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Pundit’s Mailbag — Price Gouging And The Lessons Of Lincoln

Our piece, Decision To Fight “Price Gouging” Is A Decision To Prolong Misery, brought votes of support:

Simultaneously a socially courageous and endangered point of view.  Not coincidentally the right one and on the side of Liberty.  Sadly, we have less courageous, more opportunistic politicians and we get exactly the governance we deserve.

—Daniel L. Barth
General Manager
Super King Markets
Los Angeles, California


I wish your piece on “price gouging” could be reprinted in every newspaper in every region which will suffer a natural disaster. 

This posturing on the part of politicians who want to go after the non-existent phenomenon of “price gouging” probably know better, but that doesn’t stop them from acting shamelessly in the midst of human hardship. 

Bravo!  You have made the case quite simply and elegantly.

—Doug Stoiber
Vice President, Produce Transportation Operations
L&M Transportation Services, Inc.
Raleigh, North Carolina

We appreciate the endorsements but, alas, find that all too many people are not so much interested in the actual results of their actions as they are in the aesthetics of the matter.

Often advocates for various expenditures have little evidence that such expenditures will help the intended parties. What they know is that they will feel better having voted to “do something” than if they did nothing.

Much labor legislation doesn’t improve the life of the intended workers; it raises the cost of production and thus drives jobs overseas where, fairly often, working conditions are worse. But it makes advocates feel they are fighting the good fight — and they are spared the sight of poor people — though, in fact, their actions make more people poor than had to be so.

Even issues that many assume are obvious — say child labor in agriculture, which we wrote about both here and here — pose empirical questions. If you ban children from working with their parents in a field, what happens to the child? Are they safer? Is their family more or less affluent? Do they attend stimulating summer camps instead? Or do they sit alone in the heat bored to death? Or worse, do idle hands do the devil’s work?

Steven Spielberg’s new movie Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis, is interesting in no small part because it portrays Lincoln as a man with big ideas who understood that he had to deal with legislators on their own level. David Brooks at The New York Times made this point well in his column, Why We Love Politics:

We live in an anti-political moment, when many people — young people especially —think politics is a low, nasty, corrupt and usually fruitless business. It’s much nobler to do community service or just avoid all that putrid noise.

I hope everybody who shares this anti-political mood will go out to see ‘Lincoln,’ directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner. The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way.

It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.

The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ gets this point. The hero has a high moral vision, but he also has the courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality.

To lead his country through a war, to finagle his ideas through Congress, Lincoln feels compelled to ignore court decisions, dole out patronage, play legalistic games, deceive his supporters and accept the fact that every time he addresses one problem he ends up creating others down the road.

Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good. This is a self-restrained movie that celebrates people who are prudent, self-disciplined, ambitious and tough enough to do that work.

It is, in fact, easy to spout platitudes, to claim that one works for the good. To actually achieve good, to accomplish a noble end is far harder.

David Brooks goes on to point out that great politicians often are transformed during their careers:

The movie shows a character-building trajectory, common among great politicians, which you might call the trajectory from the Gettysburg Address to the Second Inaugural.

In the Gettysburg phase, a leader expresses grand ideas. This, frankly, is relatively easy. Lots of people embrace grand ideals or all-explaining ideologies. But satisfied with that they become morally infantile. They refuse to compromise, insult their opponents and isolate themselves on the perch of their own solipsism.

But a politician like Lincoln takes the next step in the trajectory. He has to deal with other people. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” does a nice job celebrating an underappreciated art, the art of legislating.

The movie is about pushing the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives. The political operatives Lincoln hires must pay acute attention to the individual congressmen in order to figure out which can be appealed to through the heart and which through the wallet.

Lincoln plays each potential convert like a musical instrument, appealing to one man’s sense of idealism, another’s fraternal loyalty. His toughest job is to get the true believers on his own side to suppress themselves, to say things they don’t believe in order not to offend the waverers who are needed to get the amendment passed.

That leads to the next step in the character-building trajectory, what you might call the loneliness of command. Toward the end of the civil war, Lincoln had to choose between two rival goods, immediate peace and the definitive end of slavery. He had to scuttle a peace process that would have saved thousands of lives in order to achieve a larger objective.

He had to discern the core good, legal equality, among a flurry of other issues. He had to use a constant stream of words, stories, allusions and arguments to cajole people. He had to live with a crowd of supplicants forever wanting things at the door without feeling haughty or superior to them.

If anything, the movie understates how hard politics can be. The moral issue here is a relatively clean one: slavery or no slavery. Most issues are not that simple. The bill in question here is a constitutional amendment. There’s no question of changing this or that subsection and then wondering how much you’ve destroyed the whole package.

Politicians who can navigate such challenges really do emerge with the sort of impressive weight expressed in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. It’s a speech that acknowledges that there is moral ambiguity on both sides. It’s a speech in which Lincoln, in the midst of the fray, is able to take a vantage point above it, embodying a tragic and biblical perspective on human affairs. Lincoln’s wisdom emerges precisely from the fact that he’s damaged goods.

There never were all that many Lincolns around and there are fewer still today, and we are in deep trouble if we need our politicians to have the character or skills of Abraham Lincoln. But surely it is not too much to expect our politicians to not merely surrender to popular prejudices but to try to move the population to a truer understanding of the ways of the world.

Hurricane Sandy is history now, but who among our leaders is now working to build the public support necessary so that recovery from the next natural disaster is not, once again, hindered by the need to pander to petty prejudices?

Many thanks to Daniel Barth and Doug Stoiber for weighing in on this important matter.

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