A Weiji is a Terrible Thing to Waste
Also, let’s talk about the real ‘greater good.’
Dear Reader (and everyone else behaving responsibly during these trying times),
You may not know this, but the Chinese symbol for “crisis” also means “I’m a pretentious power-hungry ass-ache looking to exploit a crisis.”
Actually, it doesn’t really mean that. But the Chinese symbol for crisis doesn’t mean opportunity either. But Westerners have been claiming otherwise for a long time that even some people in China misuse the word weiji themselves.
It’s a great example of Triangle Trade Treacle, or in more “globalist” terms, it’s a marvel of the global supply chain of reciprocal stupidity.
But the Chinese had better not complain. When it comes to ranking complaints of global contagion, our dumping of a dumb cliché for motivational speakers on China barely ranks compared with what we’re paying for with China—whether it’s their taste for undercooked bat, or their lax research facility hygiene protocols.
Some of you may be too young to remember, but this “crisis also means opportunity” thing was a favorite staple of politicians in the 1990s and most of the 2000s until the Obama administration supplanted it with “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into my problems with this idea again. As you know, I’ve got a lot of stored-up ammo on this pernicious idea. But, like my stockpile of toilet paper, I know there will be opportunities to use it for a long time to come.
No, I bring this up for two reasons. First, because while I was agonizing how to start this “news”letter, I heard someone on the radio recycle this Successories substitute for statesmanship. But more importantly, I was hammering on the lasting damage this attitude will have when the crisis is over quite a lot yesterday. And it occurred to me that I should focus on something good that might also have a long tail beyond this crisis. It occurred to me yesterday while talking to Cass Sunstein on The Remnant.
I’m not a big fan of the idea that there’s dignity in poverty (which is very different from saying poor people lack dignity), but I believe passionately that there’s dignity in work. And one good thing that might outlive this crisis is a newfound appreciation for the inherent dignity and value of work.
I get choked up watching the videos of people cheering health care workers—not just doctors who’ve always had high social status, but nurses and orderlies too (I’ve included links to a bunch of these scenes in the V&S section). But I also love seeing supermarket workers and delivery guys getting thanked for what they do. It’s easy to take all sorts of people for granted when life is easy. But when you take two seconds to think about what life would be like right now if these people weren’t out there—in some cases at considerable, even heroic, risk to their own lives—it’s hard not to marvel at the role they play—especially now, but not just now.
Arthur Brooks tells a story about a guy named Rick who had a terrible life filled with drugs and crime who went to prison. When he got out, Rick found help starting his life from scratch. He got a job sweeping streets, and after a few months landed a slot in a vocational program working for an exterminator. Arthur writes:
A few months into the program, I asked Rick, “How is your life?” and he said, “Let me show you.” And he showed me an email from his boss: “Rick, emergency bedbug job, East 65th Street. I need you now.”
I said, “So what?”
He said, “Read it again: ‘I need you now.’ That is the first time in my life anybody has said those words to me.”
Arthur’s larger point is that people need to feel needed. They need what Arthur calls the feeling of earned success. You can get that feeling from making money, but you can also get it from being a little league coach, a stay-at-home mom or dad, or a parish priest. The point is that people want to feel needed, that if they disappeared tomorrow they’d be missed.
(This story always reminds me of my late brother Josh, who had a lot of jobs other people looked down upon. He had his demons, but one of the best ways for him to keep them at bay was by being needed—as a tow truck driver, a fish deliveryman, and as a volunteer down at the site where the World Trade Center once stood).
My friend Guy Benson had a good idea the other night.
I love this idea, but I’d broaden it out to everybody who’s getting it done for the greater good: the delivery guys and the truck drivers, the grocery cashiers and the short order cooks. By all means, give the nurses and the doctors a bigger float at the front of the parade, but let’s honor everybody. They’ve earned it.
A quick plug for capitalism.
Speaking of the greater good: A lot of the folks looking to modify or replace “unfettered capitalism”—from the socialists to the “common good” conservatives—work from the assumption that the market can’t provide the feeling of solidarity that we all have during a crisis. This is a very old idea. It was old when Benito Mussolini was promising to bring the “socialism of the trenches” to the streets of Rome and Milan. And it was an old idea when kings and emperors scoffed at the idea of freeing their serfs.
And on one level, they are right (as I discuss at length in my book, now out in paperback).
This is why I keep harping on the importance of institutions, family, and local communities—because that is where you can find that sense of belonging and meaning. Teaching good character is vital, because only those with rightly-formed consciences and a sense of decency can be relied upon to value the things worth valuing. But that education begins in the crib and builds upwards and outwards from there.
A lot of rhetoric from politicians these days notwithstanding, very few doctors and nurses are going into hospitals for “America.” They’re going in out of a sense of personal duty, of obligation to their patients, their colleagues, their hospitals, and their local communities. The sheriffs in rural communities shopping for older citizens may be patriotic as hell, but they’re doing what they’re doing for people they know, people they live with; they’re doing it because they’re needed and have a taste for earned success.
The new collectivists want more “cooperation,” and that’s fine. But what they miss is that the market is the most cooperative system ever created. It allows people of different faiths, lifestyles, and even nationalities to cooperate with each other over vast spaces to satisfy specific wants and needs. Its only drawback is that it doesn’t feel cooperative, because it is so good at fostering cooperation without coercion.
There is no federal office one could create that can manufacture that sense of duty and belonging. I’m open to the idea that the federal government could make life easier for communities, families, and institutions to do the work only they can do. But no “Czar of Programs for the Common Good” can deliver what must be taken from life. If I can be forgiven for indulging in precisely the kind of treacle I started out condemning, meaning in life comes from the journey, not the destination. If I drop you off at the top of Mt. Everest via helicopter, you don’t have the right to brag in the way the people who hiked up on their own do. Meaning can’t be delivered, it must be found.
Which is why I so often say: The government can improve your net worth, but not your self-worth, and your self-worth comes from earned success and the good character that allows you to recognize what that means. If I could earn success for my daughter, I’d be tempted to do it. But I can’t and neither can the government.
The free market creates opportunities for people to find what is meaningful to them. The Adrian Vermeules start from the premise that the pursuit of happiness is a collective endeavor led from Washington (or maybe Rome?), and that meaning can be delivered wholesale from above when it can only be discovered from below—at least when we’re not at war.
The market, when it functions properly according to the rule of law, creates opportunities for people to find their niche. It’s a medium for human flourishing. It’s not perfect, but nothing in this life is. And it’s not guaranteed, of course. But systems that guarantee you a niche in life tend to cram people into slots they would not go if given the choice (Moreover, the guarantees, like the Mt. Everest helicopter shuttle, rob the accomplishments of their flavor.). Some carpenters live profoundly rich lives, full of earned success. But carpentry isn’t for everyone. Feudalism and Communism assign people their lot in life; they tell chefs to be carpenters for their own good. Indeed, so much of this “common good” stuff actually means for your own good.
Freedom works from the assumption that you have a better sense of what’s best for you than someone else does, especially someone who has never met you—and never will. Freedom does not require radical personal autonomy. Friends, family, clergy, teachers, mentors, neighbors, et al., all play a role in helping people find their way in life. Their opinions matter more precisely because they know you, want what is best for you, and to one extent or another, love you. People love people they know (and they love people they create most of all). The government doesn’t love you, because it can’t love you—and neither can the market. But at least the market doesn’t pretend that it can.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: My (human) womenfolk are almost home! For the sake of social distancing, they slept in their car in the parking lot of a Walmart in Nebraska last night (like all good inside-the-beltway globalists do). I can’t begin to tell you how giddy I am about their return. Though my giddiness will be less obvious than that of a certain English Springer Spaniel and Carolina Dog I know. I fear I won’t be able to get the welcoming committee video because they might not get in until extremely late.
There is something slightly bittersweet about my forced confinement with the animals coming to an end. But it would be worse to keep it going much longer.
In terms of dog stories, there is one thing I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. Pippa is nuts. But we knew that. One manifestation of her nuttiness is that increasingly persistent need to go through a strange ritual when it’s time to go out. When the weather is nice, we leave a window open at the foot of the guest room bed. We refer to it as “leaving the TV on for the dogs” because they love to look out the window, particularly Zoë who thinks it vital to keep an eye on the neighborhood. But when Pippa is upstairs watching TV, she will not come when I call her for a walk. I have to go upstairs and ask her to come. When I do this she rolls on her back and asks for belly rubs. Then Zoë charges in and levels a loud “Arooo!” as if to say, “Enough of that. There’s time for spa work later!” And Pippa leaps up and starts barking at me like I’m the one holding up the adventure. It turns out that our midday dog walker has a similar experience. She shows up, the dogs go nuts because they love Kirsten so. Zoë calls shotgun and jumps in the car. But Pippa stays on the middle landing of the back stairs and waits for Kirsten to love bomb her. She has a whole script, “Oh poor Pippa, poor abused Pippa. No one loves you.” After a minute of this Pippa starts bouncing and yelling at Kirsten to explain why she’s holding up the platoon. It’s all very weird.
Anyway, we had a lovely time this morning on a special extra-long hike to mark the end of this chapter. Pippa Pippa’d, Zoë Zoë’d, and for a time when nothing seems right in the world, everything seemed otherwise. When we got back, they took a break from pestering me to entertain themselves.
One of the great things about dogs who are loved is that they earn their success every day. And (some) cats, too.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph of health care workers by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.