Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Political Incoherence and the Rapid March of History

I have pointed out here several times that I think modern conservatism rests on a paradox: conservatives oppose change in general while supporting free market economics, which is our most powerful agent of change.

I was wondering, as I walked through the dark streets of northwest Washington on my way to work this morning, what is the equivalent liberal paradox. I suppose a conservative would say that it is trying to promote freedom through bureaucracy and taxation. And there is something to this -- every regulation designed to make the world better imposes real costs on somebody, and some of those costs fall most heavily on the poor people liberals want to help. Environmental regulation is full of unintended consequences. For example, one reason developers prefer to build on green pastures at the edge of suburbia rather than within old cities is that they might end up with severe liabilities because toxic waste dumped on their urban properties decades ago; the superfund act, designed to protect us from toxins, has mainly promoted sprawl.

Liberals of a certain sort also tend to be obsessed with art and to think that it holds the key to everything from child development to urban renewal, and yet art is probably the most elitist field of human activity and the one where inherited wealth plays the biggest part.

But if I had to say what is the biggest internal conflict within liberalism I would point back to the salient fact of the modern world: the unprecedented rate of change. Liberals or progressives define themselves as the party of change and the future. As a psychological type, this seems to hold largely true: the most liberal people are the ones most fascinated by new ideas in fields like science and spirituality, whereas one of the defining characteristics of conservatism around the world is an attachment to old styles of religion and culture. Liberals support gay marriage, cutting edge art, racial mingling. Yet the contemporary left distrusts many kinds of change. Liberals are prominent among the activists struggling to keep neighborhoods exactly the way they always were. Environmentalism has a very strong anti-modern component, expressed in slogans like "Split Wood Not Atoms." Anti-corporate feeling is driven in large part by the ways corporations change communities, as when they close factories, or when WalMart replaces a whole downtown with one huge store.

Modern politics has some of the dimensions of politics in past societies: conflicts between rich and poor, between ethnic groups, and between the elite within the government and other elites outside it. But modern politics also focuses very much on change and how we relate to it. It is the bewildering fact of constant social and economic revolution that makes our age different from every other, and that leaves us struggling to find our footing. Neither conservatives nor liberals have a consistent attitude toward this fact. Nor should they; only a fool would say that the changes of modernity have been all good or all bad. I think that we have been reconciled to the constant erosion of our social and psychic foundations by our ever increasing wealth, and this is why the public mood darkens so much whenever the economy turns sour. In such times conservatives turn toward traditional values and old religious ideas and rail against perceived attacks on them. Liberals turn toward old ideas of community and solidarity and rail against the attacks they think corporations and the rich are making on the common social fabric. Both are expressing the anxiety that assails us when the disorientation of rapid change is not mitigated by ever more money in our pockets.

I do not think we can do much to slow the rate of technical and economic change. We can try to guide it in certain directions, but in the main we can only choose how to respond. By all means, let us preserve what we can of past beauties, wonders, and accomplishments, as we rocket into the future. I would say, though, that neither free markets nor governments can be trusted to keep what is good from the past while seeking an ever better future. Probably no one and nothing can. But philosophical rigidity and ideological cant will certainly not help.

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