»  Taki's Magazine

January 26th, 2012

  They Don't Have a Clue

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Watching President Obama deliver his State of the Union Speech, I got to thinking of my Dad.

Derb, Sr. was born in in 1899, and was compulsorily retired from his job (he was a repo man for a furniture company) at age 65. That point in time — the mid-1960s — was of course one of great changes, in Britain as much as in the U.S.A. Dad, who was of a reactionary temperament, didn't approve of any of them.

Two things he especially disapproved of were Britain's entry into what was then called the European Common Market, and mass immigration into Britain from the Caribbean and South Asia. From his retirement through to the late 1970s Dad occupied himself with writing angry letters to newspapers and politicians urging opposition to both things.

Dad wasn't an educated man. His spelling was erratic and he had no skill in prose expression. Probably the recipients of his angry letters got hundreds like them and binned them on the basis of the handwriting alone. No newspaper ever published one of Dad's letters.

In any case the die had been cast on both those big issues on which Dad's opinions were strongest. All the important power centers in British society were in complete agreement that union with Europe would be a jolly good thing, and that opening the country to floods of Jamaicans and Pakistanis would be culturally and economically invigorating.

In the event, both things were disastrous. The European project yoked Britain to a mercantilist bureaucracy tasked with "harmonizing" countries that had each spent centuries developing widely differing approaches to public affairs. Mass immigration frontally assaulted Britain's tolerant insularity, turned sleepy old working-class neighborhoods into bedlams of vice and crime, and introduced an aggressively hostile religion into one of the world's least religious nations.

The folly of all that is now obvious. The curious thing is that cranky semi-literate old Dad, firing off his mis-spelled letters to the local rag, was right on those issues, while all the credentialed panjandrums of politics, academia, business, and the media were wrong. For all his lack of education, Dad was no fool, but I can't help thinking of Lord Melbourne's observation that: "What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass."

Are things any better now, half a century on? Watching the president deliver his speech tonight, listening to all the gassy cant and bogus concern, the promises to "create" jobs by "investing" in grand government projects, the hollow claims of benevolence and omnipotence, I felt sure they are not. The thought that kept recurring was in fact: "They don't have a clue. None of them has a single [expletive] clue."

That's not particularly an observation about this President. Obama has, on balance, been less of a calamity than I feared. He has probably done less harm to the nation, net-net, than his predecessor did. Obama has conventionally leftist opinions, but no real ideology, no grand plan of transformation. His natural interest is in politics: in raising funds, getting elected, making appointments — and, of course, in the hundreds of millions of dollars he will accumulate after leaving office. In British terms, he is a Tony Blair. I shouldn't care to spend any time with Obama (and shall call myself blessed if I go to the grave never having spent a single minute in the same room as his dimwitted shopaholic wife). If we were to trade opinions on matters of public policy I doubt we'd have a single point of agreement; but I don't feel any animosity towards him.

I just don't think he has a clue. Not him, not Geithner or Mrs Clinton, not Reid or Pelosi, not Romney or Gingrich or Boehner — I don't believe any of them has a clue.

Not that our rulers and legislators are all stupid (though some of them undoubtedly are). I just don't think that on any particular issue of governance, any of them is more likely to be right than the average retired repo man composing ill-written Letters to the Editor in his back parlor. Probably this has always been the case. Lord Melbourne, after all, was speaking in 1830.

A nation of some tens of millions of people is a mighty complicated thing. The individual human brain, which evolved to assist the survival of its host organism in a hunting-gathering band of a few dozen, is not well equipped to understand human affairs on the tens-of-millions scale. If you are seriously well read-up on some one narrow aspect of public policy, it is dismaying to try to engage a politician in conversation about that topic — even a politician you like and admire. All you get is a handful of vapid slogans. International commerce? "Free trade, but fair trade!" Education? "Improve the schools!" Immigration? "Guest worker program!" etc. I've mixed with politicians a fair amount. Let me tell you: they don't have much of a clue.

The difference between Lord Melbourne's time and ours is that we expect far, far more of our governments than the Britons of 1830 did of theirs. The mismatch between the wisdom and capability we hope for from our politicians, and the blundering cluelessness they actually display, is correspondingly more glaring.

The smart move for a voter, therefore, is to support the candidate who promises the least government, whatever reservations or disagreements one might have with that candidate's style, associations, age, or tailoring, even if the candidate is a cranky geezer who looks like he spends his free time writing angry ungrammatical Letters to the Editor.

In this presidential-election cycle, that would be Ron Paul. Which is where I came in.