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Free Minds & Free Markets

Dynamic Tension

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.

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