Change, Real and Imagined


In her seminal book, The Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel writes about the real political divide — not left versus right, but what she calls stasists versus dynamists. The former fear change and want to use government power to minimize it, if not eliminate it. The latter accept that improvements in the human condition require change by definition, and understand that the best way to ensure it is to allow individuals the freedom to make choices, with consequences, both good and ill, to be borne by them.

By these definitions, both presidential candidates in this election were largely stasists.

Can’t say that I agree with that, but is in a fascinating concept – fascinating, to me, in the indicator of how widespread sheer misunderstanding is in our modern world. We’ve been far too long on this road, and its time we got off it.

As a campaign theme, “change” worked great for Obama. In reality, of course, Obama proposes very little of the change he ostensibly campaigned on, but we are in for some radical changes that were little mentioned during the election (we will get, for instance, a lot more abortion funding out of Obama even though that wasn’t mentioned on the campaign trail, but we won’t get a major shift in Iraq policy, even though Obama was on and on about it). Please observe one thing about the late, unlamented Presidential campaign – neither candidate talked about doing what is right. Curiously enough, I happened to hear Ralph Nader just before election day and in his own kooky but sincere way, he was talking about doing what was right, as he saw it. His tiny vote total can be taken as an indicator of what always trying to do the right thing can do to you, at times.

Change is a word which masks what is really going on – an attempt to avoid the hard and fast, “this is right or this is wrong” of it all. And don’t get me wrong here; John McCain is as guilty on this score as Obama. The jury is out on President Bush, and may not come in for a century. Former President Clinton is the archetype of the leader who will change daily in order to avoid doing what is right and thus risky. Taking one thing with another, we’ve had only a few President’s who were determined to do what was right all or most of the time. Reagan was one; so was Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and, of course, George Washington.

This is not to say that these men made no mistakes – each of them has a large number of rather stunning mistakes in the performance of their office. But the key to all of them was their burning desire to do what was right and the unflinching way they adhered to what was right, as best as they could determine it. And if you think we’re poor in having so few such leaders, please observe that in the entire rest of the world in the entirety of human history, the number of leaders who also tried to do what was right is, perhaps, even less than we’ve had in our 225-odd years. St Louis of France, for certain. Confucious, though he wasn’t in charge. Ashoka of India. Mandela. Christina Alexandra of Sweden, perhaps. Not much, to be sure.

To fault Obama and McCain for not doing what most people don’t do is unfair. On the other hand, to call for perish-the-hindmost change at all costs is insane. What we want is leaders who will try to discover the right thing to do, and then go on and try to do it, come what may. If doing the right thing calls for the complete overturning of a particular institution, then we must do it. If doing the right thing calls for rigid adherence to the existing rules of an institution, then we must do it. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and if you’re not actively seeking to do the right thing, then you run a high risk of doing the wrong thing, even if unintentionally.