Structure vs. Belief

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Many libertarians embrace public choice theory as a sophisticated, intellectually rigorous political analysis that is consistent with libertarian ideas. This does not mean that libertarians should accept it uncritically.

Public choice theory looks at politics through a lens that treats politicians as selfish actors striving to maximize their power and self-interest, not as people chiefly motivated by the public good. Public choice theory has identified several structural defects in the American political process that lead politicians to destroy liberty as a byproduct of their self-interest. One such defect is the dispersion of interests problem, the fact that a rent-seeking law imposing taxes to help a special interest group has a highly concentrated interest group to lobby for it, whereas the interest to lobby against it is dispersed over the entirety of the taxpayers. Individual taxpayers aren’t sufficiently aware of the tax to be highly interested in fighting it.

Another defect is the fact that politicians usually get noticed by the media for what they do, and not for what they don’t do, so election campaigns tend to reward politicians for being active, which leads to bigger government. Because of the fame that attaches to moralistic crusades, the structure of democracy also rewards legislatures for passing new criminal laws, which leads to overcriminalization.

It is the beliefs of the people that caused the decline of liberty and the rise of big government in post-New Deal America.

But despite public choice theory’s analytical value and libertarian leanings, I would argue that it is mistaken about the fundamental cause of statist laws. As an alternative to public choice theory I would present the rule of intended consequences: the reason for the existence of any given law in a republican democracy is the voters’ belief that the law is good and performs a just purpose; the unintended consequences of a law are usually not the primary reason for that law’s existence. This rule holds that the best way to get an unjust law repealed is to persuade the voters that the law is unjust, so that voter pressure will lead the politicians to repeal it.

For example, the reason why gambling is illegal is that mainstream American voters have inherited a Puritan conservative Christian morality dating back to the colonial era, and they feel that gambling is evil and should be illegal. The Indian casino owners and the casinos in Las Vegas and the state lotteries all benefit from the anti-gambling laws. And they all have lobbying power. But despite the lobby whose interest is favored by criminalization, the primary reason for the anti-gambling laws is the feelings of the voters, not the lobbying of the special interests who benefit from the law. If the voting public did not believe that gambling should be illegal, then it would be legalized.

I doubt that any amount of lobbying or special interest funding could keep gambling from being legalized if the politicians thought that the voters strongly favored its legalization. Legislators who fought the tide of public opinion would simply be voted out and replaced by legislators who would obey the public will. Gay marriage and Prohibition are two other examples showing that the law tends to change when the beliefs of the voters change. The rise of gay marriage laws and both the start and end of Prohibition illustrate the fact that politicians will adopt policies that were once unpopular if they see that the mainstream beliefs of the public have changed.

I would characterize the debate between public choice theory vs. the intended consequences rule as a quarrel between structure and belief. Public choice theorists think that the structure of a republican democracy disadvantages liberty and favors the growth of government. In contrast, I think it is the beliefs of the people that caused the decline of liberty and the rise of big government in post-New Deal America. The rise of socialist sympathy in the Democratic Party in the 1930s coincided with the seepage of socialist theories from the late 19th century into the consciousness of the American public. The expansion of our government has followed Americans’ abandonment of the libertarianism of the American Revolution and their acceptance of modern liberal dogma.

If I am correct, then the key to restoring liberty is not to alter the institutional structures of the nation. Instead, the key is to persuade the voting public to believe in liberty, to transform the people’s moral sentiments so that they feel that statist laws are unjust. This challenge may seem difficult to meet, but altering beliefs would be easier than the task presented by public choice theory, which would be nothing short of fundamentally altering the structure of American government. Public choice could probably succeed only through a series of libertarian constitutional amendments, which seems unlikely. The war of ideas and persuasion is the right path for libertarians to focus on.




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The Big One

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Gravity, the new sci-fi space thriller, is a stunning piece of filmmaking that gives new meaning to the phrase "cutting edge." The technology used to create the sensation of astronauts floating weightlessly in space is so new that director Alfonso Cuarón had to wait over a year for the marionette-like equipment to be designed and manufactured that would allow him to simulate weightlessness without the aid of the "Vomit Comet" airplane used in such movies as Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995). The result is uncanny. Star Sandra Bullock pushes off from walls and slithers through air as though she were swimming under water. James Cameron, known for his own cutting-edge animation in such films as Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) said of Gravity, "I think it's the best space photography ever done, I think it's the best space film ever done, and it's the movie I've been hungry to see for an awful long time."

According to interviews, Cuarón spent a year creating the initial computer animation for the film, a year filming the live actors, and another year coordinating the live footage with the computer animation, in addition to the year and a half wait for the puppetry equipment. Gravity was worth the wait. The lighting, the graphics, the cinematography, and the physical movement of the actors work seamlessly together to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Visual effects supervisor Tim Webber realized that the filmmakers could not use traditional green-screen technology if they wanted to create the sensation of astronauts tumbling through space and banging into space stations or dodging debris. Instead, they shot the actors' faces and did everything else digitally.

This introduced a whole new challenge for the lighting team, who would have to match the lighting of the faces with the lighting of the all-digital setting. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki explained the difficulty they faced when he discussed the fact that the believability of the lighting “can break if the light is not moving at the speed that it has to move, if the position of the light is not right, if the contrast or density on the faces is wrong, et cetera." To prevent that from happening, the film crew built a box in which they could move the light around the actors instead of moving the actors around the set. The actors had to be precise in the position of their bodies and in moving to their marks in order to match the animation. In essence, Cuarón became as much a choreographer as a director of his actors. The result is a stunning, seamless collaboration of live action and computer generated animation.

Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up.

Whatever they did, it works. There is never a break in believability, never a sense of "this is live and this is animated." Cuarón and his team have created a work that will be held up for decades as a turning point in cinematic science. You must see it the way it was intended, in 3D, in order to experience the full effect. I don't typically like 3D movies, but this is one film that deserves and requires the technology, especially when space debris is hurtling straight at you or papers are floating around in the cockpit, or when a tear floats away from a cheek.

But enough about the technology; what about the story? Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer making repairs to the Hubble Telescope while seasoned astronaut Max Kowalski (George Clooney) provides technical support. Max, acting more like Buzz Lightyear than Buzz Aldrin, plays with his power thrusters, listens to country music, and tells shaggy dog stories while Ryan struggles with air sickness and wrestles an errant motherboard out of its casing in the telescope. Warned that debris from an exploded Russian anti-satellite test is hurtling toward them, Max and Ryan can't get into the space station fast enough. Then Ryan panics and can't disconnect her tether. Debris knocks her loose and she tumbles end-over-end away from the shuttle. Max uses his jet pack to go after her, risking his own chance at survival to rescue the young maiden.

Here I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation, contrasted with Clooney's calm, soothing reassurance. Sure, I would probably be panicking in such a situation. (Well, maybe not. I'm known for my problem-solving skills in an emergency.) But I'm not an astronaut. I have met a few astronauts, however (OK, two), and they both talked about the psychological testing that precedes an astronaut’s physical training. Anyone who does not demonstrate the ability to remain calm and focused in an emergency would not be selected for the program, no matter how skilled a medical engineer she or he might be.

Still, for carrying the story forward and creating fearful empathy with the audience, Bullock's panicky hyperventilating certainly does the trick. It also creates a tremendous contrast as we watch her character grow in courage, innovation, and determination throughout the film. And isn't that what disaster films are all about? They allow us to walk around in the hero's moon boots and test our own mettle. What would you or I do if we found ourselves in the darkness and utter isolation of outer space? Or swirling around in an ocean or marooned on a mountainside or trapped in a building that had been hit by a jet airplane? Would we accept the inevitable, turn off the oxygen, and make the end quick and sweet, or would we sally forth with indefatigable determination until our last ounce of courage had been expended?

The rest of the film is a tense and exciting race against time and improbability as the survivors of the crash struggle to find a way back to safety. One interesting metaphor that appears throughout the film is the connection between hope and survival. If the astronauts somehow manage to get back to the space station and into a landing pod, they will still need help from someone on the earth in order to return safely. But they hear nothing from Houston; communication with ground control was severed when the space debris damaged the satellites. What's the point, then, of trying? The astronauts have no reason to believe (or have faith) that Houston can hear them, but they proceed with the hope that their transmitters will work, even if their receivers do not.

I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation.

Hope is the power that allows us to overcome fear. It leads to action. Without hope, without faith, the astronauts would simply give up. "Houston in the blind" they begin every transmission as they report their location, their movements, and their plans. “Houston in the blind" is a technical phrase that nevertheless suggests something more — a reference to blind faith.

It has been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole, and that may be true; three of my most Objectivist atheist friends admitted to praying as their prop plane took a nosedive toward an African jungle many years ago. (Their survival when the plane leveled out at the last minute did not lead to any lasting conversions; when they told the story, they all laughed at themselves for their weakness.) While no one actually prays in this film, they do discuss the existence of God and the power of prayer. Ryan laments that no one ever taught her how to pray. But she does learn the power of hope, and the faith required to call out to "Houston in the blind" when Houston is the only means of arriving safely home. She also learns that the simplest and grandest of prayers consists of just two words: "Thank You."

Of course, those readers of this review who are not currently cowering in foxholes may prefer a more Randian interpretation of the hero, and that is just as legitimate a message to draw from the film. Gravity celebrates the human mind's ability to draw on its inventory of knowledge and make connections to solve problems. As the seasoned astronaut, Max is able to use his experience, training, and reason to figure out what to do, even though he has not been in this exact situation before. As a rookie, Ryan has no experience and very little training. Nevertheless, she, too, has the ability to tap into her experience when she lets her intuition guide her (in this context, see my review of Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide, http://libertyunbound.com/node/815). Despite her weak and cowering beginning, she develops into a strong, self-reliant hero.

The greatest hero of this film, however, is its maker. Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up. Gravity grossed over $55 million in its first weekend alone, and is likely to become the biggest film of the year.


Editor's Note: "Gravity," directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Warner Brothers, 2013; 90 weighty, weightless minutes.



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Cuckoo War Games?

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Harry Lime — the fabulous villain in the superb film The Third Man — opined about the Swiss: “Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!”

Of course, this was as historically false as it was insulting. The Swiss have never been pacifists; they have been fierce fighters, when necessary. In fact, Switzerland has the largest armed forces per capita of any European nation, and it still has the draft. At age 19, all men must undergo military training for five months, and they must take refresher training periodically until age 30.

Regarding Switzerland’s creativity, suffice it to say that among nations with a significant population (over a million citizens), it ranks first in per capita number of Nobel Laureates in the sciences.

All this was brought to mind by the story that in its most recent war games, the Swiss army conducted an exercise that simulated the invasion of Switzerland by — France!

Yes, the Swiss army is training for the scenario in which France, bankrupted by its welfare state excesses, splits into warring sections, and one of them (dubbed “Saonia”) decides to invade Switzerland, to steal its money.

Lord, is this not simply exquisite?

In the simulated invasion, Saonia is dominated by a paramilitary group called the Dijon Free Brigade (the “BLD”), which has convinced its followers that Switzerland somehow stole their money. The BLD invades on three fronts, near Geneva, Lausanne, and Neufchatel.

Considering how offensive the anti-“Saonia” exercise might be to the French — legendarily hypersensitive to slights, or perceived slights — a delicately defensive Swiss captain, Daniel Berger, noted that “the exercise has nothing to do with France, which we appreciate. . . . It was prepared in 2012, when fiscal relations between both countries were less tense.” But, as the article explains, since France elected its socialist government it has become more confrontational about secret Swiss bank accounts — no doubt because most of the productive French citizens who haven’t yet fled the country have hidden their assets abroad.

And this is not the first time the Swiss military has staged politically incorrect war games. Last year, its games simulated an invasion by hordes of southern European refugees after the collapse of something it dubbed “The European Single Currency.” Hmm . . . wonder what that might refer to?

I am moved to offer the plucky Swiss a suggestion for next year’s war games. The Obama neosocialist regime has also pressured the Swiss to provide access to banking information, since some productive Americans who have not yet fled this country are apparently hiding taxes from the president’s “you didn’t earn that” tax ambitions. So perhaps the Swiss should have war games structured around an imagined infiltration of American commando squads, to be dubbed the Obamanista Liberation Army (OLA). The OLA squads would spread through the Swiss countryside, staging attacks on banks, coordinated by their free Obamaphones.

Just a thought.




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Two Evils

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In odd-numbered years, there’s rarely much at stake electorally. One of the very few races of note in 2013 is in Virginia, where the gubernatorial race pits Republican attorney general Ken Cuccinelli against former Democratic National Committee head Terry McAuliffe. Both are odious; even among loyal party-line voters there will be very few unheld noses at the polls.

It was McAuliffe, you may recall, who pulled together the funds for Bill Clinton’s presidential run, reaching out to the most toxic corporations and associations — arms manufacturers, polluters, real estate shysters — for donations that would be paid off in regulatory favors down the line. It was McAuliffe, as well, who masterminded the infamous “Buddhist temple” (read: Chinese government) fundraisers for Clinton’s reelection, as well as brokering face time with the president and first lady, even sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom — for the right price.

After a public falling-out with Al Gore over the latter’s botched 2000 campaign (one of McAuliffe’s few good points is seeing Gore for the sanctimonious hypocrite he was and always had been), McAuliffe took over at the DNC as the party received its biggest gift in years: the presidency of George W. Bush. However, despite his undeniably effective, undeniably dirty fundraising, he could not oust Bush from office. After running Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid into the ground, McAuliffe was out of national politics; “the best fundraiser in history” — as Gore himself had said in happier times — had lost his touch. Since he clearly had no intention of just going away, that left only one option: state politics.

In 2009, McAuliffe ran for governor of Virginia — though “ran” is probably the wrong phrasing; more accurate to say “fell flat on his face.” McAuliffe tried to ingratiate himself with the electorate by visiting “every corner” of the state, but he was only ever going to be regarded as a creature of the DC suburbs, a potentate of the despised northern counties. McAuliffe didn’t even make the general election; instead, he got thumped in the primaries by a state senator, Creigh Deeds, who would go on to lose handily to then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

McAuliffe pulled together the funds for Bill Clinton’s presidential run, reaching out to toxic corporations and associations for donations that would be paid off in regulatory favors.

And yet, despite all of this baggage, McAuliffe is running again in 2013, and to this point with a slight lead (4 to 6% in most polls) over his Republican competitor. Certainly McAuliffe hasn’t become any better of a candidate in the last four years. What could explain this shift in fortunes?

A few things. First, there is the ongoing, literal shift in fortunes toward the DC suburbs. Much of the wealth extracted by the federal government in recent decades has sloshed into northern Virginia, drawing lobbyists, bureaucrats, and other parasites who make their living off of others’. According to Forbes, half of the richest counties in America, as measured by per-capita income, lie in northern Virginia. The prosperity of these communities (not to mention their extravagant school systems, lavish pensions, and gold-plated healthcare plans) depends on the continuing bloat of the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, and any number of other agencies situated there. They are as establishment as it is possible to be; they will support anyone and anything that maintains their privileged position — and McAuliffe is all about privilege and position.

Second, the Virginia Republicans are much weaker and more fragmented than they were last time around. In 2009, Bob McDonnell benefited from the ongoing recession, building a successful campaign around a pro-business message and, in the process, bringing the state’s social conservatives (who were behind him no matter what) together with its fiscal ones. However, once in office McDonnell quickly became enmeshed in corporate kickback scandals, culminating in criminal investigations into the governor’s alleged acceptance of gifts totaling upwards of $140,000. McDonnell also alienated the social libertarians among his base by breaking sharply right on several social issues, especially abortion (requiring an ultrasound prior to the procedure) and gay rights (blocking legislation extending health coverage to same-sex partners). With McDonnell blocked from running for reelection by Virginia statute — and potentially also by criminal conviction — the task of keeping the coalition together now falls to AG Cuccinelli.

Which brings me to point the third, Ken Cuccinelli himself. A true believer in the legislation of morality, Cuccinelli has never seen a moral cause he wouldn’t champion. He’s fought rearguard battles in favor of anti-sodomy and even anti-adultery laws, opposed any attempt to end discrimination against gays in public (note: as opposed to private) hiring, created a human trafficking taskforce with the intent and effect of cracking down on prostitution, pushed abstinence-only sex ed, and tried to give police and school administrators the power to search students’ cellphones to prevent sexting.

He has also — and he wasted his own money on this, so it’s in no way unconstitutional, but nonetheless telling — made up his own version of Virginia’s state seal, which features the Roman goddess Virtus, a personification of virtue, wearing a tunic that leaves one breast exposed, as she stands victorious over the vanquished Tyrannus. Never mind that a single exposed breast is often taken to signify modesty — even unobtainability. Never mind that the state’s own description for the seal states that Virtus is dressed in “Amazon” style; i.e., semi-robed. No, for Cuccinelli, as for all prigs, all flesh is prurient; therefore, he devised a seal with a breastplate to conceal the offending teat. If virtue is to conquer tyrants, she better do so in a PG manner.

As with any ideological conservative, Cuccinelli has his good points: he’s fought against eminent domain abuse, and he’s staunchly anti-tax, even leading the fight against a generally bipartisan gasoline tax increase. But stack against that his anti-immigrant stances, such as support for a “papers, please” law allowing police to investigate the residency status of any suspected illegal, as well as for language tests for laid-off workersseeking unemployment benefits. And add in also his embarrassing lawsuit against the University of Virginia relating to research performed on global climate change: Cuccinelli asserted that such research amounted to “fraud” against the taxpayers. Whatever your views on the subject, the prospect of a state’s attorney general wasting huge amounts on court costs in order to meddle with university research should prove chilling, and would have provided a fearsome precedent.

A true believer in the legislation of morality, Cuccinelli has never seen a moral cause he wouldn’t champion.

So Virginia’s voters must choose between the DC swamp slime, and the crusading prude — and these are the images that are drilled into their heads, over and over again, during every television and radio broadcast, on every website, in every newspaper, on every street corner, on and on and on and on. Huge amounts of money assure that this saturation will only get worse: McAuliffe’s taken in $20 million, Cuccinelli more than $13 million; every dollar’s being put to use in shouting at voters, telling them in so many words how the other guy is a scumbag, a misogynist, a bigot, a stooge; certainly unfit to take on the job presently occupied by a(n alleged) crook, and by many other crooks before him.

And the thing is, they’re each right about the other’s unworthiness.Little wonder that the two are polling between 80 and 85% combined in most polls, with huge portions of the electorate undecided, or at least unwilling to commit to either one.

What’s interesting is that, when Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis is included in these polls, he regularly pulls 8–10%. Sarvis’ campaign has been run on shoestrings: by the end of August he’d raised about $60,000, and spent only $45,000 of it. But I’d wager that by the next count, that number will have at least doubled: Sarvis is making good use of his intermittent time in the spotlight, hovering around the showing off his photogenic family, making a case for libertarianism both socially (gay marriage, drug reform) and fiscally (anti-tax, anti-subsidy and other manifestations of crony capitalism).

Sarvis has elaborated these positions while hanging around outside the interminable statewide series of debates between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, debates to which he, as a third-party candidate, has not been invited. But that may change. On October 24 there is a debate scheduled in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech, with a ground rule that any candidate polling 10% in “major independent statewide polls” can participate. Cuccinelli, showing himself an abject coward, has requested that this bar be raised, to make it in effect impossible for Sarvis to participate. McAuliffe, knowing full well that Sarvis will take more votes out of the Republicans’ hide than the Democrats’, has already signed on, and I would speculate might even provide background support to help Sarvis reach or maintain the required numbers, and then dare Cuccinelli to back out of an event that the attorney general himself requested.

I don’t know what kind of debater Sarvis is, especially when placed up against two able manipulators of rhetoric. But he starts with the advantage of not being either one of them, so there’s every chance his message could be heard. On the other hand, Cuccinelli could prevail, succeeding in getting Sarvis barred from the event with the usual tack of snobbish bluster. If so, then Sarvis will definitely continue to get interviews — McAuliffe will make sure of that — but will lose the chance at a live audience.

Whatever happens, Sarvis has succeeded in injecting something approaching interest into this most dire of elections. Where once the only enjoyment available was looking forward to either Cuccinelli or McAuliffe losing, and savoring the schadenfreude of the concession speech — and there still will be that; my God, how I’m looking forward to watching one or the other spit out the words of defeat while having to drum up at least the pretense of respect for his opponent — now there is also the hope that a message of freedom might make its way into at least a few new hearts and heads.



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The Shutdown, and the Sickness at Our Core

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To me, the most ominous feature of this political moment is the fact that most of the American people appear to regard “shutting down the government” as so dangerous, so frightful, so morally detestable, that they will suffer virtually anything, including the horrors of Obamacare, to avert such Days of Doom.

Many of our fellow citizens do not realize, even after 20 years of threats and experiments in this field, that the real effects of the “shutdown” will be minimal. It will mean a short-term lapse of certain “non-essential government services” (there being thousands of such services deemed essential). But I think that most people do realize that. Nevertheless, they are unwilling to part with even a few of the alleged benefits of government, even temporarily, even for an important cause. In other words, they are willing to burden themselves and everyone else with trillions of dollars of debt, to support programs that most of them heartily dislike, at the behest of lawmakers whom they scorn and ridicule, merely to avoid . . . what? Not getting their mail on Saturday? But they probably will get their mail on Saturday.

I know many people who will fight almost to the death to avoid paying for some item they bought that turned out to be defective, but who rant against the Republicans for resisting Obamacare with the only weapons that are available. None of these people happen to be on the government dole, at least in any way that could conceivably be affected by a “government shutdown.” They all have their own, big beefs with government, and do not hesitate to talk about them. Yet this is how they behave.

The usual explanation for such behavior is “cognitive dissonance”: a clash between two attitudes, both of them devoutly held but each in opposition to the other. Yet in cognitive dissonance theory, people try to find some way of reconciling their opposing attitudes, or at least of rationalizing the opposition. That is not happening now. Our fellow citizens simply announce their hatred for government and their hatred for anyone who tries to act against government.

I am afraid that we are witnessing one of those phenomena that signal a deep sickness within a culture, a sickness for which no name or diagnosis appears to be available. You can see it, but you don’t know what it is.

The woodland Indians of North America valued an attitude of grave deliberation, often spending days or weeks in solemn meditation on the right course to take on issues of practical or moral import. Yet their favorite entertainment was the fiendish torture of other human beings, conducted amid scenes of riotous celebration and clinical interest in every detail of suffering. Something, clearly, was amiss — but nobody thought there was, or tried to reconcile the conflict.

Our fellow citizens simply announce their hatred for government and their hatred for anyone who tries to act against government.

When you watch reports of a political demonstration in the Middle East, what do you see? Usually it is a crowd of young men dressed in designer jeans and the latest sneakers, riotously denouncing Western culture and appropriating every possible Western means of communication to advertise their denunciations. Again, one can see the symptoms of some deep internal conflict, but the conflict inspires no reflection among the participants.

I would consider it wrong for someone on welfare, or Social Security, or a government payroll, to advocate strong government, lecture everyone about the virtue of following government orders, and denounce opponents of big government as anarchists. This would, however, be readily understandable, self-consistent, and in its way psychologically healthy: you benefit from big government; therefore, you openly advocate it. But so far, only Harry Reid, a creature from outer space, has done that; only he has called the opponents of big government “anarchists.” Tens of millions of other citizens lament the government and all its works, as if they themselves were anarchists, while simultaneously resenting and denouncing the very idea of “shutting” it.

In this way — this way alone, but it’s an important way — they are sick, and Harry Reid is healthy. There is something very wrong with this picture.




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