That Sucking Sound ...

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

... is being caused by an intellectual vacuum, as a post by Megan McArdle demonstates (HT: Glenn Reynolds).

McArdle is reacting in The Atlantic Monthly to the charge that she is enjoying left wing disappointment over Obama's cabinet appointments. She is not, she assures us. In fact, not only did she support Obama herself, but she would, "personally be pleased to see Ingrid Newkirk appointed to head the USDA." McArdle has been mistaken for a conservative and she's setting the record straight.

So far, so good, so to speak.

It's when she explains why she feels some measure of equanimity about this situation (and, by implication, why her fellow Obama supporters should, too), that things get interesting. After first calling herself a libertarian, she names having a "radical agenda" as a commonality between libertarians and "progressive" leftists, along with "the lunatic belief that if only there were some structural change in the world, they'd finally get the opportunity to enact their agenda".

Politicians don't listen because progressive and libertarian activists are not pushing minor schemes to benefit themselves greatly at small cost to everyone else. They are pushing for radical change that will require radical fiscal medicine to effect. That fiscal medicine will not pass unnoticed, and hence, it does not happen. [bold added]
Let us set aside McArdle's claim that there is a libertarian "agenda", for what she is saying about radical agendas per se is the interesting point here: This is half-right and half-wrong, which is worse than simply being wrong, because the correct half makes the incorrect half look correct.

Yes. It is true that politicians don't like agendas (radical or otherwise) when people understand that such agendas imply consequences that they do not support. (e.g., "[T]hey want national health insurance and lower government spending, but, you see, not that way....")

But no. It is not true that politicians simply don't listen to radicals, or that popular opposition to radical changes is written in stone. History shows us that, for better or worse, politicians frequently do listen to radicals. This is directly because radicals frequently do effect fundamental changes in popular opinion. Otherwise, we would still have black slavery, but lack an income tax today.

What, then, is the nature of McArdle's error? Her closing paragraph says it all:
This does not make me happy. It does not make me happy that I can't privatize social security [sic] and eliminate the corporate income tax, and it does not make me happy that I can't have radical agricultural reform and a stiff carbon tax. But the universe is not here to please me.
Set aside the fact that her goals are contradictory (or even self-contradictory, as in the case of Social Security). Notice the magical powers she seems to attribute to politicians generally and Obama in particular. What would it take -- to use a truly pro-freedom example -- to phase out Social Security?

To listen to McArdle (or most leftists), it would seem to take some form of dictatorship. What other kind of "structural change", exactly, would it take to get popular objections to all that "nasty ... medicine" out of the way of these radical agendas? To her credit, she opts for resignation, instead, but she is still wrong.

And the nature of her error is that it is a confusion of the man-made for the metaphysically given. "[T]he universe is not here to please me." True, but as the case of slavery shows us, widespread sentiment is, unlike gravity, not a natural force beyond man's control. It can be changed.

The question is: How? Man, environmentalist fashion and centuries of religious dogma to the contrary, is a natural phenomenon. His mind is, and his opinions are. As with any other thing in nature that one wants to change, one must consider the nature of man and his mind before one can attempt to change popular opinion.

When one does so, he will realize that he cannot force a mind to agree, but that he can attempt to persuade other individuals of the merits of his position by offering sound arguments. This is what the "moral suasion" of the abolitionists was, and we see the results today. It sounds contradictory to put it this way since men have free will (and individual rights), but in political discourse, it is true: "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed."

But McArdle, I would guess, despairs of achieving a radical agenda at least in part because she understands (correctly) that popular opinion will not change overnight. However, there is more to this picture. If persuading other people is the key to (eventually) enacting a radical agenda, what is required to do so? The one thing libertarians uniformly dismiss: fundamental philosophical principles. You can neither explain what freedom is or offer a convincing argument for why someone should support it (instead of, say, government handouts) without recourse to principles that correspond to the facts of reality.

Libertarians thus "tend to moon over" various free-sounding (but often contradictory) random stances but ultimately become resigned to politics as usual. This is because they refuse at the outset to arm themselves for the battle of ideas necessary to achieve (or even understand) the goal of freedom they say they want. In doing so, they leave the door wide open to those who will not shrink from the kind of "structural changes" needed to enact their radical agendas without popular consent.

Anyone who doesn't like this state of affairs, take note, and know that treason vs. resignation is a false alternative.

-- CAV


: Changed wording of one sentence.


Anonymous said...

Good post. I find Megan's posts to be often of the half-good/hlaf-bad variety, and I think I understand why. While she is a good writer and often makes good points, she is also a complete pragmatist. One does not often encountered someone so principled at being unpricipled.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks. Yes, freedom's biggest enemies are those who refuse to stand up for principles because "'the world' just doesn't work that way".

Anonymous said...

I’m not sure of that. Those who refuse to stand up for principles are at least leaving the way clear for those who will stand up for them. The worst enemies of freedom are those who actively make it impossible to stand up for the principles freedom requires, or those who actively stand against those principles (including by trying to water them down to make them more “palatable”).

I sometimes get a sense of futility regarding Objectivism. I know Objectivism is correct, but I cannot do other people’s thinking for them, so I am helpless when they decide to reject Objectivism for stupid reasons. I can try to point out why their reasons are not so good, but it is useless to do so when they are not listening. It is amazing how quickly people shut their ears, too.

Sometimes I think the best thing to do is go on strike and leave these people to the fates they have chosen for themselves.

Gus Van Horn said...

You're missing my point in two different ways.

"The worst enemies of freedom are those who actively make it impossible to stand up for the principles freedom requires, or those who actively stand against those principles (including by trying to water them down...."

That category includes "activists" like Megan McArdle. It usually does not include average conformists, who just "go with the flow". Those latter are the only ones not in the way. And simply not being in the way is not really worthy of credit, as you seem to imply. And refusing to stand up for principles is always evil, for it implies that the issue has been made unavoidable.

Second, you seem to think I am saying that we should waste our time trying to convince the Megan McArdles of the world that we're right. That would be incorrect. I agree that we should move on past a certain point. Nevertheless, refuting such people can be useful in helping others (who are open to reason) understand errors in thinking that may be similar to their own.

Jim May said...

The best way of understanding exactly how half-defenders can do more damage than enemies, is to consider them as counterfeiters and diluters of our "brand".

On the one hand, since they are pushing something that closely resembles our ideas, there can be the temptation to look at them as allies.

But when their counterfeit ideas fail, it is *our* "product" that gets tagged with the failure. That can hurt a lot more than the criticisms of our enemies, especially if it happens near a possible tipping point, when we are poised to make some big headway somewhere or our profile has been raised by a big news story or somesuch -- it can cause damage that lasts for years.

That is why we have to exploit counterfeiters by exposing *them* at key moments. That is why we would and should target libertarians and conservatives when their profile is raised; we can distinguish our brand from their fakes, and tell people to "accept no imitations!"

Sure, we'll annoy those who might be sympathetic, but differ with us on some key principle. That's fine; those were never our customers in the first place.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the analogy. That is indeed a good way to think about this issue.