Thursday, May 12, 2016

Apatosaurus Policy

“Some of the Justices appointed by Republicans often don't vote in a way that advances conservative policy.”

Senator Charles Grassley, Republican from Iowa and head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that on the Senate floor not long ago. He was complaining about Chief Justice John Roberts who twice—twice, can you believe it?—saved Obamacare with his activist vote.

Grassley’s remark got me thinking: What, exactly, is conservative policy? (Skipping for the moment the question whether it is ever the proper role of the judicial branch to advance any particular policy, conservative or liberal.)

The dictionary definition of conservative is: holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.

So, what about that? Is that a good governing principle?

Some change is surely bad. Global warming, for instance. Most is unavoidable. Usually the best we can do is manage change. Clean up super-fund contamination sites. Fight crime. Go soft on crime. Fight crime.

Adapt or die, right? Natural selection built that in for us. 

Sometimes hunkering down is necessary for survival. Sometimes talking the long march in search of new habitat is what is needed. The problem with a bias against setting out on the long march is that you’re likely to be left behind to die. Or maybe not, maybe the herd moves as one when the need is overwhelmingly obvious. By the time things get to that point, though, many will die.

That’s the way herds behave. Perhaps we are doomed to do so too. The thing about natural selection is that it takes a while, and there is a lot of carnage along the way as the herd is right-sized for the available habitat. It isn’t pretty. Maybe it’s the inevitable fate of all populations, but it seems that by this point we should be smarter than the instincts that have driven us for millennia. What was the point of developing our big brains if not to use them?

Conservative policy, by definition, protects and preserves the status quo. Maybe that worked in rural hamlets a few hundred years ago, maybe it was even a good thing then, but it doesn’t work now. The dynamic rate of change has become too great to reckon with by not thinking about what is happening. It will overtake us. There will be no habitat to move on to. 

We are at an inflection point in the course of human events. Population growth and climate change leading to drought and flooding will kill millions. There may have been a time when what happened in the wider world wasn’t our problem, but that time is gone. Look at how immigration from the Middle East is shredding the social fabric of Europe. Look at how oligarchs world-wide are leaving millions desperate for sustenance. These are the conditions of revolution. 

We’ve had plenty of revolutions and none have destroyed us, you say. Yes, that’s true. But even the most sanguine isolationist must admit that what happens in the rest of the world is starting to feel increasingly, and uncomfortably, close. How long will it be before the revolutionary peasants up their game with nuclear weapons?

Senator Grassley and his ilk remind me of a herd of lumbering apatosaurus, munching on leaves from ever higher and scarcer trees, unconcerned about the bright flames overhead of the approaching asteroid. Nothing like that has ever happened before. Why should they worry. Move over and let me get to that tasty branch, will you?

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