Monday, 22 November 2010

Douglas Wilson's Letter From America

Populism and Common Sense 

Culture and Politics - Politics
Written by Douglas Wilson
Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Populism is a fascinating political phenomenon. In the conservative intellectual tradition -- in which I have been bobbing about for some decades -- there is a deep suspicion of populism. Of course, in the populist tradition, there is a deep suspicion of pointy-headed elites, and so I suppose we're even.

The Founders were certainly concerned about the power of the mob, and for them, to have an unchecked unicameral legislative body, for example, was high folly. At the same time, they firmly believed that the people needed a voice, and not just as a pressure valve either. There will be times, they thought, when the establishment elites would be wrong and way too cozy in their wrongness, and the people would be right, and perhaps hopping mad about it, which would be a good thing. Then there are other times when three lonely aristocrats are right, and the people are down in the street, waiting for them with the tumbrils. Right? Wrong? These are interesting concepts. Let us speak of this further.

In the streets of Europe, the forces of populism are now demanding a continuation of bread, circuses, free lunches, and chocolate milk for everybody. In the streets of America the forces of populism are demanding and end to all that. In the corridors of power over in Europe, the boys in accounting have finally obtained the attention of the politicos, and they are actually trying the austerity thing. In the corridors of power here in America, the boys in accounting have all drawn themselves a warm bath, have written a note to the emperor, and have slit their wrists. Right? Wrong? These are interesting words.

The words of the wise are wise. Anything that cannot continue indefinitely won't. The president can't walk on water, regardless of how many poor people would have been helped as a result. But some people persist in talking and writing as though the economic decisions we are now facing are a simple matter of doing this thing or that, as though the "doing" were possible either way. Impossibilities can be papered over with professed good intentions. The word professed is italicized for a reason.

George Bernard Shaw once observed that the one who robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul. But eventually the wisdom of Lady Thatcher comes to bear -- the problem with socialism is that sooner or later, you run out of other people's money. In this case, while robbing Peter to pay Paul, we have come to discover that Peter's wallet does not contain an endless supply of happy times for others. He is approaching a state called broke, and Paul is somewhat peevish about it. "What about the children?" he askes plaintively. In case you haven't met him, Paul runs the Largesse for the Children Program, and his staff is starting to look wan and pale . . . worried almost.

If anyone is disposed to be dismissive of this line of argument, I would simply encourage him to make the whole debate moot.

"Why don't you just write us a check for the national debt?" I wonder. "Then we can start over."

"I don't have the money," he might reply.

"Oh," I would say. "I didn't know that was necessary. What do you mean by 'having the money'?  I am running across lots of interesting concepts today."

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