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The Two Deficits, Part Three:
The Root of the Conflict

This is the third in a series of posts that comprise Future 500 founder Bill Shireman's insightful essay, The Two Deficits, from the book Towards a New Agenda for America: Ideas To Bridge the Left and Right and Move the Nation Forward (Future 500, 2012). Read parts one and two.

The left’s bias to spend economic resources, and the right’s to spend energy and environmental resources, come from two distinctly different worldviews — two differing views on the root source of wealth.

To the conservative mind, nature is a source of limits while a free market economy is a source of opportunities. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish and short. People, in order to survive, must focus primarily on protecting their own self-interest, and that of their family and local community. This can be achieved through a combination of moral and market forces. Moral standards, often codified by religious institutions, motivate them to think of others, especially their families. Market forces, put into play by free trade, motivate them to serve others, aligning self-interest with public interest.

To the liberal mind, nature is a source of abundance, while a free market exploits that abundance for selfish, short-term gain. Life in a state of nature offers us all we need. People, in the face of this abundance, will behave selflessly if liberated from all constraints, even trading away some of their own self-interest to support others, so that they too can selflessly give to the whole. Moral standards constrain them from simply being themselves and serving others with their distinctive gifts. Market forces compel them to withhold from others, become increasingly selfish, and demand individual material gain that consumes the prosperity of others. These forces undermine our humanity, disrupt nature’s balance and threaten to destroy the complex systems that sustain us.

Both the right and left hold part of the truth. Nature is a source of limits and opportunities. People are both selfish and selfless. Moral standards are sometimes humane and sometimes not. Markets both create value and exploit. A system that idealizes one or the other cannot function for long.

Both the right and left need to accept the limits of their ideologies. The right is correct, in sensing the extraordinary capacity of free markets to create value. They know that the economy is a complex living system; it creates value through the dynamic interplay of people, organizations and resources, that self-organize in ways that can’t be predicted or controlled. They are aghast at how readily the left leaps at the opportunity to regulate the economy. They know that when you dam it, plug it up and seek to control it excessively, you can destroy its creative capacity.

The left is correct, in sensing the extraordinary capacity of nature to create value. They know that nature is a complex living system; it creates value through the dynamic interplay of organisms, communities, and resources that self-organize into innovative new forms in a process of evolutionary development that can’t be predicted or controlled. They are aghast at how readily the right leaps at the opportunity to “drill, baby, drill” through the heart of this vital system. They know that when you dam it, plug it up, and seek to control it excessively, you can destroy its creative capacity.

In reality, they both revere parts of the same whole system — the system of feedback-and-adaptation that creates all value and sustains all life. And they both want to sustain this system.

The right sees its economic form.

The left sees its ecological form.

The right reminds us that, from a fiscal perspective, we are out of money and deep in debt. The left reminds us that, ecologically, we can’t grow the economy by depleting the earth, that “drill, baby, drill” or “cut, baby, cut” is just another form of exploitive deficit spending. These two movements hold very different worldviews. They appreciate different aspects of value creation. But as they come to recognize the interdependency of nature and the economy, they will discover that the same policies which cultivate innovation in the economy can also support a complex and creative natural environment.

Three Forces of Change

We live in a time of change. Three forces are transforming our world: the decline of industrialism as the driving force of the global economy, the rise of information and telecommunications as the new chief catalyst for growth, and the spread of globalization, connecting every nation, community and individual to every other — and linking together their fates as well.

If trends continue, this century could see 1,000 times the technological change of the last, according to futurist John Peterson of the Arlington Institute. Think about that. Last century began with horse buggies and a national post office and ended with the Internet and email. Everything was transformed in the process, from factories and farms to families and communities.

Already, the rigid powers of the past are being overthrown. Gone are the most unbending governments of the industrial age — the Soviet Union and the Maoists of China. Destroyed, battered or transformed are the generic industrial giants of the last century: General Motors, Standard Brands, General Electric, Standard Oil. And waiting in line, to either adapt or die, are their political supporters: the Republicans, the Democrats, the federal government, and even the United States itself.

How will the century ahead end? If the pace of change is 70 times as fast, how different will our lives be in the year 2100? Discontinuous change is almost a certainty. Our lives could be radically different by the next turning. That change will be for the better — and for the worse.

It will create risk and opportunity. It will change the context and content of morality. The net effect — whether we move forward or back overall — depends on how skillfully we adapt to unpredictable, uncontrollable, unprecedented change.

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