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The Future of Ideological Conflict

WARWICK – The just-concluded French presidential election seemed to suggest that the old left-right divisions are as potent as they have ever been – and certainly in their birthplace. But are they?

The modern political spectrum is an artifact of the seating arrangements at the French National Assembly after the revolution of 1789. To the right of the Assembly’s president sat the supporters of King and Church, while to the left sat their opponents, whose only point of agreement was the need for institutional reform. The distinction capitalized on long-standing cultural associations of right- and left-handedness with, respectively, trust and suspicion – in this case, of the status quo.

In retrospect, it is remarkable that this distinction managed to define partisan political allegiances for more than 200 years, absorbing both the great reactionary and radical movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But the decline in voter turnout in most of today’s democracies suggests that this way of conceptualizing ideological differences may have become obsolete. Some have even argued that ideologies and parties are irrelevant in an increasingly fragmented political landscape.

But one division that looms on the horizon could reinvent the right-left distinction for the twenty-first century: precautionary versus “proactionary” attitudes toward risk as principles of policymaking. In social psychological terms, precautionary policymakers set their regulatory focus on the prevention of worst outcomes, whereas proactionary policymakers seek the promotion of the best available opportunities.

The precautionary principle is the better known of the two, and increasingly figures in environmental and health legislation. It is normally understood as the Hippocratic Oath applied to the global ecology: above all, do no harm. By contrast, the proactionary principle is associated with self-styled futurists, for whom being “human” is defined by our capacity to keep ahead of the game when taking calculated risks, whether by benefiting from success or learning from failure.

The difference between the two principles is most clearly apparent in their implications for the relationship between science and technology. Precautionary policymakers invoke scientific uncertainty to curb technological innovation, whereas their proactionary counterparts encourage innovation as an extension of scientific hypothesis testing.

They also differ subtly over their conception of humans. Precautionary types aspire to a “sustainable” humanity, which invariably means bringing fewer of us into existence, with each of us making less of an impact on the planet. Those with a proactionary bent are happy to increase the planet’s human population indefinitely as nothing more or less than a series of experiments in living, regardless of outcomes.

Not surprisingly, conventional political and business leaders are not entirely comfortable with either group. After all, precautionary policymakers would have business value conservation over growth, while the proactionary camp would have the state encourage people to transcend current norms rather than adhere to them. A precautionary firm would look like a miniature version of today’s regulatory state, whereas a proactionary state would operate like a venture capitalist writ large.

But perhaps most conspicuously absent from both precautionary and proactionary thinking is the old welfare-state ideal – that we might procreate at will in a world where our offspring are assured a secure existence. For all of their substantial disagreements, both sides dismiss this prospect as a twentieth-century fantasy that was only temporarily realized in Northern Europe for a few decades after World War II.

Lurking behind this dismissal is a sense that humanity itself is undergoing a massive transformation in its self-understanding. However, that transformation is moving at once in two diametrically opposed directions, which I have called “Humanity 2.0.”

Precautionary types would reacquaint us with our humble animal origins, from which we have strayed for much too long, whereas exponents of the proactionary principle would expedite our departure from our evolutionary past. At the very least, they would re-engineer our biology, if not replace it altogether with some intellectually superior and more durable substratum.

To be sure, the precautionary and proactionary principles remain relatively marginal to mainstream political discourse. But they have the potential to shift the ideological axis by 90 degrees. The right is currently divided into traditionalists and libertarians; the left into communitarians and technocrats. In the future, I suggest, the traditionalists and the communitarians will form the precautionary pole of the political spectrum, while the libertarians and technocrats will form the proactionary pole.

These will be the new right and left – or, rather, down and up. One group will be grounded in the earth, while the other looks toward the heavens.

Read more from our "Stiglitz on America" Focal Point.