Friday, May 31, 2013

Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner

I read Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Flexner after seeing it displayed prominently in a book store. It actually is not a new book; it was written in 1974, but maybe it is experiencing a comeback!

The historian, Flexner, pulls no punches, but neither aims to write a “hit piece.” He tells the story of George Washington from his childhood to his death. Flexner had previously written a four-volume set on George Washington and therefore was intimately familiar with the epic scope such a figure demanded. Yet he decided, not to condense, but to write a new book on Washington that would fill a single volume. Because of the epic scope, the reader really comes to know Washington intimately.

However, because Washington is the closest America has to a saint, we are used to seeing him portrayed solely as a role model. No doubt he is a role model, but he is also human. We see him disagree with other near-saints, like Jefferson and Hamilton. We see these great men abandon him in his second term. The author repeatedly puts forth the notion that at the end of his life, Washington began to suffer from age-related confusion (without any evidence, I might add). If true, it certainly was disheartening to me to picture this great man stumbling in any way.

I love how the author portrays the bumps along Washington’s path and the lessons he learned. For example, after a humiliating defeat while serving with the British in the French and Indian war, Washington tucks away the knowledge that the British CAN be defeated. Repeatedly, he learned during the War of Independence that it was better to stay alive to fight another day, than to lose in a slaughter. 

Upon his death, the reader really feels the loss of this great man. He wore the weight of the responsibilities he shouldered and it ultimately led to his untimely death. He gave all for his country and left it far better than he found it. We do well in imitate him and reflect on his character. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell, that brilliant modern renaissance man, has written a book, A Conflict of Visions, describing the two major worldviews being exhibited today. While he doesn’t quite advocate for one or the other, his clear presentation of both make one worldview clearly stand above the other. These worldviews speak to the very foundation of what people ultimately believe about human nature. As such, different opinions will naturally result from each of the visions. 

Although the world does not neatly divide into two succinct views, Sowell identifies two main visions that seem to encompass much of what we run into today. He has labeled them the Constrained View and the Unconstrained View. The heart of each viewpoint goes back to whether one believes man is basically good and perfectible and moving towards that perfection, or whether one believes man is fallen, tempted to make bad choices and that options available are always trade-offs. 

Those who hold the constrained view recognize man’s inherent failings and the vanity of trying to change human nature. Rather, the desire is to create systems that encourage responsible and moral behavior and avoid systems that don’t. 

In contrast, the unconstrained view believes that “man [is] capable of directly feeling other people’s needs as more important than his own and therefore of consistently acting impartially, even when his own interests or those of his family were involved.” This is not a description of most people, but about the very essence of man. 

Sowell goes on to detail many ways in which these two worldviews diverge. For instance, one view states that life is a series of trade-off, each with their own pros and cons. The other view believes that perfect solutions are possible, and that there will be no price to be paid if only the “correct” solution is proffered. This is perfectly seen in the difference between our Founding Fathers, who compromised and created systems of compromise because they knew a perfect solution was not possible, and the French Revolutionaries that envisioned a day when bloodshed would end, “when all people will have become equally devoted to their country and its laws.” It is pragmatism vs. utopia.

As pertains to knowledge and reason, the constrained and unconstrained visions again diverge. The constrained sees knowledge as broadly diffused among the population, not necessarily articulated, but known by experience passed down throughout the ages. In contrast, the unconstrained believes all knowledge to be attainable by individual humans and as such places great emphasis on education and discussion. To the follower of the constrained view the simple vastness of knowledge in existence makes the difference between the most educated and the most ignorant insignificant. The unconstrained believer, however, sees the most educated as the most enlightened and far above the ignorant masses. One trusts the people, the other trusts intellectuals to govern. One looks to history for wisdom, the other to youth. 

The vision each has of social processes diverges as well. Since it believes in man’s ability to conquer all knowledge, the unconstrained favors social process that are planned to achieve certain outcomes. They not only believe this is possible, but that the most advanced people can actually achieve it. Contrariwise, “[i]n the constrained vision, where man -- individually and collectively -- lacks both the intellectual and moral prerequisites for such deliberate, comprehensive planning, order evolves historically without design and more effectively when when it is designed.” With two different visions of how social processes should and do work, one result is a different understanding of freedom. While the constrained vision looks at the process to determine fairness, the other looks at the outcome. If someone is denied whatever it is they are seeking, the unconstrained chalks this up to some form of unfairness which can be remedied by the intellectuals.

Another big difference between the two competing vision manifests itself in the respective beliefs about equality. Ironically, the unconstrained view, with its devotion to the idea that man is perfectible, sees mankind in pessimistic terms. While all are capable of achieving greatness, most don’t. Therefore, the gap is very large, necessitating more and more control by the elite. While within the constrained vision, the gap between potential and actual is much smaller. The ordinary person is assumed, by virtue of the fact that he is part of the larger mass of knowledge, to be almost the equal of his intellectual superior. In fact, while the authority may boast more knowledge in his speciality, he does not have superiority over the general population in all other matters. Therefore, the elite have no right to restrict the choices of the masses. As the constrained vision holds that people are generally more equal to each other, they seek to diffuse the decision making processes equally to the wisdom of the masses. The unconstrained, believing in greater inequality at the outset, would rather equalize the final outcome. 

When it comes to the role and use of power, the different worldviews necessarily arrive at different conclusions. Those with an unconstrained view, believing as they do that people are reasonable and therefore can be reasoned with, eschew violent power and seek to find “root causes” for crime and other power mis-matches. Understanding will subdue conflict and before understanding has taken place, the elites must be given more decision-making power. In the constrained view, however, aggression is to be expected from a fallen and flawed people. The best and least invasive thing to be done is to structure society and the system to discourage bad behavior. So this view is much more likely to believe in law and order and strong national defense.

The most pernicious difference between the two visions comes in the understanding of justice. Since the unconstrained view believes “that man is capable of foreseeing and controlling the social consequences of his decisions” he must act to create just results. This places the demand, not on just or impartial rules, but on the outcome. If an outcome is deemed unfair, then actions must be taken, AND CAN BE TAKEN, that would lead to a fair result. The unconstrained vision believes man is almost omniscient in his ability to create a just world. Some rights are given precedence and others subsumed in the endless search for perfect justice. But the constrained vision believes this ad hoc form of justice to be detrimental and destabilizing to the institutions designed to provide actual justice. The constrained vision believes that man is incapable of effectively monitoring and controlling all the results of his actions. He cannot possibly understand the complex effects of this kind of erratic justice in search of a utopian ideal. 
Sowell takes no side and I believe he accurately presents both sides. For me, since I believe in a Biblical worldview that states man is fallen and flawed, the constrained view makes the most sense. The book is rich in examples and details and had me engrossed from the beginning. I cannot help but wonder how anyone can hold to the unconstrained worldview after its numerous failures and obvious counterfactuals. But, people do not want to believe we are sinners in need of a savior. They’d rather BE that savior!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Spoiled Rotten by Jay Cost

I decided to read Spoiled Rotten by Jay Cost because the idea intrigued me. His sub-head is, “How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic”. Lots of words for a sub-head, but it grabbed me.

Even after reading the book, I’m not sure of Cost’s politics. Sure the title suggests this is a hit piece on the Democrats, but the sub-head calls them “the once noble Democratic Party.” So... which is it? After reading the book, I came away with the sense that he really is trying to call attention to the failings of the Democratic Party in order to improve it. Noble goal.

Cost marks the beginning of the modern Democratic Party with Andrew Jackson and the  populist movement. But Jackson made a decision that would unintentionally hurt his party in the future. He abolished the old method of replacing only a few key positions in government with supporters and leaving the rest alone and replaced it with the “spoils” system. He called it “rotation in office” intending to clean out established interests and replace the government workers with those more closely in tune with the people. In reality, he opened the door to our modern bureaucracy and created an environment in which special interests actually thrived. His populism and its incarnation in William Jennings Bryan paved the way for a constituency of farmers and labor battling with the interests of the wealthy.

Once the patronage was cleaned up after Garfield’s death at the hands of an angry man who was denied a patronage job, Democratic President, Wilson, while still espousing a populist and progressive agenda, tried to put an end to the Democratic machines. Little did he realize the power the machines had to generate votes by buying them. Therefore, he was unable to use a lever that might come in handy when the fortunes of the Democratic Party changed. FDR would not make that mistake.

After their multiple defeats following Wilson’s presidency, FDR needed to totally redesign the Democratic Party. Not only did he pursue a progressive agenda, he expanded the power of the federal government to build a permanent Democratic majority. “The New Deal thus pursued nation building and party building simultaneously.” FDR did his best to appease the Southerners, create a client out of Labor, and either use or destroy political machines to his advantage. But by bringing labor into a party build on Southern conservatives, he created a permanent schism. Again and again, the Democrats were forced to serve their Southern clients with legislative carve-outs on such as FDRs refusal to help pass Southern-opposed anti-lynching laws. This mix of clients led to the reelection of FDR an unprecedented 3 times.

With Harry Truman, the Democratic Party had to decide which direction to go. Would it return to the Jacksonian principle of rejecting a large government the could and would play favorites and thus hurt the common man, or would it continue down the progressive path and use the power of the government to reward its clients. The Fair Deal, Truman’s administrative agenda, decisively came down on the side of big government and special payoffs, especially to labor. He opened the door to what Jackson foresaw. The Democratic Party, once on this path would be forever in debt to its clients to continue to provide the votes necessary for success and must therefore kowtow, even when not in the best interests of the country.

This tension, of Southern conservatives, Western progressives, and Big City labor within the Democratic Party became perfectly personified in the candidacy of JFK and LBJ. Kennedy, northern, seeming liberal but actually conservative, and Harvard educated, was balanced by the cowboy LBJ who appealed to westerners and the South. This combination of winning personality and legislative skills would transform the nation as Johnson implemented his Great Society using the ghost of JFK. Yet the fissures were beginning to grow. The Democratic Party would need new clients, and quickly.

The Democrats did not have the support of Blacks until FDR. But as he needed to appease the Southern racists clients, it was not a sterling record on civil rights that shifted them from the Republicans. Rather FDR’s New Deal bestowed material benefits on African Americans as part of its redistributionist agenda. In fact, with Truman and Eisenhower, civil rights became a plank of both parties although neither was able to enact much legislation due to the power of Southern racists. Even Kennedy talked tough, but continued to appoint Southern racists to the federal bench. After Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ decided to finally cement the Blacks as a Democratic client once and for all. He got the Voting Rights Act passed which assumed discrimination was taking place and shifted the burden of proof to the municipalities. Blacks turned out in record numbers and voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats. With that, and the mandated “minority-majority” districts, they became an official client of the Democratic Party. With the solid support of Blacks necessary for any legislative success in Congress, the Democrats now had another group they must satisfy.

The 60s brought a time of social upheaval and the Democratic Party saw its tenuous coalition split. The conservative South would be lost for good to the Republicans who, with the rise of Goldwater and later Reagan would make itself the home of conservatives. The Democrats were pushed farther and farther left with its mix of labor, including the new government unions, and Blacks, two groups who favored redistribution. This liberal shift would lead to stinging defeats until Jimmy Carter, the last Democrat to win a majority in the old Confederacy. 

In the 70s the rise “New Politics” led to feminists, environmentalists, and consumer groups to pressure the governments for the passage of their legislative concerns. These groups found a home in the Democratic Party, the group always willing to welcome new clients. The New Politics groups were able to make huge strides in changing the structure of the party to lead the ascent of these most radical of clients, often at the expense of the older clients. “In time, these groups would overwhelm the party... It would become nearly impossible for party leaders to keep this diverse group of clients happy while simultaneously governing in the public interest.”

Carter was the first Democratic president to fail spectacularly at the balancing act. Carter captured the nomination under the new rules which he exploited to win without the backing of most of the clients. Carter entered the presidency at a time of economic decline. With inflation out of control and no desire to romance his clients, Carter sought to do what he thought was right, but got no support. Without the resources or desire to redistribute any bounty, he lost the support of his own party. His “age of limits” did not fly with his plethora of groups screaming, “More!” This led to a challenge from the liberal Ted Kennedy, which damaged his chances of reelection.

Bill Clinton and his “New Democrats” believed they could circumvent the clients and govern effectively. Clinton partnered with Republican Dick Morris to occupy the broad middle. This gave him a short window of time in which he could truly try to govern free of the client and try to do what was best for the country as a whole. But just like Jimmy Carter, Clintons replacement, Al Gore, was challenged by the left as the clients fled to more pure liberal. This contrast caused by a Democrat who made neither the left or the right happy, only made for a revitalized and more powerful left. Barack Obama would fill the longing of the client groups who had been out in the cold for far too long. 

Unlike Carter and Clinton, Obama has no ties to the South and therefore no understanding of the need to balance clients and the good of the nation. Barack Obama IS a client of the Democrats. He truly represents one of their own. So for him, there is no balance necessary. In fact, all recent Democratic leaders are cut from the same cloth. This portends ill for the Democratic Party being able to overcome the clientist mentality in the near future. 

So what about the future? “Today’s Democratic leaders talk a lot about equality, but their actions speak louder than their words... The party has come to play a double game -- complaining loudly about inequality in society while enacting policies to advance the interests of its own clients.” Who will make the case to end the era of special privilege? The Republicans should be looking in the mirror at this point.