Tuesday, March 06, 2007

No new ideas, or too many bad ideas?

Partisans of both left and right have a tendency to complain that their opponents have "no new ideas. " (For an example from the right, look here. ) Editorials advise parties out of office to develop these new ideas, and political consultants promise to help in exchange for a modest fee.

But why are new ideas desirable in politics? There's nothing new about free markets, the protection of private property or traditional morality, and not much new about broad social insurance schemes, risk regulation, social liberalism, or aggregate demand management to ameliorate the inequalities caused by markets. Some combination of these things could easily characterize any position one would like to take on the domestic political spectrum. Combine like the median voter, and you have a winning politial coalition; combine like no one else, and you can be a contrarian social critic. No need for new ideas.

There might be some room for ingenuity in the detailed technocratic design, but that's never what the proponents of "new ideas" have in mind. In the end, we just get something vacuous like "the Third Way" or the "politics of meaning".

Genuinely new and non-vacuous ideas tend to be bad ideas.

For example, the Ackermans' proposal to give every high school graduate a "capital grant" of $80,000 for existing is a new idea, or at least was when they proposed it about ten years ago as a centrepiece for a new progressive agenda. The trouble is -- as anyone with an ounce of common sense could see -- it is a really, really bad idea. The Pithlord was a cautious teenager, as these things go, and yet it would have been a bad idea to give his pimply former self 80 grand. The Ackermans -- who are legalists -- could have talked to any estates and trusts lawyer to find out that what they were proposing is precisely what their sub-profession exists to avoid.

As it happens, in Canada, we have run this experiment a bit on resource-rich reserves. The results haven't been good.

And yet the very smart people at Crooked Timber manage to take this idea very, very seriously. Conservative anti-illectualism has its limits (certainly tested and exceeded with the Bush administration), but the whole thing does make me appreciate William F. Buckley's preference for being governed by the first 100 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty.

I recall another "new idea" in 2003, involving junking international law and coercively promoting democracy everywhere. I wonder what happened to that.

Politicians generally are -- and should be -- extorverts in the seventh or eighth decile of intelligence. They should be devoting these talents to understanding and explaining old ideas, not thinking up new ones.

Update: Akrasia, despite a weakness for liberal political theory, applies the very conservative "better to be derivative and good than original and crap" principle to music.

As a Genertation Xer and the father of a nine-year-old girl, I can't say I'm familiar with any of the second-generation bands Akrasia cites. I haven't experienced new music on my own motion for a decade. What I do get exposure to in the family vehicle -- mostly Justin Timberlake and Fergie -- is simultaneously derivative andcrap. Oh well, every generation has its own disease.

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