The Politics of Despair: An Interview with John Derbyshire

John Derbyshire is a conservative nation unto himself. The longtime National Review columnist and talented radio host has created his own branch of the faith, extolled in his latest book, We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism. A scholar both in politics and mathematics, Mr. Derbyshire is also the author of Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra. As a writer he is prolific and never afraid to question the prevailing orthodoxy. Born in England, he is now an American citizen and has dwelled here since 1985.

BC: Congratulations on the release of your new book, Mr. Derbyshire. Your central theme seems to be: “If we expect too much of people, we’ll be disappointed and our schemes will fail. Heady optimism about human nature leads directly to disaster.” If politicians operationalized your advice, what would our government then look like? Would it mark the beginning of real hope and change?

John Derbyshire: It would be the restoration of self-government and self-support. It would be the end of the nanny state. It would be the end of humongous programs of government expenditure directed mainly to providing indoor relief for otherwise-unemployable graduates in subjects named “[something] studies.” It would be the re-beginning of the American experiment, as the Founders envisaged it -- a republic of free citizens.

BC: Is mindless optimism to blame for the triumph of big government over liberty? I ask you this because every time we increase its size we conveniently overlook the Leviathan’s long and inglorious history of incompetence and inefficiency.

John Derbyshire: I wouldn’t place all the blame on mindless optimism. Nothing in history is that simple. Without the cheery optimism of infinite possibility and infinite malleability (i.e., of human nature), however, ever-expanding government would have been a very much more difficult proposition. Optimism was an enabler.

BC: You mention Rousseau. Is it safe to say that many Democrats embrace the regressive policies they do as a means to compensate for acting like elitist snobs on a personal level? I don’t know if you’ve read Roger L. Simon’s Blacklisting Myself but he makes a similar argument in regards to the existence of their “Mini-Me’s.”

John Derbyshire: I haven’t read that. Just Amazon-ed it. Definitely one for my list. I don’t know about that first sentence of yours, though. Steve Sailer, the guiding spirit of my book, says that liberals have two central beliefs: (1) that intelligence is a perfectly meaningless concept, and (2) that they are more intelligent than the rest of us. For sure liberals (which I take to be coextensive with your “many Democrats”) are elitist snobs -- see p. 123 of my book. My impression is, though, that they don’t feel much need to compensate for it. They’re pretty happy with it. Liberals are not very much given to self-examination or self-doubt.

BC: The section on religion may make some conservatives uncomfortable. Indeed, some of it was even new to me. Could you outline for readers the proposition that, in America, there’s more evidence of there being a religious left than a religious right?

John Derbyshire: I supply the numbers (pp. 163-4). The most religious Christians -- Evangelicals -- are currently strong for the GOP … although, as I mention, 30 years ago they were out canvassing for Jimmy Carter. Evangelicals are not reliably conservative -- Jeff Hart wrote a good essay about this somewhere. Conservatives should consider them fair-weather friends. Every other religious group in the U.S., including non-Evangelical born-again Christians, including Roman Catholics (Father Pfleger is more representative than the late Father Neuhaus), leans to the Democrats.

BC: What’s a metrocon and does the term have anything to do with men getting their nails done or spending Saturdays at the mall?

John Derbyshire: Metrocons are metropolitan conservatives; a fishy breed, who just barely know which end of a gun the bullet emerges from, think creationism is for yokels, and take NASCAR to be a brand of hair mousse. Their nails, I’m not sure about.