The Education of Fred Barnes

Forgive this quote, but it’s eloquent and wonderfully apt today with respect to Iraq:

The man of system…is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorderAdam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (VI.II.42)

It’s been a pretty bad couple of weeks on TV for the neocons.  First was Gore Vidal absolutely wiping the floor with David Frum last Friday (Mar. 19) on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.  To say that the Little Frummer Boy got his ears boxed is to put it lightly.  The most recent and comparable humiliation to that of Frum was of Shrub at the hands of NBC’s Tim Russert on Meet the Press back on February 8, 2004.  And Russert, unlike Vidal, wasn’t trying to denigrate anyone.  [For those of you who missed this thrashing of Frum, look for a future replay on HBO of Real Time episode #30.   To see Vidal’s classic unraveling of William F. Buckley–where the "highbrow" Buckley became so unglued he cursed and threatened Vidal with physical violence–go here.]

For the best evidence so far that a few neocons possibly now understand a little of the handwriting on the Iraqi wall, enter Fred Barnes.  Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard and co-host of the Fox News Channel program The Beltway Boys.  He appeared on Fox’s Special Report with Brit Hume Monday evening (March 22) with, well, some less than optimistic thoughts about the prospects for democracy in Iraq.  Unfortunately it had to take a field trip to the neocon nation-building laboratory to bring about Barnes’ slight crise de conscience

HUME:  …You’ve been there, what, 9 or 10 days now.  What are your impressions?

BARNES:    Yeah, well my impression is that it is a much bigger task here than America has undertaken than I thought before I came, and then uh, I think most Americans think is here.  It is very, very difficult.  Paul Bremer and the military and all the people who work for them have done a wonderful job but it’s going to take more than just a boost in the economy and getting the terrorism tamped down for this whole mission here–for democracy in Iraq–to proceed.  The Iraqi people are very difficult to deal with.  The Arab press that they read and watch on television is very, very anti-American, this is the media that they get…

Surprising revelation there, suggesting that a few of the least fanatical neocons are starting to see the problems with the Frankenstein monster their hands have wrought.  Notice that the asserted necessary conditions for democracy are more than just healthy economic growth and a decrease in terrorism.

HUME:  …You mentioned the economy improving.  You sound like you think it’s going to happen.  Why?

BARNES:  Well, the Iraqi economy is going to get a mammoth stimulus, so much bigger than the Bush tax cuts in America.  Iraq has an economy of less than $30 billion gross national product and the stimulus that starts here soon, the $18.5 billion, for reconstruction begins in a month or so and will be spread over just a couple years…There is a Treasury Department study that shows that it will create a million jobs just on the reconstruction and a million spin-off jobs.  That will go a long way here.

Of course it won’t go "a long way" anywhere because Barnes is spewing nonsense.  There’s so many economic fallacies undergirding his prognostication that it’s hard to know where to start.  First with long-discredited Keynesianism:  discretionary government spending and tax-rate changes to manipulate GDP.  It begs for Barnes to address why the Bush tax-rate reductions have failed to produce the predicted jobs in the U.S.  (Indeed, all 21,000 jobs added to the U.S. last month were government jobs.) 

Defunct Keynesianism not only assumes underemployment of resources, but security of property as there has to be an industrial base that generates a sufficient income to manipulate.  (Not much of a reality in Iraq for the very reasons Barnes’ pessimism has been engendered in the first place, forget any nonsense about implied and precise multiplier effects which never materialize.  By the way, Barnes would also do well to learn Bastiat’s broken-window fallacy if he imagines reconstruction as a net economic gain sans opportunity costs.)
HUME:   …But you seem pessimistic about the Iraqi people and whether they want to embrace this future [of democracy].  What makes you say that about the Iraqi people?

BARNES:    …I don’t know whether I’m pessimistic, I’m just less optimistic than I was.  I didn’t realize that that would be a problem.  Look, it’s different from what America faced in Germany and dealing with the former-communist countries.  Remember in Germany, Germans could remember a dozen years earlier when there was a democracy and elected government and free economy and so on in Germany.   The non-communist countries [sic] had a ten-year transition where there was liberalization in these countries and the terror was gone, even in the Soviet Union but in Poland and other communist countries.  There’s been no transition here.  There’s no memory of democracy…an awful lot of ’em [Iraqis] don’t seem to get what democracy is all about.

HUME:  …How do you sense that?

BARNES:    Well I think it manifests itself in some resentment toward America.  The Iraqis have an odd attitude by and large and it shows up in these polls.  They hate the occupation but they’re really leery of having Americans leave, because Americans are really holding Iraq together right now.

What Iraqis hate is not so much Americans per se but U.S. hypocrisy.   Contra rhetoric democracy will instantiate in a carefully rigged system which gives the U.S. the election results it wants.  What Barnes and the other pretty-boy Teleprompter-readers at Fox never get is Robert Barro’s point (of course made by others as well) that democracy–a process for selecting a country’s leaders–is no sufficient condition for raising living standards.  It was John Gray’s point some years ago that democracy can bring us full circle right back to Hobbes’ War of All Against All. 

Iraq, seemingly on the verge of civil war between three factions, looks far more iffy than even Barnes now seems to understand, despite his newfound pessimism (er, decreased optimism).

I mention all this because a year ago, while the likes of Barnes and Steve Moore were busy renaming French fries and French toast "Freedom fries" and "Freedom toast," as the shooting began I and others correctly predicted where all this was really headed.  It wasn’t because we were smart, we just happened to grasp a little bit about the nature and limits of the state.   My article was linked on LRC and brought in the usual hate mail from National Review Online readers. 

One memorable e-mail subject line was, "Ever heard of a constitution?"   Duh, no I haven’t.  Enlighten me, oh epigone of Dough Boy Goldberg.   Incredibly, the body of the message dared me to name a point in time, pre-World War II, when the U.S. Constitution failed to limit government power.  I laughed so hard I almost fell out of my chair, but this person was serious and no doubt someone who gets their Weltanschauung from the Fred Barneses of the world.

Keynes said that men who believe themselves to be exempt from intellectual influences are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.  What far too many Americans think they know that just ain’t so is really propaganda that is a function of some military or moneyed interest that is using them as an expendable means to its end.

Cognitive dissonance aside, Barnes isn’t likely to ever leave the U.S.S. Neocon, for neo-Jacobinism, if nothing else, certainly provides a handsome enough living to preclude him from rubbing that Property of Rupert Murdoch stamp off his forehead anytime soon.  Barnes considers himself a Christian.  If his faith is genuine, now that he’s had his epiphany, does he now feel it incumbent upon himself to offer a mea culpa to the mangled young men in their early twenties (many with wives and children) at Walter Reed Hospital who will spend the next 50 years of their lives without arms, walking on metal legs, or without normally functioning minds, for championing their sendoff to fight for what he now admits is the mirage of Iraqi democracy?

Well, let’s not end this essay on a down note.  We must be ever hopeful for Barnes, that’s why we’ll provide him with the following short reading list in case he should decide to leave the Murdoch Plantation.  (Yes, I realize that he could very well have read some of these without understanding them.)  Happy reading and re-reading, Fred!  (Those of you who have other suggested readings, please forward them not to me but to along with your condolences to Barnes for the discomfort experienced from his recent epiphany in Iraq.)

Books (Web)
Adam Smith; An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
Ludwig von Mises; Human Action
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.; Speaking of Liberty

Books (Hard Copy)
The Bible (Man is a sinner, he is NOT God, Fred.)
James Bovard; Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil


William Lind; "Why They Fight" (Brilliant.  See also his entire LRC archive.  Read ’em all, Fred.)
F.A. Hayek; "The Use of Knowledge in Society" (apply this to nation building, Fred)

Dale Steinreich is a contributor to and an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute.