“But who versus? Who are we doing it versus?”
The finale of the fourth season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia opened with Charlie bursting into the bar, carrying a messy stack of paper, and telling his friends that he wrote a musical—just because he wanted to. They’re skeptical. “Nobody writes a musical for no reason; that doesn’t make sense,” says Dee. But Charlie protests, so they decide he’s playing an angle: “Who’s the mark?” “Whose face are we shoving this musical in?” “Who versus? Who are we doing it versus?”
As you might expect from a show whose main characters are terribly amoral, Charlie does have an ulterior motive and the angle he’s playing ends up completely explaining his ridiculously weird musical. Only in the world of It’s Always Sunny would someone ask who a musical is “versus”—but “who versus” is a pretty good question when you’re talking about politics. Of course, many people make no secret of who they’re fighting, whether it’s the d—ed socialist liberals with their wealth redistribution or the right-wing ideologues with their Christianist legislation.
Since this is my first post at the league, I’d like to tell you who I’m versus. I’ve already wasted way too much time trying to find the right political label for myself, so I’ll just try to be straightforward about who I’m against. Here it is: I’m doing this versus the unduly confident. I believe the people who pose the biggest danger to good government and the current and future health of the Republic are those who refuse to come to terms with the intrinsic limits of their own knowledge.
Modern movement conservatism took shape and gained strength only because mid-century liberalism overreached. Hubris with regard both to the Great Society and to Vietnam made an opening for an increasingly ideological opposition from the right on economics, and from the left on the war. How much mileage did economic conservatives and other dissidents of the time get out of “unintended consequences” arguments? And how many on the anti-war left understood clearly that it was worse than foolhardy to regard war as a manageable instrument of foreign policy?
Andrew Bacevich, in The Limits of Power, argues that the primary political function of ideology (not a word I like, by the way) is to serve as a broad rationale for action. Daniel Larison quotes this passage often. I puzzled over this take on ideology until I realized that an ideology offers not only a system for interpreting the present, but a schema for predicting the consequences of events. Someone who clings to an ideology will be sure that action X will result in consequence Y, never considering the possibility of consequence Z. So when Z happens, the ideologue always explains it away as a function of some other action or interference on the part of some other agent.
I use “ideology” as a pejorative. We all need some kind of framework for interpreting the world around us and for guessing at the consequences of our actions, and we need to acquire these frameworks from those who came before, even if we modify them in the process of application. Such a framework I prefer to call a tradition. The key feature of a vibrant tradition is its continued grappling with its own internal problems and contradictions. Traditions always change and grow over time. A tradition that ceases to do this is a dead tradition, and a tradition that is dead or near death I will call an ideology. (Most of this stuff comes from the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. I’m sure I’ll be citing him often in posts to come.)
Undue confidence is one of the vices that can be found on either side of the virtue of proper confidence. On the other side, there’s indecision. The politically indecisive person is the one who is paralyzed by a complete inability to make decisions in light of limited knowledge of consequences. The virtue is proper confidence, which, when coupled with political courage, is the disposition to take stances on what one believes to be right while watching for signs that one may in truth be wrong.
All of this is a layer or two removed from actual politics, and for that I apologize. I tend towards treating ideas abstractly, mainly because I rarely have the knowledge to be specific about policy particulars, but I’ll try to avoid doing it too much when I write here. So I’ll close with two examples of undue confidence. Frank Schaeffer at the Huffington Post offers a sad example of overconfidence in President Obama’s ability to control the economy. I worry that you’ll think I’m the kind of guy who takes cheap shots, but this is the kind of thing I’m talking about:
“Great times are coming in the form of one of the biggest sea changes in American history: we’re about to shift to a vast trillion dollar entrepreneurial green economy. We’re about to rebuild our infrastructure. And for the first time in decades the super rich are being asked to pay their fair share, which will make this country a fairer and therefore, richer and happier place.
“The dishonor that was foisted on our military by President Bush, who turned some of our men and women in uniform into torturers, is being reversed. (I note this as the proud father of a United States Marine.) We have a president with remarkable courage who is tackling everything from environmental concerns, the economic bailout, military restructuring, the ending of one war and the intelligent prosecution of another war, the recalibration of our tax system, and health care reform all at once. This total reinvention of America will create a huge new pool of jobs and opportunity.”
There’s absolutely no reason to be so confident in the face of an utterly unprecedented expansion of government power over the economy. Schaeffer has a bit of a point—better to be here than to be many other places in the world—but he just ruins it by refusing to consider that no matter how smart Obama is, what he’s attempting might be impossible. Better to argue that what the government is trying could go wrong in all sorts of ways, but it’s still the best available option. (Whether it actually is the best option is beside the point of this post.)
But Schaeffer’s just an erstwhile evangelical and an excitable memoirist who’s got a blog at HuffPo. Overconfidence from policymakers is actually dangerous, and arguably most dangerous when it involves the United States occupying other nations. Architects of such wars would assure us that they’ve got the contingencies under control, but war is war, and in war victory can require awful actions. I think we can be confident about this: human beings will always underestimate the cost of victory.
I’m not saying that it’s bad to be partisan. I find myself caught between traditions, and I often wish I could commit to one. In short, I find myself wishing I were a better partisan. When you’re a part of a tradition, you need to commit to it. When I satisfy my doubts about which political tradition I’m entitled to claim, I’ll join the struggle of hashing out the central conflicts of that tradition and arguing for its superiority over other traditions. But contributing to the growth of one’s tradition requires the virtue of proper confidence. We live in a world where many people lack that virtue. And those people: that’s who I’m doing this versus.