Monday, July 25, 2011

Against Moderation

As I've written before, one of my guilty pleasures is the Sunday New York Times = occasionally while sipping French wine. Mostly, it's the nonpolitical stuff and the ability to read a paper that still has the resources to produce content. But the Op-Ed section has its allure. In particular, the crew of Tom Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, Maureen Dowd and the recently decamped Frank Rich offer a parody of the liberal commentariat - so much so that I am occasionally startled that someone might write such things. (Paul Krugman's column does not run on Sundays and is past parody.)

Sunday's column by Tom Friedman declaring the end of two party system is a perfect example. It is Friedman's particular and consistent conceit that, if only we could get past politics, public policy could be made by the right people who attended the proper schools. One of the refuges for people who share that belief has always been hope for a third party that would somehow be free of the ideological divides that keep the obviously necessary from getting done.

Our recent political history is littered with the casualties of this delusion. See, e.g, John Anderson, Ross Perot, Colin Powell (who was smart enough not to actually try it), etc. The problem is that political conflict exists because there are real differences of opinion that are not simply the result of extreme and simple views. Republicans are resisting raising taxes because they believe that the spending cuts offered by Obama are illusory and that marginal tax rates are high enough. Democrats are resisting entitlement cuts because they don't think that benefits should be reduced. There is no "expert" solution to this.

Nor is it clear that a compromise approach is better. Friedman is touting the merits of something called America Elect which will allow the nomination over the internet of persons who, after being screened by someone, will be nominated for President in a virtual and secure convention. The winner must then run with a person of the opposite party.

Friedman takes pride in the fact that most of us will have heard of America Elect first through his column. I suspect the most of us will also hear of it for the last time through his column. If, in fact, it becomes a broad based phenomenom, it is far more likely to result in the nomination of a populist demagogue of either the right or the left than the gray expert that Friedman envisions.

But it might be even worse if it does work as he hopes. The presumption is that some solution "in the middle" is always better.

But sometimes, the middle is simply incoherent. It's not clear to me, for example, that ObamaCare - an ad hoc hodge podge of command and what are at least supposed to look like markets - is worse than a single payer system since it may wind up delivering its harms without its benefits. Compromise solutions often reduce to putting off intractable problems for another day.

Locally, Steve Jagler of the Biz Times commends to us the potential Senate candidacy of Bucyrus CEO Tim Sullivan. His principal qualification, in Jagler's view, is that he "has a problem" with both sides in our political debates. He is, in other words, knows better than the poor cretins who actually spend their lives worrying about public policy. Tim Sullivan may be a great guy but my guess is that, if he does run and win, he's in a for a rude awakening.

My point is not that compromise is a dirty word only that it is not inherently virtuous. My guess is that there will have to be compromise on the debt ceiling but this may not be - in fact is unlikely to be - the best solution. It will probably involve kicking the problem down the road and papering over differences with roseate economic assumptions and promises to do something in the future.

Sometimes conflict exists not because of the supposed power of extremists but because smart people acting in good faith see things differently. Occasionally we have to let those differences be resolved one way or the other.

Jagler complains of the nasty of our politics and seems to think that the answer is in the absence of strong views or in some set of eclectic views that cannot be identified with the traditional political divide. Friedman seems to agree. What I would prefer to radical moderation in policy is moderation in the conduct of our political debate. I would prefer that we recognize that someone can disagree with us and yet somehow not be a corrupt evil moron. That requires us to listen and it may lead to compromise but it certainly should lead to civility


Dad29 said...

Civility is always nice.

But G Washington (et al) and A Lincoln both abandoned civility when it became obvious that some things are too damned important for civility.

Anonymous said...

Compromise does not appear to be the goal...

Anonymous said...

it appears that our elected representatives are attempting to shake off the shakles of special interest.

gadfly said...

I always liked Ayn Rand's definition of defense of Extremism as opposed to moderation:

"If it were true that dictatorship is inevitable and that fascism and communism are the two “extremes” at the opposite ends of our course, then what is the safest place to choose? Why, the middle of the road. The safely undefined, indeterminate, mixed-economy, “moderate” middle—with a “moderate” amount of government favors and special privileges to the rich and a “moderate” amount of government handouts to the poor—with a “moderate” respect for rights and a “moderate” degree of brute force—with a “moderate” amount of freedom and a “moderate”” amount of slavery—with a “moderate” degree of justice and a “moderate” degree of injustice—with a “moderate” amount of security and a “moderate” amount of terror—and with a moderate degree of tolerance for all, except those “extremists” who uphold principles, consistency, objectivity, morality and who refuse to compromise.

The notion of compromise as the supreme virtue superseding all else is the moral imperative, the moral precondition of a mixed economy.2 A mixed economy is an explosive, untenable mixture of two opposite elements, which cannot remain stable, but must ultimately go one way or the other; it is a mixture of freedom and controls, which means: not of fascism and communism, but of capitalism and statism (including all its variants). Those who wish to support the un-supportable, disintegrating status quo, are screaming in panic that it can be prolonged by eliminating the two “extremes” of its basic components; but the two extremes are: capitalism or total dictatorship."