Saturday, January 30, 2010

An Accepted Statist Contradiction

I’m not generally a fan of columnist Peggy Noonan, but I thought she did a good job yesterday in exposing one of the essential contradictions that any semi-honest statist must face:
The central fact of the speech was the contradiction at its heart. It repeatedly asserted that Washington is the answer to everything. At the same time it painted a picture of Washington as a sick and broken place. It was a speech that argued against itself: You need us to heal you. Don't trust us, we think of no one but ourselves.

The people are good but need guidance—from Washington. The middle class is anxious, and its fears can be soothed—by Washington. Washington can "make sure consumers . . . have the information they need to make financial decisions." Washington must "make investments," "create" jobs, increase "production" and "efficiency."

At the same time Washington is a place "where every day is Election Day," where all is a "perpetual campaign" and the great sport is to "embarrass your opponents" and lob "schoolyard taunts."

Why would anyone have faith in that thing to help anyone do anything?
All true (except her characterization of selfishness). But if the contradiction is so glaring, what makes it possible for so many people to hold this view? The magic wand of altruism. Everything comes down to motivation, not facts or worldly success. If you’re doing something explicitly to benefit yourself, it’s morally suspect, and as a result you’ll be held accountable for any faults or contradictions. But if your goal is sacrificial, i.e. you’re operating at a loss or for some unidentified “other”, then anything goes. Thus, for example, destructive behemoths like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and any number of government agencies can flout any and all accounting standards and accountability simply because they operate in the “public interest”. Businessmen, on the other hand, are subject to heinous regulations and standards because (allegedly) their own voluntary clients and investors must be protected from the depredations of profit-seeking activities. Or to look at the other side of business activity, today the words “not for profit” are a badge of honor. This despite the fact that the very term trumpets that any such enterprise’s output is literally less than (or equal to) the sum of its inputs. Only in a culture where sacrifice is regarded a virtue could this kind of wasteful inversion be held in high esteem.

The lesson to be drawn here is that anyone who wants to advocate for responsible political change must begin by challenging the altruist’s moral premises. For absent such a challenge, no amount of pointing out the economic contradictions, waste and devastation created by statism will ever phase its advocates.

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