Thursday, May 10, 2012
Liberals, economic illiteracy, and The Tyranny of Clichés.
While Jonah Goldberg’s fine new book, The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, may not qualify as art, it was imitated by life just days after its release.
“I’m not batting for Democrats or Republicans,” CNN host Piers Morgan insisted on his eponymous show during a combative interview with the American Enterprise Institute’s Goldberg after Morgan had spouted a geyser of liberal talking points and tendentious rhetorical questions. “No, I like to deal with reality.”
In fact, the “reality” Morgan favored during the interview betrayed the very characteristics that Goldberg incisively attributes to liberal journalists, intellectuals, and activists who fancy themselves non-ideological, pragmatic centrists. The essence of Tyranny, as Goldberg summarized it recently, is that “liberals lie to themselves and the world when they claim they’re not ideological.”
Nowhere is this truer, both in the universe of Goldberg’s book and in the “reality-based community” (another favorite liberal cliché from the last decade) outside of it, than in the realm of economics, where denizens of the Left continue to dress deeply ideological—and flatly wrong—nostrums in the guise of practical sensibility.
The aphorism ‘Let them eat cake’ originated—not from Antoinette, it bears noting—as the unanticipated consequence of government intervention in the economy.
In a delightful chapter entitled “Let Them Eat Cake,” Goldberg skewers the leftist mandarins who invoke Marie Antoinette’s infamous aphorism in cursing rapacious capitalist conservatives, along the way uncovering the true provenance of the phrase, which originated—not from Antoinette, it bears noting—as the unanticipated consequence of government intervention in the economy.
French aristocrats dictated that bakers sell inexpensive bread and, if the cheap stuff ran out, higher-quality loaves at the same price. Hence, all peasants were entitled—per upper-class fiat—to “cake” (brioche, really) at the expense of the middle-class baking industry, which inevitably caused massive bread shortages.
“Let them eat cake,” Goldberg thus claims, “signifies how rich do-gooders screw things up by creating ‘compassionate’ schemes that only make things worse for the poor.” Rent control—sorry, “stabilization”—and financial aid for college tuition represent only two modern-day equivalents.
Another chapter explores the nebulous concept of “social justice.” Sounds like a warm, benign, friendly idea that everyone should favor. Who, after all, could possibly oppose “social justice”? But ask any propagator of social justice what the notion actually means, and you probably won’t like the answer, because it inevitably boils down to redistributing wealth in a more “socially optimal” fashion. (The equivalent Jewish concept of “tikkun olam,” or “repairing the world,” is an equally slippery and likewise abused notion.)
In probably the most intellectually fascinating chapter of the book, Goldberg examines the origins of the term “Social Darwinism” and exposes the blatant economic falsehoods that liberals wantonly heap upon conservatives who dare to arrest the proliferation of the welfare state.
Goldberg examines the origins of the term ‘Social Darwinism’ and exposes the blatant economic falsehoods that liberals wantonly heap upon conservatives who dare to arrest the proliferation of the welfare state.
“Social Darwinism—every man for himself,” is how then-Senator Barack Obama described Republican economic philosophy, while former Labor Secretary and current lefty activist Robert Reich accused everyone from Gilded Age robber barons to modern-day conservatives of promulgating a “survival-of-the-fittest” mentality (incidentally, as Goldberg notes, Reich, purporting to quote John D. Rockefeller, mistakenly quotes his son, a generation later).
But while liberals love to trace the origins of Social Darwinism to the 19th-century laissez-faire economist Herbert Spencer, Goldberg lays out in devastating detail how the charge lacks merit. In fact, Spencer, “the single most unfairly vilified thinker of the 19th century,” never used the term “Social Darwinism” or anything like it, and wasn’t even an adherent of Darwinism. (Darwin himself, on the other hand, a liberal darling, did employ the term “survival of the fittest.”)
And while industrialists like Andrew Carnegie admired Spencer and the libertarian ideals he expounded, they never espoused any kind of Darwinian or survival-of-the-fittest mentality, and instead proved tremendous benefactors to the arts and higher learning, as Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Hall, and Rockefeller University amply attest.
These and similar arguments fill the pages of Goldberg’s various sections traversing the middle class, the slippery slope, diversity, science, and dissent, all of which lay bare the economic illiteracy of the contemporary Left.
And here we return to Piers Morgan, whose aggressive interview revealed the same tendency toward fiscal economic blindness. After baiting Goldberg into a back-of-the-envelope estimate of how much it cost to locate and kill Osama bin Laden (Goldberg guessed $50 million), Morgan exclaimed “fifty million dollars is cheap in the Republican world?! No wonder the country got into the mess it did!”
Ask any propagator of social justice what the notion actually means, and you probably won’t like the answer, because it inevitably boils down to redistributing wealth in a more ‘socially optimal’ fashion.
When Goldberg retorted that, yes, indeed, $50 million was peanuts when compared to the cost of the Global War on Terror—i.e., Goldberg offered context that Morgan refused to believe was necessary—Morgan followed up with another untrue truism of the Left: “The Republican administration obviously led to a huge financial collapse, you wouldn’t dispute that?” Leaving Freddie, Fannie, Barney Frank, unscrupulous lenders, and unrealistic home-buyers out of it, Morgan’s point may possess an ounce of truth.
Yet no matter how many times such dragons are slain, they continue to be resurrected by liberal pundits, politicians, and activists, all of whom Goldberg stretches across the rack in this lively book. And while its polemical tone is unlikely to win new adherents, it provides powerful ammunition for those of us who, like Goldberg himself on Morgan’s show, encounter unremitting partisan economic arguments cloaked in the garb of non-ideological pragmatism.
Michael M. Rosen, a contributor to THE AMERICAN, is an attorney and writer in San Diego.
FURTHER READING: How liberal are you? Take the cliché quiz. Rosen also writes “Lights, Camera, Crazy!” “Pity the Progressive,” and “Labor’s Under-the-Radar Power Grab.” Jonah Goldberg contributes the “Top Five Cliches that Liberals Use to Avoid Real Arguments” and “Republicans Have Bad Brains?” Marc A. Thiessen discusses “A Bishop’s Unjust Attack on Paul Ryan.”
Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group