Bovine growth hormone. Japanese cars. Gay marriages. Corporate restructuring. Food irradiation. Breast implants. Mobile phones. Temporary workers. Plastic grocery bags. Rock videos. Surrogate motherhood. Aseptic juice boxes. Salvadoran nannies. Indian surgeons. Ethiopian cab drivers.
From the cows to the cabbies, they all create controversy. They're new. They're different. And they're deeply politicized.
Today, our political culture stands divided between dynamic and static visions of the good society. On one side are those who see civilization as an ever-evolving process of discovery and who seek to preserve the liberal institutions that make that process possible. On the other side are those who envision a single best order for society and who seek to alter current culture—often radically—to achieve and conserve an unchanging end state.
Most people, and certainly most politicians, don't yet recognize the divisions, which are still masked by Cold War alliances. That's one reason this election season seems so odd, so frustrating, and so empty. Neither George Bush nor Bill Clinton speaks to the issues. Both seek to straddle the divide. Both lead fractious coalitions that encompass representatives of both camps.
Those rare politicians who do elicit strong public reactions—positive and negative—tend to be people whose visions and attitudes are clearly defined, even if their policies are inconsistent. Pat Buchanan, for instance, supports cultural stasis. Jack Kemp supports economic dynamism. Searching for political allies and intellectual soulmates, each has gradually expanded his vision beyond its original arena. Buchanan now supports economic protectionism, a static policy. Kemp advocates social tolerance.
The collision of static and dynamic visions is most obvious in the struggle to protect technical innovation from antitechnology greens. The ideology of "sustainability" requires a "steady-state" economy in which self-sufficiency replaces specialization and geographic isolation supplants trade. The goal is to slow down change and, ultimately, to end it.
So if genetic engineering cures diseases, if irradiation keeps food fresh, if the juice box replaces the Thermos, stasis supporters seek to stop the change, preferably by law. Since every change, indeed every choice, entails risk, anyone can easily find fault with any innovation, often fault enough to block regulatory permissions. The result is a legal bias against the new, a squelching of the experimental.
One man's stagnation is another man's utopia. Some California air regulators are delighted with the state's economic slump. It's a lot easier to meet traffic-reduction targets when people are leaving the state. Bureaucrats are pleased. So are the environmentalists who spent the '80s campaigning against growth.
The conflict of visions extends beyond environmental disputes, however, to every sphere of human endeavor. Each vision encompasses not merely some policy prescriptions but an entire world view.
Stasis is utopia—whether the environmentalists' Eden or Ozzie and Harriet's America. It is planning—the old-time Progressives' rational order. It is control—the protectionist paradise of big business and big labor, of growth without change.
Dynamism, by contrast, is continuous improvement, discovery, adaptation. It is "muddling through" environmental problems with cleaner fuels or better materials. It is "experiments in living," through which family life adjusts to a world in which women have education and contraception. It is market competition and diversity of enterprise.
Dynamism doesn't promise perfection. Experiments, by their nature, often fail. Dynamism is deeply historical; it understands that the past was different from the present and that the future will be different still. Dynamism seeks to learn, while stasis claims to know. Stasis divides and conquers. Dynamism lets a thousand flowers bloom.
Stasis is an end. Dynamism is a means. And that means is the heart of our culture. It is both liberty's product and its rationale.
Proponents of stasis are cultural revolutionaries. They seek change, radical change, to achieve their picture of the good. But once captured, that picture becomes a still photograph. It does not move.
Consider this year's leading culture warriors. Pat Buchanan says we're in the midst of a "religious war" requiring "force, rooted in justice, and backed by courage," to "take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country."
Meanwhile, Al Gore says we need a new "central organizing principle" to subordinate every aspect of life to his environmental vision. He calls for "struggle, sacrifice, and a wrenching transformation of society." He equates American materialism with Nazi totalitarianism. He, too, declares a culture war.
Buchanan and Gore are political enemies. But they stand on the same side of the great divide. Both crave a static utopia, to be achieved by drastic action. Both see adaptation as appeasement, tolerance as treason.
Both Buchanan and Gore want stasis, but neither wants to live in the other's utopia. And the political weakness of stasis is just this: Its adherents seek mutually exclusive static worlds.
Dynamism, by contrast, can accommodate competing ideas of the good life. It provides a framework under which many people can test different hypotheses about everything from which fashions will sell to what religion best provides spiritual meaning.
A dynamic society also encourages people to discover new ways of sheltering themselves from its very turmoil. Commodities traders develop hedging strategies; insurance spreads risk; families, churches, and ethnic communities create anchors of stability. (Hence, for instance, the great strength of religious havens in immigrant communities, where individuals have uprooted themselves from their homelands.)
Dynamism does not, however, accommodate everything. It does not, cannot, enforce uniformity. It permits the imposition of mores but also allows for their evolution. It is the product of liberalism.
"The liberal position," wrote F. A. Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty, "is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead….[C]onservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept changes without apprehension, even though he does not know how the necessary adaptations will be brought about."
But just as "change" supporters may in fact be utopian reactionaries seeking to impose stasis, dynamism's proponents may seem quite conservative. A dynamic system requires four freedoms: freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of contract, and property rights. To conceive and communicate ideas, to carve out spheres of experimentation, to make commitments and plans, these freedoms are essential. And their existence, by unleashing individual choice, creates a dynamic society.
For civilization to evolve, for adaptation to take place, these freedoms must be conserved. The process, not a particular result, is the point. Liberty and dynamism are not identical, but they are interdependent.
In the real world of politics, of course, most people lack "the vision thing." Few advocate anything definitely recognizable as either stasis or dynamism.
Given our current political culture, that means a sort of stasis wins—not the rarified stasis of Jeremy Rifkin or Russell Kirk, a coherent ideological vision, but the mundane stasis of regulatory gridlock. This is what Milton and Rose Friedman call "the tyranny of the status quo" or what National Journal's Jonathan Rauch, drawing on the work of economist Mancur Olson, recently dubbed "demosclerosis." Established interest groups block both governmental reform and economic innovation. Often they block both simultaneously.
Writes Rauch: "No one starting anew today would think to subsidize wool farmers, banish banks from the mutual fund business, forbid United Parcel Service to deliver letters, grant massive tax breaks for borrowing. Countless policies are on the books not because they make sense in 1992, but merely because they cannot be gotten rid of. They are dinosaurs that will not die. In a Darwinian sense, the universe of federal policies is ceasing to evolve."
Nowhere is bureaucratic stasis more obvious than in the regulation of telecommunications. There are too many interest groups—phone companies, cable monopolies, broadcasters, cable networks, movie studios, equipment manufacturers, mobile phone companies, newspaper publishers, even electric utilities—and too much political intervention. Insiders block outsiders and everyone squeezes consumers.
The result is "anti-industrial policy," as Robert Samuelson described it in a recent column focusing on a tiny corner of the mess, a dispute over mobile-phone frequencies. In one of the most technically innovative industries in the world, stasis predominates.
This trend, which is by no means confined to telecommunications, threatens the experimental nature of capitalism itself. Notes economist Nathan Rosenberg, "Historically, one of the most distinctive features of capitalist economies has been the practice of decentralizing authority over investments to substantial numbers of individuals who stand to make large personal gains if their decisions are right, who stand to lose heavily if their decisions are wrong, and who lack the economic or political power to prevent at least some others from proving them wrong." (Italics in the original.)
In today's politics, self-interested protectionists and static ideologues feed off each other. So, for instance, Rifkin opposes bovine growth hormone because it is unnatural, the product of genetic engineering. But regulatory approvals are on hold not because Rifkin hates technology but because dairy farmers, fearing greater milk supplies and lower prices, raised a ruckus.
Despite the pull of stasis, there is still a strong constituency for what Hayek called "the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution." The American spirit favors dynamism. The human spirit does as well.
Most people like freedom. They like to order their lives by their own lights. They like to create new businesses, new products, new social arrangements. They don't want to enlist in culture wars.
People know what they like. But they don't understand how to protect it. We don't see immigrants forming coalitions with biotech companies or mobile-phone entrepreneurs allying with surrogate mothers. Until those coalitions begin to form, until the party of life, the party of dynamism, articulates its interests and defends free institutions, American politics will continue to seem irrelevant and confused.