Monday, January 21, 2008

The Radically Moderate Manifesto

We’ve finally reached that wonderful point in the presidential campaign where all the candidates suck. They’ve all succeeded in getting each other to succumb to their basest impulses and they’re all rolling around in the slime. I’m tremendously saddened by Obama’s failure to avoid getting sucked into other people’s identity politics. Maybe he’ll find a way out—I’m rooting for him, at least in this instance.

So maybe it’s time to step back and concentrate on what I’d want if I ran the circus. This will be divided into two parts: principles and an agenda.

We’ll cover the principles in this post:

  1. Be conservative until you’re sure a change is needed. This is the essence of radical moderation. When you conserve something, you cherish its value. You don’t replace it with a different thing unless the new thing is demonstrably better than the one you have. You are parsimonious.

    A conservative approach to public policy recognizes that the systems of modern society are complex and have non-linear behavior. Radical Moderates don’t change things just because they see a cool idea that might work better. They don’t panic and do the first thing that pops into their heads when a crisis occurs. They delay, drag their feet, then delay some more. They test things on a small scale. They adopt a new policy only when the old policy is obviously, irretrievably broken. And they don’t layer a new policy on top of the old policy, they get rid of the old policy—Radical Moderation requires taking out the trash.

    Divided government is good. For all the bickering, infighting, polarization, and dirty dealing, vigorous opposition is the only thing that will prevent bad ideas from making their way into law. Only the most urgent measures can make it past a divided government. When the government isn’t divided, one side or the other acquires real power. The old saying that power corrupts is true but, much worse, power makes you stupid. Opposition and weakness make you wise.

    But a Radical Moderate doesn’t deny the need for government to do hard things when it can do them better than other institutions. He believes that things change and that government has to adapt. He’s happy to accept progress, just as long as it really is progress.

  2. Freedom is important but it’s not the only thing that’s important. The US is heavily invested in a free, democratic system. Until about fifteen years ago, this was the only type of government that was guaranteed to be prosperous, responsive to its people, and relatively peaceful. The rise of what I’ll call authoritarian capitalism in China may have changed the equation, as may Putin’s Russia, if it gets over some significant hurdles. We’ll see.

    So there are some other memes out there now to compete with the freedom/democracy meme. We need to promote freedom where we can.

    But, as with everything that’s Radically Moderate, promotion of freedom should be a boring, maddeningly slow process. Bush made a fundamental mistake when he thought that freedom would sweep across the world like a brush fire. Promotion of freedom requires careful, incremental diplomacy and use of soft power, in addition to the use of military power in crises.

    Even more important, freedom at home requires eternal vigilance, tempered with a rational acknowledgement that free societies sometimes trade away individual freedoms for improvements in the society at large. Freedom is not the only consideration. Making it the only consideration denies the complexity of the real world.

    Are the speech and finance restrictions in McCain-Feingold warranted, given the need to provide transparency and reduce the power of lobbying? Do we deny civil rights to terrorists in the interest of preventing them from perpetrating horrible attacks in the future? Should we compel our citizens to get health insurance for the sake of fundamental fairness and the overall public health? Should we force changes on how people live for the sake of reducing greenhouse gases and preserving the planet?

    I think the answer to a lot of these questions is “no,” but it’s not the answer to all of them. Acknowledgement that freedoms are at stake when we make these decisions is essential. But so is the acknowledgement that sometimes freedom must be subordinated to a higher goal. Radical Moderates are biased heavily towards freedom but they acknowledge that there’s a tradeoff.

  3. Government should be as small as possible but no smaller. The vast majority of services that a modern society needs can be provided more responsively, with better quality, at lower cost by private entities that are motivated by profit. But this isn’t always the case. There are goods and services that a modern society needs that aren’t profitable enough or are too capital intensive for the private sector. Government has a duty to provide these goods and services, once it’s well established that the private sector can’t do it efficiently.

    Government must charge its citizens for these things. It’s better to charge rich citizens more than poor citizens. This isn’t so much a matter of fairness as it is of practicality. Rich people can bear the prices better than poor people. Tax progressivity is OK. Yes, the Laffer Curve really does exist, but we’re probably slightly to the left side of optimal. This shouldn’t be construed as an opportunity to raise taxes, since the goal isn’t to maximize revenue. But if the things that government absolutely has to do can’t be done with the available revenue, then being on the left side of the curve allows us to raise taxes (mostly on the high side) in order to make up the shortfall.

  4. You mostly want to leave the economy alone. Low international trade barriers, simple labor laws, as non-litigious an environment as possible modest taxes, and regulation only where necessary simply produce more growth and prosperity than restrictive environments. Surely this has been proven over the last thirty years.

    It is simply a fact that the growth that makes all of us more prosperous makes some disproportionately rich, sometimes to the point of obscenity. However galling this may be to some, it’s impossible to redistribute income and still have a free economy. You don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

  5. An informed electorate and an educated workforce are principal duties of government Governments pass laws with the consent of the governed. While most don’t pay much attention, those that do can only support or oppose those laws if they are given accurate, timely information. Government must make that information available. To do this, it must be utterly transparent.

    This is equally important for all branches of government. Surely there are going to be national security secrets. Very occaisionally, US negotiating positions require secrecy and even outright deception. But the vast majority of government business must be transacted in the open, irrespective of branch. This includes earmarks, legislative negotiations, lobbying discussions, and executive strategy discussions.

    Government can acquire data that would otherwise be unavailable. The acquisition of such data is vital. Government can therefore contribute to the education and further perfection of the electorate.

    An educated electorate is our society’s only guarantee of continued success. In addition to providing information, government has a vested interest in an educated workforce as well as a politically sophisticated population. But we must admit that our educational system is fundamentally broken. The methods used to educate previous generations are less and less effective in today’s culture, nor are they appropriate to turn out competitive citizens that can provide a living for their families. Something must change. There will be lots of gored oxen at the end of that change. All options must be considered.

    Just as government must provide information to the electorate, the electorate must provide information to government if laws are to be competently construed and executed. In the US, we have a mechanism for this. It’s called lobbying. To assume that lobbyists are evil is insanity. Lobbyists are a major control on government. However, it is vital that what lobbyists say to and transact with legislators is transparent. This transparency will do more to eliminate the corruption from the process than all the campaign finance reform legislation you could possibly imagine.

  6. There’s a real war going on with jihadism and it will transform our society. Opponents of the war have often pointed out how the Bush administration has used fear to further its political ends. That’s no doubt true but it doesn’t detract from the fact that the US faces a nascent existential threat. Radical Moderates don’t believe that jihadism is capable of destroying western civilization today, but it’s clearly gaining ground, with the number of Jihadis growing day by day. The trend is not good. If the trend continues, western civilization will eventually be in a real live existential fight with jihadism.

    Wars are not kind to the conservative temperment. Wars require that you think on your feet and act quickly, decisively, sometimes with little or no time for consulation. Wars require that you gamble. Sometimes the gambles pay off. Other times, they result in disaster. Acknowledgement of a disaster, however, is no reason to abandon the effort. You start a war because you wish to extinguish an ideology that’s a threat to you. To abandon the effort is to acknowledge that that ideology is more powerful than you. The consequences of this are intolerable over a sufficiently long time scale. You must adapt and presevere.

    But we must also understand that this first war of the twenty-first century is different because it is fought against groups other than states or pretenders to states. The power to wreak mass destruction has become easier to acquire as technology has progressed. The jihadis may be the first group to grasp this and use it against us, but they won’t be the last.

    Because the threat is already great and will continue to grow, irrespective of how Islam fares, we need to understand that terrorism is not only not a law enforcement problem, it is also fundamentally a problem for which we have no legal system. Our current criminal law is based on the idea that the government can’t preempt your actions and can only punish you after you’ve done something wrong. This ultimately won’t work for dealing with non-state actors bent on mass destruction. There are situations in which preemption is required. This concept will transform our legal system in the coming decades. We need to acknowledge that and plan for changes that impact our individual freedoms as little as possible while still keeping our society safe.

  7. Something’s changed in the last 15 years and it’s mostly bad. Our political system is incredibly robust. It benefits from being an evolved, self-organized, complex system. It adapts fairly well to change.

    But even complex systems can fail in the face of overwhelming change. Technology has made information flow so efficient and reduced reaction times to such a short interval that our society is under tremendous strain. The internet polarizes the electorate by allowing groups first to self-select, then to weed out even the most minor departures from orthodoxy. The speed at which financial information disseminates is so rapid and the responses to that information are so pronounced that the economy encounters crises ever more rapidly.

    To combat these strains, we require leadership that can find the common threads in our society and unite them. We require pragmatic solutions to immediate problems without getting bound up in our various identities and ideological lacunae. We need to compromise.

    Things aren’t going to slow down—quite the contrary. We need a government that can be agile while still understanding that most solutions can’t be imposed, but rather will evolve from unexpected sources. That will take rare leadership.

Yeah, this is fairly idealistic. Turning it into reality may not be possible. But it can guide our policy decisions. Hopefully, it will allow me to figure out which of these jokers to vote for.

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