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Idealism vs. cynicism

| Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010

Starting in the wee hours of Nov. 3 — the day after the Democrats' shellacking at the polls — a conversation began to play and replay itself in my mind. It's between my inner cynic (or is that my inner realist?) and my inner idealist (or is that my inner Pollyanna?).

Idealist : Look, I know that all those GOP politicians now heading to Capitol Hill, to governors' mansions and to statehouses all across the land aren't going to create heaven on Earth, but — omigosh! — they ran on principles of limited government. Surely they'll at least roll back some of the intrusive programs enacted by the Democrats who've been fired by the voters.

Cynic : You're dreaming, dude. What we're talking about here are politicians. I grant that some of them are worse than others, but each of them cares first and foremost about one thing: getting and keeping political office. To stay in office, each one will compromise — which, in politics, too often means tossing aside principles in order to win votes. And to win votes, even the most ardent tea-partying Republican will bring pork to his constituents and resist cutting any middle-class welfare programs such as subsidized student loans and Medicare.

Idealist : I know that's how it was in the past. But this time is different. The tea party means business. Man, these people proudly wave "Don't Tread On Me" flags! They want smaller government. So even granting that politicians care only about their jobs, they gotta know that the only way they can keep their jobs is if they keep their promises. And that means shrinking government's reach, role and resources .

Cynic : I wish. It's fun and easy to chant slogans about the sanctity of the Constitution, the importance of individual freedom and the necessity of keeping government limited. But when a sitting congressional representative actually pushes, say, to slash Social Security, how many tea-partying retirees will cheer her on• Or when a senator proposes to abolish farm subsidies, how many farm-state advocates of limited government will continue to support him• It ain't happening.

Idealist : Your cynicism blinds you. History clearly teaches that, over the long haul, ideas do indeed matter. People's core beliefs, their values, their character — it's these things that supply the test that elected officials must ultimately pass. How else do you explain the deregulation that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s• How else do you explain Bill Clinton, a Democrat, going along with welfare reform in the mid-1990s• Sure, not all Americans value freedom and free markets, but enough of us do. And when elected officials threaten these values, American voters eventually punish them.

Cynic : Deregulation and welfare reform are easy to explain: Regulated industries and the welfare state were so dysfunctional that government had no choice but to deregulate and reform them. But ...

Idealist : Wait right there! You admit that government, at least occasionally, responds to the will of the people at large and not just to well-organized political lobbies. It was the people who recognized that regulation and the welfare state were failing.

Cynic : Touche . Sometimes the national mood dominates over the demands of special-interest groups. And sometimes this fact is indeed for the good, as with the deregulation of 30 years ago — but sometimes it's for the bad, as with the public's acceptance in the 1930s of most of FDR's New Deal idiocy.

Idealist : Right. I'm not saying that the people's sentiments and ideologies will always, or even ever, be wise. But I do insist that, whatever these sentiments and ideology happen to be, these — and not interest groups — ultimately determine public policy. And if the people's sentiments and ideology are pro-freedom, then freedom will prevail over the long run.

Cynic : Sadly, I just don't see enough people ever having a sufficiently strong and well-informed attachment to the ideas and ideals of freedom to allow the forces of freedom to defeat the forces of statism.

Idealist : Then why do you do what you do• Why do you spend so much time blogging — an activity for which you receive no pay• Why do you teach• Why do you write this column• If ideas have no lasting consequences on public policy, what's the ultimate point of devoting your life to exploring, developing and explaining ideas• Sure, it's fun to teach and to write, and you get paid reasonably well to do so. But doesn't a good deal of the satisfaction you receive from your life's work come from a hope that you are part — a small part, to be sure, but a part — of a process of forming and spreading ideas that might protect future generations from tyranny?

Cynic : Well, yes. That is the idea.

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