“To See What Is in Front of One’s Nose …”

I am more than a little amused by Matt Karp’s reference to the “constant sorrows of the twentieth century Anglo-American left” (via 3 Quarks Daily). Query: Could it be that those “sorrows” were so “constant” because the twentieth century Anglo-American left pledged constant fealty to Marxist/communist ideas that never worked and never had or will have a sandcastle’s chance in an earthquake of working?

Equally amusing is the following passage:

The central experience of the twenty-first century, of course, cannot yet be reckoned.  But whatever it is, we can be grateful that all our dreams and arguments about a just, egalitarian future will not be defined — or distracted, or divided, or destroyed — by the fate of a particular Russian dictatorship.

Why shouldn’t “the fate of a particular Russian dictatorship” (and it should be noted by those interested in accurately presenting history that the dictatorship in question encompassed far more than just Russia or Russians) ensure that the “dreams and arguments” of the “Anglo-American left” be “defined — or distracted, or divided, or destroyed”? Does Karp really believe that the Soviet Union was a one-off when it came to implementing Marxist/communist ideas and ideals? Does he somehow think that the rest of Eastern Europe, Cuba, Nicaragua and/or Venezuela have turned out better? Does he think that China was once all that and a bag of chips … until the authoritarians running it decided to just become communist in name?

Marx was right about one thing: “Hegel says somewhere that that great historic facts and personages recur twice. He forgot to add: ‘Once as tragedy, and again as farce.’” Alas, Matt Karp doesn’t seem to remember his Marx nearly as well as he ought to.

Nota Bene: Let’s all stop pretending that Eric Hobsbawm was some great, sainted figure. He wasn’t.

In Memoriam: Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher’s death provides a conundrum for your humble blogger: How does one write cogently about the life and career of a colossus?

I am not sure that I will do the subject of Thatcher’s life and times the justice it deserves. But I’ll try nevertheless. Thatcher deserves encomiums for her achievements, and whatever my poor powers of eloquence, I’ll try to provide one.

Back when I was much younger, I watched a television show about clever foreign commercials. I think that it may have been hosted by Dick Clark and Ed McMahon. I only remember one commercial from the show. It may not have been the cleverest in Clark’s and McMahon’s eyes, but it certainly was in mine:

Of course, I’ve always been fascinated with politics and current events, which doubtless was responsible for the fact that the commercial made an impact on me. But in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s death, the commercial comes to mind once again. It comes to mind not just because it was—and is—funny, but also because of the incomplete nature of its message.

The joke in the commercial is straightforward: Margaret Thatcher was such a polarizing figure that when she was little, even her own mother blanched at the idea of Thatcher possessing political power. But of course, the commercial fails to point out that it takes two sides to contribute to political polarization. Certainly, Margaret Thatcher did not evoke neutral feelings on the part of observers. People either loved or hated her. She possessed a fierce intelligence which she often turned on lesser people, she was absolutely convinced that she was in the right when it came to policy and political philosophy, and she had no patience whatsoever for those who would have continued to allow Britain to remain “the sick man of Europe,” which Britain undoubtedly was before Thatcher came to power. Either this approach was one’s cup of tea, or it wasn’t, and if it wasn’t, the hatred that would result would last a lifetime.

But when one looks at the condition Britain was in prior to Thatcher taking up residence at 10 Downing Street, one sees rather quickly—or should, anyway—that Thatcher was entirely right not to have had any patience for those who were willing to continue the policies that brought Britain to its knees. I disagree with almost everything Andrew Sullivan says, does or writes these days, but Sullivan has decided to take a break from trying to convince is that Barack Obama is a secret conservative in order to show us why Thatcher—a genuine conservative if ever there was one—was so desperately needed in Britain:

… Yes: the British left would prefer to keep everyone poorer if it meant preventing a few getting richer. And the massively powerful trade union movement worked every day to ensure that mediocrity was protected, individual achievement erased, and that all decisions were made collectively, i.e. with their veto. And so – to take the archetypal example – Britain’s coal-workers fought to make sure they could work unprofitable mines for years of literally lung-destroying existence and to pass it on to their sons for yet another generation of black lung. This “right to work” was actually paid for by anyone able to make a living in a country where socialism had effectively choked off all viable avenues for prosperity. And if you suggested that the coal industry needed to be shut down in large part or reshaped into something commercial, you were called, of course, a class warrior, a snob, a Tory fascist, etc. So hard-working Brits trying to make a middle class living were taxed dry to keep the life-spans of powerful mine-workers short.

To put it bluntly: The Britain I grew up in was insane. The government owned almost all major manufacturing, from coal to steel to automobiles. Owned. It employed almost every doctor and owned almost every hospital. Almost every university and elementary and high school was government-run. And in the 1970s, you could not help but realize as a young Brit, that you were living in a decaying museum – some horrifying mixture of Eastern European grimness surrounded by the sculptured bric-a-brac of statues and buildings and edifices that spoke of an empire on which the sun had once never set. Now, in contrast, we lived on the dark side of the moon and it was made up of damp, slowly degrading concrete.

As Sullivan points out, Thatcher decisively changed Britain for the better:

Thatcher’s economic liberalization came to culturally transform Britain. Women were empowered by new opportunities; immigrants, especially from South Asia, became engineers of growth; millions owned homes for the first time; the media broke free from union chains and fractured and multiplied in subversive and dynamic ways. Her very draconian posture provoked a punk radicalism in the popular culture that changed a generation. The seeds of today’s multicultural, global London – epitomized by that Olympic ceremony – were sown by Thatcher’s will-power.

Making these changes wasn’t easy. Thatcher had to break the power of government to control the most basic aspects of the lives of British people. She had to crush—yes, crush—the authority of unions, which repeatedly took Britain hostage by starting up crippling strikes … until Thatcher smashed them once and for all. She had to combat the nuclear freeze movement and convince the British people (and other people in the free world) that the best way to convince the Soviets that conflict and confrontation would get them nowhere was to show strength in the face of their provocations. She had to convince a country that was used to statist economic policies that the economic liberalization urged by the likes of Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman was infinitely preferable. She had to stand up for Britain’s interests in the Falkland Islands against an authoritarian and militaristic Argentine junta. She had to remake Britain entirely. All of this made her look like a divisive and polarizing figure in the eyes of many Britons.

But that doesn’t disguise the fact that she succeeded in meeting her policy objectives. In spite of fearsome opposition, in spite of hateful rhetoric, in spite of an IRA attempt to bomb her into oblivion, in spite of Argentine intransigence which threatened her leadership, she succeeded where so many other British politicians had failed. Her singular intellectual gifts, her moral courage, her resolute and steadfast convictions and her sheer patriotism helped bring Britain back from the brink, and helped make her—along with Churchill—the greatest and most consequential British prime minister of the 20th century. And one of the greatest ever.

Obituaries about Thatcher’s life and career cannot help but capture the epic nature of her life and career. Her personality and courage shine through in the New York Times’s coverage, for example, even though the Times also airs the views of Thatcher’s critics. No surprise; the critics shrank before Thatcher while she was alive. They now shrink before her memory as well.

So many hated her so much and for so long that her death is a cause for celebration for a number of Thatcher’s enemies. I suppose that one could get angry and outraged about this, but why bother? Consider that when Thatcher-haters die, no one will much care. They failed to defeat Thatcher at the polls, after all. Thrice. The Lady herself put it best:

I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.

Of course, it wasn’t Thatcher’s enemies on the left, but rather, her own Conservative colleagues who ultimately forced her from power. But even in the act of leaving, she stood taller than did her detractors. In the aftermath of her ouster, a no-confidence motion was put forth in the House of Commons. Its passage would have meant the dissolution of the government, and new elections. Thatcher might have had to personally surrender power, but she would not put up with the notion of letting the Tory majority in the House dissipate. Speaking out against the motion, she put on perhaps her greatest oratorical performance:

At the end, one can hear an MP provide the ultimate comment on Thatcher’s utter mastery of the House: “You can wipe the floor with these people!” Which of course is exactly what she did with her opponents for the vast majority of her time in politics, making Britain better off in the process.

The Iron Lady is no more, but her legacy remains. As she promised, she never turned. Her nation is, and will always be grateful.

Requiescat in pace.

“For Our Next Trick, We’ll Give Every Child a Little Red Book”

Via Brian Faughnan (who sent it to me in an e-mail), we have this. Charming, no?

The statement from Charles Grassley’s office is entirely on point; I guess that the only really surprising thing about it is that it actually had to be issued. I continue to hope that someday, people like Mao, Che Guevara, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin will be seen to have been as despicable as Adolf Hitler was, but I increasingly wonder whether the masses will have that epiphany during my lifetime. If the Department of Education were actually on the job, it might have read this before publishing the Mao quote:

Can you name the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century? No, it wasn’t Hitler or Stalin. It was Mao Zedong.

According to the authoritative “Black Book of Communism,” an estimated 65 million Chinese died as a result of Mao’s repeated, merciless attempts to create a new “socialist” China. Anyone who got in his way was done away with — by execution, imprisonment or forced famine.

For Mao, the No. 1 enemy was the intellectual. The so-called Great Helmsman reveled in his blood-letting, boasting, “What’s so unusual about Emperor Shih Huang of the China Dynasty? He had buried alive 460 scholars only, but we have buried alive 46,000 scholars.” Mao was referring to a major “accomplishment” of the Great Cultural Revolution, which from 1966-1976 transformed China into a great House of Fear.

The most inhumane example of Mao’s contempt for human life came when he ordered the collectivization of China’s agriculture under the ironic slogan, the “Great Leap Forward.” A deadly combination of lies about grain production, disastrous farming methods (profitable tea plantations, for example, were turned into rice fields), and misdistribution of food produced the worse famine in human history.

Deaths from hunger reached more than 50 percent in some Chinese villages. The total number of dead from 1959 to 1961 was between 30 million and 40 million — the population of California.

Or this:

Mao, like Stalin, indisputably murdered more people than Hitler. He tyrannized the world’s most populous nation for more than a quarter century; and while by most counts his victims were somewhat less numerous than Stalin’s, the range of error makes it quite possible that Mao Zedong was the greatest mass murderer of the century. Mao was both the Lenin and the Stalin of Chinese Communism: not only did he found the system, but he raised it to lethal maturity. While Mao waited a few years to antagonize the peasants with forced collectivization, the killing began immediately. As Laszlo Ladany observes in his The Communist Party of China and Marxism: 1921-1985:

There are few parallels in history for what the [Chinese] Communists did [when they first came to power]. The French Revolution had many victims, but it did not institute a lasting political system. The October Revolution in the Soviet Union was not a peaceful affair, but the mass killings did not come till years later, during Stalin’s collectivisation… In China, the terror - what else can one call it? - was widespread and saw the beginning of a lasting system.

After Stalin’s death, Khrushchev and his successors eliminated some of the most horrific aspects of his regime. Mao denounced these reforms as “revisionism,” studiously repeating each of Stalin’s horrors. Unlike Stalin, Mao never fully succeeded in utterly crushing internal opposition within the Chinese Communist Party, which is probably why Mao’s policies were not even more deadly than they were.

They could have read Leszek Kolakowski as well, and I encourage everyone to do so. As I mention in my review of Kolakowski’s epic work. “among other things, Mao told his followers that they must take care to not read too many books, not even Marxist/communist books. The mind reels.”

More commentary:

The “Kids’ Zone,” of course, was channeling Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book (or more likely one of the thousands of “quotable quotes” websites on the Internet that mistakenly render insatiable as satiable. We’re not, by the way, suggesting that the Department of Education has been infiltrated by Maoists. Rather, one of its websites seems to be in the hands of historically illiterate hacks.

Needless to say, the prominent featuring of Mao’s quote attracted more than the usual quota of attention to the “Kids’ Zone,” and the snippet was quickly removed. Here is what it was replaced with: “Sorry there is no quote of the of the today.”

The Mao quote eventually got replaced with a quote from Abraham Lincoln. One cannot help but wonder whether the removal occurred for the right reasons, however. For all we know, it may have just been a strategic retreat.

As Larry Solum Might Say …

“Download [my article] while it’s hot!” From the abstract:

The memoirs of former Vice President Dick Cheney advance — among other things — his expansive view of executive power. This Book Review discusses Cheney’s those views. It depicts Cheney’s Nixon Administration experience, his time as a member of Congress, and his service as secretary of defense and vice president. In all of his years of public service, Cheney did not become a skeptic of executive power. On the contrary, even as a member of Congress, he sought to safeguard executive power against what he — and others around him — saw as encroachment by Congress. This Book Review also highlights two notable instances in which Cheney, as a member of the Executive Branch, sought to protect presidential power — and one instance in which he worked to preserve the autonomy of the Vice President from the President and his staff.

Making Reaganism Relevant

I have written before that instead of asking whether some aspiring political leader is “the next Ronald Reagan,” conservatives, small-government libertarians, and Republicans in general should demand an original leader who is well-equipped to take on current challenges. Ramesh Ponnuru argues—quite properly—that in addition, Reagan’s entire philosophy of government has to be updated to address present day issues:

When Reagan cut rates for everyone, the top tax rate was 70 percent and the income tax was the biggest tax most people paid. Now neither of those things is true: For most of the last decade the top rate has been 35 percent, and the payroll tax is larger than the income tax for most people. Yet Republicans have treated the income tax as the same impediment to economic growth and middle-class millstone that it was in Reagan’s day. House Republicans have repeatedly voted to bring the top rate down still further, to 25 percent.

A Republican Party attentive to today’s problems rather than yesterday’s would work to lighten the burden of the payroll tax, not just the income tax. An expanded child tax credit that offset the burden of both taxes would be the kind of broad-based middle-class tax relief that Reagan delivered. Republicans should make room for this idea in their budgets, even if it means giving up on the idea of a 25 percent top tax rate.

When Reagan took office, he could have confidence in John F. Kennedy’s conviction that a rising tide would lift all boats. In more recent years, though, economic growth hasn’t always raised wages for most people. The rising cost of health insurance has eaten up raises. Controlling the cost of health care has to be a bigger part of the Republican agenda now that it’s a bigger portion of the economy. An important first step would be to change the existing tax break for health insurance so that people would be able to pocket the savings if they chose cheaper plans.

Conservative views of monetary policy are also stuck in the late 1970s. From 1979 to 1981, inflation hit double digits three years in a row. Tighter money was the answer. To judge from the rhetoric of most Republican politicians, you would think we were again suffering from galloping inflation. The average annual inflation rate over the last five years has been just 2 percent. You would have to go back a long time to find the last period of similarly low inflation. Today nominal spending — the total amount of dollars circulating in the economy both for consumption and investment — has fallen well below its path before the financial crisis and the recession. That’s the reverse of the pattern of the late 1970s.

I would add that it should still be possible to have a flatter, lower overall tax system, with the top rate close to 25%, but like Ponnuru, I am surprised that more Republicans haven’t gotten on the bandwagon to lower the payroll tax. I have argued for them to do so in the past. It would be a great way for Republicans to start to win back middle class voters, and it would be very good policy to boot.