From Heraclitus to the present, historians and philosophers addressed the issue of change. Is change built into the nature of society or is it a mirage that reflects a different side of sameness? It would appear that there are years in the so-called modern age that suggest a departure from the past: 1789 and The French Revolution; 1914 the Great War and the End of Innocence; 1939 and the onset of World War II. Although it is too early to argue with any certainty, 2016-2017 may be a candidate for historic proportions, since the institutions and their philosophical underpinnings which accounted for relative global stability are in disarray. The world is turning and not necessarily on its axis. “The wheel keeps turning the sky’s rearranging.”
Alas, the rearrangement brings into focus an uncertain future in large part because the political and economic institutions such as the United States, the IMF, the World Bank, the European Union have lost or are losing their legitimacy. In fact, liberal internationalism – a belief that nations can share “rules of the road”- is undergoing challenge from a newly emergent nationalism. Not only is President Trump calling for America First, but the nationalist sentiment has gained traction across the European continent and into the Asian heartland. Rules are being renegotiated or dismissed and the pattern for going forward remains unclear.
Accelerating this percolation is technological innovation that has produced a social media of narcissism and personal fulfillment that virtually excludes any other pursuits. Secularization across the board has elevated “me” into the position of a transcendent force. How does one manage a society that does not recognize the limits of freedom? How can order be maintained without modesty and humility?
As Jacques Elliot once announced, “technology exists because technology exists.” Presumably it is a force of its own, resistant to the controls of manners, morals or human welfare. If in a Schumpeterian equation there is as much destruction as creation, will employment be a privilege? How do you deal with those left behind? A guaranteed income? Rewards for the idle? The puzzle parts seek a framework.
If trade deals are filtered through the prism of job creation, will tariffs be imposed to equalize comparative advantage? And if so, would these tariffs be applied internationally - what is now called import taxes? National assertiveness, with its broad political appeal, could result in a diminished world order or even global depression. Admittedly Smoot Hawley has faded from public memory and it was not the actual cause of the Great Depression as many have conceded, but it did exacerbate a declining world economy.
Artificial intelligence is already addressing these issues without the requisite policy constraints. Most manufacturing jobs will soon be obsolescent. Even higher level positions in medicine will be rendered unnecessary. These are changes advancing incrementally. A person with cancer might consult an oncologist today, but in short order he will ask a computer bank for the best treatment based on all the empirical evidence of his disease. Of course, this example cannot be generalized to all jobs, for society will probably need some work. The question is who gets rewarded and who doesn’t and who is left out of the equation completely.
While the change in the past was largely political and economic, the change we are in is the tail wagging the cultural shifts. The loss of confidence in institutional foundations moves down a slope of cultural realignment. When President Trump denounces political correctness, he speaks to a portion of the population largely forgotten by elites and resentful at the adversarial dominance of the “chattering class.” President Trump is an unlikely voice of the disenfranchised, but there you have it. The confidence deficit fills the air as people come to question the leadership in their nations; change will be unhinged from notions of the past.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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