There is, of course, growing evidence of a difficult period ahead for the U. S. economy, compounding the new administration’s already challenging task of developing a consensus on tax and budget issues. In this environment, it is important to consider the longer-term implications of policy in the light of the new realities of the post-industrial global economy. Our economic policy gurus continue to lapse into the misguided thinking that government “runs” the economy, that it can guide and regulate its direction, pull it out of decline, or dampen “irrational exuberance”. This is antiquated Great Depression-era thinking, but it persists even among many entrepreneurs who should know better, and it often leads to bad policy. Even now, the specter of protectionism that often raises its ugly head during a slow economy may be holding back several important new free trade initiatives in Congress.
There continues to be an element of opinion leadership that is fighting the old economic wars. These people evidently fail to see, or prefer not to see, the “de-massification” of the economy so well described by Alvin Toffler in The Third Wave, the flattening of hierarchical command-and-control organizational structures, the collapsing of intermediaries that don’t add value, and the explosion of productivity brought about by Moore’s Law. Understandably, this revolution is a source of fear for those who can’t cope or don’t know how, or if, they have a place in the new scheme of things. If we’re honest, we all feel some of this anxiety.
In her The Future And Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel identifies the opposing forces in this and related conflicts as the “stasists” and the “dynamists”. In this view, the stasists are the tradition-bound reactionaries and the dynamists favor processes that lead to an open-ended future. She extols the superiority of the dynamist position across the board, in economic as well as cultural matters. From an economic standpoint, it is difficult to deny the ultimate logic of the dynamist worldview, but I struggle with the cultural damage that often results from the “creative destruction” of markets. This trade-off is characterized by Daniel Yankelovich as the conflict between the vision of the free market vs. the vision of the civil society. I believe that, at bottom, we are now deeply immersed in this conflict in our policy choices. Where are you in this debate? Are you a stasist or a dynamist?
Speaking of Alvin Toffler, a recent op/ed piece by him and his wife, Heidi, reminded me to follow up on my essay of last July, in which I commented that, with the breaking of the genetic code, we are very likely in the midst of a fourth great scientific revolution. Toffler adds to my unease about Virginia Postrel’s dynamist superiority with his prediction of the impending merger of biotechnology and genetics with the new digital technologies in what he calls “biodigital convergence”. I’ll spare you the details of the manipulative possibilities this might hold for mankind, but many of them do not fit the structural paradigms or moral order of the industrial age we are now leaving.
I’m told that I shouldn’t be worried about the implications for the human condition, that support for open-ended process won’t foreclose debate on the moral questions, and that the “techno-utopians”, as Dinesh D’Souza calls them, will not pursue such innovations as “designer children” without extensive policy debate. But I also know that these techno-utopians have not adequately addressed my concerns and I’m told by some of them that the concerns are subjective, devoid of logic, involve religious questions, and therefore provide no basis for discussion.
In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis described the end game of man’s conquest of nature: “What we call man’s power over nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with nature as the instrument…” It’s time we had some serious debate about where this revolution is leading us and whether or not we want to go there.
In a recent editorial in The Weekly Standard, William Kristol writes that the distinctive legacy likely to be left by George W. Bush will be an end to government hostility to religion and a new era in which pluralism and faith are no longer at odds. This is a striking comment. Certainly no area of public life over the past several decades has been as divisive as the debate over the proper role of religion in public policy. Last year, two symposia on the subject caught my attention. One was the March 2000 convocation of The American Assembly on “Matters of Faith: Religion in American Public Life” and the other was a July 2000 American Enterprise Institute symposium emphasizing Alexis de Tocqueville’s views on the subject. The American Assembly convocation of 57 business, civic, and religious leaders produced a statement of general, albeit not unanimous, agreement that “….religious voices are a vital component of our national conversation and should be heard in the public square. We reject the notion that religion is exclusively a private matter relegated to the homes and sacred meeting places of the faithful….” The AEI meeting highlighted Tocqueville’s thoughts on the threat of tyranny, not from the guillotine or the gulag, but from a form of “perpetual childhood” brought about by a Faustian bargain – the state assures affluence and contentment in exchange for power over our lives. He believed this condition would reign when materialism and individualism led to power seeking through government. Ultimately, he believed this society would be forced to make a choice and that the only bulwark against this tyranny would be our voluntary, private associations informed by religious faith.
Norman Podhoretz has written of the “curious fear and loathing” of religious conservatives by the liberal elite. Their talk of fascism has been replaced by the sincere conviction that if the Christian Right ever got into power behind a Republican President, we would face an updated version of the Salem witch trials. (Incidentally, he finds a clue here as to how Bill Clinton survived impeachment.) He dismisses this paranoia by pointing out that the religious conservative communities have served as a reminder of the religious foundations of the country and the (rapidly depleting) moral capital on which the democratic system still draws.
Remember that the mantra of “separation of church and state” comes from a judicial perversion of the religion clause of the First Amendment, which was designed to limit what the state can do, not what the church can do. With any luck, this President, with his public faith witness and his emphasis on private, faith-based social initiatives, can introduce a neo-Tocquevillian era and replenish our moral capital. Politically, this may be what the liberals fear most of all.
Is America a culture or an idea? This is a question that has occupied many of our leading intellectuals at least since the re-founding of our country beginning in the period immediately preceding the Civil War. We don’t typically think of ourselves as a single people as the Germans or French do (although my friends in the paleoconservative movement would take issue with this). It is our ideas that are said to be binding and that generate our homogeneity, and our creed has always made room for a plurality of subcultures. But as I pointed out in my June 2000 essay on The American Proposition, there are reasons to worry about whether or not we can sustain a consensus on the critical ideas that have produced the distinctly American culture. According to census results, California will soon become the largest proving ground for our experiment in assimilation, for it is now the first large state in which non-Hispanic whites are no longer a majority, a real test for the region from which many of our social and political trends originate. Many thoughtful people feel strongly that we can’t have immigration from non-Western countries on the scale the U. S. has received over the past 30 years and get assimilation as a result, even if we don’t discourage it with bilingual education, affirmative action, and the multicultural agenda, which we are doing. There is much more to be said about multiculturalism as the antithesis of the ideas that have sustained this culture, but for now we need to consider that when new immigration, coupled with multicultural ideology, undercuts these ideas, it’s time for a pause.