Recently, Ben Bernanke gave the commencement speech at the Princeton graduation. It was pretty fun and not a bad speech overall, but one of his points really struck home to me.
5. Since I have covered what I know about sociology, I might as well say something about political science as well. In regard to politics, I have always liked Lily Tomlin’s line, in paraphrase: “I try to be cynical, but I just can’t keep up.” We all feel that way sometime. Actually, having been in Washington now for almost 11 years, as I mentioned, I feel that way quite a bit. Ultimately, though, cynicism is a poor substitute for critical thought and constructive action. Sure, interests and money and ideology all matter, as you learned in political science. But my experience is that most of our politicians and policymakers are trying to do the right thing, according to their own views and consciences, most of the time. If you think that the bad or indifferent results that too often come out of Washington are due to base motives and bad intentions, you are giving politicians and policymakers way too much credit for being effective. Honest error in the face of complex and possibly intractable problems is a far more important source of bad results than are bad motives. For these reasons, the greatest forces in Washington are ideas, and people prepared to act on those ideas. Public service isn’t easy. But, in the end, if you are inclined in that direction, it is a worthy and challenging pursuit.
The thing is, I have trouble believing this. I know, logically, that people are not mustache twirling villains, but when somebody argues that people should starve to death so he can get subsidies, I find it hard to believe that he genuinely wants to do good. When somebody argues that lowering taxes on food would be a problem because people would just spend all of their money on food instead of other things, I can’t help but see somebody who dislikes the poor and wants to see them suffer. When somebody supports more Americans blowing up in gas explosions, or punishes kids because their parents committed a crime, or says that LGBT couples shouldn’t be protected in immigration matters (thanks to Sen. Leahey for bringing this back up again), then I find it hard to believe that they are trying to do the best for anybody other than a select few people just like them. Perhaps I lack imagination, but I don’t know how this can be attributable to anything other than abject cruelty and a desire to hurt. I don’t doubt Bernanke, and knowing people in person changes things, but I don’t know how any human being can be this deluded into thinking these things are good.