Cyberspace Cadet


What Comes Next: The End of Big Government—And the New Paradigm Ahead, by James P. Pinkerton, New York: Hyperion, $21.95, 386 pages

Jim Pinkerton endeared himself to right-thinking people a few years back by annoying Richard Darman, the Rasputin of the Bush administration. Pinkerton's advocacy of the "new paradigm" embarrassed the Bush administration by exposing its blindness toward historic political opportunities. Even more egregious by Washington standards, Pinkerton's themes pricked the intellectual vanity of the Darmans and Sununus of the Republican establishment, who always tremble at the idea of straying from the line-of-sight of the conventional wisdom of The Washington Post or New York Times.

Upon reading What Comes Next, however, Pinkerton's admirers may wonder whether he didn't pick up some mild mutant strain of the Darman disease. While Pinkerton offers a clear-eyed and vividly illustrated account of the failure of big government in our time, his "new paradigm" for the future contains inexplicable nods toward the direction of frothy do-goodism, including a few downright statist ideas such as a revived Civilian Conservation Corps government jobs program. It would be a mistake, though, to judge What Comes Next as a wonkish tome. Pinkerton is up to something more mischievous than mere policy prescriptions. What Comes Next is really intended to be a manifesto for a third-party candidacy for president, probably by Colin Powell, though Pinkerton barely mentions Powell in his narrative.

What Comes Next lays out five clear themes in the sprightly prose that readers of Pinkerton's newspaper columns have come to relish. After opening the book with a brief memoir explaining the myopia of the Bush administration (comparing it to the old movie The Big Sleep), Pinkerton discusses the two-edged sword of the "cyber future." Technology holds out great promise, but many are likely to be left behind—"fiscally challenged, expectationally diminished neo-deadheads" he calls them. "We are disuniting into a society of program traders, Think Pads, and the Internet at one extreme—and crack, Uzis, and three-strikes-you're-out on the other.[W]e can e-mail across the planet but are afraid to cross the street."

Pinkerton uses cyberthink to construct his second main point, which is to explain the failure of the "old paradigm" of big government with the metaphor of a computer operating system. In this case, big government has operated on BOS—Bureaucratic Operating System—for several generations, including several upgrades. The Great Society of the 1960s represented the last major system upgrade (Pinkerton calls it AMERICRAT 5.0), but even by then the old BOS was becoming obsolete.

From this paradigmatic and cyberspeak vocabulary, Pinkerton's narrative turns in a more conventional direction, explaining the decisive turning points in American politics—what the political scientists call "realignments"—as "Big Offers." Politicians who make the voters a credible and audacious "Big Offer" of something new create the outline of the new paradigm for succeeding generations. The last few years have seen two attempts at making a Big Offer from both Reagan and Clinton; both failed because their Big Offers weren't broad or big enough. Reagan's Big Offer failed because it didn't go beyond tax cuts, and Clinton's Big Offer—health care—failed because it was a flawed attempt to offer a new upgrade on the obsolete BOS.

There have been three Big Offers in American history, Pinkerton argues: the Founding itself, the rise of the Republican Party under Lincoln, and of course the paradigmatic realignment (to use Pinkerton's lingo), the New Deal under FDR. One notes that all of these Big Offers occurred during—and can be said to have succeeded only because of—a time of extreme crisis. It is not clear that a crisis of similar magnitude exists today.

The real parallel of our time is not to a regime-shaking crisis such as occurred in 1787, 1860, and 1932, but rather the Progressive Era. The rise of large-scale industry in the late 19th and early 20th century had profound effects on our politics and on the character of the two political parties, but it did not represent a fundamental crisis of the American regime, and the populist impulse of the time led neither to a new party nor a realignment between the parties. And yet, it did lead to a fundamental change in the character of the American republic—the rise of the regulatory/welfare state. The changes the Progressive Era wrought in our politics were accomplished without a discernible Big Offer. Today the information revolution is succeeding the industrial/managerial revolution of a century ago, and it is just as possible to spin a scenario in which both parties adapt without a Big Offer, and without a realignment, just as they did 100 years ago.

Indeed, many of the early deregulations of the past generation have proceeded on a bipartisan basis, just as the regulatory revolution of the Progressive Era was a bipartisan affair. The Democratic Party is likely to figure out sooner rather than later that it faces extinction if it doesn't get on the bandwagon. The glaring exception of the Progressive Era makes Pinkerton's paradigmspeak look a bit confining and gimmicky. This is where Pinkerton's model—a simpler word for "paradigm"—loses its clarity.

The trouble with Pinkerton's model begins to appear more clearly in his analysis of Reagan's "lost Offer," which he says "is a lesson about what happens to politicians when they fail to develop a plan that meets the public's desire for a communitarian whole-souledness in addition to individual well-being." It is a mistake to dismiss communitarian sentiments out of hand, but the idea of communitarianism is mostly mischievous in American discourse today. Communitarianism is fast becoming the last refuge for the regulatory state, as the free market critique of big government has swept the ground from under the older economic justification for expansive government.

Pinkerton argues that "[n]either party has the intellectual or moral stature to make a Big Offer to the voters." He thinks the time is ripe for a third party to gain a huge mandate from the American people to sweep away the old BOS paradigm with a new paradigm based on four themes: personal security, personal responsibility, value of the family, and a sense of community. Pinkerton offers strong arguments in favor of school choice, a flat tax, a crackdown on crime, medical savings accounts, abolishing Davis-Bacon, and well, the kind of things that House Republicans have been thumping for quite some time now. But Pinkerton suggests a fusion of issues with a decidedly statist tilt as well, including a revival of a New Deal-style jobs program like the Civilian Conservation Corps ("I was convinced it would work in the nineties," Pinkerton writes early in the book, "because its principles—rigor and reciprocity—were timeless"), a progressive consumption tax, and the creation of an elite corps of "Samurai bureaucrats" whose main function is "to raise the prestige of government service."

The last is the most bitter pill to swallow from Pinkerton's cyberstew: The rising public contempt for government is one of the best bulwarks for liberty in our time, and we should do nothing to help redeem the public image of government. Moreover, Pinkerton and other "reinventing government" enthusiasts need to decide whether the task most needful is "reinventing" government, or "deinventing" government. He rightly blasts Vice President Gore's "rego" project for being a half-hearted public relations deception, but Pinkerton appears vulnerable to the criticism that he shares Gore's agenda of preserving and enhancing the effectiveness of the administrative state, when it should simply be smashed.

Pinkerton thinks the fusion of these contrasting policies will "unify Left and Right, radicals and conservatives, in a new Alliance that bypasses the failed policies of the past." Pinkerton may be right that such a fusion might have broad appeal—recent polls report a large majority of Americans, over 60 percent, in favor of a new political party that would purportedly represent the angry, radical middle—but he underestimates how much of a stake the left especially has in failed policies of the present.

"Who will make a Big Offer based on these issues?" Pinkerton asks enigmatically. He recently trashed Ross Perot in one of his newspaper columns. His narrative in the book briefly breezes past Jack Kemp into a discussion of race, hence suggesting the idea of Colin Powell (perhaps a Powell-Kemp independent ticket?), though he is careful not to mention Powell right here.

In the last pages of the book, in his discussion of the jobs program, Pinkerton is less coy. A New Paradigm leader might ask Powell to run the jobs program, he says, but "if Powell were engaged in something even bigger," why General Schwarzkopf would do just fine. Pinkerton had earlier described this book as "an open letter to anyone—Democrat, Republican, or other—who thinks that things can't continue." It also looks a bit like a résumé to become guru to a Powell campaign to me. Will we see "The Powell Paradigm" bumper stickers?

But beyond this season and whatever strange motives my imagination may have attributed to Pinkerton's purpose here, readers need to ponder whether there isn't a bit too much triumphalism in our present cyber-enthusiasm. The idea of the "new paradigm," as we know, was borrowed from Thomas Kuhn's famous book about the history of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. But while every new paradigm in science has meant an advance in knowledge and understanding, it is not necessarily the same in politics.

And of course, the problem with paradigms is that they do your thinking for you, and Pinkerton appears to be letting his fascination with paradigm analysis drive too much of this thinking. Most of what is best about the so-called new paradigm comes in fact from the "old paradigm" of classical liberalism. The change of rhetorical clothing may be useful as a heuristic device, but it is important at some point to be clear that we are not really reinventing liberty, but rather recovering its ancient basis through new forms of organization made possible by the blessings of technology.

Contributing Editor Steven Hayward (hayward487@aol.com) is research and editorial director for the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank.