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another view of PFF meeting
From: David Farber <farber () central cis upenn edu>
Date: Fri, 13 Jan 1995 15:37:57 -0500

From: jleibovi () sas upenn edu (John Leibovitz)

Professor Farber,

This is my response to the PFF conference. Perhaps because I had never 
attended such a conference before (as a reminder, I am in my senior year 
at Penn) and also because it resonated so 
strongly with my studies in intellectual history and political philosophy 
I found I had much to say (hence the length). I would be very interested 
to hear feedback on my (impressionistic) assessment of the 
emerging ideological debate.

- John

* * * * * * 


What struck me most about the Progress and Freedom Foundation conference 
on "Democracy in Virtual America" was its historicist emphasis. History 
entered into many Panelists' rhetoric in two ways. First, the Third 
Wavers claim to have a fundamental understanding of historical forces, 
which they articulate in their taxonomic scheme. (As a note, the 
precision with which this view was thrown around seemed inversely related 
to the pompousness of the speakers: compare Alvin Toffler's 
self-consistent empirical approach with Vlahos haughty, elitist 
description of "brain lords.") Historicism entered in another way as the 
speakers (especially Gingrich) identified themselves with figures from 
the American and Scottish Enlightenments. While this comparison 
(especially with the Founding Fathers) has obvious political value, I 
think it may also have some element of truth. The Scots, for instance, 
offered their own stadial theories of history that culminated in the 
brave new world they saw unfolding before them, specifically, the world 
of commerce. Extending this metaphor we can equate the Tofflers with Adam 
Smith and Newt with Pitt the Younger (to use his own example).

The historical parallel is further amplified by the panelists' concern 
with Civil Society, a concept that seems to be experiencing an 
intellectual rebirth. Again, this was a central concern of Scots such as 
Adam Smith and particularly Adam Ferguson (whose most famous work is _The 
History of Civil Society_), and the Founding Fathers who read their 
books. Many of the panelists contended that the private/public 
distinction is a Second Wave construct reflecting the encroachment of the 
bureaucratic governmental "machine" on the civil institutions such as 
churches, charities, etc. that traditionally provided services to 
society's least well off. With the "demassification" of society we will 
see a devolution of government. New technologies will empower individuals 
and reestablish the ability of civil institutions to carry the burden of 
the needy in a more compassionate (and less costly) manner than "big 
government." The strength with which these ideas resonate with Newt's 
audience seems to reflect the artfulness with which he combines 
traditional concepts of the American Constitutional order with (for the 
most part) realistic observations of changes in contemporary 
civilization. In my opinion, the Democrats would do well to get on the 
same rhetorical wavelength.

While Heidi Toffler's comments about including minorities and women in 
the political dialogue seemed tangential at times (and visibly annoyed 
the panel moderator), I think they hinted at the important issue of 
virtual representation. In my question, I tried to get Newt to respond to 
this issue in a meaningful way. The Constitution, I pointed out, while 
containing lasting values, is a Second Wave document. Its 
representational scheme is geographically based. If, as the Tofflers say, 
time will replace space as the chief limitation on all kinds of human 
activity in the Third Wave, isn't our current system becoming obsolete? 
(In other words, if America is becoming virtual, why should "Democracy in 
Virtual America" be based on *geographical* representation?) I rephrased 
the question after Newt failed to answer the first time and got some 
mumbo-jumbo about how human nature has not changed since the Framers' 
time, as evidenced by the behavior of chimpanzees. If Newt understood my 
question (and I suspect he did), he was obviously reluctant to cede the 
*possibility* of virtual representation for fear of sounding like Lani 

Of course, I would not expect any mainstream politician these days, 
especially one on the right, to acknowledge even the possibility of a new 
representative theory (although he might find a better response in _The 
Federalist_ numbers 38 and 51 than in chimp psychology). However, I want 
to point out that Alvin Toffler told me during one of the breaks that he 
believed the current system will have to change eventually. I would argue 
that in the absence of any reasonable counter-argument, this line is 
consistent with Third Wave theory. Contrary to many panelists' claims 
that Newt is on the leading edge of a political movement making 
traditional distinctions between "conservative" and "liberal" obsolete, 
Newt's categorical refusal to consider the question seriously reveals him 
to be what we knew he was all along: a Republican in Third Wave clothing. 
His philosophy is a semi-consistent hodge-podge of futuristic rhetoric 
and traditional Conservative politics. And when you push him, he responds 
with references to chimpanzee behavior. In a sense, it is government by 

My impression is that we are entering an interesting period of political 
discourse. Certain "Third Wave" elements will become articles of faith on 
both sides. (Rejuvenated) "new" Democrats and Republicans alike will 
share goals of decentralization, moving social welfare to civil society, 
competition in education, etc. Democrats, however, will be able to 
differentiate themselves on at least two key points. The first is the 
separation of church and state. When Arianna Huffington thinks of civil 
society, she thinks of religious charities and the like. Someone raised 
the point that the Governor of Mississippi, fed up with the 
ineffectiveness of state welfare organizations, wants to give state money 
to religious organizations. Such a policy raises Constitutional 
questions, to say the least. This issue could be sidestepped, perhaps, by 
increasing deductions for charitable giving. More important is the issue 
raised, in different ways, by the inspiring triumvirate of Kapor, Barlow, 
and Marshall, namely, social justice. Even if the administration of 
social welfare programs was left to civil institutions and compassionate 
volunteers ("a thousand points of light"), costs would still be incurred. 
Who will pay? Bill Myers pointed out that decreases in taxes during the 
Reagan years did not lead to increases in charitable giving. Democrats 
could position themselves to take a principled stand in the rights of all 
citizens to certain goods (at the very least the goods of education and 
access to the net) upon which the entire scheme of rational virtual civic 
involvement is predicated. Even if these goods were not provided by 
government, they could be paid for (at least partially) through tax money 
in the form of vouchers or some similar mechanism. Somehow, I doubt 
Huffington would agree to this commitment to redistributive justice.

I find Newt's commitment to a theoretical vision refreshing in a society 
that sometimes lacks confidence in the power of the human mind to 
overcome deep-seated social problems. While I do not share this vision in 
its entirety, I am hoping that it will force the Democrats to construct a 
new, intellectually coherent ideology that takes account of our changing 
civilization while remaining true to traditional liberal principles of 
justice. No matter how the debate breaks down, American politics are 
going to become more and more interesting to watch.

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