By Jon Kraushar
This article was originally published in March of 2009 on the Fox News Opinion website.
The political battles over solutions to our economic and social challenges often involve disagreements over the right metaphor and how it is applied.
Metaphors, or comparisons, play an important role in defining great political debates.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy used the metaphor “New Frontier” to define his domestic and foreign policies and it not only inspired us to put a man on the moon, it continues to inspire us today.
In 1963, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech provided a metaphor that helped influence (and still influences) the great debate over civil rights.
Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy as president envisioned a “Great Society” and that metaphor launched the most massive spending and reform programs since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s metaphorical “New Deal.”
Ronald Reagan’s reference to America as a “Shining City On a Hill” was a metaphor adapted from one used by Puritan preacher John Winthrop and it defined America’s leadership role as Reagan saw it. For many, the metaphor still resonates.
Today we are engaged in a great debate over the right metaphor to apply to help cure our economic woes and to tackle challenges facing us elsewhere, in areas like health care, education, energy and the environment. Choosing the right metaphor is critical because it will have tremendous repercussions in political decisions that affect our present and our future.
President Obama is leading the debate with a metaphor from his inaugural address, “A New Era of Responsibility.” Many see his multi-trillion-dollar “recovery plan” for the economy as an explosive expansion of Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”
My argument with Obama is over the accuracy and the applicability of both his stated metaphor and the metaphor that is behind it. I don’t believe it is responsible to transfer so much control of the economy and so much spending of enormous amounts of taxpayer dollars to the government. That is being vigorously debated.But what merits additional debate is the metaphor behind Obama’s vision. I believe it is a metaphor that proved disastrous in the 20th century and it should be updated.
It is a machine metaphor. Obama shares it with socialists and Keynesians (among others) who have looked at human affairs as a machine that can be perfected by government, using the right engineering and the right adjustments.
But this metaphor has a fatal flaw. It assumes that the wisdom of a relatively few big government elites is superior to the collective wisdom, the checks, balances and continually evolving fine-tuning made by a vast network of citizens interacting together in a free market. Our society is not a machine, we are not cogs in it, and we—not technocrats, bureaucrats and autocrats—should be in control.
I believe that one reason we are in such economic turmoil is that we are fighting over the wrong metaphors and they need to be changed.
The right metaphor involves evolution and a rain forest. The brilliance of the Internet is that it has developed through evolution and it’s like a rain forest. It has grown and continues to improve with the freethinking, freewheeling participation of a huge network of people freely connecting,innovating, and, yes, competing together. This isn’t a top-down, mechanical, government control model like Obama’s. It is a bottom-up, evolutionary, democratic model.
The dated, disproven machine metaphor that directs the Obama administration needs to be replaced. There is a book and an author that provide a wealth of ideas regarding the better metaphor—of evolution and a rainforest.
It is called “Bionomics,” and its author is Michael Rothschild. His book was first published in 1990 and it led to some lively discussions for a few years in the small community of policy intellectuals. It is time to revive Bionomics.
Bionomics looks at the array of societal challenges through biological, evolutionary and rain forest metaphors. It compares a free economy to an evolving ecosystem. Without getting into a mountain of detail, imagine the applicability of these metaphors.
In a rainforest, there is constant new growth, regeneration and mutation to hardier, more adept forms that adapt to a changing, challenging environment. Isn’t that exactly what we want not only in our economy generally but also in so many aspects of our society specifically, such as in health care, education, energy, and the management of the environment itself? In finding solutions to our many problems, regeneration by people is sure a lot better than reengineering by big government.
In a rain forest, the operative forces include diversity, choice, competition, niches, spontaneity, efficiency and improvement through continual trial and error—none of which Obama’s plans provide.
Political metaphors are important because countries, like individuals, become what they think about. We can alter our present and change our future if our imaginations and actions are fired up by the right metaphors. Evolution, Bionomics and the rainforest are transformative metaphors to unleash the power of people and natural growth—not big government and unnatural control. I recommend we change Obama’s metaphor to “A New Era Of Evolving Free Market Responsibility.” Let’s discuss that now.
Communications consultant Jon Kraushar is at www.jonkraushar.net.