Impromptus

Up with Kevin, Part II

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger has been writing notes on Kevin D. Williamson’s new book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure. (To get it, go here.) Part I of these notes appeared yesterday, here. We continue with the second part today.

There’s a story I’ve always liked, and employed. What I mean is, I’ve used it to make a point. Eisenhower, when he was president of Columbia University, presided over the creation of new sidewalks. People said, “Where should we put the sidewalks? What’s the best design?” He said, “Do nothing for a year. See where the students walk, naturally. And where they have beaten a path, put a sidewalk.”

This is a wonderful lesson about central planning (the unwisdom of). But Kevin, in his book, tells us it isn’t true. The lesson is true — but the story about Eisenhower is simply a “lovely apocryphal” one.

Too bad. Burst my bubble.

In this book, Kevin sings a lot of songs I have sung for a long time — and he sings them very well. Here’s one song:

We disagree about how to achieve the good life because we disagree about what constitutes the good life. Political crusaders are constantly telling themselves and their partisans that if only they could make their opponents hear reason, then their opponents would cease to be opponents and become allies. If only political candidates would say the right things in the right way, this fairy tale goes, then we could all agree on what needs to be done.

So very true. If only McCain had communicated better . . . If only Romney had communicated better . . . Reagan was “the Great Communicator,” you see? Yes, but he had the “correlation of forces” with him, by 1980.

It is disillusioning to realize that people may well like big-government schemes, a whole lot, or to realize that they cherish abortion on demand.

Anyway, there are many more verses of this song, and we will continue to sing them, probably unto forever. Is it better to communicate well than to communicate badly? Of course. But the question of communication is not necessarily decisive, as we have often seen.

Kevin speaks about “Hobbes’s error” — not Hobson’s choice, but Hobbes’s error. Thomas Hobbes assumed, writes Kevin, that “Leviathan was the only alternative to the war of all against all, rather than one possible solution among many.”

This is exactly the rhetoric of Barack Obama and other Democrats. They pretend that Republicans want no government, except maybe the military, and that they would cut people adrift. “You’re on your own!” is what Obama has said a million times, when caricaturing a Republican philosophy. He pretends that there is no position between his style of government and outright anarchy. He pretends that we want people to live as individual cavemen, with nothing but a club and maybe a loin cloth — and definitely no tribesmen.

George W. Bush answered him on this in a ceremony last spring. The ceremony was the dedication of Bush’s presidential center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. All five presidents spoke: the incumbent and the four living former presidents. Bush (43) went last, and in the course of his remarks, he said,

“Independence from the state does not mean isolation from each other. A free society thrives when neighbors help neighbors, and the strong protect the weak, and public policies promote private compassion.”

Amen. Thank you, W.

KDW writes, “The politician is the man who has the power to make his preferences mandatory.” That’s true. But voters may well have made their preferences mandatory by electing the politician (in a democracy). If people have complaints about America, they should look to their fellow citizens, I think, more than to “the political class” — which itself is composed of fellow citizens.

More from Kevin:

. . . consumers and producers, buyers and sellers, are only part of who we are as human beings, and a small part at that. Commercial processes are an integral part of modern life, an engine of innovation, prosperity, and social cooperation. But they are not all there is to life.

Yes. In early days, I acquired a distaste for the notion of “homo economicus” — the idea that man is an economic being, pure and simple. Leftists make this error, of course, but so do some on the right. It is a human temptation.

I love a quotation from Ludwig von Mises, and Kevin’s comment on it. Here is Mises:

The real bosses . . . are the consumers. They, by their buying and by their abstention from buying, decide who should own the capital and run the plants. They determine what should be produced and in what quantity and quality.

In other words, says Kevin, “consumers in aggregate perform precisely the role that Marx envisioned for his socialist central-planning agencies — but they do so without politics and without armed coercion.”

By the way, do you know where they care not a fig about the “Austrian school” — personified by Mises and Hayek — and where they have barely even heard of it? Austria.

There is one comment that almost made me drop the book, in disgust — I mean, literally drop it. Here goes:

We can only imagine what the world might look like if we had not spent $1 trillion on a War on Poverty that has resulted in more poverty, or roughly the same sum to drop bombs on Iraqis under the theory that eventually the ones who were left would become Swiss.

That comment about Iraq is beneath Kevin, I think. I understand hyperbole and rhetorical effect — I couldn’t get through a day without them. I also understand objections to the Iraq War, and share some of them. But that comment, I think . . .

Anyway, I could write pages on it, but let me just say that I regard it as a mustache on this Mona Lisa of a book. Or maybe a stray hair. The book is still a Louvre-worthy treasure. (And Kevin is welcome to point out my own mustaches and hairs, which I’m sure would make a barber drool.)

Ah, on the War on Poverty? I’ve told this story before, and I’ll tell it again. In fact, I’ll quote a previous telling. The story is kind of interesting, I hope you’ll find:

About ten years ago, I met a man in a West Virginia town — a judge who had worked with [Sargent] Shriver in the “war on poverty,” right there in West Virginia. This man, when I met him, was a liberal, just as he had been in the ’60s. He was no “neocon” — one of those who had been “mugged by reality.” He was a firm liberal, which is important to the story I’m about to tell.

I asked him, “Did it do any good, the war on poverty?” He said, quickly and quietly, “No.” That was all that was said — by him or by me. I remember thinking it was one of the most honest answers I had ever heard. And, obviously, it gave the man no pleasure to give it.

Kevin says, “A wise man once remarked that the difference between liberals and conservatives is their reaction to the word public — when liberals hear the word public, they think ‘public television,’ and when conservatives hear the word public, they think ‘public toilet.’”

Marvelous. Who was that wise man? Kevin himself? Whoever he is, or was, I doff my cap to him.

“The fiscal realities in the United States mean that very soon we will be forced to deal with a deep retrenchment in our expectations about what government can do for us.” Kevin says it, and I bet it’s true. When will “very soon” be? Next few years? Next ten, twenty, or thirty? It will be pretty convulsive, won’t it? But it may ultimately be, as Kevin says in his title, awesome.

Anyway, with seatbelt buckled, I will conclude these notes — this Williamson-Fest, this bath of Williamsonianism — tomorrow.

Did you like this?