Elizabeth Warren has challenged her Democratic colleagues not to be timid, to put forth big ideas. She seems to have a new big idea about every week; there is no problem facing us that she does not have a plan to resolve.
The more dysfunctional our political system becomes, the more we become addicted to big ideas; and the more we are seduced by big ideas the more we will resent the dysfunctional government that will fail to execute them or confront their failure when they do. Our obsession with big ideas undermines the more boring but necessary functions of government such as balancing a budget, securing the border, or stabilizing the economy.
Big ideas often hide. We can readily respect the benefits of cellular communications, jet flight, and antibiotics, but the shipping container has cut the price of nearly everything. Few are aware of Elon Musk and his recovery of satellite launch rockets that has materially reduced the cost of everything that relies on them.
In the private sector wealth generation is not dependent on big ideas. Certainly, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates created trillion-dollar companies and vast personal fortunes with big ideas, but Warren Buffet grew an almost equal net worth with far more ordinary financial management, allocating resources with the magical combination of patience, focus and humility. Economic growth jumps with big ideas but it is sustained with a flow of marginal improvements embedded in our business and economic culture.
Big ideas in government should be treated much more carefully than in the private sector. Big ideas come with a sense of urgency, often exaggerated and often based on misleading and incomplete analysis. A new president wants to compress his big ideas into the first 100 days emulating FDR. Such rushing of big ideas breeds bad ideas.
When political power and success requires big ideas, they also require crisis to justify them. If current problems do not rise to the level of crisis then they can just be exaggerated until they do. This is not to suggest that we do not have problems to solve; we should just maintain a perspective that we may not be facing the crisis of the Great Depression or the injustices of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era at every election.
Small legislative successes draw little attention, which is the lifeblood of modern campaigns and media and requires such contentious combat that the political capital seems unjustified. Short term bursts of political power suggest the same capital can be deployed for big systemic changes, but we have to hurry less we lose the House or the Senate or the White House 24 months from now.
In Madison’s Metronome author Greg Weiner describes the Constitution of Madison not as a block to majoritarian democracy but as a speed bump intended to intentionally slow down the pace of radical change; to legitimize democracy by muting passion with the insertion of time, giving reason a chance to rule. Time was inserted by the temporal republic, the structure and rules requiring debate and time to build a consensus on reason, and by the extended republic, the sheer distance and time required in his day for transportation and communication.
Modern technology has rendered the extended republic moot as a means to slow the function of passions in our political discourse; it has in fact made passions more powerful and durable. Social media and the internet have made it easier to read for confirmation instead of information, hardening views and becoming more resistant to persuasion and debate. Everyone has a big microphone with the potential to reach millions. Communication is measured in clicks, ironically similar to the telegraph, and clicks are generated by outrage. Instead of subduing passion social media has empowered it and made it more virulent, spreading it instantly with little thought or recourse.
Big ideas promoted by hyper partisan political leaders with unrestrained confidence in their plans to reconstitute entire markets and redefine essential institutions, insisting on the urgency of their mission, and empowered by the outrage (passion) machine of social media are a threat. The Constitution is the only remaining block to this runaway train.
Big ideas that expand the government’s power and domain into aspects of our lives where they possess neither the knowledge nor ability to succeed leaves them with only one tool; raw power. Big ideas that come at the expense of bigger and better ideas proven over time are not a sign of progress.
Law professor and blogger Glenn Reynolds warned, “A good general rule is that the more a government wants to run its citizens’ lives, the worse job it will do at the most basic tasks of government.” I would add a corollary that the more we demand big ideas from the government the more disappointed we will be with the outcome.