Friday, March 14, 2008

Welcome Home: the journeys of David Mamet and George McGovern.

A few days ago this blog discussed the new George McGovern -- the former far Leftist who now saw government as too obtrusive and invasive. Many people took this as some sort of major conversion. And while I applaud Mr. McGovern’s new insights I don’t think the conversion is nearly as dramatic as many people assume. Mr. McGovern has moved toward a classical liberal position from that of a contemporary liberal.

Joining Mr. McGovern on this journey is David Mamet, playwright, novelist and film director. Mamet wrote of his journey in the March 11th issue of The Village Voice. He said:

I found not only that I didn't trust the current government (that, to me, was no surprise), but that an impartial review revealed that the faults of this president—whom I, a good liberal, considered a monster—were little different from those of a president whom I revered.

Bush got us into Iraq, JFK into Vietnam. Bush stole the election in Florida; Kennedy stole his in Chicago. Bush outed a CIA agent; Kennedy left hundreds of them to die in the surf at the Bay of Pigs. Bush lied about his military service; Kennedy accepted a Pulitzer Prize for a book written by Ted Sorenson. Bush was in bed with the Saudis, Kennedy with the Mafia. Oh.

...What about the role of government? Well, in the abstract, coming from my time and background, I thought it was a rather good thing, but tallying up the ledger in those things which affect me and in those things I observe, I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow.

Mamet says he went on to read Thomas Sowell, who Mamet called “our greatest contemporary philosopher” but also writers like Paul Johnson and Milton Friedman. He concluded that “a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism.”

Mr. Mamet seems to see his change as rather dramatic. I’m sure that many of his contemporaries on the Left will see it that way as well. But I don’t believe that Mr. McGovern and Mr. Mamet have really strayed that far from their previous beliefs. Their ends for society remain pretty much the same. They want peace, prosperity and the maximum amount of human well-being. What has changed is the means they wish to use to achieve those ends.

When real liberalism, the original kind of Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, Adam Smith and the Age of Enlightenment, came onto the scene it was a radical change. It attempted to smash the power structure of the day, which was feudalistic and built on the use of state power. Raw power was used to protect the privileges of kings and priests, of church and state. Liberalism demanded reform. It called for separation of church and state. It pretty much called the separation of everything and state. It argued that individuals were best able to improve their own lives if they were free.

Liberalism argued that state power was the enemy of peace, prosperity and the people. And it sought ways to limit the state and to free the individual. This was considered the Left in those days as evidenced by the esteemed libertarian thinker Frederic Bastiat sitting with the Left in the French National Assembly. Classical liberalism was a truly revolutionary movement.

But a third force arose. It was one that adopted the goals of liberalism but also adopted something from the conservative side of the spectrum. This was socialism. The socialist hardly differed with the liberal when it came to the primary goals. He wanted peace, he wanted prosperity and he wanted equality. Liberals agreed though they had a different view of equality.

The socialist brought with him two conservative traits. He adopted the view that an elite knew best and needed to control the populace in order to protect them from exploitation and themselves. This was the old feudalistic view of the people revived. But even more importantly he embraced the use of state power to achieve liberal ends. He did not abandon the goals of liberalism but felt that the conservative means of state power was a better method of achieving those goals. The old classical liberals believe that this was a fatal compromise. They felt that means and ends must be brought into line with one another. More importantly they felt that state power wouldn’t achieve liberal goals but conservative goals.

Mamet said that he looked at the presidency of George Bush, who he despises, and found it wasn’t that different from the president he admired. The reason is that Mr. Kennedy, like Mr. Bush was wedded to the use of state power. State power is an excellent method for achieving illiberal goals but a rather poor way of promoting peace, prosperity or equality.

Statism and war are inherently connected and history bears this out. As for prosperity the state is not an engine of wealth creation but of wealth consumption. It might redistribute what wealth is created but in the process it destroys the incentives to produce wealth. State benevolence turns too easily into state dependency. And it is not the poor and powerless who see their welfare promoted by government but by the rich and powerful who have easy access to the political elite. Progressives and socialists felt that the good intentions of the Left were sufficient to reign in the conservative nature of state power. But good intentions, when mixed with state power, too easily turns into the Gulag or the Killing Fields.

A failure to understand basic incentives and the feedback loops of markets meant that the economic ecosystem was tampered with in ways which produced results contrary to the goals that the planners had in mind. Each manipulation produced unintended consequences which were addressed by further interventions which only created more unintended consequences. The good intentions of the planners were irrelevant because they failed to understand the ecology of markets. In addition they confused markets with state privilege. They failed to see the difference between the producer and the rent-seeker, the latter being those who use political means to obtain wealth for themselves through subsidies, protectionism, or redistribution. The modern Left assumed that all “business” was the same, failing to note that the one segment earned profits through production of goods and services while the state capitalist redistributed wealth through political means.

For the first time Mamet and McGovern are seeing the need to use liberal means in order to achieve liberal ends. Previously they followed the fallacy of the Socialist left in adopting conservative means to achieve liberal ends. Mr. Mamet said, “I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of he government led to much beyond sorrow.” That encapsulates the transformation. He is recognizing that the use of power, the conservative means, did not lead to the liberal ends that he sought.

What is happening with Mr. McGovern and Mr. Mamet is that they are once again bringing ends and means together. Neither has ceased to be a liberal in the true meaning of the word. On the contrary, they are more liberal than ever. Perhaps they still have further roads to travel and more understanding to gain, but I think it is time to say, “Welcome home.”

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