Politics & Policy

It’s the End?

Kevin D. Williamson is down on politics — and optimistic for the future.

My colleague Kevin D. Williamson is a fountain of unique optimism in his book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure. It’s a book worth reading — original, entertaining, smart, and engaging. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I don’t necessarily agree with every word of it, but I’m grateful he wrote it. We talk about it more below.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is the iPhone really a “commonplace miracle”?

#ad#KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON: Commonplace, certainly: One iPhone has been sold for every 22 people walking the Earth. But a miracle? Imagine trying to explain to Andrew Jackson that, a few generations down the way, thousands and thousands of people in different countries, speaking different languages, practicing different religions, with different and often antithetical economic interests, would be cooperating to build a system of devices to radically improve the world’s access to knowledge and our ability to communicate with one another, and that such a system would emerge with nobody in charge of it. If there can be a miracle of human making, the worldwide division of labor is it.

LOPEZ: So how conservative is your use of the word “end”? How final is this “end” you think is going to be “awesome”?

WILLIAMSON: “End” has two meanings: the conclusion of something, but also something we seek, as in “means and ends.” Social arrangements end all the time as we figure out better ways to do things. The tariff was until the day before yesterday the centerpiece of conservative economic policy, but it turned out to be a bad idea. If we can achieve a peaceable and orderly end to obstructive and counterproductive political projects, then that is a good thing, whether it is a conservative thing or not. But if conservatives are right about our principles — if our social and economic ideas really are preferable to their competitors — then we should expect them to thrive when put to the market test. And I am pretty confident about that across the board, not only as an economic issue. If you’ve ever noticed, well-off progressives may talk like Bill Ayers, but they live like Ward and June Cleaver. High-end consumers usually lead the market, and a great many of them seem to be in the market for traditional family arrangements. Young couples in Park Slope have to have that second kid to keep up with the quinoa addicts next door. That may sound flip, but conservatives of all people should appreciate that social convention, even unreasoned social convention (maybe even especially unreasoned social convention), is a very powerful force, often for the good.

LOPEZ: Once one opens the cover of your book, though, you do add an “if we get it right” to the title . So how can we get it right?

WILLIAMSON: The main thing to do is to end monopolies and make room for experimentation. For example, I am much more comfortable with having government funding education than I am with having government operate 90 percent of the educational institutions, for much the same reason I’d rather have a food-stamp program than a government-run system of collective farms and state stores for food. When you have a government-run monopoly, like we do with K-12 education, you get a single system and a standardized product. But in a complex and diverse society such as our own, we need hundreds or thousands of models of education, not one or two, and those need to emerge from the bottom up rather than be imposed from the top down. We have 900 kinds of shampoo on the shelves, but most parents have a choice of only two or three schools, if they have any choice at all. That seems backward to me.

LOPEZ: If we get it wrong, is it the end of America, as Mark Steyn might put it?

WILLIAMSON: There is no natural law that says the United States of America must exist. Peace and prosperity are not the natural human condition. We built that. And we can ruin it, too — it’s not like the Germans suddenly became savages in the 1930s or the Russians forgot they were civilized people when Lenin came to power. Countries with some of the greatest and most sophisticated cultures — China, India, Germany, Russia, Greece, Spain, Italy — have all within recent experience fallen into dysfunction, poverty, and dictatorship. There is no reason that could not happen to the United States. But I do not think that it will happen.

LOPEZ: “Our problem is not only how we govern, but how we live.” What does this sentence mean practically speaking — as both a policy matter and a personal one?

WILLIAMSON: T. S. Eliot warned that the error of politics was trying to design a system so perfect that nobody had to be good. There would be less support for a welfare state if we were more proactive in caring for the people who cannot care for themselves. There would be less reason for things like Social Security and Medicare if we were decent to our parents and grandparents. We conservatives and libertarians have a habit of saying, “the free market will take care of it, and, if not, then private charity will take care of it,” as though that were the real answer to a meaningful question. We have to be as much a social movement as a political movement. We can’t just say charity will take care of it — we have to be the ones who go out there and take care of it. And we do, disproportionately — consider the life of Mitt Romney against the life of Barack Obama. But there is much more for us to do. And if it weren’t for the churches, conservatives would hardly be doing more than the liberals.

#page#LOPEZ: Politics is “the art of applied violence,” you write, and you also call it “savage.” Does politics have any redeeming qualities?

WILLIAMSON: Politics is savage, absolutely. I’ve been to a few places where I’ve seen that firsthand: jail, the siege at Waco, Kashmir, Chiapas. The IRS office in Manhattan is not that different — there are just more steps between the demand for compliance and the resort to open violence. The word “violence” should not be taken as derogatory — it was not reasoned argument that stopped the Nazis or Ted Bundy. But not every social problem is a problem to be met with violence. Force is a perfectly good response to the Khmer Rouge, but it’s less useful against illiteracy or homelessness. But all politics ends at gunpoint, as you will learn if you should decide to deduct from your taxes the portion that goes to subsidize Solyndra and the like. 

But, certainly, politics can have some redeeming qualities. If a political system can manage to protect persons and property without doing too much damage in the process, it might be considered very successful. One of the interesting things to me is that libertarians of my particular stripe sometimes seem quite radical to traditional conservatives, whose idea of good government is a return to the Constitution as it was understood in 1789 or so. I’d like that, too, but that is far, far more radical than anything I’ve proposed in this book, practically anarchism compared to what we’re used to.

LOPEZ: You return to 9/11 more than once. Was that a clarifying philosophical moment for you?

#ad#WILLIAMSON: Not at all. Like many people, I was confused and vexed by 9/11, and it was a long time, years really, before my thinking on the issue took on any real measure of clarity. The kind of evil that produced 9/11 is present in every age, and probably in every civilization. The maddening thing about 9/11 in retrospect is how easily it could have been prevented with even minimally competent and prudent intelligence and security measures. It was a failure of intelligence in both senses of that word — spy-power and brain-power.

LOPEZ: How much does Obamacare have to do with the end being near?

WILLIAMSON: Obamacare is the nonpareil example of political hubris. Our health-care system is complex beyond calculation, and the self-appointed reformers act as though a single piece of legislation and a single committee of wise men called IPAB are going to “solve” the problems related to it. It is a logical certainty that they never will understand the health-care system, because systems characterized by that order of complexity are beyond the comprehension of any single mind or committee. I rather doubt Obamacare will survive long enough to do as much damage as it could. My own belief is that the additional measure of chaos that it is introducing into the health-care marketplace will be its undoing in fairly short order.

LOPEZ: You do acknowledge that there are good, smart people in politics. Would it be better if they were innovators and not politicians?

WILLIAMSON: I do not much care what they do, so long as they stay out of the way. Not everybody is going to discover penicillin or start Apple or homeschool a half-dozen high-achieving kids. Being a cabinetmaker or diesel mechanic is an honorable living, too, and there are many people in government who, if they really applied themselves, might learn how to do something useful before the end of their days.

LOPEZ: You write: “As they say in the political speeches, we’re going to consider all of our options and take all of the information into account.” Then you add: “Except we pretty obviously aren’t.” Does that make nearly every politician a liar? Is every use of the word “comprehensive” in politics a lie?

WILLIAMSON: Every politician is a liar to the extent that all politics is based on a lie: that these ordinary people can be invested with extraordinary powers to solve problems that we cannot solve ourselves. But, yes, the word “comprehensive” is always a red flag denoting high concentrations of bovine byproduct.

LOPEZ: You also describe politics as “a kind of island in the evolutionary stream — isolated, unchanging, incapable of learning because it is insulated against going extinct.” Is the Tea Party a different kind of politics, or does it fit the same mold?

WILLIAMSON: The Tea Party is the flipside of Occupy Wall Street, a group of people who intuit that there is something wrong and unhealthy in the relationship between Big Government and Big Business, that there is an Us and there is a Them, and Them’s robbing Us blind. The important difference is that the Tea Party understands that the solution is limiting the government’s opportunities for mischief rather than expanding them, as Occupy would see done. I was skeptical of the Tea Party at first, and still am to the extent that I am skeptical of populism across the board. But the basic message of the Tea Party — leave us the hell alone — is a healthy one, and I’m glad they’re out there, keeping pressure on the Republican leadership.

LOPEZ: What is humility as a “social technology” — this is at the heart of your argument, isn’t it?

WILLIAMSON: By “social technology” I mean methods for solving social problems, and humility is critical in that it not only tolerates correction but invites it. There is a reason that science is our most successful social institution, and a reason why scientists enjoy so much prestige that politicians are always trying to steal it from them, and that’s because the scientific method is the method of humility: Here’s my idea, here’s my work, here’s my data, now show me where I’m wrong, show me the possibilities I haven’t thought of yet, show me the biases I may not be aware of, show me a competing interpretation of the data. Politics has taken precisely the wrong message from the success of science, the idea that society can be scientifically managed by intelligent bureaucracies. The real lesson to take away from the success of science is that most of our new ideas are going to be wrong, and we need a method for sorting that out.

LOPEZ: About the parties, you write: “Imagine if we had to sign a contract to buy everything — food, shelter, medicine, Angry Birds — from one company, and we only had two companies from which to choose.” What’s so special about Angry Birds? It gets a few mentions in the book.

WILLIAMSON: I do like Angry Birds, although lately I’ve been playing more Snoopy Coaster. Computer games may be the definition of trivial, but wouldn’t it be magnificent if your interface with your health-insurance provider or the driver’s-license office were half as user-friendly and sophisticated as Angry Birds?

#page#LOPEZ: How was Jesus an economist? Is the New Testament going to help with the “awesome”?

WILLIAMSON: That’s slightly tongue-in-cheek, although there is a great deal of evidence in the New Testament that Jesus and his followers understood the role of incentives. And of course the Jewish and Christian traditions both contain some very good models for voluntary charity of the sort I would like to see displacing the welfare state. Take something as simple as tithing: In a $15 trillion economy, 10 percent could do a great deal to improve the lives of the poor and the vulnerable, assuming it actually was applied to their problems rather than consumed by politics.

LOPEZ: Why is it important to consider politics and government — Barack Obama and the NYPD officer — one and the same?

#ad#WILLIAMSON: All politics is force. It’s more obvious when you are dealing with the police and the military, because they carry guns. But those guns are used only to enforce policies mandated by people who do not carry guns themselves. My general rule is: If you are not willing to put a gun to your neighbor’s head over the issue, then you should not be willing to vote to have somebody else put a gun to your neighbor’s head over the issue. Which puts cowboy-poetry festivals, getting monkeys high on cocaine, and other government-sponsored shenanigans into a very different perspective.

LOPEZ: What are “reputation networks” and how are they more democratic than politics?

WILLIAMSON: The best example of a reputation network is the credit-reporting system, which is to me a really interesting phenomenon: You have competing business interests who have learned that their interests are better served by cooperating in a certain kind of information-sharing than by defining their interests more narrowly. If I borrow some money from my bank and then fail to pay it back, there’s no immediate benefit for my bank to report that fact to its competitors — in fact, they’d probably be better off if I went and borrowed money from their competitors, too, and failed to repay it. But cooperation there turns out to be in everybody’s interest. What’s needed is a comparably robust system that turns that power dynamic around, allowing us as consumer to sanction firms that do things we do not approve of. That’s already happening with things like Buycott, an app that allows you to identify products made by companies that do business in a way that violates your values. I suspect that in the very near future, highly organized consumer pressure will be a much more powerful force for corporate responsibility on things like environmental responsibility or getting into bed with unsavory governments than traditional regulation ever could be.

LOPEZ: “There is a deeply irrational tendency in democratic societies to believe that passing a law against problem X is the same as solving problem X, when obviously it is not.” What accounts for this? Is this democracy on secularization?

WILLIAMSON: “Secularization” is not exactly the right word, because we have not really given up on religious beliefs. Instead, we’ve transferred things we used to believe about God or the gods to government. There was a time when if the rains did not come and the crops did not grow, people believed it was because the king or the elders had failed to propitiate the gods in the manner prescribed. Our modern beliefs about the role of presidents in economic growth are not so different from that. There are people who genuinely believe that the markets boomed in the 1990s because Bill Clinton cared. Likewise, the belief that Congress can in effect say, “Let there be health care!” and that that will solve the problem is fundamentally superstitious. I sometimes say that the best book every written about American presidential politics is The Golden Bough, which is not about American presidential politics at all, but about ancient priest-king cults.

LOPEZ: “Some cultures are based on the Ten Commandments, but ours is based on the Ten Amendments.” Is this entirely true? Has it always been so?

WILLIAMSON: Americans derive our national identity largely from our founding documents. They are great founding documents, and I believe that living under them would be a great improvement on current practices. But the idea that we live under a government constrained by the U.S. Constitution, or that we have done so during my lifetime, is simply at odds with the facts. The spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution live on, in unfortunately attenuated form, and that spirit occasionally makes a show of force in our politics. I wish we had more of that, since it is one of the only things keeping us from descending absolutely into arbitrary violence and plunder.

LOPEZ: How important is charity toward “those who are to some degree culpable in their condition” going to be to the awesomeness of the end?

WILLIAMSON: I take a pretty broad view of the necessity of charity. There’s no great virtue in helping those who obviously deserve our help, disabled children for example. If there’s a tautology in my approach to social questions, it’s that we value human lives because human lives are valuable, including the lives of those who make bad decisions and act in bad faith. Maybe an alcoholic vagrant does not by some standard deserve my help in the same way an orphan does, but God help me if we all start getting what we deserve.  

LOPEZ: Is it possible to have a “broadening of freedom of conscience” given the tendencies of this White House? Can we have a country where same-sex marriage exists and Orthodox Jewish or Catholic employers don’t have to recognize it on their benefit plans?

WILLIAMSON: Presidents come and go, and this one can’t go fast enough for my liking. But the real-world constraints on government’s ability to do things for us are also constraints on its ability to do things to us. I don’t think that this broadening of the freedom of conscience is going to happen automatically, on its own. It’s going to take real pushback, hard pushback, including civil disobedience by people who are willing to face inconvenience, stigma, or jail time for their beliefs. To update M. K. Gandhi, 536 elected officials in Washington cannot control 300 million Americans if those Americans refuse to cooperate.

LOPEZ: How do you think private law could be a solution for some of these problems? Is it a recipe for moral chaos?

WILLIAMSON: Warning an American about moral chaos in 2013 is like warning a turnip farmer about turnips. Our institutions, particularly our courts and legislatures, are a main source of moral chaos. Private law is simply a way of giving people alternative processes for resolving disputes. We already have that in some spheres, corporate arbitration being a good example of that. To revisit the question of marriage, why not have multiple models of marriage, each with its own rules for dealing with things like property and child custody in the case of separation? There would be some morally objectionable outliers, to be sure, but I suspect that we’d end up with much stronger overall marital institutions under that model than what we have today. Imagine a young man trying to explain to his betrothed that he’d prefer the E-Z-Out No-Fault Marriage Contract rather than her preferred Airtight Catholic Marriage Contract. You think he’s going to win that argument? Making people more directly responsible for the nature of the agreements they enter into would be a significant improvement, I think. On the other hand, if polygamy is what Americans really want, all the laws in the world are not going to preserve what’s left of traditional marriage and family life.

#page#LOPEZ: Is an “exit-based system” of politics plausible? Where do we begin?

WILLIAMSON: We begin small: by allowing people to opt out of Social Security, partly or in full, by treating families that choose private schools or homeschooling equitably, by allowing organizations more flexibility in developing their own health-insurance models, that sort of thing. Funny — I find myself using the word “allow” frequently but government probably should become more generous in what it allows while allowance is still in its power. We are not necessarily going to keep asking for permission.

LOPEZ: In a culture of overload, how do people go about thinking “very carefully about what we — all of us, in this together — are going to say yes to.”

#ad#WILLIAMSON: The idea that the American people, or other people, are not intelligent enough to be entrusted with their own lives has very little real-world support. There are men my age who know everything about World of Warcraft and have no idea who their representative in the House is, and that’s okay: If following politics seems pointless to many Americans, that’s because it is pointless for many Americans. And yet even in something as silly as World of Warcraft, you have an economy and sophisticated social organization. We’re perfectly capable of running our own lives, including those parts of our lives that are oriented toward helping others. From massively multiplayer online games to social media to developments in trade and travel, the history of the past several decades has been about reaching out and connecting. We are the opposite of an atomistic society, and we can put that desire to connect to good, productive use. Things like charity and social cooperation are much more effective among people who have group ties and lots of personal interaction.

LOPEZ: Do you really anticipate a day when we all stop paying taxes?

WILLIAMSON: I anticipate a day when government has little or no ability to compel us to do so. At that point, government becomes another provider of consumer services, and we do business with it on our own terms, which is how it should be.

LOPEZ: Can we ever replace the frenzied media conversations that reinforce all of our worst political tendencies with the kind of thoughtfulness you bring to the subject in your book?

WILLIAMSON: You’re very kind to put the question that way. There is a market for bomb-throwing, and it’s a pretty big market. I sometimes tell people that I’m going to write a book called Obama Sucks, Punch a Liberal in the Ear and grow vastly wealthy, but then I remember that I work for National Review and have certain standards to uphold. The End Is Near is kind of a strange book in that it’s in its way a very conservative book that might not seem so if you did not know it was written by a conservative. And in some ways, I wrote this book for people on the other side as much as for conservatives: If you spend all of your time asking what wonderful thing government should do rather than thinking about what it can and cannot do, you’ll inevitably come to the same wrong conclusions that marked the 20th century, over and over. My grandest hope for this book is that people who do not already share my values might read it and conclude that while we may have very different ideas of what the good life looks like, I’ve offered some useful mechanical guidelines about how to get there, some useful information about how the world actually works.

To return to the subject of humility, it’s easy for those of us who write and think about politics to overestimate the impact we have on the long-term trajectory of the nation. And the power of media is sort of amazing: I’d been writing what I think is some pretty good journalism for 20 years or so, but once you’re on television for five minutes a week, suddenly you are treated very differently. But we’re really not that important. Every now and then a book or an idea comes along that really does change how people think, for better or for worse: The Road to Serfdom, Silent Spring, The Feminine Mystique, The Interpretation of Dreams, etc. I hope one day to write a book like that, but I haven’t yet.

LOPEZ: In very practical terms what does your indictment of politics mean? What can voters and politicians do with The End Is Near?

WILLIAMSON: They could follow the advice from the last line of T. S. Eliot’s The Difficulties of a Statesman — “RESIGN. RESIGN. RESIGN.”

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor at large of National Review Online.

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