Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | March 3, 2010

America at the Crossroads: Intellectual Honesty

This is the third post in the “America at the Crossroads” thread dedicated to examining America’s inner life.  The second looked at optimism as a habitual mindset for conservatives.  The next one will discuss the importance of knowing history.

Some years ago in the late 1980s, when I was a junior officer supervising a watch section in one of the major fleet intelligence centers, I remember a senior civilian analyst exercising a beneficial brake on the snap judgments to which we younger, less experienced professionals were sometimes prone.  In one particular instance, we young Turks were sure we had gotten it right in figuring out what was going on with some Soviet nuclear submarines.  All the individual intelligence data points fell into place beautifully.  It was clear to us what was going on.  There was no need to even consider alternate theories: the best explanation was right before us, and it all hung together.

The senior civilian stood with us at the great wall-size map and listened thoughtfully.  He agreed that the signs looked pretty obvious.  If he were in our shoes, he’d call it just the way we had.  He made a series of notes in the notebook he always had with him (but which never left our strongly-secured work area), and said with a smile that he needed to write it all down so he could remember why we thought what we thought on that day.  It might, he suggested, all fall apart later, this beautiful, unassailable analysis.  Of course, we thought that was ridiculous.

And of course, as readers will guess, it all did fall apart within a week.  What we thought was going on was in fact something else.  It wasn’t even that the Soviets succeeded in hoodwinking us; they were making no more than their usual attempts at that, and we were onto them and their methods.  What had happened was simply that with the best sensors and intelligence in the world, we had misread what we were seeing – and we liked our conclusion too much.  As the intelligence community puts it, we made the mistake of falling in love with our analysis.

It took the emergence of fresh activity and new observations to refine our understanding and correct our assessment.  The senior civilian had seen it before so many times, he knew we should expect to have to revise our assessment.  He didn’t know what the right assessment would be in advance, any more than we did.  What he did know was that we shouldn’t get attached to the wrong assessment, merely because at a single point it time it looked so perfect.

Attachment to the wrong assessment is a very old human weakness, one that scientists and engineers could go on about at some length.  There is usually someone who sees the hazard and questions the assessments others are so attached to, and it’s amazing how repetitive the pattern is of the skeptic being pilloried.  And yet mankind’s record is an uninterrupted one of being wrong about everything, before we accept, case by case and with the passage of centuries, that our theories are not explanatory, or that they fail empirical tests.  We then move forward with theories that perform better; but it’s an iterative process, one in which we keep embracing error and only gradually weed it out.

The pace of forensic inquiry about our universe has accelerated dramatically in the last 150 years.  But we have continued to be wrong over and over again, and we can take it to the bank that there’s a lot we’re still wrong about on 3 March 2010.  Conservatives need to be the political faction that, as we say in these modern United States, can handle that – without loading up the political bandwagon with unproven theories, but also without losing our bearings as regards empiricism and knowledge in general.

I imagine what most readers immediately think of in this context is the theory of anthropogenic global warming, lately recast as climate change (AGW/CC).  AGW/CC is an emblem these days for the misuse of “science,” and seems indeed to be an epic case of analytical attachment to the wrong assessment.

But there are many areas of human life and cosmological inquiry to which we should apply the principle of not getting attached to the wrong assessment – and of affirming the right of skeptics to dispute it without being shouted down or disparaged.  The interpretation of political history is one of those areas, as Jeff Bergner’s piece at The Weekly Standard last month highlights.  The “Narrative” he refers to, in which America’s history is an outline of “progress” on the road to greater, more activist government guarantees of “equality,” is an example of a wrong assessment whose reach and power have been incalculable.

One countervailing truth seems to be, for example, that economic inequality actually increases with government intervention:  the more there is of the latter, the greater is the former.  We certainly can’t say in 2010 that we have less government regulation, intervention, and activism than we had in 1910.  We have, in fact, far, far more.  After a century of federal interventionism in all aspects of life, we have a good data set on the effect it produces:  the nation around us.  With its social and economic realities, our country in 2010 is what you get when you adopt the American Progressives’ preferred interventionist policies.  This is their legacy.  We don’t know what any of it would look like if we had had less-regulated free-market capitalism over the last 100 years – because we didn’t.

The left labors to make it seem uncollegial – hard-hearted, overly punctilious, pedantic – to decline their terms of debate.  But the terms are more than slanted, they are empirically invalid.  There exists no such unregulated dystopia as what the left incessantly propounds, as if, for example, Americans had to buy health insurance today, or receive medical care, under unregulated, unsubsidized conditions.  The exact opposite is the case.  Everything in our health care industry is regulated, and subsidies and effective price controls abound.  What today’s customer encounters is the result of regulation.

As another example, the average household today spends 5 of 12 months working to pay taxes, and only 7 working to maintain itself.  In no sense can a sane case be made that government is not “doing enough.”  Paying for government monopolizes more than 40% of an average tax-paying household’s productivity!  Objectively, government is tremendously active, it’s expensive, and it’s already one of the top two expenses – the other being mortgage or rent – in the typical household budget.  Government has become the biggest single economic factor in most people’s lives.

We know what is achieved by having government do more, because we are already living it.  It is empirically invalid for the left to assert that anything going on around us today is a result of government not regulating us, not taxing us, or not subsidizing some of us at the expense of others.  Everything we see is, rather – objectively, empirically – affected by, and often the direct result of, government regulating and taxing us, and subsidizing some of us at others’ expense.  Utopia is already here.  Look out your front door.  This is it.

It is imperative that conservatives stake out the ground of intellectual honesty as America makes her choice of direction at the crossroads.  There is too much political freight with invalid assumptions and wrong assessments.  We cannot give them a pass in the name of collegiality or compromise.

Neither, however, should we vaunt mankind’s demonstrably limited and imperfect understanding over our fellow conservatives (or, for that matter over leftists).  Conservatives need to have the moral courage to know what they are talking about rather than accepting the mainstream left’s view of contentious philosophical issues, and fearing to be seen challenging it.

The concept of “intelligent design,” to take another example, is not the same thing as “creationism,” nor is it unscientific.  It is, in fact, scientific in the most important sense, in that it is prepared to test its premises against empirical observation and analysis.  Conservatives who denigrate “ID” on cue display ignorance of what ID actually is, as well as tacit acceptance of a supposed “consensus” that, like the one about AGW/CC, does not actually exist.  There is no consensus among scientists that our universe could not have been designed by an intelligent mind; if there is a consensus, it’s that the tools for demonstrating that proposition – or disproving it – are sparse and questionable, at least at the level of inquiry we have achieved today.

Perhaps most importantly, none of this is philosophically or scientifically incompatible with the theory of evolution, to the limited extent to which some of its elements have been proven.   The same limitations affect both the theory of unguided evolution and the theory of intelligent design:  we don’t have the tools to prove or disprove either absolutely.  Privileging one theory over the other in the specific matter of whether there’s an intelligence at work in the universe is entirely a matter of subjective preference, and of emotion, politics, and persuasion; it has nothing to do with “science.”

There is, equally, nothing scientific in saying that science has to assume away all influences and possible causes that it cannot test for or observe directly.  If we really agreed with that, we would never have achieved most of the scientific breakthroughs of the last two centuries.  Postulates about what we couldn’t yet observe or measure directly have been the lifeblood of scientific advance in the modern age.

Much of the West’s accepted intellectual narrative today involves a subjective favoring of some propositions over others, very often in defiance of an empirical record that is all of the following:  objective, subjective, and inherently limited.  Our best empirical knowledge starts out imperfect.  Extrapolating answers from it is an exercise in selecting, refining, and very often, falling in love with wrong assessments.  This process may prove itself over time, after the wring-outs of iterative failure, to be a basis for planting crops in new ways, or putting airplanes into the sky.  But it is not a sound basis for demanding that our fellow men shut up, sit down, and hand over their wallets for speculative experimentation.

The price of conceding the terms of debate, and letting the left define the parameters and character of knowledge, has become very, very high.  As America stands at the crossroads, it matters greatly whether we keep buying into endlessly recycled but discredited concepts like the proposition that man simply hasn’t tried enough government, taxation, confiscation, and subsidy yet.  If these measures were going to work to make human life “better” or fix our perennial problems, they would certainly have done so by now.  Every government in history has energetically engaged in all of them.

It matters whether we accept the idea that at any given time, we have such comprehensive knowledge of global causes and effects that we can confidently predict exact future outcomes and set out to “manage” them.  It matters further that this proposition is a different one from identifying demonstrable hazards — like earthquakes and the spread of disease – and taking measures to insure against them.  Seeking to guarantee outcomes is very different from seeking to minimize known risks.  Without the slightest proof from human history, today’s political left has adopted the premise that managing or guaranteeing outcomes is a feasible project; and it attacks the conservative right repeatedly on the premise that we could be doing that, but, for no good reason, aren’t.

Too often, conservatives don’t recognize the extent to which public debate is conducted today in the terms favored by the left.  Too often we have bought into those terms ourselves without realizing it.  The cost of conceding those terms without objection – without honest intellectual examination – is very high.

New generations of Americans now grow up believing vaguely that government must not be regulating us enough, because if it were, there would be greater equality, and no one would be poor or without health care, and environmentalists would finally be able to lay down the megaphone and enjoy life a little more.  There is a Mount Everest-size pile of groundless assumptions underlying this mishmash of beliefs, but they are rarely trotted out for critical review.  People literally do not know the extent to which we are already regulated.  They don’t make the mental connection between the trillions that have already gone to social welfare programs and the left’s demand for precisely that measure as an emblem of “social justice.”  How we could possibly not have social justice by now, if the taxation-and-welfare approach were going to achieve it for us, is an impenetrable conundrum – if, that is, you have any idea what has been happening in America for the last five decades.

The left’s emotional attachment to the shibboleths of modern thought is very strong.  There are a number of ways in which they have hold of a very wrong assessment – and those critics of it who are investigating the record of how we got to where we are may seem strident, overly categorical, or just plain annoying as they plow through the long-forgotten notes of analysts past and present their findings to the public.  Glenn Beck, much discussed in the last week, is one of these critical investigators; if there’s one thing he’s about, it’s debunking the “Narrative.”

But do a self-check, readers, because you probably believe some elements of the Narrative yourself.  It took time and effort for the left to build and propagate the Narrative and all its little sub-narratives about race, environmentalism, cosmology etc.  Many millions of Americans have been indoctrinated in it through the public schools, the editorial perspective of the mainstream media, and even the story lines of the entertainment industry and popular culture.  In many areas of life, the Narrative has become the guide to how we think.  We repair to it reflexively, and have the same level of intellectual comfort with it that we have with the weather report, or with our sentiments about the BCS ranking system in college football.  We have a sense of familiarity and understanding about it, and that alone exerts a powerful tug.

But annoyance with the work of deconstructing the Narrative, and the modern left’s set of core beliefs, will consign us to political and intellectual impotence.  The left is working off the wrong assessment; that’s why its policies produce bad outcomes that it never seems to learn from.  The last thing we should be doing is accepting that same assessment by default.  The time has come when we must choose either intellectual honesty or irrelevance.  Intellectual honesty will let us in for criticism, of course, but it’s not like we’re avoiding criticism from the left now.  The only thing we have to fear, after all, is fear itself.


  1. It is amazing how true that is – that there is a level of familiarity about the progressive state that we just accept. That many well meaning and well read people with a conservative political leaning immediately equate progress with progressivism as a political construct is unfortunate. They say they don’t like govt interference and then support all sorts of it anyway.

    I find it is often case an emotional reaction to a business environment they don’t like, and thus don’t trust business and expect, and accept the notion, the govt protecting consumers. What never made sense to me, and this was before Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism, was how all this govt regulation seemed to empower the current businesses at my expense. His book finally connected the dots philosophically for me.

    I don’t trust business either, but I trust business even less if it is highly regulated and thus moving govt to act on their behalf. If the govt isn’t pushing itself into everyone’s business, then the business has to stand and fall on its own merits. If I don’t like them, I don’t use them.

    What is also very evident to me, is that we have managed this current level of wealth and comfort inspite of the regulatory state, not becuase of it. Our success is that despite the govt, our system allows the most freedom for people to act in their own self interest and try to determine their own success and keeping the fruits of that success. Most other societies on the planet don’t allow that degree of freedom, which is one reason why China will never pass us but India might. So obviously we do better than everyone else and it is the reason people from all over the globe want to come here for a better life.

    The Left cannot accept that. They just don’t like facts. They like control.

  2. “Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties:

    1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.

    2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests.

    In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves.” Thomas Jefferson

    “The Left cannot accept that. They just don’t like facts. They like control.”

    It is all about control for some on the left.

    For the others; Stalin’s “useful idiots”, the issue of control centers upon a belief in the necessity for control, rather than the personal pursuit of power.

    Liberals; the left’s useful idiots, believe that the regulation of control is necessary because of an immature emotional reaction to a fundamental aspect of reality itself.

    All “ism’s” of the left are essentially infantile protests against life’s fundamental inequalities.

    Indeed, the eternal cry of the child, “that’s not fair!” lies at the heart of all their philosophies.

    Those on the left cannot emotionally accept life’s unfairness because they suffer from arrested emotional development, which is always indicated when reality cannot be accepted. Their resultant behavior is entirely consistent with a two year old’s temper tantrum, when they cannot get their way.

    Predictably, they look for ‘someone’ to blame, someone to ‘hit back at’ in natural reaction to their feeling of being offended against and, whether the blame is placed upon ‘stupid’ or ‘selfish’ people, or ‘evil’ corporations, or the capitalist system itself or even an ‘impossible-to-believe-in’ God…is of little consequence, compared to the consequential premise that blame provides; if we can only control people and circumstance enough, we can make reality fair enough.

    Many on the right share the perception that life is regrettably ‘unfair’ but being more emotionally mature, they react to life’s inequalities with resigned acceptance.

    What each side fails to understand is why reality is ‘constructed’ with its fundamental inequalities and thus fail to appreciate the beneficial necessity for life’s essential unfairness.

    Reality’s inequality of outcome is not only necessary, its absolutely desirable:

    From evolution’s ‘beneficial’ individual mutations that impart an ‘unfair’ evolutionary advantage and are then ‘unjustly’ passed on through genetic inheritance. To the 80/20 rule that reflects the natural accumulation of resources into the control of 20% of any society’s members…to the inventive and entrepreneurial impulses that ‘naturally’ reside in the individual, rather than the group…

    All these are positive and necessary for civilizational advancement and even, for life itself to progress beyond the amoeba stage of complexity.

    It never occurs to them, that evolution is only possible through adaptive individual mutation, (an inequality) to an environment that must change, in order for living things to progress toward increasing levels of sophistication and complexity…

    There’s a reason why individuals invent and not committees. There’s a reason why only a privately controlled pool of investment capital can create permanent, non-governmental jobs.

    It never occurs to them that only ongoing but non-discriminatory inequalities or merit-based inequalities can result in a rising standard of living for all.

    Discrimination and inequality are not the same thing and in failing to understand that distinction, inequality and ‘unfairness’ are equated.

    That confusion places us in opposition to the existential reality within which we exist and, that is a fight that we cannot win but in the fighting of that battle, we only reduce our own advancement.

  3. JEM — I certainly agree that we have achieved our present prosperity in spite of the weight of government, and not because of it.

    Think of how much more Americans could save, and how much more they would buy with cash, if the burden of taxes took only 1 month out of a year’s earnings rather than 5.

    Every economic event we see today is a result of people and markets reacting to regulation and taxes. There is no such thing as unregulated effects any more. It’s simply, well, a lie, for Democrats to bloviate about this theoretical evil. We haven’t been unregulated in the economic realm for a century.

    GB — perfect Jefferson quote. And yes, you’re quite right to make the point about many on the left insisting on the NECESSITY for control. They start from the idea that the unregulated human life is a catastrophe, from one or many perspectives. For them, liberty is not a first principle but the detritus: what’s left after the government gets through regulating you in order to produce specific outcomes.

    The left’s concept of liberty has always reminded me of the ’80s-era emphasis on “quality time” spent with one’s children. A sort of precept that if you have a couple of hours a week of liberty, outside of the obligations government imposes on you, hey: you should maximize it and you’ll get what you really need and it’ll all be good.

    Pay no attention to all the stress and dysfunction and dissatisfaction of all those other hours out of the 168, when you’re being jerked around by a bunch of commitments that OTHER people think are a good idea for you.

    Those other people are really smart, and if they say what you need is two hours of liberty a week, well, what do you know? If you were left to live life according to your own wishes and abilities, you might buy an SUV and teach your boys to enjoy contact sports and let your girls aspire to be nurses, and stuff.

  4. What a brilliant article J.E. A very nice extension of that Bergner article. And good comments by JEM and GB above too.

    I have a couple examples of liberals and their propensity for outlandishness when faced with reasonable arguments. I once was discussing with a liberal friend the issue of sexual harassment and she sided with the notion that women have to be protected in the workplace. Fair enough. I told her that caution must be used though, for if the rules permitted the “victim” to claim SH, thus automatically making the “perp” guilty, that left the door wide open for innocuous behavior causing punishment, firing or stigma. Her response was to blurt out “So a guy should just be able to grab a girls boobs whenever he wants??!!” I of course was saying nothing of the sort, but her reaction was a perfect microcosm of the left – make absurd and unfair accusations rather than discuss the point on its merits (Saul Alinsky anyone?).

    Another time, during the height of the Iraq War, a friend and I got in a conversation with a liberal who of course opposed the war. We asked logically enough if she would rather that Saddam was still in power. She simply got up and stormed away. Someone later told us that she thought we were “ganging up on her.” This story sounds like it would fit perfectly with GB’s comment here!

    Whenever I get in a discussion with a liberal – one who is mature enough to actually discuss the issues, it usually ends in their silence. Not that I’m some grand wizard of all things conservative, but I simply lay out the facts and their logical and historical conclusions.

    Of all the things going against conservatives (as this article mentions), there’s a big one that’s in the favor of conservatives. This country still reveres its Founders. As much as the left would like to upend what the Founders intended, it’s political suicide to openly do so. And if the left must (also) pay homage to the Founders (like the right does naturally), they are that much more hamstrung in their ability to enact their progressive utopia.

    I don’t know who our (wo)man would be to lead us conservatives to embrace the very things that Bergner and J.E. have spelled out recently. Palin seems to have the right mentality – which may well be why the left went apoplectic over her and has done everything possible to destroy her. I’m not sure anyone else out there has the star power (Romney I think has a little too much “establishment” in him – although I like him). Maybe someone as yet unknown will step up.

    J.E., what was that assessment that you and your cohorts missed on? Did you guys think that Captain Ramius was going to attack the US rather than defect??

  5. Interesting that you would bring up ID in this context. I’ve just been reading a collection of David Berlinski’s essays, and I gather he made a bit of a ruckus back in the ’90s especially as a result of “The Deniable Darwin,” when it was published in COMMENTARY. His attack on the certitude of big biological science, the barrage he received in reply, and his own counter-counterfire work as a preview of the AGW/CC debate. Specifically on this subject, and I know you weren’t trying to treat it exhaustively, he ends up having to remind the Darwinists that criticism of evolutionary theory doesn’t lead inexorably to ID, much less to Creationism. A well-informed critique can do a great service merely by restoring skepticism and appropriate intellectual humility.

  6. Ritchie, I know it is the current fad target, but I have felt this way since before the articles were written, but watch Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana, as potential standard bearer of this conservative message.

    Palin, has the instincts, but will never be given credit for the depth she may or may not have and so is unelectable. But she can be very powerful in driving change within the GOP.

  7. JEM, I too have felt this way for a long time – it’s the libertarian streak that runs through me. It’s great to finally see a movement start to generate. The hero to start it all – probably some combination of Barack and Nancy.

    Good call on Mitch Daniels. I’ve seen very little of him, but I wonder if Marco Rubio carries some potential in this dept.

    Agreed on Palin. I think her best bet (at least as things stand now) is to stay away from elected office and become king maker.

  8. RE — I’d tell you what the story was with the Soviet submarines, but then I’d have to kill you. That would be a bummer, and would, like, really ruin my weekend.

    Some LOL-worthy encounters with leftist interlocutors there. But I agree with you and JEM: there’s a new wind blowing. People seem to be waking up.

    About Palin, something CKM and I have batted back and forth before is the point that the perceptions of her in the mainstream media — by which I mean all of them, including the legacy conservative media, such as NR and Commentary — may not be what matters in the coming few years.

    One self-check is very informative. I imagine each of us here thinks of him or herself as an intelligent, engaged person, one who troubles to have knowledge about what’s going on in the world, and to do better than swing along like Tarzan on a vine from bumper-sticker soundbite to bumper-sticker soundbite.

    OK, so we are such people. Now, I ask myself: Self, would you be willing to be led by Sarah Palin?

    And the answer is Yes. I don’t even feel the need to hem that about with caveats. You know: Well, if she’ll read more and change her speaking style and, oh, heck, grow 6 or 7 inches and deepen her voice and become a retired actor in her 60s with a weekly radio show…

    The incessant need to EDIT the lady is just not something I feel. And I don’t think I’m alone out there. As I said in my piece last year, “A Mother in America,” I think Sarah Palin may be a test for Americans. Are we stuck on style and credentials, or can we recognize character when we see it?

    I’m not sure the next couple of presidential elections won’t be more about that than about anything else.

    Oh, it will never be cast in that light by our celebrity editorialists. The public pundits are just a bunch of people who write and talk well: they try to keep up with the world developing around them, but they don’t set the terms of our national character, situation, or struggle.

    I really hope — I REALLY hope — and pray that those of us on the right will go ahead and shed the fear of bucking the post-modern zeitgeist.

    None of that means I think Palin has to declare for the 2012 election. It’s probably not good timing, for more than one reason. But I can’t swell the chorus of the Palin style critics. Frankly, if we’re not a nation that could elect Palin, that’s a black mark on us.

    We can recover from the black mark, but we are in serious trouble if we actually get proud of ourselves because we’d rather elect credentialed, smooth-talking temporizers than less-polished people of character. That, it appears to me, is one of the discriminators for us at the crossroads.

  9. CKM — you know, I wasn’t even planning to include ID in the discussion, but it occurred to me as I was making the case here, and it ended up being one of the longer “examples.” It’s like skepticism of AGW/CC in some ways, in that the mere mention of it evokes such an unscientific reaction — rage, testiness, contumely, sarcasm, ad hominem attacks — from those with the other philosophical perspective.

    There’s no question that ID and the theory of UNGUIDED evolution work from different philosophical perspectives. But it is no more empirical or accepting of disproof to assume that there is NOT an “intelligent designer” than to assume that there is one. In fact, there are plenty of scientists who accept much of evolutionary theory, and who also allow for the possibility of evolution being, in fact, a process of intelligent design. From what I’ve seen in researching ID, that seems to cover most of those who have adopted it as a research posture.

    I don’t think either side is going to prove or disprove “God.” But we should ask the question, “What is the purpose of insisting a priori that it’s illegitimate to suppose an intelligent designer?” Whatever the purpose is, hewing to it turns too many of its adherents into tantrum-throwing delinquents when they get around the opposing theory.

  10. Couldn’t agree more – well, come to think of it, I could agree even more: It’s not just that the existence of any alternative theory inspires tantrums – the mere suggestion of “unsettledness” is enough, but I’ll hang fire until I’ve finished and reviewed the Berlinski book.

  11. Well J.E., I’m thrilled that you don’t want to ruin *your* weekend.. (haha).

    I’m with you on Palin. I’d be more than happy to have her leading the way for me. Like you say, she has the right character. More over, if elected Prez and she became confronted with a situation that she wasn’t an expert on, I expect that she would ask the right questions and get advice from the right people – her character being the light that leads her in the right direction. I would trust her with a tough situation that she wasn’t intricately familiar with than I do the supposed “experts” who are calling the shots for this country now.

  12. Excellent essay, JED.
    For years I wondered why school districts so often followed this pattern: An educational program would be adopted, go through the initial difficulties, then start to work well for teachers and students. Then, sometimes with and sometimes without a change in administration, it would suddenly be replaced by (not joined by) a new program, and teachers had to go through all those initial difficulties all over again.
    Then it gradually dawned on me that in a bureaucracy, introducing something new is far more valuable to your career than having things go along well under your administration. It immediately gives you a “signature” and makes you stand out from the crowd, while the results will take a long time being measured. Maybe like Arne Duncan, you will already have moved up and out before the results of your administration are fully reckoned. Moreover, bureacrats, unlike teachers, are very impatient with making adjustments and accommodations; it is more fun to work out your own theory and impose it.
    These tendencies are at work throughout the bureaucracies that surround us, and because, as JED notes, they very much surround us, the same way of thinking has become tangled up with politics, legislative, executive and even judicial. A president, and even a first lady, is supposed to have a “signature” initiative, and what can it be except a new area in which to impose first wawrnings and exhortations, and later regulation?
    In short, I believe that at least one aspect of the creep of the statist narrative comes from an endemic human impulse to innovate–for reasons of aesthetics and self-expression as well as for practical reasons. While the innovations are sold to the public as practical, in fact there is seldom an accounting of the results, as JED points out. And many members of the public embrace the innovation as a new route to their own self-expression.
    Conservatives must address the aesthetic impulse at work here. Appreciation for people who are “their own person,” for the honestly eccentric–both those who accomplish something significant and those who do not–needs to be part of the new conservative ethos. Too often conservatives have shied away from the defense of “odd” individuals and small groups, because it is easy to find genuine fault with such people. But we need to welcome the innovative, aesthetic impulse in everyday life, as we try to control it in political life.

  13. Fabulous article, JED. What we have to realize is that every aspect of the left’s thinking is based on one thing, class warfare. Even the fellow travelers that make up the majority of the “progressives” know that achieving equality of outcomes isn’t really going to change their own lives, that regulating or taxing someone like Phil Knight or Steve Jobs out of their immense fortunes isn’t going to get them a new HDTV or an extra week in Cancun. They simply can’t accept the fact that some people are going to be more financially successful than others. They would rather have everyone poverty-stricken than a minority well-off. Every leftist concept can be traced back to class warfare, even their supposed anti-war position, which is predicated more on the profits of contractors than humanitarian or moral concerns.

  14. Margo — you have a superb point about acceptance of what might be called “eccentric” approaches by people in their private behavior.

    One way conservatives can foster that in their own minds, and those of others, is by relearning the truth that human life is not intended to be mostly “about” regulating our fellow men.

    Life can be lived mostly without recourse to armed power over others. Not only can it be: it’s BETTER all around when it is. The list of Things Other People Do that there is either benefit or virtue in regulating — or even just homogenizing through campaigns of opprobrium, harassment, or suasion — is very, very short.

    It’s fear and small-mindedness that make us think things are bad, must be bad, or can only get worse if Other People are allowed to live their lives mostly unregulated by us. Fortunately for conservatives, we have a political starting point that at least allows us to reach that understanding, even if it doesn’t always DIRECT us toward it.

    The left, however, is hamstrung by its inherent statism, and the materialist pessimism of its too-common cosmology, which excludes the possibility that we aren’t all there is, and that WE don’t know everything that needs to be known to make a laundry list of fatalistic judgments.

  15. cm — great point as well about the class-warfare aspect of the left’s taek on things. One thing I’d revise in your point, though, is the passage about a “minority” being well-off.

    In America, almost everyone is well-off compared to the rest of humanity. Our welfare mothers live better than Persian satraps used to. The middle-class life of ancient Rome or of China 100 years ago was one of grinding, hopeless poverty compared to the life of pretty much everyone in the US today who isn’t mentally ill or a homeless addict.

    What class-warfarists envy isn’t other people being well-off, it’s just other people being BETTER-off than the very, very well-off norm in the United States today.

  16. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by jtjn: America at the Crossroads: Intellectual Honesty

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