12/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Change We Don't Want to Believe In: Renaming Capitalism

This financial fiasco has sent us scrambling, not just for the exit, but for definition of our condition. Think of our country as a giant scrabble board on which we are all trying desperately to find the winning word, a new word that ends in "ism." Wikipedia has a list from which to chose: corporate capitalism, socialism, laissez-faire capitalism, mercantilism, globalization (we have to change that to globalism), and corporatism.

For example, an excerpt from Mussolini's "Doctrine of Fascism" reads:

"State intervention in economic production arises only when private initiative is lacking or insufficient, or when the political interests of the State are involved. This intervention may take the form of control, assistance, or direct management."

Do you hear an echo? Sound anything like what a Republican Administration and a Democratic Congress are doing right now? Ironies, after all, are the stuff of lively histories.

No, we are not turning into fascists, or socialists for that matter. How we define our fiscal underpinning, however, is another issue. With the government buying into banks, insurance companies, mortgage companies, and now the auto industry, laissez-faire has lost its luster and laissez lay-away has taken its place. Failure is no longer permitted; indeed, failure guarantees a day at the spa and a massage. So maybe we should rechristen our new system "no-fault-ism."

Most of us are queasy at government owning a large part of our production and services. So we should demand responsible leadership and practices from the companies we are hooking up to life support.

• AIG can teleconference instead of calling room service.

• Banks can lend more carefully and stop reselling bunched up loans.
• Floating rates can float away.

• Credit cards can stay out of envelopes that treacherously fly to people who are suckered in by them.

• The auto industry can wave bye-bye to klutzes like Lutz at GM who has the vision of a turnip.

• We can require streamlined, energy efficient cars that actually are competitive with Toyota and Honda( what a concept).

• We can demand energy conservation at places of employment for all federal buildings and federal loan-financed buildings.

Change is what we just voted for, a return to common sense, intelligent decisions and moderation. Often change comes "on little cat feet." It happens without our notice, like our children growing up or the grass greening. This time, change has come on Rhino hooves shaking the timbers of our purchase-based economy and our living habits.

Although we voted for "Change we can believe in," we are often suspicious of it.
Now that we are in the middle of economic change that we did not vote for, solutions are going to require Congressional and Administration political cooperation that has hardly been seen lately. Conservatives and liberals forced into teamwork will have to put on their best manners and happy faces. It may be painful, but they will just have to grow up, at least for a bit, and treat each other with civility.

If we characterize essential Liberalism and Conservatism in philosophical terms, we can see that there is a natural yin and yang that should bind the "isms" into a positive force.

Conservatism was described in a talk by David Brooks as "an epistemological modesty." A love of history and its architecture, Sabbath suppers, Christmas trees, hospitality, husbandry and ceremony are traditions that give substance and reassurance to living. A faith in our fathers.

Liberalism seeks to right wrongs and turn us away from repeating bad history. Burning people at the stake, torture, cruelty and subjugation are clear examples of never to be repeated historical horrors. Liberalism also seeks to rid us of waste, inefficiency and corruption, a goal held in common with much of conservatism. Society needs both these belief traditions. They can and should meet and fit nicely to preserve the good and destroy the wrong. Yes, of course, the devil is in the details, but the principle is sound.

In this time of elemental change, we need elemental recognition of the value of both conservative and liberal philosophies as they are defined, not as they are bastardized today to serve class, race, intellectual or any other kind of baiting. By definition, conservatism doesn't like new concepts; liberalism doesn't trust entrenchment. They are both right. A collaborative "ism" could get us through this stormy passage.

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