“The last wolf show we bought tickets for…”

h/t Kevin Williamson in The Press vs. the President:

The tragedy of all this is that, yeah, we really could use an effective, active, and credible press right now. We have an active one five days out of the week, an effective one five days out of the month, and a credible one . . . not that often. My criticisms of Trump do not go so far as those who believe that he is a budding fascist dictator on the verge of building concentration camps, but if you really did believe that, wouldn’t you wish, at least a little, that the media hadn’t been exactly as hysterical when faced with the bland, anodyne visage of Mitt Romney? Or John McCain? You want to be taken seriously now after insisting that Dick Cheney was the new American Gestapo?

The last wolf show we bought tickets for wasn’t really all that spectacularly lupine.

It would be really very useful to have an authoritative source. I do not agree with Barack Obama about much of anything, but there is something to his argument that our public discourse suffers from our lack of anything that might be generally agreed upon as an authoritative source. The problem is that Barack Obama believes that this authoritative source should be Rachel Maddow or someone like her, or the editorial columns of the New York Times, dopey and predictable as they are…

We deserve a better press, and a better president, too. If you are the sort of partisan who cannot entertain the possibility that both of these things may be true at the same time, then you ought to consider the possibility that you are one of the reasons why we do not have a better press or a better president.

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The most destructive social passion

Michael Novak passed away Friday, at the age of 83.  The WSJ reprinted a 1994 article of his on democracy, capitalism, and morality.  An excerpt:

My own field of inquiry is theology and philosophy. From the perspective of these fields, I would not want it to be thought that any system is the Kingdom of God on Earth. Capitalism isn’t. Democracy isn’t. The two combined are not. The best that can be said for them (and it is quite enough) is that, in combination, capitalism, democracy, and pluralism are more protective of the rights, opportunities, and conscience of ordinary citizens (all citizens) than any known alternative.

Better than the Third World economies, and better than the socialist economies, capitalism makes it possible for the vast majority of the poor to break out of the prison of poverty; to find opportunity; to discover full scope for their own personal economic initiative; and to rise into the middle class and higher…

[Novak argues that the first service democracy provides to capitalism is the peaceful transfer of power.  Then…]

Another service provided by capitalism to democracy is less well understood. The founders of the U.S. understood it very clearly, however, as one can see by a careful study of Federalist No. 10 and No. 53. Benjamin Franklin in London and Thomas Jefferson in Paris searched libraries to find out why previous republics had failed. Envy, it turns out, is the most destructive social passion—more so than hatred, which is at least visible and universally recognized as evil. Envy seldom operates under its own name; it chooses a lovelier name to hide behind, and it works like a deadly invisible gas. In previous republics, it has set class against class, sections of cities against other sections, leading family against leading family. For this reason, the early Americans stood against division (“divided we fall”) and sought ways to neutralize envy.

To accomplish this task, the Founders determined that a republic cannot be built upon the clerical (priestly) class; nor upon the aristocracy and military (whose interests in “honor” caused so many rivalries and contestations); but upon a far humbler and typically more despised class, those engaging in commerce. They opted for what they called “a commercial republic.” Why did they choose as their social foundation a class, and an activity, universally regarded by philosophers, religious leaders, and poets as lowly and ignoble?

They chose commerce for two reasons. First, when all the people in the republic, especially the able-bodied poor, see that their material conditions are actually improving from year to year, they are led to compare where they are today with where they would like to be tomorrow. They stop comparing themselves with their neighbors, because their personal goals are not the same as those of their neighbors. They seek their own goals, at their own pace, to their own satisfaction.

Indeed, in America, as de Tocqueville and others noted, there was a remarkable freedom from envy. On the whole, people rejoiced in the success of others, as signs of the coming prosperity of their village, city, and nation. Across America today, in public schools and colleges and universities, one still sees many portraits of public benefactors who were successful in commerce and industry. Democracy depends on a growing economy for its upward tide—for social mobility, opportunity, and the pursuit of personal accomplishment.

The other reason the Framers chose commerce and industry as the economic foundation for this nation is to defeat the second great threat to republican institutions, the tyranny of a majority. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, in particular, understood the ravages of original sin in human affairs. They, therefore, strongly supported Montesquieu’s (and Aquinas’) notion of separated powers, plus the “principle of division” throughout every branch of society.

It is in the nature of commerce and industry that they focus the interests of citizens in many different directions: Some in finance, some in production, some in supply, some in wholesale, some in retail, some in transport, some in lumber, others in tobacco, or cotton, or vegetables, or whatever. In their structure and goals, industry differs from industry, firm from firm. In such ways, commerce and industry render highly unlikely any single, universal majority.

In summary, commerce and industry are a necessary condition for the success of republican government (”government of the people, by the people, and for the people”) because they (1) defeat envy, through open economic opportunity and economic growth; and (2) defeat the tyranny of a majority, through splitting up economic interests into many different foci.

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I wonder which buildings at Yale will be de-named 100 years from now?

Ben Shapiro makes too much sense to have any effect on campus.

The newfound enthusiasm for erasing history is meant to serve two purposes: first, as a final acknowledgment of the evils of American history; second, as a revisionist desire to wipe away the change and complexities inherent in American history.

It’s the second element of erasure that sticks in the craw of so many Americans. Clearly, John C. Calhoun wouldn’t be honored with a statue today; nobody is clamoring for a John C. Calhoun School of Law. But leaving his name on a building at Yale helps teach us how far we’ve come. More important, it recognizes that we must be ever wary of evil — that we shouldn’t be so benightedly complacent about our own moral standing, so confident that we would never make the moral errors of our forebears.

Calhoun’s name on buildings reminds us that Calhoun was once honored for his perspective rather than derided for it. It is a reminder that evil once held sway in our world, and that we cherished it. It also reminds us that brilliance and patriotism and good and evil can all exist in the same human being: Calhoun’s slavery advocacy existed alongside his desire to build up a strong, robust American military; he created the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the same time that he stumped for the expansion of slavery into the Western states.

One of the goals of chopping away at history is to simplify it into a simple battle between the good, who remain, and the evil, who are wiped away. But that’s not the way history works, nor is it the way politics works.

That’s even clearer with regard to Woodrow Wilson, a dyed-in-the-wool racist who screened Birth of a Nation at the White House and worked ardently to re-segregate the federal work force, but who also presided over America’s victory in World War I. Wilson’s vision of a progressive government led by experts still defines our political debate today, for good and ill. We shouldn’t chisel his name off buildings in an effort to disassociate him from ideas that are now discredited.

History is important only if we recognize that it isn’t some sort of Punch-and-Judy drama to be acted out with puppets in black hats and white. Most human beings throughout human history have stood with an evil of some sort or another. …

Leaving names on buildings, and flags in churches, and statues on campuses isn’t about honoring those names, flags, and statues. It’s about recognizing the past, which is brutal and complex. Doing so reminds us that our present isn’t too clear-cut, either, and that anyone approaching current events with the smooth self-assurance of ultimate virtue simply hasn’t been judged by history yet.

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The thing they fear is the thing they are

Watching a soccer fixture yesterday with a buddy, I lamented, “Why does politics have to be injected into everything these days?  Why can’t I just buy a cup of coffee, or shop for groceries, because it’s good business and not because I’m making a statement?”

Kevin D. Williams shares my pain:

One of the less understood criticisms of progressivism is that it is totalitarian, not in the sense that kale-eating Brooklynites want to build prison camps for political nonconformists (except for the ones who want to lock up global-warming skeptics) but in the sense that it assumes that there is no life outside of politics, that there is no separate sphere of private life, and that church, family, art, and much else properly resides within that sphere.

Earlier this week, I expressed what seemed to me an unobjectionable opinion: that politics has a place, that politics should be kept in its place, and that happy and healthy people and societies have lives that are separate from politics. The response was dispiriting but also illuminating…

Esar’s Comic Dictionary (1943) contains two definitions of the word “fanatic,” often wrongly attributed (by me, among others) to Winston Churchill: First, “A person who redoubles his efforts after having forgotten his aims.” Second (my favorite), “One who can’t change his opinion and won’t change the subject.”

If you want to see fanaticism at work, try looking for a roommate in Washington or New York City.

From the New York Times we learn of the emergence of the “no-Trump clause” in housing ads in our liberal (which is to say, illiberal) metropolitan areas. The idea is nothing new — I saw similar “No Republicans Need Apply” ads years ago when looking for apartments in Washington and New York — but the intensity seems to have been turned up a measure or two: In 2017, the hysteria knob goes up to eleven. Katie Rogers of the Times offers an amusingly deadpan report:

In one recent ad, a couple in the area who identified themselves as “open-minded” and liberal advertised a $500 room in their home: “If you’re racist, sexist, homophobic or a Trump supporter please don’t respond. We won’t get along.”

That’s a funny kind of open-mindedness — it is in fact literal prejudice. It is also illiterate: Whatever Donald Trump’s defects, to associate him with homophobia is a stretch to the point of dishonesty, inasmuch as Trump in 2017 is well to the liberal side of Barack Obama in 2008 on gay marriage. Trump’s personal style is abrasive and confrontational, but he also is on the actual policy issues arguably the most moderate Republican president of the modern era…

But, as Robin Hanson put it, politics isn’t about policy.

What it is about is tribe, which is what makes all that conflation of racism and bigotry with political difference so amusing. Political prejudice is not the moral equivalent of racial prejudice, but they operate in very similar ways, as anybody who ever has spent much time around a genuine racist or anti-Semite knows. Taxes too high? Blame the blacks. Not making enough money? Blame the Mexicans. Foreign policy seem overwhelmingly complex? Blame the Jews. Whataburger gave you a full-on corn-syrup Coke instead of a Diet Coke? Blame the blacks, Mexicans, Jews, subcontinental immigrants . . . somebody. Racism and anti-Semitism are metaphysical creeds, and those who adhere to these creeds see the work of the agents of evil everywhere. For them, there is no world outside race and racism.

In this, they are very similar to the Hillary Clinton–voting Manhattan balletomanes who seethe that they must endure being seated in the David Koch theater. David Koch’s brand of libertarianism is mild and constructive, and it has about as much to do with ballet as Keith Olbermann has to do with astrophysics. But for the fanatic, even to hear the name spoken is unbearable.

Imagine being so mentally poisoned and so spiritually sick that you feel the need to organize a protest at New York–Presbyterian Hospital because the institution accepted $100 million — the largest gift in its history, being put to purely philanthropic health-care purposes — from someone whose political views are at odds with your own. Imagine what it must be like to feel that doing that is a moral imperative. Imagine sitting down to listen to a Beethoven string quartet and being filled with paralyzing anxiety that the cellist might not share your views on the Arab–Israeli conflict…

The people who believe that there can be no art, literature, culture, or life apart from politics are people who do not understand art, literature, culture, or politics, and whose lives are sad and sadly deficient.

A Buddhist writer once described two kinds of material unhappiness: the absence of what one desires and the presence of what one despises. But the Buddha was known to associate with worldly men and their unclean enthusiasms in much the same way that Jesus slummed around with prostitutes and tax collectors, instructing us by example to seek after lives that are as large as our love and not as small as our hatred. The people who close their doors against those who simply see the world in a different way, who scream profanities at Betsy DeVos or chant “You should die!” at Jewish musicians, are people who cannot rise far enough above their own pettiness to understand that the thing they fear is the thing they are.


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Deliberate conflation

Two great quips from this piece in yesterday’s WSJ by Christopher Demuth

  • For instance, global warming is not a “hoax,” (b)ut the public and scientific debates over climate change have involved several hoaxes, one of which is the deliberate conflation of causation, degree, consequence and policy response.
  • Markets compensate for policy changes, always reducing and sometimes repealing the effects that had been hoped for.

I can think of two other policies of “deliberate conflation:”  (1) the 2nd Amendment (eliding the distinction between semi- and full- automatic), and (2) immigration (eliding the distinction between legal and illegal immigration).

UPDATE (2/12/17):  (3) teachers and teachers unions.

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A contradictory thing, rooted in gratitude

From a 2015 G-file, an attempt to define “conservatism.”

There are any number of definitions of conservatism out there on the Interwebs, though my sense from googling around is that at least half of them are invidious; caricatures plucked from the imaginations of anti-conservatives looking for convenient enemies, sort of like Apollo Creed handpicking Rocky Balboa out of obscurity because he thought Rocky fit a convenient, and easily defeatable, stereotype.

I like some definitions better than others. “What is conservatism?” Abraham Lincoln famously asked, “Is it not the adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried?” That’s pithy, but it’s less a definition than a rhetorical flourish.

Russell Kirk who, despite his brilliance and erudition, was never my cup of tea, offered “Six Canons of Conservatism.” (I’ve edited them down, but you can follow this link to read them in their entirety.)

1. Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. . . . True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.

2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls “Logicalism” in society.

3. Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.” With reason, conservatives have been called “the party of order.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum.

4. Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.

5. Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.

6. Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.

I agree with all of these in the context of the Anglo-American tradition. But that’s hardly pithy. One of the problems with the term “conservative” is that unlike, say “socialist” or even “progressive,” it can mean wildly different things in different cultures. Samuel Huntington made this point in his brilliant 1957 essay “Conservatism as an Ideology.” A conservative in America wants to conserve radically different things than a conservative in Saudi Arabia, Russia, or France does. Even British conservatives — our closest ideological cousins — want to preserve the monarchy, an institution we fought a revolution to get rid of. In the Soviet Union, the “conservatives” were the ones who wanted to preserve and defend the Bolshevik Revolution.

America’s founding doctrine is properly understood as classical liberalism — or until the progressives stole the label, simply “liberalism.” Until socialism burst on the scene in Europe, liberalism was universally understood as the opposite of conservatism. That’s because European conservatism sought to defend and maintain monarchy, aristocracy, and even feudalism. The American Founding, warts and all, was the apotheosis of classical liberalism, and conservatism here has always been about preserving it. That’s why Friedrich Hayek, in his fantastic — and fantastically misunderstood — essay “Why I am Not a Conservative” could say that America was the one polity where one could be a conservative and a defender of the liberal tradition.

It’s also why I have no problem with people who say that American conservatism is simply classical liberalism. As a shorthand, that’s fine by me.

But philosophically, I’m not sure this does the trick. There are many, many, rooms in the mansion of classical liberalism and not all of them are, properly speaking, conservative. Anarcho-capitalists are a blast at parties and Randians always make for an interesting conversation if you sit next to one on a flight, but they are the first people to tell you that they’re not conservatives. John Locke, Edmund Burke, and Adam Smith were among the founding fathers of classical liberalism, but there are plenty of libertarians who don’t share their piety or reverence for tradition.

Defining conservatism is actually very, very, hard. When Frank Meyer asked my old boss to define it for the seminal collection What Is Conservatism? Buckley submitted an essay titled “Notes towards an Empirical Definition of Conservatism; Reluctantly and Apologetically Given by William F. Buckley.”

Bill was no shrinking violet philosophically, so it says something that it was like pulling teeth to get him to offer a definition of the cause that animated his life’s work. And yet, at the end of the day, all he could muster were some “notes” towards one.

I think this is because conservatism isn’t a single thing. Indeed, as I have argued before, I think it’s a contradictory thing, a bundle of principles married to a prudential and humble appreciation of the complexity of life and the sanctity of successful human institutions.

This reminds me of one of my all-time favorite meditations on conservatism from my friend Yuval Levin:

To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.

Gratitude captures so much of what conservatism is about because it highlights the philosophical difference between (American) conservatism and its foes on the left (and some of its friends among the libertarian camp). The yardstick against which human progress is measured shouldn’t be the sentiments and yearnings that define some unattainable utopian future, but the knowable and real facts of our common past.

So-called liberals love to talk about how much they just want to do “what works,” but it’s amazing how often “what works” doesn’t. Even more remarkable is how the mantra of “what works” is almost always a license to empower the “sophisters, calculators, and economists who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs.”

In contrast, the conservative belief in “what works” is grounded in reality, not hope.

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Approaching the matter of bureaucracy

Kevin D. Williamson wonders why our governmental bureaucracy seems, in his experience, less competent than elsewhere in the West.  “Maybe there is something of the old royalist or Napoleonic attitude that survives in Europe, which approaches the matter of bureaucracy with a certain dignity.”

If we are to have a political exchange that amounts to something more than an imaginary exchange between two polar positions held by almost no one in the 21st century United States (Bismarckian étatism vs. Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism, or Thomas Hobbes vs. Ayn Rand) then we have to pay some attention not only to the size and the scope of the state’s agencies but also to whether they are any good at what we ask them to do. Moralistic egalitarian arguments for a uniform system of public education will never be persuasive to people who know about Atlanta, or to people who are familiar with the stark differences in school quality that can be seen by walking a mile, or to people who know about the “rubber rooms” of New York. Our progressive friends who demand a Scandinavian scope of government have very little to say about achieving a Scandinavian standard of government, or even a Canadian one, as though competence could simply be assumed in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. They talk about the postwar years as though the only thing that has changed since the Eisenhower administration is the top marginal income-tax rate.

Americans do not much trust their government, for good reason. And this has immediate, important real-world consequences. For example: It can be difficult to distinguish between hysteria about Islam and well-founded concern about Muslim immigration into the United States, but who seriously thinks that our public institutions are up to the job of properly investigating tens of thousands (or more) refugees, asylum-seekers, and ordinary immigrants every year? If Donald Trump’s temporary order seems to you unreasonable, ask yourself what the next-best option is and how much confidence we should have in it. The U.S. government has been flubbing the problem of radicals crossing our borders since Lee Harvey Oswald was simmering in Minsk. How many terrorists and school shooters were already on the authorities’ radar, and had been for years, before they committed spectacular atrocities? A half-dozen examples come to mind.

That is not confidence-inspiring, and Americans do not lack faith in their public institutions because they listen to too much talk radio or read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. They lack confidence in their public institutions because they go to the driver’s-license office from time to time, because they see disability fraud and Medicaid fraud all around them, because they know crooked cops and incompetent teachers, because their memories may be short but are not so short that they have forgotten the Clintons exist.

Generally speaking, I walk into a government office a Bill Buckley conservative and walk out ready to join a militia in Idaho. My temperament, fortunately for the republic, is not everyone’s. But we should not underestimate how effective competence is as an antidote to political radicalism and angry populism of either the left-wing or right-wing variety. No one ever will be elected president for asking why it takes two hours for an American to get back into his own country through JFK but six minutes to pass through Barajas in Madrid, or why a law-abiding regular guy has to provide a birth certificate, Social Security card, and additional photo ID to go about his ordinary business as a citizen while we cannot enforce the law against illegal aliens.

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