What Comes Next
By James P. Pinkerton
Hyperion, 404 pages, $24.95
Full Disclosure: I have known Jim Pinkerton as friend and colleague for eight years. Throughout that time, we have carried on an intellectual conversation about Burkean conservatism, libertarianism, and public policy.
Pinkerton served as Deputy Assistant for Policy Planning to President Bush and has worked in four presidential campaigns, but this is by no means a Washington inside baseball book, still less a kiss-and-tell memoir of the failings of three administrations. It is only secondarily a book about policies and primarily a book about philosophies”about the kinds of choices people and societies make about social organization that in turn influence the kinds of policies societies adopt.
Pinkerton’s basic thesis is that the Old Paradigm of bureaucracy and bureaucratic control, dating from Bismarck but with far more ancient antecedents, will be replaced by a New Paradigm based on markets, personal freedom, and personal choice. From his reading of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1964), Pinkerton realized that American politics is currently in the midst of a paradigm shift, an intellectual revolution in the political sphere as profound as Copernicus’ in astronomy, and that winning political leaders will adapt to the new realities of market-oriented control. Using a broad and witty analogy to computing, Pinkerton describes how the Bureaucratic Operating System has been upgraded over the centuries, refined in its transplantation to America, and is now being outmoded.
Yet why does this book deserve to be reviewed in a journal of religion and public life?
First, many issues Pinkerton addresses”school choice, health care, changing employment patterns, the effect of computers on society”demand serious study by religiously committed Americans. This need is all the more urgent when the Cyber Future that Pinkerton describes as the alternative to the New Paradigm is so frightening: canon-cracking, the end of the shared values that humanity has accumulated over the centuries. He suggests that one plausible scenario in continuing along the Old Paradigm path is a polity rent along the fault lines of income and technological literacy, an atomistic, cold society in which cyberpunk capitalism no longer needs ethics”because the gimlet gaze of technology makes up for it.
More broadly, Pinkerton defines a paradigm as a two-dollar word for the pattern of thinking around which human beings center their vision of reality. Does this, or any other, new paradigm contain a role for religion? Does it reflect the fact that millions of Americans center their vision of reality”their paradigm”on God, looking not merely to earthly cities but to the heavenly city as well?
Refreshingly, Pinkerton rejects the intolerance of the tolerant that all too frequently manifests itself in contempt for religion. This is more the libertarianism of Vaclav Havel than of Jerry Garcia. The work breathes a humane spirit and a muckraking reformer’s earnest zeal for those whom the Old Paradigm has failed, none more so than the inhabitants of the inner cities. Rare among Republicans, Pinkerton has a deep understanding of precisely how the poor are affected by a changing economy, as in privatized Edge Cities where the affluent buy personal safety and efficient services while the poor are left with Old Paradigm bureaucracy.
The principles behind the New Paradigm are essentially libertarian. Pinkerton generally favors a libertarian, market-oriented approach based on the principle of personal choice to both economic and social policy”school choice in education, vouchers and Medical Savings Accounts in health care, and (notably) gay marriage (which he unconvincingly defends as a conservative reform), all combining in the New Paradigm of an upwardly spiralling fusion of radical conservative dialectic.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, Pinkerton also understands the need to reinforce a sense of community in American life, both in terms of strengthening individual communities and strengthening the American community as a whole”though he frankly concedes the difficulty of restoring community in a world of the Internet and cocooning.
As Pinkerton describes it, religion and religious Americans have nothing to fear from a New Paradigm America. They would be truly left alone to work out their own salvation, and the hand of the state would not interfere in their choices. Choice in education would permit parents to educate their children as they see fit, and no one would have the right to silence religious voices in the public square.
This is not the ideal of a Ralph Reed or Daniel Lapin, but it is not unfriendly towards religion; indeed, religion and religious institutions have a vital role to play in filling the needs unmet by the bureaucratic paradigm. Pinkerton highlights how the Old Paradigm has spiritually impoverished people by quenching hopes and dreams and leaving them stultified under bureaucratic control.
The book offers much common ground for discussion if not always for agreement. A new focus on personal security and expanded federalism and privatization appeals to an age when it is difficult to imagine that the welfare system could be run worse by the States. Pinkerton provides an excellent analysis of the judicial system’s effect on public administration and decries Vealocracy, the semi-privatized special interest politics that drives so much of Federal spending and decisionmaking. He enthusiastically supports the need to form as broad a political coalition as possible, observing the necessity of pushing areas of agreement such as personal security and personal responsibility to the top of the agenda of political concerns, and divisive issues like abortion and gay rights to the bottom.
But one need not be an Old Paradigm cynic to see something unrealistic in this view of politics. It is difficult to see how a modern conservative leader could maintain political peace in the way that Franklin Roosevelt kept both labor unions and segregationists in the same coalition. No group willingly puts itself and its issues at the bottom of the agenda”especially groups that believe themselves to be marginalized in public discourse such as gays (or for that matter, evangelicals). Political issues do not resolve themselves so easily. Either gay marriage is legal or it is not. The law simply cannot respect both views of fundamental personal belief.
Yet even if Pinkerton’s vision of a new politics is not entirely persuasive, he does convincingly argue that our current stalemate”a libertarian social ethos and statist political ethos”is fundamentally unstable. It may be impossible to return to a Victorian ideal of sharply limited government. But it is worth studying the transition between classical liberalism and Old Paradigm liberalism. In studying the history of that transition”and specifically in asking whether that transition can be reversed”one may discover whether the New Paradigm really is what comes next.
In any event, Pinkerton has written an important book. It is welcome for a libertarian to acknowledge the dangers of capitalism without ethics and to point the way to a capitalism based on real empowerment of the individual, opening economic opportunities in all sectors of society. Rightly or wrongly, the libertarian case is increasingly prominent in American political discourse, and it is nowhere better or more generously stated than here. Whether they rejoice or tremble at the prospect of the New Paradigm, those who wish to undertand American society must understand Pinkerton’s argument.
John S. Gardner served as Special Assistant to the President and Assistant Staff Secretary for President Bush. He presently resides in New York City.