The Tuesday

Politics & Policy

Our Backwards Government

(Larry Downing/Reuters)
As we invest more spiritually in government, it gets worse at its actual jobs.

Welcome to “The Tuesday,” a weekly newsletter about language, culture, and politics, dachshunds, petty professional envy, and bowdlerized profanity. To subscribe to “The Tuesday,” follow this link.

Winter Is Coming

Conservatives complain about being shut out of Hollywood and other commanding heights of popular entertainment, and we have some legitimate beefs — but, at the same time, conservative themes are everywhere you look in our movies and prestige television shows. Gregory Doran’s African reimagining of Julius Caesar may have been dreamt up with some kind of progressive political point in mind (who knows?), and I rather doubt that Ralph Fiennes set out to make a right-wing tract with his Coriolanus, but as politically illuminating works of drama, these are much profounder expressions of the conservative sensibility than any self-consciously didactic piece of right-wing agitprop you will ever see. (Shakespeare is like that.) Even a series such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, which transgressed some conservatives’ sense of decency, is, in its way, deeply conservative: “Winter Is Coming” is one of the most ancient and enduring pieces of wisdom in our treasury, and much of Game of Thrones was dedicated to extracting the full political moral out of Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper.

Winter is coming.

Here in Texas, winter has come with a vengeance in an unusually dramatic fashion. Blizzards were a normal part of life in the Texas Panhandle when I was growing up there, but much of the rest of Texas rarely sees snow flurries, much less accumulations of the stuff sitting on the often-sizzling sidewalks of San Antonio or the beaches of Galveston.

The wheels came off that rough-’n’-ready Texas macho bullsh** lickety by-gum split: Every other household full of rugged individualists in our great state has a four-wheel-drive super-duty pickup truck, and it wouldn’t be a trip down I-30 without some yahoo in a Ford F-350 passing you on the right at 110 m.p.h. And all of that is just fine . . . in May. There’s barely two inches of snow on the ground in Dallas, but the business district is a ghost town. A half dozen people died in a — pay attention to this number — 135-car pileup in Fort Worth. Traffic was snarled for miles and miles in both directions. Intersections had to be blocked in other counties.

And, right now, millions are without power, and California-style rolling blackouts have been imposed.

Texas was unprepared. And that was a choice. Not all of those choices were made by agents of government per se, but better public choices and better public policies could have led to much better outcomes.

Consider the electricity situation. Texas produces a whole lot of natural gas, but the state does not have a natural-gas infrastructure sufficient to deal with an unusual winter storm. We have plenty of fuel, but we can’t get it to where it is needed, so it may as well not be there. And Texas, which is as susceptible to richly subsidized greenie-weenie shenanigans as any other state, relies on wind turbines for a non-trivial share of its electricity, and many of those have frozen.

Which is to say: It’s too cold outside to operate the things that help to keep us warm inside.

(The Williamson household is fine, although Katy and Pancake object to, and vocally protest, being made to go out into the snow when necessity requires. You’d think that getting up in the middle of the night to dutifully clear off a patch of grass for just such purposes would be appreciated, but these are some pretty persnickety dachshunds.)

Hayek, the great liberal economist, argued in favor of certain kinds of government-run social-insurance schemes (libertarians weren’t always so rigid) on the grounds that these offered protection against the “common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision.” That is, really, all government is there to do. It is a convenience — when it is working. Good government is like good technology: If everything is functioning as intended, you never really notice it. You don’t think much about it — it just works.

Yesterday was Presidents’ Day. I took this year off from denouncing it, but David Harsanyi didn’t need any help from me. Presidents’ Day is like the State of the Union address, that other great national abomination, that — forgive me for quoting myself — “hideous, dispiriting, ugly, monotonous, un-American, un-republican, anti-democratic, dreary, backward, monarchical, retch-inducing, depressing, shameful, crypto-imperial display of official self-aggrandizement and piteous toadying.” Presidents are not priest-kings, and government is not there to provide us with moral uplift or a national sense of meaning. Government is there to plow the goddamned roads. It is there to secure the borders, defend against foreign invasion, and to make sure that the stuff sold in bottles labeled “aspirin” really is aspirin. None of that is simple, there is a large role for private action in most of it, and while Hayek was right about the social-insurance model, that does not mean that government can’t screw it up. Even genuinely needful things, like the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, end up getting done in a backward and counterproductive manner. The Biden administration can engage in all the moralistic huffery and puffery it likes, but it’s still messing things up, as a bipartisan group of governors will be happy to tell you.

As the presidency (and, to a lesser extent, politics at large) becomes more ceremonial and histrionic, slowly degenerating into a neo-pagan sacral kingship, government grows less effective. The world-bestriding status of the presidency never has been higher, but its practical efficacy has been in decline for decades. Congress, for its part, is so impotent and gormless that Republican senators couldn’t figure out how to take their own side in a fight — rarely has an institution had so little self-respect while displaying so much self-importance. We require less courtship and more competency.

A theme emerges from the past 20 years of American government. Meaning no disrespect to the people who died on September 11, 2001, and none to the brave soldiers and others who responded, al-Qaeda was a backward gang of pissant fanatics hiding under the skirts of the Taliban, an even more backward gang of slightly less pissant fanatics. They were savages with box-cutters. We were lucky that the worst enemy we had at the turn of the century was al-Qaeda. Similarly, and meaning no callousness to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died of COVID-19, we are positively lucky that we were not hit with a much nastier epidemic than this one. September 11 could have been a lot worse, and COVID-19 could have been a lot worse. And this relatively minor winter storm that has shut down Texas could have been a hell of a lot worse.

We’re getting beat silly by the junior varsities of national crises. Pray we don’t find ourselves facing a big-league opponent before we rediscover ourselves.

In Other News . . .

This Clash song was on my mind all weekend. Couldn’t say why. It’s sassey!

I love to read the Wall Street Journal on dumb money. Take out a personal loan for 20 grand to buy up GameStop shares? Fantabulous plan, Ace.

If you haven’t read/listened to Jay Nordlinger on Bryan Fogel and The Dissident, do yourself a solid.

Words About Words

When you go to the doctor to see if he can figure out whether you should be calling one of those mesothelioma lawyers who advertise on cable-news programs all day, you are looking for a diagnosis, the identification of the specific nature of your illness. If your doctor tells you that you have a week to live, that’s a prognosis. Some people use the words interchangeably, but you don’t want to be one of them. You want to know, to have knowledge, from the Greek γνῶσις, gnosis. Diagnosis is the English transliteration of a Greek word meaning discernment or having thorough knowledge. Prognosis is straight from the Greek, too, meaning foreknowledge, with the pro– as in problem, literally a thing put forward. The Greek comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root as the Sanskrit pra (प्र), a prefix meaning forward or leading toward.

Rampant Prescriptivism

Matt Taibbi is a gifted writer who works some of the same angles I do, so, naturally, I hate him and will indulge my envy by correcting him:

A symbiosis developed. Where audiences once punished media companies for mistakes, now they rewarded them for serving up the pure heroin of shaky, first-draft-like blockbusters. They wanted to be in the trenches of information discovery. Audiences were choosing powerful highs over lasting ones.

Moreover, if after publication another shoe dropped in the form of mitigating information, audiences were disinterested, even angry. Those updates were betrayals of the entertainment contract, like continuity errors.

Disinterested is not a synonym for uninterested. A disinterested person may be very interested in something requiring his disinterestedness: A judge in a lawsuit should be disinterested, meaning free from bias related to the possibility of personal gain, but we would not expect him to be uninterested, bored, checking Instagram during the trial rather than actively presiding over the case.

Taibbi’s usage here is actually close to the opposite of what disinterested means — rather than taking new information in a fair-minded way, the audiences he writes about feel as though they have been personally insulted or shortchanged.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

Predictably, New York’s effort to make vaccine access reflect social-justice priorities has made things considerably worse for the very people such efforts are in theory intended to help. More in the New York Post.

You can buy my new book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. It’s colder than the snow falling on . . . Nacogdoches.

My National Review archive can be found here.

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In Closing

If I hear one more, “So much for global warming!” this week, my eyes will roll back into my head so far that I will be staring into my own frontal lobe. Nobody needs that.

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