citizen-legislators chosen by ignorant rubes who didn't attend Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or one of the other ruling class feeder belts, but rather must be guided by enlightened experts like, well, themselves, and that all the ills of society can be solved by giving the likes of, well, themselves, more power over the population. They justify this by their reliance on “science” (the details of which they are largely ignorant), and hence they fund a horde of “scientists” who produce “studies” which support the policies they advocate.

Codevilla estimates that about a third of the U.S. population are either members of the ruling class (a small fraction), or aligned with its policies, largely due to engineered dependency on government programs. This third finds its political vehicle in the Democratic party, which represents their interests well. What about the other two thirds, which he dubs the “Country Class” (which I think is a pretty lame term, but no better comes immediately to mind)? Well, they don't have a political party at all, really. The Republican party is largely made up of ruling class people (think son of a president George W. Bush, or son of an admiral John McCain), and quickly co-opts outsiders who make it to Washington into the Imperial ruling class mindset.

A situation where one third of the population is dictating its will to the rest, and taxing a minority to distribute the proceeds to its electoral majority, in which only about a fifth of the population believes the federal government has the consent of the governed, and two thirds of the population have no effective political vehicle to achieve their agenda is, as Jimmy Carter's pollster Pat Caddell put it, pre-revolutionary. Since the ruling class has put the country on an unsustainable course, it is axiomatic that it will not be sustained. How it will end, however, is very much up in the air. Perhaps the best outcome would be a take-over of the Republican party by those genuinely representative of the “country party”, but that will be extremely difficult without a multitude of people (encouraged by their rulers toward passivity and resignation to the status quo) jumping into the fray. If the Republicans win a resounding victory in the elections of November 2010 (largely due to voters holding their noses and saying “they can't be worse than the current bums in office”) and then revert to ruling class business as usual, it's almost certain there will be a serious third party in play in 2012, not just at the presidential level (as the author notes, for a while in 1992, Ross Perot out-polled both the first Bush and Clinton before people concluded he was a flake with funny ears), but also in congressional races. If the Republicans are largely running in 2010 on a platform of, “Hey, at least we aren't the Democrats!”, then the cry in 2012 may be “We aren't either of those foul, discredited parties.”

As fiscally responsible people, let's talk about value for money. This book just doesn't cut it. You can read the original essay for free online. Although the arguments and examples therein are somewhat fleshed out in this edition, there's no essential you'll miss in reading the magazine essay instead of this book. Further, the 160 page book is padded—I can summon no kinder word—by inclusion of the full text of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. Now, these are certainly important documents, but it's not like they aren't readily available online, nor that those inclined to read the present volume are unfamiliar with them. I think their presence is mostly due to the fact that were they elided, the book would be a mere hundred pages and deemed a pamphlet at best.

This is an enlightening and important argument, and I think spot-on in diagnosing the central problem which is transforming the U.S. from an engine of innovation and productivity into a class warfare redistributive nanny state. But save your money and read the magazine article, not the book.

October 2010 Permalink