February 8, 2007
Are conservatives or liberals better at thinking through a decision to the logical consequences?
This morning I read an article from the Jewish World Review by Dennis Prager that begins, “In general, the Left does not ask the question, ‘What will happen next?’ when formulating social policy. Not thinking through the long-range consequences of their positions is liberalism’s tragic flaw.” Then he went on to discuss taxes, illegal immigration, bilingual education, Kyoto protocols, affirmative action, Iraq, and nationalized health insurance.
Prager stresses that asking “what happens next … means that social policy is made by noble and compassionate minds, not hearts alone. In the rest of life, thinking through the consequences of actions is called ‘responsible’ and ‘mature’ ” Exploring what might happen in the future, as far as we are able to imagine it, is a superb idea.
What bothers me in Prager’s writing, however, is the way in which he uses a brush stroke to imply that conservatives reason through to the next step and beyond, while liberals do not. Unless I’m interpreting him wrong, he seems to be saying that only conservatives have the good sense to think of what will happen when their plans are implemented.
Hmmm. Let’s see now. Isn’t Iraq a conflict created by conservatives who were so sure they were doing the right thing that they had no Plan B if Plan A didn’t work out? Now, to minimize the damage created by their not thinking through what would happen next, we’re scrambling to clobber together Plan E, F or G, depending on how we might identify which permutation of our Iraq adventure we’re currently in.
Then there’s affirmative action. Who would want to return to segregated schools and discrimination in hiring? The very fact that there are women and persons of color in positions of influence (though not as many as their percentage of the population would suggest) derives from the decision to pursue affirmative action almost fifty years ago. Might this be a case in which liberals, who wanted women and minorities to have equal access to schools, housing and work, did, in fact, with “responsibility” and “maturity” think about what would happen when segregation—supported by conservatives—was no longer allowed? Or was the consequence just a fluke?
So for those who like to label conservatives as wise and liberals as foolish, or vice versa, in their approach to solving problems, let’s remember that both conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, are responsible for more than a few unfortunate unintended consequences—and a number of positive outcomes as well.
It is my observation that we are more likely to complain of the foibles of elected officials and dismiss our own lack of planning. It’s not easy to always imagine what the future will hold. We all do the best we can. Sometimes, of course, forces beyond our control could not be foreseen. Sometimes we are just plain short sighted and a little more planning and forethought would have saved a lot of trouble.
That is true of the story surrounding the nasty-looking critter that lives in the rain forest of Australia near Cairns. He is called a “cane toad” whose ancestors were imported onto a continent that previously had not had toads. 102 of them came because the farmers—who I assume were both conservatives and liberals—had heard they kept down the cane beetle population in the sugar cane fields of the Caribbean. Turns out, however, that these poisonous toads couldn’t jump high enough to catch the beetles at the ends of the sugar cane and the farmers had to go back to using chemicals. (I’m not sure if the beetles were more tenacious in the Caribbean than in Australia, but that’s the story.
Now the toads have spread throughout the region and wreak havoc on wildlife. Fish die from eating tadpoles. Animals who eat toad adults die. Even snakes that might be a natural enemy are killed quickly by the toxins in the toad’s skin. Pretty sad outcome of good intentions gone awry. So it’s another example of not quite thinking through what would happen if the toads spread beyond the cane fields.
I’ll bet you could give a dozen examples of times when you’ve not been able to see far enough down the road to make a perfect decision. That’s happened to me more than once. I’ll bet even Dennis Prager has missed forecasting the future from time to time. We all do the best we can. Of course, that doesn’t excuse us from not spending enough time to have a fallback position if our initial estimates turn out to be wrong. But doing “our” best doesn’t give us permission to assume that the other guy has not used sound reasoning.
We have met the enemy, and he is us. We have met the friend, and he is also us.