Jewish World Review Oct. 26, 2004 / 11 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

Leo Morris

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The ‘guns vs. butter’ debate is over, but John Kerry doesn't realize it


http://www.jewishworldreview.com | If John Kerry wins the presidency, America will be dangerously delayed in positioning itself to deal with 21st-century reality.

There have been only a handful of transformative presidential elections in this nation's history, changeovers in which the selection of a chief executive foreshadowed a new stage in the evolution of America.

When Thomas Jefferson ended the Federalists' reign in 1800, it marked our final break from Great Britain and the beginning of our self-awareness as a nation of unique possibilities. Abraham Lincoln's 1860 victory ensured that the whole of the union would be more important than its state parts. FDR's election in 1932 cemented Washington as the center of power and put America on the world stage. Ronald Reagan's 1980 win put us on the path that left America the last superpower standing.

Such elections come around every 24 or 36 years, so we are due, and the conditions are right.

The borders that define the modern state are disappearing. The most frightening example was 9/11, when terrorists demonstrated they could strike any place at any time. But there are other changes just as challenging. The movement of capital to the most inviting markets means there is no such thing as a "local economy'' anymore. The democratization of information through the Internet, digital and wireless revolutions means no government ever again can keep its citizens isolated in ignorance.


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The challenges faced by a state are no longer fixed, limited and easy to declare victory over - a quick taming of the warring enemy followed by a return to peace. The new world is in a constant condition of flux, and governments must be likewise fluid to enable their citizens to successfully navigate the new landscape.

At the same time, we are seeing the limits of the welfare state's ability to provide cradle-to-grave security, even in "normal peacetime'' circumstances. Social Security and Medicare are already in a crisis many experts doubt can be solved. And if you think the federal deficits today are worrisome, just watch it as Baby Boomers start flooding the retirement rolls.

Philip Bobbitt, among many other things a National Security Administration intelligence director under President Clinton, explains this changing world elegantly and urgently in his important book, "The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History.'' After providing a history of governmental evolution from the princely state to the modern nation-state, Bobbitt argues convincingly that we are seeing the emergence of another stage: the market-state.

In this new era, Bobbitt says, "No nation-state can assure its citizens safety from weapons of mass destruction; no nation can, by obeying its own national laws (including its international treaties) be assured that its leaders will not be arraigned as criminals or its behavior used as a legal justification for international coercion; no nation-state can effectively control its own currency; no nation-state can protect its own culture and way of life from the depiction and presentation of images and ideas, however foreign or offensive; no nation-state can protect its society from transnational perils, such as ozone depletion, global warming or infectious epidemics.''

Since the state cannot cope with the ever-changing threats of a volatile world and provide all the comforts of the welfare state, it must choose one or the other. And since the state's "core, irreducible function is the physical security of its citizens from external harm, as opposed to their material security, the responsibility for the latter must be shifted to the citizen. The nation-state must give way to the market-state,'' is the way it is put by technology writer Gregory Scoblete. That means top-down government - a welfare state that guarantees material well-being - must give way to an opportunity society in which citizens are given the basic tools and a level playing field. After that, it's up to them.

As demonstrated by his aggressive response to the threat of terrorism, George Bush clearly understands the first half of the market-state equation. We are not in a war that will be quickly or easily won - even if we "defeat'' the current crop of terrorists. We are in a new, permanent reality.

The hints Bush has given about a second term show he has an inkling of the second half, too. He would simplify the tax code, getting the government out of the business of commanding social outcomes with its fiscal policies. He would give younger workers the ability to opt out of Social Security and set up health savings accounts.

Bush's domestic proposals, Scobolete argues, are aimed at midwife-ing the market-state into existence. "Bush is proposing to steer many of the welfare state's commitments back to the individual, freeing the government to concentrate on safeguarding the country from myriad new dangers.''

Perhaps these small steps aren't enough, and perhaps Bush will lack the courage or the will to take the big ones that will surely be needed. But at least he's in the arena. John Kerry is still stuck in the "guns vs. butter'' mindset, and more often than not, he picks butter. Just listen to any of his speeches about all the after-school programs we could have funded were it not for the war in Iraq.

Lyndon Johnson, in trying to prosecute the Vietnam War and build a Great Society at the same time, experienced a small version of what happens to a country that tries to provide guns and butter when there aren't enough resources to do both. If Americans elect John Kerry, they will get a much bigger version. Kerry, many critics claim, is trying to negotiate a 9/11 world with a 9/10 mindset. It's really much worse: He's trying to use a 20th-century government to deal with a 21st-century world.



Leo Morris, a native of Eastern Kentucky and the son of a coal miner, is editor of the Fort Wayne (Ind.) News-Sentinel editorial page. Comment by clicking

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© 2004, The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.