You should live like a conservative (assuming that it’s all up to you and whether or not life is unfair you should suck it up and make something of yourself) and vote like a liberal (assuming that only systems determine outcomes and we should change those if we expect something better or different).
The Ryan brothers (Rob and Erik) recently passed along a provocative quote that they attribute to Jonathon Haidt:
“The problem is that the right refuses to recognize systems and the left refuses to recognize agency.”
I think that the relationship of liberals and conservatives to systems gets to the heart of the difference between them.
The conservative believes that accomplishment and results rest on the individual. You make it on your own, no excuses. If you talk about racism to a conservative, he’ll tell you a story about a black guy who became wildly successful in spite of a childhood of poverty. At its worst, this approach disregards everything from systemic racism to disabilities and the near impossibility of overcoming a childhood of abuse and poverty. At its best, it calls upon people to accomplish more than they ever thought possible.
The liberal believes that the system is all-defining, whether that “system” is good schools or a social network that includes access to job leads and financial credit. It simply isn't right to expect similar results from people who have very different access to the systems that do so much to facilitate or obstruct success. At its worst, this approach throws up its hands at every obstacle and gives up. At its best, it points to needed reforms that would make the world a better place. A liberal will let your herbal tea grow cold or micro-brewed beer get warm while she recites a litany of injustices.
The conservative says, "Suck it up." The liberal, "Let's give you a safe space.” It's easy to mock these tendencies but framed like this it suggests at least two things.
One, if you want a successful life, it's probably best to adopt the conservative’s philosophy. You do have to make your own life work regardless of whether you're born in 1930s US or 2030s US, whether you're born in Georgia the country or Georgia the state, whether you’re born a minority female or a white male. It's unreasonable to think that you'll change the system - at least in time to make a difference in your life. So, do your best with the hand you're dealt, whether or not the odds are on your side.
Two, if you want successful policies, policies that make the world steadily better, it's probably best to adopt the liberal's philosophy. No matter what happens, only 5% of your population is going to get into the top 5% income bracket. So let people fight it out to be in that 5% but meanwhile make sure that everyone - even those in the bottom 5% - have a better time of it by the end of the decade than they did at the start. Politics should be about making systems better, of changing the odds that everyone prospers.
When it comes to systems, this suggests that you work like a conservative and vote like a liberal.
At least that seemed to be the choice of baby boomers and earlier generations. Millennials have a better choice.
We tend to forget that the quality of life is just as dependent on social invention as technological invention. Steam engines and computers made our lives better but so did nation-states and banks. Social inventors include people like Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, and Maria Montessori. Entrepreneurship is just one form of social invention.
In 1900 people worked 70 hours a week and lived 47 years. In 2000, people worked 40 hours a week and lived 77 years. A person in 2000 could buy things a person in 1900 had never heard of, from polio vaccines and airplane tickets to valium, air conditioning, and a hamburger from their car window. People in 2000 didn’t make 8X more because they worked 8X more. It was because of the systems – from potable water and K-12 public education to electrical motors and computers – they worked with and in.
If traditional liberals protest the inequity of systems and ask for them to be more fair and conservatives focus on simply doing well in those systems, it’s the social inventors and entrepreneurs who transform those systems and create new ones. These are the people who drive progress. This doesn’t just make the world better; it makes their own lives better as well. They don’t work in the system: they work on systems.
Do you think it’s a shame that with all these people using smart phones that there isn’t some way to find someone driving in your direction, someone you could hitch a ride with for less than it costs to take a taxi? Found Uber and create billions in value. Be an entrepreneur.
Do you think it’s a shame that people can’t retire? Create social security and radically reduce poverty among the elderly. Be a social inventor.
Buckminster Fuller said that your life purpose could be defined by the thing you see that needs to be done that no one is doing. This impulse might well define an entrepreneur or social inventor.
Take a knee and protest the system? Stand and salute it? Or, make it your work to change that system?
Last century we had a proliferation of technological inventions. In 1900, new technology was still rare; by 2000, we expected new technology to come at regular intervals, our cars, smart phones, and kitchen gadgets all evolving as rapidly as we could afford the new version. Many people were busily working at making new and next generation products. The technological invention that once was rare and unpredictable became common. This generation may well create a similar experience concerning social inventions, bringing us to expect a parade of new approaches to governing, learning, and working. Social invention and entrepreneurship may become as common for millennials as product invention became for their parents and grandparents. At that point, working on the system will become a viable option for a growing number of people and not just a few.