SOMETIMES, THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM IS RIGHT
The old battle between "conventional wisdom" and its debunkers isn't what it used to be. When liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith started using the term in the 1950s, his targets were not just any widely held wrong opinions, but those that were the product of inertia and convenience. Conventional wisdom, Galbraith thought, reinforced complacency. It enabled us to "avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life," he wrote in The Affluent Society.
Since then, of course, we've all become debunkers. (Just google the term "conventional wisdom watch" -- virtually everyone is on alert for the stuff.) But something has happened to the mainstream ideas that need to be shaken up. Today's conventional wisdom isn't complacent. Its hair is on fire. It wants us to see that climate change threatens all humanity, that the United States is in decline, that we're all going to have to work harder and longer in the future, that China is going to rule the world -- unless perhaps a nuclear-armed Iran gets there first.
The debunking impulse has also changed. Far from trying to rouse us from slumber, its role is now to offer us a cup of warm milk before bed. If you doubt this, just dip into the debate about some important element of contemporary conventional wisdom, like the idea that America's global dominance is eroding. This may seem so obvious as barely to require discussion. Yet some of our best, most independent-minded commentators on international politics, scholars and practitioners alike, are saying that your eyes deceive you: America's decline is definitely not inevitable, and might not be happening at all.
These commentators acknowledge, of course, that preventing decline will oblige Americans to put their economic house in order and repair the damage done to their country's image worldwide -- all while preserving its global military edge and managing its alliances better than any president has done in the last 20 years. (And that's just for starters!) But too often these little details are in the fine print. The heart of the debunking message -- and what most readers carry away from it -- is reassurance. America will be No. 1 for decades to come.
You see the same pattern in debates on other issues, and it doesn't matter whether the left or the right holds the high ground. The earlier consensus on Afghanistan has begun to break up, for example. But it's still probably conventional wisdom, at least in Washington, to favor continuing the war, given the damage that retreat would do to U.S. interests across the Middle East and South Asia. The debunkers, by contrast, reassure us that withdrawal won't be so bad. If, as they now seem to have decided, defeat in Vietnam was no big deal, why should Afghanistan be any different?
Conventional wisdom is rarely good at explaining itself, least of all when its message is that the United States faces one big challenge after another and that they can't be successfully addressed without "unwelcome dislocation of life." The debunkers may well be right that America can avoid decline, but only by dint of gigantic effort. They might also be right that President Barack Obama or his successor can find ways to limit the damage of withdrawal from Afghanistan, but doing so will surely require more resources, focus, and commitment than the debunkers foresee. And that holds for other issues, whether it's coping with a nuclear Iran, the economic crisis, or climate change.
The most dangerous idea Americans face these days is that they can do less (or do nothing) and still get by. On this question, the conventional wisdom -- in all its hair-on-fire banality -- is absolutely right.
Stephen Sestanovich is a professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.