Conspiracies of the Ruling Class: How to Break Their Grip Forever, by Lawrence B. Lindsey (Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $26)
Lawrence Lindsey distrusts and despises Washington’s best and brightest—the new “ruling class,” as he describes them in his latest book. Having directed President George W. Bush’s National Economic Council, Lindsey readily acknowledges that he was—and in many ways remains—a member of that class. Nevertheless, he argues fluidly and forcefully against it. As a group, he writes, these elites are neither as capable nor as ethical as they pretend to be. Ultimately, they care little about the country; their primary aim is to extend their own power and prestige. The United States, Lindsey argues in Conspiracies of the Ruling Class, would do well to rid itself of their influence.
The country has always had a ruling class of sorts, but 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, Lindsey makes a compelling case that the Founders wrote the Constitution with this purpose expressly in mind. But over the past 100 years, progressive campaigners, politicians, and a compliant judiciary have managed to twist the Constitution and erode these safeguards. Their strategy for doing so rested on claims, going back at least as far as Woodrow Wilson, that the modern world’s complexity overwhelmed the competence of Congress and rendered obsolete the system of representative government framed by the Constitution. Government, they said, needed to empower a host of experts in its bureaucracies and agencies in order to do its job. Stepping into that role, the ruling class that Lindsey so distrusts has managed to sweep aside many constitutional safeguards while assuming coercive powers antithetical to the Founders’ intentions.
The book is strongest when it debunks elite claims to special ability, showing conclusively how so-called experts have failed to deliver on their promises of good government. 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 and explain their meaning clearly. He shows how income inequality has widened for almost 50 years, during both Democratic and Republican administrations. In fact, Lindsey demonstrates, income inequality grew at faster rates under Democratic presidents, and grew the most during Barack Obama’s two terms in office. So-called experts have mismanaged the nation finances, both at the Treasury and at the Federal Reserve, and, worse, hid the mismanagement under the cover of altered procedures and accounting rules. In addition, the ruling experts have failed to improve the nation’s educational standards, let the nation’s physical infrastructure deteriorate, and fostered instability in financial markets. It would be hard to do worse.
Lindsey goes well beyond complaints and criticisms, offering a remarkably detailed plan to diminish the power of the ruling class. The right presidential candidate, he argues, could one day reinvigorate the electorate’s belief in the ideals and values on which the country was built. With the help of a sympathetic Congress, such a politician could simplify the tax code, rewrite the Affordable Care Act to encourage greater choice in health care, streamline the Federal Reserve and make it more accountable, and reform the budget process so that Congress must vote on entitlements each year, as it does presently on other spending lines. Lindsey also supports the idea of term limits for federal judges. In his view, they should serve no more than 18 years on the bench.
Though compelling and largely accurate, Lindsey’s focus on progressives and progressivism constitutes the book’s chief weakness. Progressives surely bear much of the blame for the rise of incompetence, but the damage done by the ruling class goes beyond progressives or their political 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 nonprofit sector. Worse, wherever they reside, they manage to cooperate with one another to promote themselves at the expense of limited constitutional government.
Such destructive cooperation was most evident during the financial collapse of 2008. 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 set of radical policies. They claimed that the emergency demanded that they act. Whether they, in fact, helped the country recover will remain a matter of dispute for years. What isn’t in dispute is that their actions increased their own power and influence. Government experts helped their colleagues in the most powerful financial institutions maintain their positions through massive transfers of taxpayer funds, as well as unprecedented and dangerous Federal Reserve policies. Government and academic experts also helped their ruling-class colleagues in the financial world enlarge their power base, facilitating their acquisition of smaller financial institutions at fire-sale prices. In return, the ruling financial elite cooperated as government experts, enlarging their regulatory influence and increasing their control over the nation’s finances. This was more crony capitalism than progressive politics.
Broadening the focus to include these other episodes would have made the book longer and more complex, but also more likely to have a major influence on the national debate. As it is, Lindsey’s exclusive focus on the Left makes it too easy to dismiss his arguments as partisan. A broader treatment would have resonated more with people’s experience, justified the urgency with which Lindsey writes, put his suggested solutions into clearer perspective—and, most important, helped build a bigger constituency for ridding the country of this group’s corrosive influence.
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