Ben Franklin Channels Karl Marx

Before implementing radical social theories as the Communists tried to do in Russia in 1917, its always a good idea to try them out on a modest scale that doesn’t involve murdering anyone.  That goes double if the radical social theory in question has a strong appeal to those whose tastes run to saving the world.  The speed at which human reason runs off the track varies in direct proportion to the complexity of a hypothesis and the lack of repeatable experiments to confirm it.  Unfalsifiable hypotheses are born off the track.  Data in support of the above may be found in a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to Robert Morris in 1783, when he was serving as our Minister Plenipotentiary in France.  Referring to some resolutions against taxation adopted in town meetings he wrote,

Money justly due from the people, is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law.  All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention.  Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it.  All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition.  He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages!  He can have right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.

Of course, in the meantime we’ve carried out numerous repeatable experiments that seem to demonstrate quite conclusively that government policies intended to implement such ideas are undesirable because they don’t work.  In the end, they don’t serve the “welfare of the public” because they fail to take the behavioral idiosyncracies of our species into account.  Does that mean that Franklin was stupid?  Far from it.  As his experiments with electricity demonstrate, he had the mind of a true scientist.  The comments in his autobiography about influencing others to accept new ideas might have been lifted from a 21st century textbook on moral psychology.  More importantly, his combination of brilliance and common sense were an invaluable guide and support to our Republic in its infancy.

The point is that even the most brilliant human beings can easily delude themselves into believing things that are not true, and even things that in the light of later experience seem palpably silly.  We are not nearly as smart as we think we are.  The next time some wildly popular messianic scheme for saving the world inflicts itself on mankind, it’s “enlightened” proponents would do well to keep that in mind.

As for old Ben, the quote above was more the product of exasperation than sober thought.  Robert Morris was the great financier of our Revolution.  Read the fine biography of him by Charles Rappleye, and you’re bound to wonder how we ever beat the British.  Morris used all of his great intelligence, experience, and personal credit to somehow keep Washington’s army fed and clothed, in spite of the fact that the states whose independence he was fighting to win refused to be taxed.  His reward for all his tireless work was to be viciously vilified by pathologically pious super-revolutionaries like Arthur Lee and his brothers, men who deemed themselves great defenders of liberty, but who actually provided more “aid and comfort” to the British than Benedict Arnold ever dreamed of.  Franklin was well aware of their mendacious attacks on Morris, and their bitter resistance to any attempt to create an effective national government capable of collecting the taxes necessary to support the war effort at a time when the paper money we had relied on in the early years of the Revolution had become nearly worthless.  Their type should be familiar, as there are still ample examples among us today.  The fact that they provoked such a cri de Couer from Franklin should come as no surprise.

 

Of Ancient Helots and Student Loan Scams: VDH Nails It

Victor Davis Hanson’s specialty is ancient history, and he’s quick to notice parallels with modern times.  In an essay entitled “The New American Helots,” he suggests that the student loan scam has reduced many young Americans to the status of the Greek Helots of old, who were held in a state of semi-slavery by the Spartans so they could concentrate on warfare.  As he puts it,

Over the last few decades, we’ve created our modern version of these Helots — millions of indebted young Americans with little prospect of finding permanent well-paying work, servicing their enormous college debts, or reaping commensurate financial returns on their costly educations.

Annual tuition keeps rising, as it has over the last 50 years, usually at close to twice the rate of inflation. It must, if colleges are to pay for a vast new administrative class that is excused from teaching to monitor sensitivity and diversity, raise money, and comply with ever more race/class/gender federal mandates.

In addition, students support a new grandee class of professors who teach lighter loads, enjoy better benefits, retire earlier — and now offer instruction in a vast array of courses and disciplines that simply were never part of the traditional curriculum.

I couldn’t agree more.  Student loans are one of the cruder forms of exploitation in American society.  Their easy availability seduces many young people into assuming massive debt to finance educations that many of them consider essential.  Most of them have never experienced what it’s like to bear such a debt, even if they are lucky enough to land a job.  Instapundit has been posting links to a lot of similar articles about what he calls the “higher education bubble.”  Recent examples may be found here, here, and here.

I can think of few things more mendacious than allowing a generation of young people to start their careers with a millstone of unsustainable debt around their necks, and one which they can’t even shed by bankruptcy.  We’ve been flattering ourselves about how “free” we are for so long that we’ve come to accept this form of slavery-lite with barely a murmur.  There is currently a debate over whether student loan interest rates should be allowed to increase from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1.  By all means!  Double and triple it!  The sooner the whole, rotten system comes crashing down, the better.  If it were up to me, student loans would be illegal.  Then the universities could jack up tuitions to their hearts content, but there would be no one around who could afford them.  Eventually, they would be forced to shed all the non-essential fluff, and the cost of higher education would descend from the stratosphere to affordable levels.

If you want to get an idea of what I mean by fluff, look at the curriculum vitae of an average young associate professor.  If you haven’t published scores of papers, you’re not even in the running for a job, not to mention tenure.  Beyond that, you’ll need to go to lots of academic conferences and schmooze with your colleagues, because you’ll need a respectable number of citations to go with the papers.  Beyond that, you’ll need to spend much of your time writing proposals, because if you can’t attract research dollars, you’re out of the running.  Finally, you’ll need a fistful of academic honors, plenty of outside activities to show your public spirit, hours of unpaid work reviewing other peoples papers, etc., etc., etc.  You have to hand it to these young professionals.  The level of effort and dedication they bring to their jobs is astounding.  It would be better if they could devote more of that commitment to what they’re actually supposed to be doing; teaching.

A European Liberal Interprets the French Election

Jakob Augstein is the quintessential European version of what would be referred to in the US as a latte Liberal.  Heir to what one surmises was a significant fortune from his adopted father, the Amerika-hating founder of Der Spiegel magazine, Rudolf Augstein, he nevertheless imagines himself the champion of the poor and downtrodden.  His writing is certainly not original, but he is at least a good specimen of the type for anyone interested in European ideological trends.  His reaction to the recent election in France is a good example.

As those who occasionally read a European headline are aware, that election resulted in the victory of socialist Francois Hollande over his austerity-promoting opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy.  While certainly noteworthy, such transitions are hardly unprecedented.  No matter, the ideological good guys won as far as Augstein is concerned.  He greets Hollande’s seemingly unremarkable victory with peals of the Marseillaise and Liberty leading the people:

It is not just a piece of political folklore that France is the land of the revolution.  No other European country has such a lively tradition of protest.  La lutte permanente, the constant struggle, is part and parcel of the French civilization.  In France, the centralized state historically formed an alliance with the people against feudalism.  Now the time has come for that to happen again.  The fact that the French picked this particular time to vote a socialist into the Elysee Palace is no coincidence.  A revolutionary signal will now go forth from France to all of Europe.  The new feudal lords who must be resisted are the banks.

Great shades of 1789!  Break out Madame Guillotine.  What can account for such an outburst of revolutionary zeal in response to what is ostensibly just another garden variety shift from the right to the left in European politics?  It is, of course, “austerity,” the course of belt-tightening prescribed by Sarkozy and his pal, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, for Greece and some of the other more profligate spendthrifts in the European Union.  Has austerity worked?  Augstein’s answer is an unqualified “No.”

…Can one overcome a recession by saving?  The answer is:  No.  those who save during a recession deepen the recession.

I personally rather doubt that anyone knows whether austerity “works” in a recession or not.  Modern economies are too complex to simplistically attribute their success or failure to one such overriding factor and, in any case, serious austerity measures haven’t been in effect long enough to allow a confident judgment one way or the other.  Certainly the opposites of austerity, such as the recent “stimulus” experiment in the US, haven’t been unqualified successes either, and have the disadvantage of leaving the states that try them mired in debt.

No matter, Augstein goes on to teach us some of the other “lessons” we should learn from the events in France.  It turns out that some of these apply to Augsteins’s own country, Germany.  The German taxpayers have forked over large sums to keep the economies of Greece and some of the other weak sisters in Europe afloat.  Germany’s robust economy has served as an engine to pull the rest of Europe along.  German’s should be patting themselves on the back for their European spirit, no?

Not according to Augstein!  As he tells it, what Germans should really be doing is hanging their heads in shame.

The Germans are poster boys of the market economy.  Never have interest rates been more favorable for Germany.  It’s a gift of the market at the expense of the rest of Europe.  She (Merkel) isn’t concerned about the European political legacy of Adenauer and Kohl.  Those are such western ideas, that mean little to the woman from the east.  Driven by cheap money from the international finance markets, the German export industry has scuttled European integration – and Merkel lets them get away with it.

Ah, yes, the socialists of the world have no country.  We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we?  If you’re successful, you must be evil.  The proper response is guilt.  Poor Germans!  They just can’t ever seem to catch a break.  Somehow they always end up in the role of villain.

According to Augstein, without the support of France, Germany and her “saving politics” are now isolated in Europe.  What’s that supposed to mean?  That Germans are now supposed to fork over even greater funds, this time with no strings attached in the name of “European integration?”  If I were a German taxpayer, I know what my response would be:  “Let the other Europeans spend and spend to their heart’s content, just as long as they don’t reach into my pocket to do it.”

Well, we’ll just have to wait and see how this flight back to socialism turns out.  Who am I to say?  I’m no economist.  There’s an election in Germany next year.  If the socialists return to power there as well, things might really get interesting.  We’ll finally find out just how European socialists plan to go about ending austerity after they’ve run out of other people’s money to spend.

Freedom of Speech, Then and Now

In 1920, the famous Marxist Rosa Luxemburg wrote,

Freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of the Party — though they are quite numerous — is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters. The essence of political freedom depends not on the fanatics of ‘justice’, but rather on all the invigorating, beneficial, and detergent effects of dissenters. If ‘freedom’ becomes ‘privilege’, the workings of political freedom are broken.

In 2012, speaking of Clear Channel Communications, which provides a variety of programs, including the Rush Limbaugh show, to the Armed Forces Network, Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, said,

I would hope the people that run it see just how offensive this is and drop it on their own volition.  I think that is probably an issue that should be left to the folks that run that network. … In other words, I’d love to see them drop it, but I don’t think I’d legislate it.

Gee, thanks Carl!  No doubt tears of gratitude should be running down our cheeks.  If you’ve ever wondered what kind of “progress” people are talking about in the context of “progressive” politicians like Levin, now you know.  When it comes to realizing that there’s no such thing as freedom of speech unless it applies to people who don’t think just like him, Levin doesn’t have a clue .  It was obvious enough almost 100 years ago, and to a Marxist, no less, but apparently Levin is a slow learner.

And what of Limbaugh?  The Left, in one of their signature fits of contrived virtuous indignation, is trying to silence him for a remark about a woman that pales to utter insignificance in comparison to the misogynistic bile their own paladins have poured on conservative women.  Why does it matter?  Because, whether you like his politics or not, Limbaugh has probably done more for genuine freedom of speech than anyone else in this country since H. L. Mencken resigned as editor of the American Mercury.  Before Limbaugh came along, individuals could say pretty much whatever they wanted.  However, the mainstream media had a virtual monopoly on what a Marxist like Luxemburg might call the “social means of communication.”  In other words, they controlled the “voices” that could actually be heard by a significant audience, and they saw to it that the ideological message that voice promoted had a relentless slant to the left.  Limbaugh was the first to succeed in making a genuine crack in that monopoly.  His lead was followed by numerous other conservative talk show hosts, and, eventually, Foxnews.

The country is better off for it.  Thanks to Limbaugh and others like him, freedom of speech really means something in this country.  Compare our situation with that of any major country in Europe, and you’ll begin to understand why there’s reason to be grateful.  Consider Germany, for example.  I happen to follow the media there rather closely.  They have big media on the “right,” like the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and big media on the “left,” like Der Spiegel, but they have nothing like Limbaugh or Foxnews.  As a result, the message as far as anything that really matters is concerned is surprisingly uniform.

For example, anti-Americanism in the media there expands and subsides, much as it does in other European countries.  During the most recent extreme, from about the last few years of the Clinton Administration through the first few years of the Bush Administration, anti-American hate reached truly astounding levels.  Occasionally, it was hard to find any German news on Der Spiegel’s website because the available space was all taken up with ranting diatribes against the evil Americans.   It didn’t matter whether you read Der Spiegel, or boulevard mags like Stern, or wannabees like Focus, or the FAZ on the moderate right, or the Deutsche National Zeitung on the brown-shirted fringe, or even if you only watched the news on TV.  The relentless, mindless anti-American bile was everywhere.

To their credit, a good number of Germans tried to push back.  Unfortunately, the only “voice” they had was a few little blogs.  So it is with most major ideological issues.  There are nuances and differences in tone between the “left” and the “right,” but the overall message is surprisingly uniform, particularly in the broadcast media.  Limbaugh put an end to that in this country.  When there is a slant to the news, it is immediately called out and recognized as such by loud and strong voices, regardless of whether it happens to be to the left or the right.  Hack politicians like Levin have always found that kind of genuine freedom uncomfortable.

One could cite many examples of the allergic reaction of the old media in Europe to the possibility that anyone who doesn’t “think right” might be heard by a significant audience.  The recent vicious “legal” persecution of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands comes to mind.  In the UK, the old media used their political water boys to resist erosion of their control of the message by Fox News, and Iranian Press TV was banned for “breaching the broadcasting code.”  They cheered loudly when the government went to the extreme of banning 16 people with some semblance of a public voice, including US radio talk show host Michael Savage, from entering the country.  If nothing else, Savage would have been a useful anodyne against the BBC’s relentless slanting of the news against Israel.  The UK once allowed pacifists a voice in her public media even as her troops were being evacuated from Dunkirk and she fought on alone against Hitler.  Obviously, times have changed.

In a word, be happy if Rush Limbaugh really irritates you.  If you can still hear him it means there’s still some semblance of freedom of speech in this country.

 

On the Afterglow of Historical Fairy Tales

We are fortunate to be living in an age in which historical source material is becoming increasingly abundant and difficult to destroy, because we are also living in an age that has been prolific in the rearrangement of historical fact to suit ideological ends.  I just ran across yet another data point demonstrating the process whereby the myths created in the process are transmogrified into “historical fact.”  It turned up on Atomic Insights, a blog penned by nuclear power advocate Rod Adams.

The reason this particular “historical fact” turned up in one of Rod’s articles is neither here nor there.  As far as I know he’s perfectly sound politically, and has no ax to grind outside of his nuclear advocacy.  It was apparently reproduced without any malice or intent to deceive as a “well known fact” in an article about the mutual hostility of the U.S. and Iran.  According to Rod,

On the other side of the issue, Iranians date their hostility to America to 1953, when the United States CIA took actions to stimulate the overthrow of the democratically elected leader named Mohammad Mosaddeqh. Our main beef with him was the fact that he had decided that the oil and gas under his country actually belonged to the people, not to the companies that had arranged some sweet deals during a colonial era. When he moved to nationalize the oil reserves, the UK and the US took action to install a dictator who was more compliant with our “interests.”  That part of the controversy is pretty well known and discussed.

In fact, that part of the controversy isn’t discussed nearly enough.  If it were, this version of “history” would have been relegated to the garbage heap long ago.  I wrote a series of articles debunking it some time ago that can be read here, here and here.  The “official” version of this particular historical fairy tale, entitled All the Shah’s Men, was written by New York Times reporter Steven Kinzer, apparently in the proud tradition of Walter Duranty’s glowing accounts of Stalin’s Russia.  Kinzer’s “history” was based largely on a CIA source document, which is available to anyone on the web.  Evidently he assumed no one would actually bother to read it and the other easily available source material, because the idea that they “prove” the great Mossadegh Coup myth is palpably absurd.  The CIA activities described were so dilettantish they wouldn’t have seriously undermined the flimsiest of banana republics, not to mention Iran.  On the very day that the coup happened the supposedly miraculously effective CIA plotters in Tehran, convinced that the coup had failed, sat meekly on the sidelines, taking no significant role in directing events whatsoever.  To believe the claim that their actions were undertaken solely to mollify evil US and UK oil and gas cartels it is necessary to willfully blind ones self to the possibility that Communist aggression ever actually existed or that the US government ever honestly believed that it was a threat at the time.  Of course, I cannot prove that I am any less prone to historical distortions than Mr. Kinzer et. al.  However, I can suggest that anyone interested in the facts read the source material.  It speaks for itself.  I suspect that anyone reading it with an open mind will conclude that his yarn about the mind boggling effectiveness of the great CIA plot and the reasons it happened are baloney.

That hasn’t prevented these myths from gelling into historical “facts.”  Rob’s blog is hardly the only place you’ll find similar disinformation.  The more a given myth serves ideological ends, the faster the gelling process proceeds.  In this case it was doubly effective.  It stroked the egos of the CIA supersleuths who had no trouble convincing themselves that they really had “killed seven at one blow,” and it also had just the right “anti-imperialist” touch for the ideologues of the left.  But heaven forefend that you should take my word for it.  Look for yourself.

One could cite many other similar instances of rearranging history.  For example, there’s the old southern schoolmarm’s yarn about how the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, the anti-nuclear activists’ yarn about how the atomic bomb had nothing to do with ending World War II, the Nazi yarn about how the German army lost World War I because it was “stabbed in the back” by revolutionaries on the home front, and so on and so on.  One often hears the old bromide that “history is written by the victors” from the creators of these fantasies.  That may be, but in all the cases cited above, and many more like them, there is no lack of source material out there for anyone interested enough to dig it up and read it.  In the case of the Civil War, for example, it reveals that common people in the north thought it was about slavery, common people in the south thought it was about slavery, foreign observers uniformly concurred it was about slavery, and southern politicians made no bones whatsoever about the fact that it was about slavery in their declarations of secession.  Under the circumstances, based on the unanimous testimony of the people who actually experienced it, I tend to believe the Civil War was, in fact, about slavery.  If you make the effort to “go to the source” with an open mind, you’re liable to find a lot more fossilized historical “facts” that aren’t quite what they seem.

Remembering Communism

We live in sedate times, at least from an ideological point of view.  Such excrescences of the 20th century as Nazism and fascism have come and gone.  The greatest messianic world view of them all, Communism, if not stone cold dead, is no more than a shadow of its former self.  With its demise, its very memory is passing into oblivion.  That’s unfortunate.  Given the cost of the Communist experiment – 100 million dead and the virtual beheading of at least two countries, Russia and Cambodia – we would do well to at least learn something from it.

It seems to me that one particularly profound lesson is the degree to which vast numbers of intellectuals the world over were capable of deluding themselves about the nature of the Stalinist regime, renowned scientists among them.  Malcolm Muggeridge chronicled the phenomena in his brilliant little snapshot of the time, The Thirties.  For example,

Admiration for the Soviet regime had greatly increased since the introduction of the Five-Year Plan in 1929, though more among Liberals and the professional classes than among trade unionists, who from the beginning showed themselves to be less easily deluded by Soviet propaganda than university professors, writers and clergymen.  Professor Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous and grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, ed.), for instance, had no difficulty in believing that ‘while we were in Russia a German town-planning expert was travelling over the huge Siberian spaces in a special train with a staff of assistants, where cities are to arise stopping for a few days, picking out the best site, laying down the broad outlines of the future city, and passing on, leaving the details to be filled in by architects and engineers who remain’ or that ‘Stalin himself sometimes comes down to the Moscow goods sidings to help.’

 

The cost of a tour in the USSR, though moderate, was beyond the means of most manual workers, so that those who availed themselves of the exceedingly competent Intourist organization were predominantly income-tax payers.  Their delight in all they saw and were told, and the expression they gave to this delight, constitute unquestionably one of the wonders of the age.

 

The almost unbelievable credulity of these mostly university-educated tourists astonished even Soviet officials used to handling foreign visitors.

 

The climax came, perhaps, with the visit to the USSR of Mr. Bernard Shaw, Lady Astor and Lord Lothian, which provided, as Mr. Eugene Lyons has put it, ‘a fortnight of clowning… The lengthening obscenity of ignorant or indifferent tourists disporting themselves cheerily on the aching body of Russia, seemed summed up in this cavorting old man, in his blanket endorsement of what he would not understand.  He was so taken up with demonstrating how youthful and agile he was that he had no attention to spare for the revolution in practice.

 

Despite such episodes the Soviet regime continued to be held in ever greater esteem by writers like Shaw and Andre Gide and Romain Rolland:  clergymen like the Reverend Hewlett Johnson, journalists like Walter Duranty and Maurice Hindus, economists like G. D. H. Cole and the Webbs (Sidney and Beatrice, Fabian socialists, ed.) scientists like Professor Julian Huxley.  How could all these, so learned and to righteous, be wrong?

 

…like vegetarians undertaking a pious pilgrimage to a slaughter-house because it displayed a notice recommending nut-cutlets.

 

All this is doubly astounding in light of the fact that it was so obvious at the time all this was going on that the Soviet Union had become a vast charnel house.  Indeed, Muggeridge himself had sympathized with the new regime.  The scales fell from his eyes when he took an unauthorized trip to the Ukraine while visiting the Soviet Union, and saw the starvation and misery there first hand, even as Walter Duranty was denying it in the New York Times.  The Eugene Lyons Muggeridge refers to above was a journalist who spent six years in the Soviet Union and was not as easily duped as Duranty.  He wrote a damning indictment of the regime in his book, Moscow Carrousel.  In a synopsis of his findings written for the American Mercury in 1936 in the context of a review of the Webb’s ecstatic praise of the regime in their book, Soviet Communism:  A New Civilization?, he wrote,

The material out of which the Webbs have fashioned their Utopia is that theoretical USSR of governmental forms, paper freedoms, poster proletarians, stage kulaks, decrees, and charts – the immense make-believe of externals under which all governments, especially all-powerful, all-knowing and infallible super-states, function.

 

One is tempted to quote endlessly from the curious mixture of misinformation, half-truths, and naive credulity which fill these volumes.  The liquidation of the kulaks, for instance, becomes under the busy pens of the Webbs almost an act of benevolence.  These poor people, it appears, would have starved to death had not the authorities come along mercifully and transferred them free of charge to the lumber camps and canal diggings.

 

The discussion of other aspects of the terror is in the same key.  Everything that might reflect on the institution of the OGPU (secret police, ed.) is dismissed with a sneer… The whole complex of forced and convict labor involving millions of persons (hundreds of thousands are building canals and railroads at this very moment); the mass executions without public trial; the teeming concentration camps; all of this the Webbs judge on the basis of official statements, official silences, and the mendacities of ill-informed foreign parrots.

 

Lyons’ article is interesting in that it documents the fact that the truth about the mass slaughter underway in the Soviet Union was perfectly obvious to anyone who didn’t deliberately delude themselves, even in 1936, before the climax of the Great Purge Trials in 1937 and 1938.  Which begs the question, why were so many seemingly intelligent people so delusional for so long?  The question was answered by Julius Caesar over 2000 years ago:  “People willingly believe what they want to believe.”  And many intellectuals of the time dearly wanted to believe in socialism, if not Communism.  Many of them shared Maxim Gorky’s belief that democracy was impossible without it.  Ironically, they included George Orwell, certainly no Stalinist or Communist, but a lifelong socialist, who never realized his work would deal such a telling blow to socialism until it was too late.  In his essays before the war, he actually claimed that there was no moral distinction between the Nazi and British versions of capitalism.  For example, in an essay entitled “Spilling the Spanish Beans,” that appeared in the New English Weekly in 1937, he wrote,

You can oppose Fascism by bourgeois “democracy”, meaning capitalism.  But meanwhile you have got to get rid of the troublesome person who points out that Fascism and bourgeois “democracy” are Tweedledum and Tweedledee… If the British public had been given a truthful account of the Spanish war (in which Orwell was a combatant, ed.) they would have had an opportunity of learning what Fascism is and how it can be combated.  As it is, the News Chronicle version of Fascism as a kind of homicidal mania peculiar to Colonel Blimps (British icon of reaction, ed.) bombinating in the economic void has been established more firmly than ever.  And thus we are one step nearer to the great war “against Fascism” (cf 1914, “against militarism”) which will allow Fascism, British variety, to be slipped over our necks during the first week.

Orwell’s comment throws a great deal of light on the phenomenon of mass self-delusion noted above.  By the 1930’s more than a century of socialist philosophers and propagandists, of whom Marx, Engels and Lenin were some of the more prominent examples, had elevated socialism to a quasi-religion.  The brilliant Scotchman, Sir James MacKintosh, had already noticed the trend in the early 1800’s, long before Marx appeared on the scene, observing that the new religion was bound to fail eventually, because it promised an unachievable paradise on earth, where it could be fact-checked, instead of in heaven, where it could not.  The new religion came complete with its own morality and its own good, the proletariat, and evil, the bourgeoisie.  Speaking in terms of human nature, the bourgeoisie became an outgroup, and the system associated with it, capitalism, anathema.  Thus, it was possible, even for a man as brilliant as Orwell, to seriously maintain that the British democracy and Nazism were really just manifestations of the same evil, capitalism, and therefore as equivalent to each other as Tweedledum and Tweedledee.   This explains another remarkable phenomenon of the time; the willingness of so many seemingly sober economists, politicians, and other miscellaneous intellectuals to liquidate an entire economic system in favor of the gaudy, pie-in-the-sky theories of socialism.  By so doing, one was not merely conducting a somewhat risky economic experiment.  One was fighting evil incarnate.  Self-delusion has always been a prominent characteristic of religious zealots, and the secular religious zealots of the 1930’s were no different.

Well, the experiment has been done, the facts have been checked, and, just as Sir James MacKintosh predicted over 150 years ago, the great Communist myth evaporated like a soap bubble.  Islam, a more traditional religion, rushed in to fill the vacuum left by its demise, inspiring a grotesque love affair between the obscurantist zealots of the old faith and the former “progressive” zealots of the secular faith that had just died.  Meanwhile, these “progressives” have begun assiduously cobbling on the outlines of a new secular faith.  The most recent versions come with a new, if somewhat hackneyed and moth-eaten, morality, including a new “good” (the 99 percent), and a new “evil” (the corporations).  We would do well to step back and consider whether we really want to go there again, before another country kills off the lion’s share of the intellectual cream of its population by way of eliminating the evil one percent.

 

Who Says Russia Can’t Beat Napoleon?

The Edinburgh Review, that’s who.  The liberal Edinburgh was one of the two great British political and literary journals of the first half of the 19th century.  It’s conservative counterpart was the Quarterly Review, which enjoyed its heyday at about the same time.  An article in the April, 1810 issue reviewed a Letter on the French Government that had just been published by an anonymous “American recently returned from Europe.”   Unfortunately, we still don’t know who he was, but we gather from his letter that he was an anglophile, highly educated, and very well informed about the financial arrangements of the Napoleonic government in France.  The Letter deals mostly with taxation and the other sources of revenue of France at the time, and includes estimates of the total income and disbursements of the Empire, the amount spent on the military, etc.

The British reviewer, also anonymous as usual at the time, threw in some interesting speculations of his own regarding the current political and military situation, likely reflecting the journal’s editorial point of view.  It will be recalled that in 1810 Napoleon was at the zenith of his triumphant career, with an army of around 800,000 veterans.  His power on the ground in Europe seemed unchallengable, at least as far as liberal opinion in Great Britain was concerned.  The reviewer’s comments about Napoleon and France have an uncanny similarity to some of the “informed commentary” about Hitler and Germany that was appearing on both sides of the Atlantic after his stunning victories in 1940 and 1941.  They also reveal, yet again, the pitfalls of attempting to predict even the immediate future.  Political pundits take note.

Then, as in 1940, victory created a deceptive aura of invincibility.  In both cases, Russia appeared to pose the only remaining credible challenge to the power of the autocrats on the European continent, and in both cases a remarkably large number of “well-informed” commentators dismissed her with a wave of the hand.  Here’s what the Edinburgh’s reviewer had to say about her:

The states that border upon France are ruled either by the kinsmen, or by the vassals of Bonaparte; – all but the Spanish chiefs, who have only a little hour to strut and fret.  The more remote empire of Russia is still in peace; and in peace she must remain, or be crushed without mercy, and without hope of restoration, for she seemed powerful only by the prudent reserve of Catherine.  The succeeding governments, less sagacious, have experimentally shown us how much we overvalued the resources of that country.

Of course, we know in retrospect that both Napoleon and Hitler had a disastrous penchant for undervaluing the “resources of that country.”  Both of them found it rather more difficult to “crush her without mercy” than they had expected.  The rest of the reviewer’s comments about how to deal with the “hopeless” superiority of Bonaparte seem hopelessly naive to those of us who know “the rest of the story.”  They are, however, interesting by virtue of their striking similarity to the advice of a class of writers that we now refer to as “appeasers.”  In both cases, the proposed “solution” to the problem was to avoid offending the triumphant dictator.  Here is what the Edinburgh’s man had to say:

We do think, then, that there is no chance of our being able to crush the power of France by direct hostility and aggression; but still we are of opinion, that, by skilful and cautious policy, we may reasonably hope to disable it.  This, however, we must do by gradual and cautious means; …we ought not to disturb the quiet of the Continent.  Every agitation that we can now excite there, is a fresh advantage to our enemy; …We should rather endeavour to keep the states of Europe so completely tranquil, that he shall have no cause or excuse for war – no resistance to fear, no plots to punish.  If we could but behold the French forces inactive, we might hope to behold them subdued. …”What then?”  it may be said – Are we to congratulate ourselves on the helplessness of all the states that might make head against France?  Certainly; – if we are convinced, as it appears we should be, that nothing can be expected from their exertions, while every thing may be hoped from their repose.

Just as the appeasers of a later day, the reviewer’s sanguine hope was that, if England just stopped provoking the boogeyman, he would eventually go away.  His people, informed of their folly by the burgeoning power of modern means of communication, would become restive, and his army would just “melt away”:

While the war continues, and especially while it is possible to impute its continuance to the restless hostility of England, the vanity and impetuosity of the French people may second the ambition of their ruler; but if they be ever allowed to settle into the habits and enjoyments of peace, all the natural interests and reflections which are generated by the very structure of modern society, will expand with tenfold vigour, and oppose a most formidable resistance to the tyranny which would again repress them for the purpose of its own extension.

Napoleon’s mighty army would simply fall apart of its own accord,

…degenerating, by disuse, toward the level of a new and inexpert militia.

Of course, as we now know, Napoleon’s mighty army, and later Hitler’s, did not “degenerate by disuse.”  Rather, their “degeneration” resulted from their attempts to “crush without mercy” a foe both they and the respective “experts” of the day had underestimated.

I suspect that the pundits of our own day will have no more luck in their attempts to predict the future than those of earlier ages.  However, the psychological type of the appeaser is as familiar today as it was in 1810 or 1940, as is that of their more bellicose and militant counterparts, who once wrote for the Quarterly Review.  In fact, neither type has had much success in predicting events.  It’s a great deal easier to predict how they will react to those events when they happen, though.

George Orwell and Socialism

With Animal Farm, an allegorical tale of the Russian Revolution, and 1984, a fictional analysis of the totalitarian state, George Orwell may well have done more to smash Marxist ideology than any other writer before or since.  He is considered by many the great nemesis of socialism.  As it happens, he was a convinced socialist himself.  Anyone doubting the fact need only read Homage to Catalonia, a memoir of his service in the Spanish Civil War.  If he ever felt any sympathy for the Stalinist variant of the totalitarian state, that experience cured him of it.  Not so his dedication to the socialist idea.  Orwell was, in fact, a revolutionary socialist.  For example, during World War II he wrote,

The difference between Socialism and capitalism is not primarily a difference of technique. One cannot simply change from one system to the other as one might install a new piece of machinery in a factory, and then carry on as before, with the same people in positions of control. Obviously there is also needed a complete shift of power. New blood, new men, new ideas – in the true sense of the word, a revolution.

(Writing in 1940) The English revolution started several years ago, and it began to gather momentum when the troops came back from Dunkirk. Like all else in England, it happens in a sleepy, unwilling way, but it is happening. The war has speeded it up, but it has also increased, and desperately, the necessity for speed. …since a classless, ownerless society is generally spoken of as “Socialism”, we can give that name to the society towards which we are now moving. The war and the revolution are inseparable. We cannot establish anything that a western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler; on the other hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century. The past is fighting the future and we have two years, a year, possibly only a few months, to see to it that the future wins.

We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war. …The fact that we are at war has turned Socialism from a textbook word into a realizable policy. The inefficiency of private capitalism has been proved all over Europe. Its injustice has been proved in the East End of London. …If it can be made clear that defeating Hitler means wiping out class privilege, the great mass of middling people, …will probably be on our side.

From the moment that all productive goods have been declared the property of the State, the common people will feel, as they cannot feel now, that the State is themselves.

One can predict the future in the form of an “either-or”: either we introduce Socialism, or we lose the war. (Published November, 1942)

and so on.  One can find much more in the same vein in Orwell’s writings. In retrospect, it all seems a bit delusional, but Orwell was no fool. He was a surpassingly brilliant man, with a deep respect for the truth. He was no ideologue, and his analyses of the great events happening around him were often remarkably accurate and profound. If anything, his example should teach us humility. If one of the greatest thinkers our species has ever produced could have been so wide of the mark in his predictions of things to come, it might behoove us to be somewhat reticent about attempting the same thing ourselves. Black swans have a habit of turning up at embarrassing times.

For that matter, Orwell was hardly an anomaly in the first half of the twentieth century.  A great number of intellectuals accepted it almost as a commonplace that socialism in some form was not only desirable, but inevitable.  Many agreed with Maxim Gorky’s conclusion that democracy and socialism were inseparable.  One could not exist without the other.  The hard times of the 1930’s seemed to sweep away any lingering doubts that the capitalist system was at the end of its tether.  The stampede to socialism was hardly just a European phenomenon.  Anyone doubting that thinkers in the United States were just as susceptible to the collective delusion need only visit the stacks of a university library and look through the pages of such intellectual and political journals as the Nation, The New Republic, and the American Mercury for the year 1934.  Orwell was merely one of many who saw the “obvious”:  the demise of capitalism was coming sooner rather than later.  The only question left was how to manage the transition to socialism as elegantly as possible.

Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, we now know that capitalism was rather more tenacious than Orwell and the rest suspected.  However, we would do well not to become too complacent.  Technological developments like the Internet greatly enhance our access to all kinds of information, but they also tend to reinforce groupthink on both the left and the right with a power that is exponentially greater than the pamphlets and journals of the 1930’s.  Our own collective delusions about the future of mankind will likely seem even more quaint half a century hence.

Orwell’s classless society may have been the stuff of dreams, but several regimes have come and gone since his death that came close to realizing the nightmare world of 1984.  As we shall see, he was remarkably prescient about a good number of other things as well.

Of Statistical Mirages and Public Employee Compensation in Wisconsin

It has never been advisable to take the statistics thrown out in the heat of political battles other than with a grain of salt.  As the old saying goes, “Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.”  There are many ways to slip in the lie.  For example, one can introduce variations in the way that common terms are understood, or compare apples and oranges, or simply imply that facts have a significance that lacks any reasonable justification.  The battle between the Left and Right in Wisconsin over public unions has generated some interesting examples. 

One of the most egregious comes from the left, although the right is hardly without sin in these matters.  Specifically, Ezra Klein of Journolist fame is citing a study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) that purportedly “proves” that Wisconsin public workers are actually under-compensated compared to their counterparts in the private sector.  The basis for his claim is a nice graph included in the study comparing public and private sector compensation as a function of educational attainment.  In all these comparisons except at the high school level, the public sector workers seem to be taking a huge hit, amounting to a deficit of anywhere from a quarter to a third compared to the private sector.  However, Ezra’s post quotes a couple of paragraphs from the EPI source document citing some caveats regarding this rather striking graph.  For example, at the very end of the quote, which appears in somewhat finer print than the bulk of the post, we learn that,

Controlling for a larger range of earnings predictors—including not just education but also age, experience, gender, race, etc., Wisconsin public-sector workers face an annual compensation penalty of 11%. Adjusting for the slightly fewer hours worked per week on average, these public workers still face a compensation penalty of 5% for choosing to work in the public sector.

There is no explanation of why these controls weren’t factored in when the bar graph referred to above, which seems to show that public sector workers make a much greater sacrifice in order to serve the people of Wisconsin, was created.  It happens that one can find some possible reasons for the discrepancy if one “Googles” the EPI.  It turns out that Ezra somehow forgot to mention that the organization describes itself as “non-partisan but progressive.”  For those who happen not to be astute followers of US politics, those who deem themselves “progressives” are rather more likely to be found on the side of the public sector workers than the Republican party in Wisconsin.   Ezra also forgot to mention that the source of a big chunk of the EPI’s funding is unions.  Perhaps he thought it was too insignificant to mention.

The cost to the state of public pensions is, of course, one of the major bones of contention between Wisconsin governor Walker and the public sector unions.  It would, therefore, seem a matter of some importance to calculate this cost with some rigor, and to explicitly document the method used in any document citing that cost.  Unfortunately, the EPI source document does not do so.  It merely states that,

Retirement benefits account for 8% of state and local government compensation costs compared with 2.5% to 4.9% in the private sector.

It is unfortunate that the details of the method used to arrive at this 8% figure are not described.  It seems rather dubious on the face of it.  For example, Wisconsin teachers who retire after 30 years service will draw 48% of their top pay in pension for the rest of their lives.  It would seem plausible to assume that “top pay” is rather larger than “average pay.”  A teacher hired at the age of 25 would reach retirement age at 55.  At this age, the average life expectancy for US males is about 25 years, and for females about 28.  Any way you figure it, the cost of providing a pension of 48% of top pay for over a quarter of a century dwarfs the 8% figure cited by EPI.  Throw in the fact that this figure does not include retiree health and other non-cash benefits, and the discrepancy gapes even wider.  On the other hand, the average teacher will likely work for less than the required 30 years.  The EPI article does not mention how these and other seemingly salient factors are included in the data.  Apparently, its figure is based on the amount of money the state is currently setting aside to fund the pensions, a wildly inaccurate metric for determining what they will eventually actually cost.  Given that the organization is anything but an unbiased third party, this would seem to be a rather prominent red flag to anyone tempted to cite them as a source.

In a word, dear reader, to credit statistics thrown out by ideologues is to skate on thin ice.  Their main value lies in pointing the way to source material.  Should you really be so bold as to seek to isolate a small fragment of something as evanescent as the truth, you will have to endure the tedious task of sifting through a great deal of that source material on your own.

A Shooting and a Narrative

There is no such thing as news.  There is only narrative.  The significance of most of what passes for news is derived from the attention the media pays to it rather than its intrinsic importance.  A case in point is the remarkable, ongoing obsession of the news media on both the left and right with the shootings in Arizona.  In this case the feeding frenzy was set in motion by the left.  Even though there have obviously always been people on both ends of the spectrum who have no life outside of politics, I was still taken aback by their desperate attempts to seize on this issue like so many drowning men grasping at straws.  Evidently their resounding defeat in November was even more galling than I imagined.  They made no secret of the fact that they were waiting with bated breath for some incident they could construe as evidence of the “violent nature” of the Tea Party movement, conservative talk radio, and the rest of their pet bogeymen.  They admitted as much. As their reaction to the shootings makes clear, they were very eager indeed. They’re acting for all the world like so many Communists marching behind the coffin of a murdered “martyr” in days gone by. All that’s missing is the red flags.

Some examples of their overwrought reaction can be found here, here, and here, all based on zero evidence that there was any link whatsoever between the shooter and the Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, or anyone else on the right. The “objective” CNN even went so far as to write a panegyric of Sheriff Dupnik, now infamous for his ham-handed attempts at political exploitation of the murders, as the soul of wisdom, complete down to everything but his birth in a log cabin.  I doubt we’ll be seeing more of the same from those quarters, as in the meantime the good sheriff has been giving off such a stench that even the stalwarts of the left have begun holding their noses.

The left’s seizing at this particular straw was, obviously, ill-considered.  Other than not bothering to come up with any evidence to back up their accusations, only to find out after the fact that there was none, they set their own hypocrisy on a pedestal for the right to take pot shots at.  After all, the left doesn’t commonly engage its opponents in reasoned discourse.  Its forte’s have always been demonization, virtuous indignation, and a style of “eliminationist rhetoric” all its own.  They gave the other side a perfect opportunity to point that out, as they did with relish, for example, here, here and here.

There is little that can demonstrate the extent to which the left overshot its mark in its crudely insensitive attempts to exploit the Arizona deaths and the grave wounding of Gabrielle Giffords than the reaction of the foreign media.  Germany’s for example, is usually reliably leftist, often taking its talking points directly from the New York Times.  It is all the more remarkable that the Washington correspondent of Der Spiegel, Marc Hujer, penned an article entitled “America’s Insane Debate,” in which he wrote, among other things, 

The very people who got so upset about the tone of debate in the past year, about the rhetoric of the Tea Party, the harsh words of the Right, the unabashed caricatures of Obama as Hitler, are now poisoning the debate themselves with shameless insinuations. Without learning the facts, they seek the guilty behind the attack, and commonly find them on the right, in the Tea Party, in Republican Party chief Michael Steele and Tea Party heroine Sarah Palin.

The language chosen by Sarah Palin and other Tea Partiers was doubtless raw and over the top, but doesn’t come close to providing any proof for the claim that they motivated the shootings in Arizona. Indeed, what is known about the shooter at this point gives no indication that he is a member of the Tea Party movement, or a fan of Palin, or that he has any clear political convictions at all. His favorite books included the Communist Manifesto, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and Peter Pan, a weird collection. However, there is no indication that his act was motivated by politics.

The massive criticism directed at Sarah Palin is delusional, and not just because it’s a baseless accusation. The attempt to weaken Palin in this way could accomplish the opposite.

That’s strong stuff coming from a source that’s usually reliably critical of the right, in the U.S. as well as in Germany.  The left in this country might do well to take heed for their own good.  Perhaps more worrisome than their baseless accusations is what they propose as a cure; a further dismantling of the Bill of Rights.  In this case their targets are the first and second amendments to the Constitution.  If the history of the last hundred years is any guide, we have more reason than ever before to continue to fight against any diminishing of those rights.