By Donella Meadows
–February 13, 1997–
“Bipartisanship” is the in-word in Washington. What it appears to mean is compromise. Everyone stays stuck in ideology, sniping at the other side a bit more quietly, while deals are made. Cut Medicare more than the Democrats want but less than the Republicans want. Throw just enough people off welfare to appease the right without too greatly sickening the left. Weaken environmental laws, but don’t trash them entirely.
Holding to the middle, where no one is fully satisfied or terminally outraged, is the unique style of Bill Clinton. He stands for no discernible policy or principles, only for process, conciliation, keeping everyone sort of happy most of the time.
The trouble is, compromise is not leadership. There is no guarantee that the average of all beliefs, each weighed by the organized noise behind it, comes out anywhere close to truth. In the short term compromise produces bland, boring governance. In the long term, as reality changes faster than the average of all beliefs, compromise means lost opportunities, inadequate responses, life at the trailing edge.
There’s another kind of bipartisanship. It tries to rise to a higher plane from which we see what corporate trainers call “new paradigms,” “out-of-the-box” solutions, whole systems. From this broader perspective it’s clear that both liberal and conservative positions have strengths and weaknesses. The challenge is to ditch the weaknesses and capture the strengths. That’s not compromise; it’s transcendence.
The left says business will always try to reap private profit at public expense, so let’s regulate everything profit-seekers might ever think of doing. The right says leave business the heck alone; entrepreneurs disciplined by the bottom line are better informed and more responsible than distant bureaucrats. If either side of this 200-year-old argument were completely wrong, surely we would have noticed by now. So what would happen if we rose above these knee-jerk positions?
We might see that the market does systematically reward business for foisting off costs (pollution, resource depletion, incursions into community and family assets) onto others. Acting together through government, we should prevent companies from doing that, or charge them for it. That doesn’t mean micro-management, endless forms to fill out, stifling, senseless prohibitions. It does mean clear, tough, unbending, enforced regulations protecting public or unpriced treasures from private raids.
The left sees common tasks that the private sector will or should not do — schooling, road-building, fire-fighting, support for the unfortunate, research toward knowledge that may not lead directly to profits. The right sees government as an expensive evil. A transcendent view might recognize the tendency for power to enlarge itself — and therefore the need to keep pruning government down to its essence. It might also see, however, that market power can be just as self-inflating and destructive as political power. For the market to work, much less the larger society, we need to both government and market, balanced against each other, both accountable to the people through open information and unbuyable democratic process.
That means taxes — obvious necessity to some, highway robbery to others. Why not agree to make taxes not only palatable but serviceable by applying them not to goods (income, investment, consumption) but to bads (addictive or unhealthy products, pollution, resource depletion)? That way, our tax system would stop punishing people for productivity and start rewarding them for every step they take toward clean, healthy, resource-efficient lives.
The left favors protecting the environment by regulating it and fencing it off. The right says a species, a resource, or a sunset has no worth until it is turned into dollars by harvesters, processors, or developers. A whole-systems view would see that a healthy environment is necessary to make dollars worth anything. It would not put walls around nature; it would also not weaken environmental laws, but strengthen them to keep us from killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Conservatives don’t care about the people who fall through the cracks, says commentator Jim Hightower, and liberals want to lift them out of the cracks. Hightower wonders why there have to be cracks. That’s a transcendent view. It goes beyond condescending handouts to the poor, or dismissing them, hoping they’ll go away. It asks why some folks are unable to help themselves and is open to answers more complex than a) they are fatally flawed or b) they are victims of exploitation. Those more complex answers might actually end poverty, which, presumably, is what both left and right want.
Bill Clinton seems to want to get beyond the old arguments, to solve problems. But this most talkative of presidents has a terrible time saying what he means. So we have compromise, which entrenches positions. It forces each side to fight, because if it lets up, the other side will carry the day.
The alternative, transcendence, doesn’t let us sink into our comfortable, oversimple positions. It leads us to unfolding understanding. We would all, every one of us, have to admit that we have been at least partially wrong. We would have to practice broadness of mind and spirit, patience in talking together and actually listening.
That might sound hard, but it isn’t anywhere near as hard as slugging things out along the old, tired lines. Mostly it just takes a small switch inside our heads, so we become more interested in making things work than in being right.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997