Once you get through the dazzling prose, the hilarious jokes, the compelling history, and the utterly tasteful nudity, the argument at the core of my new book, Tyranny of Clichés, is that contemporary liberals and self-proclaimed centrists are far more dogmatic than conservatives. Now, that’s not the problem. I like dogma. The problem is that liberals don’t recognize or acknowledge their own dogmatism. They think they are free thinkers, empiricists, fact-finders, and pragmatists.
Conservatives have dogma, too. And that’s a good thing. The difference is that we know where ours comes from. It’s the difference between a devout orthodox Christian and a person who “doesn’t believe in religion” but is passionate about “spirituality.” Both have dogmatic convictions. But the Catholic knows their source: Church teaching, scripture, tradition, etc. The self-proclaimed spiritualist floats through life, like a jellyfish in the ocean, scooping up the bits and pieces he needs, bending to the circumstances, riding whatever currents he finds himself in, collecting magical anecdotes that confirm what he already believes.
Dewey v. Hayek
For philosophy geeks, I think the best way to think about this is the difference between the epistemologies of John Dewey and Friedrich Hayek. The progressive Dewey believed that the individual policymaker, given sufficient data, was capable of mastering everything he needed to know to come to an optimal policy — and by optimal policy, Dewey meant socialist policy. Hayek, the Old Whig-libertarian, believed that the “knowledge problem” was insurmountable for any single person. One had to rely on markets to synthesize and communicate information through prices. Dewey rejected the idea that there was useful accumulated knowledge embedded inside tradition and custom. He loathed the habits of the past. He wanted to shed all of that like a desiccated carapace. Hayek, meanwhile, respected tradition and custom as repositories of learning derived from millennia of trial and error. Dewey, the jellyfish, spent his life flitting from one idiotic intellectual fad to another, each time thinking he’d found the answer to everything. “I seem to be unstable,” Dewey admitted in his old age, “chameleon-like, yielding one after another to many diverse and even incompatible influences; struggling to assimilate something from each and yet striving to carry it forward.”
As I put it in the book:
Hence, the great irony: Hayek, one of the greatest champions of individual liberty and economic freedom the world has ever known, believed that knowledge was communal. Dewey, the champion of socialism and collectivism, believed that knowledge was individual. Hayek’s is a philosophy that treats individuals as the best judges of their own self-interests, which in turn yield staggering communal cooperation. Dewey’s was the philosophy of a giant, Monty Pythonesque crowd shouting on cue, “We’re All Individuals!”
Obamacare & The Tyranny of Clichés
The result for liberals and centrists is that they know a great many things without knowing why they know them. They take it as a given that the “center” is a more legitimate and serious place than the right or the left. They instinctively nod when they hear platitudes and statements of principle substituting for an argument (I can’t tell you how many kids on college campuses tell me that it’s better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent be punished — and then sit down, as if they’ve made an argument, rather than expressed a principle everyone basically agrees with).
Conservatives have just as many ideological preferences as liberals, but we understand that they are ideological preferences and so we seek to justify, legitimize, and corroborate them. Liberals think they are free of ideological preferences (liberalism has no principles, argued Herbert Croly, liberalism is “an activity”) and so they see no need to justify their views beyond naked assertions of moral superiority.
You see this dynamic play itself out all of the time when it comes to the Constitution. Conservatives think the Constitution matters, and even those Republicans who don’t really care about it understand that their constituents do. So they make some effort to work within the Constitution. This strikes many liberals as a weird waste of time, at least when it comes to their agenda (they love the Constitution when it checks conservative ambition).
When liberals are pressed to explain their ideological preferences beyond a concatenation of bumper stickers and assertions of good intentions — “we care about the poor!” “we need to do something about inequality!” — you often get exasperation or gobsmacked befuddlement.
When Nancy Pelosi was asked whether Obamacare was constitutional she responded, “Are you serious? Are you serious?” The reporter responded, “Yes, yes I am.”
Furious, no doubt due to her embarrassment over having no idea how to even respond to such a question, she replied, “You can put this on the record. That is not a serious question. That is not a serious question.”
But as we were reminded this week, it is a serious question. The guy who learned that the hard way was poor Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who I imagine is on his back amidst a sea of empty scotch bottles and crumpled op-ed pages, wondering how he got himself in such a mess (I have obtained exclusive video of him coming home after his meeting with Obama after the hearing. I can’t explain the Santa suit.)
Personally, I don’t think he did that bad a job. His problem was that he had a bad product. Like salesmen trying to pass off refrigerator boxes with painted-on wheels as real cars, liberals get in trouble whenever someone examines their products too closely.
More to the point, I keep hearing liberals ridicule Verrilli for failing to come up with a “limiting principle” to the commerce clause, but I don’t hear liberals offering one that he could have used. Verrilli is a good lawyer. It’s absolutely damning that he must have known he’d be asked this question but couldn’t provide a passable answer. That doesn’t reflect his incompetence, it reflects the inherent problems with the legislation he’s trying to defend.
It’s not just that liberals don’t really believe there’s a limiting principle to federal power under the commerce clause (at least when liberals are in power), it’s also that they so uncritically — i.e., dogmatically — accept the idea that anything they want to do must be constitutional, it’s hard for them to imagine that people can disagree with them in good faith. Hence, Pelosi’s wide-eyed shock at the mere suggestion the mandate might not be constitutional (in fairness, she’s permanently wide-eyed, so she looks surprised reading reading a cereal box).
Hence the mounting chorus that if the Supreme Court votes against Obamacare, it’s because they’re being “political” or “ideological” but if they uphold it they are merely following the law.
And then there’s the hilarious argument, popularized by Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, that proof of the law’s constitutionality “is best illustrated by the fact that — until recently — the Obama administration expended almost no energy defending it.”
This deserves to rank with Pauline Kael’s (somewhat apocryphal) claim that Nixon couldn’t have won because she didn’t know anyone who voted for him. Because everyone else in the bunker agrees with Lithwick, then everyone in the bunker must be right. By the way, I’ve exerted no energy defending Grape Nuts against the claim it’s really kitty litter in a different box. So it must be true (actually, I think it is true. Bad example).
Not Buying It
By the way, there are two Obamacare-related arguments I’m not buying. First, there’s this blather that a loss at the Supreme Court will help Obama win reelection. I think it would be disastrous for Obama, assuming the GOP knows how to frame the argument (big assumption, I know). Obamacare already cost Obama the Democratic House majority in 2010. He frittered away a whole year focusing on health care, despite popular disapproval, when he could have been working on the economy (remember the “pivot” to jobs that never came?).
And after Obamacare is rejected by the Supreme Court he wants a second term when he has no accountability to the voters? Against the backdrop of his energy fiascoes, it’s a perfect way to hammer home the message that Obama is an incompetent in pursuit of the ideological.
Second, I just love this argument coming out of the Left that conservatives are stupidly rejecting Obamacare paving the way for a more constitutionally sound single-payer system. Riiiiight. After losing the House over Obamacare in 2010 and nearly losing the Senate — and maybe losing everything in 2012, the progressives will be perfectly poised to ram through socialized medicine. Sounds totally plausible to me!