My wife and took a glorious week in Rome, Tuscany and Umbria recently, savoring the glories of Western thought and life at its height in the Renaissance. Apart from the wonderful sights and food, of course, I was struck by how vividly the central issues of our times can be seen in visiting Italy, and most of the EU.
Our guiding principles of democracy and free enterprise were firmly established in Florence during the Renaissance and have now spread throughout the world, with some exceptions like China. The comfortable lives of Italians and most modern people today are a result of this “liberal” culture favoring knowledge, science, human values. While Western culture has been a great historic success, the unresolved clash between left- and right-wing politics remains fierce.
I have lived the France and travelled throughout Europe, and I find that life in most of the EU is roughly as good as in the US. Italian roads, transportation, government services, and most aspects of public life are excellent, for instance. With some exceptions, Italians generally live well with little poverty and crime in lovely environments. This makes it very difficult for anti-government critics to condemn “European Socialism.” Considering all aspects of life quality, EU nations usually excel, with the US down the list with less advanced nations.
This euphoria was punctured when checking into the airport at Rome to return to DC. We faced a harrowing 5 hour ordeal of struggling through a labyrinthine snake line of thousands backed up behind a wall of confused security agents. Our flight had to be delayed almost 2 hours to get passengers aboard, which then cascaded down to hundreds of missed connections.
This is just a single incident, of course, but it show how it is possible to accept such horrible service as something that one has to endure. It highlights the pervasive problem of bureaucracy that permeates all societies. The agents were struggling to get each passenger to unload their bags to gather all “electronics” (hair dryers, cell phones, attachments, cords, etc) into a single plastic bag. While all this attention is focused on such relatively minor details, studies on tests of airport security show a strong majority of attempts to pass guns and knifes are successful.
I am happy to report that this problem of excessive bureaucracy was in sharp contrast to our reception at US security coming home. As I told one of the TSA agents when arriving at Reagan National Airport in DC, “Italian airport security makes you look good.” Bright and alert, well-trained and competent, they whisked us through, highlighting the entrepreneurial spirit that Americans strive to cultivate. The irony is that Italians are masters of enterprise at the business level. The nations is flooded with thriving shops, small companies, and large global corporations.
That’s the main point to be made by this little anecdote. We live our daily lives balancing the costs of excessive market freedom advocated by conservatives against the costs of excessive government bureaucracy from liberal programs. Europeans enjoy the comfortable lives of social democracy, but they suffer a loss of freedom, innovation and bureaucratic governments. American society rightly celebrates this entrepreneurial dimension (think Steve Jobs), but we are horrible at public services and sound regulation. The US remains alone in not providing universal health care, child support, parental leave, and other common services.
One of the greatest challenges of our time is to reconcile the conflict between left and right to the benefit of both political wings. In the US, Republicans are once again peddling their snake oil of more tax cuts and slashing government. In the Reagan and Bush eras, this exploded the national debt, emptied out the middle class, and produced market failures like the 2008 financial collapse. The Democrats are again proposing government actions to revitalize the middle class with better education, tax breaks, infrastructure spending, and the like. Well-intended, but this flies in the face of ultra conservatives who are now holding governments hostage.
This polarization of left and right is emblematic of our time, with similar conflicts common in the EU, UK, Israel, and many nations, It is usually thought to be unavoidable, but I think a deeper understanding shows unusual potential. Left and right orientations are like poles on a magnet or battery – the sharp differences are a form of energy that can be harnessed to create power. That’s why collaboration now represents the major source of progress today.
A simple example can be found in the stalemate over the Keystone Pipeline project. A constructive approach would be to “internalize” the social costs of mining into oil prices and let the market sort out supply and demand. The project might then simply fail on its own merits or survive as an honest venture providing net social value. This is only one possibility, but it illustrates the ability of collaborative solutions to serve both right and left wing interests.
There is a huge and growing body of knowledge and practice that illustrates the mutual gains that collaboration can produce for both sides of such conflicts. But one wonders if serious political change is possible in American institutions. For instance, TechCast forecasts the trend toward “Democratic Enterprise” – a synthesis of free enterprise and democratic community — but the odds are slim. Our experts think there is only a 30% chance the US will make this concept widely acceptable, even though they agree it would represent a big gain with very positive social impacts. Time will tell.
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