One of the hazards involved in being highly intelligent -- what, you didn't think there could be a downside to it? -- is the temptation to become irritated when others demonstrate lesser cognitive capacities. In some cases the offender possesses plenty of brain muscle, and might use it fully at other times; in others, the poor soul is just a bit weak between the earphones. But on all such occasions, it's a requirement that I restrain myself from exercising my penchant for evisceration via sarcasm.
I have to admit, I don't always succeed at that. It's particularly difficult when persons "old enough to know better" spout pointless bilge as if it were the discovery of the Higgs boson:
At the federal level it is obvious what needs doing. Slash and burn. Departments of education, interior, energy, health, labor, commerce, and transportation should be eliminated asap, as should the EPA and USAID. Yes, completely eliminated. The Department of Justice needs to be radically reduced in size and power; eliminate the ATF and DEA, for starters. The FBI has completely overstepped its original mandate and needs to be reined in. The State Department can be cut by one-third almost immediately, and closer to one-half in a couple of years. DOD needs to focus on its mission and shed programs, offices, and employees that have nothing to do with defense. Lawyers. My God, does DoD have lawyers. Slash and burn. Get rid of all the environmental nonsense in DoD. Drop the vast, corrupt, and bloated domestic PX network. In a time of WalMarts and Targets, why have a PX? Negotiate a discount for military personnel. The same with VA hospitals, most of which are substandard; get veterans a voucher system they can use at private hospitals. The CIA? A complete overhaul and reduction in the massive stateside bureaucracy which interferes with and stifles CIA's proper role overseas. NASA? Privatize as much as possible of the space program, keeping in government hands only the most secret and sensitive operations. Don't get me started on Homeland; it needs a radical downsizing or even a splitting apart.
"Obvious?" Perhaps to the Diplomad, whoever he is. But why is it "obvious" to him and not to others? And if it really is "obvious," what need is there to repeat it? Has this "long-time US Foreign Service Officer" ever asked himself those questions?
The matter became even more irritating when I saw hearty concurrences from two longtime favorites: Silicon Graybeard and Mike Hendrix. But then, Sean Hannity finds a comparably frustrating political condition equally "obvious." At least, he made it seem so yesterday afternoon in his pleadings for the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives to be "united."
God be with me! Gentlemen, use your noggins for something besides a hat rack! Why do you think Republican elected officials can't see what's "obvious" to each of you?
Give that a moment's thought, Gentle Reader, while I endeavor to deflate my blood pressure.
We get so accustomed to labeling and categorizing people, especially people in the public eye, that we can cause ourselves to forget that a man is not the labels we hang on him. This is of particular importance in political analysis.
Let's consider the case of the Honorable Smith, a Republican Congressman. There, that's three labels already. What have we told ourselves, correctly or incorrectly, about Smith by labeling him thus?
- Smith sits in the House of Representatives, and therefore has a constituency somewhere that preferred him to his opponents in the last election.
- Smith was the nominee of the Republican Party in the contest for the seat he occupies.
- Smith is honorable.
"One of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn't belong..."
Yes! Thank you, you in the back row. See me after class for an extra-credit project. To call a man "honorable" is a character assessment. The other two statements are objectively verifiable, but an enduring assessment of a man's character is no better than a guess...especially if that man has accepted a mission that compels him to sit surrounded by scoundrels.
It would be honorable for Smith to be explicit and honest about his priorities, both personal and political. We'd certainly hope for that from a Republican. But we allow ourselves to be surprised, even shocked, when Smith, or someone who wears the same labels, demonstrates by his actions that his priorities aren't what we want and have been led to expect from a Republican Congressman -- because we've allowed ourselves to forget that thrice-labeled Smith is an individual human being with his own convictions, priorities, and ambitions.
- Smith might harbor unexpressed convictions that clash with particular elements of the nominal Republican platform.
- Smith might regard certain aspects of public policy as being more important than the ones we regard as primary.
- And Smith might have personal ambitions that would be disserved by taking the stances we expect from Republicans in his position.
Imagine that Smith is far more of an environmentalist than we deem suitable for a Republican in these times. If we were aware of that, would it be reasonable to be surprised if Smith were to support the perpetuation and/or expansion of the ruthless and grasping Environmental Protection Agency?
Imagine that Smith is specially concerned with some quasi-eleemosynary aspect of federal activity, perhaps financial support to single mothers of minor children. If we were aware of that, would it be reasonable to be surprised if Smith were to vote for a funding increase (or against a funding reduction) for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families?
Or imagine that Smith harbors ambitions for higher office, as many Congressmen do. If we were aware of that, would it be reasonable to be surprised if Smith were to hedge on a great many of his nominal stances as a Republican to pander to non-aligned voters -- and to demonstrate his ambivalence on those stances by his votes in Congress?
Smith is not his labels. We cannot afford to delude ourselves that his maneuverings will always be consistent with those labels. What's "obvious" to the Diplomad might be equally so to our imagined ideal Republican...but it's Smith, not that figment of our imagination, who sits in Congress.
One of the most insightful statements ever to come from the late Milton Friedman was his observation that in politics, it's less important to "elect good people" than to create conditions in which "bad people will be moved to do the right thing." Whether that's currently more practicable than searching out good people and putting them forward for office is open to discussion...but here's something that's not:
A bad man surrounded by good people in an ethically praiseworthy environment might be moved to shed some of his wickedness due to the influences of those around him, but a good man surrounded by bad people and multifarious temptations is virtually guaranteed to compromise his ethical standards in response to the influences around him -- and politics is the natural inclination of bad men.
Really, how could it be otherwise? When and where has it been otherwise? Have we been so completely detached from history that we've forgotten not merely Lord Acton's dictum but all the practical examples pertinent to it?
Too many of us think electing Republicans is all that matters -- all we have to do to restore the Republic to its Constitutionally mandated order. Too many of us are surprised and irrationally aggrieved when the Republicans we succeed in electing fail to hew to their supposed commitments. And far too many of us harp on what's "obvious" as if the convictions, priorities, and ambitions of individual officeholders could somehow be excluded from the political dynamic of our time.
When Sean Hannity, a reasonably bright man if not a Certified Galactic Intellect, goes on for forty-five minutes about how the Republicans in Congress need to demonstrate "unity," he's spouting irrelevancies. What "need" does he have in mind? That of the Republic at large? Some specific public-policy passion? Or the ambition of various Smiths to become senators, governors, or president?
Our Brobdingnagian federal government, with its vast powers, its millions of employees, and its trillions of dollars in annual spending, is the exact opposite of the sort of environment in which "bad people will be moved to do the right thing." It presents a temptation to arrogance and evil that only Jesus of Nazareth is guaranteed to resist...and He has yet to stand for public office.
I get really tired of having to make points like the above over and over. They're wearisomely "obvious" to me; I'd hope that they're clear, at least, to anyone who can bring himself to step past the labels we so easily apply to persons in public office.
It's been frequently said that "personnel is policy." As true as that can be, it's critically important always to bear in mind that personnel is a collective noun. It subsumes a group of individuals whose priorities, interests, and ambitions must not be assumed to be uniform. Indeed, the larger the group designated "personnel," the more certain it is that a subset, and perhaps a very large subset, will depart from the "policy" we expect of it. That should be "obvious" to anyone who's known human beings as individuals...but "should" is a word I try not to use.
When the fatigue begins to get the better of me, I remind myself of a fundamental fact about human perception:
Both etymologically and in practice,
It's an effect that even the most powerful minds are capable of neglecting.