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The Lies We Live By
By KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON, May 20, 2020 6:30 AM
Political rhetoric is a never-ending game of make-believe
As I said from day one, I’m not going to choose between public health and economic activity.” So insists Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York.
That is a lie, of course.
Everybody knows it is a lie, beginning with Governor Cuomo. We are going to choose between public health and economic activity. We are going to try to strike some intelligent balance between competing concerns, and, even if we do our very best, innocent people are going to get hurt on both sides of that balance, and some of them will surely die — either from COVID-19 or from the economic consequences of the lockdown.
We do not have very many adults in government, but if we did, those adults would understand — and make a point of dwelling on the fact — that every decision of any consequence in public policy involves tradeoffs. We are going to choose between liberty and security, between protecting the rights of the criminally accused and the interests of crime victims, between efficiency and stability, between our commitment to free speech and our desire to counteract disinformation, between the interests of today’s social-welfare beneficiaries and tomorrow’s taxpayers.
Pretending that there is no choice and no tradeoffs does not liberate us from choosing. Mostly, it ensures that we choose poorly and that the choosing is left to ignorant and irresponsible demagogues.
Speaking of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez . . .
The Solon of the Bronx got into a little public spat with my friend Jonah Goldberg, who made the mathematically sound point that the so-called Green New Deal proposals put forward by Representative Ocasio-Cortez et al. involve expenses that are not only ruinous but fanciful. “You could confiscate every penny held by every billionaire and multimillionaire in America and it wouldn’t cover a fraction of your Green New Deal fantasy,” Goldberg wrote. Representative Ocasio-Cortez gave the same answer as Governor Cuomo, denying that there would be any tradeoffs at all.
Of course she did this in the most intellectually shallow and dishonest way possible: “The Green New Deal is a non-binding resolution of values. It does not have a price tag or CBO score and costs us $0 if passed.” It is true that a non-binding statement of values can be had very cheap; it is not the case that doing the things that Representative Ocasio-Cortez and like-minded allies have proposed to implement those values costs zero, though there would be zeroes involved, a baker’s dozen of them or more. Representative Ocasio-Cortez was correct in the sense that you don’t get fat from ordering cheesecake for dessert after dinner every night but from eating the cheesecake.
Politicians live in the world of words about words. They are participants in a kind of purely symbolic economy in which the exchange of words supplants the exchange of goods and services. The Cuomos and Ocasio-Cortezes of the world have at best a little bit of verbal cleverness (I am afraid that Ocasio-Cortez does not have even that), and the processes of democracy make it easy to mistake verbal facility for deeper and more significant kinds of intelligence. I do not think that many of these ladies and gentlemen spend their time reading Continental philosophy, but they work in the economy described by Richard Vine in “The ‘Ecstasy’ of Jean Baudrillard,” in which the ordinary facts of life — including such physical facts as hunger, sickness, and mortality — have been superseded by the symbolic. In this view, “there is no biological essence of man,” as Vine wrote, “hence no constant and irreducible requirement for food, shelter, and safety. . . . Everything essential to humankind transpires symbolically.”
Imagine, then, Monsieur Baudrillard in a restaurant. He peruses the menu fastidiously, selecting at last, with the waiter’s recommendation, medallions of veal accompanied by lightly buttered haricots verts, followed by a simple green salad, fruit and mixed cheeses, espresso, and a sliver of apricot tart—complemented by a delicate Chablis and, to finish, a noble but little known Armagnac. Then, without a quiver, and without so much as having seen any food, Baudrillard languidly calls for his check, says a gracious farewell to the maitre d’hotel, and departs, having “consumed” the signs of a satisfying repast and fulfilled all the essential requirements of symbolic exchange.
In the high heyday of postmodernism, such loopy ideas not only were taken seriously but were treated as beyond questioning in many corners of academia. But, as we are all discovering, there are no perfect quarantines, and infections spread and mutate as ideas become unthinking habits and reflexes. By the time these ideas had reached such second-hand dealers in third-rate ideas as Andrew Cuomo and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they had been drained of whatever modest intellectual content they may once have had. They became obviously and demonstrably false slogans — “I’m not going to choose between public health and economic activity” — which is to say, they became the lies we live by.
Lies beget more lies, and intellectual corruption begets more intellectual corruption. Representative Ocasio-Cortez reports that her little packet of nonbinding unicorn droppings does not have a score from the Congressional Budget Office as though this were of some self-evident interest. Some of you will remember the debate over the so-called Affordable Care Act, in which the CBO was asked to give the bill a score based on such risible assumptions that the CBO itself issued a report that read, in essence, Here’s the score we come up with if you belief this ridiculous horse***t, which we don’t. The CBO’s actual language (“a number of procedures that might be difficult to maintain over a long period of time”) was antiseptic, but the content was the same. Yet we ended up having a bare-knuckles political brawl over projections and estimates that nobody believed, including the people who made them, who did not even pretend to believe them.
(The projections the CBO believed or pretended to believe were not all that great, either.)
Green New Deals aren’t going to pay for themselves. Neither are tax cuts. We cannot magic money into existence without consequence or wave a wand to increase the U.S. share of the world’s footwear-manufacturing market. We are going to make many choices that pit public-health concerns against economic dynamism. And until we acknowledge that those choices have to be made, that they are not cost-free, and that tradeoffs are inescapable, we will continue to choose poorly.
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KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON is the roving correspondent for National Review and the author of THE SMALLEST MINORITY: INDEPENDENT THINKING IN AN AGE OF MOB POLITICS.