Magazine | June 17, 2013, Issue

Leviathan Fail

The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure, by Kevin D. Williamson (Broadside, 240 pp., $27.99)

In Our Enemy, the State, Albert Jay Nock distinguished between the government and the State. Sadly, these terms have become interchangeable in everyday parlance: “Statism” is simply a more euphonious and serviceable word for “governmentism.” But until the New Deal, while virtually everyone would have recognized that the United States had a government, whether it had a “state” would have been a much more complicated question. For Nock, the government is the machinery created by the Founders to protect our individual rights, our shores from foreign enemies, and, well, that’s about it. Even a police force was an iffy proposition for Nock. “When Sir Robert Peel proposed to organize the police force of London, Englishmen said openly that half a dozen throats cut in Whitechapel every year would be a cheap price to pay for keeping such an instrument of tyranny out of the State’s hands,” Nock wrote. “We are all beginning to realize now that there is a great deal to be said for that view of the matter.”

The State — properly capitalized — is a different creature altogether from mere government. It is an instrument of will. It seeks to tell people how to live. Worse still, it uses force to do so. Worst of all, its paramount purpose is not answering the question “What’s best for the people?” — that is at most a secondary consideration — but “What is good for the State?”

Kevin Williamson’s new book is quite possibly the best indictment of the State since Our Enemy, the State appeared some eight decades ago. It is a lovely, brilliant, humane, and remarkably entertaining work.

Though he sometimes sounds like a reasonable anarchist, Williamson is not in fact opposed to all government. But he is everywhere opposed to anything that smacks of the State. There’s an old line about how to carve an elephant: Take a block of marble and then remove everything that isn’t an elephant. Williamson looks at everything we call the State or the government and wants to remove everything that shouldn’t be there, which is quite a lot. In what may be my favorite part of the book, he demolishes, with Godzilla-versus-Bambi ease, the notion that only government can provide public goods. In fact, most of what government provides are nonpublic goods (transfer payments, subsidies, etc.), and a great deal of what the market provides — from Google and Wikipedia to Starbucks restrooms — are indisputably public goods.

Williamson offers a wonderfully Nockian tutorial on how all states — and nearly all governments — begin as criminal enterprises, while acknowledging that not all criminal enterprises are evil. Criminals — whether we’re talking Somali warlords, Mafia dons, or the Tudors of England — often provide vital goods and services, from food to security. Often what makes them criminal is the fact that they are competing with the State monopoly on such things.

Sidestepping the distinction between State and government, Williamson instead identifies what causes the Dr. Jekyll of government to transform into the Mr. Hyde of the State. He calls this elixir “politics.”

Williamson’s core argument is that politics has a congenital defect: Politics cannot get “less wrong” (a term coined by artificial-intelligence guru Eliezer Yudkowsky). Productive systems — the scientific method, the market, evolution — all have the built-in ability to learn from failures. Nothing (in this life at least) ever becomes immortally perfect, but some things become less wrong through trial and error. The market, writes Williamson, “is a form of social evolution that is metaphorically parallel to biological evolution. Consider the case of New Coke, or Betamax, or McDonald’s Arch Deluxe, or Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt Shampoo. . . . When hordes of people don’t show up to buy the product, then the product dies.” Just like organisms in the wild, corporations that don’t learn from failures eventually fade away.

Except in politics: “The problem of politics is that it does not know how to get less wrong.” While new iPhones regularly burst forth like gifts from the gods, politics plods along. “Other than Social Security, there are very few 1935 vintage products still in use,” he writes. “Resistance to innovation is a part of the deep structure of politics. In that, it is like any other monopoly. It never goes out of business — despite flooding the market with defective and dangerous products, mistreating its customers, degrading the environment, cooking the books, and engaging in financial shenanigans that would have made Gordon Gekko pale to contemplate.” Hence, it is not U.S. Steel, which was eventually washed away like an imposing sand castle in the surf, but only politics that can claim to be “the eternal corporation.”

#page#The reason for this immortality is simple: The people running the State are never sufficiently willing to contemplate that they are the problem. If a program dedicated to putting the round pegs of humanity into square holes fails, the bureaucrats running it will conclude that the citizens need to be squared off long before it dawns on them that the State should stop treating people like pegs in the first place. Furthermore, in government, failure is an exciting excuse to ask for more funding or more power.

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 — Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, will be released on April 24.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Hard to Fire

Lois Lerner, who is at the center of the IRS targeting scandal, is clearly not a model federal employee. But it is very difficult to fire her or anyone else ...

Features

Politics & Policy

UKIP Shakes Up Westminster

It’s all but impossible to launch a new political party under America’s electoral arrangements, and extremely easy to do so under Continental proportional representation. The Westminster first-past-the-post system puts the ...
Politics & Policy

A Chronic Disease

Conservatives and Republicans in Washington — activists, strategists, politicians — are increasingly embracing a theory about Obamacare: It’s going to collapse of its own weight, and its failure could yield ...
Politics & Policy

Defending Lincoln

Decades ago, the distinguished Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald coined the phrase “getting right with Lincoln” to describe the impulse people feel to appropriate Lincoln for their own political agendas. ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Leviathan Fail

In Our Enemy, the State, Albert Jay Nock distinguished between the government and the State. Sadly, these terms have become interchangeable in everyday parlance: “Statism” is simply a more euphonious ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ The IRS is targeting people who make Obama look bad. Eric Holder, call your accountant. ‐ President Obama’s sprawling and frequently tedious National Defense University speech was long on hope ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

THE GREEN SWARD That green sward I used to walk above A baseball-diamond Mother remembered Near Penn, under a bridge, a field always Surprising her when she happened to recall It, a petal on a ...
The Long View

Investigation into the AP/James Rosen Matter

Department of Justice OFFICIAL TRANSCRIPT Investigation into the AP/James Rosen Matter   Interview with Subject conducted 5/29/13 in Conference Room H-0889, Department of Justice. Present: Investigator and Person of Interest [Name Redacted] Interview begins 11:03 a.m.   INTERVIEWER: ...
Athwart

Moving Performances

Fine art these days is rarely either. Go to the sculpture wing of a contemporary museum, and you won’t find a painstakingly chiseled block of marble whose astonishing frozen drapery ...
Politics & Policy

Letters

Light Shines from New Haven I would like to thank Eliana Johnson for her tribute to Donald Kagan as he announced his retirement (“Donald Kagan’s Last Lecture,” May 20). His departure might ...

Most Popular

World

Why Are They Doing This to the Bitkovs?

Guatemala City You should know about the Bitkovs -- a strange and terrible case. The Bitkovs are a family of four: Igor and Irina and their children, Anastasia and Vladimir. They started out in Russia -- or rather, three of them did. Vladimir was born here in Guatemala. Igor, Irina, and their daughter were ... Read More
PC Culture

Intellectual Refusniks and Renegades

Two weeks ago, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris had Ezra Klein, who is Vox’s editor in chief, on his podcast, Waking Up. The topic: Klein’s website had labeled Harris a participant in “pseudoscientific racialist speculation” because Harris had had the temerity to host social scientist Charles ... Read More
Elections

The Misanthropic Mrs. Clinton

A curious dualism emerges in New York Times reporter Amy Chozick’s book Chasing Hillary: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, and One Intact Glass Ceiling. As I noted yesterday, Chozick makes it clear that she was rooting for Clinton. But she also thinks Clinton hates her. Chozick shouldn’t take things ... Read More
World

Trump and the North Korean Tipping Point

The world has been stunned by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s announcement last week that he was suspending his country’s nuclear tests in preparation for the impending meeting with President Trump. Even critics have had to concede that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric since last summer regarding the North ... Read More
Economy & Business

Trade Misunderstandings

I was distracted by other policy topics last week but not enough not to notice Peter Navarro’s article in the Wall Street Journal, headlined “China’s Faux Comparative Advantage.” Considering Navarro’s position in the White House, it is unfortunate that it demonstrates some serious misunderstandings ... Read More