Politics & Policy

Changes, Good & Bad

CHANGES, GOOD & BADAt the outset of World War Two Britain was still scrounging for any weapon adequate to the task of war. They decided to de-mothball a piece of light field artillery which dated back to the Boer War. The five man crew, which they also rounded up, had a curious system for firing the armament. Precisely three seconds prior to discharging the gun, two of the men would snap to attention until all was silent again. None of the experts or young officers who were consulted could deduce the point of the exercise. Finally they brought in a wizened retired artillery Colonel. He watched the exercise for a moment. Then, jarred by an old memory, recognition flickered in his eyes: “I have it. They are holding the horses.”

The point of this story is that sometimes circumstances change but habits die hard. Right now, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of horse-holders are converging on Seattle for what they call the “Battle in Seattle.” If the recent protests in Europe against “Capitalism” are any guide, they will clog traffic, break windows, light smoke bombs, carry signs which read, “Make Love, Not Profit,” and generally whine and whimper about the fact that the world is changing.

It’s all very silly. What can the protestors do? Will a banner over the highway stop you from buying a computer? Will a hippie chained to a door keep you from using a cell phone? Even if they blow up the conference center, will you suddenly be willing to pay fifty dollars for a shrimp cocktail? (hmmmm shrimp) or will Germans suddenly come to their senses and think David Hasselhoff stinks?

The point is the world is changing, and “mobilizing against globalizing” makes as much sense as “marching against sunshine,” though it rhymes a lot better.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think globalization is all sweetness and light, and this round of WTO talks may have nothing but awful results. Whether the Seattle round is a success or a failure, there will still be all sorts of negative consequences. Small communities will be devastated. Certain industries will be evaporate overnight. Sovereignty will take a beating like a red-headed step-child. But globalization is simply a fact, the way industrialization was a fact of the 19th century. The winds of change are blowing like a bad cliché, and only a fool argues with the wind (what’s that from?).

Still, globalization will be a monumental challenge for conservatives because in many ways it is our comeuppance. Conservative thinking has had less synergy and more antagony than we like to admit. On the one hand we have been champions of liberty. Only conservatives were reliable opponents of Communism (yes, their were plenty of liberal anti-Communists, but liberals as a group were not always dependable allies). At home, conservatives fought the rise of the welfare state, and usually championed free enterprise as a God-given human right. At the same time, the Right championed traditional social arrangements like family, church, community etc. Well, under globalization the basic unit of economics and therefor politics is not the state or the community or even the family, but the individual consumer. That’s as disastrous for conservatives as for old Leftists, who like to organize society by class or gender.

But ultimately conservatives should not retreat à: la Pat Buchanan. Buchanan childishly believes that if you yell and stamp your feet and hold your breath eventually you won’t have to get on the school bus. The truth is that you may not have to get on today, or tomorrow, but eventually you’ve got to go, and when you do you’ll just be that much further behind.

Instead, conservatives should do what they have done since the time of Burke: they should adapt. The Left is already trying to adapt with what it calls the “Third Way,” which is really just the “Old Way” with some clever tax breaks.

But conservatives don’t need to rename anything. Conservatism’s central insight, in Glenn Loury’s words, is that human nature has no history. A baby today, if adopted by Visigoths would grow up to be a Visigoth. Institutions train human beings to be citizens of civilization (I used to say “Western Civilization,” but I’m not sure there’s any other kind) and it is conservatives who are the greatest champions of those institutions. We are the ones who believe that there is vast database of experimentation, brimming mostly with failed endeavors, that we can draw from for guidance.

We call it history.

[Now libertarians will get their panties (or whatever it is they wear) in a bunch. They will say that Hayek revered institutions, and he did. They will say that libertarians believe that the animal spirits (sorry to quote Keynes), of society organize into useful institutions on their own, and they do. They will say that they are the true champions of contracts and intellectual property rights and the like, and they certainly carry their load on that front. But the fact is that conservatives are willing to spend real capital defending these institutions against cultural interlopers, while libertarians spend most of their time arguing about how freedom alone will sort everything out.]

And if history teaches us anything, it is that human beings need to revere and respect certain things if they are going to prosper. And if there is one thing even the most diehard globalists revere, its prosperity.

PREPARE YOURSELFI know readers are as sick with my apologies as I am tired of Bill Clinton’s. There has been a lot of change going on behind the scenes at NR Online and at Jonah Goldberg off-line. And, like the artillery men holding invisible horses, me and the couch are having a hard time adjusting to the times. Now, that the webmaster is out of the Betty Ford Clinic and I’ve got my eating disorder under control, I hope that the site will be getting back to basics. New features, constantly updated headlines, and extremely tasteful nudity. So as my webmaster likes to say to his dealer, keep your eyes out for the good stuff.


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