SHILO BROOKS: Welcome back to the free mind podcast where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shilo Brooks from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Today's podcast features a lecture by Kevin Williamson, correspondent at National Review, and author of several books, including his most recent book, Big White Ghetto. Williamson, who hosts the Mad Dogs and Englishmen podcast, has worked as a newspaper editor in India, in the United States, served as the theater critic for the New Criterion, and has taught at the King's College New York. His lecture is entitled the Disciplinary Corporation and Benson Center Director Daniel Jacobson, moderates the Q&A.
The Benson Center was delighted to present Williamson's investigation into how progressive business elites have created disciplinary corporations. These corporations demand political and ideological conformism to progressive ideals in exchange for employment, education, and access to technology.
DANIEL JACOBSON: Thanks for joining us. I'm Daniel Jacobsen, Director of the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization. And it's my pleasure to start the last speech, the last talk in our series of the canceled. In recent months, social coercion has become a more effective means of restricting political speech than legal coercion. Campaigns to de-platform and even cancel proponents of these opinions are increasingly frequent. These attempts at cancellation are not merely fair minded criticism. Rather, they invoke efforts to punish those with heterodox views by banishing them from social media, pressuring their employers to fire them, harassing them in public, or threatening their families. These new methods of social coercion have curtailed the range of political views that can be expressed publicly without fear of social sanction.
This series considers the implication of the new cancel culture, the norms that imposes on thought and expression and the conformism it attempts to compel. Tonight, I'm pleased to have with us, Kevin D Williamson. Mr. Williamson is the roving correspondent for National Review and the author of several books, including his most recent Big White Ghetto. He's also written The Smallest Minority, Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics, which this talk is drawn from. I'd like to recommend that I like all of his Williamson's books. But I'd like to recommend the Smallest Minority in particular, as I think just the best expression of what John Stuart Mill referred to as individuality and a defense of individuality, even eccentricity that I've read recently, it's a wonderful book, Mr. Williamson, has worked as a newspaper editor in India and the United States, served as the theater critic for the New York New Criterion and taught at the King's College, New York. His work has appeared everywhere from the Washington Post to Playboy. Tonight, we'll be speaking to us on the Disciplinary Corporation.
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: Alright, thank you so much. I appreciate the introduction. Before I get started, the first thing that really occurred to me when I was preparing my remarks tonight, is that I'm not sure I exactly fit into this series in the way you might think. But I don't think of myself as being someone who was canceled, quote, unquote, or not sure, even really liked the term very much, but as a sort of dislike, sort of internet cliches, I'm not sure they actually do a lot to invigorate or enliven our thinking. In truth, it's really very difficult to keep someone like me from writing, publishing, being in public doing those sorts of things, this new culture of conformism and homogeneity I think is much, much more of a problem for people who are not professionally in the controversy business. And when it comes time to the Q&A, I'm certainly happy to talk about anything you like on that front and the whole episode with the Atlantic and all that business. But I just thought for context, something probably to keep in mind that would be useful to us. Something for you to understand is that for those of us who do this professionally, being attacked by the other side, quote, unquote, is really, really good for business, it's typically a pretty good way to make money, typically a good way to sell more books. So that does raise the question, I think of what the point of the so called cancellation efforts are.
So I was fired by the Atlantic one day. Later in the week, I wrote an essay about it in The Wall Street Journal, and another one in the Washington Post, both of which are much larger and more widely read publications than the Atlantic. So if anything, this effort to keep me from writing actually brought me to the minds of more people. I'm probably better known now than I was before. It's maybe crass to talk about but I think it comes up, or worth thinking about. I almost certainly made more money that year, because I'd been fired by the Atlantic than I would have if I continued to work there the same year, but what really costs you money is opposing your own side, because we are in this very strange tribalistic period in our politics. So I figure being a conservative who was anti Trump probably cost me a significant amount of money over five years, although it was certainly a price I was willing to pay.
So I don't really think of myself as someone who was canceled. And I think that it's important for everyone to keep in mind how much of the media conversation in many ways is phony. I don't think Tucker Carlson wants people coming to his house and screaming at his family and being crazy. And I wish people wouldn't do that. It's bad for our civic culture, and it's just bad behavior. But that kind of stuff actually probably is good for him. In terms of the popularity of his show, his standing as a cultural figure, probably his income and such as well, too. So there's a lot of phoniness in this.
And I used to do the Larry Kudlow show a lot back when he was on CNBC. And several times I was on with Howard Dean, who, at that point, had recently been running the Democratic nomination to be president. And Howard Dean is a really smart, interesting guy. He's been around politics his whole life. So it's kind of fun to talk to you. So we would, you know, sit in the green room and talk for 20 minutes and have a really interesting conversation. And then you know, the camera comes ,the little red light turns on, and he would scream at me and call me a racist and a bigot and whatever else he can think of that day, and then the little red light goes off. And he said, “Can you believe the stuff that just came out of my mouth?” And I remember thinking to myself, well, no, and I don't think you probably believe it either. So media consumers, who are skeptical and who understand the inherent element of theatricality, especially when it comes to television, and radio, which are very, very different from print, in terms of their culture, and their way of building audiences.
So my topic tonight is what I call the “Disciplinary Corporation”, which is my way of instantiating the practice of using employment specifically, as a tool of political and social coercion. Employment is the most common way of doing this. And it's probably the most socially important one right now. But we have seen similar episodes when it comes to access to higher education or other sorts of institutions. So in American life, the individual's relationship with various kinds of institutions, whether there's colleges, or employers or social media platforms, is a really important and influential and critical factor in a lot of people's lives. And so standing between the individual and those institutions is a good way of exercising power over people. This is not something that is without precedent.
We often hear conservatives now talking about McCarthyism, and the Red Scare. And the idea that the moment we currently are in as a sort of second coming of the Red Scare, but I think it actually brings to mind something else that you may not know as much about an episode that is sometimes known as the Lavender Scare. This was a widespread moral panic that was directed at gay men and women that really got underway around the beginning of World War Two, the anti gay crusade that was associated with the anti communist crusade, but it was in many ways distinct from it. Like the anti communist movement, the anti gay movement, at the same time began in the US military and in the State Department. From there, it spread to other branches of government, and from there to high profile businesses, notably in Hollywood. But eventually it was so pervasive that it was being deployed against people who worked as waiters and bartenders in New York City restaurants and nightclubs and things like that.
Now, the rationale at the time, to a large extent on the part of the State Department in the military was, well, we have to keep gay people out of sensitive positions, because they are vulnerable to blackmail. But these things have a way of spreading and metastasizing pretty quickly. I don't think that there were a lot of New York City bartenders in the 1950s and 1960s, who were privy to state secrets, but they were being treated to the same kind of social terrorism that gay people were subjected to and in more high profile positions, in reality throughout the whole episode of The Lavender Scare, not that many people lost their jobs and not that many people faced criminal prosecution, even though there were statutes on the books and a lot of places outlawing homosexual activity. And the truth is they didn't really have to be prosecuted, and they didn't really have to be chased out of their jobs.
Making example of a few people in high profile way was enough to raise the threat of social sanction and terrorize people into silence and compliance, which, of course, was the real point of the entire exercise. There's a documentary made about this. A New Yorker, gay man who lived through it at the time, said that, in the number of firings, the number of criminal prosecutions not really begin to tell the story because the hysteria put up a kind of wall of economic exclusion that kept gay people from being hired from a lot of jobs in the first place. And again, this was first really true for government jobs and high profile corporate jobs, high profile jobs in the entertainment industry, but eventually it was service workers and blue collar workers and in people in non public facing professions. It was in fact, in these much more modest jobs, where that kind of discrimination really persisted the longest.
Most notably, in the case of public school teachers and personnel, those who got past the first obstacle were effectively silenced by the fear of losing their jobs. It's for that reason, just as an interesting aside, at least from my point of view, that in the beginning, there really wasn't any middle class and gay rights movement, because the only people who were really free to agitate for gay rights were the people who were independently wealthy, or people who were already so marginalized, and out of mainstream that employment based sanctions weren't really much of a threat to them. And in some ways, we see a similar pattern in our own time, when only really the independently wealthy and the anonymous, along with a few professional controversialists, such as myself really have a very free range of expression that's effective rather than hypothetical. So it's worth paying some attention.
I think to when all this got underway, because I think it also said some light on our time, for somehow the United States military got by for its first 165 years, without having any sort of anti homosexual policy on the books. And Hollywood, up until the time of World War Two, wasn't producing a ton of gay content, obviously, but there were homosexual characters and scenarios and films since the time of Charlie Chaplin, we saw that in films like City Lights, where they're homosexual innuendos, and references. And these were typically played in a really very non controversial way, unlike in later films like Shirley MacLaine and the Children's Hour playing a lesbian who hangs herself in despair, because that was really the only way that sort of life could be presented in Hollywood at the time.
But this really changed after the Great Depression after World War Two, which presented a real crisis for American masculinity in the form of millions of unemployed breadwinners during the Depression. And then a crisis for the family as domestic life was disrupted, with husbands going off to war, and mothers and wives only to work in the factories. And so we've seen these anti gay initiatives really start to take off around 1940 and then accelerate in the immediate post war era, great moral crusades are almost always accompanied by great moral panics during such a crusade or panic, it is very important for people to understand their own side, as heroic and morally pure, while the opposition must be understood as entirely degenerate. And that was really what the conversation was, at this time when it came to the social situation of gay men and gay women.
It's my view that the case of the people who today are protesting excessive police violence, racism, and other aspects, bigotry are basically on the right side, even if I disagree with some of their political preferences and conclusions. But it also surely must be the case that Senator McCarthy and Richard Nixon and the rest of the anti communist associated with the Red Scare, were on the right side too, the worldwide communist enterprise killed something on the order of 100 million people in the 20th century, to oppose it, and to oppose it vigorously was the right thing to do. But people who are on the so-called “right side” of history, as we now say, are capable of doing great evil. And they're also capable of doing petty evil. And petty evil tends to be much more common, I think, than great evil. So the official discrimination against homosexuals that began in earnest in the US military in 1940, is partly based on moral disgust. But it was also partly based on the advice of scientists and on the assessment of practical minded men who argued that tolerating homosexuality would hurt the military by undermining its reputation. Arguing, as I said, before the gay men were a security risk because they were subject to blackmail, things of that nature, never seems to occur to anyone, by the way that the reason gay men were, I say gay men, because was mostly men in these situations, were vulnerable to blackmails, because they would lose their jobs if they were exposed as homosexuals.
And I was sort of circular reasoning, because if these institutions simply would say, we don't fire people for being gay, then the threat of blackmail would have been well, not entirely, your race certainly greatly diminished by taking away the possibility of of job loss as retribution for how they conducted private lives. So the people who said they were worried about blackmail were in many ways at the center of the problem. And that's an example I think of where institutions really matter. We should keep in mind that particularly socially, liberal people who right now feel like they have the power and want to use it to marginalize or even silence people who disagree with them. You should keep in mind that it's really very easy for demagogues and fanatics to push around institutions in the 1950s and 1960s, it was largely right wing demagogues pushing around the State Department and Hollywood and the US government.
We've got demagogues of different political persuasion doing it now in different institutions. Google and Yale instead of the State Department and Hollywood, but the dynamic is really always the same and in particular is the politics, the politics can change quickly and more easily than you might expect. So the threat of excluding people from the kind of employment and incomes that they might otherwise expect to enjoy in life turned out to be a really, really effective tool for the suppression of gay people. And it still is, to some extent, the Los Angeles gay and lesbian center argues that there's still a lot of pressure on gay A list stars to either deny or downplay their homosexuality, mostly driven by the fact that Hollywood is really very risk averse place. It's a very old fashioned business in lots of ways. And it has to deal with the fact that particularly for big blockbuster movies, a lot of the revenue comes from overseas audiences, which often tend to be much more socially conservative than American audiences.
And again, this is a line of argument that you hear when it comes to people who, in our current climate, want to exclude people, they say, well, you know, this guy works at Google, and he's got bad opinions, this is gonna make people uncomfortable, and they may lose business. So we should just get rid of these people. Because that's, you know, the smart business thing to do. That argument can always be turned around and can be turned around on things that you think are important, and that you think ought to be tolerated or even celebrated. So I don't know that today's csncell culture warriors are really self consciously modeling their efforts on the tactics that were used in the Lavender Scare era on Hollywood nonconformists and sexual outlaws in the State Department. But I do know this, if they were modeling their crusade on that earlier moral panic, they wouldn't be doing anything differently from what they're doing right now. And the social background is in many ways, I think the same, the Lavender Scare came after a war and an economic crisis.
And we've seen our own politics certainly made more polarized, more paranoid, more angry, and confrontational by recent economic turmoil. I'm particularly thinking here about the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the Great Recession, which have left really enduring marks on the working lives and income of people who were in their early 20s. At that time, those who are now in their 30s have a sense of being left behind, since they aren't going to be able to achieve many of the economic and professional goals that they had hoped they had. The less dramatic, but I think ultimately more important cultural effect at work here comes from what we call for lack of a better term globalization, which has given rise to a new sense of economic insecurity among Americans, both from the very young to those at the end of their working lives, and across many different occupations and different kinds of income levels.
It's been something that has left the country in the world as a whole, considerably better off in real economic terms, but has provided new sources of stress and anxiety to people. And people tend to react to that through shared culture and shared community. And recently, that means particularly politics, and the weird kind of degenerate form of politics that is practiced on social media. I particularly feel some sympathy for people who are of college age right now, who were born after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Because that event really changed American culture and American public life, for the worse in really dramatic ways. It's sort of a curdled, paranoid, bitter mood that descended on the culture shortly after that, and it's never really gone away. And of course, people who are 20 years old now or are 21 years old now have really never known anything different. And it's increasingly impossible to get people to understand that there is a really very radically different and more tolerant and liberal form of social conversation available to people because they've simply never experienced it, never seen what it was like.
The paranoid attitude, and the parallels between the persecution of gay people in Hollywood in 1950s and 1960s. And Conservatives in the current environment may seem to you be labored, but I think it's worth noting that conservative groups, particularly in Hollywood, have self consciously mimic the strategies and personal security practices of gay people in 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood, I'm thinking impure groups like friends of Ayub, which is a kind of anonymous support group for people who are in film and television and publishing and other creative businesses who are Conservatives or Republicans who are terrified of being out, so to speak about that. And I think that is something again, that we see spreading through other aspects of government and culture. If you were an agricultural economist in 2016. If you were offered a job in the Trump administration, you might want to take that job because you're a specialist and you want to influence the direction of agricultural policy and see this as a really good opportunity to do that.
You would really have to think twice about ready to do it because you would have to worry about social sanctions if you wanted to go back to an academic career, which of course is where most economists spend most of their lives, and worry about being excluded after serving in government for four years. And this would be true even if someone who didn't really see the world, the way Donald Trump does doesn't share his kind of dopey nationalistic politics, but simply was looking for an opportunity to work in government and was offered one by a president who was particularly controversial. Now, the Trump administration was unusual, and it was awful in many unusual ways. But the same kind of retaliatory ethic is going to be something that is applied to Republican administrations going forward. And again, if you think this is something that can only happen to Conservatives, though it's not, it depends on the character of the institution that you are in.
Alexi McCammon, who was very briefly the editor of Teen Vogue, is a young black progressive woman, she is no Trumpist in a right winger, but she was driven out of her position on much the same arguments that we see deployed against people and other sorts of so-called cancellation situations. So in that respect, conservatives aren't monsters, we're just ahead of the curve. I think it's interesting to talk about why they focus on employment, I mean, there are lots of ways to try to persuade people who have views that you don't have. And there are lots of ways to try to sanction or punish people who have views that you think are destructive. Although I think that we probably should be really, really careful about that and draw a very, very large circle of what we are willing to more or less tolerate, both officially and unofficially.
That's one thing to say I don't want to be friends with this person, I'm not going to invite this person to my dinner party, and quite a different thing to say, well, this person belongs to a different political party than I do, and therefore must be financially ruined because he holds opinions that I don't approve of. And this becomes really extreme and really crazy really quickly.
Some of you will remember the controversy surrounding Covington Catholic High School, in which there were some high school kids who were accused falsely, as it turns out of having behaved badly toward a Native American on a school trip to Washington, you've probably seen the famous photo of Nick Sandmann. Wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap, apparently, in what looks like a confrontation with an older, Native American. What you may not know is that there was a serious effort made to track down the parents of other children who happen to just be counts captured in that same photo to find those parents employers can pressure them into firing those parents from their jobs, because their minor children are on a school trip with someone who was caught in a photograph doing something that may have been but as it turns out, wasn't really reprehensible.
That is not normal behavior, mentally healthy people do not behave that way. But that is really where our political culture and our political conversation is right now. There's a wonderful article I would recommend to you. I think it was maybe written in the late 1980s or early 1990s, by a Yale scholar named Robert Ellickson. And it's called Of Coase and Cattle. The coase in the title refers to Ronald Coase, the father of the Coase theorem, which I'm sure you're all familiar with. And this is an interesting study about how neighbors solve property disputes in a place called Shasta County, California, which at that time was a very rural farming and ranching area. And I won't go into the whole case of the article for you. But what Ellickson discovered was that people were able to solve their disputes with their neighbors in a relatively efficient and cooperative fashion, because they lived in a world in which they expected to have lots of social interactions with these people in different contexts, over a long period of time. And that really changes how people behave toward one another. So if you've got a fence line dispute with someone, you don't know, that's a very different situation from having a fence line dispute with someone who you've known for 20 years, who also goes to your church, who may be a client of the business that you own or work at. These are very, very different kinds of relationships. And these are not the kind of relationships that you get on social media, where people don't have any social context. They don't have any expectation of richer, ongoing social interaction. So you get this very sort of snap, angry, confrontational way of interacting with one another. So we don't live in a society of small clan groups and intimate, stable, lifelong relationships.
Increasingly, because of globalization, we do not work our whole lives for one or two big companies, the way people my parents' generation might have or your grandparents or great grandparents generation might have. Americans don't move as much for work as they probably should. But a lot of us do move a lot for work, which tends to reduce our ties to particular communities and geographic areas. We tend to get married later in life and more of us don't get married at all. We tend to have children later in life, fewer children, and more of us don't have children at all. Church attendance declined, those sorts of things. And all those things put together, what you find is a lot of the things that once really moored a life, and gave it a sense of context and meaning and relationship have either gone away entirely for a lot of people or they've been radically diminished.
And people are a very status driven species, we are always looking for how we relate to other people, and where our tribe is, where our clan is, and where our status is within that group. And if we don't have these normal, healthy sources of relationship, we don't just simply do without, we go looking for new ones. And we discover dysfunctional destructive ones, which is really what politics on social media is about. It's interesting, if you look at the polling, there is a lot of agreement among Democrats and Republicans on issues that we think of as being relatively controversial. So there's pretty widespread agreement, for instance, in favor of a higher minimum wage. I think it's a bad policy myself, but it's a very, very popular policy. There is really widespread agreement 80%-85%, on restricting abortions, and third trimester, that's something that you wouldn't know if you only read the debates about abortion that go back and forth on social media, or on cable news, which is essentially social media with a really high productive production budget.
So these disagreements aren't really about policy. And they aren't really basically about values, either. They're really about tribe and identity, and status. And once you understand that, a lot of this stuff makes a lot more sense. So we don't live in an old fashioned world in which you get status from your community, your church, your family, or your particular place. Instead, we live in a very globalized world of mass culture, mass politics, mass media, mass consumption, mass travel, or at least we did before the plague. Hopefully, we will get back to that soon, the individual can feel really very small in a world like that. And one of the ways that individuals stabilize and amplify their lives is through association with institutions that used to be local communities, churches, things like that. Now, it tends to be employers, hence the disciplinary corporation but also universities, and things of that nature. So most of us don't work as independent entrepreneurs, or as small scale traders, have the best jobs, unless you happen to be someone who founds a successful company, tend to be salaried positions in large organizations, our status and our social status is really largely dependent on these things.
If you went to Princeton and work for Goldman Sachs, you have one kind of life and if you went to Texas Tech, and work for Texas State Bank, you have a different kind of life. Now, in both cases, you're a college graduate and a banker. That's where the similarities really end. And this is not just about financial life. It's about cultural and social life, too. There are a lot of people who have jobs like mine that provide incomes that you can't complain about. They're perfectly comfortable and fine, but whose institutional affiliations give them access to a level of life that often isn't enjoyed by people who are much wealthier, much higher income than we are. If you're someone who writes for The New York Times, you have much more access to elite life and institutions and experiences than you do if you're a car dealer in Dallas, Texas, who makes 11 times as much money and that’s really the reason for the focus on excluding political and social nonconformists from employment, and to a lesser but increasingly significant extent from higher education, especially at elite universities.
You probably know the story of Mimi Groves, who was forced out of the University of Tennessee because of a video of her using a racial slur when she was 15 years old, a classmate who sort of ambushed her with it says he sat on the video until he could use it to do maximum damage to her in this case by destroying her career as a college cheerleader. The New York Times amplified, and further the story. And this leaves me asking the question, why, for what purpose? In my own particular case, if the idea was to keep me from writing and communicating the things that I want to write and communicate, this did not help. If you are trying to improve the situation with racism and racial relations in the United States, probably University of Tennessee freshman cheerleaders are not the place to start, especially a fair. Maybe they have grown up a little since they were 15 years old. Part of this, I think, is just that it feels good to hurt people that you hate. And that is an unworthy and unattractive thing about human beings. But it's true. And we find ourselves indulging those sorts of tastes much more than we should. But again, I think this is ultimately a contest for control of institutions.
And it's really up to institutions to be the ones to stand up to this. I used to say, pretty often, that I was proud of the New York Times because the New York Times for years simply said no to efforts by people to try to get them to fire right Are your other employees for having unpopular opinions, they for years just sort of blew that off. And I thought that was great, because you know, you're the New York Times, you can afford to do that, you've got a name that matters, you've got a stable business model. And you've got the institutional resources to weather that kind of criticism. Now, for various reasons, the Times doesn't do that anymore. They've shown themselves now quite willing to be bullied, not by outsiders so much, but by their own staffers, into imposing those kinds of sanctions. We certainly saw it at the Atlantic, we've seen it in other places, as well, we see it places like Google, we see it and other kinds of institutions.
And one thing I think that is worth keeping in mind, for context, is that losing a job for the reasons I went into earlier, is a real disruption in someone's life. And it's not just a financial disruption, there are lots of people who can afford to lose their job and not work for a few months or a few years. But losing a job disrupts lives in other ways. And it's worth remembering that for men, losing your job is more likely to be a prelude to divorce than marital infidelity. So you're more likely to have your marriage breakup over a job loss, than you are over an affair. That's an interesting piece of knowledge. I think that really speaks to the ways in which our relationships are the institutions that determine our status in the world, far beyond what our paychecks look like. So there's a lot more at stake here than income and health insurance in your 401k.
And so the corporation naturally becomes the inevitable cultural and political battleground of our time. And because the corporation is one of the principal means through which modern life is lived, it's really useful as a choke point for imposing various kinds of political and social discipline. This is true both at the elite level and economical level. Now, there's some obvious downsides to this, I would think it would be obvious to progressives, at least as obvious to them is that as conservatives, but apparently it isn't. People on the left for years presented themselves as being the check on corporate power, being the people who didn't want the world being run by businesses. And now they are essentially taking the attack once they think the power is on their side. And they believe that the corporate future looks more like Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook than it does like Sam Walton and Jamie Morgan. And they may be right about that, in the long term, using corporate risk aversion and the standards of conduct developed down in the human resource department to define not only the boundaries of public and private ethics, but also the limits of acceptable political and social discourse seems to be a terrible idea, and a potentially catastrophic one. And lead has to do in no small part with the nature of corporate life.
And I want to give you two examples of different kinds of corporate culture that lead to very different kinds of outcomes. First one is McDonald's. I worked for Burger King when I was a kid, which is a pretty good job but McDonald's is a much more interesting company. I covered the opening of the first McDonald's in India a long time ago. It was really kind of an interesting experience. McDonald's love it or hate it, it is a remarkably successful business enterprise. And it's famous for its ability to achieve consistency of products across various markets in radically different conditions. And that's an interesting story in and of itself. But what's really interesting about me to McDonald's is its innovation culture.
So McDonald's is a place that tries lots and lots of new things, lots of new menu items, lots of new ways of packaging, and selling and marketing things. And they do this in the knowledge that most of these new things are going to fail. McDonald's is a place that has a really, really low cost attached to failure. And the idea for that I think, is pretty intelligent. It's sort of a portfolio model. Book publishing works the same way. Most books that are published will either lose a little bit of money, or just kind of barely break even or just make a tiny bit of money. And most of the money that's made by pulsars is made by a very small number of runaway bestsellers. But nobody knows which books those are going to be. So you buy a lot of books. And the idea is that some of these things will succeed wildly, some of them won't, and you try to make the balance work in your favor.
McDonald's works roughly the same way with menu items and things like that. They try a lot of stuff. Most of it doesn't work. But then every now and then you get, you know, a MC rib or something crazy like that, that shouldn't be good, but people like it. And I think that's a really interesting social model too, because I think you want to have the same kind of innovation, social life. The other business story that I would attach to this is a similar company, which is the Coca Cola company. And because you college students are young, you don't remember this, but in the 1980s, Coke thought it had a problem in competition with Pepsi. And it needed to make a new formulation of coke in order to compete more effectively with Pepsi. And rather than try new things and put them out on the market and see what worked and what didn't They took the opposite approach.
They took the world's greatest soft drink developers and scholars of soft drinks and product development people in marketing and management people and consumer research specialists and advertising people and dietary scholars, management consultants, all that and they put them into a room. And they worked for, I don't know, 18 months or something like that. And they took all the best experts in this field, all the best experts, into thinking of a new product, which was known as New Coke. And it was an absolute catastrophe, it was a fiasco, and had to be pulled off the market after a relatively short period of time. And the old thing reintroduced, and I don't make this comparison flippantly. I think it is actually a useful and worthwhile comparison that all of the experts thought the new Coke was going to be successful.
And all of the experts in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s argued that the persecution of gay people was necessary on medical, social, national security and political grounds that this was the thing to do. These people had, you know, some sort of horrible mental disease that had to be policed and repressed. And, and they had to be driven out of public life, less they actually endanger the broader society. This is not to say we should discount expertise, expertise is really important. We live in a very complex world in which we have to deal with a lot of really technical questions, and questions that involve a lot of data and perspective, and experience. And we should be grateful to the people who spend their lives developing expertise in a particular area. But we should be modest about how sure we are of ourselves.
Because we are as likely to be wrong about important things today, as our parents and our grandparents and our great grandparents were in the 1920s, 1930s, the 1950s and 1960s. Human beings have not made some sort of grand evolutionary loop leap from where we were a few generations ago. And now we are somehow liberated from our tendency to be driven by errors and lack of insight and lack of perception. We should be really, really modest about this. So if you want to have a society that is innovative and dynamic, something that is more like the successful version of McDonald's and less likely failure of New Coke, you wind up deciding which cheap and easy to be wrong about things, including to be wrong about important things, including morally important things in order to encourage experimentation and innovation. This isn't to say we shouldn't have any rules, we shouldn't have any laws, we shouldn't have any moral standards. Of course we should. But the bar for social sanctions should be pretty high. There's a world of difference between being someone who physically attacks trans people in the streets and beats him up. And someone who has minority views about controversial issues related to them like Ryan Anderson, whose book has been banned by Amazon or Paul McHugh, who used to be the head of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins whose work has been targeted because he's got unpopular views about transgender issues.
If you want a society that is stagnant and stultified and intellectually and economically in decline, then enforcing intellectual conformism and homogeneity is a really good way to get there. And the sort of soft social terrorism we are currently using to enforce that kind of homogeneity is a recipe for particularly and exactly that kind of mediocrity. If you want the other kind of society. And you need a really wide open public square. There's no way of having a healthy, dynamic and vibrant society without having one that makes room for deep disagreements, including disagreements about important things and morally important things. So I appreciate your time. And I'm happy to take questions about whatever it is you'd like to talk about.
DANIEL JACOBSON: Thank you very much, Kevin. I knew approximately what you were going to say. But it's delightful to hear you say it. I'm going to start out with a rather charming question that I will elaborate on a little bit because it's a bit elliptical.
KEVIN WILLIAMS: Okay.
DANIEL JACOBSON: Someone asks whether you can comment on Milton Friedman's 1970 New York Times article, “The Social Responsibility of Businesses to Increase its Profit”. I remember being scandalized by that article when I was seven, when I read it. Seriously, though, I think there's a serious question behind this. And I want to suggest that we try to flesh it out in the way that I think that was probably intended. So surely, corporations are not morally let alone legally responsible to absorb financial losses due to the unpopular speech of their employees. However, in the cases that you've been talking about, it seems hard, at least for me, to believe that corporate discipline was imposed for the sake of profit. Rather, as you put it in your book, dissidents are fired by pressure from the barbarians within the gates, both young employees or in the university context, students and cadre of faculty who are full of self righteousness. Whatever one might think about their self righteousness, if so, can we wonder whether it's a market? If you agree with that, and of course, feel free to disagree, then you can wonder whether there's a market solution to this at all. If there's a market for sports without politics, for news without fact checks that are thinly veiled partisan hit jobs and the like? Or is, or is that, do you not see that happen?
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: Yeah, I'm you know, I'm a pretty, pretty hardcore, libertarian free market guy. But I don't think that markets provide solutions to all problems. Economic means are a really good way of solving economic problems. But we're not really talking here principally about an economic problem, we're talking about a social problem that has economic aspects. So Friedman's argument I think is really a very interesting one, and one that people don't understand very well. And often they don't understand because they've got very strong incentives to not understand it.
So what Friedman is getting to is something called the Agent Principal Problem, which is the fact that corporations are owned by their shareholders that are run by their management's and the management and shareholders don't necessarily have the same interests. Whether those interests are financial, or cultural or otherwise. And Friedman's argument assumes that shareholders own shares in order to make money. That's what corporations are there to do. And now I think Friedman or anyone else would say that if shareholders decide they want their company to do something else, then they're certainly within their rights to do that. But typically, what businesses do is they make money. That's not to say that the profit motive is some sort of moral “get out of jail free” card. You know, Milton Friedman was not going to say, “Well, yeah, IBM murdered 30,000 people this year, but their quarterlies look great.” You know, that's not how we actually think about these things, you talk about those things because that's not reality.
So I think that when you're talking about things like, you know, Amazon's increasing political orientation, which I think is an interesting question, because it's not Jeff Bezos’ political views. Bezos to the extent that he's got any kind of real public political profile apparently is sort of a reason magazine, libertarian type guy. Maybe, you know, socially a bit to the left of your median Washington libertarian, but certainly someone whose views would not be terribly far away from that of someone like Nick Gillespie, again, that's my understanding, I've never met Jeff Bezos, I've never had a chance to ask him about it. He's not some crazy flaming left winger. But he runs a business that is based in the culture of Silicon Valley, which is run by people like that. And people respond to social pressure. And wealthy people respond to social pressure, just like people who aren't wealthy.
And the Amazon situation to me has been really disappointing, because Bezos when it was just about him has actually shown himself really willing to stand up to some things. I’m thinking particularly of the episode in which the National Enquirer was essentially trying to blackmail him. And he went public, with some embarrassing stuff about his personal life, in order to prevent that from happening, and he wrote at the time, you know, “if I can afford to stand up to these people who can?” Well, you know, if you can't afford to stand up to the people who want to censor Ryan Anderson's book, who can? I don't think we can live very long in a situation in which our biggest bookseller is also our biggest book banner. I don't think that's going to work very well. So I'm not sure that Friedman and his argument about shareholder rights and shareholder interest really applies to this in a direct kind of way. There is some space between corporate managements and corporate shareholders in terms not only of their financial incentives, but also their political and cultural preferences.
DANIEL JACOBSON: You've already [inaudible] yourself a bit from the phrase, “cancel culture”, or the canceled. Of course, I named the title of this series but..
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: I hate cliches like that. And I particularly hate sort of social media cliches. Like, I wrote a book called The Case Against Trump. But I've never described myself as you know, “hashtag Never Trump” or use that sort of language, because it's just dumb. And it's irritating. So I'm sorry to cut you off, please go ahead.
DANIEL JACOBSON: It's fine. I was just going to say…
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: So I mean, you know, I'm not complaining about the title of the series or anything. But we tend to lean into these shopworn phrases a little too strongly.
DANIEL JACOBSON: That's fine. You have a reputation for being offensive to everyone. And I'm…[Inaudible]. I wanted to say that I actually liked the title for different reasons. I won't get into this. This is your night. Clearly. It's correct that for someone in your position, the notoriety that you got from the Atlantic episode was good for your career. That's, as you say, I mean, I’ll take your word for it.
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: Enough to buy a real nice new car. Probably. You know, not like a Ferrari, but maybe a Bentley? Yeah. The anti Trump stuff more than evened it out, unfortunately.
DANIEL JACOBSON:As your talk clearly indicates you realize full well that most people who are the targets of this, these sorts of attacks aren't as fortunate as you are to be in a position where gaining this even negative publicity is in a sense, good publicity, at least if you have a thick enough skin. So I personally find myself having mixed feelings about, for instance, this latest Teen Vogue episode that you mentioned. That is, although my principles are against the firing of the editor, whose name I've forgotten, it's hard for me to overlook the fact that Teen Vogue has gone off the rails sometime. I'm not a subscriber, I have to confess. But Teen Vogue. I mean, for people who don't know, for the last two years, they've been running articles on Marxism and various forms of sexual practices. It's a bizarre turn that Teen Vogue has taken.
Now she wasn't fired for that. But I see a parallel with academia. Which is obviously something I'm more familiar with, that is, you might think about the whole enterprise has been corrupted to a point where it's a bit hard, at least for me, to be too unhappy about people being held to norms that they've imposed on others. Does that just show I'm no better than the rest, or is that…
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: You know, I think this is a case of Mahatma Gandhi and an eye for an eye leaving the whole world blind. I mean, he's tending to say, your rules, and hope you enjoy it. And I know that is satisfying to people in some ways. But if this really is, as I argue that it is a case of institutional behavior, and only going to be solved through different kinds of institutional behavior, and someone's got to be the first mover, and say, you know, not only do we not accept this for ourselves, we also don't accept it for people we disagree with. And we also don't accept it for people we actively don't like and we think are bad people or have bad ideas that are bad for the country and whatnot, someone has to be the responsible party.
Now, that's not going to come out of the political system. I mean, the American political system managed to run Donald Trump against Joe Biden, in 2020. This is not a group of serious people, it's not going to produce serious outcomes. The real tragedy of the 2016 presidential election with Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump is that it wasn't a race for mayor of New York, a job that both of them probably would have been pretty good at. Neither one of them had any business being anywhere close to the American presidency. But we have a very unserious political situation because it has been made into a form of performance art, and a kind of group therapy. Our political conversation is sort of one part role playing game, and one part group therapy. And so it's, you know, we're the good guys, and you're the bad guys, we're the white hats, you're the black hats. And we have to, you know, engage in this kind of, you know, ritual demonization of people who don't have our views, you don't belong to our tribe.
And it really is kind of a, you know, 1960s Belfast, Catholics and Protestants sort of thing, where you've got two camps of people who don't actually really disagree on that much about the theology but still hate each other. And it doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's, it's where we are.
DANIEL JACOBSON: How is the Disciplinary Corporation similar? And how is it different from what we commonly call cancel culture?
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: Yeah, I think that, um, my emphasis is understanding the role of employment in people's lives, and the role of relationships between individuals and institutions. So I think it's a more useful phrase because it puts the word Corporation in there. We're in an interesting period of time where there's been a real shift in power away from nation states toward business entities, including some very, very powerful corporations. At the same time, corporations in general aren't as strong as they used to be. So for instance, we see corporate life expectancies are shortening. It used to be the case that a company that was, you know, in the Dow Jones Industrial Average could expect to be in business for 80 or 85 years or something like that. I think the numbers now are 17, something along those lines. So we've seen some changes in the way power is distributed in societies in the developed world, and which has increasingly affected the entire world, and the role of corporations. And, of course, for profit business corporations are not the only kind of corporation and their nonprofits, there are churches, there are educational entities. And these nests and networks of relationships, I think, are something that should be at the center of our understanding of this phenomenon.
DANIEL JACOBSON: Why do you think Americans are so prone to conspiracy theories? Do you think there's something unique within American culture that fosters conspiratorial thinking?
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: I don't think it's unique to us. But we have a particular taste for it. I mean, there's a lot of conspiracy thinking in the rest of the world. The Middle East is really, really conspiracy driven, and in its political culture. India, which is a place that I know a little bit about having lived and worked there, has quite a bit of that as well. So conspiracy theories in the United States are part of what I was characterizing earlier as a role playing game. So about a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago, I went to a convention of Flat Earthers. And it wasn't the Flat Earth Society, it was the international Flat Earth [inaudible], there are two big Catholic and Protestant side Earth movements.
DANIEL JACOBSON: That was a problem as you went to the wrong one.
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: Yeah, I went to the wrong one, obviously. And, you know, talking to the people there, and there's a lot of you know, there's a lot of overlap between flat, earthers and Q and that kind of stuff. And a lot of these people don't literally believe the things they say they believe. They don't believe there's a basement underneath the pizza shop in Washington, where Hillary Clinton is chopping up kids and feeding them to Jeffrey Epstein, who's not really dead and whatever they pretend to believe. But it's a story that puts everyone in the right place. So it's a way to ritually insult and lower the status of people you hate. To cast yourself and your allies and your cultural colleagues as the heroes. There's a certain status that comes from the person who really, being the person who really knows the secret truth, because you're smart, and you figured it out, and no one else has. And that's really the social role I think of conspiracy theories, but also a kind of analgesic.
You know, the thing I always tell people is that I've spent a lot of time around people in politics. I've known a lot of people in Congress. I've spent, you know, time speaking with a couple of presidents, have spent time talking to kind of, you know, ordinary bureaucrats and Hill staffers and things like that people who really make up you know, kind of day to day life in Washington. And the thing I learned from being in DC, was that most of the people who work there are intelligent, honest, well intentioned, public minded, civically spirited, people. And this is the best they can do. That's the really scary truth. It's much more comforting, I think, to say, well, this is actually something that's, you know, Queen Elizabeth has been running since the 1950s. And it's this secret cabal of literate people and everything would be fine if it wasn't for them.
We want to simplify the complex. And we want to bring down that which is high to a lower level where it's easy to understand. So if the thing that's wrong with the country is there are people we don't like, and they're getting rich by screwing us. And by messing everything up behind the scenes. That's a pretty comforting story. If the actual story is “wow, the world is complex and we can’t actually accomplish a lot of the things that we want to. And the government can't necessarily do the right thing even if we all agree on what it is because there are information problems and there are problems of incentives and problems having to do with complexity, that make things come out not the way we intended, and that all of our best intentions and our purest motives can produce horrifying results as they as they have over the years.” You see this in the really extreme political outcomes.
You know, the people who fought the Russian Revolution, didn't want to build a nightmare state of gulags, but that's where they ended up. I don't think most of the people around the Chinese Communists in Mao's era wanted to inflict the kind of nightmare on their people that they did. But they did. Now our situation isn't that extreme, obviously. But it's the same principle in the sense that nobody wants the current situation. Nobody really wants these outcomes. No one wants our healthcare system to look the way it does. No one wants K through 12 education to suck as hard as it does around the country. No one wants police who are irresponsible and trigger happy. But this is the system we've nonetheless managed to build for ourselves out of the interaction of our conflicting motives and incentives and information.
DANIEL JACOBSON: You care a lot about language, you write a weekly column that is dedicated in part to language. That makes me wonder about whether an aspect of our current situation hasn't been exacerbated, if not caused by a certain trend in language that I associate with George Lakoff at Berkeley, but that’s just one person who's been advocating this.
So, in addition, you point out that it feels good to hurt people that you don't like. And sadly, that seems to be a human phenomenon, which is surely amplified by social media, anonymity and a variety of things. But you also emphasize the sort of role playing aspect of things. But isn't it also true that there are a class of true believers who are influenced in part by the fact that they can now, that they call, for instance, to success or ideology? Is that sometimes referred to as anti racism? And hence, if you are the anti racist or Antifa, for that matter, it goes exactly the same way. And you see on social media, but also repeated by people who are intelligent enough that they, some of them at any rate, shouldn't buy this argument. What's the opposite of anti racism? Is it to be anti anti racism? Well, it's to be racist. What is it to be anti anti antifa in default? Well, it's to be fascist.
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: Yeah, I think that, um, it isn't so much a problem of our political languages, or our political thinking, which is unknownst and unsophisticated. So, Lyndon Johnson had a certain view of anti poverty programs, I think it was the wrong view. I think these programs are based on bad thinking. And I think they produce bad outcomes, doesn't mean anyone's in favor of poverty. Now, most honest, people can have that conversation and understand that. Most honest people can say, “well, I understand you think affirmative action is a bad idea, or you think the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a bad piece of legislation”, it doesn't mean that you endorse racism, that doesn't mean you want to keep African Americans disenfranchised, and repressed in those sorts of things. But if you're treating it as a team sport, you know, it's us, and them role playing game thing, then you have to pretend like that's what you believe. Because any sort of, you know, compromise or nuance, you're recognizing the humanity of your side is just a sign of weakness. And beyond that, it's a violation of the rules of the game. And the rules of the game always have to be respected. Otherwise, the game stops being fun for people.
And that's why the most unpopular people in politics are those who criticize their own side. You know, whether you are people on the far left who’ve criticized certain aspects of the Democratic Party that they view as being too moderate and too compromising, or your people who are moderate and compromising Democrats who are critical of the far left. Whether you're an anti Trump conservative like me, because you are not playing by the rules of the game, which is that we demonize the other side. And we don't say anything about our side. That's how the game works. And this can become an extreme thing without actually running into true believers. Like I think you're kind of proud boy, tiki torch, Nazi phenomenon, and Antifa and the people who burned down Portland and Seattle, are essentially, you know, sides of the same coin. And I don't think a lot, some of them were driven by ideology. Some of them were true believers with well formed political ideas, and a real philosophy, but a lot of morons. You know, I've spent time with both of these groups of people. I went around Portland one night with these folks, as they were, you know, doing their chanting knock stuff to start a fight thing. And they were mostly not people you would call intellectually serious. They were not Marxist ideologues who were driven by their, you know, Portland understanding of Leninism. They were just morons looking for something to do.
And there's a great line in “A Man For All Seasons”, one of my favorite plays, in which King Henry is describing what it's like to be the king. And he says, you know, there are certain people who follow me because there's something in it for them. And there are certain people who follow me because they're afraid of me. And there's a great mass of people who follow me because they follow anything that moves. And I think that really gets to the heart of a lot of our politics, because we live in a society that is for all of its troubles. Awfully prosperous, mostly peaceful, mostly predictable. You think about what has happened with the Coronavirus epidemic. And we had to take unprecedented restrictive economic measures. And we had what two quarters of economic contraction? Now granted one of them was a bad contraction, but we had two quarters of economic contraction, that barely qualifies as a recession. That's the minimum qualification for a recession. And we bounced out of it pretty quickly.
So we live in a period of great abundance and peace and all sorts of advances in medicine and development around the world in which hundreds of millions of people, billions of people, in fact, have exited extreme poverty over the last 25 years. And it's boring. People hate it. People define themselves by conflict. And they are also just really easily bored. And I think that a lot of this is, it's the disease of success and the disease of affluence, that there's so little at stake in these fights, that we feel the need to pretend like, you know, every presidential election is the end of the world. I didn't want to see, for instance, Donald Trump get reelected in 2020. But the country is not going to be radically different, I think, one way or the other for who wins the next presidential election. Most of our problems are already sort of baked into the cake. Most of the solutions to those problems are also sort of baked into the cake.
Now someone in a position like that who has great power can do all sorts of damage, if they're really committed to doing it. For the most part, we haven't had people like that in that office, and even the Trump demagogue that he was is basically a lazy and an unambitious demagogue, which kept him from really causing more trouble than he could have. And thank God he was lazy because his lack of ambition and lack of interest in actually trying to be president was a great benefit to the country.
DANIEL JACOBSON: Are for profit corporations more susceptible to corporate discipline than others? I presume that the questions asking about the kind of corporate discipline that you're talking about, for example, heavy industry versus publishing.
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: You tend to have businesses that have a really strong tie to a particular place that has a really strong political culture. So Silicon Valley is one of those, New York City publishing and finance is one of those. And it's interesting that you know, Wall Street is always treated as being this kind of Republican pinstripe, right wing, Gordon Gekko thing. Wall Street hasn't been Republican in a long time. You know, Wall Street went big for Barack Obama, way back when. And this is purely driven by culture. I did a story about this for National Review a couple years ago. And this would have been right around the time of the 2008 election, I guess. And I was asking this guy, a longtime Wall Street guy. Why are you guys so Democratic? And he said, Can you imagine showing up for Parents Day at Choate wearing a Sarah Palin t-shirt, you just be, you know, laughed off of the campus. And there's something to that. So culture and the desire to fit in, the desire to be in your social and cultural harmony with one's surroundings is really powerful. So when you get businesses like retailers, like national retailers that, you know, Walmart certainly has the stamp of Arkansas on it in many ways. It's all over the country and all over the world. It's a genuinely diverse workplace. Whereas places like Google tend to draw from a relatively small number of universities and people with similar backgrounds in many ways. They may not have similar religious or ethnic or racial backgrounds, they may be from different countries, but they're all very similar in lots of ways.
Places like McKinsey are a lot like that. McKinsey is like full of clones, you could just like, take one McKinsey guy, send him out the door, pull another McKinsey guy out of the closet, nobody would ever know the difference. They are star bellied sneetches you know, they're difficult to tell apart. So I think that businesses that have that kind of tie to a local political culture tend to be easier to bully in lots of ways. So I hate to keep going back to Jeff Bezos, but he's just a fun character to pick on. He doesn't just want to be the richest guy in the world. And he doesn't care about making another billion dollars except it's purely as a scorekeeping thing. I mean, it's like he doesn't have something he wants to buy. There are a lot of people in both finance and technology and some other fields like that. He cares a lot about his social and cultural position. I mean, he didn’t buy the Washington Post cause he thought it was gonna make him richer. I'm sure the Washington Post is a good property, it'll make some money and I write for the post every now and then, and it’s a fine newspaper. But you know, he didn't buy it because he thought it was a good investment. You know, Mrs. Jobs didn't buy, essentially, the Atlantic because she thinks it's gonna make money. She's got plenty of money. This has to do with you know, status and cultural standing and being an influential figure.
We see a lot of that in philanthropy. I've actually just written quite a bit about this, where Mike Bloomberg and Bloomberg Philanthropies giving money to the Diversity Center at Princeton to name after his daughter who went to Princeton. I mean, that kind of stuff has been around for a long time, I suppose. But um, you know, if you're a billionaire who's really looking to make a change in social life, for people who are at the margins of society, people who are like real close to getting into Princeton probably aren't where you start. But people in that class really care a lot about what happens at Princeton and Harvard and hospitals in New York and Los Angeles, and that sort of thing. So, you know, there are some terrible high schools in places like Cleveland and Milwaukee and Philadelphia, none of these people could find with GPS, and an Uber driver to take them there. And that is because it's a status game, not genuine philanthropy. I see that as someone who's relatively pro Bloomberg.
DANIEL JACOBSON: So this is exactly on topic. But I think a lot of people would like to hear this from you. As a libertarian, what do you think is the best way to help the poor and struggling people across the country?
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: Well, what we've seen in the world is that investment really helps a lot. You know, the problem is not the distribution of capital so much, that is the distribution of capitalism, even a place like China, which does not have an open and free society, a little bit of free market activity made a huge difference there, a little bit of property rights, a little bit of international trade, a lot of international trade, but some openness to globalization. And the things that go along with that made a huge difference. I happen to be living in India, in the mid late 1990s, when they were really first going through the beginning of their economic transformation after the reforms introduced by Manmohan Singh. And a little bit of capitalism goes a long way, in these places. So the United States has a lot of capitalism, we've got a lot of capital, a lot of investments, but a lot of assets. What's holding people back in this country is not principally access to wealth and assets. I'm not saying these things don't matter, people coarsely matter enormously. I grew up poor, been poor, I know the difference between being poor and not being poor. It's huge. And it's not just about money. It's about stability in your life, and your ability to conduct yourself in a way that's consistent with how you want to live. These are these really important things. You know, homelessness in the United States is not a function of real estate prices. Now, we have artificially expensive housing in a lot of markets, New York, the Bay Area, Chicago. What's up?
DANIEL JACOBSON: Boulder
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: Boulder, Aspen, certainly. Well Aspen, I wrote a thing about housing in Aspen and why Aspen is such an expensive place to live and what it teaches us about other estate markets. The people aren’t sleeping in subway stations in New York City because rents are really, really high in lower Manhattan, it's a mental health problem. It's a problem of institutional failures. It's not a problem of, we don't have enough money to solve this problem, we've got the money to solve problems that we need to throw money at. In fact, I mean, for Americans, that's the best kind of problem to have. Anytime we have a problem that can be solved with money. That's exactly the problem we want. But we have a lot of problems that have to do with institutional failures, problems in our culture, problems in our family life, problems of the soul in many ways. And those are problems that you can't buy your way out of. And so we're sort of the end point of that, right?
If you're a society in transition, like India, or China, you're dealing right now with all the problems, you can buy your way out. So we probably won't see another famine in India, like we used to see, we won’t see another famine in China, like we used to see, if we do it'll be artificially created through politics, not because the food just isn't there and people don't have the resources. But the United States, Western Europe, or the United Kingdom, Canada, places like that, we solved a lot of the problems you can solve by throwing money at them. And now we've got a different set of problems. And when you have those problems, that's where differences in culture become really, really pronounced. You know, so I'm a big fan for instance of Switzerland. I've written a lot about Switzerland, I think it's the best governed country in the world. But you couldn't just emulate its system of government, in the United States or in Pakistan, or in some other places, they need to be better than governed. Because Switzerland is just full of Swiss people. And most other countries aren't. As it turns out, that makes a huge difference to how people live.
So our problem is that Americans are violent. For one thing, you know, people talk about our firearms death rate every year, but we also stab each other a lot more than other people do in the rest of the world. We beat each other to death at much, much higher rates. We’re much more likely to die in automobile accidents and things like that. We're a crazy, violent, reckless, borderline on governable people. And for a long time, we made that work for us, when you’ve got a frontier in a developing society. Those are the people you want to have around because they are risk taking, people who go out and try to do new things and start new things. And that's why we have so much entrepreneurship here, and so much social innovation. So these are, it's a package deal. You get the anarchy along with the creativity, whereas in a place like Sweden, you get a lot more social stability, but less creativity and less innovation.
DANIEL JACOBSON: Good, I was gonna bring up culture because you write a lot of the effects of culture and that's some of the work that's outraged people the most, your new book, Big White Ghetto has that theme. I can't help but quote Paul Krugman’s praise quoted on the front cover. “Truly reprehensible, but extremely well written.” So, when culture is the problem. Is there a solution? Someone has asked a question about high single parent family rates. I mean, there are these, you've written an enormous amount about the opioid crisis, about single parents and about the decay of [inaudible] norms. Those are not problems that are particularly amenable to throwing money at.
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: No. So cultural problems can't be solved in a programmatic way. Because cultures can't be managed. You can have arguments, you can come up with new ideas, new ways of talking about things trying to influence people, you can build institutions, but you can't really manage culture. You can't say, well, we've got this problem with Americans having too many children out of wedlock. And so we're going to come up with a five year plan, and reduce it by 2% every year until we're you know where we want to be. That just doesn't work. That's not how cultures work. Even if you have a really authoritarian police state, it's really hard to manage culture. The Chinese have had some success at that, but not as much as you might think, from the outside. You know, places like the Soviet Union, which had a really, really heavy, repressive=police state couldn't really manage culture the way they thought they could. They couldn't impose their will on the people the way the states sometimes think that they can. So cultural problems aren't solvable in that way. We can talk about them, we can help people to understand them. And helping people to understand them is one way to start changing behavior. Because often, behavior is unconsidered. People make decisions in a way that seems as though they're not thinking about the consequences, often because they don't really know how to think about the consequences. Being a good citizen requires some training and some thinking, being an adult doesn't just come from being 18 years old. It requires some training. And we don't do as much of that.
One of the things that conservatives tend to do is we tell ourselves this fantasy bedtime story, that if only it weren't for the schools and the media, we'd be fine. So only if we had a more effective propaganda outlet, we'd be fine. That's not true. You know, conservatives have a problem politically, because our ideas are never really going to be that popular, because conservatives understand that the enemy of human happiness is human nature. And we're always spending our time trying to keep human nature from doing its worst. I mean, that's what conservatives essentially do. We tried to build institutions and mores and societies, in which the basically savage and awful nature of human beings, who are fallen and horrifying creatures are also capable of great things, doesn't do its worst. That's why conservatives are never utopians. Anytime you get someone who's a utopian type thinker, they may be right wing. But a right wing utopian is not the same thing as a conservative, because conservatives know that the best we can hope for is that things don't get as bad as they can get. And that was one of the things that drove me crazy about 2016. In that election, where so many people who call themselves conservatives were saying, Well, how could it get any worse, that's the least conservative sentiment there is in the world, it can always get worse. And if it can get worse, people will find a way to make it worse. And the job of conservatives is to create institutions and cultures and societies in which the worst doesn't come to pass. Which isn't a super inspiring message. You know, vote for me for president might not be great, but we'll avoid the worst, but it would be honest.
DANIEL JACOBSON: I'm going to give myself the last question here, because I'm a longtime listener to your podcast with Charles CW Cook, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. I recommend it to everyone, it’s one of my favorite podcasts. It seems to me, you can tell me that I'm clearly wrong about that. But it seems to me that in recent months, the attitudes that you've expressed on Mad Dogs and Englishmen have seemed more pragmatic than they previously were. For instance, your argument that the Rick Perry solution, that is closing the administration, these bloated administrative agencies and government, that it's not a serious conservative attitude, it shouldn't be a conservative talking point. For instance, am I imagining this? Is this a change of view? Or is it just that you…
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: I don’t think it’s a change of view, maybe it’s a change in emphasis? I mean, one of the nice aspects, I guess, of the unpleasantness of the last few years on the right has been, even though I wasn't a member of the Republican Party hadn't been for a long time. And I left the Republican Party over Arlen Specter, which seems almost kind of quaint. In retrospect, kids ask your parents who Arlen Specter was, they'll tell you, and Scottish law, they'll tell you all about Scottish law. But there's been for me a certain liberation from any lingering sense of partisanship. I often describe myself as being someone who's basically an Eisenhower Republican. And I am basically an Eisenhower Republican in lots of ways, although I'm not technically a Republican.
So one of the things I think that is under emphasized in our political discourse on both sides, because of the role playing stuff I was talking about earlier, is that consensus and bipartisanship and cooperation are important, not because they are nice things. I mean, you got consensus is nice, bipartisanship is nice and cooperation is nice. But that's not why they're important. They're important because they create stability. And having stable, predictable policies that last for a long time, is in many ways more important than getting exactly your way. So if we're going to have a fight over whether the top income tax rate is 39%, or 32%, generally prefer 32%. But if we could pick one and sort of stick with it for the next 50 years, and not have this fight every two years, I think there would be a better outcome in many ways.
So I think that consensus driven policy is the only way to achieve stability, particularly in a really complex and diverse society, such as ours. And there's no way of getting that without engaging in the very sort of compromise that both sides currently hold in such low regard. And this is the problem with making everything a moral bright line with everything is the line in the sand. I remember, I was covering the presidential primaries in 2012. With those Jackass Republicans in Iowa, and they're 10 or 11, up there on stage. And someone said, would you accept a balanced budget deal? If it raised taxes, but there was $10 and spending cuts for every dollar in tax hikes? And every single one of them said no, because they're terrified of my friend, Grover Norquist. And that is dumb and irresponsible. I mean, first of all, that's by far better than any deal we're actually ever going to get. So you should definitely take a good deal when it comes to you. But we've got this thing where they have to say, well, as a matter of moral principle of declaring what sort of person I am, I can't do something that's actually good for the country. And anytime you've got a situation in which, well my sense of political allegiance and tribalism prevents me from doing what actually is good for the country. Well, I don't want to hear from you know patriot incorporated anymore. Which is you know, how Republicans sort of brand themselves we’re the patriots we care about patriotism.
Or these people who now call themselves nationalists, and with apologies to my boss, Rich Lowry, who wrote a book on nationalism, which is a fine book. But they're a funny kind of nationalist, because they're American nationalists who hate all the states where the people are, all the big cities, the best universities, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, everything that is functional, fruitful, productive, in this country, including many things that are the envy of the world, especially the university system, they think of as being class enemies. And you know, the real America is hog farmers in Oklahoma. I like hog farmers in Oklahoma they’re fine people, don't get me wrong. But there's a lot going on in the country. That happens in places and communities that are not culturally associated with the, you know, bow ideal of right wing life. And you can't really say that, well, what I care about is America, except for the parts of America where the people and the money are, which is just not an intellectually defensible position.
DANIEL JACOBSON: One of the worst aspects of having to do everything by Zoom is that the audience doesn't have a chance to thank you in any tangible way and express our appreciation. On behalf of the audience, thank you for stimulating provocative talk. It's been a pleasure having you Kevin Williamson.
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: Well, in lieu of applause if you would like to go get yourself a subscription to National Review that is by far the best way to support my work. And it's not very expensive. Thanks so much.
DANIEL JACOBSON: Thank you.
SHILO BROOKS: The Free Mind Podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. You can email us feedback at free firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson.