WASHINGTON, June 3, 2013 - The Republican Party is an angry, paranoid mess, but that doesn’t make Democratic policies any more attractive. Despite its frustrating dysfunction, the Republican Party is still better positioned to develop a vision of government adapted to thrive in a post-Industrial world. The key to restoring healthy, responsible American government lies in restoring a healthy, sane Republican Party.
The most challenging political problem of our time is accelerating complexity. The global shift away from industrial capitalism toward a knowledge economy brings with it an exponential expansion in the complexity of our economy, our culture and our politics. A political model designed to rein in the worst externalities of industrial capitalism is too slow, too rigid, and far too big to adapt to the relentless dynamism we face.
Our failure to adapt has left us smothered under institutions that are failing to protect the less fortunate; failing to restrain financial corruption; failing to meet needs for education, infrastructure, and a social safety net that prevents people from falling out of competition in the face of otherwise temporary misfortunes. It feels like government is unresponsive and uncaring because it is increasingly ill-adapted to meet rapidly evolving public needs.
In fairness, neither party is currently making any comprehensive push to address these problems, but only Republicans have any plan on the table, no matter how poorly fleshed out, to help the country adapt. The ownership society concept loosely laid out by Jack Kemp offers a potential starting point to deliver a model of government better suited to the knowledge economy.
Democrats are institutionally incapable of embracing this massive economic transformation. The party’s entire modern organizational structure is built on the one institution perhaps least equipped to survive the death of industrial capitalism – labor unions.
It may be difficult for Republicans to hack their way through the jungle of racial fears and religious extremism that stands between their current policies and an ownership culture. However, the concept does not threaten the party’s existence and fits well with the party’s core commercial traditions. For Republicans to embrace a vision of government that could work in a modern economy only requires them to rediscover their values, not reinvent them.
Beyond Democrats’ dependence on unions, a knowledge economy demands a smarter approach to regulation than Democrats are ready to abide. Democrats promote a model of state-capitalism in which intensive central regulation limits externalities and preserves basic fairness. Unfortunately, such intensive regulation cannot possibly keep up with the pace of change in a massively complex economy.
Businesses drowning in the multi-layered regulation of the minutiae of their daily operations would find that competitive success depends less on products, innovation, or efficiency than on the skillful manipulation of political connections. Democrats would save capitalism by the creeping, unintentional nationalization of everything.
Republicans could potentially embrace a regulatory scheme more closely focused on outcomes and less concerned with methods. Republicans hold a much more appropriately skeptical understanding of the utility of new regulation. Their approach, if ever stripped of its “damn all government” extremism, could offer welcome relief and encourage a climate of greater innovation.
Democrats, while offering an alternative to the prudish scolding of religious extremists, consistently underestimate the critical role of values in preserving representative government and promoting successful lifestyles. They are trapped under the weight of a laissez-faire cultural policy born in the 20th century fight for individual freedom but increasingly irrelevant and out of touch.
The notion that our culture can never condemn any activity, no matter how ill-adaptive, unless it imposes some direct, tangible injury on someone else has undermined any understanding of a wider set of community obligations. It’s nice to be free from judgment for my personal moral choices, but a dwindling sense of higher duty is destroying the effectiveness of the social safety net, undermining public schools, and feeding corruption in business and public service.
Character has always mattered, but in an ownership culture, character promises to be a greater component than ever in individual success or failure. We don’t need religious extremists using government to validate their convictions, but we cannot maintain the kind of individual freedom we hope for if we insist on believing that we have no commonly shared moral obligations. Republicans are better positioned to one day promote a vision of public morality that can be broadly accepted in a highly diverse, secular society than the Democrats, who would rather pretend that such a priority does not matter.
In short, in our present environment the Democratic Party runs on patronage. The Republican Party runs on fear. It will be easier to wean the GOP off of its addiction to paranoid fantasies than to separate Democrats from their structural demand for government cash. It is safer to stand in the way of someone’s fear than to stand in the way of their money.
Americans who want to see a smarter government, a more vital economy, and a freer lifestyle tempered by respect for values and an emphasis on character, the Republican Party is their best hope. It will take a lot of work to adapt the GOP to serve the needs of a modern culture, but despite its sometimes frightening flaws, its success remains the key to a new American Century.
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