Thursday, December 18, 2008

Monophony and Complexity

I like George Will because he is slightly less loopy than, say, Jonah Goldberg at the National Review. I like his inventive language and use of baseball metaphors. But he has recently become monophonic and uninventive. Perhaps that is the fate of political conservatives who have a quiver filled with dozens of the same arrow labeled "smaller government might be better government."

Here he is in the most recent Newsweek building a rickety historical scaffolding to re-explain how an originalist (political originalism to distinguish from legal originalism) interpretation of the Constitution takes a dim view of government involvement in almost anything, how government involvement in almost anything inevitably leads to a request for more government involvement in our affairs (repeating Hayek), and how regulation drives lobbying because regulation drives defensive politics by business entities.

The odd thing about Will's unending exposition of political and economic history is that it minimizes or ignores the complex problems that led to our modern state. Madison's America was a smaller, emptier and more racist place where notions like the tragedy of the commons were only intellectually interesting; the vastness of the wilderness was also a vastness of available resources for exploitation. It took a hundred more years for economic interactions to become complex enough that monopolistic inequities began to become obvious and regarded as unfair. It took longer still for environmental pollutants to be understood and pervasive enough that regulation and environmental law was shaped. It took almost as long for American law to begin to shed itself of racism and sexism and expand that originalist notion of equality to all people.

For American conservatism to move forward there must be something more than raw originalism crossed with Hayek's fears of serfdom. There are too many counterexamples of each in the modern world for those arguments to carry much weight. Instead of fixed ideology, what is needed is targeted creativity. As an example, while environmental regulation is a thorn for conservatives like Will, a targeted improvement might be to focus on streamlining and using technological means to speed the process of regulatory approval. Partisan efforts that broadly deny the value of such regulation can't possibly succeed.

The same is true of health care reform which Will mentions in passing. He rings the topic with Grover Cleveland's assertion concerning originalism but doesn't penetrate to exactly what might be wrong with the specific programs that Obama hinted at in his platform. It's enough for him to proclaim it might be bad because the Constitution failed to mention it in succinct language (unlike, say, the existence of the Navy).

Fair enough. We are warned. Now I want actual policy that goes beyond a single note.

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