Since some of our writers have been taking up the great theme related to the “end of history,” it might be foolish to think that any of the details in the news over the past few weeks—the government shutdown, the debt crisis crisis, the Obama care website—have any lasting impact. Are any of them of sufficient magnitude to affect prospects for the end of history? I thank my lucky stars that it does not fall within the ambit of my work to need to comment on such matters as if they were of lasting significance. And I pity those intelligent members of the punditocracy who daily have to employ their wits to “say something” about such trivial and boring matters. Eight weeks ago or so I received a note from a good friend of mine, a stout fellow on the Left, who was already obsessing about the prospects of the government shutdown and reading every article about it he could find. He wanted to know my opinion. I candidly told him that other than the headline stories, I would be reading nothing about it—it was all a matter of mere tactics anyhow—and that he would save a lot of good time if he would do the same thing. One part of freedom is the exercise of worthwhile activities in one’s leisure. So why would anyone who doesn’t have to spend his time on the servile work of dwelling on details? I promised to occupy myself on something “higher,” and while my friend was getting worked up about Ted Cruz, I was able to catch up on all the seasons of Walking Dead—and a little Xenophon as well. And I feel vindicated by my choice, as the debt ceiling crisis will surely fade into oblivion far more quickly than zombiological theory.
I make one caveat, however, driven no doubt by my obsession with the president. Initially, of all of these non-Historical events, the performance of a website struck me as being the most trivial of all. I mean, at the end of the day, could you ever imagine that the non-functionality of a website for a few weeks could ever approach having the status of an inflexion point in American history. The absurdity of this idea struck me. Think of the disproportion of these headlines: Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor; Thousands Experience Difficulties Accessing Health Care Website. No, I was sure—just as the president first noted—that the insignificance of the latter event would quickly consign it to the trash bin of “history.”
I have revised a bit, however, as time goes on. It is not the website per se that matters, but its symbolic import. The boast of this presidency was in part that the smart people, the technocrats, were coming to town. These were the people who not only had a progressive agenda (sorry Carl), but who would be able to administer things smoothly and efficiently, using only “good science,” transparency, and rational techniques. After all, wasn’t Cass Sunstein, among others, on the O team? We were supposed to learn that the vaunted techniques of the business class set were next to nothing compared to the swift and bold rationalism of the technocrats. (And the superior Obama political campaigns, with their cool mastery of the social media—compared to the McCain and Romney clumsiness–was supposedly proof of this fact.) And yet when it has come to governing, look what has happened. The President has three signature pieces of legislation: the stimulus package, Dodd-Frank, and the ACA. Forget about Dodd-Frank for now…it doesn’t even have Obama’s name. Whatever one thinks of the objectives of these two big programs, which have brought or aim to bring massive chunks of American life under government control, they have been shocking so far in the incompetence of their administration. Remember the stimulus package? It was pledged that it would move expeditiously to spending on shovel-ready projects. Joe Biden backed by a team or committee of experts was put in place to assure efficient spending on the basis of his mastery of the new category of shovel-readiness. Now think back: that part never really much happened, and it was later acknowledged that shovel ready really didn’t quite mean shovel ready. Now we move to the website. The symbol of the incompetence in the roll out is stunning. Where is the “smooth,” the “cool” and the efficient in running things? It would seem that the least gifted of administrators would have checked things out a while ago and begun to exercise a nudge here or there to get things going. On top of all that some of the president’s disagreeable qualities have become manifest. Instead of fessing up like an ordinary guy and taking responsibility, we are treated to the full set of our leader’s little pathologies. We learn that he is angry—Zeus is huffing and puffing—as if this is enough to satisfy the public (for many, alas, it is). Then follow the half admissions, the obvious and patent untruths, the blame on the Republicans, and the disheartening Obamacare infomercial. That last one had me thinking that our president looked less presdidential than Fred Thompson selling reverse mortgages on late-nite television. Can you imagine George Washington, who worried about “enfeebling the public administration,” hawking an 800 number?
The failure in administrative competence is more significant than it seems. It is a blow to the claims of progressive expertise, a blow that is more humorous than serious. And it is humor or ridicule that kills.
Oh yes, and Xenophon. In one of the most important passages in the Education of Cyrus, Cambyses (Cyrus’s father) gives Cyrus the following advice: “If someone deceives often, instilling the expectation of good things, such a person ends up not being able to persuade even when he speaks of true sources of hope….One must, as much as possible preserve trust in one’s own encouragement in the face of the greatest risks.” (Book I chapter 6 line 20). Advice that Cyrus followed, but that Obama—constitutionally—cannot.