Plato for the Higgy

April 12, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’ve been reading a few books about Athens over the last few years, which lead to the thought that Plato would be a worthy nominee for the Higgy as the ur-Bossy Mcbossytoga in serving as the inspiration for technocrats for thousands of years.

The fact that we still read Plato would give a sane person pause in questioning a founder of western thought. No one will be reading Ladner 2300 years from now after all. Sanity is overrated however, and so too is Plato. It has been decades since I read the Republic but I recall being of the firm opinion that it was utter nonsense. Philosopher Kings? Shadows on cave walls? Guardian class? What a lot of rubbish…hey look my new copy of the Avengers arrived!

Republic..misguided…make..it…STOP!

I’ll give this much to Plato- Athens did not exactly have the democracy thing sorted out. Sure there were golden ages, but they tended to be surrounded by demagogues leading the city into catastrophic wars, plagues, periodic oligarchies etc. People who lead Athens through incredible peril- including Themistocles and Cimon- later found themselves exiled from the city through democratic ostracism. Ungrateful Brits threw Churchill out of office at the end of World War II, but at least they didn’t force him out of the country he saved for a decade. The faults of Athenian democracy were too numerous to summarize adequately. Socrates for instance was chosen randomly to preside over the trial of six victorious Athenian admirals who were prevented from recovering the remains of fallen sailors by a storm. The obvious thing to do of course would be to execute the people who just won a decisive victory due to circumstances beyond their control. Socrates was unable to prevent it. Mysteriously wealthy Athenians who had previously borne the expense of paying for warships found non-military related hobbies occupy their time. The later execution of Socrates on the basis of vague nonsense obviously did nothing to endear Athenian democracy to Plato as well.

Plato was borne into Athenian aristocracy, and in fact his father had been a member of an oligarchy that temporarily overthrew Athenian democracy. Given the pandemonium of Athenian politics, one can hardly fault Plato for attempting to dream up improvements. Having said that, the idea of philosopher kings is utterly absurd. A group of materially disinterested ascetics spend decades in study to prepare themselves to govern the rabble with little compensation other than satisfying their benevolence after earning the acceptance of a self-perpetuating ruling class.

Riiiight

Fortunately no one actually tried to run Plato’s society, but there have been some fairly close parallels from time to time. The dead hand of medieval clericalism and various communist parties for instance come to mind as self-perpetuating elites admitting members based upon decades of training in a world view. I don’t know how one gets admitted into, say, Iranian theocracy, but that might more than vaguely resemble a guardian class. If these examples sound like recipes for stagnation and corruption it is only because, well it is in fact a recipe for stagnation and corruption.

Milton Friedman happily set Phil Donahue straight on this back in the 1970s:

Where in the world are you going to find these angels indeed. Athenian democracy was too often a pig’s breakfast of mob rule chaos, but I would take my chances with it over Plato’s benevolent ruling class fantasy.

The part of American democracy that most closely resembles the Plato’s philosopher kings would be the United States Supreme Court. You may have heard of them, they have been in the news a bit lately. Ross Douhat in fact makes an interesting case laying the blame for much of American political dysfunction in recent years at the feet of…wait for it….David Souter:

Had Souter simply voted like a typical Republican appointee — not in lock step with Antonin Scalia, but as an institutionalist, incrementalist conservative, in line with the current chief justice, John Roberts — then it’s likely that Roe v. Wade would have been mostly overturned in the 1990s, returning much of abortion law to the states, and that the gay rights movement would have subsequently advanced through referendums and legislation rather than a sweeping constitutionalization of cultural debate.

This, in turn, would have dramatically lowered the stakes of judicial politics for many Republican voters, making an untimely event like Scalia’s death less of a crisis moment, a response like the Garland pocket veto less of a necessity and the candidacy of Donald Trump something more easily rejected.

Indeed, I strongly suspect that in a world without the Souter own goal — a world where the Supreme Court had sided with cultural conservatives to the extent one would have expected given the number of recent Republican appointees — a nominee like Merrick Garland could still have been confirmed with Republican votes, and the filibuster could still persist, reserved for the unqualified, corrupt and genuinely extreme. Oh, and into the bargain, Donald Trump might well not be president.

Read the whole piece and see what you think. I largely buy the argument. American democracy is designed to force compromises that no one necessarily loves but most can live with. However tempting it may seem to bypass what can be a very frustrating democratic process, it is a very bad idea. Rule by executive, administrative or judicial fiat by “our betters” that Plato longed for at this point has a storied history of backfiring in fashions ranging from the humorous to the absolutely horrific. In the case of Souter, acceptance at Georgetown cocktail parties must have been swell but things may have indeed worked out better if he had felt some sense of democratic duty to the people who elected George HW Bush over Michael Dukakis in a complete rout of an election. Why let a little thing like a mere election get in the way of acceptance into grandee society?

We must empower authorities, but keeping the ability to turn them out of office seems to work better than anything else we have come up with, even if they hadn’t quite figured it out entirely in ancient Athens. For interrupting my vitally important early 1980s activities like Robotron 2084  robot killing and Magnum PI rerun viewing with turgid and misguided baloney and worse still for inspiring would be technocratic ruling classes for well over two millennia, I nominate Plato for the Higgy, it is a shame he wasn’t James Madison.


For a Lifetime Achievement Higgy: Joe Biden

April 4, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In this golden age when Higgyworthy candidates are so numerous that last year’s Higgy convention almost failed to nominate one because the delegate was paralyzed by choice, it takes something special to stand out among the crowd. But one sure way to find the heroes whose “arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will” truly tower over the rest is to look to your elders – to those special people whose decades-long commitment to diligent and sustained blowhardism has not only accumulated a distinguished track record of inane interference and pointless posturing, but has moved the all-important “Higgyton Window” so future generations of aspiring PLDDers can sink to new depths that their elders only dreamed of.

With that in mind, I’d like to nominate recently retired Vice President Joe Biden not only for 2017 William Higginbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year but also for a Lifetime Achievement Higgy Award.

With Biden recently talking about how he totally would have won the presidency if he had run, it seems like a perfect time to recognize him with The Higgy. I submit the following achievements for the judge’s consideration:

World-Class Dispropotion of Reputation to Achievement

As Mark Hemingway pointed out when the race for the 2016 nomination was getting underway, one reason Biden had a strong incentive to run against Clinton was also a reason he might have had trouble gaining traction against her: He, like she, wanted to win the presdiency in order to secure a legacy – because he, like she, had built a strong reputation as a Very Serious Political Leader based on a long and distinguished career of accomplishing nothing in public service: “Biden spent 36 years in the Senate beginning in 1972, and if you blinked, you’d miss the highlight reel.

His Vice Presidency did little to augment this record, as The Onion constantly reminded us.

Truly Epic Mouthrunning

Joe Biden’s mouth has been a running gag for so long, it’s hard to recapture an appreciation of just how unique his talent for blowhardism is. This, mind you, is a man in a line of work where the standards for blowhardism are very high. Don’t bring your complaints about listening to you boring uncle around here, kid – in DC, that stuff doesn’t even get past the bouncer.

But in a field of top-notch blowhards, Biden is literally a blowhard’s blowhard. A while back (can’t find it now) a Weekly Standard profile opened with the observation that Biden’s tendency to blowhardism is a running gag even to Biden himself; he arrives on the scene of a speech he is to give and when the host pleads with him not to run over, he smiles and blows her off, and proceeds to run something like double his allotted time.

He Totally Helped Invent Borking But Also Totally Didn’t!

Among the many ups and downs of the American republic, there have been only a handful of really disastrous, unambiguously bad and wrong changes in our constitutional structure – like direct election of senators (bye bye, federalism). One of the worst of these was the decision to import the politics of dishonest personal destruction into judicial nominations. Now, it is important not to romanticize the political past. But the reasonably fair treatment of judicial nominees really was a bipartisan tradition that we relied on to make American democracy work. There is now no realistic path to restore it and no serious substitute.

If we were talking about Ted Kennedy’s role in the original Bork hearings, I would say there’s a case that he was more BSDD than PLDD. Kennedy destroyed the career of an innocent man by abusing power – like that notorious asterisk in the Higgy record books, David Sarnoff.

Biden’s role was Higgyworthy because he did his best to eat his cake and have it too. He tried to appease his party’s irresponsible Left while also trying, as chairman of the hearings, to look fair and respectable. He thus positioned himself for his long career run as a Very Serious Man who is not to be taken seriously.

Eww.

Just eww.

Plagarism and Lies

I’m actually inclined to give Biden a break for the infamous Kinnock incident. Biden had used the Kinnock line with attribution on multiple previous occasions; it seems clear to me that he just didn’t remember to include the attribution this one time. A mistake, but it shouldn’t be a hanging offense. This strikes me as akin to the famous Howard Dean Howl – something that wouldn’t have been a big deal except that it could be interpreted in light of a larger public predisposition toward the candidate, fair or unfair (Dean was seen as ideologically nutty, Biden as a phony).

But let’s not forget that Biden also committed plagarism in law school! And told a series of lies about his law school accomplishments:

A few days later [after the Kinnock kerfuffle], Biden’s plagiarism incident in law school came to public light. Video was also released showing that when earlier questioned by a New Hampshire resident about his grades in law school, he had stated that he had graduated in the “top half” of his class, that he had attended law school on a full scholarship, and that he had received three degrees in college, each of which was untrue or exaggerations of his actual record.

What could be more Higgyworthy, more an expression of “arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will,” than plagarism and lying about your academic accomplishments?

Medal of Freedom

No, seriously, Joe Biden totally got the Medal of Freedom:

13biden1-facebookJumbo

Tell me that alone is not Higgyworthy.

Remember, The Al got its glorious start largely as a response to Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Let’s keep the tradition alive!


And the Higgy Goes to… Chris Christie

April 25, 2016

chris-christie-protrump-humiliating-moments

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Where has the Higgy been? As the traditional nomination date of April 1 and the traditional winner anouncement date of April 15 have come and gone, angry mobs have been gathered around the National Higgy Convention for weeks as the delegate has fruitlessly passed through round after round of voting, trying to find one candidate among this year’s overwhelming bumper crop of potential nominees who can secure a majority vote on the floor. I am now proud to announce, on behalf of the Convention, that the delegate has finally settled on a winner.

The 2016 William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year is Chris Christie.

Like so many public figures in this remarkable year, Christie exemplifies the spirt of the Higgy and its (un)illustrious namesake:

“The Higgy” will not identify the worst person in the world, just as “The Al” does not recognize the best.  Instead, “The Higgy” will highlight individuals whose arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will outweigh the positive qualities they possess.

Encapsulating the (de)merits of this year’s winner is a challenging feat. Let me attempt to convey his (un)redeeming qualities through the three lessons all future PLDDs can learn from his example:

1) Despite your arrogant delusions, you will not, in fact, get to shape the world.

Christie go home

 

Christie thought that by signing up to campaign for America’s Mussolini, he would gain influence over the budding BSDD’s ambitions.

Yeah, that didn’t work out any better for Christie than it did for any of the other PLDDs who (as all PLDDs eventually do) latch onto a BSDD in hopes of gaining power.

2) People punish arrogance by seizing any opportunity you give them to laugh at you.

Christie M&Ms

I’m just going to leave this here.

3) You will lose your soul.

Christie soulless stare

Every day from this day until the day the illusion of your existence ends, every moment of every day, you will do nothing but seek out alternatives to distract you from staring into the void of a meaningless world. Eat Arby’s.

Christie joins previous Higgy winners Jonathan Gruber, Paul G. Kirk, Jr. and (the greatest of them all) Pascal Monnet in their fruitless pursuit of identity and purpose.


And the Higgy Goes to… Jonathan Gruber

April 16, 2015

I know that the winner of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award is supposed to be announced on April 15, but I needed more time to decide among our three excellent (horrible) nominees and filed for an extension.

I thought my nominee, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, was a strong candidate because he illustrates how our liberty faces the greater threat of gradual erosion from Petty Little Dictators than from Big Scary Dictators.  Ardis may only be the mayor of a small city, but he still has the power to find some legal pretext to send the police to raid the house of people who mocked him on Twitter.  We can all recognize how a Putin or Khomeini might want to oppress us and so we all (or should be all) make efforts to counter those threats.  But the mayor of a small city in cahoots with the local police and judge can exploit the fact that our extensive legal code makes each one of us a possible criminal to selectively use the force of the government to punish enemies.

Ardis, however, falls short of earning a Higgy because his actions were too transparently self-interested.  The ideal Higgy candidate believes he is shaping the world for the better, but is foiled by hubris, self-delusion, and the extent to which the complexity of the world exceeds the ability of people to impose centralized plans on it.  No one believes Ardis was trying to make the world better.  He was just trying to settle a score.  It’s oppressive but it isn’t Higgy-worthy.

Greg’s nominee, John Maynard Keynes, is also a strong candidate.  Yes, Keynes’ ideas provide justification for reckless state intervention in the economy.  But my previous objection to awarding Keynes with the Higgy still holds.  I don’t think the state needs much justification to intervene.  In fact, the historical norm is heavy state distortion of economic activity.  This was true for centuries (probably millenia) before Keynes came along and is still true today when few even bother to reference Keynes for support.  Keynes may have bad ideas but so does the guy who stands on the corner of the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market who shouts about how Jesus smoked pot and 9/11 was an inside job.  You don’t get the Higgy just for having bad ideas.

Matt’s nominee, Jonathan Gruber, didn’t just have bad ideas, but he helped develop a plan to foist those bad ideas on the country through deception and manipulation.  And he engaged in this central planning because he believed he was doing something good for us.  Let me be clear — I don’t believe Jonathan Gruber is a bad guy.  I know a number of economists who are his friends and they swear that he is a decent, capable economist who was just caught on camera expressing the type of hyperbolic commentary that is fairly common at academic conferences.  That may be true, but there is a kernel of truth even in that hyperbole.  And that truth is not very flattering to Gruber or ObamaCare.  It reveals the type of hubris and delusion of control over events that is a near-perfect model of a Higgy winner.  And Gruber does not have to be a a bad guy to do something that worsens the human condition enough to warrant a Higgy.

I therefore bestow the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award to Jonathan Gruber with all of the dishonors, responsibilities, and lack of privileges that accompany it.


Jonathan Gruber for the Higgy

April 15, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

An ongoing plea to think twice, and even three times, before buying into the wonders of central planning and/or technocrats more broadly stands as one of the underlying themes of JPGB. Given that we primarily discuss American education policy here, and that if rules, regulations and earnest bureaucrats were a solution America would long ago ceased to have had K-12 problems, this ought not to require elaboration. Technocrats sadly have a funny habit of either exacerbating problems or creating new problems under the best of circumstances. At their worst, such people hide behind a false cloak of science in order to boss other people around while rationalizing away their ill effects in the name of some higher good. Each year we honor a select few of such people with a Higgy nomination.

It is my distinct pleasure therefore to nominate Jonathan Gruber for the 2015 Higgy.

It is no accident that the two broad fields with the heaviest government funding and regulation- education and health- have seen a truly incredible combination of rampant cost inflation in return for nebulous quality improvements. No one in their right mind would voluntarily pay higher prices for dubious quality improvments- only a truly convoluted system of indirect payment could deliver such an outcome. Health care comes with some additional difficulties of price inelastic demand (“nah don’t even try life saving heart surgery I don’t want to pay that much” is not a phrase often heard in America) and information asymmetries between doctors and patients.

In the end of the day the demand for health care exceeds our ability to supply it, which raises the difficult subject of rationing. There are two general methods for rationing a scarce good or service- by price or by bureaucrat. Europeans long ago embraced bureaucratic methods in various ways. The United States however created a hybrid system that in essence denied the need to choose in creating a convoluted system of tax subsidies and public programs that led to decades of rampant cost inflation. In the immortal words of the late Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, America became the only country dedicated to the proposition that death is optional. The American left yearns for a European system but must face an American health care culture (largely of their own creation) that has operated without any type of rationing for many decades.

All of this predates Dr. Gruber, but Gruber has been deeply involved in fashioning both state and federal public policies designed to double down on third-party payers in order to treat a symptom of America’s health care dysfunction. Rampant and long-lasting health care inflation far above that in the consumer price index has, needless to say, made insurance more expensive. Increasing the price of any good or service decreases the pool of people able and willing to purchase it. Thus the percentage of those carrying insurance has been in decline, and the cost of private and public insurance programs have steadily increased.

What to do? How about a fine to compel people to buy health insurance? This of course would do nothing about the underlying problem per se, so Gruber and company engaged in an elaborate deception in the “Affordable Care Act.” CNN helpfully ran down several of Gruber’s greatest hits:

Gruber’s gloating on video regarding the various deceptions of Obamacare deservedly generated deep hostility manipulation of the scoring of the bill: obfuscation of the use of taxes, an attempt to obscure what amounts to a massive transfer of wealth. Gruber’s gleeful recounting of just how clever in deception Congressional Democrats and the Obama Administration had been represents a damning indictment all its own.

Jonathan Gruber perfectly symbolizes the dangers of “scientific progressivism” in my mind because by Gruber’s own admission very little has been done to address the real underlying problem.  In one of his videos, Gruber laments the fact that it was necessary to pretend to “bend the cost curve” and name the bill the “affordable care act” because controlling costs represents an overwhelming concern while expanding coverage to the uninsured does not. It was necessary to deceive the American public, you see, because the American public lacks virtue and cares more about controlling costs than expanding coverage.

The unwashed masses seem to understand much more clearly than our MIT technocrat that controlling costs represents the only sustainable method for expanding access to care. Expanding coverage cannot and will not be sustained without addressing the fundamental issue of rampant cost inflation.  The United States of America had trillions of dollars in unfunded entitlement liabilities before Gruber and company began their campaign of deception in order to transfer wealth and extend coverage while doing very little about cost.  “We’ll get to that part later” on cost control represents a sickening level of irresponsibility that treats a symptom (lack of health insurance) rather than the cause (decades of cost inflation).  Gruber and our other health technocrats would like us to trust them they will address this more difficult issue of cost containment later.  This after conclusively proving that no one should ever trust anything that comes out of their mouths ever again.

William F. Buckley famously noted that he would rather be ruled by the first 1,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. Our elites routinely display horrible judgement and a sense of entitlement to make decisions for those whom they judge to be in need of their benevolent guidance. Plato had it all wrong in the Republic, would-be “philosopher kings” deserve our unrelenting skepticism. Voluntary exchange drives human progress and innovation, not allegedly well-meaning busy bodies concealing their lies and deceptions behind a lab coat as they attempt to better order our lives for us.

 


John Maynard Keynes for the Higgy

April 14, 2015

 

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Last year, when commenter Allen nominated John Maynard Keynes for the highest (dis)honor known to man, the Higgy judges expressed skepticism on grounds that politicians corruptly manipulate the economy with or without the convenient excuses provided by Keynesianism. However, the judges reserved final judgment on Keynes’ Higgyworthiness because a full case had not been made.

I hereby offer a full case, on three grounds:

  1. Corrupt political manipulation of the economy has been greatly increased as a direct result of Keynes’ influence.
  2. Keynes did far, far worse things than simply give politicians a convenient excuse to corruptly manipulate the economy. 
  3. On both the above counts, Keynes not only worsened the world, but also met the more specific Higgy qualification of having “arrogant delusions” that “self-righteous proclamations” improve the world. 

Point One: As Paul Johnson documents in Modern Times, in the first half of the 20th century there was an unprecedented shift in the politics of corrupt collaboration between political and business elites. Previously, such collaboration occurred episodically, when some serious crisis arose and it could be justified as an “emergency measure.” Hence the big expansions of corrupt government manipulation of the economy occur in tandem with wars, depressions, and financial panics. After each crisis passed, however, pressure would mount to roll back these manipulations and restore the natural order. These rollbacks were never 100% successful, of couse, but in most cases far more than 50% or even 75% successful. Consider Coolidge’s rollback of Wilson’s autocratic WWI measures. 

But after WWII, everything is different. We have entered a whole new world. Corrupt government manipulation of the economy is now normalized. It is universally expected that political and business elites will get together in smoke-filled rooms and determine our fate for us. This is simply the way we live now. True, the more extreme wartime measures like rationing were recinded, and without the war as a justification the further growth of political control of the economy was greatly slowed. But, however slowly, that growth did continue. The political ground had permanently moved. The old world of merely episodic corrupt manipulation was gone; a new world of permanent, normalized corrupt manipulation had arrived.

This was almost 100% attributable to Keynes, for reasons that will become clear in Point Two.

Point Two: To understand the significance of Keynes, it is necessary to set aside our immediate policy concerns (fighting over the latest stimulus package or “economic plan”) and appreciate his role as a world-historical figure of the first rank. He revolutionized the entire discipline of economics, and by doing so, had a dramatic impact on the social order as a whole.

From classical Greco-Roman philosophy through the Patristic Era, the Middle Ages, early modernity and the Enlightenment, the study of economic phenomena was a subset of moral philosophy. It was always grounded in moral assumptions about human nature. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, the Salamanca School, the Reformers, Locke, the Physiocrats and Adam Smith, though they had different moral views in some important respects, were agreed that the purpose of studying economics was to help align economic activity with virtue and right purposes – encouraging productive, thrifty, efficient, flourishing behavior, often with a particular interest in extending opportunity to the poor; and opposing greed, sloth, irresponsibility and (above all) injustice. The professional scholar of economics was par excellence the opponent of corruption and abuse of power. 

Over the course of the 19th century, however, this was changing. Especially in England, prominent economists increasingly expressed a desire to get out of the ethics business and abandon the fight against corruption. They wanted to do something that is impossible, and would be irresponsible if it were possible – to describe the world without evaluating it, to be morally neutral, to refrain from calling injustice unjust without being implicated as its accomplices.

Try as they might, however, these would-be neutral technicians could not find a way to extract themselves from the ethics business. A century of efforts to invent a paradigm of economics not beholden to morality bore no fruit.

And then came John Maynard Keynes, and the Keynesian Revolution.

Where before economists had defined the purpose of their discipline as encouraging the ethical production of wealth and well-being, Keynes taught them their purpose was to help people gratify their immediate desires – whatever those happened to be. Where before economists took self-sufficiency (producing more than you consume) as normative, Keynes taught them “the paradox of thrift” and trained them to despise the old rule that households and nations must live within their means. Where before economists took it for granted that our goal was to leave the world better than we found it, Keynes taught them that “in the long run we’re all dead” so we don’t need to worry what kind of world we leave to our grandchildren.

And where before economists thought their policy recommendations were constrained by the limits of justice, which compelled us to be concerned about the problem of corruption, Keynes taught them to treat human beings as merely irrational animals – bundles of appetites – without a transcendent dignity that needed to be respected.

Point Three: At this point you might be tempted to say Keynes isn’t Higgy material in light of the Sarnoff Codicil, which holds that the Higgy should not go to those who intend to make the world worse and succeed. It should go to those who intend to improve the world and fail – or, more specifically, to those who have “arrogant delusions” that “self-righteous proclamations” improve the world.

But Keynes passes this test with flying colors. He intended to improve the world – he had a detailed and well worked out philosophy of utilitarian materialism, and believed he was replacing the reign of superstition and barbarism with a new era of beautiful technocratic progress. He was a constant, nonstop fount of self-righteous proclamations. And all his asperations failed. The new, post-Keynes economics does not work as empirical science. It does not work as a practical guide to policy, either. And it has created sociological conditions that will, in the long run, destroy it. Keynesianism today is in the same state as Marxism in the Soviet Union in about the 1970s or so; it is a politically convenient god to whom all must still bow, but longstanding suppressed doubts about the god’s power to deliver the goods have hardened into permanent cynicism. The downfall may still be 20 years away, but it is coming.

John Maynard Keynes richly deserves the Higgy.

Image HT


Wildflower Fever

April 10, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So I am struggling not to nominate the most blindingly obvious choice for the Higgy this year….must……resist!

In the meantime, I decided what this blog needs this Friday is a late 20th Century folk-revival tune…enjoy!