Two Hair-Pullers

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Via Glenn Reynolds is a Jennifer Rubin piece that asks the question, "[I]f [Barack Obama's] so smart and well-educated, shouldn't he have come up with something better than the stimulus boondoggle?" She gets frustratingly close to the right answer, but ends up whiffing:

[F]inally, as Ronald Reagan said, "The trouble with our liberal friends isn't that they are ignorant; it is that they know so much that isn't so." In other words, they have a set of views at odds with the way the world operates (meekness will endear us to our enemies, terrorists will be impressed with American legal procedures), the American political scene (the public wanted a lurch to the Left), and basic economic realities (you can load mandates and taxes on employers without impacting employment). These views are a great impediment to a successful presidency.
True enough, but Rubin ends on the following note: "[H]e has time. Maybe with experience, he'll wise up." I'm not so sure about this, because Rubin overlooks the fact that among the ideas one holds are the standards for what constitutes "success."

On the one hand, I applaud Rubin for seeing the importance of ideas in shaping the actions of the President, but on the other, I'm still unsatisfied with the level of analysis. What if Barack Obama's fundamental ideas are telling him that what he's doing is the best way to realize "equality" not only among all Americans, but among all people in the world? No pain, no gain -- and we haven't even gotten around to asking whether Obama sees suffering as a good thing, as many Christians do. Maybe he thinks the pain is the gain.

Conservatives who happen by here should not dismiss me for nit-picking. One need only open the digital pages of City Journal to see altruism/collectivism infecting even their own ranks. Luigi Zingales, attempting to argue for small government, seems to think that our government should be in the business of addressing income disparities, of all things!
Though American GDP has doubled in real terms over the last 25 years, median real income has grown by only 17 percent. While the richest 1 percent of the population has almost tripled its real income and the richest 0.01 percent has more than quintupled it, the bottom 10 percent has increased its income by only 12 percent.
So what? If the government didn't meddle with my personal choices and have its hands in my pockets all the time, I'd be thrilled to have any kind of income increase. Bill Gates hasn't picked my pocket or broken my leg if he is a trillionaire instead of a billionaire -- assuming, of course, he earned it rather than having been handed loot by the government.

Zingales goes on to praise "Republican" Theodore Roosevelt for creating the FDA and trust-busting. This he does on the way to counseling that, rather than, "give these poorer citizens entitlements disguised as rights," like the Democrats, the Republicans "should focus on providing" welfare state programs of their own disguised as "opportunities."

What's going on here? Rubin naively assumes that Obama has the same pro-prosperity goals she has, and Zingales seems to think that his goal of small government is compatible with egalitarianism. Why?

Because neither sees morality as having anything to do with life. Rubin's tack is that Obama will eventually see the "impracticality" of his idealism and back off on his destructive agenda. She underestimates the power of Obama's ideas to guide his actions. Zingales, on the other hand, fails to see the power of his own altruism (an apparently "compassionate" conservatism) to turn his enthusiasm for small government on its head and, in the process, transmogrify him into a "Democrat lite."

I strongly suspect that both hold an altruistic moral code and see morality as a matter of duty. On such a score, Ayn Rand made the following profound observation:
In order to make the choices required to achieve his goals, a man needs the constant, automatized awareness of the principle which the anti-concept "duty" has all but obliterated in his mind: the principle of causality--specifically, of Aristotelian final causation (which, in fact, applies only to a conscious being), i.e., the process by which an end determines the means, i.e., the process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it. ("Causality Versus Duty," in Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 98)
Conversely, a means causally incompatible with an end will fail to lead to that end. Altruism does not inform political choices (i.e., the selection of means) that lead to the protection of individual rights, whose purpose is to enable men to live for their own sake.

Thus, to the extent that one's goal is altruism or egalitarianism, that end (and not individual rights) will guide his actions and his thoughts, meaning it will obliterate his ability to make use of his intelligence for the means of furthering his own life. And further, to the extent that one's goal is freedom, that end will be frustrated by the means of achieving altruistic or collectivist goals.

In the political sphere, this means that one will regard individual freedom (and the economic prosperity that follows from it) only as means to that end (if that), and not as the proper end of government. The result will be that one will fail to see the danger of those more consistent than oneself, and that freedom will fall by the wayside when it frustrates egalitarianism.

This is why Jennifer Rubin underestimates Barack Obama's effective stupidity and Luigi Zingales fails to offer a real alternative to same.

-- CAV


: (1) Corrected a typo. (2) Added a word in clarification (HT: Cogito).


Cogito said...

Hey Gus, quick grammatical note:

"Rubin overlooks the fact among the ideas one holds are the standards for what constitutes "success.""

I had to read that a few times to get an idea of what you meant. Is this what you meant to say?

"Rubin overlooks the fact that among the ideas one holds are the standards for what constitutes "success.""

Gus Van Horn said...

You are correct. I think my mind must have slipped it in when I reread it this morning.


Richard said...

Great post.

Jennifer Rubin sounds like many regular Joe's who will criticize Obama as stupid or ignorant. But I think those are compliments he doesn't deserve (it sounds like you think so as well). To re-purpose the Wolfgang Pauli quote he is "not even stupid".

Gus Van Horn said...


Well, she does at first (and the subject of criticizing leftists for being "stupid" or otherwise merely "immature" I have addressed in the past), but at least she touches on the idea that the right course of action is not necessarily obvious. Unfortunately, her criticism is only just barely past that concrete level.

That said, I guess you could say that Obama is "not even stupid." Heh.


Grant said...

So many, upon hearing that some kind of egalitarianism isn't the Objectivist's political goal, immediately assume then that his goal must be some kind of politically created inequality. It never occurs to the average person that the preceeding question - what should the government's policy be regarding non-political disparities amongst the citizenry - is one that should never be asked.

Gus Van Horn said...

That silly notion is a hair-puller as well!

Mo said...

those conservatives are really lost in their altruism. Over at notpc there is an interesting thread on a recent government-sponsored scholarship and socialism.

long story short, the conservative dude calls the thread starter fanatic for binding to his principles. Just another reminder that the public and the culture do indeed have to change before politics take a different course.

Gus Van Horn said...

Your last comment is correct, but your bringing it up reminds me that it's not the WHOLE culture that has to change, all at once. We just need enough familiarity with our ideas out there that such smear attempts carry even less weight than they do now. Half of what makes that guy think he can get away without making an argument is the relative novelty of our ideas.