The Costs of Rigidity

ttitanic deckchairs

One of my favorite quotes comes from Gregory Bateson, who upon reflecting on the state of our contemporary world said, “The major problems of the world are the result of the difference between the way nature works and the way man thinks.” It is perhaps even more true today than when he wrote the book that is its source, Steps to an Ecology of the Mind, in 1972. The state of our current political system suffers from the same shortcomings. Two items related to this showed up in the Opinions section of the NYTimes today.

David Brooks, in his regular op-ed column, commented on the current stalemate on the debt limit issue. Pointing to the rigidity of several blocks of ideologues in the Congress and outside, but within the Beltway, he wrote,

All of these groups share the same mentality. They do not see politics as the art of the possible. They do not believe in seizing opportunities to make steady, messy progress toward conservative goals. They believe that politics is a cataclysmic struggle. They believe that if they can remain pure in their faith then someday their party will win a total and permanent victory over its foes. They believe they are Gods of the New Dawn.

The groups he named include (his titles and examples): “The Big Government Blowhards (Beck, Limbaugh), The Show Horses (Palin, Bachman), The Beltway Bandits (Norcross). All are unwilling to see the debt issue other than through the narrow lenses of their particular ideologies. The Government may be bigger and more complicated than it needs to be to deliver the services it must to keep the polity in good shape, but that is not the underlying issue. Even if the size of the Government were to be reduced, it would still resemble “ the way the world works” in Bateson’s aphorism; complex and full of strongly interconnected ties to the globalized world. The outcome of any of these narrow stances based on “faith” is unpredictable and likely to result in further problems. The present rigidity reminds me of another favorite Bateson saying (from the same source), “Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished.”

Brooks writes of the “art of the possible.” I am not sure exactly what that phrase means here means; it is often connected to the place of compromise in the process of law making. If that is the correct interpretation, it has little to do with the outcome of a compromise. Resolving differences arbitrarily is as rigid as holding out for one’s fixed positions. Compromise should be based on a meaningful dialogue (not what Congress now calls debate) where the parties accept the complexity of the system and act pragmatically without immediately negating the others involved.

One of the editorials in the same issue criticized the emergent practice of candidates for office to sign onto a written pledge issued by groups, not unlike the narrow ideologues Brooks named. The editorial writer said,

It used to be that a sworn oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution was the only promise required to become president. But that no longer seems to be enough for a growing number of Republican interest groups, who are demanding that presidential candidates sign pledges shackling them to the corners of conservative ideology. Many candidates are going along, and each pledge they sign undermines the basic principle of democratic government built on compromise and negotiation.

These pledges are in large part a reaction to the compromises made by the heroes of some ideologues in the Republican party, who are still angry at Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. They want their candidates to have their positions set in concrete prior to taking office, not to be changed a whit even after the now officeholder discovers the reality he or she must after the election. The pledges are based on some theory, but the office demand practical action. Failure to see the embeddedness of political life, especially in Washington, as part of a larger system leads to the same kind of outcomes as Bateson writes. The opening line of the editorial suggests that the Founding Fathers understood that it would be folly to specify and harden one’s beliefs before assuming a position of leadership. We have come far from this principled stance. Those involved on both sides, the issuers and signers of these current pledges, are only rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, so to speak.