Government Without End

Dear Reader (including Senator Hagel, who apparently doesn’t read much, beyond the little “TGIF” reminder on his slippers – which stands for “toes go in first”),

I enjoyed what I saw of the Chuck Hagel hearings yesterday, mostly for the nudity, the stylized violence, the cartoonish palace intrigue, and the weird way everyone talks. Oh, wait, that was the season premiere of Spartacus: War of the Damned.

I enjoyed the Chuck Hagel hearings for slightly different reasons. Chief among them: They were schadenfreudtastic. Hagel, an unpleasant and arrogant fellow of middling intellect has been walking around Washington like the last honest man in Rome for a decade or so, allegedly speaking truth to power about Israel, Iran, and American foreign policy generally. As a result he’s become something of a pied piper for a mostly motley collection of disgruntled State Department cookie-pushers, frustrated policy wonks, and mid-tier bloggers – all of whom are convinced that they possess esoteric insights into all manner of things, chief among them Israel’s deleterious role in American foreign policy, the nefariousness of the so-called neocons, the tragedy of American empire, and, perhaps most of all, their own superiority to all who disagree with them.

They are mostly an unpleasant bunch whose regard for their own intellect (collective and personal) has rarely if ever quite been vouchsafed by anything they’ve written or said.

And their poster boy was Chuck Hagel, a man who managed to spend roughly eight hours on live TV yesterday stepping on his own Anthony Weiner – from a seated position.

That is frickin’ hilarious.

Reasonable people can argue about how dumb, ill-informed, and inarticulate Chuck Hagel was. (Personally, I was waiting for Carl Levin to throw the nominee a one-color Rubik’s cube, just to give the guy a little self-esteem boost, or maybe just to get Hagel-man to lift up his head.) Regardless, no one but the truly and desperately hackish can claim that the man impressed anyone. On several occasions yesterday, hapless Hagel looked up to Carl Levin or one of the other Democrats the way Abe Vigoda looked to Robert Duval at the end of the Godfather when he was about to get taken off to sleep with the fishes. “Tom, can you get me off the hook, for old time’s sake?”

I particularly love the folks who defended Hagel on the grounds that he was too “professorial.” Uh, what professors did you have in mind? I’m all in favor of “professorial” being defined down to “flummoxed by attempts to differentiate Shinola from large agglomerations of fecal particles.” I rather like the idea of saying: “Remember that great scene from The Three Stooges where Moe dropped a bowling ball on his own crotch? That was so professorial.” But given its current connotations you just look silly if you call Hagel’s leper’s grip on his own positions, never mind the facts, “professorial.”

And that’s the best part. For the last month, Hagel has been holding a fire sale on his own integrity, back-tracking, “correcting the record,” and clarifying away all of the pearls of wisdom, penetrating insights, and hard truth-telling that his most prominent fans once insisted distinguished him as Washington’s wisest prophet without honor.

Well, riddle me this: If his ideas are so great, and his nomination such a death blow to the Jewish Israel lobby, why is he flushing his past positions down the toilet like a drug dealer getting rid of bricks of heroin when he hears the cops knocking at the door?

No Single Person

The other night, Mark Steyn, Rob Long, and yours truly got the band back together for the National Review Institute conservapalooza thing. Our friends at Ricochet have the audio and allegedly there is some video being tweaked somewhere in the bowels of the NR world. (One could say Hagel spent the day getting tweaked in the bowels, but that would be beneath the dignity of this august electronic epistle.)

While I think we were a bit rusty, it was still a fun time. One of my rustier moments, if memory serves, was my attempt to opine on a particular problem with Obama’s second inaugural address — I mean other than the fact that he had the opportunity to give it in the first place. After all, complaining about the substance of the speech without first mentioning that it was a shame he was reelected at all is a bit like going straight to complaints about how Godzilla crushes buildings without first lamenting the fact that he returned from the briny deep.

Anyway, the president proclaimed:

No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.

Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.

As many have noted (including me in the latest issue), this formulation deploys a ridiculous straw man. Yuval puts it well:

The individual acting alone or the entire nation acting through its government, those are the only options we have. The space between the individual and the state is understood to be empty at best, and at worst to be filled with dreadful vestiges of intolerance and backwardness that must be cleared out to enable the pursuit of justice.

But there’s a deeper, or at least another, problem with Obama’s formulation, one that I think conservatives and liberals alike often fail to appreciate, which is one reason I keep bringing it up.

No single person can do pretty much anything.

Wait, wait. I am not rejecting rugged individualism or the Lockean notion that we are all captains of our selves. But the simple fact is that no single person does anything alone. Pretty much everything we do depends on the work, insight, guidance, or efforts of someone else. No one is alone. Even the gimp inPulp Fiction needed help getting into that box.

This is the point of the essay, “I, Pencil,” which I am always touting. It’s also a near constant theme of the G-File. For instance, from the July 13, 2012, edition of this “news”letter:

Put it all together and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is not merely akin to a time capsule, it’s a memory back-up, an auto-save of a document still being written. At least 99 percent of the things we know are things other people figured out first. Our manners, morals, technology, language, culture come to us on an assembly line that stretches off into prehistory with laborers in animal skins at the front and lab coats at the end.

Even rugged-individualist survivalists living completely alone in the woods somewhere are plugged into a support network of millions of human beings who came before him. Nearly every single thing he does alone in the woods was figured out for him by someone else. He didn’t discover how to start a fire. He probably didn’t forge his own gun or knife, and even if he did, he didn’t learn the techniques for doing so all by himself.

This, I would argue, is a core insight of both libertarianism and conservatism rightly understood, and the fundamental tenet of free-market economics. As Hayek says, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” There is embedded knowledge in everything around us. Every technology, every technique, and, obviously, every tradition is, at least in part, the product of someone else’s trial and error. I could go on and on (“You’re telling us?” – The Couch). Or you could read Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” (I particularly like paragraph H9.)

Government Without End

But the point I wanted to make while drinking whiskey on the stage with Steyn and Long is that when Obama justifies state action by saying that “no single person” can do X, he’s basically laying down a limitless warrant for state action, because no single person can do anything alone. Obama is so ideologically blinkered he thinks the free market is a place for atomized individuals playing zero-sum-games, but the fact is that the free market is vastly — vastly! — more communal and cooperative than the state is. But because Obama cannot recognize the peaceful cooperation inherent to a free society, he cannot see a natural boundary to the state’s turf, no clear place where the leash on the Leviathan snaps tight and holds it back. Rhetorically, if the standard for state action is the inability of an individual to achieve some social good alone, then there’s no limit to what the state is justified in doing.

Experts Über Alles

My favorite insight from William Voegeli’s brilliant book Never Enough is simply this: There is no limiting principle to liberalism (which was basically Eric Voegelin’s point when he called liberalism a “totalitarian political religion”). When liberals hear you – or at least when they hear me — say this sort of thing they immediately assume I’m saying that liberalism is indistinguishable from socialism or fascism. But that’s not really my argument. The point is that there’s no dogmatic, external, enduring liberal principle that says “the state can go this far and no farther.” Rather, all limitations on government action, according to the liberal worldview, are by definition temporary, contingent on circumstances, and reliant solely on the good judgment of liberals. This is what “pragmatism” ultimately means for liberals: Liberal policymakers get to decide what the government should or shouldn’t do based upon their expert judgment and their own evolving personal standards. This mindset is what lets people like Al Sharpton argue for knife control.

If you’re not bound by, say, a Constitution or a coherent and clear ideology, why shouldn’t you go wherever your own intellect takes you? Well, as Hayek might note, the problem is that no one is that smart. That is why we let prices tell us what something is worth. That is why we should be informed by the embedded knowledge in tradition. That is why we should push decisions down to the lowest level possible. Because even the most brilliant experts are not smart enough to do society’s thinking for it. But that is precisely what Deweyan liberalism does. It turns experts into priests and the priests are the only haruspices authorized to read the goat guts and tell us what the gods want from us.

Which brings to mind a great line from G. K. Chesterton: “I have always noticed that people who begin by taking the intellect very seriously end up by having no intellects at all. The idolater worships wood and stone; and if he worships his own head it turns into wood and stone.”

Various & Sundry

Here’s my column today on the disconnect between Republican success at the state level and Republican disarray at the federal level.

Here’s my post on Al Gore’s perfidy.

Here’s Bill Gates predicting that “electronic mail” will be a big deal one day.

Here’s me talking to Josh Trevino.

Here are some dogs.

Speaking of dogs, this strikes me as the definition of quid pro quo.

Here’s Ray Charles and David Ben Gurion singing ”Hava Naguila.”

Most awesome story of the week: 23-year-long game of tag.

Breaking: Puppy Bowl coaches to be brothers from same litter.

In the grand tradition of the Amazon reviewers vs. the banana slicer, today we have Amazon reviewers vs. “How to Avoid Huge Ships.”

Hmmm. I will take this under advisement: Eleven common words you’re probably mispronouncing.

Speaking of the number eleven, eleven obscure references in songs.

 

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