The cliché is that conservatives are stuck in the past, but the truth is that our ideas provide the best way to move into an increasingly turbulent future.
Of course, conservatives respect the past, and draw inspiration from it. At the same time, American conservatives want to move forward – cautiously, prudently – toward a future where, we hope, we will attain that shining city on the hill.
But when I appeared recently on Bill Hendrickson’s “Time Out” program on WCOM, a community FM station in Carrboro, our discussion reminded me of three reasons conservative ideas will be increasingly valuable in the 21st century.
1. Conservatism equips us to cope with rapid change.
Thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek who support limited government have shown that central planners cannot possibly get enough information to direct a city, state or nation. That fact is only going to grow worse for central planners, as rapid change makes their schemes obsolete before they’re even written down.
For instance, Hendrickson and I discussed proposed light-rail and passenger rail plans for the Triangle. My main point was that rail lines and stations are billion-dollar structures that cannot be changed.
But think how much has changed across North Carolina over the past 30 years, then imagine even greater change in the next 30. And other factors we can’t even imagine may accelerate the process even more.
As conservatives have long held, individuals making their own plans can adapt much faster and more effectively to change. As technology and society move ever faster, the ability of people and communities to act quickly, without too much government meddling, will be more valuable than ever.
2. Conservatism equips us to cope with the day governments go broke.
Conservatism has stressed that people should be self-reliant, without the need for government dependency. We all depend on each other for our daily needs, but these relationships should be voluntary and mutually beneficial – not politicized to create a class of people dependent on government. That isn’t just a moral precept. That is a necessity where and when government can’t provide help.
That day is coming.
Truth in Accounting (TIA), a Chicago-based think tank, said North Carolina’s debt totals $48 billion if all pensions and health care costs are honestly counted.
Think Uncle Sam can bail us out? The official U.S. debt is $18 trillion. Estimates of the real debt, counting liabilities such as Social Security, run from around $60 trillion to $220 trillion.
Most counties and cities have run their credit cards to the max too. The prop of government support is going to be knocked out from under anyone who leans too heavily on Big Brother’s largess. When that happens, conservative values of self-reliance and working with private groups in local communities will be more vital than ever.
In transportation planning, it means government won’t have the money to build every mass transit plan that bureaucrats, and developers and political insiders, want to build. In a vast number of other areas, it means government will have to take a step back, or step away entirely.
3. Conservatism encourages people to run their own lives, and now they have more tools to do so.
Going back to public transportation, the subway and railroad systems of the big American cities were first built back in the 19th century, when the average working man or woman had to depend on the mass transit of the time. Beginning with the Model T, however, people could be in control of their own transportation.
That is truer than ever before. Coming years may bring driverless cars, or buses, to change what we can do; ride-sharing services such as Uber or Lyft are already revolutionizing transportation. As computer technology grows, more people may telecommute, so there may be less need for centralized city centers or campuses.
The power of individuals has never been greater. There was a time when government had resources ordinary people couldn’t match. Today, you and I may well have access to technology superior to what government has. Just the other day I heard a top North Carolina state official lamenting that his agency had to make due with computers out of the 1970s, complete with blinking green cursors and text on a black field.
The growth of technology will continue to race ahead, even as government lumbers along. Government will only continue to fall behind the pace of change, even as progress empowers people.
Of course challenges will continue to face us all. But conservative ideas and solutions will provide the best way forward. That’s been true in the past; it will be even more valid in our time’s tumultuous, opportunity-rich future.
A version of this column appeared in the Wilmington StarNews.