The Abandoned War of Ideas

Robert Reich recently pointed out the irony between the conservative right’s crusade against evolutionary teaching in schools and its sponsorship of Social Darwinism as an immutable moral law. Premised loosely on Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution, social darwinism asserts that in the economy too life favors the fittest and hence riches are a signature of a morally worthy ethic of hard-work.

Railing against the nonsense of placing quasi-religious theories before unanimous scientific consensus in public schools and the supposition that the improbably-persistent theory of social darwanism trumps cogent rebuttals based on empiricism, Reich’s battle cry for reason in politics will likely go unheard amid the clamor of budget reconciliation on Capitol Hill.

It’s a shame too. Especially as Washington attempts to create a new budget, the heritage of American public discourse about the healthy relation between an individual and society is so applicable.

Whether one subscribes to social darwinism of not, of course, success in any game depends on how the rules are set-up. This week San Diego senator, “Duke” Cunningham, was forced to publicly admit how for years he privately benefited from his public office, receiving bribes gainfully and frequently and in kind allotting beneficial public contracts to generous friends. The rules favored corruption and corruption favored the rich.

On a less clandestine but more dramatic scale, current federal economic policies create equally egregious distortions. President Bush’s second-round of 2001 tax-cuts for the wealthy pushed poor Americans away farther away from a middle class dream and disrupted economic growth among said middle class. Although intended to stimulate economic activity by allowing the upper crust to retain more money to, in theory, lend and invest in productive activities, this is not what has happened. According to an EPI paper, the long-term tax cuts actually damaged growth, not debilitating it but hampering potential.

No one likes taxes, they are the bane every tax-payers’ furious search for receipts and proper federal forms each April l4. But as Americans learned in the recession of the late 80s, indiscriminate government spending and a failure to tax moderately is all the more painful than an appropriately proportioned tax. There is no financial path poorer or more politically tempting, than spending on credit and forgoing income “Tax and spend” or lower taxes and cut spending, but don’t spend and stop taxing, especially with a spiraling deficit.

Like the awkward argument for discarding evolution and retaining social darwinism, something’s needs to give. When it does, Americans might finally be pushed to pay attention to the unexciting diurnal discussions of Congress, the spending bills that pass bureaucratic desks unread but with fresh signatures, the unnamed policies that govern their lives but rarely make it to primetime. In that case there is a real intellectual fight ahead, the kind that might actually involve robust public discourse of the type in which social darwinism was defeated many decades ago through social scientific research and Evolution emerged in its primacy.

What does government owe to its citizens and what does it deserve from them?

Currently that esoteric debate is incapable of earning the attention of citizens and media consumers, left and right. For now, the handful of concerned citizens will muddle on in activism and volunteering while the overall political participation rate will remain low: meaning, analogously, that there are fewer citizen watchdogs of the type that might have put the breaks on Cunningham earlier in his career. Most Americans agree that the political game is set-up unfairly and ineffectively, but instead of goading for reform many are left jaded, political drop-outs from the game.

And though the partisan political conflagration rages on, on the sidelines few are actually talking about the source of the strife. The rules of the game have encouraged punditry poised for 30-second sound-bytes, admittedly experts in their class, but limited to the surface of the broader political rift. Even at think tanks, the policy experts who dig deeper are often singularly focused on their issues area, passing on general issues.

As for the budget, it will be a surprising stroke of luck if affecting the formation of even its most controversial sections becomes a major public concern. Perhaps the social darwinists are right (its adversaries are only theories too, afterall); if so, the political war must find a basis in political debate, if not only the budget but the democracy is to be spared from graft.