Earlier this month Bard College professor and The American Interest editor-at-large Walter Russell Mead delivered AEI’s monthly Bradley Lecture. His talk, titled “The Death of the Blue Social Model,” proffered the nearly unchallengeable thesis that the “blue model” of New Deal era policy had become obsolete in the 21st century. Professor Mead’s affiliation as a lifelong Democrat makes his argument difficult to ignore.
Professor Mead based his lecture on his cover story in the March/April edition of The American Interest, in which he further addressed the problem of our nation whose “discourse remains stuck in a bygone age.” Mead argues that in the years after the New Deal, the makers of the blue model assumed that “Americans would live a life of incremental improvements.” Ultimately, “America was what a ‘developed’ human society looked like.” The policy makers were swept up in a sort of Hegelian optimism; they saw a future full of prosperity towards which America steadily marched.
However, this optimism was founded in a world where the U.S. reigned as the unchallenged industrial leader and the government efficiently regulated the market. The thorough oversight was to guide the U.S. to the end of history where “only one set of universally acknowledged best practices would be left standing.” The model guaranteed security for consumers and profits for producers.
The success of the blue model relied on predictability. In the aftermath of WWII “there was virtually no foreign competition […] this stable economic structure allowed a consistent division of the pie.” But as Europe and Japan recovered, they proved more than a match for a U.S. economy grown lazy. Retirement also began to take its toll; concurrent with the formerly monolithic economy’s decline, many Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries reached retirement age.
Towards the end of his essay, Mead offers a strange call to action: “The success of our institutions and ideas,” he writes, “has so changed the world that they don’t work anymore.” This patently progressive statement sounds suspiciously like apologetics for a system that was always doomed to fail. It begs the question—can a system that breaks itself be a good idea?
In the end Professor Mead retreats into the same type of thinking that encouraged the New Deal’s lengthy demise. He assumes that the market can be predicted and controlled, but by his own admittance he knows this strategy to work only in the absence of international competition. The emergence of foreign industrial powers in the post-WWII economy was classic tortoise and hare; the world caught us napping.
So yes, the New Deal may have “worked” in its time and place, but the same economy that made us comfortable in the short term sowed the seeds for its own eventual breakdown. Realizing this, it seems sophistic to characterize the New Deal as solid fifties and sixties policy that simply outlived its usefulness.
Mead is correct that the blue model is broken and we need to move on from it. But his diagnosis of the situation misses the fact that our planning led to the problem. The blue model insulated the U.S. from competition so that our economy could not adapt to the evolving world market. We need, as Professor Mead puts it, to “upgrade to a new and higher level.” For Mead, however, the proposal to let the New Deal finally die is merely a consequence of our historical moment. His path of thinking offers only temporary solutions to enduring problems. Ultimately we need a permanent and dynamic policy that is compatible with the ever changing world.
Progressivism, for all its roots in scientific rationalism, ignores the basic evolutionary principle that your high school track coach knew so well; the competition isn’t taking a day off.