The best way to counter the Tea Party movement, which is all about stopping things, is with an Innovation Movement, which is all about starting things. [ . . . ] Obama should bring together the country’s leading innovators and ask them: “What legislation, what tax incentives, do we need right now to replicate you all a million times over” — and make that his No. 1 priority. Inspiring, reviving and empowering Start-up America is his moon shot. [ . . . ] You want more good jobs, spawn more Steve Jobs. — Tom Friedman

It’s become increasingly hard to take Tom Friedman seriously, but his latest op-ed is so odd and confused, in such an important way, that one has to say something. Though the tea partiers have given our left-leaning commentariat plenty of reason for caricature, what’s lost in the easy jokes and dismissive pigeonholing is a serious understanding of the animating force of the tea partiers’ movement. I’ve tried to say a few things about it here and here , without the benefit of Friedman’s foil. Here now are a few more observations:

* Who more than the tea partiers favors small businesses? The idea that the tea partiers long only to ‘stop things’ is so juvenile and crude that it hardly merits comment. But Friedman uses that idea to contrast a vision of real productive growth driven by individuals taking charge of their own destinies, which — last time I checked — is precisely the positive agenda that all tea partiers, regardless of sect or faction, tend to promote. Only a pundit like Friedman, however, could blind himself to this actuality, intent as he is on realizing in American practice what his beloved Chinese government has made possible only in theory: the marriage of ancient Egyptian despotism with the modern dynamism of Hong Kong. Only the government , you see, has the extraordinary, unilateral power necessary to breed and launch a million innovators! Only the government , Friedman exhorts, can save us from slipping into dissolute quietude. Tocqueville on acid, Hobbes on crack: what could possibly unite the average libertarian, the conservative of any stripe, me, and a tea partier selected at random, if not Friedman’s belief that the self-realized innovators of tomorrow are the listless, powerless lumpenbourgeois of today? Ask yourself, Mr. Friedman, if you see such creatures loafing around America today: how did they get that way?

* The answer would be the same despotism he champions. I suppose Friedman imagines that any government so devoted to the cause of innovation can hardly be despotic. But this is to confuse means and ends. The sort of freedom governments manufacture and instrumentalize in a policy-driven pursuit of national prosperity cannot be mistaken for liberty. Politically speaking, liberty is not a means to anything but an end itself. Ironically, Friedman’s Tocquevillian fear that our springs of action have been sadly weakened is belied daily by real America, red blue and purple. It turns out that we did not transform en masse into lumpenbourgeois under the tutelary rule of federal-national government. We may have 99 problems, but a shortage of the energy required for innovation is not one. We are, alas, surfeited with micromanagerial government, government interested in the petty details of our lives and animated by some compulsion to intervene in them. Often, “leave us alone” conservatives worry that meddling of this kind is pursued for its own sake, or out of the tyrant’s love for simply beholding the exercise of his own power. More often than not, though, the compulsion to manage and nudge and sculpt and manipulate behavior may be driven by a fear like Friedman’s: that without some vigilantly tuned and retuned matrix of government incentives and disincentives, we rubes of suburbia will squander our productive potential, falling prey to the expertly-managed systems of ’80s Japan, ’90s Taiwan, ’00s China, or whatever economic menace will cast its shadow over the ’10s.

* The folly of Friedmanesque thinking is in its privileging of economics over politics. It cannot conceive of liberty politically, as an end. It can only contemplate liberty economically, as a means. I know there are at least a few libertarians who will stand up and shout at this formulation, on the theory that it’s possible to think of liberty economically as an end. We can take up that question later if anyone would like. At any rate, it’s an economic view of liberty as a means that brings with it a political commitment to an activist, interventionist tax policy of incentives and disincentives. And it’s an economic view of liberty that leads us to believe that, because economic policy can manufacture productivity better than political liberty can facilitate it, we should pour our energies into shaping and implementing economic policies. The key to national greatness, on this view, is policy greatness. But the key to this view is that national greatness, of the sort you can obtain with the greatest policies, is more important than political liberty. I almost said “is of more value,” because, indeed, on this view, importance is determined by value, and value is determined economically.

* I recognize that my call for more political liberty is fairly weak relative to, say, a call for a return to true civic republicanism. Hobbesian defenders of Friedman might ask why I should bother when I concede that the basic character of the American regime is properly as Hobbesian as it already is. They might accuse me of making a rhetorical mountain out of a practical molehill. I’d answer by pointing to Andrew Sullivan, who, like me, is somewhat torn between the Oakeshottian-Hobbesian view of the state and a view more like that of Ron Paul by way of Locke. Andrew’s recent choice has been to defend the President much more robustly out of a judgment that the Oakeshottian-Hobbesian view needs to prevail at the present moment. My choice is to lean in the other direction. This is not a theoretical clash of the titans, although the theoretical stakes are clear enough; this is practical politics, and it is how America works.

* One final note. The tea partiers are consistently ridiculed as washed-up old white people, as the defunct humans of the lingering, but not much longer lingering, past. The tea partiers are taken as the latest conclusive evidence that the party of conservatism is simply the party of those who already have whatever human beings want to have — cosmic opponents of the party of those who do not yet have those things. It’s the Party of the Old vs. the Party of the Young. This is straight out of Emerson, whose ‘eternal politics’ of old versus young was itself an economics of nature. Relative to others on the right, I rarely invoke Aristotle to prove anything, but Aristotle here is the antidote to the facile transcendentalist critique of the tea partiers. For Aristotle, the presence of a middle class was essential to political liberty. The typical explanation of why focuses on the way that Aristotle’s middle class combined a bourgeois interest in stability with a rather upper-class property interest. Unfortunately, the typical explanation stops here; few bother to ask why middle-class people have these interests as a rule. What is the specific characteristic middle-class interest in stability and property, and what is driving it? I think the plain answer is that the middle class is defined by middle age — by those who are no longer young but not yet old, and therefore completely break the frame of Emersonian generation-gap analysis. It’s silly, given how similar Emerson and Nietzsche are on nature as a condition in which nothing really is but everything is becoming , that the heirs to Emerson in this regard refuse to recognize the middle aged as existing in a state of becoming that makes young-versus-old analysis ridiculous. In desperation, they exhume, ’60s generation-gap analysis, which held that anyone over 30 is in the Party of Old. In its new zombie formulation, however, the idea would be that anyone who acts old in their personal life is Old for political purposes — which leads us back to the need for follow-through in our thinking on the Aristotelian middle class. I can’t conceive of a middle class defined by middle age whose particular interests in stability and property aren’t defined by the creation and/or continuance of family. The middle class, conceptually and in practice predominantly, is the class of people who are starting to have kids and raise them. The tea partiers are spearheading what is and must be a middle-class movement — a movement not of the old but the middle-aged, not of those who are conservative because they have nothing left to create but who are conservative because they have just begun creating in earnest. America’s most influential old person, lest we forget, is Steve Jobs.

Articles by James Poulos

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