16 September 2011

Wisest Thing I’ve Read Today

From Adam Gopnik’s essay on the literature of national decline in the 12 Sept 2011 New Yorker:

Americans are perfectly willing to sacrifice their comforts for their ideological convictions. We don’t have a better infrastructure or decent elementary schools because many people are willing to sacrifice faster movement between our great cities, or better-informed children, in support of their belief that the government should always be given as little money as possible.

The reasons for these feelings are, of course, complex, with a noble reason descending from the Revolutionary War, and its insistence on liberty at all costs, and an ignoble one descending from the Civil War and its creation of a permanent class of white men convinced that they are besieged by an underclass they regard as subsidized wards of the federal government. (Thus the curious belief that a worldwide real-estate crisis that hit the north of Spain and the east of Ireland as hard as the coast of Florida was the fault of money loaned by Washington to black people.)

But the crucial point is that this is the result of active choice, not passive indifference: people who don’t want high-speed rail are not just indifferent to fast trains. They are offended by fast trains, as the New York Post is offended by bike lanes and open-air plazas: these things give too much pleasure to those they hate. They would rather have exhaust and noise and traffic jams, if such things sufficiently annoy liberals. Annoying liberals is a pleasure well worth paying for.

As a recent study in the social sciences shows, if energy use in a household is monitored so that you can watch yourself saving money every month by using less, self-identified conservatives will actually use and spend more, apparently as a way of showing their scorn for liberal pieties.
The essay does a fine job of answering Niall Ferguson’s short-sighted long view, yet also has a Beatles soundtrack.

Based on my study of the Revolutionary War, I think Gopnik’s capsule summary of that conflict (with “its insistence on liberty at all costs”) is based on later interpretations of “liberty” rather than eighteenth-century values, but those interpretations certainly influence people’s beliefs today.

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