Pragmatism vs. Cultural Change

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Glenn Reynolds pens a column in Forbes on the current presidential contest between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Its title will strike a familiar chord this election year: "Is This The Best We Can Do?" Fellow Objectivists who skim through it as I did on first encountering it will then see familiar-sounding words:

There have been a lot of structural suggestions: Term limits, a ban on senators running for president (which would probably do more for the Senate than for the White House, really) and various campaign-finance schemes that look pretty iffy in light of recent experience. Term limits might shake up our gerrymandered Congress a bit and bring in some new blood, but would they bring in the right kind of new blood? That's less clear.
Yes. These kinds of suggestions are, as I have often said, attempts to treat symptoms rather than the disease. This is starting to sound interesting! If you're on the same page with me, you might begin to perk up a little bit.
So while I remain open to suggestions for structural reform, I think that we may need a change in the culture.
Yes! Finally! Could it be that a prominent non-Objectivist out there has finally become hip to the ideas that (a) the broader culture drives supply in electoral politics via demand, (b) the problems we are having with pandering and vote-purchasing in politics will not go away until something about our culture changes for the better, and (c) it is time to challenge the dominant approach of blind pragmatism (with an unquestioning acceptance of altruism's guiding hand)?

Well, at least you didn't have to wait too long for the other shoe to drop!
It's no surprise that a lot of our best political leaders distinguished themselves outside of politics before they ran for office. Perhaps we need to be encouraging an ethic of public service among our most successful, in the hopes that we'll get more people with real-world experience and proven ability at doing something besides raising money and looking good on TV. Could we do better? We're unlikely to do worse. [bold added]
As he might put this himself: I mean no disrespect towards Professor Reynolds, but has he been paying any attention to this year's candidates or to the popular culture?

From sportscasts attempting to make "role models" of athletes not because of their discipline, but because they "give back" to the community, through calls by both presidential candidates for some form of mandatory national servitude, all the way to Alan Greenspan laying the blame of the financial crisis on capitalism, our culture is not just saturated with calls for an "ethic of public service". It's drowning in them.

We'll be lucky after four years of whichever flavor of statist wins not to have our best and brightest forced into politics. Reynolds will then have his wish answered, but our politics will still be a mess. Simply getting better people into government will not get us out of our current mess.

How do I know this? The clues come from several other points Reynolds makes earlier on to the effect that we ought to have better candidates running for office, perhaps even than we did at America's founding: We have a much larger talent pool from which to draw candidates. Our populace is better-educated, on the whole. (For the moment, let's accept this point for the sake of argument.) Politics is a low-paying, high-pressure job with huge time demands and, as such, it drives away the talented. It has become expensive to win office, and one has to be charismatic to do so.

It is certainly true that all these things would conspire to give us mediocrities running for office year in and year out, but what kind of person would want a career in politics anyway? And what kind of person would we want, instead?

To answer those questions, one must do something Reynolds never does in his piece: consider the nature of the job. Elected officials are serving in our government. Perhaps we should spend some time -- as did our Founders, who mysteriously had better officials and government -- considering the proper purpose and function of government.

What is government? What is it for? What does it do? How does it do it? Not one of these questions comes up, and yet we're carrying on a discussion of how to get a better field of candidates as if we were all on a corporate search committee. Except that the government doesn't pay too well. And for some reason, the United States hasn't restructured or spun off a few states to become more manageable. And it has a Constitution, at least for the moment. Why?

These unusual properties of the job of a government official all relate to the nature of the government as it is today, although one needs to know further whether we have a proper government in order to know whether any given aspect of the job would normally be a factor -- or whether there are other factors or qualifications we ought to consider, but haven't.

I am not going to discuss the proper nature of government at length here, today. (Ayn Rand has done that already, and far better than I could, anyway.) I will note that the government is the only social institution that can legally wield physical force -- the delegated retaliatory force of self-defense of the citizens -- and its only proper purpose is the protection of individual rights.

In contrast to the electorate at the time of America's founding, an astounding percentage of the population today does not grasp the nature or purpose of government. This means that, as voters, they will demand -- and get -- candidates committed to misusing government force for other purposes at the expense of the protection of our freedom. The Founders were aware that such a day could come and deliberately made it difficult for the government to actively do things beyond its proper function. They called it "checks and balances".

In that light, the very idea of calling for a more "competent" government officialdom should cause the spine of anyone who values his freedom to tingle. Competent? To do what? Make the trains run on time? Even if they can make you board those trains to somewhere you don't want to go? Our problems are not because our government is run by incompetents, but because it is frequently doing the wrong thing, although not, so far, to the degree of running trains to an Auschwitz.

In addition to calls for "better" officials putting the cart before the horse, it is worth noting that, due to government meddling in the economy, there is a vast misconception -- shared by Reynolds -- that our government officials need to be Renaissance men.

Why? Their proper job description is actually rather simple.

This argument has surface plausibility due to the unnecessary complexity of the mixed economy. (Thus, it is also related to the notion I elaborated on earlier that voters need to be near-omniscient to make good electoral choices) But this argument is wrong, and often reflects an inability by those who hold it to think in terms of principles. As I said before:
Heinlein has it half-right that figuring out how to vote requires an "enormous" amount of time. It does take time, it is true, to master the principles on which our nation was founded. However, once one does this, these principles greatly simplify how one approaches any subsequent election, even in today's context of massive government intrusion. Anyone who thinks that each election requires enormous amounts of study before one can vote intelligently does not understand the cognitive role of principles. [bold added]
"Protect my individual rights, and do not violate them," is the basic principle by which I would want a government official to act. Yes, he would have to have some idea of what individual rights are, but it would not matter one jot whether he were a Creationist, a global warming hysteric, an animist, a Moslem, or (usually) uncomfortable thinking about scientific concepts, so long as what he did in office was guided by that principle. And, under a proper government, his power to adversely affect my life would be greatly diminished compared to what it is today.

We do need cultural change, but what Reynolds calls cultural "change" is just more of the same. What needs to change about our culture is for more people to understand the nature of individual rights and the proper role of the government. Each, incidentally, entails a discovery of proper ethical principles -- which, incidentally, actually run counter to the altruism Reynolds prescribes.

Until that happens, we will remain in an inherently unstable mixed economy that will alternately drift and lurch towards totalitarianism. The government will increasingly attempt the impossible: replace the minds of millions of individuals with bureaucrats and inflexible rules in order to run an economy for 300 million plus. This will cause problems, which the government will expand to attempt to "fix" ad infinitum.

The government can not run the economy and should not try. There is no such thing as a government official competent for that job, and that is a job I frankly want to remain undone because I have work of my own to do and want politicians out of my way. And there is nothing wrong with me wanting to live my own life as I see fit. In fact, that is good.

-- CAV

PS: I highly recommend Tara Smith's "The Menace of Pragmatism" from the latest issue of The Objective Standard. You may read its first paragraphs for free here, with the option of purchasing the article. She discusses many issue I either briefly alluded to here or simply did not have time to discuss at all.


Paul Hsieh said...

Gus: If you haven't e-mailed this post to Glenn, then I recommend that you do so!

IchorFigure said...

Lou Dobbs said something similar while I was watching his show a few weeks ago. He was talking about how corrupt government had become in regards to Joe the Plumber. Then lamenting how government should be comprised of people like him from all walks of life. Plumbers, masons, teachers, doctors etc. instead of career politicians. As if that is inherently any better.

Gus Van Horn said...


The Blogfather tends to not get to my email or ignore it, but what the hey....


That handle cracks me up.

But yes, you see my point!


z said...

As far as structural suggestions go, Walter Williams makes one I hadn't thought about but it seems very powerful to me:

Gus Van Horn said...

Quoting WW:

"In addition to venality and corruption, restricting the number of representatives confers significant monopoly power that goes a long way toward explaining the stranglehold the two parties have and the high incumbent success rates. It might also explain the power of vested interest groups to influence congressional decisions. They only have to bribe, cajole or threaten a relatively small number of representatives. Imagine the challenge to a lobbyist, if there were 7,500 representatives, trying to get a majority of 3,813 to vote for this or that special privilege versus having to get only a 218 majority in today's Congress."

Earmarks and lobbying this might fix (unless all just started voting for "blanket earmarks" for each delagate), but earmarks ar chump change compared to the grand larceny of Social Security and other entitlement programs, which have so much popular support as to be likened to touching the electrified third rail of a subway.

Interesting idea, but I don't think it would really help that much.

Jim May said...

Here's a wild idea I've thought of, but have no idea what the consequences might be:

Allow every taxpayer to "earmark" where their tax dollars go. I'd restrict mine to the military and law enforcement (on the federal level); if a leftist wants his money going to welfare bums, so be it.

The first thing I'd expect them to do is define the categories in a vague package-dealing fashion so you couldn't be too specific with your targetting... but I'm pretty sure that's the least of the problems here.


Gus Van Horn said...

That's even easier to thwart than you imagine: They'd just make everything, including tax collection, a "function" of the military.

johnnycwest said...

Excellent post - essentially The Blogfather (I love that - did you coin that phrase?) simply wishes we had nicer and more benevolent dictators.

You hit the nail on the head with:
"It is certainly true that all these things would conspire to give us mediocrities running for office year in and year out, but what kind of person would want a career in politics anyway? And what kind of person would we want, instead?" Exactly.

And for "a low-paying, high-pressure job with huge time demands", it produces a remarkable number of wealthy people. They must be very frugal and wise with their own money as opposed to ours.

The sad things is, and I am sure I am not alone in this, that I am by nature very uncynical except when it comes to politicians and politics. In that realm, my cynicism is boundless. I appreciate astute observers such as yourself having the patience and stomach to read and comment on the circus. I find myself paying less attention to politics than I ever have.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks! Glad to help! Heh!

"I find myself paying less attention to politics than I ever have."

Join the club.

I haven't watched a single debate this time around and will probably completely avoid coverage of the count on election night.