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October 16th, 2002

  Crunchy or Soggy


So where am I on this "crunchy conservative" business? I haven't a clue. See, I may be a naturalized American, but I still have those English genes (or is it memes? — but read on). One of the most English of mental characteristics is a deep resistance to large abstract theories about society and politics — to what the English, in fact, very tellingly refer to as "continental systems."

Boswell:  So, Sir, you laugh at schemes of political improvement?
Johnson:  Why, Sir, most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things.

In its most extreme form, this native hostility to abstract system-building extends to all kinds of thinking, philosophical and religious, as well as political.

I looked up the passage in Russell's book [Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, by Bertrand Russell]. If the antithesis to a "some" statement is always an "all" statement, then … [There follow 100 or so words attempting to grapple with one of Russell's logical arguments.] … But I can never follow that kind of thing. It is the sort of thing that makes me feel that philosophy should be forbidden by law.
                 — George Orwell, letter to Richard Rees, 3/3/1949
One angry lady demanded to know my definitions of "God" and "religion." (I don't have definitions. I'm an Anglican, for crying out loud.)
                 — John Derbyshire

That's me. I am always at a total loss when my colleagues at NR fall into debates about Straussian versus Oakeshottian conservatism, Burkean versus Kirkean, Jeffersonian versus Hamiltonian, and all the rest of it. I carry with me a serious-looking folder stuffed with papers (oh, all right, yes, and archive copies of 1970s-era National Lampoon) for just such emergencies, to busy myself with while the arguments about what Willmoore Kendall said to Walter Berns in '57 fly to and fro. My only opinion about Willmoore Kendall is that he had too many double letters in his name. (Possibly he was Finnish. The Finnish language adores double letters. The geometrical term of art "inscribed circle" tranlates into Finnish as "ympyrä sisäänpiirretty."  I am the only person at National Review that knows this!)

What was I talking about? Oh, yes, crunchy conservatism. Well, I have no opinion on it. To tell the truth, I don't even care. I should care, I'm sure, and next time I meet Rod or Jonah I shall ask them to explain the whole thing to me, and try my honest best to stay awake through the explanation. (While also trying my best not to recall the similar situation, back in my schooldays, when I asked my Religious Instruction teacher to go over St. Anselm's proof of the existence of God with me. It took an hour and a half, during which time I aged several years. I got it, though, and walked out of the room carrying it intact, if a bit wobbly, like one of those models of the Empire State building made out of matchsticks, tottering on a tray. The structure collapsed, of course, as soon as I had to think about something else.)

Yes, yes, crunchy conservatism. As I said, don't ask me. I do have opinions about the word "crunchy" in a different usage, though. I am referring to the context of a famous 1988 essay by Nico Colchester in The Economist. It's a beautiful essay, and you really have to read the whole thing — I urge you to do so right now — to get the full effect. Colchester distinguishes "crunchy" policies from "soggy" ones.

Crunchy systems are those in which small changes have big effects leaving those affected by them in no doubt whether they are up or down, rich or broke, winning or losing, dead or alive … Sogginess is comfortable uncertainty … The richer a society becomes, the soggier its systems get. Light-switches no longer turn on or off: they dim.

By Colchester's criterion, current U.S. society is far gone in sogginess. Students no longer get "pass" or "fail" on exams, they get A, A plus, or A minus. If you buy a product bearing a large label in day-glo orange saying WARNING! USE NEAR A NAKED FLAME MAY RESULT IN INJURY!! and blind yourself by employing it as a fire-lighter, you can still sue the manufacturer and collect a billion-dollar "punitive damages" award. If the law says that you can't switch candidates less than 48 days before an election, you can still get seven state Supreme Court justices to say, hey, go ahead, we won't look.

If a visa application form asks you to state where you will be living in the U.S., you can write in "Death to the Great Satan!" as an answer, or just leave the box empty if you prefer, and your application will be waved through anyway. We have it on the authority of the deputy director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (according to Michelle Malkin) that: "It's not a crime to be in the U.S. illegally." You can't get any soggier than that! Well, perhaps you can. It is a characteristic of our age that as soggy as things seem, you can be pretty sure they will be even soggier in five years' time. I await with fair confidence the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it's not a crime to commit a crime, except when they say so.

Now this kind of sogginess I do have an opinion about. I don't like it. I understand that we cannot, and should not, always be absolutely inflexible (sci-fi master Robert Silverberg wrote a funny time-travel story with that title), and that a little discretion in the interpretation of laws and rules is often desirable. On the immigration front, for example, there was that poor woman whose legal-immigrant husband was killed in the 9/11 attacks, leaving her with no valid residence status in the country where her children were born. Hey, let her stay. (They did, of course.)

I don't think I could prove that sogginess is always and everywhere wrong. Colchester himself did not claim this, saying: "A crunchy policy is not necessarily right, only more certain than a soggy one to deliver the results that it deserves."  The appeal of crunchiness, to me, mathematician manqué, is its reductive, straightforward, honest quality, its clarity. With crunchiness, you know where you are. With sogginess, you never do, quite, and depend on someone suitably credentialed — a trial lawyer, a consular official, a Supreme Court justice, an H.M.O. clerk — to tell you. Sometimes, as in the case of college grades, nobody is willing to tell you at all, for fear of hurting your feelings (now that is illegal!) and you have to wait for the Reality Fairy to deliver the bad news.

Crunchiness lingers on in odd pockets of American life. The Derbs currently have painters in doing the inside of our house. It's a father-son team, the father in his sixties I would guess — a relic of an older, crunchier America. When making up the estimate, he walked round the house with me writing down everything. Then he gave me an estimate to a precise non-rounded dollar figure. I liked the guy (and his estimate) and hired him. He's doing a good methodical job with a minimum of fuss. When I asked him to paint the inside of a small closet door, though, he said: "Sure, but it'll be extra. It wasn't in the estimate." I checked; it wasn't. Crunchy! The "extra" was barely into two digits, but I have paid gladly. This I like: You want? Here's how much. Clarity. Crunchy.

If only our politicians ran the public finances like that. The crunchy approach to this topic would be the one last practiced in earnest by Calvin Coolidge. In this approach, there is no such thing as "government money." There is only money seized from citizens and corporations by force of law, to be used with care, wisely, for common purposes agreed by practically all citizens to be essential. These funds are a sacred trust, earned by our people from the sweat of their brows, and handed over to their elected representatives reluctantly, but in the citizenly belief that they will contribute to the good of the nation. For the actual approach in this year of Our Lord 2002, see any of Stephen Moore's recent NR/NRO articles. This one, for example, whose title says it all: "Worse than Drunken Sailors." Public finance is a huge suck-and-blow machine, vacuuming up money out of your pocket and mine, and spraying it out at the other end on powerful interest groups — unions, trial lawyers, well-connected corporations, foreigners who hate us. Public money a sacred trust? Ha ha ha ha ha!

I doubt there is anything to be done until we have soggified ourselves into some kind of national crisis. Indeed, you could argue that in the matter of immigration, the 9/11 attacks were just such a sogginess-induced crisis, yet still there is precious little evidence of a return to immigration crunchiness. Sogginess is a very powerful narcotic, making life seem easy and effortless. It is, in fact, the reward for national success. Colchester: "Crunchiness brings wealth. Wealth leads to sogginess. Sogginess brings poverty. Poverty creates crunchiness. From this immutable cycle we know that to hang on to wealth, you must keep things crunchy." Immutable, yes. There is some fundamental, inviolable law operating here, something as inflexible and unarguable as the Law of Gravity. Something really, really crunchy.