Goodbye to an Ideological Century

Each day brings fresh evidence that we are leaving the 20th century behind. One of that century's most pervasive conceits was that we could manage our world as if it were a household or some other human institution subject to comprehensive authority and rules imposed by us. We spent most of the century arguing over different management schemes, while a rearguard of classical liberals and libertarians gradually lost the fight for a more open-ended perspective: one less reliant on prophylactic regulation and less complacent about guaranteed outcomes.

How little control we have over our world is being borne in on us with a vengeance in 2011. No one's philosophy or 20th-century management scheme can explain everything we are seeing or prescribe what to do about it. In the space of a few weeks, man and nature have combined to confound us in a way we have not experienced for decades.

Anyone my age remembers the awful Chernobyl accident in 1986. But we knew what to think about that one: it was caused by a faulty reactor design, and the Soviet-bloc Communists were always having problems like that. Communists suppressed independence of thought in their engineers; their officials weren't subject to public accountability as democratic governments are; and there was no market competition forcing designers and plant operators to deliver a better product for the money. Likewise, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the political left was quick to blame the right, and the right to blame the left, whether the issue was corrupt government, failure to plan, the impact of too little welfarism (or too much), or allegations about global warming.

Japan's nuclear-reactor catastrophe three weeks ago was brought on by a rare and epic earthquake/tsunami event. In just a few hours, the natural disaster killed well over 10,000 people (with thousands still unaccounted for) and remade the map of Honshu's coastal cities. The stoic heroism of the Japanese people in the face of this devastation has been awe-inspiring; they are as famous for how they have kept life going as for their suffering and loss. No accusations against their engineering or their official foresight have gained traction in public discourse. The sense is widespread that, as regards their reactor design and safety planning, the people involved did their best, under conditions properly designed to elicit and reward excellence, but the circumstances were beyond human control.

The growing turmoil in the Middle East is also beyond our old philosophical certainties. No one's political ideology has an actionable explanation for what's going on. Left and right are equally divided—unlike the latter half of the 20th century, when each side was quite unified in its respective position and knew exactly what to think about popular uprisings.

President Obama has been criticized heavily for indecisiveness in the present crisis, but neither side of the political aisle has mounted any unified criticism of the substance or direction of his policy on Libya. Many on both sides approve in principle of his military intervention, but many disapprove as well, largely because there is so little certainty about where this is all going. Libya is a unique subset of the unprecedented situation in the Arab world, for which, frankly, no one's political philosophy has a solution ready to hand. Opinions on Libya seem to boil down more to personality styles than to systematic philosophical ideas.

The same is largely true of the weeks-long legislative standoff in Wisconsin, where ideology is meeting its Waterloo in an empty public treasury. If numbers have any meaning, the fiscal bottom line is as incontrovertible in its way as the tsunami that hit Japan; unionized public workers can demand rights and benefits, but when there is nothing to pay for them with, something has to give.

The issue of fiscal limits is writ large in the looming showdown over the U.S. federal budget. It is symptomatic of the times that the federal government may well shut down on April 9 because the Republicans want to cut the president's proposed 2011 spending by 1.5 percent ($61 billion out of Obama's $3.82 trillion), whereas the Democrats want to cut spending by only 0.75 percent ($30 billion). The numerical difference between the two fiscal positions amounts to three days' worth of spending (give or take a cowboy poetry festival).

The closeness of the positions actually highlights how small a role political ideology is playing in this battle. With a more disparate ideological approach to the conflict, the two sides would have very different programmatic concepts and would be much further apart on their numbers. The big fight over a small difference indicates not ideological foolishness but the recognition by both sides of a stern reality: that the status quo cannot continue. The loser of this political battle will lose discretion over the course of the future. The only real question is how to wage the campaign: with the shock and awe of a government shutdown or through incremental measures and attrition.