Wisdom from Jonah Goldberg? First Principles of Politics

Wisdom from Jonah Goldberg? First Principles of Politics July 15, 2011

I sometimes find Jonah Goldberg over-the-top, but I thought he made an excellent point in his “Goldberg File” today.  He told a story of a family on a road-trip.  The wife wrote “Help. Please God.” in the dust on the back of the car when they were about to begin a long drive.  One of her children wrote, “I’ve been kidnapped.”  And one of the neighbor’s kids wrote: “Call 911.”  A series of thoughtless, seemingly inconsequential decisions that led to numerous drivers calling the cops, the cops chasing the car, and the cops pointing their guns at the father’s head.  Goldberg writes:

It seems to me that this is a great little allegory for understanding how really, really, really stupid things happen in life, particularly in Washington. Person A has a harmless idea. Person B doesn’t completely understand A’s idea, but builds on it anyway. By the time you get to person Z, you’re selling hundreds of automatic weapons to Mexican drug cartels.

On both the left and the right there’s a tendency to assume the other side — particularly when it is running the government — is both really evil and really competent. Most of the time it’s closer to the opposite — again, particularly when we’re talking about the government. What appear to be conspiracies from the outside are in fact a series of dumb, innocuous, or even somewhat okay ideas that build on each other into colossally idiotic foul-ups, thanks to imperfect information and mission creep. If there’s a human being out there who hasn’t had some experience with this sort of thing I can only assume it’s because you were raised in a refrigerator box and without human contact. And if there’s a reader out there who doesn’t think this capacity for screw-ups is an important part of the human condition, well, you’re free to read this but you’re not a conservative.

This is the perspective of someone who’s been around Washington long enough to know how the sausage is made.  Conspiracies take a tremendous amount of coordination, discipline and secrecy.  Idiocy is the easiest thing in the world.

But I particularly want to focus on the assumption that the other side is “evil” — or, since “evil” is probably too strong a word in most cases, at least immoral.  Conservatives too often operate on the assumption that liberals have no concern for family values and pursue the expansion of their own power under the camouflage of “compassion” and care for the poor.  Liberals too often operate on the assumption that conservatives really don’t care about the common good, and would sooner leave the needy to rot than pay $1 in taxes.

Both of these are absurd, cartoonish caricatures.  And this brings me to two of Timothy Dalrymple’s First Principles of Politics.

First, people are more or less the same.  Simple though it sounds, I find that conservatives and liberals alike find this offensive.  Yet I really believe it’s true.  Conservatives and liberals are rational and moral in roughly equal measure.  They may emphasize different values, and the values they represent in the public square may be more or less moral (I believe, for instance, that it is more moral by far to serve the cause of life), but conservatives and liberals as people are roughly the same.  The same holds true for rationality.  Some are conservative for more rational reasons, some for less rational reasons, and the same holds for liberals.  Even if liberalism is infected with some bad ideologies, as I believe it is, rational people buy into bad ideologies all the time.  And if we think conservatism is not infected with some bad ideologies too, we’re fooling ourselves.

The second principle follows: Neither party has a monopoly on good ideas and good intentions — or bad ideas and bad intentions. This is why every issue has to be examined according to its own merits, and not according to its inclusion in one or another party platform.  The best legislation will take the best ideas and intentions from both parties, and yet — as Goldberg says — too often the legislation, because the passage of legislation can powerfully serve the interests of the legislators themselves, is a cobbling-together of bad ideas and intentions.  Or, better, most legislation is an amalgam of good and bad ideas and good and bad intentions that both parties have advocated over time.  It’s sausage.

This is not an easy way to approach politics.  It’s far simpler to believe the bad guys are on one side and the good guys are on the other side.  But the world we actually live in is far more complex than that.  I believe that all participants in the political dialogue, and especially Christians, need to grant that there are good ideas and good intentions on both sides, stop assailing the motives or assuming the worst of the opposition, and seek creative ways of bringing the best ideas and intentions together, no matter where they come from.

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  • You, sir, are a heretic. Clearly, the Us-vs-Them model has been working for humans since the talking serpent said “God’s been holding out on you. Eat the apple. Trust me. I’m on your side.”

    The Us-vs-Them system works. It enables us to see who are enemies are, and we all know we cannot accomplish anything without know who they are and what they are up to.

    Every successful politician in recent memory has been elected by pointing out how bad the other guys are. And look what it’s gotten us: excellent political leaders who care nothing about themselves, but only want to serve their electorate.

    And it’s not just sports, either. We sports fans have seen how the lockouts of both the NBA and NFL have gone. They, too, work on the Us-vs-Them model. Sure, while the owners and players accuse each other of greed, the NBA laid off 11% of their non-rich employees just yesterday, but those people will find other ways to feed their families.

    My favorite aspect of Us-vs-Them (although there are so many to choose from) is that we can have Christian “ministries” which do nothing but complain about Democrats. If that isn’t ministering to people, I don’t know what is.

    I could give more examples, but I’m running late. I’ve formed a band where we write songs about how much we hate the Tea Party, Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, and left-handed people. Gotta go practice. In the meantime, please stop talking all this nonsense.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I wish I could “Like” comments.

  • Dang! A couple of typos really hurt that otherwise brilliant comment.

    I meant to say “and it’s not just politics, either”. I’m pretty sure Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann made me mistype.

    • The jig is up, James. Everybody knows that such egregious typos indicate either A) your blue collar, folksy, down home Conservative goodness, or B) your identity as a Liberal clumsily attempting to connect with normal people. Regardless of which of these is the case, given that you are not me, sir, I feel confident identifying you as one of Them.

  • It seems to me that Goldberg’s is an essentially conservative observation. His conclusion (I get the Goldberg File as well) is:

    “This is not — or at least not entirely — a road-to-Hell-is-paved-with-good-intentions point. The initial idea that gets the ball rolling can be cynical or crass. Rather, it’s to note that the more humans you have in the decision tree, the more you multiply the human factor, and that can lead to some pretty inhuman results.”

    The reason I oppose Obamacare isn’t because I think Obama and his bureaucrats are supercompetent but evil; it’s because I think they are ordinarily competent and ordinarily moral, and huge bureaucracies populated by ordinary people are invariably inefficient, self-aggrandizing and, eventually, inhuman. The reason this is a conservative point is that the left can virtually be defined by an implicit faith in the competence of bureaucracies to solve problems and deliver services. It is true that I oppose almost every idea proposed by the left; but that is because nearly all their ideas involve expanding government bureaucracy, and only in rare cases to I believe such expansions are wise (and certainly not wise today; we suffer from no shortage of bureaucrats.) What separates me from the left is not any belief in their villainy or competence, but basic political principle.

    It is true that neither party has a monopoly on good ideas or intentions; it is also true what you and Goldberg say about legislation:

    “too often the legislation, because the passage of legislation can powerfully serve the interests of the legislators themselves, is a cobbling-together of bad ideas and intentions. Or, better, most legislation is an amalgam of good and bad ideas and good and bad intentions that both parties have advocated over time. It’s sausage”

    This seems to lead to a conservative conclusion as well: The scope of legislation should remain limited, precisely because the process is such that a “sausage” result is likely even under the best of circumstances. Is it better to produce a giant sausage that is very difficult to fix once in place, or a series of small sausages that can be modified as their consequences become apparent? This rules out massive omnibus bills like Obamacare on principle; bills which are the whole point of progressive politics for the left. Again, this isn’t a matter of assigning villainy, but a recognition of how politics works in our fallen world.

  • I largely agree, and this is what I like about Goldberg, but I would add a wrinkle. This is why it is important, if you are going to be politically active, to discern your ideological perspective.

    Our political vilify the concept of ideology because doing so appeals to swing voters (who are seldom ideological, almost by definition).

    If we have a proper ideological perspective, we can readily test the ideas themselves, rather than getting hung up on personalities or emotional responses. Further, we are then able to understand WHY people disagree with us.

    Insofar as we fail on that latter point (often at the prompting of political leaders), we end up with assuming the worst of people. Or we resort to focusing on “scandals”, or we have proxy wars over “civility”.