(Warning: The following covers political topics that you may choose to skip.)
Canadians seem very interested in the US election, more so than my jaded American friends. Many Canadians I met wanted to talk about it. One Canadian told me: “Canada is like a mouse sleeping next to an elephant. We keep one eye open so we can scramble if the elephant decides to roll over. The elephant doesn’t notice when it rolls over, and it has no need to take heed of the mouse, either.”
I had one meeting where a young analyst went on in mocking tones about how Americans don’t like to pay taxes. As a docile and subservient Canadian, this struck him as silly. He sang the praises of government safety nets and public works, etc. He then started to get into US history.
Now, I don’t like to cross swords with people on politics anymore. Still, there is only so much an American abroad can take of having his country’s revolutionary and individualist history misrepresented as an Obama-esque government-built-it fantasy — especially from a seemingly smug Canadian. When he started talking about Hoover Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority as great examples of the value of public works, I had to unsheathe the cutlass.
One analytical tool that I find very humbling is the idea of alternative histories. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it in Fooled by Randomness:
“One cannot judge a performance in any given field (war, politics, medicine, investments) by the results, but by the costs of the alternative (i.e., if history played out in a different way). Such substitute courses of events are called alternative histories.”
In essence, you can’t just look at the US Highway System and say, “Gee, look at that great thing and all that it’s done.” You have to consider the cost of the alternatives. What might have been done if the US government left that money in the hands of those who earned it? Who knows what alternatives may have been pursued? Perhaps the private sector would have created a more-efficient rail system. Perhaps the US would have considerable less reliance on oil. Who knows the compounding effects of this alternative history?
As Taleb writes, alternative histories are not observable. We cannot turn back the clock and play the movie again to see what might happen. We can only imagine and guess. Still, I think it is humbling. Keeping this idea of alternative histories in mind is at least a way to get the busy world-improver to stop and reconsider his confidence. There is so much we can’t know.
Anyway, there was a brief clash of swords as we debated this and that. No blood was shed. In truth, my heart was not in it.
Political beliefs are a lot like religious beliefs. When you encounter someone who wants to tell you what a great thing government is and how we should all be thankful for it, you can’t hope to change his mind. He believes what he believes. You can only sit there and think of palm trees and rum drinks and wait it out, or change the subject.
As for me, I should declare my own bias. I always liked Henry David Thoreau’s opening salvo in his essay “Civil Disobedience”:
“I heartily accept the motto, — ‘That government is best which governs least;’ and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — ‘That government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”
I think he is right. H.L. Mencken had a similar view. I reach for my copy of A Mencken Chrestomathy — under the section “Government” — and find this passage highlighted:
“The ideal government of all reflective men, from Aristotle onward, is one which lets the individual alone — one which barely escapes being no government at all. This ideal, I believe, will be realized in the world 20 or 30 centuries after I have passed from these scenes and taken up my public duties in hell.”
He wrote that in 1919, so we have a while to wait yet. (There are many more eloquent writers taking such stands, like Albert Jay Nock and Murray Rothbard.)
While I have no love of government, I do love America. I love its history. I love the great big mass of land it inhabits. I love several of its cultural attachments — such as barbeque and blue crabs, blues and jazz, poker, American sports like football and baseball and American beers — to name just a smattering. I enjoy the company of many fellow Americans.
But in the land of politics, I am the standing opposition. Whoever is in power, I’m against him.
OK, no more politics….Thanks for reading!