January 28, 2005

Garbage Cans & Pressure Cookers

I think that Peggy Noonan almost gets things right in her current column on the President's 2nd inaugural. Unfortunately almost doesn't count and she errs seriously in how she views 3rd world dictatorships.

Here is an unhappy fact: Certain authoritarians and tyrants whose leadership is illegitimate and unjust have functioned in history as--ugly imagery coming--garbage-can lids on their societies. They keep freedom from entering, it is true. But when they are removed, the garbage--the freelance terrorists, the grievance merchants, the ethnic nationalists--pops out all over. Yes, freedom is good and to be strived for. But cleaning up the garbage is not pretty. And it sometimes leaves the neighborhood in an even bigger mess than it had been.

This is something of a mixed metaphor because garbage cans are not normally under pressure. You may get an increase in odor if you remove a lid, but not a messy explosion. The contents of the garbage can are generally inert.

This is not so in those dictatorships. The tyrants are more lids on pressure cookers than garbage can lids. This makes a big difference because in a pressure cooker, it is the lid that creates the danger.

This arrangement of lidding off societies through tyranny, though ugly, served us well the past hundreds of years of the westphalian era (1648-2001). A good read through the problems of the pre-westphalian era will quickly show that. The problem is that free society is on a glidepath that so empowers individuals that tyranny is untenable. Those empowering civilizational artifacts do leak out to the pressure cooker tyrannies.

The end stat is that all those pressure cookers are going to explode because no matter how tight the lid, the people are gaining the ability to apply more and more pressure to rid themselves of their constrained existence and burst into freedom. The timing of their success is highly variable but it will happen eventually, count on it. The computers we throw away in our dumps are powerful enough to empower individuals in this way. Nobody has ever been able to contain garbage pile level technology.

This process has been going on for some time and the tyrants have come upon a noxious solution to their personal dillema. They engage in a controlled venting of pressure via xenophobia, conspiracy thinking, and encouraging malcontents to take their violence elsewhere. Does this sound familiar? It should as this has been a Middle East staple for decades and one that inevitably led to 9/11. But the Middle East is not the only place where such ugly maneuvers are a way of life.

We can choose to help keep the lid on and get hurt by the shrapenel when we fail or we can help pop the lid off in a controlled way and expand our capability of cleaning up the inevitable little messes that result. In some cases, the cleanup crew will mostly be wearing a uniform. In many other cases, it will not.

I am hopeful that in a future speech, President Bush will make it clear that freedom is not a state that is limited to promotion by political action, that economic and social freedom are equal actors in the struggle to liberate the world. There was a bit of that in his speech but most seem to have missed commenting on it much. The assumption among the commentariat is that a political actor was talking about political freedom but Bush himself did not make any such distinction.

In Peggy Noonan's "garbage can" world, her solution makes a very adult sort of sense. We do not actually live in that world but a more complicated one where the clock is running on a problem that she does not seem to recognize. I too, hope for a "Return to Planet Earth" headline soon but the character who is returning is somewhat different.

Posted by TMLutas at January 28, 2005 10:12 AM