There was an important speech in America this week, and it wasn’t made by Barack Obama. The President’s State of the Union address was, once again, a conventional recitation of the technocrat’s creed: state intervention can solve almost everything, so long as smart people like me make it smarter.
Marco Rubio’s speech wasn’t important either. The Republican made some good points, but his remarks were mainly noted for his inability to sip water (try googling Poland Spring if you haven’t seen it). Rubio is talented, but the senator is also suffering from being accelerated onto the national stage too fast, largely because his party senses it can wring electoral advantage from his ethnic background.
But the second, unofficial response to the President was a different matter. Rand Paul is another Republican – the junior senator for Kentucky – but his speech was given on behalf of the Tea Party, America’s grassroots movement committed to holding US elites to account for runaway government spending.
The Tea Party has been around since early 2009 and shows every sign of being a fixture on the American political scene. In some ways it is the closest the republic is likely to come to a true third party influence, for its critique of overbearing government is as much a rebuke to high-spending conservatives like George W. Bush as it is to Obama’s open chequebook.
Rand Paul’s speech matters because it was the voice of a new political rhetoric. It’s as true here as in the US that whoever you vote for, the government always seems to get in, partly because politicians across the spectrum have been seduced by the technocratic imperative. This view holds that the right to rule is a matter of possessing the high-level skills necessary to shape citizens’ behaviour through intricate policy architectures. It is an ideology that flatters the manipulative types drawn to the battle for high office. But it is not as smart as it thinks it is.
Paul’s speech offered another vision. Citing Adam Smith and Ronald Reagan, he appealed to the principle that government works best when it follows simple rules. He rebuked ingenious policymongers on behalf of common sense.
As he said, “Washington acts in a way that your family never could – they spend money they do not have, they borrow from future generations, and then they blame each other for never fixing the problem.”
Rand spoke up for the forgotten ideal that simple doesn’t have to be stupid. As the Nobel-winning economist Friedrich Hayek said in his final book The Fatal Conceit, the “naive mind” is the one unable to conceive of complex order arising except through central control. Such would-be philosopher-kings, Democrat or Republican, miss the possibility that their ministrations must be less effective than the evolution of spontaneous market orders. Hayek’s groundbreaking work returns us to the great, Socratic insight of intellectual humility. In Britain as well as America, it’s time for a common sense revolution.