“‘Can we do better?’ The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Second State of the Union Address
We live in difficult and troubled times. Our economic and political systems are undergoing tremendous stress. Meanwhile, I am sick and tired of “business as usual” in politics and in life. Spin sucks. With respect to the major American political parties — a pox on both their houses.
What follows is a short summary of what I think are the four pillars of a new way of dealing with American public policy issues and concerns, even though the ideas are far from new. Neither party supports these ideas in any effective, practical way. Conventional wisdom all but demands that these objectives be honored only in the breach.
I don’t know what the catalyst might be for bringing these issues to the fore. Whether a current party can be re-imagined and re-energized I do not know. What I do know is that we can do better.
1. First Principals Matter (not just in the breach)
The grand American experiment has ever been about “certain inalienable rights” — “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — and the constitutional protection, preservation and promulgation of those rights in order to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty….” Yet these rights are seldom examined positively. We tend to recite them only when we claim that these rights — our rights — have somehow been violated. Instead, let us re-affirm our commitment to seeing public policy as the natural, intended and affirmative outpouring of these rights “to ourselves and our Posterity.”
2. TINSTAAFL (There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch)
Virtually every politician tries to tell us that we can get something for nothing. Democrats tell us we’re entitled to grand new government programs while Republicans tell us we’re entitled to ever more and greater tax cuts. Neither party is willing to get governmental revenue and expenditures in line.
Despite previous attempts (and a recent revival of the idea by President Obama), no meaningful (which is to say, successful) pay-as-you-go program has ever been effective at the federal level. But it is simply and conclusively unconscionable to keep writing checks that can’t be cashed and leaving future generations to make good on our promises and make things right.
(a) Results Trump Ideology
We live in an era when public policy is always seen through a lens of ideology. Those days must end. We cannot afford an ideology (Left, Right or otherwise) that isn’t backed up by policies that work — clearly and demonstrably. As Lincoln so eloquently put it, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”
(b) Results Trump Politics
We also live in an era wherein the political implications (or presumed political implications) of every decision are weighed and are presumed dispositive. Those days must end. Political leaders, aided by the opposition and a vigilent press, must hold themselves accountable and reject policies that don’t do what they were intended to do in a cost-effective way. That accountability comes with grave political risk and we must eschew the temptation to offer purported bureaucratic “solutions” to this disease. But we can surely do better.
4. Question Every Policy (certainty is a huge risk)
President Clinton asserted that human knowledge doubles every five years. Whether or not that claim is strictly true, the extent of human knowledge is growing at a prodigious rate. Yet it is also true that factual knowledge is different from and less than understanding and truth. Indeed, we are extremely limited in what we can really know. If both science and religion teach us nothing else, they teach us that our grasp on truth is necessarily provisional. Our minds are fallible. We err. We are prone to delusion. Accordingly, we need to question every policy, re-evaluate every principal, test and temper every new initiative. Perhaps the greatest risk to the America we love and hold dear is the easy certainty so often on display in the public square.
“Can we do better?”
Lincoln’s words resonate as strongly today as the day he spoke them over a century ago. These four pillars provide a good starting place for a discussion seeking to answer the question in the affirmative. These purported pillars may well be incomplete or even inadequate. They may even be wrong. But we can do better. We must do better — starting right now.