My little corner of the Internet seems much nicer than everyone else’s. I’d say that 95% of the mail I get is cheerful and pleasant. Into every life, however, a little rain must fall, and today I’d like to talk about some things I learned from a (by Internet standards, very mild) nastygram that landed in my inbox about a week ago. Briefly: snarkiness inhibits persuasion, and it’s best to state your thesis clearly and early.
In mid-September, I wrote a piece arguing that it is not sufficient merely to demonstrate that government can do something “better” than the private sphere if one wishes to make a persuasive case for empowering government to do that thing; one must demonstrate that matters are intolerable, absent government action. This argument was grounded in the idea that once you start doing things for someone else, you inevitably weaken and make him dependent. The point was that sticking your beak into another fellow’s business might make you feel all do-goody, but you’re really doing long-term harm.
This idea was illustrated by quotes like:
You cannot build character and courage by taking away men’s initiative and independence.
You cannot help men permanently by doing for them, what they could and should do for themselves.
General Creighton Abrams, the U.S. commander in Vietnam in 1971, recognized this fact when he said, “There’s very clear evidence,…in some things, that we helped too much. And we retarded the Vietnamese by doing it.…We can’t run this thing…They’ve got to run it. The nearer we get to that the better off they are and the better off we are.”
Pretty clear, I thought. Possibly controversial, but clear.
Unfortunately, I was in a pretty bad mood when I wrote the post, and led off with this:
Our Fearless Leader was speechifying a few months ago, and he offered up this gem:
It was the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, who said the role of government is to do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves.
Now, in the first place, I couldn’t actually find this quote attributed to Lincoln. (Probably due to not trying very hard.) …
And this was my final “above the fold” statement (i.e., the last thing you’d read on the homepage unless you clicked through to the whole post):
Even if it were true that gov’t could do some thing “better” than the people, that isn’t sufficient reason for the gov’t to do it.
The problem here is that the opening would put off anyone not already inclined to agree with me, and the thesis was so vague that such a person, already motivated to read the post uncharitably, would be free to read into it whatever prejudices he might have brought with him.
So, some dude read my post, and wrote in to triumphantly announce that he (after “a single Google search and less than 30 seconds [examining] the results on the first page”) had found the Lincoln quote F.L. was referencing here.
Well, good for you, sir. Although I think your remark that it was “[r]ight at the top of page 180” was a bit much … quotes in the middle of obscure books (0 reviews on Google, published 1907) are hardly “right there”. To claim they are is reminiscent of Arthur Dent’s experience viewing the highway bypass plans endangering his house:
“But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”
“Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”
“But the plans were on display …”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”
I would also note that the original Lincoln quote is a little more complex than Obama’s interpretation of it:
The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities.
The “cannot so well do” language here is a little ambiguous; Obama (and my correspondent) clearly take it to mean “cannot so well do as the government”. An alternative interpretation would be “cannot so well do as to be tolerable”. But I digress.
What really alarmed me about my friend’s e-mail was his closing line:
Selfishness is perhaps a right, but it is still an unhopeful and tragic direction for any society.
This has nothing at all to do with my original post, and I don’t believe anyone, reading it in its entirety, could think it addressed, let alone championed, selfishness. It just wasn’t about that. I presume this fellow, offended by my opening, and mislead by my thesis, just slapped his “classical liberal making a greed-is-good argument” template over the post, and assumed that was what it was. After all, what other argument against an expansive government could there possibly be?
Anyway, my bad, and thanks for the link.