Ben Stein is nominally a smart guy, with a degree in economics and a law degree and enough moxie to wangle his way into the movies . . . lives a sort of a charmed life.
Which may be good on one hand, because he runs off the rails sometimes. Bad on the other hand if others follow him off the rails, assuming he’s smart and knows where he’s going.
Stein’s latest droppings at American Spectator include this gross misunderstanding of the drive for justice and equality (all links added here):
But right now, which is Sunday, I am looking in my favorite book, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, for a quote by Hayek about how you cannot clearly associate economic effects with economic causes because so many different circumstances are at work each time.
I cannot find that quote in this edition — maybe a 1976 edition — but I did find a better one from Hayek which I paraphrase here: the attempt at social justice causes more misery than almost any other factor in human life (again, a paraphrase).
Yes. The Communists. The Jacobins. The Communards. The Maoists. The Khmer Rouge. They all caused untold suffering in the phony and vain attempt to make everyone equal… phony because it was just a fig leaf for terrible people to seize power.
We are not supposed to be all equal. Let’s just forget that. We are supposed to have equal rights under law. If we do that, we have done enough. If we try to engineer outcomes, if we overturn tradition to make everyone the same, we ruin society. If we upset tradition to allow for an equal shot at the starting gate, everyone wins, except for the charlatans and would be dictators.
Yet another reason to be a Republican. Give everyone an equal shot — but do not require equal outcomes or even roughly equal outcomes by law. That way lies catastrophe.
Every soul deserves a shot at a Cadillac, but not everyone should be guaranteed a Cadillac… that way lie the tumbrels and the guillotine.
Other groups in history caused untold suffering in the phony and vain attempt to keep everyone from having equal rights. What’s his point, that he’s forgotten history and has so far avoided a visit from Santayana’s Ghost?
Consider the anti-Jacobins, the monarchy and strict class system against which the French revolted — better? The Jacobins themselves were mostly upper-class, including a future King of France among them, and the club being composed almost completely of wealthy people or merchants on the rise, quite like a modern Republican-leaning country club. Does Stein really know this history?
Communards organized and rebelled against a patrician government (think Occupy Wall Street with real venom, tired of eating cats and rats, and with the support of hungry front-line soldiers who sympathized with them). They did not perpetrate misery in support of social justice, not so much as 18,000 Communards were murdered to put down the rebellion and continue the social injustice, several thousands more were executed, and a few thousands were “deported” to prison colonies in New Caledonia. Stein seems to have this history exactly backwards — it was the GOP-style Bismarck-Farve alliance that delivered misery to perpetuate inequality.
One might make a claim that the Maoists in China worked for a degree of a classless society, but not on the scale and not with the success of George Washington — which is probably a clear view into why Mao’s successors beat such a hasty retreat to more capitalistic-bent programs, but still leaving the peasants in the countryside and especially coal miners on the short end of the rights stick. It’s simply fatuous to claim the Khmer Rouge worked to make people equal under the madman dictator Pol Pot. It’s a good, short debate line, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny of history — and remember, it was the communist North Vietnamese Army who chased Pol Pot out of power and restored order to Cambodia.
Consider the Roman Empire (which oddly is more akin to modern U.S. Republicans than the Roman Republic), or Czarist Russia before the Bolsheviks. It’s not like the failed attempts by so-called communists brought down societies that honored equality for citizens. Stein has the telescope of history by the wrong end, which means he really can’t see what he’s claiming to describe.
Did Hayek really say that working for social justice is error? I doubt it. He wrote about wrong-headed attempts to impose social justice, like keeping everyone from having a Cadillac, through formal legal means, or through informal, economic and class means such as closing off opportunities for the poor and middle class to rise. Stein, a Jew with an Ivy League education, should be sensitive to the closing of opportunities, and appreciative that opportunities are generally open in this nation. Religion once operated as keys the doors to Ivy League schools, to the detriment of Jews; once recast, those keys provided a door to economic and intellectual achievement for many Jews.
Stein’s column is titled “A Reason to Be Republican.” Instead he outlines reasons to question the current Republican platform and candidates for the presidency, U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. Somehow he confuses Republican policy with the phrase “Equal Justice Under Law,” the words engraved on the West Portico of the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s useful at such times to remember the building was completed in 1935, and that its design and construction was supervised by Chief Justice William Howard Taft, the former Democrat. It’s also useful to remember that the GOP has fought against those words ever since, but especially after Richard Nixon determined to jettison GOP dedication to civil rights for African Americans, women and Hispanics, in pursuit of electoral success with the votes of bigots from the South angry at the Democratic Party for having successfully pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Stein wrote speeches for Nixon. He should remember that history better, or study it more if he can’t recall.
Especially not the rich should be guaranteed a Cadillac by the government. They already have the money to get what they need; but having money should not confer rights to take everything while walking on the heads of the middle class and poor. Everyone deserves a shot, Stein said. I wish he’d support that claim with his actions, his political contributions, and his endorsement of candidates.
- Interesting essay at, of all places, the American Enterprise Institute, “The Hayek Effect: The Consequences of Planned Austerity,” by Lee Harris. Harris suggests that even when economically correct austerity programs are imposed by government, they fail politically and are, therefore, the wrong thing to do (not that any regular member (Paul Ryan) of the GOP ever pays attention to economists or political scientists who oppose tax and government cuts.
- This paper by Bryan Caplan at George Mason hints at the quote from von Hayek that Stein may have been looking for, that we cannot accurately predict all effects from causes because there are too many variables — but there is no direct quote from him there. Perhaps von Hayek didn’t say it exactly that way – Wikiquote will almost always have a richer store of quotes than Bartlett’s, and there are a lot of good ones at Wikiquote for von Hayek.
- Ben Stein: Romney’s a ‘losing candidate’ (politico.com)
- Ben Stein Calls Out ‘Huge Problem’ For GOP: ‘We Do Not Know Who Mitt Romney Is’ (mediaite.com)
- Ben Stein Is In a New Documentary… (patheos.com)
- “Expelled!” at Pharyngula
- “Ben Stein in a nutshell (appropriately),” at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub
- “Pomposity squared: Ben Stein and R. C. Sproul,” at MFB
- “Ben Stein busted for Godwin’s Law violation,” at MFB
- “Darwin speaks out, sorta,” at MFB