It’s assumed, particularly among those easily persuaded with branding, that Austerity is the policy of evil, regressive Conservatives. This is, like most of everything else you’ll hear from our McMedia, which necessarily tailors its pitch to the fifth-grade intellect of the average consumer, fiction. And bad fiction at that. Not even the useful sort Faulkner claimed held more value than fact.
Personally, I’d call it something else. Something a brilliant little book I read a few years ago, On Bullshit, elegantly described.
The truth is, Austerity is Progressive. And if one doesn’t see this, he hasn’t adequately analyzed either. He’s viewing them as absolutes, failing to apply one of the few infallible truths of our world: All arguments are of degree, all positions necessarily malleable.
With that baseline reality in mind, let’s get to the only empirical data that matters in the discussion at hand:
1. The Earth’s resources, and by extension our economy's capacity for growth, are not infinite.
2. The only thing that grows infinitely is cancer.
That’s a short list. Why? Because the laws of thermodynamics and supply and demand are, generally speaking, inelastic. Burn it all and it will be gone. Burn more and more of a dwindling supply and what you’re burning will rise in price exponentially. When this happens, societies become terminally ill.
Sound familiar? Right...
And yet we're in the Coliseum, reveling in distraction, watching the games as Rome burns... Allowing “Progressives” and “Conservatives” to be pit against one another in the suit-and-tie professional wrestling arena we call “News.” Letting spin doctors whip us into warring factions assuming the carefully crafted and brilliantly marketed identities of the tribes we find attractive.
I guess this gives the types who need it “safety in numbers” comfort, something big, to which they can cleave themselves. And it probably keeps a less-than-complicated mind from hopelessness, or nihilism... providing him the illusion there's certain good and evil in a frighteningly random life he isn't equipped to navigate. But it’s all, to come back to the earlier point, Bullshit. The battles between Conservatives and Progressives, or the Tea Party types and Occupy Wall Street, or any of the manufactured antagonisms flogged in the press, are almost all myth - opposing armies of terra cotta soldiers sculpted on Madison Avenue and K Street. Labels are the artillery of the manipulators, and the masses who willingly buy into them the cannon fodder.
In reality, as opposed to what you’ll see on TV and read in the papers, the alleged sworn enemies - broadly congealed in the categories "Conservative" and "Progressive" - are actually aligned on most of the big picture issues.
A man who says, “Wait... Perhaps it’s unwise to commute to work in an Escalade and service the heating bill of a McMansion at cost of future retirement savings!” cannot be pigeonholed as a Progressive. He would be, under Edmund Burke’s original definition, a Conservative. He argues one should be measured in his approach to life, and measured in the way he uses the resources around him. Nor could be a man who said in 2002, “Wait... This thing with Iraq is insane! Have we not read Churchill’s warnings about how ungovernable the country was?” (It hardly needs stating “Neo-Conservative” is an insult to the term “Conservative.”) He'd have been arguing for slower, more thoughtful action. His would have been a suggestion we err on the side of doing less rather than rushing to radically change the world to suit our ends. This would in every sense be classically Conservative.
Conversely, an officious meddler who seeks to peel back a woman’s reproductive rights, undo the division of Church and State, or push for a Constitutional Amendment to prevent the union of same sex couples from being labeled a “marriage” can hardly be called Conservative. This man has decided that, instead of minding his own business, he must inflict his views on those with different generally accepted mores. He interferes, and under the classical definitions, that makes him a “Liberal,” which is synonym for “Progressive.”
The point seems, There is no such thing as Conservative, or a Progressive. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
It is true there are few, if any, real Conservatives today. And it is similarly true that there are few, if any, true Progressives anymore. But that’s only because true Progressives and true Conservatives are the same people, and neither fit into the modern, bastardized definitions.
The true Conservative believes in austerity. In leaving the economy to creative destruction, allowing the vultures come in and rebuild from the bottom – an inherently slow process in which less is spent, less is developed, and growth is tempered.
The true Progressive believes we cannot sustain our grotesque consumption and must rethink the short-term materialism that drives much of it – that we must pare our use of finite resources and recalibrate ourselves on a sustainable trajectory.
In this regard, the Progressive is the Conservative, and the Conservative the Progressive. In austerity there is the grand compromise between the environmentalists and those who fear the effects of wealth disequilibrium on one hand, and the true free market capitalists on the other. There are the checks on expenditure, consumption, and waste that both factions crave.
And both groups have considerable evidence on their sides. Endless growth is as realistic a path forward as Alice in Wonderland was journalism. There is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine, and the argument “Man has conquered all with growth in the past” is a fool’s rebuttal, easily rejoined with a reminder of how much smaller the world’s population was in the past. The true Conservative and the true Progressive understand this. It’s the bedrock of their politics.
And yet they're sluiced into competing mobs and pushed to fight each other. This is an enormous lost opportunity.
The better course forward is for these two allegedly irreconcilable groups to rethink the tribal bickering into which they’ve been goaded and embrace the fundamental alignment between Conservatism and Progressivism. Consider how they might together embrace austerity, and create a world where creative destruction regularly “burns the forest,” allowing smaller, measured boom/bust cycles to create wealth and prosperity without enabling Too Big To Fail leviathans to emerge, endangering the whole system.
To avoid unsustainable growth and consumption is Conservative. To avoid waste is Progressive. One malady never appears without the other, and neither can be effectively attacked by Conservatives or Progressives alone. On the big issues that matter, these seemingly divergent camps agree more than they disagree. In austerity they should find their common ground.
And really, it’s not like they’ll have much choice. We all know – you, me, your parents, your in-laws, your unemployed neighbor sitting in a lawn chair in the backyard with a Bacardi and Sprite in his hand, and his future before him like a blinding ocean sunrise - that’s where we’re headed.