9/12/2006

The Role of the People

The Sept. 9-10 Wall Street Journal published an interview with President Bush that is well worth reading, if only for the insight it provides into the mind of the most powerful man on Earth. I would like to focus on one particular point. Discussing the old policy of Middle-East "stability" at the price of liberty and justice, the President said:
The problem with that philosophy, or that foreign policy, was that beneath the surface boiled resentment and hatred, and that resentment and hatred helped fuel this radical Islam… [I]n the long run, the only way to make sure your grandchildren are protected, Paul, is to win the battle of ideas, is to defeat the ideology of hatred and resentment.
And later, he said:
In the long run, the United States is going to have to make a decision as to whether or not it will support moderates against extremists, reformers against tyrants. And Iraq is the first real test of the nation's commitment to this ideological struggle…
Mr. Bush displays admirable clarity on what constitutes the heart of this struggle, not weapons or armies but ideas. This only makes more remarkable the strange passivity from the White House, and the government in general, on the subject of the ideas in question.

The President has spent the last several weeks doing the kind of public explication of our philosophy that many supporters of the war have been begging him to do for the past five years. Many have explained this spurt of activity by pointing to the upcoming midterm elections, which seems correct to me. Yet why the galling silence in the long days before now, especially if the President considers the war of ideas so important? Why was there no attempt to pull an FDR, and continuously rally philosophical support to the war with the repeated invocation of our principles?

Until recently, when the White House did justify the war, the ideas of freedom and democracy were employed so casually as to make them clich├ęs. It was as though the government did not think it important to make its own formal case, only to provide the key words and let a subset of the people fight a desperate holding action against the rising tide of oppposition. Why?

Similarly, there has been no attempt to directly discredit the ideas of the enemy. In a true "war of ideas," you seek to demonstrate the flaws in the opposing philosophy, and show that your own is superior. (Admittedly, it is difficult to do that when the pseudo-intelligensia is on the lookout for any sign of "cultural arrogance"…) Instead, the participation of the Afghani and Iraqi peoples in their new democracies is presented as clear proof that democracy is superior to the alternative. But for one who already believes in jihadi Islamism, this "proof" is no proof at all. His ideas remain intact.

In both cases, it seems that the important part is for the United States to carry out its idea and put it into practice. Once democracy is established, so goes the implicit theory, it will perpetuate itself regardless of the initial mentality of the Arab world. So there is no need to actually convince anyone of democracy's superiority, merely to demonstrate it. Similarly, there is no need to truly unite the American people around an idea, merely to retain enough of an electoral edge to carry out your policies.

There is some truth to this theory, as a fallback position. But it does not adequately explain why the White House has never seriously attempted a true war of ideas in the first place.

Let us look back into the mists of time to the long-ago days of the 2000 election. Back then, Mr. Bush ran as a "compassionate conservative." This epithet was mocked by liberals as contradictory; but small-government conservatives knew better. What Mr. Bush meant by "compassionate conservative" was "big-government conservative," meaning that he would use the power of government as an instrument to achieve his policy goals. This in sharp contrast to the supposedly unfeeling "Goldwater conservative," who sees government as dangerous and in need of curtailment.

So, what goals has the President pursued? Aside from his war aims, what has most characterized this administration has been the Ownership Society. That is, the President has sought to modify existing government programs in ways that promote individual savings and responsibility. Though most people remember the famous tax cuts, and the White House's failure to enact Social Security reform, few notice such reforms as Health Savings Accounts, expanded vehicles for retirement savings, and new rules for pension plans. (The recently passed Pension Protection Act of 2006 is the most thorough pension reform in three decades, and was scarcely noticed by most people.)

But while the President was making all of these reforms, he was not laying out a philosophical foundation for them to the people. Also, many of the reforms amount to actuarial adjustments (for example, raising IRA limits to $4000 from $2000) rather than true changes of approach. By making prudent habits such as saving for retirement more attractive, Mr. Bush seeks to change people's behavior without changing their minds. And he does so through the framework of government, not by setting the government aside. Action is initiated by government; the people simply respond to a new set of incentives.

Six months ago, I noted a speech the President gave in which he was asked:
From the grassroots level, how can we help you promote the cause of freedom and liberty for all peoples throughout the world?
He responded:
[T]he best way you can help is to support our troops. You find a family who's got a child in the United States military, tell them you appreciate them. Ask them if you can help them. You see somebody wearing a uniform, you walk up and say, thanks for serving the country.
In other words, the role of individuals is to acquiesce to government action, not to initiate action of their own.

I believe, based on the foregoing and especially the President's economic policies, that he bases his policies on the idea that most people only act by responding to incentives. It is the role of government, therefore, to shape the incentives available. Thus, to reduce terrorism, you need only set up a democracy and allow a new social dynamic to come into being. You needn't worry about an actual war of ideas, since the idea of terrorism will vanish as soon as the societal pressures that created it change.

You will not find a Democrat to explicitly criticize this worryingly incomplete philosophy, as most Democrats believe the same thing (albeit they seek to promote different incentives). But as in the "support the troops" quote above, Mr. Bush is wasting a tremendous source of power: the independent efforts of his countrymen, which he does not seem to believe truly exist as a force to be used. And he is similarly underestimating the power of jihadi Islamism, which has proven most corrosive not under dictatorships, but within seemingly Westernized communities across Europe and (to a lesser degree) the United States.

We may win out anyway; America has always been good at muddling through. But our cause is not helped by this sort of cynical statism. Our leaders need to stop thinking of government as the cure for all of our problems. Government is simply a concentration of the power of the citizenry; if an occasion arises when we can employ that power to greater effect ourselves, then we should be given the chance.

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