June 6, 2011
Losing Dorothy RabinowitzBy Ed Kaitz
Eric Hoffer once wrote that the "1960s were decisive" in generating the subsequent feeling that "our economic system and our civilization are nearing their end." Hoffer argued that the "murder weapon was forged in the radical-chic salons of Manhattan and Washington, and in the word factories of our foremost universities."
In other words, America's very existence was being threatened by a generation of self-centered, perpetual undergraduates who refused to grow up: "a horde of educated nobodies who want to be somebodies and end up being busybodies" as Hoffer put it.
The same phenomenon of post-60s perpetual immaturity was brilliantly encapsulated by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan in his 1977 book Democracy in Deficit: The Political Legacy of Lord Keynes. Buchanan noted that the 1960s "zeitgeist" included "a general erosion in public and private manners, increasingly liberalized attitudes toward sexual activities, a declining vitality of the Puritan work ethic" and, among other things, "an explosion of the welfare rolls[.]"
The economist Buchanan argued that a good portion of the 60s zeitgeist was a product of the "Keynesian conversion of the public and the politicians" from the old ethic of long-term saving and investment to the immediate joys of inflationary spending:
It prompts behavioral responses that reflect a generalized shortening of time horizons. "Enjoy, enjoy"-the imperative of our time-becomes a rational response in a setting where tomorrow remains insecure and where the plans made yesterday seem to have been made in folly.
Indeed, it was John Maynard Keynes himself who famously said "in the long run we are all dead." What Keynes meant, according to F.A. Hayek, is that "it does not matter what long-range damage we do; it is the present moment alone, the short run - consisting of public opinion, demands, votes, and all the stuff and bribes of demagoguery - which counts."
After concluding that "it was not philosophy alone that confused Keynes - it was also economics," Hayek made the timeless observation that "morals are concerned with effects in the long run."
It was hard not to take solace in the mature wisdom of philosophers like Hoffer, Buchanan, and Hayek after reading the rather immature blueprint for "Republican victory" offered by the Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz over the weekend.
Rabinowitz's essay seems curious not only in its contempt for Republicans who take a long-term view of our nation's fortunes, but in its disconnected outbursts, its many contradictions, and the general lack of thoughtfulness on display throughout.
In "The Republican Who Can Win," Rabinowitz argues first that the successful Republican candidate will have to "speak in the voice of Americans who know in their bones the extraordinary character of their democracy, and that voice will have to ring out steadily." In addition, he "will have to have a vision of this nation, and its place in the world, that voters recognize, that speaks to a sense of America they can see and take pride in."
When one hears abstractions like "in their bones" and "extraordinary character" and "vision of this nation," a normal deduction would be that ideology should play a powerful role in any successful Republican candidate's campaign -- taking pride in America's unique limited government tradition for example.
For Rabinowitz however, "Americans aren't sitting around worried to death about big government" and any politician who takes a "fevered tone" about cutting spending and government programs will betray an "ideological tinge" that threatens the sort of "pragmatism that inspires voter confidence." Huh?
In addition, Rabinowitz says that the successful Republican candidate "would avoid talk of the costs of our spendthrift ways." He should be extremely wary of mentioning our children and grandchildren:
He would especially avoid painting images of the pain Americans feel at burdening their children and grandchildren. This high-minded talk, rooted in fantasy, isn't going to warm the hearts of mature voters of mature age - and they are legion - who feel no such pain. None. And they don't like being told that they do, or that they should feel it, or that they're stealing from the young.
Rooted in fantasy? The great philosopher and economist Joseph Schumpeter argued in his 1942 masterpiece Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy that the economic performance of capitalism "stands out only if we take a long-run view; any capitalist argument must rest on long-run considerations. In the short run, it is profits and inefficiencies that dominate the picture. In order to accept his lot, the leveler or the chartist of old would have had to comfort himself with the hopes for his great-grandchildren."
What's so brutally ironic about all of this is that if short-term, immediate gratification is the recipe for warming Dorothy's heart, then according to Schumpeter Ms. Rabinowitz is unwittingly fueling the demise of the very economic system that produced her opportunities and lifestyle.
Schumpeter famously argued that the "capitalist order tends to destroy itself and centralist socialism is a likely heir apparent[.]" The reason the capitalist order decomposes is that more and more people begin to realize that sacrificing and saving for family and children "fade out from the moral vision" because of cost/benefit considerations of rational utility:
With the decline of the driving power supplied by the family motive, the business man's time horizon shrinks, roughly, to his life expectation. And he might now be less willing than he was to fulfill that function of earning, saving and investing even if he saw no reason to fear that the results would but swell his tax bills. He drifts into an anti-saving frame of mind and accepts with an increasing readiness anti-saving theories that are indicative of a short-run philosophy.
That "short run philosophy" was provided by none other than John Maynard Keynes. For Keynes, money was to be spent and enjoyed, not hoarded or saved. Government spending would provide jobs, stimulate consumption, and help people break free from long-term, miserly virtues like thrift and abstinence. In a 1930 essay called "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren" Keynes argued that mankind was very close to "solving its economic problem." In other words, material abundance would finally help to eviscerate previously "distasteful" human values such as saving and the Puritan work ethic:
We shall be able to rid ourselves of many pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession - as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life - will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semipathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.
"As a feminist, a bisexual, a Malthusian, and a champion of the sexual revolution," Keynes, according to historian Chrisopher Lasch, understood that "civilized opinion demanded an expansion of the range of private choice. The notion of duty was outdated; one's highest duty was to oneself." It was conditions of scarcity, in other words, that demanded a now outmoded work ethic that required selfless saving for future generations. Our grandchildren's materially abundant future, according to Keynes, would contain less pathology and more healthy experimentation.
Joseph Scumpeter noted with some poignancy that "the family home used to be the mainspring of the typically bourgeois kind of profit motive." There was a "romance and heroism" in the "founding of a family" that provided the family breadwinner with a powerful impetus to endure the "heavy personal sacrifices" that went along with work, investing, and parenting.
According to Dorothy Rabinowitz, however, legions of "voters of mature age" should feel "no such pain" about the "plight of future generations." None. Like the childless Mr. Keynes, Ms. Rabinowitz may have had no children. There is nothing in her WSJ bio about husband or family.
Ms. Rabinowitz uses a physician analogy in her essay to argue what exactly the successful Republican candidate will look like. She says that like a good doctor, a good candidate will "show deliberation and care in the choice [of treatment]" for our ailing economy, which will give Americans confidence in both "the treatment and the doctor."
When "conservatives" fail to see politicians as the patients and the people themselves as the physicians then something is terribly wrong in our country.
Indeed, in his Discourses Niccolò Machiavelli also discussed physicians and government. He noted that in the process of time the original goodness of a Republic is corrupted, and "such a body must of necessity die unless something happens which brings it up to the mark. Thus our medical men, speaking of the human body, say that 'every day it absorbs something which from time to time requires treatment.'"
The most effective treatment, according to Machiavelli, "for men who live together under any constitution" is to "make frequent renovations possible" and restore the Republic to its original constitution. "Without renovation" says Machiavelli, "these bodies do not last."
Words of wisdom for "voters of mature age" who still have an "ideological tinge."
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