Archives for the 'Libertarianism' Category
I’ve written before than Jimmy Carter’s pious, sanctimonious, and off-putting public persona may have caused conservatives to miss the fact that he wasn’t that godawful a president. Holman Jenkins has a column in today’s WSJ, “If Obama Had Carter’s Courage,” that provides a point of evidence in Carter’s favor.
In Mr. Carter’s day, bankruptcies were scything through the railroad sector, hurtling toward a rendezvous with nationalization. Conrail, an amalgam of failed Northeastern lines, had already been taken over and analysts foresaw a $300 billion bill (in today’s dollars) in the likely prospect that Washington would soon have to operate the rest of the nation’s freight railroads….
comprehensive federal regulation had only distorted the industry’s pricing, driven away investment, and made competitive adaptation impossible. But the argument had a new ring now that Washington would have to bear the political risk of operating and subsidizing the nation’s rail services.
It still took some doing on Mr. Carter’s part. When the bill stalled, a hundred phone calls went from the White House to congressmen, including 10 by Mr. Carter in a single evening. The bill essentially no longer required railroads to provide services at a loss to please certain constituencies. It meant going up against farmers, labor, utilities, mining interests, and even some railroads — whereas Mr. Obama’s auto bailout tries to appease key lobbies like labor and greens, which is why it can’t work.
I should note also, that in his updated, libertarian ranking of the presidents, Ivan Eland ranks Jimmy as one of the least bad modern presidents.
How smart should a president be? William F. Buckley famously said he’d “rather be ruled by the first 500 people in the Boston phonebook than the faculty at Harvard University,” and there’s surely something to that, though the worst president in American history was a Princeton man.
Here’s an interesting graph comparing presidential success with presidential IQ. (Explanation here) (Hat tip: Marian Tupy).
It’s a fun conversation piece, but it doesn’t tell you much. First of all, all the conventional rankings dramatically downgrade “do-nothing” presidents, so the version of presidential greatness used is always going to overvalue drama, explosions, and ambitious plans to remake the country and the world. Note that here, once again, Warren G. Harding is the Rodney Dangerfield of presidents, ranked dead last despite his admirable record on separation of powers, size of government, and civil liberties.
Moreover, the IQ data is highly dubious, especially the farther back you go in history, where it appears to be based on presidential biographies and personal papers, rather than standardized tests from college or military service. When I first looked at the graph, I wondered how they’d concluded that JFK, who was basically the Irish mob version of A.J. Soprano, was smarter than John Adams and James Madison. It turns out, according to JFK biographer Thomas Reeves, that “Kennedy was actually given an IQ test before entering Choate. His score was 119,” much lower than what he’s assessed at here.
In any event, given the difficulties of assessing IQ from a distance of generations, and the contentious nature of presidential greatness, it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions about the relationship between intelligence and presidential “success.”
However, too many conservatives, it seems to me, are too quick to conclude that brains don’t matter much when we’re choosing a constitutional chief executive. The reasoning seems to be: Jimmy Carter was smart, and he was a bad president; Reagan went to Eureka College and the intelligentsia sneered at him, yet he was a good president. Therefore, we should count ourselves lucky if and when we get George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. This sells Reagan short (and Carter too?): Reagan wasn’t an intellectual, but he was interested in ideas, and anyone who’s tried to write opeds and has seen Reagan’s handwritten 1970s radio speeches, for example, knows that he was a sharp guy and a smart writer. His success certainly doesn’t mean that unremarkable intelligence and lack of intellectual curiousity are virtues when it comes to the office of the presidency.
But some come close to concluding that they are virtues. See, for example, Charles Murray in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine:
What do you think of Sarah Palin? I’m in love. Truly and deeply in love.
Why is the McCain clan so eager to advertise its anti-intellectualism? The last thing we need are more pointy-headed intellectuals running the government. Probably the smartest president we’ve had in terms of I.Q. in the last 50 years was Jimmy Carter, and I think he is the worst president of the last 50 years.
Yes, some presidents can be too smart for their own good (though I seriously doubt that was Carter’s problem). But that doesn’t mean that when selecting potential presidents we ought to seek out people who aren’t particularly bright. God, I never thought I’d say this, but maybe Charles Murray isn’t enough of an intellectual elitist.
Comment of the day on this Hit and Run thread:
Doug | September 16, 2008, 11:42am | #
A guy walks into a bar and orders a drink. Then another. Then another. Eight drinks later he hits on the hot chick sporting the moose rifle and hockey skates and succeeds in taking her home for the night. Next morning he wakes up next to McCain.
Here’s the Wall Street Journal today with the story of how Great Libertarian Hope Sarah Palin fought to preserve a state-owned creamery (!) and installed one of her buddies as its head.
Okay, okay, I grudgingly like Sarah Palin. She’s not as good as the pick McCain offered in an offhand wisecrack the week before the announcement: “Mr. McCain, who had settled on his selection, was less than forthcoming here Thursday night when reporters shouted questions about his pick. ‘Wilford Brimley,’ he responded.” But she’s interesting, with some loveably cranky political affiliations in her past.
But I don’t vote based on likeability. Even for Wilford Brimley. And Palin’s appealling image changes nothing fundamental about what the modern GOP offers. A truth-in-advertising-style slogan might be: “Mindless bellicosity, gratuitous fearmongering, and phony promises to shrink government–now with extra spunkiness!” Yay: USA. USA. USA. I can’t believe that some otherwise sensible libertarians seem to be warming up to the ticket on reasons that privilege style over substance.
I have no intention of voting for anyone who could possibly win. But this seems to me a lot like the 1992 election, when most limited-government types were rightfully unconvinced that GHWB was the lesser of two evils. I don’t find Obama any more horrifying than Clinton from a limited-government perspective, and McCain is far worse than Bush the Elder. He’s a known quantity: a National Greatness Conservative who differs from GWB only in the intensity of his conviction that America must always be a crusader state loudly tromping about the world and breaking things. An alleged fiscal conservative who rabidly supports a $700 billion Bridge to Nowhere. A man who puts the First Amendment in scare quotes and has a long and detailed record of betraying limited-government conservatives. He’s your last, best hope? Auughhh, indeed.
The obvious answer to John McCain’s recent, lame, anti-Obama soundbite, “Carter’s Second Term,” is that while Carter was no Gerald Ford, at least the man wasn’t as bad as Richard Nixon, the nearest recent historical parallel to George W. Bush. Though even that may be unfair to Nixon, who after all did not start the Vietnam War, and at least made peace with China. Moreover, despite his extravagant theories of executive power, Nixon at least disclaimed the right to lock up American citizens without charges or a trial, signing the Non-Detention Act of 1971. For the story behind that act, which the Bush legal team considers unconstitutional, see this piece [.pdf] by the indispensible Louis Fisher.
His administration deregulated trucking and air travel, market-friendly reforms that had huge, beneficial effects on American economy and life. (I’m old enough to remember when flight was for business travelers and the rich.) He appointed Paul Volcker to the Fed and backed his tight-money policies right through an election year.
I’m not convinced, nor is Jim, entirely. He runs through some of Carter’s bad points, like his godawful energy policy and his creation of two additional cabinet departments (one more than Reagan). I’d add the Desert One operation which, to read Mark Bowden’s account, was the craziest military operation approved by a president since the Bay of Pigs. Of course, Jimmuh’s unbearable sanctimony and self-righteousness shouldn’t count, but I’m sure it’s colored my assessment. But the fact that people reflexively rank Carter among the worst of the modern presidents says something about the bias toward presidential activism that warps our public debate.
So my dad, who, like me, is a fan of pulpy noir detective novels and shows, sends me an email telling me to set my Tivo for this. I click the link and read:
In the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in Edinburgh, corrupt cop Brendan McCabe is being drowned in a tank of live lobsters.
That is perhaps the best sentence I’ve ever read.