By Bill Shireman
President and CEO of the Future 500
Ten years ago, I asked a top U.S. Green Party organizer why the party’s official platform was such a shallow set of 1960s big government prescriptions, rather than a thoughtful 21st century set like greens in some other countries advance. “When we have a chance to win, we’ll put more time into the platform” was her reply.
Three weeks ago, I posed a similar question to the head of a major libertarian organization – why do their populist “solutions” often sound so cavalier, dismissive, and simplistic? His response? Well, he didn’t reply. Better to celebrate dissent than experience it, I suppose.
We often think the greens and libertarians are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. But at their root, they’re not. Greens celebrate the free ecosystem – its extraordinary complexity, how it provides for 99% of our needs with no effort on our part, and why it is so costly to cavalierly dam up its natural flow.
Libertarians celebrate the free market – its elegant complexity, its invisible hand that provides for our needs with no one in control (no, not even giant corporations), and why it is so costly to intervene cavalierly and try to improve on its natural flow.
In reality, greens and libertarians appreciate two views of the same system – the ecosystem, economic and ecological. They know it is beyond our capacity to control that system, and that attempts to do so will often backfire. And they know that our real hope lies in understanding, aligning with, and harnessing the benefits of those systems, not in controlling them.
Consider the idea of private property. Libertarians revere private property because it is a legal device to internalize externalities. Property rights clarify who “owns” and hence is held accountable for the good and bad they generate through their use of a resource. Greens rebel against the idea of property, because they see it as a license to privatize the benefits but socialize the costs of one’s actions. Instead, they advance the idea of stewardship, which also assigns rights and responsibilities to defined interests. It’s a 21st century form of property rights, without the licentious materialism the old term conveys.
Greens often extol big government takeovers of power, forgetting that big government tends to increase, not reduce, the power of big corporations and old interests – and to codify the abuse of property rights. Libertarians often deny the existence of externalities, stretching their theories to pretend that markets somehow capture pollution and destruction and perfectly reflect our individual interests in limiting them.
Because of their preference for simplistic ideology over political influence, neither group is ready to govern. But, unfortunately, neither are the Democrats or the Republicans, who remain trapped in a system that buys off yesterday’s interests to spend a little on tomorrow’s – a bankupt system, both politically and economically.
The colossal failure of Congress to deal effectively with health care, climate, or security – social or global – suggests to me that it is likely to collapse long before it evolves into a 21st century, digital-ready form.
We need the greens and the libertarians – and other political thinkers and advocates who understand systems – to set aside their own ideological rigidity, which prevents them from gaining the power they claim to seek – and to put forth serious policy agendas that are focused on the future, not the past.
Without them, the U.S. is likely to decline gradually, a couple of percentage points a year, into a has-been superpower, giving the future to the Chinese or other successor. Some might celebrate that – in theory – until they realize what it’s like living without a Constitution or Bill of Rights that constantly reminds us of how we stand against ideals set forth for us at the start of the American experiment.
It is pointless to simply demand – as both green and libertarian leaders often do – the immediate delivery of freedom, jobs, peace, justice, and prosperity. They should know, better than Republicans and Democrats – that we cannot attain those ends simply by demanding them, or taking them away from others. Those ends are ours, once we have the patience and wisdom to harness the systems that provide them in abundance: our families, communities, markets, and nature.
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