The Asymmetry of NeverTrumpers

The thing about NeverTrumpers is that there is no Leftist equivalent.

I know that’s kind of an odd statement, but I’ll try to explain.

NeverTrumpers are a bit like Cincinnatus, or George Washington.  “People who are defined by what they are not willing to do to have power” makes it sound as though I am complimenting them.  It makes them sound noble, and in some sense they are.  Only superficially, though.  They aren’t surrenderers of much power themselves.  Washington was powerful and popular and could have been king, and his alternative, the beautiful vision for which he established the precedent of peaceful transfers of American power, was the establishment of real democracy, even though it would mean the election, inevitably, of hacks, and the enactment of folly.  The NeverTrumpers are only giving up mainstream conservative intellectual status, and not for a beautiful and farsighted vision, but to avoid the re-evaluation of their worldview in the face of shocking evidence of its incompleteness.  What they are willing to do is to go back to a pre-2016 situation that amounted to a pack of Mean Girls eating their lunch every day, with compromise, back when such a thing existed, amounting to the Left getting what it wanted only slightly more slowly than its intellectual Young Turks could imagine it.

The Left, too, avoids the re-evaluation of their priors; it’s a human tendency.  But they still aren’t similar to the Right in the main way I am talking about.  During no Democratic administration has there ever been any analogue on the Left to NeverTrumpers.  I can name no time when any significant and prominent component of the Left has visibly refused to go along with some clear moral dilemma to have power.  I can think of no time when they have said, “We want this policy, but this one thing standing in the way that we have the power to get rid of– this part of the Constitution, this pillar of the Rule of Law, the idea of the loyalty of the Loyal Opposition– is too important to sacrifice.”  If they have, it happened in private.

Public or private, the Left is willing to have unity at the cost of the society-poisoning whiny viciousness of victim politics and social media mobbing.  They’re willing to condone the hounding out of office of an executive who, far from even saying anything, had merely donated to a cause opposing gay marriage, or the ruination of bakers and pizza-makers for insisting upon their right not to associate.  They stoop to claiming, in essence, that hurt feelings are on a par with lynching.  They have originated and nourished the idea that foolishness and poor decisions by teenagers are a matter not for a serious discussion and a teachable moment among adults, between the people in question and the people whose feelings were hurt, but for the ruining of lives and decades’ worth of work long after the emigration from the foreign country of the past.  These moral dilemmas lack the personification of a President, but they are none the less equivalent in significance, if not greater, and the Left stands guilty in the spotlight.

By and large, the Left’s capacity for rationalization appears almost completely unfettered, a seemingly infinite intellectualizing force for amoral expedience.   NeverTrumpers and the Left are alike in appearing to be unable or unwilling to see that the Left itself caused the pressures on the Right to come up with whatever seems necessary to counteract it.  To the Right– and to me– the Left winning and getting to terraform the United States is not acceptable– full stop.  NeverTrumpers are like seated passengers on Flight 93 cautioning the chargers of the cockpit to fight fair.

The Broken Overton Window Fallacy

The angst-y topic of the week for conservatives and Republicans appears to be over the future of the party, with Trumpers and NeverTrumpers at odds like Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

Megan McArdle recently wrote about NeverTrumpers:

“Yet as the party heads into 2020 with Trump still very much at the helm, a number of people are beginning to ask an obvious question: “What’s the point?” Conservative resistance hasn’t ousted Trump; all it’s done is split the movement. So as political scientist and RealClearPolitics writer Sean Trende recently asked in a Twitter thread, what is the end game for the dedicated holdouts?”

McArdle explains problems with each of Trende’s three possibilities.

  1. Conceding defeat, she says, “means abandoning your dearest principles — and if you think the Trump administration is likely to end in some combination of disaster or corruption scandals, it means positioning yourself to be splattered by the fallout.”
  2. She says that “in practice there’s little benefit” to positioning yourself as the loyal opposition.  “Liberals will identify you with all of Trump’s worst excesses, while the Party of Trump will regard you as a fifth columnist.”
  3. Pursuing active insurgency “means sacrificing any realistic chance of retaking the helm of the party,” says McArdle, in paraphrase of Trende.  She continues: “If you have been actively working to nuke Trump’s presidency, then if you succeed — or even if external events do the job for you — you can be sure that your faction will be the one group not chosen to rebuild the party out of the rubble.”

The second of these seems easily the best to me.  Liberals will identify conservatives who choose that with Trump’s excesses, sure, but then again, they’ll do that anyway.  Expecting rationality, fairness and consistency out of the Left these days is a fool’s errand; they often appear a breath’s worth of rationalization away from doing anything they please.  The Party of Trump will regard you as a fifth columnist?  Well, no– a fifth column is almost definitionally a secret organization of fellow-travelers.  They may regard you as “cucks”– a word I hate, incidentally, and not least because it’s used ad infinitum, ad nauseam— but you have to stand for what you stand for, and once their ambition is tempered and the laws the Left proposes to put in place next time they get into power are seen clearly enough to be feared, they may come back.

But my reaction would be to reject this trichotomy.

Politics is a lot like capitalism, in being a system intended in part to produce information about what people desire and how much.  Both systems are often distorted.  In capitalism, for example, the ethanol tax credit ruins the data about how much people actually want ethanol, while in politics, the Commission on Presidential Debates skews information about how much people might like the Libertarian or Green parties’ platforms by keeping their candidates out of the debates.  As I’ve argued, politics steers idealism as much as the other way around.   The marketplace of ideas was turned to the private benefit of a pretty cozy group of politicians, bureaucratic mandarins and cultural influencers.  They steered people away from issues that were uncomfortable or politically unprofitable or economically crazy.  This is one way of avoiding bad policies, it’s true.  But distorting the marketplace of ideas that way leads to a distorted picture of what people want, and how much.

So.  What use is all this talk of unaddressed issues to a NeverTrumper trying to figure out what to do?

Well, we’ve come about to the limits of the set of policies that elites put together back in the 1980s and 1990s that Fukuyama called “the end of history”– the seemingly perfect equation of free trade producing greater societal wealth, producing (I argue) greater capacity in people for social liberalism.  No one thought the equation of this capacity was a hyperbola, so that you could reach a point of diminishing returns of marginal utility to people of ever-cheaper goods and services.  No one knew saw that there was eventually so much market for the ideas that elites of both parties quietly agreed to ignore and backburner– such as nationalism, immigration, the Savonarola-like extremes of identity politics, and a desire by poorer people not for handouts, but for meaningful work and dignity– that it could flood past the cultural and professional gatekeepers (who were in any case weakened by technological change).  The real question dividing Trumpers and NeverTrumpers is the same dividing Pelosi Democrats from Bernie Democrats:  What issues will the parties stand for going forward? 

That, then, is the question that NeverTrumpers should ask.  To date, NeverTrumpers and Pelosi Democrats have seemed united in thinking that “true conservatism” and “true liberalism” means positions only on the set of issues that they confined themselves to since about 1990 or so, and adherence to the worldview that self-justified ignoring other issues.  McArdle mentions that Jonah Goldberg argues that NeverTrumpers should keep fighting Trump simply to “do the right thing” (her paraphrase).  I like Jonah Goldberg, but honestly, a better euphemism for doubling down on one’s worldview, a worldview which saw none of this coming, is hard to imagine.  The wiser course would be to triangulate and try to see how one’s previous worldview was mistaken and which policies beloved of Trumpers they can come to terms with.  Remember that there is no other way to turn a stampede than to take the lead.

Trende’s question really amounts to one about repairs to the broken Overton Window— whether Trump’s voters will, even after their perceived best hope of realizing them is gone, surrender the issues that 2016 liberated or the ambition that Trump awoke.  It seems clear that they will not.  McArdle has often written about path dependence.  We are now in the middle of it.  If NeverTrumpers want to get rid of the man– and I can certainly understand that– I think they’re going to have to surrender the hope of controlling the issues, and instead begin the work of finding someone who can convince the Republican base that he or she can be as effective as Trump has been, without Trump’s manifold flaws, excrescences and sins.

TL; DR: The issues that Trump’s supporters wanted to talk about are not going away, so NeverTrumpers should adjust accordingly.

Natural allies

I should like to consider the folk song, and expound briefly on a theory I have held for some time, to the effect that the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.” — Tom Lehrer

I too have a theory that I’ve held for some time, that I’d also like to expound briefly on.

It is this: that economic conservatives and social liberals are natural allies, despite usually appearing in the platforms of the two main opposing parties, as are economic liberals with social conservatives.

Why is this?

Because more than anything else, social liberalism correlates with societal wealth, in the sense of cheapness of goods relative to your income.  In the fulsome, fatuous old Victorian phrase, if you can take care of the basics– food, warmth, shelter, entertainment– your mind “turns to higher things”.  Or if you’re like me and prefer more modern formulations (and mixed metaphors, which are goofy fun), it would be that a rising tide lifts all boats higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

That, of course, is only half of it.  The other half is that economic liberalism in large quantities– the ability and inclination of voters to vote themselves someone else’s money– kills economies.  Always.  Like strychnine or nitroglycerin, which in small amounts are useful (as appetite inducer and heart stimulant, respectively), that which is fine in small amounts is fatal in large quantities.  (Sola dosis facit venenum, as Paracelsus said.)  The most isolated such economies offer the most vivid examples, such as Venezuela, where the societal wealth, the cheapness of goods, has vanished.

Thus it is that unrestrained economic liberalism kills the societal wealth that allows social liberalism to flourish.  Venezuela has never been anyone’s idea of Berkeley, but surely it must be an even more socially conservative place right now.  Single-minded social conservatives should therefore want less societal wealth.  None are that single-minded, of course, but for the reason that is at the core of my theory, and which is at the core of many political problems:  economic desires frequently conflict with social desires.  In this case, the strong support of conservatives for economic freedom hinders their desire for social conservatism, by creating the wealth that enables people to be more socially liberal.

Choking on success

I want to talk today about a major problem with idealism and activism.  This is not partisan.  It’s true about human beings in general, both on the Left and on the Right, and between.  It’s about causes, and powers.

Causes adopt whatever tools, whatever powers, they think are necessary to succeed– which also must be available, of course, and which the cause has no qualms about using.   This is a pretty straightforward and non-controversial statement, right?

Now, it’s a curious way of looking at it, but causes, and powers, have an odd symbiotic relationship.  Power for its own sake is an actor too.  It wants to continue to get to act and to be powerful.  Causes use the powers to try to win, of course.   But powers, in turn, use the causes to justify themselves.  People who enjoy exercising powers use the causes, the idealism, to defend themselves from rational attacks upon the use of the power for its own sake.

What happens, though, when the causes succeed?  An imbalance.  A cause is an argument, a push, for a different “normal”.  When causes succeed, they commit suicide.  Or, if you prefer, pupate.  A successful cause is no longer a cause.  Revolutions metamorphose into institutions.  The new institution is now reality, for other causes—including, in activist revanchism, the cause of the old reality—to push against.

Where, then, does that leave the powers which were so codependent with the cause?  The powers, reluctant to find a new rationalizing cause unless absolutely forced to, push the idea that the cause has not actually succeeded.  Communism has not actually been vanquished.  Satan’s wiles are eternal.  The enemies of Peace, Justice and Freedom (TM) are neverending.  Sound familiar?  There’s always some new way people can argue that the cause’s goals haven’t actually been achieved, so that they continue to get to exercise the powers despite opposition both from the outside and in their own consciences.  They redefine the goals.  They redefine the words.  They demonize questioners.  And over time, the tail wags the dog.  Power for its own sake becomes the driving force, with a veneer of idealism as combined camouflage and shield.

This risk is age-old and perennial.  Charities, especially those publicized and popularized by the media in some form, become brands, and brands get put to use to become major businesses.  The CEOs of major charities get paid six figures.

Here’s an example.  The cause founded by Father Flanagan, in Omaha in 1917– Boys Town, to care for orphans– was popularized by a 1938 movie with Spencer Tracy.  By the 1960s it had become a major charity hog, with far more money coming in than was necessary to care for the pretty small number of orphans under its care.

The Monsignor was asked why they were constantly fundraising.

“We’re so deep in debt all the time,” he said.

Which was, needless to say, untrue to a shocking degree.  Its net worth was in fact over two hundred million dollars.  It took Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalism by the Omaha Sun to break this major scandal in 1973, forcing the power to stop feeding itself so much and to return the focus to the cause.

Here’s a second example.

Not long before the Sun won its Pulitzer, one Morris Dees, whose marketing genius had made him a millionaire, founded the Southern Poverty Law Center.  It was a good cause which did good work, such as supplying lawyers to poor Southern people on Death Row, and integrating all-white institutions.  The Ku Klux Klan was its main ostensible opponent– and main moneymaker.  Before long, though, the tail began to wag the dog, just like with Boys Town.

An article by Ken Silverstein in Harper’s Magazine in 2000 explained how this all worked.  The SPLC went after the Klan, two of whose members had lynched a black boy, and they sued it for everything it had.  News stories gushed about the great victory and $7 million judgment– but the only asset the KKK had was a warehouse worth about $50,000, so it seems pretty likely the rest of the judgment was never paid.  No word on what the lawyers were paid, but the SPLC got about $9 million in donations.

Nor did it stop.  “One pitch, sent out in 1995– when the Center had more than $60 million in reserves– informed would-be donors that the ‘strain on our current operating budget is the greatest in our 25-year history’.”  The priest in charge of Boys Town thirty years earlier couldn’t have put it any better.  Spin and pitiability were the name of the game.

This is a major form of the corruption of rationality.  Hollywood indulges (wallows?  revels?) in what has become known as “Hollywood Accounting”– the practice of using accounting rules to make it seem as though a movie has made very little actual profit.  (Suckers are willing to take a portion of net profits; those in the know demand a portion of gross receipts, which puts them at the top of the cash flow statement and avoids the bullshit further down.)  In a similar way, major, unionized, labor-intensive companies, back in the day when there were many, were owned in truth far more by the workers than by the theoretical owners.  How’s that?   Well, the true owners of an asset are those that control it, that get the profits from it.  Unions were able to keep voting themselves more and more of the profits in the form of what were supposedly increases to salary and benefits– an added portion of gross receipts.  They were far more the true owners than the nominal owners, the shareholders, who got whatever was left after unions were done, and their “raises” were in fact de facto dividends that were called wage increases by Hollywood-style accounting. 

Major charities, like Boys Town or the SPLC, are no different.  Nominally, they’re non-profit.  In truth, what that often means is that the profits have been Hollywood-accounted away.  They’ve been channeled into extra salaries and benefits, bloated leases on trophy headquarters, and the like.  They are, in essence, powers camouflaged with ideology that isn’t permitted to fade away or adapt to deal with changing problems.

So as you can see, causes and powers have an uneasy relationship.  Political power frequently steers idealists toward the politically profitable potential solutions to the problems they’re idealistic about, and away from the politically unprofitable ones.  By degrees, sadly, the idealists come up with their own Just-So Stories about it and cease to realize that they’re being managed.

Innumeracy-as-National-Epidemic, climate edition

The Left’s answer to Trump, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has released a deeply stupid document she refers to as a “Green New Deal”, in which she sets forth various pie-in-the-sky schemes.  Megan McArdle describes them: “replacing air travel with high-speed rail; junking every automobile with an internal-combustion engine; making affordable public transportation available to every single American (presumably including those who live hours from the nearest town?); replacing the electric grid with something smarter; meeting “100% of power demand through clean and renewable energy sources”; and — I swear I’m not making this up — providing economic security to people who are “unwilling to work.” This, too, is supposed to happen within only a decade, or thereabouts.”

“But,” McArdle remarks, “arguably Ocasio-Cortez’s team wasn’t really trying to put together a practical document. Rather, it articulates an ideal, one that we may never reach but should at least strive for. And there’s something appealing about that argument, because climate change is a pressing concern, and even if it weren’t, there would be ample reasons to want to obtain as much energy as possible from renewable sources.”

There’s actually nothing appealing about that argument, simply because we shouldn’t encourage its ocean-wide disconnect from various aspects of reality.  Electric cars and high-speed rail (also electric) still have to produce the energy somewhere.  (My arguments for nuclear power will be a different post; suffice it to say here that there’s no rationality to any carbon-reduction plan that does not begin with a massive expansion of nuclear power.)  With regard to home energy efficiency, It would save only a little of the fraction of U.S. energy consumed by heating, of the fraction of U.S. energy consumed by domestic use, of the 14% of worldwide carbon emissions produced by the U.S., which is in turn only thought to be responsible for about one-quarter of climate change.  All of it together can only be done once and is probably going to save only the equivalent of a year or two of the carbon increase produced by population growth in China and India.

And that’s before the minor matter of its cost. If you could wave a wand and get all these things tomorrow at a zero cost in financial and/or political terms, the logic would be, “Sure, why not? Every little bit helps.”  Instead, this smidgen would cost massively in all respects and be deeply unpopular with the public, with the result that it’s a political nonstarter.  Trying to do it anyway would waste enormous amounts of the one thing the claimers of climate Armageddon argue we have far less of than we think: time.

So, no, in my view, not appealing.

The zero-sum game of unity

Unity is a zero-sum game.

Civilized policy relies on society, which is a group of people bound together by a common bond or bonds.  But when policy’s aim is essentially to force people together to achieve some political prize offered to an interest group in the name of civilization, it might have the short-term effect of a benefit to the politician and the group, but it has the long-term effect of eviscerating any affection that the forced people might have otherwise had with the interest group.  This is one of the greatest criticisms of government: mandatory, artificial relationships squeeze out the possibility of healthy, organically created, voluntary relationships.

Think about marriage back when divorce was difficult.  Did it result in healthier marriages?  Probably not.  It resulted in more transactional marriages, and more stable households, and maybe some percentage of couples forced to remain together fell in love over time, which they might not have done if free to abandon the union earlier.  Mostly, though, I suspect that it resulted in a whole lot of resentment and bitterness that soured relationships which shouldn’t have been maintained but which for sociopolitical and religious reasons they couldn’t get out of.

The more politicians, pushed by special-interest or extremist groups, grab something for a particular racial, sexual or economic group, the more the memory of that taking poisons the relationship of that group with the grabbed-from.  The more this happens, the more society becomes like an unhappy marriage no one can escape.


Discouragingly, the dishonesty of the media continues.  The Guardian just published a piece saying that 1 in 20 Britons don’t believe that the Holocaust happened.  The usual sighing and moral handwringing about public education ensues, with a curious gap in the reporting and commenting.  A link to the poll itself isn’t provided, but that’s not it.  It’s that no one mentions who counts as a “Briton”.  People residing in Britain, regardless of citizenship or legal status?  That includes a lot of people who are, for example, Muslims.

According to the UK Office of National Statistics, of the 9.4 million in the UK who were not born there, about 5.7 million people were born in non-EU countries.…

5.7 million is about 8.7% of the population of the UK. Even if only one third of them don’t believe that the Holocaust took place, that’d still be a big chunk of the 5% (1/20 = .05) that the poll says don’t believe it.

Thus are hobgoblins manufactured.

Incentives and knowledge work

A lengthy mea culpa recently appeared in the German newspaper Der Spiegel about the unmasking of one of their star reporters as a fraud.  Claas Relotius spiced up his stories with made-up or exaggerated details and people and quotes, and pulled it off for decades without being caught by the paper’s internal fact-checkers.  (It would be amusing and appropriate if he were to turn to fiction-writing now, since like top art forgers he’s a very talented man in his overall field, in this case writing.  Apparently he has an excellent eye for telling and poignant detail.)

On an immediate level I’m reminded of the replicability crisis in academia.  A very high percentage of papers, particularly in the social sciences, report finding results which were theoretically discovered using the scientific method– but which can’t be replicated by repeating the experiment.  That is of course a key component– arguably THE key component– of that method.  A related problem in science is p-hacking.  That’s the drive to find significance– the idea that what is being tested does actually make a serious difference– which is strong enough to lead some people to adjust the parameters of their experiment so significance is found.

To me the common thread appears to be the way incentives are set up in society in general.  Society rewards writing and other forms of storytelling that offer instructive narrative and confirmation bias, simply because there’s a market among human beings for reducing uncertainty.  You tell a story that makes people feel that we understand the world better, you get rewarded with grants and tenure and journalism prizes.  But life is messy and rarely comes in parable form.  It’s a lot of work to dig out the details that can be emphasized to serve as the components of a moral narrative.  And so people have a perennial temptation to solve the difficulty by cutting corners and manipulating anything they can control to evade the actions of fact-checkers.  Which there aren’t that many of anyway because there’s no money or glory in finding that we’ve been wasting our time.

Porcupine’s First Law

Elizabeth Warren has floated a new statist idea– let’s get government into the business of making generic drugs!– and Megan McArdle does her usual fine job of demolishing the notion.  Megan’s focus is mostly on the lack of alternatives to capitalism.  It is perennially difficult in most places of finding government-sponsored entities or agencies that actually do a good job while eliminating the nasty ol’ profit motive.  The problem there isn’t that the claimed benefits don’t exist, it’s that they’re much more than completely washed out by the costs imposed by the inefficiency, cronyism, bureaucracy and lack of price discovery pressure that come along with a lack of competition.  Government theoretically has the same or greater power to punish inefficiency than capitalism does, but in practice the executive Deep-State swamp-dwellers all seem very cozy with one another, and lower level bureaucrats have enormous influence because they join AFSCME or organize into voting blocs otherwise, and therefore their votes influence their ultimate bosses.

To me the problem with the high price of many generics is more the other side of the coin: the problems with the current capitalist supply.  Regulations are preventing capitalism from having its usual effect.  Generics would ordinarily be commodities– that is, something which everyone can produce and in which no one’s product stands out in the consumer’s mind so that they try to buy that brand specifically.  Such a happy situation results in a race to the bottom on price as everyone tries to get an edge by cutting prices, and a race to the bottom on prices is WONDERFUL for the consumer.

Instead, for example, each company wishing to broaden its business and devote its manufacturing facilities to getting into the market of making a generic drug must go through an extremely expensive and time-consuming process of getting approval– even if their expertise and manufacturing facilities have been proven to be safe and of good quality many times over in making other drugs.  These regulatory roadblocks, such as Scott Gottlieb at the FDA is trying to reduce, are, as Megan points out, preventing a lot more companies from getting into the business of making generics.  The fewer the companies, the more inefficient the market and the higher the prices.

But all this stuff is decidedly unsexy, both for policymakers and for the public, and it’s quite profitable for the few market participants that currently do make generics, who therefore devote profits to lobbying to try to ruin any attempt at reform that might increase the level of their competition.  Call it Porcupine’s First Law:

“The probability of getting any policy in place varies directly with the multiple of its profitability to lobbyists with the degree to which it’s too boring for the public to care about it.”

One jargon to rule them all

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

In a recent Twitter discussion someone replied to me using the term “marginalized groups”.

Earlier in my life, I would have been willing to continue past and debate them about the original topic under discussion.

I no longer do that.

When in an intellectual contest you allow past jargon created by the other side, you have in essence agreed to fight on terrain of their choosing.  When a side knows where you must fight, they of course craft weapons and fortifications specifically to give them the victory.  These words and definitions have been carefully and deviously arrived at by reverse engineering.  Beginning with the end result, they work backwards to figure out which beginning place, linguistically and intellectually, would proceed, rationally, logically and inexorably, to the desired policy conclusion.  Moralists and pseudo-moralists (and this includes moralism based on ideas about God, fully as much as based on ideas about government) are particularly guilty of this sort of crime against rationality and debate.   It is emotion, with a thin veneer of rationality.

Originally words were created as a shortcut– a way of expressing a part of reality that both sides know and accept, so that the speaker doesn’t need to spend inordinate amounts of time reinventing the wheel, linguistically speaking, every time he or she wants to say something.  These days, the shortcuts have taken over the language.   The Cultural Marxists have become a group of Humpty Dumptys.

Moralistic jargon is by its nature crafted to serve only one master.  It’s the One Ring of politics and society.  I’d love to carry the modern Left’s concept of sin to Mount Doom and cast it into the lava.  Failing that, however, and unlike the monarchs of our political parties, I can decline to accept any of the other rings, powerful-seeming or no.