The Daily Sandwich

"We have to learn the lesson that intellectual honesty is fundamental for everything we cherish." -Sir Karl Popper

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, United States


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Wishful Thinking

I've found myself linking to the New Republic much more frequently since the election, but they've been posting some pretty interesting stuff lately. This piece might not seem any different from most other examinations of the delusions of right-wing pundits, but I thought it was worth a look. This time, the figure under the microscope is Ben Stein, who is clearly a true believer-- but in what, exactly?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these two Steins sometimes conflict. He calls the disaster following Katrina "a dramatic lesson in the breathtaking callousness of government officials," only to write, not a year later, "I really hate the way conservatives trash bureaucrats." In one column he writes approvingly of the return, in Bush's tax cuts, of Keynesian economics, only to praise Milton Friedman later as "the greatest economist since Adam Smith." Now, it's hypothetically possible for someone to be fond of both Keynesianism and Friedman. But that someone is a rare bird. Especially when he turns around yet again and argues against corporate layoffs and wage cuts. "That's 'creative destruction,' and it's good for the economy, some of my fellow Republicans and admirers of the free market might say. But what about the rules of law and common decency?" The late Prof. Friedman would not have approved.

None of this makes sense at first glance. Read enough of Stein's columns, though, and a pattern appears. Like many self-hating conservatives these days, his politics revolves around a fantastical view of yesterday, when men worked hard, companies were honest, and politicians always told the truth--in short, the conservative Eden of the 1950s.

It reminds of what a certain author referred to as an "imagined community," and what historians like Eric Hobsbawm have spent a significant amount of time (in books like The Invention of Tradition) debunking. But it certainly gives some insight into why conservatism these days is so self-contradictory, ideological, and ultimately divorced from reality. Just something to think about.

Nostalgia is not a political platform. In a recent Times column, he responded to right-wing critics of his tax position, noting, "I thought that conservatives were supposed to like balanced budgets. I thought it was the conservative position to not leave heavy indebtedness to our grandchildren. I thought it was the conservative view that there should be some balance between income and outflow. When did this change?" The better question is: When was the last time that was true?