By Donella Meadows
–October 27, 1988–
“This election is about values,” says George Bush, without mentioning which values. He can’t mention them, because in fact the election is not about values at all.
Michael Dukakis and George Bush both revere the values that all Americans and all human beings hold dear. No one is against family solidity, against justice or freedom or life or economic vitality. That’s not where the candidates differ. They differ — greatly — in their assumptions about how the world works, about how values can be achieved.
Conservatives like Bush assume that business is more productive, more to be trusted, more in tune with the common good than government is. They see government as a source of hassle, always in the way of the folks who really make the country run.
Liberals like Dukakis (Bush is correct in calling him that, though incorrect in saying that his liberalism puts him outside the mainstream) assume that business systematically rewards people for being self-serving. Under million-dollar pressure corporate good wins out over common good. Government regulation is necessary to protect workers, the environment, and the orderly marketplace.
Of course there’s truth in both these assumptions. The political task is to know exactly when business can and cannot be trusted, and when government is and is not an obstacle to progress. Both parties are financed largely by business, so neither will draw the line as far toward regulation as a socialist (which Dukakis is not) would like. Our choice is between a Republican who will tend to leave business alone, and a Democrat who will lean toward regulation, both of them moderated by the checks, balances, and lobbying of our political process.
On abortion, prayer in school, and the death penalty the candidates look like they have stark value disagreements, but neither Bush nor Dukakis thinks that abortions are dandy or that children should be prohibited from praying or that murder should be condoned. Again they differ in the realm of assumptions.
Conservatives assume that business can be moral without government oversight, but they are not willing to assume that American families can be. They believe the government is capable of discerning what is and is not moral in our personal lives. They assume that corporal punishment does deter potential criminals.
Liberals trust families to make their own decisions about abortion and prayer. They assume that government can regulate markets, but not morals. They are not convinced of the deterrent power of the death penalty. Above all, they believe that a State that requires prayers or pledges, that punishes abortion, that kills prisoners is on the verge of controlling speech, thought, and life in such a way that it can no longer be called a democracy.
Neither the conservative nor the liberal position is logical. It makes no sense to distrust the government as a regulator but hand it enormous power over moral behavior. It also makes no sense to do the opposite. Whatever the process by which we choose our assumptions, it isn’t very rational. On defense and foreign affairs the differences between Bush and Dukakis are again difference of assumption.
Conservatives assume that the United States position in the world must be one of pre-eminence, and that pre-eminence is attained by military power. They assume that the military will not abuse that power — or if it does, the cost is justified to maintain national superiority.
To liberals the United States is not the world’s boss but a member of a community of nations. Its strength comes from its example of democracy and its strong domestic economy. Defense of the nation is vital, but the military must be kept on a tight rein, so that it doesn’t drain the economy, give in to corruption, or get interested in secret, reckless international adventures.
The choice in this election is much more important than which candidate is more warm or less wimpy, and much less important than which values we shall have. We’re choosing which set of assumptions the next government will use in trying to attain our shared values, whether those assumptions are ours, and whether they are valid.
Assumption differences are not easy to sort out. We know less about the complex world than politicians like to admit. Neither liberals nor conservatives have a handle on the truth. We’ll find the truth not by ridiculing either side, not by declaring either beyond the pale of acceptable thought, but by listening, asking for evidence, thinking hard, admitting all sides to the political fight, in the belief that the fight itself will eventually thrash out the truth.
That is the basic assumption behind democracy.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988