Rick Perry vs. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Here’s an statistic worth pondering: 45 percent of net U.S. job creation in the last two years comes from Texas.
Yes, Texas: the state that is the poster child for right-wingery, the state with no state income tax whose population is growing at about 1000 per day (see a connection?) while bankrupt behemoths like California are bleeding jobs and people.
There are a handful of other places in the U.S. where job creation is rife. One of them is Washington, D.C., where an exploding government bureaucracy has also led to the creation of many jobs.
Many public-sector, i.e., tax-payer-funded jobs, that is. The jobs in Texas are overwhelmingly private-sector, i.e., wealth-creating jobs.
I mention this by way of introduction to my main point, which is to highlight something Texas Governor Rick Perry said in a recent speech in New Orleans. Addressing a friendly crowd, the governor urged listeners to “stop apologizing” for their efforts to overturn the “entitlement mindset.” “Stand up” and be counted, he advised: “Our opponents on the left are never going to like us, so let’s stop trying to curry favor with them.”
MSNBC called it a “finger-pointing, finger-wagging, at times bombastic” speech, but if he takes his own advice, Governor Perry will bear up nicely under the obloquy.
We do not yet know whether Rick Perry will be running for president. I hope he does. He would inject a few red corpuscles into the mix. And his acknowledgment that it is pointless, indeed counterproductive, for conservatives to cater to liberals accords with Dr. Kimball’s first rule of political strategy:
Conservatives do not win elections by pretending to be liberals.
It is a curious fact, well worth pondering, that the converse is not true: conservatives do not win elections by pretending to be liberals, but liberals often win elections by pretending to be conservatives.
Why should this be? A full answer would take us into deep waters. For the moment, I wish only to say a word or two about why Governor Perry’s prescription strikes such an air-clearing note. MSNBC didn't like it, but as I read his words (“stop apologizing,” “Our opponents on the left are never going to like us, so let’s stop trying to curry favor with them”) I could practically hear the sighs of relief wafting off the page. (Maybe I was just hearing my own sigh of relief.) “At last!,” I thought, “a politician with the guts to utter this home truth.”
Being liked is what politics in a democracy is all about. (Well, it is part of what politics in a democracy is all about.) The problem is, as every adolescent knows, the promiscuous desire to be liked is a character flaw. There are all sorts of ways that a pretty girl can make herself popular. Only some of them are consistent with self-respect.
Something similar can be said of a life in politics. “Public service” is a phrase that covers a multitude of activities, only some of which are seemly. What was so refreshing about Governor Perry’s remarks was the spirit of disabused independence they communicated.
The politicians we call “liberal” today (the irony is, alas, that they tend to be profoundly illiberal, about which more in a moment) are witting or unwitting followers of the philosopher Rousseau. They take three things from Rousseau. One is a certain abstract utopianism. “Man is born free,” Rousseau wrote at the beginning of The Social Contract, “but is everywhere in chains.” Neither part of that proposition is true, but liberals swoon to its activist music. What must we do to cast off those fetters and return to paradise? Rousseau’s philosophy is a narcissist’s dream which means that the individual is everywhere flattered but also everywhere discarded. “I think I know man,” Rousseau sadly acknowledged towards the end of his life, “but as for men, I know them not.”
The ghostly character of the individual in Rousseau’s philosophy accounts for the second thing liberals take from him: a quick embrace of coercion as an element of policy. Rousseau was always going on about “forcing” people to be free and bringing mere individual wills into line with something he called “the General Will.” So it is that modern liberals clothe their meddlesomeness with the cloak of sanctimony: it’s for your own good, you see, that we’re telling you how to live your life, conduct your business, what car to drive, what food to eat, etc., etc.
Which brings me to the third thing liberals take from Rousseau: a certain presumption of virtue. Rousseau was always going on about virtue, first of all about his own impeccable virtue, but also about humanity’s virtue, or rather, humanity’s lack of virtue, which saddened him. In any ordinary sense, Rousseau lived a throughly disreputable life. He had five or six children by his maid, later his wife, Thérèse Le Vasseur, all of whom he consigned to a foundling hospital. In the Confessions, Rousseau bragged about his uniqueness (“I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence”), but this — how modern it seems! — was the alibi for his inexhaustible sense of entitlement, on the one hand, and paranoia, on the other. (One recalls Rousseau's avid disciple Maximilien Robespierre, who spoke ecstatically of "virtue and its emanation, terror.")
A lot more might be said about the debt, emotional as well as philosophical, modern liberalism owes to Rousseau. But my point here is to highlight to what extent Governor Perry’s advice departs from the Rousseauvian narrative. Stand up. Challenge the “entitlement mindset.” Stop trying to curry favor with those whose view of the role of government is fundamentally different from your own. These are open-air, adult, contra-Rousseauvian prescriptions
Rick Perry is not the only candidate speaking this grown up language. But it is notable how few candidates have discerned the looming fork in the road: one way leads us further into the mirrored hall of Rousseau’s sweaty dreams. The other leads us back out into the open air. It’s easy to be dismayed by how far we’ve travelled down the path of dependence. But we should take heart from the fact that at least some aspiring politicians see that the road does have a fork and are willing to help lead us back on to the road to individual freedom, responsibility, and national greatness.