Rich Karlgaard: What mysterious magnetic force binds Tom Tancredo, the border-enforcing Colorado congressman, to Al Gore, the Earth saver? What suddenly glues Charles Schumer, with his 100% rating from Americans for Democratic Action, to Lindsey Graham, who scores only 20% from the liberal group? What odd knot ties Rod Dreher, the writer and granola conservative, to Pat Buchanan, the brawling America Firster?
The answer: an obsession with present-day problems.
Problem solvers are the loudest voices in American politics today. They are creating a new political fault line that is ripping through both political parties with the force of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. On one side are voters whose natural optimism leads them to seek opportunity in their lives. Because change is what produces opportunity, the faster the future arrives–with all its weird new technology, disruptive economic models and shifting alliances–the more opportunity there will be.
The other voter bloc is feeling motion sickness and wants to slow things down. The most effective way to delay the future is to drop everything and go about the business of solving today’s problems, real or imagined.
This new divide was predicted in 1998 in a book that deserves to be a bestseller today. Called The Future and Its Enemies, it was written by Virginia Postrel, who was then the editor at the libertarian magazine Reason.
Postrel wrote: "How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis–a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism–a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise? These two poles, stasis and dynamism, increasingly define our political, intellectual, and cultural landscape. The central question of our time is what to do about the future. And that question creates a deep divide."
Don’t Fix Typewriters–Invent Word Processors
Postrel’s dynamists, or, as I call them, "opportunity seekers," love charging into the unknown future. They trust that things will work out if people are free to work and create, using capital that is free to seek a return. Opportunity seekers, in fact, are bored by static problem solving. This does not mean they are shirkers. It’s just that they’d rather invent word processors than fix typewriters.
Problem solvers, on the other hand, see failure everywhere. They will grind away at a problem, even subsidizing past efforts that have never worked well and probably never will. Problem solvers tend to resist forward motion until all present-day problems are gone. Problem solvers get irritated–a stern bunch they are–when they see others frivolously seeking opportunity. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were opportunity seekers by nature. Al Gore and Hillary Clinton are problem solvers. George W. Bush is an opportunity seeker who has surrounded himself with problem solvers.
Starting with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, Republicans have presented themselves as opportunity seekers. Theirs has been the party that favors lower taxes and less regulation, school choice and business without speed bumps. Even in the social arena, a sphere in which Democrats are supposed to be the innovators and Republicans the blockers, a more careful look shows the opposite to be true. Republican-tinged evangelical churches saw the opportunity to save souls. As a by-product of soul-saving, they have fed and clothed more of the world’s poor than have most government-backed aid agencies.
Americans Want Optimism
Republicans will continue to win elections if they appeal to opportunity seekers. They’ll get trounced if they overreact to today’s polls and decide they must trade their opportunity-seeking philosophy for problem solving. America wants its political leaders to be optimistic about the future. We want to be shown the possibilities and opportunities–bold races to the moon, shining cities on a hill and bridges to the future. Politicians lose when they focus on problems.
Tom Tancredo wants to do what it takes to solve the problem of illegal immigration. Do what it takes? A big fence and then what, Congressman? Pat Buchanan wants a 20% tariff on all foreign goods. Does Mr. Buchanan even stop to think about what the enforcement costs of that would be, not to mention the opportunities thereby lost?
My Dell desktop computer is illustrative. Conceived in Texas, it consists of a frame built in China, a screen made in Taiwan, a micro-processor designed in Oregon, memory chips produced in China and assembly work done in Malaysia, with the software sent over from a Seattle suburb. The whole kit and kaboodle was shipped back to the U.S. on a jumbo jet built in Washington State and operated by an outfit from Tennessee. Each day Dell creates opportunity for millions of people–employees, customers and suppliers–around the world.
But that "around the world" bit annoys people like Pat Buchanan and reborn protectionist Lou Dobbs. They see global trade as a problem to be solved.
Countries that abandon the spirit of opportunity to focus on problems are countries that have seen their best days. May that not happen to us.