On creative destruction, radical disruption, and other extreme makeovers

Usually not the answer (image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

During the past few weeks, I’ve been giving some thought to two radical ideas that are floating around out in our public discourse.

One is coming from the far right: An organizing effort to hold a new Constitutional Convention, presumably to radically remake the U.S. Constitution. In the extreme right-wing fantasy mode, this would include removing federal authority to regulate things like environmental safety, health care, workers’ and civil rights, and various social and economic safety net provisions. As Carl Hulse reports for the New York Times:

Representative Jodey Arrington, a conservative Texas Republican, believes it is well past time for something the nation has not experienced for more than two centuries: a debate over rewriting the Constitution.

“I think the states are due a convention,” said Mr. Arrington, who in July introduced legislation to direct the archivist of the United States to tally applications for a convention from state legislatures and compel Congress to schedule a gathering when enough states have petitioned for one. “It is time to rally the states and rein in Washington responsibly.”

To Russ Feingold, the former Democratic senator from Wisconsin and president of the American Constitution Society, a liberal judicial group, that is a terrible idea. Mr. Feingold sees the prospect of a constitutional convention as an exceptionally dangerous threat from the right and suggests it is closer to reality than most people realize as Republicans push to retake control of Congress in November’s midterm elections.

The second idea I’ve been pondering is coming from the far left: It’s a call, well, to abolish work. I’m not talking about instituting a 4-day work week, or beefing up unemployment benefits, or tackling stuff like bullying and harassment. These folks literally want to end work, while assuming that all of life’s necessities will somehow be provided for. Nicole Froio advances the idea for Yes! magazine:

What if we abolished the institution of work?

If we were not required to work to pay for basic rights, such as food, shelter, and water, could we embrace radical solutions to change the current state of our society?

…Online, the rejection of the idea of work itself is a growing trend across social media platforms. . . . One TikToker’s message—“Fuck this, I don’t want to work for the rest of my life :(”—received thousands of likes and comments in agreement. On Twitter, where the constant barrage of negative news is constantly dissected and commented on, posters point out how capitalism keeps marching on despite the unconscionable tragedies we’ve all had to digest in the past two and a half years….On Reddit, the “antiwork” community (the r/antiwork subreddit) has 2 million subscribers who can easily access an online library about the abolition of work and exchange experiences with each other about the jobs they don’t want to do. The motto of this subreddit, whose members call themselves “idlers,” is “Unemployment for all, not just the rich!”

Personally, I’m much more concerned about a radical Constitutional Convention fueled by conspiracy-loving extremists than the highly unlikely prospect of everyone suddenly deciding to stop working. On the former, I believe we are in a precarious time as a working democracy. On the latter, while fully recognizing that our world of work needs fixing (my main focus for decades), I have not encountered any viable proposal that replaces working for pay.

In any event, the common threads between these ideas and others at the margins are the superficially attractive notions of “creative destruction,” “blowing things up,” “radical disruption,” and “starting all over” — all so we can get it just right this time.

Such thinking can be enormously appealing when the status quo seems deeply flawed. I’ve felt that way about certain matters myself.

But hold on a minute. What makes us think that we can do a clean sweep and nail the remake simply because, hey, we’re here?

There are many problems with the let’s-blow-it-up mentality.

First, calls for extreme makeovers are often driven by extreme points of view that aren’t deeply shared by the wide swath of people. Quick, dramatic fixes have great superficial attraction, especially when compared to the toil of digging into the nuances of complicated problems. They may sound especially attractive to those who aren’t thinking critically and who assume that only good can result from these efforts.

Second, when inflexible and/or extreme views prompt radical change, they often ignore or overlook the realities of unanticipated bad consequences. When anyone assumes a superior level of knowledge that justifies turning everything upside down and starting all over again, it’s usually wise to slow down and start asking questions.

Finally, extreme proposals for change tend to neglect collateral damage, by disregarding or minimizing the costs to those whose lives and circumstances are upended in the process. This encourages a sort of casual “othering” that easily dismisses the interests of those who are not in our core circles.

Given a choice, I usually prefer evolution to revolution, guided by courage, kindness, foresight, and wisdom. I have been an advocate for change for as long as I can remember, and that journey has taught me — sometimes by reckoning with my own erroneous assumptions — that most serious public challenges are multifaceted in nature and require thoughtful responses based on an understanding of systems and human imperfections.

I realize that I’m talking in somewhat abstract terms here. But if this prompts you to ask questions of, and require details from, the next person who bellows that it’s time for an extreme makeover that starts from scratch, then I will consider this short writing to be a successful one.

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