Joe Biden is tempting fate. Having lived through the tumultuous 1970s, he is an unlikely candidate to repeat the mistakes of the decade—like inflation and high crime. Yet, instead of being chastened (or trapped) by ’70s-era thinking, his policy preferences reflect the prevailing progressive view of these issues. Is Biden transcending the tired old rules and leading us into the future, or is he setting us up for another big fall?
This is a question as old as time itself. The human experience suggests that we are cursed by having to learn and relearn the mistakes of the past. “The pattern of the prodigal is: rebellion, ruin, repentance, reconciliation, restoration”—according to a quote attributed to the late Christian preacher Edwin Louis Cole. Successful public policy solutions are especially doomed to become victims of their own success. That’s because, having solved the problem, we forget or grow complacent over time, and we extirpate them.
To illustrate the perils of reflexive change, the writer, philosopher, and theologian G.K. Chesterton told a parable about discovering a fence or gate across a path in the woods. “The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away,’” he writes. But Chesterton believes this is foolish. “Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody,” he explains. “And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.”
We should approach political reform with the same humble trepidation. No, we should not cling to old-fashioned hidebound policies for the sake of tradition. But yes, we ought to 1) consider why old ideas were instituted in the first place, 2) determine whether they had merit then, and 3) evaluate whether anything has changed since then that would make removing the “fence” a prudent decision.
It’s no secret that we are experiencing a political reordering. As such, the last two presidents have stumbled across fences and gates and determined that they should be cleared away. Donald Trump eschewed international alliances such as NATO and the post-World War II consensus. Thirty years after the Cold War, it made sense to reevaluate our assumptions regarding their utility. But Trump’s capriciousness made him more likely to bulldoze Chesterton’s fence than to honestly appraise why policymakers sought to pursue those policies in the wake of World War II.
Trump’s defeat last November makes this mostly a moot point, especially since Biden seems committed to the international order. But we’re not out of the woods, yet. It’s just that Biden’s fence-clearing is focused on domestic policy. Let’s start with his plans to spend $6 trillion.
“A specter is haunting the Biden administration—the specter of inflation,” writes Matthew Continetti at the conservative Washington Free Beacon. “[F]or a politician who came to Washington in 1973, Joe Biden has a lackadaisical attitude toward inflationary fiscal and monetary policy. Was he paying attention? It was the great inflation of the ’60s and ’70s, caused in part by high spending, the Arab oil embargo, and spiraling wages and prices in a heavily regulated and unionized economy, that helped ruin the presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.”
Because inflation has not plagued us for nearly four decades (and because codgers and green-eyeshade worrywarts have been crying “wolf” about it for much of that time), the assumption is that the pattern of the last four decades will continue—not that the lessons of the now-distant past will re-emerge. We shall see. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has called Biden’s spending the “least responsible” fiscal policy in forty years. On Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said, “It may be that interest rates will have to rise somewhat to make sure that our economy doesn’t overheat, even though the additional spending is relatively small relative to the size of the economy.” We are told that the Biden administration is quietly keeping an eye on inflation. I sure hope so.
Crime is the other big area where Biden should tread cautiously. Young people today may not understand how this issue helped elect Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan (not to mention the Willie Horton ad that helped defeat Michael Dukakis and elect George H.W. Bush in 1988) at the national level and led to the election of the Republican mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, in the 1990s.
Looking at it from today’s relatively safe world, you might be tempted to think concerns about crime were overwrought, but as criminal justice professor Barry Latzer observed, “Starting in the late 1960s, when the Great Crime Tsunami rolled over the nation, the [New York City’s] murder rates soared above 10 per 100,000 for a sustained period, skyrocketing to a terrifying 30.1 in 1990. Memories of those years haunt us still...”
In 2016, Trump ran on law and order, promising to “Make America Safe Again.” At the Republican National Convention, he warned, “Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by [the Obama] administration's rollback of criminal enforcement.” At his inaugural, he referenced “this American carnage.” Trump’s victory was, in part, a reminder of the potency of this issue.
A ballooning crime rate would be both disastrous and ironic, since a big part of Biden’s story is that he tried to reposition Democrats away from bleeding-heart liberalism to being a tough-on-crime party. But it could happen again, partly because Biden seems to have inherited a trend. “Murders skyrocketed in many major U.S. cities in 2020, increasing by nearly 37 percent over 2019’s total in a collection of 57 large jurisdictions,” The Washington Post’s Henry Olsen writes.
Even if he wanted to, Biden is not going to get a far-left criminal justice reform bill through Congress. But if crime rises in Democratic-run cities, and in cities with recently elected left-wing district attorneys (San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia come to mind) that will give Republicans a fresh opportunity to be the “law and order party.” If Biden isn’t prepared to challenge his base and push policies designed to reduce crime, he may end up being defined as Dukakis 2.0. If that happens, the roaring ’20s could look more like That Seventies Show. And that would spell disaster for the country—and for Biden’s political fortunes and legacy. Those who fail to learn from history, the aphorism states, are doomed to repeat it.
Welcome back, Carter!