Fans of Williamson’s “Exchequer” blog on NRO will not be surprised to learn that the “end” growing near has to do with the huge debt crisis threatening the U.S. and the world. He runs the reader through all of that with an (apparent) ease that should arouse envy in any writer and shame in nearly every economist. It is Williamson’s hope that the fiscal destruction he sees ahead will give birth to the kind of creativity that has improved so many parts of life outside the deadening hand of politics.
The End Is Near made me think fresh about all manner of things, and I’m grateful for it. But I also came away with some disagreements. First, in a very obvious sense, politics can get less wrong. The American Founding is argument-settling proof of that. By recognizing our inalienable rights, the folly of hereditary titles, the evil of arbitrary power, the value of property, the need for checks and balances, etc., the Founders created a system to keep politics — or what Nock would call the State — at bay as much as possible. Indeed, one of the problems with Williamson’s use of the term “politics” is that it is too capacious. Many times when he is talking about the ethical deficiencies of politics, what he is really talking about are the deficiencies of what Hayek and others would call (state) “planning.” In that context, Williamson is quite convincing. But he loses me when he says that politics in and of itself cannot be “ethical.”
Even taking into account the obligatory caveats about slavery under the Constitution, the Founders’ system was indisputably less wrong than all that came before it. I doubt that Williamson would disagree with that. The problem, as the Founders would instantly recognize, is that a people not reinforced with the dogmatic conviction that the State or Williamson’s “politics” must be kept at bay will, in due time, become seduced by politics. That is a huge problem today (see “Julia, Life of”). Still, however much the Constitution may have failed to completely fend off the marauders of politics, we’ve yet to have our Alamo.
For related reasons, I think he’s slightly wrong, or not entirely right, when he says: “The voluntary exchange is not an ethical principle — it is only a process, another piece of social software.” While this may be a question of semantics, I would argue vociferously that voluntary exchange — i.e., commercial transactions between buyers and sellers — involves an ethical principle because it satisfies human wants and needs in a non-coercive manner, something the State is by definition incapable of doing (there will always be at least one taxpayer who objects to what the government is doing, rendering literally every government action somewhat coercive). Moreover, respect for voluntary exchange yields an obvious and indisputable moral good: the alleviation of poverty and an increase in human happiness. Voluntary exchange is the hamster turning the wheel of nearly all material, technological, and economic advancement. A politics that recognizes the sanctity, or at least legitimacy, of commerce is ethically superior in principle for doing so. The politics of North Korea are less right than the politics of the United States, for lots of reasons; one of them surely stems from the fact that we recognize some limits on where politics can or should intrude. The insight that politics should stay out of some things, learned after centuries of religious wars and other horrors, was hard earned, and we shouldn’t diminish its importance or dismiss it with a disdain for the bathwater of “politics.”
Where I think Williamson is entirely right is that politics — or the State — is being utterly humiliated by the accomplishments of the private sector. For millennia, politics and technology evolved at about the same rate, which is to say very slowly. Since the Enlightenment, to pick a serviceable benchmark, the rate of change and progress (not the same thing, after all) outside the realm of politics has increased geometrically while the rate of change within politics has rarely achieved even arithmetic advance. Indeed, politics is often prone to regression. That’s because politics is governed by the Deweyan fallacy that planners are smart enough to run other people’s lives and businesses. Meanwhile, the realm of Nockian social power is fueled by the Hayekian insight that freedom fuels problem-solving. Individual liberty yields the iPhone. Politics protects the post office.
My disagreements, while philosophically serious, are ultimately minor when rendered as judgments on this book. Indeed, one of the things that make it so wonderful — and so reminiscent of Nock — is that it invites the reader to question first principles and come to his own conclusions. If you want to keep the government the way it is, Williamson is essentially saying, fine. But you should have no illusions about what you’re keeping.
— Jonah Goldberg is the author of Tyranny of Cliches and a contributing editor at National Review.