My favorite living writer, John Varley, is a candid man. He’s also a proud hippie. So when he says something about politics, it’s candid hippiness, and thus a good opportunity to see how weird that sort of thinking (obviously in the ascendant now) really is. Here he is with a brief essay on economics, in which he posits “Varley’s First And Second Laws.” The first is, “Economists don’t know anything!” and the second is “Everybody is greedy!”
Let’s grant him that. I certainly would grant him the second, and I would come very close to granting him the first. But what conclusions do you draw from these two propositions? One would think that the conclusion would be: “Keep people who claim to know how to run your economic life far away from the levers of power!” Or perhaps, “If everybody is greedy, you can’t trust them with the legal authority to control other people’s lives!”
That is to say, you would think the natural conclusion is, the power of government to control your life ought to be as limited as possible, so that bureaucrats who run government (or the nefarious private interests who run the bureaucrats) will have less power to screw with your life and to put their greed and ignorance into harmful effect.
Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.
If people are greedy and ignorant—which they are—then isn’t that all the more reason to prevent them from controlling other people’s lives and choices? Shouldn’t those who are not so nasty and dumb be kept free from those who are? Why should the innocent be forced to pay the bills of the ignorant and greedy? In other words, shouldn’t a person who believes that people are greedy and ignorant conclude that freedom is the least bad option, and that the regulatory welfare state, which seeks to subject every aspect of life to the supervision of allegedly expert bureaucrats is just an awful idea? Should we not conclude that, bad as things might be in a free society, it is only going to be worse in a society where greedy and ignorant people are given political control over their neighbors?
And yet Varley doesn’t come to that conclusion. Instead, he rails against free markets as being “idiotic” and so forth—apparently thinking that somehow Barack Obama, whose very name makes Varley smile, is not infected with the same ignorance and greed as everybody else. Perhaps I misunderstand: he says about the Obama administration that “[m]y sphincter squeezes tight and I break out in a cold sweat when I hear those figures. I sure hope somebody knows what they’re doing … but I have my doubts.” As we all should. But why do those doubts not translate into the principle that government bureaucrats should be restrained from acting on their greed and ignorance (or that of their constituents) in ways that violate the rights of others? That is to say, that individuals should be free to order their own economic choices (and responsible for the consequences) as much as possible without being controlled by government, which is, need we repeat, All Too Human?
Free enterprise is culturally mainstream, for the moment. Asked in a Rasmussen poll conducted this month to choose the better system between capitalism and socialism, 13% of respondents over 40 chose socialism. For those under 30, this percentage rose to 33%. (Republicans were 11 times more likely to prefer capitalism than socialism; Democrats were almost evenly split between the two systems.)
The government has been abetting this trend for years by exempting an increasing number of Americans from federal taxation. My colleague Adam Lerrick showed in these pages last year that the percentage of American adults who have no federal income-tax liability will rise to 49% from 40% under Mr. Obama's tax plan. Another 11% will pay less than 5% of their income in federal income taxes and less than $1,000 in total.
To put a modern twist on the old axiom, a man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart; a man who is still a socialist at 40 either has no head, or pays no taxes. Social Democrats are working to create a society where the majority are net recipients of the "sharing economy." They are fighting a culture war of attrition with economic tools.
Those are great points. I do wish the real culture war were over capitalism. I think the right side would win such a war. The problem is that the dispute is muddied up by cultural conservatives who have so far been wildly successful at convincing people that along with freedom of economic choice comes laws barring people from getting married, or sleeping with those they choose, or whatever. Social conservatism has handicapped advocates for free markets for a long time, and it has become a particular charlie horse right now. Unless something is done about it, people will choose collectivist economics so long as they think it comes along with personal freedoms.
Francis Beckwith has published a letter to the editor in the latest issue of the Chapman Law Review (not available online) alleging that I misrepresented his views in my recent article in that journal. I think my article correctly described his views and that his letter—probably intentionally—obscures the issues involved.
Phronesis’ new album Green Delay arrived in the mail yesterday. I had not thought it possible, but it is actually better than their brilliant first album, Organic Warfare. This group produces work that is simultaneously original and melodic, and they swing like all hell. Even more remarkable is the precision of their playing—they are so tightly connected at times that the bass and the piano sound like the same instrument. This is especially remarkable given the speed and complexity of their music.
Each performer in this group is absolutely first rate—and yet they work together in perfect sync. Ivo Neame’s piano playing is rapid, exact, but restrained—held back just enough to keep momentum going. His interactions with Jasper Hoiby’s bass are perfectly balanced. And the drumming! Anton Eger is just something else: his drumming is a unique blend of rock and jazz that gives the music an amazing energy. The music is like whitewater rafting—sometimes bouncing you all over the place, other times smoothing out for a relaxing break, only to plunge you in again. It is rich, clever, absolutely distinctive. But it is never in the least bit harsh or grating as much modern jazz is. This is the kind of music you can listen to while doing other things—but you’ll find yourself stopping to listen more carefully.
Organic Warfare was a great album full of particular moments: Neame Magnus Hjorth’s piano would at times hit just the perfect crest, but then dive a bit too quickly into the next piece. And there were moments that, honestly, weren’t exactly right: the cymbals sometimes hurt your ears, and the pieces sometimes stop short just when they hit their stride. But Green Delay has none of these blemishes. It is brilliant, from start to finish. I don’t know what their secret is, but the jazz world will have to notice these guys in a big way, and soon.
I have lately been doing my patriotic duty and reading Walden, or rather, to “simplify,” I’m listening to the audio book. I wanted very much to enjoy it, as a masterpiece of individualism and humanism. I enjoy, even if I may not completely share, the vision of the self-sufficient man living life in simplicity and savoring the experience of natural life. I thought I would delight in the eloquent prose of a journey of self-discovery and celebration of life.
When I heard about the panic regarding the photo-op flyover of New York, it sounded like a made-up controversy. But looking at the video changed my mind completely. These people are genuinely, and understandably, scared. There's a perfunctory apology from the director of somethingorother at the White House, but President Obama himself owes the people of Manhattan a sincere personal apology (and it would cost him nothing to give it).