Taking Pride in State Failureby James E. Miller
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What do "normal" people want from politics?
Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic contends to know. In a recent diatribe, he slams National Review Editor-at-Large Jonah Goldberg for taking sweet delight in the failed rollout of President Obama's signature health care legislation. In doing so, he misses out at basking in one of the best cases of state incompetence since the American Leviathan attempted to create democracy in Iraq.
The utter ineptitude displayed by the Obama Administration in setting up a simple web portal from which citizens can (soon to be forced) purchase health insurance is a sight to behold. For three years, supposedly the best technicians in the world were working to ensure a flawless launch. What actually happened is the contract to build the online infrastructure for the site was handed off to a former classmate of the First Lady in a no-bid competition. The whole kit and caboodle cost $678 million initially, which is now guaranteed to increase due to proposed fixes.
To add to the White House's mud-in-the-eye, three guys younger than the legal drinking age succeed in building a pitch-perfect replica of the ObamaCare site in just a few days. Once again, private initiative conquered government's sloth-like nature. And here's a wild guess: the college dorm-version of the health care exchange site didn't cost $600 million.
Progressives on the media circuit are determined to downplay the epicness of this on-going bureaucratic mayhem. On television cameras and in newsprint, they deny the obvious mess while silently praying a mystical force will fix everything. Obama sock-puppet Eugene Robinson recently wrote in the Washington Post the "word "debacle" does fit the rollout” but that "the policy itself is sound, and eventually all the noise will fade." He sees it as just a minor bump in the road to a seamless new entitlement. The lengths some leftists will go to in order to protect their precious state centralization is enough to turn someone into a misanthrope.
What the Eugene Robisons of the world will deny until their gravestones are planted is that the failed ObamaCare launch wasn't a blue moon event – this was government bureaucracy epitomized. Backroom deals, payoffs, crony relationships, large sums of money, incredible waste, and the people left with empty pockets and blank looks on their faces – all this and more is standard operating procedure for the state's various boondoggles. Instead of developing an intellectually coherent theory to justify progressivism, writers on the left spend most of their days covering up for the damage wrought by their policies.
Jonah Goldberg, despite being the squishiest of squishes, is enjoying every moment of the ObamaCare fiasco. He views it as a failure not just of a statist President's hallmark achievement, but of progressivism itself. He well recognizes that millions are losing their health care policies in droves as a foreseen and deliberate part of the new regulation. "But come on, people," he writes in amused frustration. The crash-and-burn, as Goldberg describes it, "has been one of the most enjoyable political moments of my lifetime."
Friedersdorf is not that entertained. He finds Goldberg's schadenfreude repugnant, and a bad look for political commentary. What's unfortunate is that Friedersdorf is normally an agreeable fellow. He has written some of the best commentary out there on the dangers of the sprawling American surveillance state. Unlike the usual cast of bootlickers in the media who fawn over great government power, his writing is infused with a genuine caution for preserving civil liberties.
But he is incapable of one thing: admitting that constitutional government is a wash. Speaking for the average man, Friedersdorf proclaims that "politics is a necessary means of making decisions about how we’ll be governed." The people, in their ever-patriotic stupor, look to Washington in order to "stay informed" and "participate in the civic process," or at least that's his premise.
As always, the facts are not that rosy.
The reality is most "average" folk want to be left alone by the state, except when it comes to shaking down their neighbor for their own benefit. They will scoff at erroneous government diktats but readily vote in pols who promise an extra-big grab bag of welfare treats. As the sage of syndicated cynicism George Will says, politicians and Joe Sixpack all agree that "we should have a large, generous welfare state and not pay for it."
Monopoly government is not an entity the mass man pays homage to in voting every other year. It is a thieving enterprise run by the worst in society. Currently, enough of the population puts up with its horrid transgressions so that the state remains afloat on the flimsy cloud of public opinion. If this attitude were to disperse, the only direction the political class would fall is down.
If Friedersdorf is attempting to blast Goldberg based on a textbook definition of public virtue, I suggest he bolster his argument with a less-angelic view of the institution he wishes to defend. There is a fine difference between relentlessly attacking an immoral practice by government and believing the solution is replacing the bums with men of golden heart. The promise of a state run by good-natured philosopher-kings is as empty as the addict pledging to get off the needle.
The best means to deal with the state is not to enlist a wily bunch of unhinged militiamen. That's a guaranteed death sentence rendered by the most powerful criminal gang on the planet. Since government officials demand the kind of unquestioned obedience a master instills in his dog, one of the best methods to slowly shake off despotism is to simply laugh at the state. Reveling in the Three Stooges-act that is central planning makes life in a command, fascist economy much more bearable. Goldberg understands this dynamic, and happens to earn a living at making a joke out of the District of Criminals. Friedersdorf keeps the faith that someday society's best and brightest will sit at the helm of government. He is a politically observant Charlie Brown – destined to relive his disappointment over and over again.
Schadenfreude is verily a funny thing. We know it's wrong in most situations. There is something wholly villainous in taking pride in the failure of others – even if their goal was terrible to begin with. But we do it anyway, much like leveling pointed criticism. It is a coping mechanism, and one that happens to bring a deeper, more holistic understanding to the world. Society would certainly be a less fun place if no disparagement were allowed. And since men are far from saints, there is an infinite supply of ideological inanity to denigrate.
Friedersdorf would be much happier if he just accepted the ruse partisan politics gives us. He doesn't have to make a Faustian bargain and give up his independent outlook. He just needs to realize the state is a corrupt body that no amount of good will can fix. Chortling is good for the soul; thus stealing a chuckle at the expense of government failure can't be all that bad.
James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada. Send him mail.