“The way up and the way down are one and the same. “
Newt Gingrich: Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future; TOR Books; New York.
Robert Kuttner: The Economic Illusion: False Choices Between Prosperity and Social Justice; Houghton Mifflin; Boston.
The idea of progress provides much of the rhetorical foundation of modern politics. Everyone favors movement in directions that are identified as “progressive,” and “retrogression” is universally a term of abuse. This vocabulary dominates our rhetoric, encouraging politicians to flow with the tide, frequently without regard for a comprehensible sense of direction. Even as they urge us forward, leaders are uncertain about whether we are headed up or down.
The results of the 1984 election are only the most meager indication that our national eminences are adrift without rudder and compass. This drift affects all the academic disciplines. Economists can give diametrically opposed analyses of our economic ills, not merely because of differing notions of economic health. Our colleges and universities prove deficient in their teaching, less because of the diminished skills that our high school graduates bring to institutions of higher learning than because of the lack of a sense of purpose in all but a few colleges and universities. Discord among academic disciplines sows the seeds for a society that no longer comprehends any common notion of just what it is that makes one form of society more desirable than others. Our national media reflect this confusion, providing a proliferation of perspectives, few of which are more than unrooted responses to sequences of incidents that the sages themselves do not comprehend.
Two recent books illustrate this division of the American mind on the question, “Which way is up?” Kuttner offers a tour guide of societies that provide “better” examples of social progress than the United States, and laments the difficulty of designing the political road map that would get us from our current vale of tears to his more equal (in material terms) s6ciety. Kuttner uses the terms “equal” and “equitable” nearly interchangeably, and he has no conception of life be yond the possession of material goods. He shares the economic prejudice that more is better, asserting/ that people should have more medical care, housing, unions, education, social services, and other things that European Social Democrats routinely transform from a demand into a need.
Although Kuttner acknowledges that his preferences are for a more equal distribution of material wealth, and that transforming these prejudices into public policies is a political question, politics is not his topic. Michael Walzer and William Ryan have assert ed the primacy of equality of economic results, and Kuttner takes that as sufficient. Kuttner writes merely to reassure his reader that other states have combined more equal distribution of wealth with relative prosperity in a democratic order. He seems confident that, once comparative economics provides the evidence that it could be done elsewhere, we will leap into action to achieve such a social order here. In short, he would like a transformation of American politics that would enable us to import Swedish and Austrian policies. In effect, “up” is really “down.” Societies are to be judged in terms of their treatment of the worst off among them, which in practice means the portion of national income that is “distributed” to the poorest quintile of the population.
What is it about Austria and Sweden that make them icons in the establishment religion of progress? These model societies have combined strong labor organizations, relatively low unemployment rates, extensive entitlement programs, comprehensive economic planning, and relative internal harmony. With nearly homogenous populations, these nations have few social questions that cultivate the seeds of discord. As long as the economic pie continued to grow, the politics of redistribution were tolerated in these countries. Kuttner admits uneasiness about sustaining such policies in economically difficult times.
Kuttner’s ideal society is the small republic, societies that can be peaceful because they have no great causes to fight. As nations with relatively few industries, people throughout the country recognize that the health of each industry is important for the national economy. Industries themselves rarely come into direct conflict, in part because the investment decisions of national economic planners strengthen the nation’s winners and prevent effective formation of opposition or proposals for alternative industries. When Austria, for example, is developing a national economic plan, it must consult the heads of 16 labor unions. The president of the AFL CIO has far more contesting organizations to contend with.
These nations have no ambitious, large-scale national projects, and they discourage large-scale ambition at the individual level. Kuttner claims that average Swedes tolerate the nation’s confiscatory tax rates, but neglects to mention Bjorn Borg and Ingmar Bergman, who took their talents abroad when marginal tax rates reached 102 percent. Just as these nations think small in their industrial and distributional policies, they encourage small thinking in international dealings. They do engage in inter national commerce, but only with a limited range of merchandise. The Swedes don’t like it when Soviet subs patrol their waters, but nothing in the Swedish navy is likely to deter determined Soviet admirals. Kuttner signif icantly neglects to mention that the United States has greater international responsibilities that prevent it from devoting as much of its resources to the “distribution of society’s wealth” to “the poor” as, say, Austria. Kuttner is blind to the possibility that a great people might want to accomplish great deeds, and he would be mystified by the notion that one would have to look beyond the material prosperity of the poorest to find visions of great projects. Kuttner is silent about people’s souls, a silence which is entirely fitting. Anyone with a soul might ask him, “Why should Americans want to make their society like Austria?”
Newt Gingrich, in contrast, knows that down is not up. When people ask Gingrich for his vision of a good socie ty, he looks less to the individual material wealth of the citizens than to the dreams that inspire them. When he speaks of looking up, his outlook is fixed on the stars. He thinks that American society has not had a real sense of purpose since President Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon in a decade, and he believes that we can accomplish a great deal more in space. Want a few ideas? How about laser technology for more effective defense? Are some processes for combin ing metals impossible in earth’s gravity? Why not try manufacturing on space stations? Do we need a perfect vacuum to achieve certain laboratory conditions? Space has the vacuums in much greater quantity than they can be manufactured on earth. Are we getting tied up in our own phone cables? Take it in stride; satellite communications will provide less restrictive communications at a cheaper rate in the near future.
Gingrich believes that our vision of a better future has been limited by our leaders’ inclinations to view people as victims. The appropriate question for a victim is, “How can we improve your life, since you are so unable to help yourself?” Gingrich argues that this perspective has led to the establishment of the Liberal Welfare State, a form of rule that builds upon the current problems of favored classes and limits the opportunities of others, including the nation at large. The result of a Liberal Welfare State is a nation that tends to view itself as victims, and depends upon others to rescue it from a series of mishaps.
Gingrich does not believe that a diminished sense of public purpose is a fitting way of life for a great and free people. He recognizes, however, that escaping from the traps of Liberal Welfare State thinking requires reorientation on the part of public officials. In short, leaders must act as if they had some idea of the purpose of freedom. Gingrich realizes that a free people will develop a great number of ideas and activities to create their own improved world, as long as they have the opportunity to do so.
Gingrich’s alternative to the Liberal Welfare State is the Conservative Opportunity Society. His vision of opportunity extends the same principles to every sector of American life. He has unbounded confidence that the American people can accomplish a great deal. Where people do not think of themselves as victims, they are likely to seek ways of contributing that most of us can barely imagine. Gingrich rarely criticizes the institutions of the Welfare State directly, in deference to the good intentions of legislators who established them. He does, however, dwell on many of the anomalies that have resulted from the extended operation of institutions that view their clients as victims. It cannot have been the intention, for example, of the planners of Medicaid to spend count less dollars on institutionalized care when home care of comparable quality could be achieved at one-tenth the cost. The planners of AFDC programs could not have intended to establish a program that encouraged teenaged girls to get pregnant as a means of escaping parental guidance. Public housing programs ought to provide the homeless with essential housing, not construction subsidies to developers where existing units are already vacant. Where such contradictions be tween intentions and operation of the Liberal Welfare State come into view, Gingrich wants his fellow citizens to look for ways in which things could be different. Then he strongly urges peo ple to work for change.
Gingrich draws freely from sources rarely cited by conservatives. A conservative citing John Naisbitt’s nine trends as “inevitable”? A conservative treating Alvin Toffier as a serious social commentator? A conservative invoking Carl Sagan with approval? Few things have united these observers other than their hostility to traditional ideas and their opposition to the principles that Gingrich appears to embrace. At first glance, one is tempted to suspect that the ideas are linked by an intellectual form of chicken wire. Upon a closer reading, one recognizes that a Christmas tree is a more appropriate frame of reference. Gingrich hangs lots of ornaments here and there, but the trunk and the roots are planted in solid soil.
Although the reader can admire the dexterity with which Gingrich juggles the ideas that he raises within the framework that he creates, there are still elements of the overall package that rest, at best, uneasily. Gingrich recognizes the disciplinary role of hard work, and stresses that true accomplishment requires habits, inclinations, and character that do not mesh well with the perspective dominant among liberals in American society.
In affirming the necessity of disciplined work in developing opportunities for progress, the author believes that we will experience a restoration of the more fundamental values of our society. He never contemplates that technological innovation might be a mixed blessing. His thesis is in sharp contrast to Schumpeter’s argument that capitalism presents an unceasing series of demands for changes in society. Where Schumpeter saw persistent pressures for changes as society’s undoing, Gingrich sees such pressures as symptoms of the society’s efforts at renewal and reaffirmation of its most basic principles.
Gingrich never really confronts the hard cases. Will the moral character of our society improve if an “effective” morning-after pill makes abortion mills obsolete? Are we better off with more elaborate television communications if the tube communicates pornographic movies? In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn recognized that modem technology is essential for the Soviet Union to operate a prison and torture state on a massive scale. Gingrich recognizes the contemporary Soviet state as an abomination, and stresses the contributions that technology can make to improved national defense. One almost suspects that his gaze is so fixed on opportunities above and beyond current limits that Gingrich has neglected to consider the darker inspirations of human conduct. The authors of The Federalist shared, in a measured degree, Gingrich’s apparent confidence /n the American people. They differed, however, by acknowledging that serious political tl1eory must take account of the less than-beneficent acts of some people and provide appropriate remedies.
These are strange times we live in, when political cliches are turned on their heads. Gingrich and Kuttner provide an interesting spectacle of an establishment calling itself liberal confronted by a revolutionary calling himself conservative. cc
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