Necessity is the mother of invention, goes the cliché and the saying. Scarcity of resources inspired the wheel, crop rotation, and breast implants. When scarcity is left unresolved, suffering ensues. Choices need to be made about how to best deal with limited resources. Who gets a slice of antelope, who gets stuck with grubs, and who gets nothing? That decision-making process is, in short, the essence of politics.
But scarcity also creates values and habits which operate below the political level. Sharing is a universal concept but it has little to do with top-down politics. Forced sharing, despite the Left’s endorsement, is in fact an oxymoron. In reality, anything forced by the state is either a tax, theft, or both. Manners — which all boil down to “please,” “may I,” and “no, thank you” — were largely born to protect society from fights over food, land, and mates. Arranged marriages, contracts, even language itself are conventions conceived in an effort to temper humanity’s natural tendency to grab things we want without asking.
This is why we teach manners to children, because grabbing is perhaps the first human impulse. In his new book, The Great Disruption, Francis Fukuyama explains how societies rich in “social capital” — those shared manners, traditions, laws, rules, and experiences which make trust and progress possible — are at a great advantage over others. Japan has great social capital and can keep things like crime down. Russia’s social capital was systematically demolished by Communist rulers, so that today cheating and stealing are considered part and parcel of good business.
Of course, in times of extreme scarcity manners and traditions can be overwhelmed because hunger can always trump politeness. If my kids are starving, I will be more inclined to ignore niceties trying to feed them. Generally speaking, that’s what manners and traditions are for. But because the story of mankind is rich in poverty and short on abundance, we don’t have a good idea about what to do during the fat years.
The United States is in the midst of some truly fat years. The Clinton administration reported yesterday — shockingly without lying — that we can expect to collect a trillion-dollar surplus over the next five Years, and over the next fifteen, a full trillion dollars more than we expected. This is a profound challenge for a political culture organized around financial scarcity for more than a generation.
If the first human impulse is to grab without asking, then we now have another great example of how our president is all too human. Mr. Clinton sees the surplus like the bright shining heinie of a new White House intern and he is intent on grabbing it. His plan to cover prescription drugs under Medicare is classic Clintonism — a feel-good gesture now that will have long-term consequences he doesn’t care about. Creating an entitlement for prescription drugs is like saying that all members of the tribe will always be entitled to at least one shank of wildebeest every new moon. That’s fine while there’s plenty of wildebeest to go around, but it is a recipe for disaster down the road.
But Clinton is just the symbol of political hedonism, not its total manifestation. The frightening thing is that the surplus could be so big that it will swamp all the old arguments. Republicans will get tax cuts and defense spending. Democrats will get more entitlements and education spending.
Scarcity is useful in politics because it hones the public mind on what should be a priority. It creates meaningful choices about a nation’s aims and direction. Like the guys in the commercial, sometimes you have to choose between beer and toilet paper. But with abundance, choices become stylistic rather than grave. One theory of why the Roman Empire fell is that Roman citizens became so rich off the labor of others that they lost the will to work, let alone fight. Entitlements were so common that a civilization of conquerors became a civilization of couch potatoes.
The New York Times reports today that the success of Viagra is forcing states to fund an entitlement under health insurance for the birth-control pill, under the rubric of “reproductive equity.” Viagra made arguments against mandated contraception coverage “laughable, realistically,” a California State Senator told the Times. “No one can really argue it with a straight face.”
Now I am in favor of the pill, but this is something a little different. Viagra is a drug designed to “cure” a disability — an incapacity to perform the cha-cha. The birth-control pill is designed to make it impossible to get pregnant while cha-chaing. This is a redefinition of the natural order in a profound way. Now, the preferred state for women — the condition women are pharmaceutically entitled to — is defined by an inability to reproduce. In short, a healthy woman, a woman treated to the best medicine, cannot have a baby. Law is the articulation of public will and ambition and this is the choice society has made. Would a poor society have made that choice? There aren’t many accumulated social rules and traditions in our cultural arsenal equipped to deal with this reality. That doesn’t mean it is a bad thing necessarily. But it almost guarantees that it is a confusing thing. The growing hatred of “judgmentalism” in the U.S. may in fact be the beginning of a new social norm of abundance. I am sure I will get e-mails from people complaining that there should be no “stigma” attached to the sexual activity which the birth-control pill makes possible. “Who are you to judge?!” is very often the opening language of most of my critical e-mail.
Francis Fukuyama thinks the worst is over. He thinks the impact of the pill, and the tide of feminism which it brought to fore, was felt in the “mini-Dark Ages” of the 1960s and early 1970s, and now society’s natural antibodies are mending the wounds. I think — and hope — that he’s probably right. But the challenge of abundance isn’t going away. The lies of Jesse Jackson, Jane Fonda, or the Children’s Defense Fund to the contrary, there is essentially no hunger in the United States. The biggest health problem for the poor is that they are fat, really fat. That is something relatively new in the history of mankind (though Russian peasants in the 19th century did have some heft). The politics of abundance is by far a bigger challenge for conservatism than for liberalism. Conservatism, as the name suggests, is organized around the idea of conserving. Conservation is always a powerful argument when there’s not enough food to go around. It is a lot tougher when there’s too much.
There are some solutions. Libertarians favor taking advantage of people’s natural desire to spend their own resources as they see fit. Wealth is empowering after all, and the richer we get, the more we want government to leave us alone. Some conservatives, like Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, argue for something called “American Greatness.” It’s still a great idea without a great program. But essentially it says that a confident, great nation should not be afraid to act like one. The French built cathedrals, the Romans built stadiums, we can do great things, too. I like cathedrals — for most of the last 1,000 years they were the only art available for poor people.
But what makes cathedrals meaningful — especially in the modern age — is that they are an expression of common will and hope. If we are going to do great things, we must want to do them. The only way to test that will is to make resources scarce again — at least for the decision makers. That is why the first goal of conservative politics must remain cutting taxes, not to make Americans richer, but to make politicians poorer. I will respect any politician, left or right, who is willing to argue for something expensive at the expense of something else we hold dear. But giving out wildebeest you haven’t caught yet is generosity on the cheap.
Okay, that was an endless diatribe. But there’s still time to give it up for Daisy Fuentes of America’s Funniest Home Videos, and formerly of MTV. In that esteemed journal of intelligent opinion, George magazine, she was asked what book would be required reading in the Fuentes White House. “Witness, by Whittaker Chambers,” she said, “because it speaks against the evils of Communism.” She also said that the first headline of a Fuentes administration would be “President Fuentes Bombs Castro Out of Power.” The fact that George considers this hard-hitting and important journalism speaks for itself.