Bitching Brew

Thursday, November 17, 2005

PJ O'Rourke is back!

PJ O'Rourke and Christopher Hitchens are two of my favourite pundits. Why? They write superbly, and I only share about half to two-thirds of their views. An ideal combination.

Anyway, PJ O'Rourke wrote a column in the Sunday Telegraph about David Cameron's bid for the leadership of the British Conservative party. Now I have no interest in the Tory leadership. Frankly, I wouldn't crane my neck to see who won. But it's PJ O'Rourke. The man who wrote the classic line: "Giving money and power to the government is like giving car keys and whisky to teenage boys". So I read the article. There's some great critique within, and plenty of juicy quotes.

Cameron appeared on Today and answered the usual question about what he was going to do about some terrible social problem with: "We're going to bring the best minds to solve this one." That was the moment when he lost me. The guy obviously doesn't understand the fundamental truth about politics, which is that the best minds only produce disasters. Scientists, for example, are famously idiots when it comes to politics. I agree with Friedrich Hayek, who said in The Road to Serfdom that the "worst imaginable world would be one in which the leading expert in each field had total control over it".

Just once, I'd love to hear a politician say: "We're going to bring the second-best minds together to work on this." The second-best minds are all much more practical people than the first-class guys. More importantly, they are not going to try to do anything very much. They'll fix lunch or take the dog for a walk before they get on to pressing political problems of the day - and by the time lunch is over, it's time to take the dog for another walk and prepare dinner. That's the right order of political priorities. The greatest danger in politics is people who try to do things.

That's magnificent! Does he have a valid point though? You can't, obviously, make a generalisation about this kind of thing. I'd think it ideal to have some first-class minds in our parliaments... an unfulfilled aspiration, admittedly. But the best minds would, generally, be wasted on modern politics. The highest intellects tend to gravitate towards the abstract - philosophy, physics etc. - not the concrete. I suspect that an intellectual aristocracy, apart from having the failing of being an aristocracy, would probably be quite bad at running a country. Too many big ideas; too little implementation and cost-control. Lawyers, in many ways, fit the ideal profile for a parliament. Firstly, they actually know some law. Secondly, they're trained to blend abstract principles and concrete events in their analyses. Finally, they're acutely aware of political power-play. Yeah, come to think of it, that last one is a big black blot in their column.

Restraining people from demanding ever bigger hand-outs of other people's money is the chief role of government in a democracy. Alexander Tytler, an 18th century Scottish historian and judge, used to insist that democracy could only last as long as people didn't realise that they could vote themselves as much as they wanted from the public treasury. Democracy has in fact survived that realisation, but only because voters have been persuaded that the other systems of government are so awful that they'll get more under democracy. And they do: in a democracy, everyone steals from everyone else, whereas in all the other systems, a small political elite plunders the population with a ruthlessness and efficiency the people as a whole can never quite manage to do to itself.

Aha, if only governments would actually perform that role, eh! I love that last sentence. Classic. Though a thoughtful reading of it reveals we haven't attained the democratic society quite yet.

The end of the article is well worth reading too. No humour there, but some good points about immigration policies in the US and France.

[Cheers to Samizdata for the tipoff]

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