The G-File

Politics & Policy

America and the ‘Original Position’

If you were hovering above Earth looking to be born randomly into any time period in human history, you’d pick now — and in America.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (particularly all you folks on the mainland),

I’m writing this on a plane to San Francisco (actually, I started it in my car, but that’s a different story). By the time you read this, I will hopefully be over the Pacific en route to Hawaii to spend Christmas with my wife’s side of the family.

Hawaii is great. But if you’ve ever tried to get there from the East Coast, you know it’s a pretty brutal trip. Look at it on the map. It’s just farther away from everything than everything else is from everything. But you probably also know that this is a very high-order First World Problem. I’m very lucky to be doing this.

Luck All the Way Down

Of course, we’re all very lucky, in the broadest sense of the term. As Olivia Newton John might say if she went to grad school, let’s get metaphysical. The late philosopher John Rawls had a thought experiment called “the original position.” The basic idea is to imagine that you are a disembodied soul waiting outside this world in a kind of placeless, meaningless limbo — sort of like a Delaware rest stop. He then asks you to think about what kind of society you would want to be born into. But here’s the catch: You won’t know if you’ll be born rich or poor, smart or dumb, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, gay, straight, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, never mind if you’ll be able to fit 43 Cheetos in your mouth at one time. You’ll be behind what Rawls called a “veil of ignorance.”

Obviously, if there were, say, a one-in-five chance you’d be born black, you probably wouldn’t want to be born into a society that makes black people slaves. If there’s a 99 percent chance you’d be born poor, you probably wouldn’t want to be born in feudal Europe, Asia, or any other society where peasants had no rights and few means of improving their lot in life.

(It’s a useful thought experiment, but it has its flaws. Rawls was a pretty standard liberal, and that sometimes got in the way. For instance, he was also pro-abortion, at least in the first trimester. That’s a problem for the original position, because I’m pretty sure that one of the criteria I would value if I were off in some metaphysical Forbidden Zone trying to decide where I would want to be born, would be that I be allowed to be born in the first place. Another problem: I generally don’t like political philosophy that starts from the assumption we can create societies from scratch, as if we were God. Societies are emergent properties full of other emergent properties. The assumption, even for the sake of a thought experiment, that we can know how best to create a society from scratch, can lead to some horrible things. The Jacobins tried that, and the guillotines had to sharpened every week as a result. The Founders, on the other hand, raked the past and the British tradition and built on the best stuff they found.)

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right. If you were hovering above Earth looking to be born randomly into any time period in human history, you’d pick now if you had any brains. And if you could pick a place, you’d pick a Western liberal democracy, and probably the United States of America (though as much as it pains me to say it, you wouldn’t be crazy to pick Canada or the U.K. or Holland). Sure, if you could pick being rich, white, and male — and didn’t really care too much about the plight of others — you might take the 1950s. But even then, your choices for food, entertainment, etc. would be terribly curtailed compared to today. If you chose to be a billionaire in 1917, you could still die from a minor infection, and good Thai food would be entirely unknown to you. You’d certainly never enjoy watching a Star Wars movie on an IMAX screen in air conditioning. In other words, while your homes would be bigger and cooler if you were a billionaire in 1917, a typical orthodontist in Peoria in 2017 is in many respects much richer than a billionaire a century earlier.

Still, that’s not the deal on offer. You have to buy an incarnation lottery ticket, and the results would be random.

I’m not big on dividing people up by abstract categories, and I certainly don’t mean them to be pejorative. But as a historical matter, being born poor, gay, black, Jewish, ugly, weird, handicapped, etc. today may certainly come with some problems or challenges, but on the whole those traits are less of a shackle or barrier than at any time in the past. The only trait where I think it might be a closer call is dumbness. All other things being equal, a not-terribly-intelligent person with a good work ethic and some decent values might have had more opportunities before machines replaced strong backs. But even here, I can think of lots of exceptions.

What Makes Us Rich

Anyway, here’s the Thing. I mean here’s the thing: All the wealth we’ve accumulated is ultimately between our ears.

While working on my book, I read all these different accounts of where capitalism comes from. I was amazed by how many of them start from the assumption that wealth is . . . stuff. Depending on which Marxist you’re talking to, capitalism is the ill-gotten-booty of the Industrial Revolution, slavery, imperialism, and the rest. I don’t want to get into all of that here — there will be plenty of time when the book comes out.

But all of these assumptions are based on the idea that having stuff makes you rich. Now, in fairness, that’s true for individuals. But it doesn’t really work that way for societies.

Writing about Venezuela earlier this week is what got this in my head. Venezuela is poor and getting poorer by the minute: Babies are dying from starvation.

Meanwhile, Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. According to lots of people, not just Marxists, this should make no sense. Oil is valuable. If you have more of it than anyone else, you should be able to make money. For a decade, the American Left loved Hugo Chávez and then Nicolás Maduro because they allegedly redistributed all of the country’s wealth from the rich to the poor. These dictators were using The Peoples’ resources for the common good. Blah blah blah.

It turns out that the greatest resource a country has is its institutions. In economics, an institution is just a rule, which is why the rule of law in general and property rights in particular are the most important institutions there are, with the exception of the family. Take away the rule of law in any country, anywhere and that country will get very poor, very fast. Stop protecting the fruits of someone’s labor, enforcing legal contracts, guarding against theft from the state or the mob (a distinction without a difference in Venezuela’s case) and wealth starts to evaporate.

Take away the rule of law in any country, anywhere and that country will get very poor, very fast.

But even that is too complicated. Oil is worthless on its own. If you went back in time to the Arabian Peninsula before oil became a valuable commodity, you wouldn’t look at the squabbling nomads and call them rich, even though they were playing polo with a goat’s head above billions of barrels of oil. Go get lost in the Amazon by yourself. What would you rather have, a map or big-ass diamond? The diamond only has value once you get out of the jungle, but you can’t get out without the map.

I know what you’re thinking: This reminds me of when Captain Kirk had to fight the Gorn. The planet Kirk lands on is full of minerals and gems worth a fortune elsewhere but, as Kirk says, he’d gladly trade it all for a phaser or a good club. Eventually, Kirk wins the fight because the real weapon of value, i.e., the real value, was human ingenuity. This is what Julian Simon meant when he said human beings were the “ultimate resource.”

When Tax Cuts Equal Giving, It’s Mob Rule

I bring all of this up because this is where my typing took me. But, also, because I think there’s an important point here that seems lost in all the conversation about the GOP tax plan. I’m not going to get into the punditry on all of that. Rather, I want to address something much more basic: People are nuts.

I keep hearing about how tax cuts are “giveaways” for the rich. Never mind that some rich people will see their taxes go up. This is philosophically grotesque. The people saying it may be more civilized and restrained than the pro-government mobs in the streets of Caracas, but it’s still basically the same idea: “The People” or “the nation” own everything. The state is the expression of the peoples’ spirit or of the nation’s “will,” and therefore it effectively owns everything. Thus, taking less money from you is the same as giving you more money.

This is why populism and nationalism, taken to their natural conclusions, always lead to statism. The state is the only expression of the national or popular will that encompasses everybody. So, the more you talk about how the fundamental unit of society is a mythologized collective called “The People” or the nation, the more you are rhetorically empowering the state.

Sure, the Constitution begins with the words “We the People,” but that is not a populist sentiment — it’s a statement of precedence in terms of authority: The people come before the government (not the European notion of the state). The spirit of the Constitution is entirely about the fact that The People are not all one thing. It places the rights of a single person above those of the entire federal government! It assumes not only that the people will disagree among themselves, but that the country will be better off if there is such disagreement. No populist frets about the tyranny of the majority. American patriots do.

This may sound far afield, but it’s not. How we understand wealth reflects and informs how we understand politics and power — and vice versa. If you believe wealth resides in stuff and that stuff is finite — like oil under the ground or gold in the Lannister mines — then the state has a good case for figuring out how best to distribute it.

There will be no investment or ingenuity if there is no guarantee that you will be able to collect on that investment or reap the benefits of your innovation.

But if you recognize that humans create wealth with their brains and their industry and that it therefore belongs to them, you’ll be a little more humble about the state’s “right” to take as much as it wants to spend how it wants. Human ingenuity is the engine of wealth creation, and there is no other.

But that doesn’t mean government doesn’t play a role. Because, as I said, there will be no wealth creation if there is no rule of law. There will be no investment or ingenuity if there is no guarantee that you will be able to collect on that investment or reap the benefits of your innovation. Without such an environment, the biggest mob wins. And when the mob wins, children starve to death in what should be one of the richest countries in the world.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: So, if you listened to this week’s Remnant podcast, you heard me talk about some of this. But we had quite a dramatic start to the week on Monday. We were doing our typical neighborhood patrol: Zoë on the extendo-leash, Pippa chasing tennis balls up and down the sides streets of my neighborhood.

As you know by now, Pippa is a sweetheart. She will run up to strangers and drop a tennis ball at their feet, and then beg them to throw it for her. Whenever she does this, I warn these nice people, “If you throw it, she might go home with you.” Well, Monday morning, as we were making our way back home, a teenager walked out of her house and in our direction. Pippa seemed interested in maybe offering her a turn with her tennis ball. It turned out the girl was walking up to a car, presumably to carpool to school. Pippa was even more interested. When the girl opened the passenger-side door, Pippa was like, “Oh, a car ride! I like car rides! Maybe the human will take me to the park.” She then headed off to jump in the car. Pippa has zero sense of stranger danger.

But the real drama came as we walked up the last side street before my block. I usually let Zoë chase squirrels when she’s on the leash in my neighborhood because they all stick really close to the trees and fences and whatnot. So, Zoë goes after a particularly thick den of squirrel activity. They all scatter. But not before the Dingo leaps up, knocks the branches out from underneath one, and then outruns it . . . and bites.

Author’s Note: I do not like it when my dog kills squirrels. It’s an aesthetic thing. I do not like watching any cute thing killing any other cute thing, even squirrels — which are smug and overrunning the D.C. ecosystem.

Anyway, back to our story. Zoë shakes this thing, and it made sounds that I do not like. I yell at Zoë to drop it, at first because I think the squirrel might be saved or at least to avoid having to pry it out of her mouth, which I hate doing. (The dogwalker invented the technique of holding Zoë’s head under water in the creek, which will do the trick.) Also, I had no idea who was watching this spectacle from behind their living-room curtains, and Zoë already has a bad reputation in the neighborhood. Anyway, to my surprise, I give a yank on the leash, and the squirrel leaps from of Zoë’s jaws of death. And Zoë is pissed. She’s even more pissed when I hold her back. Meanwhile, the poor squirrel is in rough shape. If they made a rodent version of John Wick: Chapter 2, this would be the final scene, with little furry Keanu limping away.

But then, to my surprise, Pippa gets in on the action. She shows no ferocity or even anger. She just starts chasing it, almost herding it. When she tries to mouth it, I yell at her, and she stops. But finally, Pippa corners it on the front lawn of someone’s house, and then Pippa does her Springer Spaniel thing. She points at the squirrel! She just stands above it, waiting for orders from me to bring her the strangest quail a Springer has ever seen. Meanwhile, Zoë is just going bananas, screaming “Attica! Attica!” in Dingoese because she thinks the Spaniel is claiming her kill, and Pippa is flummoxed that I don’t want her to bring me the still-breathing squirrel.

Anyway, this was all just a bit much before 7:15 in the morning.

You got this extra-long canine update in part because even if I write a G-File next week, there probably won’t be a canine update because I will be in Hawaii without the beasts. We tried to load them up with attention before we left, but it rarely works. The good news is that Kirsten is housesitting and dogsitting over Christmas break, so they’re in great hands. They always have a good time with her. And no one will yell at them about being on the couch.

Last week’s G-File

My Monday NPR hit

Could tax reform be the GOP’s Obamacare?

If socialism keeps failing (see Venezuela), why is getting more popular?

My podcast with Jeffrey Goldberg (no relation)

The latest episode of The Remnant, with Arthur Brooks, tries to find the meaning of life.

Will the Republican bet on tax reform pay off?

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Thursday links

An off button for the Internet

Iceland’s Christmas witch

12,000 dominoes

Thunderstorm timelapse

Why do we give toasts?

The worst passwords of 2017

London’s secret tunnels

Why do we get the meat sweats?


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