As I’ve frequently written, the fundamental ideological dichotomy in American politics today is not the right/left dichotomy (or “statist”/libertarian, or pro-corporate/anti-corporate), but rather the rational-people-of-goodwill/irrational-people-of-ill-will dichotomy. Perhaps that latter dichotomy is always the real dichotomy in politics, in all times and places; or, if not the real dichotomy, then at least the real poles of perpendicular axes, with various specific ideological orientations falling within the space thus defined. How reasonable are the various positions being advanced? How much in service to humanity?
As is usually the case, people at opposite ideological extremes are oddly similar, obsessed with oversimplistic panaceas in a complex world, angry that others fail to recognize the one absolute truth of which they are so prematurely and impenetrably certain. Just as fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims share a tendency toward theocratic moral tyranny, the extreme right and extreme left of political ideology share a failure to recognize that we are embedded in a complex dynamical social system, that the reality with which we are coping and the ways to do so effectively are organic rather than mechanical in nature, and that dogmatic assertions about what single change or doctrine need be advanced, without adequate consideration of that complex organic whole, are counterproductive.
What we need instead of these sweeping reductionist ideologies is a commitment to systemic understanding and systemic action. Not surprisingly, extreme ideologies tend to be anti-intellectual, either explicitly refuting the value of applying our minds to the challenges we face as a people (as is frequently evident among some factions on the far right today), or implicitly eschewing the value of skepticism and scientific methodology as applied to social and political issues by clinging to blind ideological certainties instead (as is too often evident on the far left as well as the far right).
We see this commitment to systemic understanding and action emerging from time to time in what to many are counter-intuitive positions being advocated by responsible representatives of otherwise highly opposed ideological orientations. I recall, for instance, the ubiquitous public relations push of a couple of decades ago for continued investment in space technology, putting various pairs of ideological opposites on screen together lauding the benefits of doing so. For many, the notion that we should invest significant amounts of our limited resources in aerospace research struck many as counter-intuitive: We have so many problems to address here on Earth, why should we be squandering precious resources on something so frivolous as the development of exotic technologies for use beyond the Earth’s atmosphere?
Of course, the case for investing in such technologies is that, by doing so, we create a constant flow of valuable off-shoots with very significant applications here on Earth. Simply by trying to understand and work with some highly complex aspect of our surrounding reality we benefit ourselves, even if the focal aspect of our surrounding reality seems remote or irrelevant.
A similar, also to some counterintuitive, example of a policy position that all reasonable people support is the need for Americans to invest in our infrastructure. There are those, lost in the error of linear thinking in a non-linear world, who insist that we cannot invest in infrastructure because we have a huge and growing national debt, and that therefore no investment is justifiable. This is simply an economically illiterate position, not understanding how economic growth occurs, both as a historical fact and as a basic systemic reality (see, e.g., Real Fiscal Conservativism, The Economic Debate We’re Not Having and The Real Deficit).
To underscore the degree to which investing in infrastructure is a no-brainer, the presidents of both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce AND the AFL-CIO have teamed up to encourage Congress to pass the president’s call for investment in infrastructure (http://www.uschamber.com/press/releases/2011/march/us-chamber-afl-cio-urge-infrastructure-bank, http://blog.aflcio.org/2011/01/26/union-movement-business-back-obamas-call-for-infrastructure-rebuild-and-other-sotu-reactions/).
The right has long claimed that government is inefficient because it doesn’t create wealth, and doesn’t act in ways similar to how private enterprise, the engine of wealth production, acts. The first point is a red herring, because the only sector of our economy that “produces wealth” directly is labor; all other sectors perform auxiliary functions (e.g., management, capital investment, etc.). Government, in a modern capitalist economy, imperfectly performs vital functions for the production of wealth, including reducing transaction costs and internalizing externalities (see, e.g., Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems and Small Government Idolatry).
The second point, that government doesn’t act like private enterprise and so fails to perform as well, has some validity in some contexts, but is mere misdirection when, at those times when government is indeed employing sound economic principles in ways very similar to private enterprise, the same critics obstruct rather than applaud such efforts. Investing in infrastructure, and even doing so through deficit spending, has long been a hallmark of successful private enterprise in a modern capitalist economy. Businesses large and small depend on credit as the lubricant of economic growth, and it makes perfect sense for governments to do the same.
Just to put our debt into perspective: We currently owe an amount equal to our annual GDP, and are paying interest on new debt that is about equal to the rate of inflation (that is, when adjusted for inflation, we’re paying zero percent interest on new debt). An average homeowner, conversely, borrows about four times their annual income in order to purchase their home, and pays a far higher interest rate on that debt. Without this form of credit commonly in use, very few people would be able to afford to purchase their own homes. Credit, even proportionately far larger than our national debt, and at a far higher interest rate, is clearly not by definition a bad thing.
The problem is not our current debt, or even any immediate additional debt we undertake, but rather our ability to make economically sound policy decisions as a nation, including implementing a plan to control the long-term rise in debt (without which our national debt will eventually become the problem that some, erroneously, consider it now to be). One aspect of such economically sound policy making is the ability to use deficit spending to grow the economy in order to produce both greater individual prosperity and greater future public revenues in order to reduce our national debt and increase our national prosperity in the long run.
It’s time to leave the blind ideological noise on the margins of our public discourse, where it belongs, and bring well-informed analyses in service to human well-being front and center. When the leaders of organized labor and big business are both advocating the same policy, and when that policy has been proven by both world history and private enterprise to be a sound one, all reasonable people should have the good sense to rally around it.