Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Value of Years Spent Thinking

When each issue of Forbes magazine arrives, I always look to see if the "Thought Leaders: Current Events" column for that issue has been penned by the eminent British historian Paul Johnson. He is one of four international leader-scholars who alternate in writing the column.

Paul Johnson was born in 1928 and has authored more than 40 books. So he has had time, and has taken opportunity, to evaluate a lot in his lifetime. Schooled first as a Jesuit (i.e., conservative), he graduated from Oxford and became a left-leaning liberal in his early public years. Obviously, the fact that he writes for Forbes means he jettisoned his liberal views and returned to conservatism: "The Left had no answers," he said. Through the years, he has given his critics plenty to swipe at, both politically and personally. Given that there are no perfect observers of the world condition, I still value the 83-year-old perspective of one who has witnessed the perturbations of Western Civilization from both sides of the Atlantic from first a liberal, and now a conservative, point of view.

All that by way of introduction—to provide weight to the following words of his from his current Forbes column, "Thank God: An American Recovery." Concerning what he sees as a growing economic recovery in America . . .
President Obama can take no credit whatsoever for this. Nothing he's done has promoted growth, and his actions may even have held it back somewhat. Fortunately his presidency has been so weak, his hesitations so various and prolonged and his changes of mind so frequent that the White House's actual impact on the workings of the economy has been trifling. Had Mr. Obama been a stronger and more determined man, it's likely that, given his views, his interventions would have been destructive, and the U.S. economy would now be in dire distress. The inactivity—or impotence—of the White House is thus, for once, welcome.
And concerning the possibility of recovery in Europe . . .
The danger [in Europe] is that one of the EU's members will freely choose a government that then opts for a nondemocratic solution in bringing unemployment down sharply and rapidly. This is, of course, exactly what happened when Adolf Hitler came to power in the 1930s. Mass unemployment killed the [pre-Hitler] Weimar Republic, but Hitler's policies of public works and rearmament restored full employment to Germany, the only country in the 1930s where this happened.
How is that America elected a young man as president who couldn't possibly have a sufficient view of the grand sweep of history, either through intellectual study or simply the passing of years? I would vote for a Constitutional amendment that says U.S. presidents have to be at least 65 years of age, etc. etc. The Bible calls leaders "elders" for a reason.

When it comes to the "ten year rule" of domain mastery (Harvard's Howard Gardner in Creative Minds), Paul Johnson qualifies in spades. Our current president? He simply hasn't put in the years. And it shows.


  1. You might appreciate the reflections of Plato on "democracy". In the Republic, among other things, Plato describes a rigorous selection and education process by which the guardians of the state would be prepared for their solemn duty. If my memory serves me correctly a man was not deemed fit to "rule" until well into his 50s.
    See too, I said, the forgiving spirit of democracy, and the 'don't care' about trifles, and the disregard which she shows of all the fine principles which we solemnly laid down at the foundation of the city --as when we said that, except in the case of some rarely gifted nature, there never will be a good man who has not from his childhood been used to play amid things of beauty and make of them a joy and a study --how grandly does she trample all these fine notions of ours under her feet, never giving a thought to the pursuits which make a statesman, and promoting to honour any one who professes to be the people's friend...

    These and other kindred characteristics are proper to democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.

  2. Reading things like this makes me wonder if we have progressed, or regressed, in the last 2,500 years. I think I understand what he is saying, but will probably call you for clarification. Glad you knew how to call up this citation.

    1. I guess, to me, it reflects a worry about democracy: that it honors men for saying they love the people instead of honoring those with wisdom, that it hates the ordered development of wise men in order to leave each individual free to choose their own course in life, that it treats Obama and Johnson as equally available for the job in spite of the inequality in their knowledge and life experience.

      Of course Plato watched, as a young man, the Athenian democracy execute his mentor Socrates. He had a deep-seated revulsion at the thought of allowing the "masses" to direct the ship of the state.

      Your reflections on age and wisdom just called to mind Plato's own concerns with aged and wise leaders. You and Plato both want wise governors. Plato takes it further than you did in your reflection by blaming democratic government for the demise of wise governing.

      Democracy coupled with a generous welfare state allows the fastest reproducing demographic to rule. Period. Wisdom be damned.

    2. Thanks for expanding -- if I parse Plato's words correctly, he says that "she [democracy] tramples all these fine notions of ours under her feet" in the name of equality or egalitarianism; that democracy is a "charming form of government" but is faulted for "dispensing a sort of equality to equals [the wise] and unequals [fools] alike." Right?

      Your words -- "allowing the fastest reproducing demographic to rule" is a scary thought. Calls to mind a certain political party reaching out to poor and undereducated voters in this country -- a self-perpetuating cycle.

      Isn't that why the founders didn't structure America as a pure democracy (mob rule) but as a republic? So there were "statesmen" standing between the mob and the statutes that govern them? To keep the mob from voting themselves the largesse that would ultimately destroy the nation?

      Just thinking out loud -- no need to answer -- too much for blog comments. But thanks for raising the issue.