During last Sunday’s appearance on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger chided Republicans for being “stuck” in their ideology and suggested that they go against their “principles and philosophy” if that’s “what the people want you to do” to solve problems.
Here’s a hair-ball thought: Instead of abandoning their philosophy, maybe Republicans ought to fiddle with some of its more suspect principles – especially those that deal with the role of government. One would think that the economic wreckage surrounding us all might inspire that second look.
For decades, Republicans here and around the nation have stridently promoted small government and outsized capitalism, converting the masses to a gospel based on unfettered free markets and assuring everybody that aggressive markets regulate themselves and need little or no government supervision. Once in power, and with active cooperation from many Democrats, Republicans weakened and sometimes dismantled anything that hinted of government oversight.
The promise: When benign governments get out of the way, free markets create long-term prosperity for all.
Turns out that promise was, shall we say, a bit of optimistic guesswork that failed to account for those dodgy imperfections in the human spirit. More to the point, if you unlatch the front gate, send the guards home and remove the door to the vault, a group of ambitious fellow citizens will loot the bank. To think otherwise is naïve and ignores 5000 years of behavior.
To influence public affairs, a political philosophy must be set loose in the real world, where it is populated not with angels but with humans who bring to it their creativity and hard work, but also their greed, corruption, self-serving ambitions and notions of privilege and entitlement. Not to mention the imbecile idea sold as a surefire road to wealth. In that real world, one Ken Lay derails 10,000 entrepreneurs; one reckless derivative scheme undoes the diligent labor of a million investors. The resulting, tumbling dominoes unhinge everyone.
It is said that the actions of a few misguided souls such as Bernard Madoff and Allen Stanford should not undercut the legitimacy of an idea; that every religion coughs up false prophets; that the foundations of conservative Republican orthodoxy remain sound and, especially in dire times, lead to salvation. Even today, shouting from beneath the rubble, some Republicans argue for less oversight, for spreading benign government to the environment, among other places.
Whether its believers acknowledge it or not, that orthodoxy did not lead to prosperity but to the edge of an abyss. Blame the drivers if you will, but you cannot separate systems from the people who operate them.
Sometimes, true believers must confront hard truths, if not in public then in the mirror. History is littered with the debris of those who perished behind a barricade rather than mulled over their role in a catastrophe, shared blame for it and modified their thinking to fit new conditions. From inside the bunker, this process looks like a sell-out. Those with a more detached view, however, might see it as critical thinking that contributes in productive ways to rebuilding.
To prevent a recurrence of the same troubles, devotees to a variety of political faiths – Republican and Democrat alike – would be wise to reconcile ideology and reality. This gear-grinding exercise likely poses a more acute and immediate challenge for Republicans, seen as architects of the present economic calamity. All of us should give them some room as they struggle to connect what their hearts truly believe to what their brains tell them happened because of the unsupervised practice of those beliefs.
This does not mean that government gets to muscle up to the point where it regulates every activity to death. It does mean that government has significant responsibilities as a vigilant and neutral guardian, and that it must be financed and staffed well enough to carry out those responsibilities effectively.
So, at this point, Republicans would help everyone if they would rethink their approach to the role of government in the affairs of (almost exclusively) men – and adhere to principles influenced by the facts before them. That might be more constructive in the long run than dumping their principles in tough times, as the governor suggests.