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Saturday, October 01, 2011

Ryan reviews Sachs' ode to nanny-statism, "The Price of Civilization"

Politicians are often credited with op-eds that are published in their names, and that may indeed express their views, but that were mostly written by a staff member or aide. This has been true at least since the days of the Greek and Roman democracies.

When I read Texas Gov. Rick Perry's recent and much-discussed op-ed about Obama's hostility to Israel, my assumption was that Perry didn't write its first draft, and may not have changed a comma in what someone else wrote on his behalf. Perry is nevertheless politically accountable for what it says to the same degree as if he had written it, and there's no reason to think his own views differ a whit from his ghost-writer's. (Indeed, the ghost-writer has failed in his job if his work varies from his principal's views.) Jen Rubin at the WaPo snarked that a "ghostwritten piece so far above [Perry's] current abilities highlights the concern" that "his own foreign policy views are rudimentary." I think that's harsh, but I take her point. Like all governors who run for president, Perry will have to struggle to establish foreign policy bona fides, and that can't be done solely through ghost-written op-eds.

But I was reminded of this topic — politicians and their ghost-writers — just now when I read this review of Jeffrey Sachs' new book, "The Price of Civilization," by someone of whom Ms. Rubin and I are both big fans: Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee. Having heard Mr. Ryan speak extemporaneously, I have no trouble believing that he, personally, penned lines like these:

In "The Price of Civilization," Mr. Sachs is asking the right questions. What is a life well lived? What should our government's role be in building a more virtuous society? What policies should it pursue to promote fulfilling lives for its citizens? If such questions direct us to the moral wisdom of our cultural traditions, they can indeed help to balance the excesses of capitalism and so help us to extend its benefits to all.

Yet Mr. Sachs's gospel of happiness draws not on the inspired tradition of the Founders but rather on the Utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. In the 1780s, Bentham proposed that "happiness," which he equated with "pleasure," could be mathematically measured. It was not sufficient, he thought, for government to protect our rights if it was to vouchsafe our pursuit of happiness. Government must instead quantify "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" and set policies and goals accordingly. There was a science to satisfaction, Bentham claimed, and it was a puzzle that trained experts could solve.

Channeling Bentham, Mr. Sachs calls for the establishment of a national metrics for life satisfaction and sets a 10-year goal to "raise America's happiness." Although the specific measures are hazy, the steps are clear: For people to be happy, their government must increasingly shield them from the challenges of life. The good life is thus defined as one of ever-more pleasure at the expense of work.

But happiness in this world results not from avoiding challenges but from meeting them. Happiness is the recompense of real effort, whether intellectual or physical, and of earned success. It comes from achievement — from doing something of economic, artistic or emotional value. The satisfaction to be taken in producing valuable things brings with it a lasting sense of personal fulfillment. Mr. Sachs's design for paternalistic government will only impede the pursuit of happiness.

Read the whole thing. This man has a talent for communication, and a passion for the ideas he's communicating, but the delivery is simple, fair, and respectful to the views of the skeptical reader. I think that's the secret to Ryan's effectiveness — not just as an explainer, but as a persuader.

And I still wish he were running for POTUS. So this blog's official position continues to be:

Draft Paul Ryan.

Posted by Beldar at 09:28 PM in 2012 Election, Books, Budget/economics, Politics (2011), Ryan | Permalink

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Comments

(1) dchamil made the following comment | Oct 2, 2011 10:53:54 AM | Permalink

The Price of Civilization? Civilization is overpriced. We used to get more civility for less money.

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