One of the heroes of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Roads to Modernity is Adam Smith, saluted every day on our masthead. This book’s design (not a surprising one for a Victorian scholar) is to honor the British Enlightenment; to do this, she splits it in thirds. She devotes the first 150 pages to the British (“The Sociology of Virtue”) and then examines more briefly the French (“The Ideology of Reason”) and, finally, the American (“The Politics of Liberty”). The book is short and lucid. Her approach uses the French as foil to the English; the Americans not only offer a third and often later perspective but give life to many of the arguments from these eighteenth century British thinkers. Needless to say, she doesn’t see that as a bad thing. She argues, toward the end, that “If America is now exceptional, it is because it has inherited and preserved aspects of the British Enlightenment that the British themselves have disarded and that other countries (France, most notably) have never adopted.” (233)
The social good that a small government politician does is only partially captured by current mechanisms while the social good that a big government politician does is counted and counted again as it’s the gross good, not the net that gets credited to him. Indirect, negative private effects are seldom linked unless they are very obvious and such negative effects often take many years to show up as Atlee in the UK and Wagner in NYC played to their benefit.
Some of these people, including Reynolds himself, seem mature and reasonable. But quite a few of the others come across as frivolous, apathetic, foolish or all of the above. Michael Shermer thinks it’s important that Kerry is a bicyclist. Richard Epstein doesn’t remember for whom he voted in 2000, thinks the major parties are essentially identical and won’t vote for either of them in 2004. And the guy from The Independent Institute doesn’t want to soil his hands by voting. (Somehow his attitude doesn’t surprise me — see here and here for some background on an exchange I had with another guy from The Independent Institute.)
So, with some notable exceptions, these extremely bright people, many of whom spend a lot of time giving the rest of us advice on how to make decisions about public affairs, are a bunch of idiots in their personal voting behavior. Yeah, I know: most individuals’ votes are not decisive, voters are rationally ignorant, the major parties are effectively a cartel, etc. These objections are narrowly true but miss the big picture. Voting should be treated as a civic sacrament, because on the margin our system can live or die depending on how carefully the voters vote, and they are more likely to take voting seriously if intellectuals don’t denigrate it as an activity. This is especially true now, when the main issue of the day is of overwhelming importance and the major-party candidates have profoundly different approaches to that issue.
One shouldn’t over-intellectualize this stuff, but I think it’s valuable to look at what people think is important enough to spend their own time on. If ordinary people in places like Afghanistan appreciate how important elections are, both symbolically and practically, even when none of the candidates is perfect, why do so many smart people here miss the point?
Maybe we should skip elections altogether, and appoint leaders randomly (with strictly limited terms, of course) from the telephone book. That might work better than decisionmaking by what Thomas Sowell called “articulated rationality” — the main decisionmaking method used by the people interviewed in the Reason forum. Certainly they sound impressive, but do they make better decisions than does the typical voter? Experience, and now disclosure, suggest not.
(crossposted on Flit(TM))
The Gap, or more formally the Non-Integrating Gap, is a concept at the core of Dr. Barnett’s The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century. But what is the Gap? This question comes to me every time I read a libertarian critic of the concept.
Gap countries are, by definition disconnected from the global rulesets that manage the Core, those states where a disturbingly large proportion of the world wants to get into. I say disturbingly because, all things being equal, there is really no reason for people socially acculturated and biologically specialized to warm climes to make their way in large numbers to nordic nations, but they do. Something pretty special must be attracting them while simultaneously repelling them from their ancient homelands. That something is clear after a bit of investigation, huge waves of horrifying violence interspersed with a daily brutality of individual denigration and lack of the normal rights to live out their lives in control of their own destiny.