Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Blast from the Past: Deus ex (Goldberg) Machina

Everybody want to go up to heaven
but none of them, none of them want to die

Peter Tosh, "Equal Rights"

Which pretty much sums up the "conservative" position on bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: "We're gonna do it, but gosh darn, wouldn't it be nice if someday someone didn't?"

McCain's on board. Video here -- sorry, embed is disabled on it. Here's the back-and-fill Dixiecrat edition, though:

Apropos of which, a piece I wrote a few years back:

Deus ex (Goldberg) Machina
by Thomas L. Knapp
01/16/02@Rational Review

A visitor from another planet, dropped into the typical American living room, in front of the typical American television, would surely leave convinced that public policy is contrived, debated, adopted and implemented by a gaggle of talking heads who spend 24 hours a day in rotation between shopping for the most stylish double-breasted suits, commuting by limousine from one talk show studio to the next, and hobnobbing at White House receptions.

The truth, of course, is both more prosaic and more horrifying.

The typical American politician, at the federal level, is a harried hack, jetting back and forth between Washington and his fiefdom ... er, constituency ... to raise funds, whip recalcitrant allies into line, raise funds, shake hands, kiss babies and, of course, raise funds.

This typical politican, when in Washington, is too busy paying off favors to those donors and recalcitrant allies to accomplish much relating to the ideas that probably inspired his entry into politics in the first place.

Yes, he was a young idealist once. He had priorities. He wanted to help people. He wanted to make his country a better place, restore a sense of honor to its highest institutions, work with the statesmen he saw nightly on CNN to guide the great ship of state safely over the waves of the uncertain sea of policy.

Now, he scurries.

He scurries to the House chamber to cast a vote on a bill he's never read, because his party's leadership wants it. And those who don't "work with" the party leadership end up with the last office in the Rayburn building: the one behind the door marked "Custodian."

He scurries to the studio for a talk show appearance, prepared to mouth some lines whipped up by his staff, because the media demands it. And those who don't "work with" the media find themselves the targets of investigative reports, coverage custom made to benefit their next opponent for election or, worst of all, simply ignored.

He scurries to dinner with a major donor who happens to be in Washington, because money is the mother's milk of politics. He can't afford to lose that donation. Moreover, he can't afford to lose that donor's support.

At the end of the day, he scurries off to the White House in bow tie and cummerbund, works his way through the reception line, and stands around drinking weak cocktails and being ignored. If he's lucky. If he spills his martini on the envoy from Sierra Leone, there'll be hell to pay. If he doesn't show up at all, well, the president may not have time to campaign in his district this fall.

If he scurries adroitly enough -- zigging across the floor of House America to avoid the great boots of media oppobrium, political desertion and financial insolvency, zagging to catch the crumbs that fall from the randomly piled plates of power -- he can one day look forward to similarly corrupting his nemesis: the next young idealist to take a tentative step into the corridors of power.

This is the life of one cog -- the typical U.S. Representative -- in the machine called "hyperpluralism," that American governance has become.

The surprising thing about hyperpluralism isn't that it creates a divide between legitimate public purpose and actual public policy. It isn't that it chews up, digests and assimilates even the most honest public servant, making him just another extension on a conveyor belt moving toward the incinerator of totalitarianism . It isn't even that it can produce only centralization of power and deliver that power only to those least likely to either eschew it or exercise it with extreme caution.

The surprising thing about hyperpluralism is that it works at all.

When I began to write this piece it was, surprisingly enough, intended as a rebuttal to Jonah Goldberg's critiques of libertarianism. That's still my intent, but I've found another Goldberg in the woodpile. His name is Rube, and his presence shines some light on my discomfiture with Brother Jonah's ponderings.

Jonah Goldberg is the current golden boy at National Review, journal of record for "conservatism" in the Day of Dubya.

Rube, of course, is the cartoonist whose wonderful images of complex machines designed to accomplish simple tasks engaged and delighted an audience of millions.

"Conservatism" in the Day of Dubya is Jonah's application of Rube's ideas to politics.

That, of course, is the nut of the matter. Goldberg's problem with libertarians isn't that we're thin-skinned. It isn't that we're simplistic or that our ideas aren't relevant to the debate at its root.

It's that a polity based on libertarian ideas would not need an army of "liberal" Rubes to design it or a horde of "conservative" Jonahs to crawl over its superstructure, continually tightening bolts, checking welds and adding kitchen sinks, mousetraps and bathtubs to its bewildering assortment of features.

Or to explain what the hell it is that they've built.

National Review prides itself for "standing athwart history yelling stop." That pride is misplaced. All too often, the "conservatism" of Goldberg and Company is more reminiscent of the prayer of Augustine: "Give me chastity and continence -- but not just yet."

History, thus far, is the record of continuing state encroachment on individual liberty -- with occasional interruption due to technical difficulties. The piercing "STOP!" of the modern American "conservative" movement is invariably followed by a throaty, whispered "but not just yet" as "conservatives" rush to assimilate the latest development, make it their own and defend it to the death.

Contra Goldberg (Jonah, not Rube), libertarians don't suffer from "accumulated resentment at being in the backseat of the right-wing coalition." No such coalition exists, nor can it exist except on libertarian terms. The backseat of American politics is already occupied by the "conservatives," busily engaged in making babies with the "liberals."

The libertarian malady is more physiological and less petty than resentment. It's called nausea.

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