30 November 2008

The Big Ideas

A.D. Freudenheim

It is Thanksgiving weekend, and the flow of news is relentless; fortunately, most sources of news have on/off switches. Between the terror in Mumbai and the terrifying news about how much (or little) Americans are shopping, or how they feel about the economy, it’s enough to push me back to eating turkey. Amidst all the chaos and tryptophan, however, one small idea emerges: we might be out of big ideas.

Not to be a total downer, but seriously, it seems like there aren’t any new ideas. Back in 2007 we started out with a few, mostly on offer from the various presidential candidates. “Hope” and “change” became the biggest, with “competence” playing a bit part. (Some candidates who might have done well sticking to the competence argument went for rabid ideology instead, and flamed out; c.f., Mitt Romney.) Except that once one scratches the surface, there is the inescapable realization that hope, change, and competence are not really ideas. They’re more like aspirations. It’s sad that mere competence is something to which we must now aspire, but we know to whom we owe our thanks on that front.

What else then? There’s banking reform (or re-reform); certainly an idea, if not a terribly innovative one. Corporate bailouts, whether for insurance companies or automobile manufacturers, are also not especially radical—unless you’re the taxpayer footing the bill, in which case these are radical enough that you should be very afraid. Even changes to our health care or Social Security systems (of whatever kind) might be considered revolutionary but are not, in any case, new ideas. We have been down these roads before, for better or worse and with mixed results.

So, will President-elect Obama “save” us—from ourselves?
The Obama campaign was predicated on the idea that changing the people and the “tone” in federal politics would start us on a path towards recovery. Conceptually this is true: if ideas and actions, for good or ill, come from people, then changing those people might make a difference. Still, looking back on the campaign, it is clear that for all of the grand aspiration represented by the word “change,” the policy approach of the Obama team was largely pragmatic, focused on the minutia of effective management.

Increasingly, I am coming to the conclusion that this is not a bad thing. It might even be a good thing. After almost eight years of the George W. Bush administration’s utter mismanagement of government, competence remains the most striking and important feature for the incoming team. I would rather have competence and intellectual flexibility than big ideas. I would rather that our politicians attempt to address the current crisis pragmatically than resort to a complicated, government-growing new New Deal in an attempt to remake our society. We don’t need that right now—and the New Deal (regardless of whether one likes it or not) was anything but pragmatic. Moreover, such large government programs inevitably tend to restrict our freedoms, because the cost of implementation is usually choice: choice in how to save or spend our income; choice in how we manage our health and medical treatments; the choice not to be identified according to our Social Security number … and thus denying ourselves access to a wide range of goods and services; choice across a spectrum of areas for which we take our freedom—and our responsibility—for granted. Until those freedoms disappear.
In an extensive essay in the December 2008 issue of Reason Magazine, titled “The Libertarian Moment,” Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch make an argument for why “America is poised to enter a new age of freedom.” I hope they are right. But to move in this direction, our new president and the nation he will lead must come to terms with a different kind of reality and a different approach to governance—one that (as I wrote last week) puts aside fear, and also accepts that the slogans of politics do not usually make the strongest platforms for actual governance.

The new issue of n+1 (number 7) is out, and the front section (“The Intellectual Situation”; not available online as of this writing) contains a short, sweet analysis of our present, um, situation—that is, of America in a post-cold war world and the narrative that a Reaganite America has adopted to explain both our success and the Soviets’ failure. The authors write “This story … did America the disservice of recasting it in the image made for us by our former adversaries: that of the capitalist imperialist. With the invasion of Iraq, we at last fully embraced the caricature.” The analysis continues, drawing some good parallels and noteworthy points, and the section concludes with the following sentence: “We want our new President to be an American Gorbachev—to preserve the country by changing it—if only it’s not too late for him to avoid Gorbachev’s fate.”

We may disagree on some specifics; the larger point holds. America needs a break with many of the idiotic and failing ideologies of the last half-century, which have culminated in the Bush-Cheney imperium. It is over, it has crashed rather magnificently, indeed it continues to crash. And the rebuilding needs to be something more than a political version of The Seven-Hundred Million Dollar Man, more than a set of “fixes” that result from throwing money at a problem.


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