One of the things I like best about human beings is our persistent incorrigibility. Even when we don’t want to we often escape expert predictions of our behavior. Call it the human uncertainty principle. As soon as you know where we are you lose knowledge about where we’re headed and how fast we’re headed there. Or maybe you’ve guessed where we’re headed but you no longer know where we are.
It’s a great comic irony that economists like Marx and economists of the right like Gary Becker base their predictions on the same reductionist view of what makes us tick: the economy, stupid. Those who believe we are driven by a selfish slide rule in our brains have learned to their frustration that we are a good deal more quirky, emotional and unpredictable.
Still, the economic determinists haven’t cried uncle, and their persistence continues to have a pernicious effect on the quality of our lives.
Our incorrigibility is what fits us so well to democracy. Ours is a pluralistic, open universe. Authoritarians are often shocked at the ultimate costs of keeping us pinned behind their razor wire. They shackle our wrists yesterday only to discover we’ve slipped them today. Democracy moves with us. It’s the true genius of our Constitution, which recognizes that human nature is an escape artist.
Adam Smith understood this, and he viewed open, free markets as shackle-shattering forces that served human freedom. The market could be a tool we’d fit and refit to our forever shape-shifting souls. We are the craftsmen; the market is the crafted. He never meant to imply a perfect, transcendental God-market to which we must always bend a knee.
Once the industrialists and robber barons figured out that a spurious public belief in the benevolence of the God-market could be used to justify their acquisitiveness, we were hard by the road of the one-and-ninety-nine percent.
They were assisted in their myth building by totalitarian socialists and communists who imagined such a thing as state-enforced egalitarianism. Never mind that it requires high-status enforcers whose very existence betrays the egalitarian pose.
Liberals have always wanted to steer a course between these extremes, seeing that there was little difference between a robber baron and a party apparatchik. At the end-states of both extremes, the people were left to eat the same cake.
The bipolar legacy of this extremist tug-‘o-war is devastating. Any collective effort to ameliorate human suffering or restrain clearly predatory marketeers is labeled socialist. When the pundits speak of America as center-right, what they are really pointing to is the preposterous belief that the God-market can do no wrong.
Even more annoying than the robber barons are today’s Libertarians, who are always blaming the cops for the pickpockets. Obsessed as they are with a government we elect, they pray to the unaccountable corporate chieftain who’s poisoning their food, air and water.
In this wacky world, we wind up with the free market priests of the U.S. Supreme Court apparently ready to decide that government is over-stepping its authority when it requires Americans to participate in the health insurance market! Which is like saying, “How dare the federal government promote our church? It’s our church!”
If we haven’t learned anything from history we should have learned that we learn. History is littered with the remains of hide-bound ideologues. Their square pegs always happen upon round holes. Switching metaphors in midstream, we might say humans can only surf a universe of unpredictable waves. Locking our knees is a sure-fire prescription for failure. Alertness, balance, flexibility, daring, open-mindedness – these are what keep us afloat.
So I propose a new political label beyond socialist, liberal, conservative etc. We are the Incorrigibles. And the universe, the Constitution and our ever-evolving nature are on our side.