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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Balding of Ideology

According to the old saying, "If you are not left-wing at 20, you have no heart; if you're still left-wing at 40, you have no head," on both sides of the Atlantic, voters now seem set to endorse two middle-aged men who have long since let their heads overrule their hearts.

President Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the charismatic leader of Britain's Labour Party (or "New Labour" as he calls it) both once belonged to the left. Complete with bad haircuts, bell-bottoms and dreams about ending poverty, Bill and Hillary Clinton campaigned passionately for Senator George McGovern. Blair, a student rock singer, joined the Labour Party and endorsed woolly causes such as nuclear disarmament and the "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange." Now both men are running on conservative programs that would have horrified their younger, hairier selves.

The conventional explanation for this is "realpolitik." Friends of the Clintons claim that at least the first couple tried. Remember gays in the military, health-care reform and the opposition they provoked? If the president had not had the political shrewdness to compromise, then a Republican victory now would be in the cards. Once re-elected, with nothing to lose, Clinton may be more radical again -- or so the left hopes. And there are still a few bearded die-hards in Islington who entertain similar dreams about Blair abolishing the monarchy and imposing 90 percent wealth taxes on the rich.

The truth is far more complicated. Whatever the pressures of the electorate, a fundamental shift has taken place in left-of-center politics. Both Clinton and Blair have swapped their earlier faith (liberalism in Clinton's case, socialism in Blair's) for a new, more modern creed: managerialism. Managerialism is not just a cover for their earlier, more youthful ideas. Both Clinton and Blair are managerialists to their marrow: They believe that the whole point of clever people such as themselves getting into government is to run things better.

This change mirrors another: the increasing importance of management theory in public life -- in Britain and America. Management used to be nothing more than what competent people did. Now it is a comprehensive (if extremely mixed) body of theory, generated by professional theorists, taught in business schools, sold by consultants and applied to every corner of society -- including government.

Increasingly, today's ruling class has been schooled in management; its members went to business school or worked in businesses. Clinton long has been a voracious reader of management books and attender of management conferences. (Indeed, it was at a conference on "total quality management" in Little Rock, Arkansas, that the future president allegedly propositioned Paula Jones.)

Clinton has carried these ideas into the White House -- most conspicuously through Vice President Al Gore's huge "reinventing government" program. The health-care plan that many liberals point to as evidence of the Clintons' enduring idealism was also an exercise in managerialism. Composed by 500 health-care specialists (most of them experts in organization rather than medicine), and written in the convoluted language of modern business schools, the plan might have passed muster with a panel of MBAs, but it infuriated the politicians on Capitol Hill -- who threw it out.

In his English way, Blair is just as obsessed by management as his fellow baby boomer in the White House. His triumphant speech at the Labour Party's annual conference at Blackpool two weeks ago featured a promise that he would follow the business practice of making a compact with the customer and draw up a "10-point covenant" with the British people. Blair has also dispatched his shadow cabinet to a series of management seminars at Oxford University's business school, Templeton College.

Why have these former leftists fallen in love with management? The most important reason is the death of ideology. The end of the Cold War, the implosion of socialism and the discrediting of special deals with trade unions mean that progressive politicians now have little left to argue about except management. The British Labour Party no longer is divided between supporters and opponents of military disarmament. The only question is how to stretch the budget to meet Britain's nuclear obligations. The Democratic Party no longer is divided between people who think it should be an arm of the labor movement and those who think it should govern for the common good. The only question is how to get the economy moving so that it creates jobs and distributes wealth.

Another reason is the need to look respectable. This is particularly urgent for the Labour Party, which spent most of the 1980s thumbing its nose at Middle England and suffered four crushing election defeats as a consequence. But it is also important for a Democratic Party that, as far as some Americans are concerned, has fallen into the hands of a generation of pot-smoking draft-dodgers. Spouting management theory is the verbal equivalent of putting on a suit and tie.

Is the left's love affair with management theory a good thing? Party bosses on both sides of the Atlantic have every reason to think so. It fits in with the mood of the voters -- who want carefully managed changes, not sweeping revolutions. But politicians should beware of taking the cult of management too far. Management theory may, on balance, have helped improve the U.S. economy over the last few years; but it has brought much pain in its wake. As workers, we all have little choice but to endure re-engineering, downsizing and whatever else theorists may choose to throw at us. But, as voters, we get to answer back.

John Micklethwait is business editor and Adrian Wooldridge is West Coast bureau chief for the Economist. They contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.