What Works

(Ramblings with no links)

Some definitions of the “American Dream” don’t comport with human nature but then fault America for not achieving a fantasy no one (no sane man would have) ever posited. But the essential American dream is of a society freely joined, each respectful of others but autonomous and fulfilled.

That society tests the workability of our theories of the good life. We, if often unconsciously, value natural law: the primacy of moral fulfillment of our nature. The thinkers who defined our culture and then our government often spoke of the great irony of power through submission, becoming our best selves by acknowledging larger powers. That is most efficient not when we are clapped in a theoretical or real prison, but by enlarging horizons and testing ideas – we learn humility through perspective & experience, we learn what works. The Puritans, not surprisingly, saw this in religious terms. Winthrop argues the test of their religious love for one another and their God: could they demonstrate a community bound by the ligaments of that love succeeds? If so, others might be persuaded; if they failed, certainly others would not choose their path.

Does it work? A century later, this guided Franklin’s experiments with bifocals and a government constrained by the Constitution. What works may be humbling – Lysenko was surely humbled when he found his ideas replaced. But it is also bracing.

Schiller of NPR speaks of American anti-intellectualism. But we were founded by the Puritans and our government structured by founders immersed in a uniquely American version of the Enlightenment. Benjamin Franklin distrusted pure Deism, the Founders believed in checks and balances, even the vague thinkers of Transcendentalism abandoned Brook Farm quickly. Looking at results isn’t anti-intellectual. It demonstrates respect for the power of an idea.

For instance, experience tells us our self-interest needs restraint but it has its uses. Our resilience, our responsibility for our own, our self-reliance–and yes, I’ve come to understand, our guns–would make a government-caused famine as in the Ukraine in the thirties or China from 1958-1962 difficult to enact. We’d refuse. Out of self interest, of course. But, first, because those ideas failed the great test – do they work? Even those of us remarkably stupid about science as a broader discipline have thoroughly integrated the scientific method into our thinking: what works its test. And the good life, we’ve found, values others’ lives & others’ autonomy, it builds our self-respect on our respect for others. Clearly neither factored in the great leaps of Russia and China, the programs of Germany and Cambodia. In general, statist governments don’t “work”. Still, Chavez listens and some closer to home are drawn to those old Sirens. But they aren’t seductive if we value what “works”. Then, their music is shrill and tinny.

Our current economic straits bring focus. Budgeting time or money clarifies priorities. We’ve known schools were failing – in minor and spectacular ways. As we listen to the litany of government mismanagement and replication on the nightly news, we are less surprised than awakened. We dozed, our attention elsewhere: we had life to do. In the early sixties my mother renewed her certificate to put me through college; every night she railed about her education classes. A couple of years later, in my first Kelly Girl jobs, I saw the difference between a government office & a private one. We all knew. Job security and job benefits were increasing exponentially in a Ponzi scheme right before us. We knew union deals were defensible in one-company towns where the factory-owner had all the cards and any increase in wages would limit his profits. But when the negotiators are a politician who gets votes and campaign contributions from employees who reap benefits and money, contracts entered with no one having the role of manufacturer – the ultimate source of income – the system corrupts.

Human engineers demonstrate a lack of moral imagination and ferocious inflexibility when faced with practical failures. People with theories are seldom immune to temptation: they want to mold rather than be molded. But power corrupts and an idealist with power becomes a tyrant. He fails to accept reality: the “otherness” of the other, an unmalleable world. Our social engineers are not unlike Lysenko. And not unlike him, they are dangerous when a government enforces their theories. Often, a theory fails because it can’t distinguish between truths that can’t budge and archaic understandings that can. The twentieth century denial of biology, of botany, of human nature led to democide of unimaginable dimensions but also to corruption. The belief that the real world & real people are constructions isn’t helpful.

Policies that ignore human nature fail. Unions began including their insurance companies as part of the deal. That doesn’t surprise. All of us have a bit of the grifter in us – when someone else is paying, we are all too likely to stay at a nicer hotel, eat a more expensive dinner. The vulgarity on display in Wisconsin and its arguments come from pride – self-righteous, certain they aren’t tainted by man’s nature. The radical & honest egalitarianism of our founders assumes none are immune. (Academics emphasize Washington’s flaws while ignoring his heroism in rising above the temptations of power; they don’t recognize that virtue so important in a republic.)

If traditionally we haven’t had much patience with theories unmoored from reality, we’ve loved innovation – in ideas and things, theories and techniques. Our experience and others’ – whether recorded in literature or history or even the daily news reports – give lessons. What worked and what didn’t helps us predict what will and won’t. That isn’t anti-intellectual, it just asks the intellectual for his bona fides.

I’m optimistic. Those sleepy students in my classes have potential. We may have been sleeping, but we are a giant. And a giant armed with that great criterion – does it work? – can always find a way.

9 thoughts on “What Works”

  1. “Schiller of NPR speaks of American anti-intellectualism”….it’s interesting how in recent years the claim of being an intellectual has become basically an assertion of a status position rather than a true description of of one’s interests, approach, and knowledge base. It has become a matter of one’s credentials, associations, consumption patterns, and mannerisms of speech. If you work for NPR or NYT and you shop at Whole Foods, support the right “progressive” causes, drive a hybrid, etc, then it seems you are automatically an intellectual; no burdensome reading or thinking required.

  2. Foster, My daughter told a Christmas story. One of her co-workers became truly obnoxious and she told him off, defending her husband. I told her she should try to hold her tongue, something, as she pointed out, she’d never seen her mother do. I suspect she was right to get angry. Her colleague lit into her husband (and indirectly her), saying that since they’d come to New Jersey from Texas they were uneducated and stupid. He was sure, he said, how they’d voted. (He was probably right – they tend to be conservative & religious – at least by Austin & Princeton standards.) Of course, he had no idea about tea-sipper politics (Shannon could tell us how popular Bush was in Austin). Nor that they had met there because it was one of the few campuses in America in which he could pursue a degree specializing in certain languages. Her husband might think he was smart (and my impression was that he was smart enough to stay sober at his wife’s office party), and and all, but clearly this clerk in a bureaucracy was smarter – he wasn’t a Texan. Yes, and Obama writes his books while other politicians use ghost writers and others, well, they never read anything. Sure. And don’t let me get started on attitudes toward Nebraska.

  3. I have a hypothesis that one of the big tensions in any human society is that most people desire to be self-sufficient, but basic economics drives people in a society towards specialization because the economy operates more efficiently that way. People who specialize can’t be completely self-sufficient, in terms of being able to obtain all their necessities without help from any other party, because they don’t have either the necessary skills nor the time. But people who specialize have greater economic opportunities and hence a higher standard of living than people who try to be totally self-sufficient.

    This is one of the aspects in which a free market and a society built around personal freedoms wins over anything else. Each individual is left to make their own tradeoffs between self-sufficiency and the higher standard of living that comes with specialization. However, the narcissistic response to this is “everyone else should specialize so that I can be self-sufficient”. We see this among the Left today (leftism being basically the politics of narcissism); many individuals with no discernible talent (other than the innate ability to cajole/intimidate others into doing what they want them to do) live a high standard of living thanks to the specialization of others. It leads to a view of society in which most people are seen not as humans, but merely as parts in a machine which provides support to the elites.

    We see this phenomenon repeating itself through history, from the late days of Rome, to the aristocracies of 18th and 19th centuries, to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Through most of history, narcissistic-elitist systems eventually collapsed from within, to fall into chaos or become easy pickings for some opportunistic invader. Western democratic capitalism is the only system that has ever succeeded in defeating narcissistic elitism on its own terms.

  4. Dave,

    To step into the Red Queen’s race of agriculture is to leave the self-sufficiency of the hunter-gatherer behind. If one’s farm uses irrigation, one is dependent on (and tied to) others using or controlling the water. Even if one is on a dry farm, one is only as self-sufficient as they can defend their harvest. Once we took stick to soil to plant seeds, we all became specialists of one sort or another.

  5. Before the 2008 election I argued with someone over why I thought McCain was the better choice over Obama. I said that McCain’s Senate office was full of books and that McCain obviously reads, while Obama’s office was sterile of books and Obama’s verbal behavior suggests that he doesn’t read much (points made by Jim Miller at the time).

    The response to my argument: Obama wrote two books.

    Never mind that the books are autobiographical, that it’s possible they were ghostwritten and that on many topics Obama appeared (and appears) to be ignorant. What mattered was Obama’s status as an author. It was like the absurd assertions made by Obama’s supporters that the mere fact that he had graduated from elite schools confirmed his competence for high office.

    The elevation by the Left, and by the Left’s pseudo-intellectuals, of credential-based status over real achievement has become terribly costly.

  6. specialization & self-sufficiency….IIRC, Marx argued that under Communism, people would be able to pursue a much more generalist lifestyle…be a fisherman in the morning and a factory worker in the afternoon, or a locomotive engineer on Monday and a college professor on Tuesday.

    Ironically, today’s “progressives” are alarmed at any movements away from rigid specialization: viz, the idea of people getting news/opinions from bloggers rather than “professional” journalists, or the idea of airline pilots being armed rather than relying on “professional law enforcement officers” on every flight.

    One example of an individual who comes close to the Marxian generalist model is the farmer/professor Victor Davis Hanson….not a leftist, by any means.

  7. Dexter: You are of course correct. The narcissist-leftists, however, maintain a fiction among themselves that they are self-sufficient. Thus, they are likely to regard all the rest of humanity as actually being harmful: bespoiling the planet, creating congestion and crowds, and taking up all of the window seats at Starbuck’s. In their minds, if 90% of humanity disappeared, only the smart people would be left, but everything else — their lifestyle and all of the amenities that the elites enjoy — would remain the same. In fact, as they see it, the supply of amenities would increase enormously without the hoi-polloi trying to get their grubby paws on it.

  8. The superficiality of those who describe themselves as intellectuals has never been on more emperor’s clothes display than in their adulation of Gore’s, Kerry’s, and now Obama’s “minds.” And it has never been uglier than their criticism of Bush, Palin, and the Tea Party. Of course, the other thing this whole sorry mess demonstrates is how poorly history is taught in America. If you blame America first you are not likely to be teaching a history any more accurate – indeed, as it turns out, a good deal less accurate – than the jingoistic tradition. So, unlike the UN’s corps, our soldiers risked their lives in Yugoslavia. What do they get just a few years later – an assassin who kills two of them. Of course, history is taught even more poorly in other countries. And as noted above in the coverage of Israel, in a good deal more inflammatory form.

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