Before Republicans can develop an intelligent platform to address Post-Cold War demands, we have to confront a changing world with clear eyes. The global political landscape has changed dramatically since the last time we gave it a serious look. Many of our new problems spring from previous Republican successes. Failure to recognize them sets us up for a looming Republican calamity.
We live in a world that few Reagan Era Republicans dared to imagine. The defeat of Communism unleashed markets worldwide, bringing vast new global prosperity, but also introducing new challenges. Success means graduating up to better and better problems. For Americans to realize the massive potential of the post-Communist era, we will first have to acknowledge the challenges that come with this spectacular gift.
Markets are a very efficient engine for generating prosperity. The more broadly they extend, the more wealth they create. But on a mass scale, markets also create problems that undermine quality of life and corrode the traditional institutions which lay at the foundation of representative democracy. Without proper care and feeding, markets will destroy themselves.
We have long portrayed market forces in mechanical terms when in reality, a healthy market democracy is much more like a garden. Our garden is growing a bit weedy.
Global capitalism is only just revving up, but its impact on the ground is already enormous. It has set in place a permanently accelerating economic dynamism that has shrunk the cycles of creative destruction to a humming constant. Not just jobs, but entire industries are coming into being and disappearing at a pace that seriously challenges workers’ capacity for adaptation. This pace of change is also outrunning our regulatory and planning capabilities in a manner anticipated by Hayek, with dangerous consequences.
Safety net programs, environmental protections, taxes, education and our political structure are facing the same pressures toward constant transformation and reinvention, but they are not adapting quickly enough. Our collective failure to recognize this massive economic shift has crippled the institutions we depend on to keep a market democracy healthy.
There is an opportunity for left and right to find common ground amid this typhoon. Conservatives complain about the collapsing potency of traditional institutions, most importantly the nuclear family and religion. Liberals harp on the misery endured by those who have fallen behind in the race for wealth – the sick, the young, ethnic and racial minorities, or those who through chance or poor choices found themselves unable to compete for resources.
Liberals blame their favorite problem on greed and seek to fix the problem by pouring ever more resources into same bloated bureaucracies which have proven incapable of adapting. Their solution to the problem of dynamism is to squelch it in every way possible, from bureaucracy to unions, promoting equality through shared, unnecessary loss of opportunity.
Conservatives blame their favorite problem on personal moral lapse. They are convinced that markets are essentially perfect, the hand of God on Earth corrupted only by the interference of mortals. They would solve the problem of social dislocation by using government to impose their superior moral (reads: ethnic and sexual) values, dampening diversity of thought and holding back the declining relative power of white elites. By their reasoning, markets would take care of themselves and our core social institutions would self-heal if inferior peoples were forced to think and behave properly.
The left-right divide as currently laid out is an argument over symptoms. The decline of traditional institutions and the widening opportunity gap both spring from the same source. The problem isn’t “Hollywood values” or the decline of unions. Both problems are fed by our failure to adapt our public institutions to the demands of global capitalism.
That is particularly unfortunate not just because of the consequences of failure, but because the problems we face now are such a wonderful gift. Our problems would be the envy of our ancestors. Politically, addressing these concerns means adapting our institutions to cope with three main challenges we have not experienced in the past:
1) Employment is the core of our economic culture, but the shape and character of employment is being rapidly transformed. For a very large minority of Americans, global capitalism means that working careers will start later, last a shorter period of time, and provide a very real potential to make the leap in a single lifetime from earning a living from wages to living off of capital. This is good. Very good.
Opening up broad access to these kinds of opportunities depends more than anything on being able to delay the start of a career long enough to obtain the skills to perform in them. Only the affluent have those opportunities today. They are peeling away from what was once the middle class, leaving a yawning opportunity gap behind them. We can and should open up these opportunities to a far wider swath of the population, promoting greater competition and wealth.
2) There are not enough jobs to serve the needs of people who are unable to build knowledge-based skills early in life. That problem will likely get worse rather than better regardless what we do. If we are going to preserve and expand the ability for masses to enjoy capitalism, we have to provide a fair safety net for those who will be left behind and improve access to entrepreneurial alternatives to formal employment.
3) The social institutions on which our politics rest are being shredded by an unrestrained commercial culture. The unmitigated winner-take-all race for wealth leaves little energy for the kind of community involvement that supports representative government. From the Elks Club to our political parties, our networks of social capital are collapsing. If we cannot protect the commons, than the personal wealth we accumulate will be far less valuable than we expect.
Responding effectively to these problems starts with re imagining the role and scope of government. This is a challenge we have overcome many times in the past. Just as Teddy Roosevelt gave us the blueprint for effective 20th Century government, a new generation of Republicans might build one for the 21st Century. We still need a safety net, regulation, defense, and infrastructure development, but we must find means to deliver those essential services in a leaner, more nimble manner.
These three core problems intersect. It is impossible to address one of them independent of the others. They will not sort themselves out because they rise from the structure of our economic and political system. If Americans reach a reasonable resolution to these issues over the next decade or so, this will be a magically prosperous century for the entire planet. Ignore them and monsters await.