21 Aug 2009

I Finally Understand Matt Yglesias

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Tyler Cowen brings to our attention this revealing passage from Yglesias:

At the same time, I’ve come to be increasingly baffled by the high degree cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics. For example, Senators who genuinely do believe that carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to a global climate crisis seem to think nothing of nevertheless taking actions that endanger the welfare of billions of people on the grounds that acting otherwise would be politically problematic in their state. In other words, they don’t want to do the right thing because their self-interest points them toward doing something bad. But it’s impossible to imagine these same Senators stabbing a homeless person in a dark DC alley to steal his shoes. And what’s more, the entire political class would be (rightly!) shocked and appalled by the specter of a Senator murdering someone for personal gain. Yet it’s actually taken for granted that “my selfish desires dictate that I do x” constitutes a legitimate reason to do the wrong thing on important legislation.

Making it all the odder, the level of self-interest at stake isn’t all that high. Selling the public good down the river to bolster your re-election chances isn’t like stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving children. The welfare rolls are hardly stocked with the names of former members of congress. [Emphasis in original.–RPM]

Wow. Where to begin?

First of all, Mr. Yglesias, it would be incredibly reckless to kill someone with your own hands, in order to obtain a pair of shoes. If a senator got caught doing that, his peers would be amazed all right, but only because of the ridiculous risk/reward judgment involved. (And yes, they would all say their moral sensibilities were ruffled, but that would be for show–just like everything else they publicly say.)

Second of all, Mr. Yglesias, the reason retired senators (and Fed chiefs etc. etc.) are loaded when they lose office, is that they played along while in office. That’s how the game works. When you’re, say, a Pentagon general in charge of procurement, you make sure Defense Contractor X (not naming names here) gets the $3 billion project to breed sharks with laser beams attached to their heads. Then when the general retires, he becomes a “consultant” and gets paid millions to show up on Fox News and CNN and explain that yes indeed, it would be very useful to deploy sharks with laser beams attached to their heads in the Mediterranean.

Ironically, Friedrich Hayek explained “Why the Worst Get On Top” in perhaps the most famous chapter of his gigantic political classic, The Road to Serfdom. You would think that Yglesias surely read such a book–especially since in this blog post Yglesias says, “But I’ve been back-and-forth on the main issues long enough that I’m pretty sure I could switch this blog’s point of view and do a credible job of offering critiques-from-the-right of the progressive liberal health reform movement and the progressive liberal approach to domestic policy generally.”

And yet we can’t be certain Yglesias has bothered to read something as crucial as Hayek’s slender classic, since in another blog post our commentator referred to it as a “nutty alarmist book”.

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