Amity Shlaes over at Forbes has published an article in the October 22, 2012 issue called “The End of Behaviorism.” (If you’re unfamiliar, Amity Shlaes is the author of the very good “The Forgotten Man,” a realistic history of the Great Depression. She is also the author of a forthcoming biography of Calvin Coolidge, one of my absolute favorite presidents and a sadly all-too-often-ignored figure.)
In this article, Shlaes lays out the contrast between the economic policies of the two major political parties in simplistic terms:
Get the rat to the cheese.
That’s really what each U.S. political party is promising to do if its candidate is elected President. The rat in this analogy is the enervated American worker. The cheese is his reward. If all rats make their way through the maze and to the cheese faster, the economy will grow faster.
The only way that Democrats and Republicans differ is in the manner in which they animate the rat. Democrats take the Habitrail approach: Give the worker the equivalent of a roomy cage with a deluxe wheel, and he’ll be fit enough to pursue his cheese. Republicans focus on incentives: Double the cheddar, and the rat will navigate his turns more quickly. The rat analogy comes from modern economics, a discipline that classes itself as lab science, precious and pure.
Neither approach works particularly well. The article goes on to probe the deeper depths of the human psyche viz. “getting to the cheese.” What is it that really motivates people? I think Shlaes assertion that freedom in and of itself is the goal of many is right on the dot.
But people aren’t lab rats. They are souls, to use a pre-social-science word. Souls, pious or not, make their choices in complex fashion.
Indeed, freedom itself is what motivates many people who are not currently free. We in this country tend to get so caught up in how much money we have, how many things are available to us, whether our material situation is better now than it was four years ago – that we utterly forget to appreciate the necessary condition to material wealth and comfort.
That is freedom.
And thus, I find Shlaes’s article to be a – perhaps unwitting – explication of the libertarian position, and especially of that position’s superiority over the position of the major political parties in this country.
The cheese is not really what matters, although getting rats to cheese is a nice side benefit. What really, truly matters is whether people are free to live their own lives without coercion.
Leon Watson at the Daily Mail has a though-provoking article about the dysfunctionality of democracies. It is called “Is this the reason democracy can’t work? Study find humans are too dumb to pick the right person to lead us.”
I find this to be an interesting question, and one that goes far beyond the implications of which useless politician we will pick to be our president this November. In fact, I think it goes straight to the foundations of democracy. We need to ask ourselves questions like, what are the things we universally (not individually) desire from our democracy? And, is anyone at all fit to make decisions for the rest of us?
Ultimately, I think Mr. Watson has an unstated premise here: that if we were in fact able to choose the “right” person to lead us, our democracies would function better, and people would be happier with them.
That is a premise I reject. Although I may not go so far as to say that the inevitable mediocrity of our politicians is a feature, rather than a bug, of our democratic processes, I will absolutely say that I would prefer as a leader a mediocre man who is aware of his limits than the smartest man in the history of the world who is unaware of his.
Is that too much to ask? Perhaps. Being aware of the extent of one’s limits is beneficial, but ultimately it is too nebulous a concept to lead to solid conclusions as a matter of policy. And so, as a tradeoff, I would prefer a government set up to reduce the pernicious impact of the hubristic technocrat, at the expense of possibly limiting the beneficial impact of the hypothetical benevolent dictator.
In other words, I respect what the U.S. Constitution set out to do, and I find discussions of who is the “best” person to lead a democracy to be generally moot.
Of course, that does not mean that choosing a Ron Paul over a Barack Obama would not lead to empirically provable better results, and I don’t accept the premise that choosing the person to be the executive of the polity is unimportant. However, those are questions about the margin, and they ought to be distinguished from questions about the “best.”
Again, however, this is exactly the sort of discussion that is far more fundamentally important to our democracy than is the discussion over who is to lead us for the next four years. So feel free to drop me a note if you have something to add. I welcome your comments.
Are people too stupid to choose their leader, or is our stupidity just another (possibly beneficial) limiting factor on the government? What do you want from your democracy? Do you think there ever has been, or ever will be, a single person to whom control of the state could be surrendered?
Jonah Goldberg, writing at the American Enterprise Institute, hits the jackpot with his post on Occupy Wall Street. I have yet to address the Occupy movement, mainly because the “brains” behind the movement are generally brainless, and because – in the grand scheme – the movement itself will be gone and forgotten in nothing more than a moment. It certainly did not surprise me when the protests devolved into rape, vandalism, and petty crime (although I also did not cheer for the police response).
What did surprise me, however, was the fact that it was so long-lived. I would not have expected it to last more than a week or two, but despite widespread reports of Potemkin Villages, as well as the general uselessness of the crowd involved, they have managed to hold on for quite a long time. It would be admirable if it were not so light on reality.
In any case, Goldberg’s piece is very well worth a full read if you want to know anything about the puppets (and puppeteers) involved in this ridiculous movement. Here is a fun excerpt:
Today’s Democratic Party has an ingrained cultural aversion to the Booker T. Washington school. Liberal elites see themselves as a multiracial talented tenth, planning the economy and guiding society. In power, they lavish support on fashionable but unproductive sectors of the economy, such as green energy boondoggles, and they buy off big constituencies invested in ever larger government such as public sector unions, the “helping professions” and even too-big-too-fail businesses.
Their arguments sound economic and empirical, but ultimately they’re cultural in nature. The upscale white professionals the Democrats are courting disproportionately share a cultural affinity for government and faith that statist interventions are for your own good. They also believe government needs to help people succeed — or escape — the rat race of the private sector. (Remember Michelle Obama’s advice to working-class women? “Don’t go into corporate America.… Become teachers. Work for the community.”) In his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic convention, Obama mocked the Booker T. Washington concept of self-reliance: “In Washington, they call this the ownership society, but what it really means is, you’re on your own.”
Of course, I’d rather this not be a partisan blog, and I am by no means a Republican. But it is unbelievably sad to see the Occupy movement, taken so seriously by so much of the media, maintain its stance at the vanguard of a Progressive movement that completely and utterly failed at least by the 1930s, if not earlier.
- Over at Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux takes exception to lack of acclaim afforded to the recently deceased George Ballas. Who? Read the post. A sampling:
RIP, Mr. Ballas – bourgeois hero. While no monuments will adorn the National Mall to celebrate your life, you did much more good than history will remember – and vastly more good than was done by any of the many butchers, frauds, and silver-tongued devils who do have their images recorded in marble or bronze in capital cities around the world.
- Grover Cleveland at Pileus places David Greenberg’s fatuous article on the supposed “new Republican isolationism” in his “Not Worth a Read” category:
Hasn’t this kind of simplistic “history” and inaccurate categorization of today’s critics of liberal internationalism/neoconservatism been written about a million times already? And aren’t these types of pieces really just rhetorical bullying to prevent a serious discussion of American foreign policy?
Yes. But read it anyway if you’re interested to know what passes for journalism these days. Also, at some point, I would like to write a comprehensive conservative case against war.
The hawkish side of foreign policy has not been dominated by any one political party over the course of history, but the ball is mainly in the conservative court these days (Obama’s six wars notwithstanding). However, if the conservatives truly believe in the domestic principles they claim to espouse, they must necessarily be against war, given that war is anathema to domestic freedom and economic prosperity. Always has been; always will be.
- According to various health experts in Portugal, 10 years after the decriminalization of all drugs, coupled with a new strategy to emphasize treatment over punishment for possession and use of drugs, Portugal has seen a large measure of success with decriminalization. Among the more startling statistics: the number of “problematic” addicts has fallen by half over the past 20 or so years; there has been a “spectacular” reduction in infection rates among intravenous drug users; drug use has fallen below the European average; and drug use is even further below Portugal’s only contiguous neighbor, Spain.
- I was tipped off to a five-year old piece about the terrors of mass transit in Los Angeles. It’s old, but still valid. Granted, mass transit in L.A. is far worse than the more functional cities’ systems, but looking at the stats, it is not terribly below average. In any case, one has to ask oneself if this is the system we should be propagating when many other systems are available through common entrepreneurship, unshackled by artificial restrictions.
The news was mostly positive for Republicans this midterm election cycle (aside from the terminally hopeless California Republican party), with the red team retaking the House, recouping several seats in the Senate, and capturing several more governerships. But, tread lightly, Republicans – yours is not a mandate.
Make no mistake about it: voters did not vote for Republicans because they like them. Popularity numbers for both parties are abysmal, and interestingly enough, most polls show that Republicans are still more unpopular than their statist allies across the aisle. Voters hate you, Republicans, and they hate the other guys too.
So what are we to make of the historic rout of Tuesday Nov. 2? Voters soundly rejected the one-party rule of the past two years that brought us state-controlled health care, massive bailouts, ridiculous money creation, and ever more government interference.
This has its precedent, of course. In 2008, voters eager to get rid of the last vestiges of George W. Bush, that prime example of neocon meddling, instead ended up with a more overt, and some would argue more pernicious, form of meddling in the neo-Bismarckian Barack Obama. The whipsaw from 2008 to 2010 simply means that voters who didn’t want neocon intervention want neo-progressive intervention just as much. Which is to say, not at all.
So a word to the wise, Republicans. You may be celebrating now, but you’ll be wandering in the wilderness again before you know it unless you give the voters what they want. Here’s a hint: it ain’t Mitt Romney.
They want to be left alone.