Mixing up Mamet, Hayek, Hitchens, and Sowell
I was trotting along the other day, reading The Secret Knowledge by newly conservatized playwright David Mamet, when something pulled me up short. Mamet was explaining his "revelation upon reading Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. ... He wrote that there are no solutions; there are only tradeoffs... and that this is the Tragic view of life."
No he didn't, I said to myself. Hayek didn't write about the tragic view of life, not in The Road to Serfdom at any rate. Mamet must have mixed up Hayek with Thomas Sowell.
Now this doesn't really matter, except to government functionaries occupying tenured sinecures at government universities. Who cares about a bit of misattribution among friends? If David Mamet has indeed been burning through the conservative canon with a hard, gem-like flame in the last couple of years, it would be surprising if he hadn't got a few things mixed up. That's what good editors are for.
But then I ran into Christopher Hitchens' waspish review of Secret Knowledge in The New York Times. And he repeats the "tragic view" error. So now we are getting into the Churchillian problem that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on. Writes Halfway Hitch, after a swipe at Mamet for not reading Hayek's "Why I am Not a Conservative":
Briefly, Hayek identified what he called "the Tragic View" of the free market: the necessity of making difficult choices between competing goods.
OK, this time I checked out the tragic view with Google Books. There is no discussion of "tragic view" in The Road to Serfdom. The word "tragic" appears twice, but not as a Weltanshauung. The Constitution of Liberty? There is one hit for "tragic," as in "This development is especially tragic." And so on.
Hitch would have known this if he had read, learned, and inwardly digested his Hayek as a young schoolboy in Britain, before he squandered his life chasing leftist chimeras until the day of his 9/11 epiphany. He'd have known that Hayek doesn't go in for ringing phrases and overarching paradigms. In fact, if you mine Hayek for pithy quotes you usually come away empty-handed. Hayek is incapable of making any point in less than a paragraph.
No, the chap with the tragic view is Thomas Sowell. Only he calls it the "tragic vision" and he has written two books about it. In A Conflict of Visions of 1987 he compared the "constrained vision" of conservatives and the American Revolution with the "unconstrained vision" of our liberal friends and the French Revolution. "The constrained vision is a tragic vision of the human condition," Sowell explained, and goes on to examine the radically opposed ways in which the two visions look at everything from knowledge to equality, power, and justice.
In 1996 Sowell returned to the topic in the The Vision of the Anointed. Liberals are people with "the vision of the anointed." Sensible practical people, like Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in The Federalist Papers, hold the "tragic vision." Since Anointed has 31 instances of "tragic vision" and the book gets an entry in Mamet's bibliography, I reckon that's where he read about it. Good for him.
Hitchens does get one thing right. He writes, right off the top, that "This is an extraordinarily irritating book." For to like it you would have to be persuaded by Mamet's unqualified assertions that the animus of the left against Sarah Palin is "her status... as a Worker," or that Marx "never worked a day in his life." The value of the book is its fighting words, as in: "We will recall that the sibilant in the acronym NAZI stands for Socialist." Or what about this?
Contemporary Liberal sentiment endorses the abrogation or elaboration of law to ensure that no one suffers, but the first and most important task of law in a democracy is... to ensure that no one suffers because of the State. And the simple, tragic truth is that this may be accomplished... only by limiting the State's power.
That sort of writing is very irritating, if only to a liberal.
What liberals can't quite get their heads around is the idea that modern conservatism is not the European apology for the old landed elite they want it to be, but a movement of irritating middle-class strivers, people like Reagan, son of the town drunk, Thatcher, daughter of the corner grocer, Sowell, high-school dropout. In fact, modern conservatives look a lot like David Mamet, the smart, tough kid from Chicago, only without all the f-words.
Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his usgovernmentspending.com and also usgovernmentdebt.us. At americanmanifesto.org he is blogging and writing An American Manifesto: Life After Liberalism.