Posted: October 26, 2013 Filed under: Mediasphere, Politics, Think Tank | Tags: Andrew C. McCarthy, Charles Krauthammer, Constitution, Jon Stewart, New Deal, Welfare, Welfare state
The establishment GOP’s embrace of progressivism’s central premise.
Dr. Krauthammer sings the praises of liberalism’s primary domestic policy ideals, waxing lyrical about the virtues of the modern Welfare State, to the delight of noted Socialist, Conservative-mocking clown John Stewart
Andrew C. McCarthy
writes: Charles Krauthammer
has come to my rescue. You see, I’ve been on the receiving end of some spirited reaction since asserting in last weekend’s column
that what we commonly call the Republican establishment — i.e., not all individual Republicans but GOP leadership — “is more sympathetic to Obama’s case for the welfare state
than to the Tea Party’s case for limited government and individual liberty
.” The statement may have been provocative in the sense of expressing a truth that people on the political Right prefer not to talk about. But it was not controversial because it is indisputably true.
This week, Dr. Krauthammer, Washington’s most influential expositor of mainstream GOP thought, obligingly spared me the need to prove my point. He gave as clear an account of the modern Republican conception of “conservatism” as you will find. Fittingly, he did it on the program of progressive commentator and comedian Jon Stewart. Today’s smartest Republicans, self-aware enough to know their core views deviate significantly from those of conservatives in the tradition of Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan, are more likely to say what they think to Jon Stewart. His audience is apt to be receptive, maybe even won over, by a mature progressivism portrayed as what conservatives really think. It is not likely to go over as well with, say, readers of National Review.
Stewart claimed that conservatives are anti-government. Initially, Krauthammer appeared to reject this caricature, replying, “The conservative idea is not that government has no role.” But, alas, when he got around to what the proper role of government is, Krauthammer sounded more like Stewart than Buckley.
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Posted: July 1, 2013 Filed under: Mediasphere | Tags: iPhone, Kevin D. Williamson, Mark Foley, National Review, Obama, United States, Welfare state, Williamson
Kevin D. Williamson: How going broke could leave America richer
Kevin D. Williamson writes about the intersection of economics, politics and culture for National Review and National Review Online, including his well-regarded Exchequer blog. His new book —The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure — argues that American governance is falling apart under its own weight, which is ultimately good. Williamson, a Lubbock native and University of Texas graduate, takes on Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, and challenges them to see the future through a decidedly more libertarian lens. This is a longer version of the Q&A that appears in Sunday’s Points section.
That’s some book title. In retrospect, do you think it drew more readers to your ideas?
It is a mouthful. I’d been looking for something to express my combination of short-term pessimism and long-term optimism. We are in for some interesting times, with the possibility for real social disruption. Some kinds of social disruption are good and should be welcomed, but most of them are painful — at least, they’re painful to somebody. But I do not want to give the impression that I am predicting a Mad Max future with all of us fighting over the last bottle of clean water and the last can of tuna. I don’t think that future is impossible, but I assign it a fairly low likelihood, maybe one in 10.
Without giving away the ending, then, what would you like readers to most take away from the book?
The most important idea in the book is that the fundamental problem with politics is not ethical but epistemic. There are good and bad people in politics, but the basic problem is information management. Things like iPhones, Wikipedia and food production get better and cheaper every year because you have millions or billions of trial-and-error experiments, countless people working on tiny, specialized aspects of well-defined problems. Politics, on the other hand, tries to take things as complex as the U.S. health-care economy or the political institutions of the Arab world and “solve” them with a one-time, one-in-a-generation event like landmark legislation or a war. Politics is a pretty blunt instrument, and it is good only for certain things. The most important aspects of modern life are too complex to manage through politics.
Your book obviously was put to bed before the recent Obama administration scandals hit the news, specifically the IRS’ tea party scrutiny and, then, the NSA’s secret data-collection. When they became public, what were your thoughts as they relate to your book’s themes?
All governments are structurally similar to crime syndicates: They use violence and the threat of violence to coerce you into paying for services that you did not ask for. When some people do that, it’s called “a protection racket,” and when others do it, it’s called “government.” The role of special-interest groups in our system tends to be exaggerated, because people do not adequately appreciate that every government agency is its own special-interest group. The IRS is its own constituency, and it is in no way surprising that it would use its investigatory powers to bully its political opponents. Government powers are like Chekhov’s gun: If you see it in the first act, it’s getting used in the third.
You write that most Americans “romanticize government” and more than others “look to our form of government to define us as a people.” Does this blind Americans to the need, as you also note, to force their government to become “less wrong”?
Our reverence for our founding documents is a good and necessary part of our political culture, but there are aspects of it that are strange, if you think very closely about them. I’m politically radical, but conservatives — conservatives! — are all the time saying that we could solve our problems if we’d just go back to the Constitution was it was originally understood … in 1787, which would be a far more radical change in our public institutions than anything I have contemplated. And I’m a borderline anarchist, for Pete’s sake, albeit a pretty conservative borderline anarchist. The U.S. is in a weird position in that we have a very old government — one of the oldest surviving governments in the world — but we are a very young nation. India may not have been a state before 1947, but it is a very old civilization. France has had many different kinds of government, but the French are always the French, and they know who they are. In the U.S., we talk about freedom and democracy the way the English used to charge into battle crying, “God for Harry, England and St. George!” But our political institutions are in some ways totems — we invoke them, attribute power and meaning to them, and tremble to consider the possibility that they may just be idols and edifices.
A reader might infer that you interchange “government” and “politics,” being more discouraged with the latter. Is this an institutional (government) vs. people (politics) question that, in fact, can be improved by hiring better people?
There is no difference between politics and government. The greatest political deception is to convince people you are beyond politics. That’s why politicians always try to hijack prestige from scientists and economists — “I’m not pursuing a political agenda, I’m just doing what the experts say we should do!” That is why politicians always describe themselves as “pragmatists,” people who want to “do what works.” The only meaningful question, as Lenin put it, is: “Who? Whom?” Of course you get better results with better people and when people are diligent about their sense of duty. That’s why you have better government in Canada and Switzerland. But that only goes so far. If you spend much time around Congress, the unexpected thing is that it’s mostly full of smart and honest people. You have the occasional crook like Charles Rangel and the occasional cretin like Mark Foley, but they’re atypical. It’s the institution that is defective. If everybody in government had an IQ of 185 and the disposition of a saint, we’d still have the same problems.
It’s hard for most people, Americans, to imagine a country without government and/or politics. That isn’t what you’re advocating, is it?
Is it really so unthinkable? Politics killed 160 million people in the wars and genocides of the 20th century alone — improving on that record does not seem to me like an impossibly lofty goal. There is a negative aspect to what I’m advocating and a positive aspect. The negative aspect will be to some extent familiar to many people: radically limiting the government’s monopoly powers, reducing the number of opportunities it has to interfere with our lives, etc. But I think the more interesting aspect is the positive one: We can do a much, much better job taking care of the poor, the sick and the aged using the social and economic tools we already have at our disposal. Looking after the vulnerable is, in theory, the moral reason for having a coercive welfare state, but in fact politics does very little for them. The deep problem with the welfare state isn’t that it is expensive, wasteful and corrupt — though it is all those things — but that it hurts those it purports to help.
The people pushed out of politics, then, would end up in the private sector, which would grow larger and absorb many currently governmental functions. How would those same people not get the tasks and duties wrong as they got them wrong in the political sector?
The desire to get it “right” and the belief that there exists such a thing as the “right” policy is part of the problem. We have 900 kinds of shampoo on the shelves but basically one model of K-12 education. Is one of those 900 shampoos the right one? Right for whom? Some of them are probably terrible. There will be new ones tomorrow, and some of the old ones will go away. That combination of things — choice, a great diversity of options, an iterative process of experimentation and improvement — allows for most people to have their preferences satisfied, so far as shampoo goes. There is no real economic reason that the same principles cannot produce equally good results for things like education, health care and retirements. To believe so is not utopian — it’s based on endless examples and evidence that present themselves to us every day. Our iPhones work and our schools don’t, and there is a reason for that.
And that reason, in short, is because “Spontaneous orders can evolve and adapt, while preconstructed systems cannot”?
Yes. By “evolve” and “adapt” I mean that spontaneous orders can incorporate new information and experience, that they can learn. It’s like playing chess: You can’t plan the game out in advance, because you do not know what your opponent is going to do, but the more games you play, the better you get at it. The key is having lots of interactions with lots of different kinds of players. In politics, you don’t have that kind of learning process. We have federal elections every two years with basically two possible outcomes (R or D). By way of comparison, Wikipedia gets about 1 million edits per week with an open-ended number of possible outcomes. The feedback loop in politics is too crude to support complex learning. Trying to use politics to manage complex social concerns is like trying to get better at chess by playing checkers or tic-tac-toe.
How did growing up in Texas, if at all, shape your views that led to The End is Near?
There’s a long-observed relationship between the preference for activist government and population density, so I suppose that growing up in Lubbock made me a marked man so far as libertarian sympathies go. There’s still a bit of frontier culture in West Texas, but I think that what really shaped me was growing up in a college town. There are wonderful things about living in a college town, but there is also a mandarins-vs.-peasants mentality that I still find off-putting. On the other hand, it’s hard to be too snooty if you live in Lubbock. I find that there is a great deal less social distance between the rich and poor in West Texas than there is in New York, where I now live, which is practically a segregated city, but economically rather than racially.
Living in New York, one might think, would be a daily stress test for the ideas you wrote about, too. How’s that composting going?
New York is both a testament to what we can do as human beings and, unfortunately, top-notch evidence of the failure of politics. The Empire State Building was built in 410 days; if all goes according to plan, it will have taken the city 87 years to open the Second Avenue subway line. The Empire State Building cost about $368 million in today’s money to complete; New York has transit projects currently underway that cost more than $1 million per foot. My book opens with a young Bengali immigrant who works at a coffee shop down the street from my office in Manhattan. She has the same cell phone as the president of the United States, but her health care and retirement, and her children’s education, probably will be far inferior to that received by President Obama and his family. Once you understand why that is, then you will start to see the world as I do, and my ideas will not seem so radical at all.
This Q&A was conducted and condensed by Dallas Morning News editorial writer Mike Hashimoto. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Kevin D. Williamson can be reached at email@example.com.