Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ruin in a Nation

Watching a major election is a strange experience for me. People get so excited about two candidates who, in many ways, are very similar. McCain criticizes Obama's plans for income redistribution, but McCain is no stranger to redistribution (including redistribution from taxpayers to failing financial institutions, Medicare, and Medicaid). Obama criticizes McCain's support for the current war on terror, but votes for the FISA changes he used to oppose and threatens to attack Pakistan. Obama is certainly a better speaker, and if we have to listen to someone blather on for four to eight years, I'd rather listen to a good speaker than a poor one. I also will enjoy the figurative thumb in the eye of bigots and paranoid conspiracy theorists will suffer when he wins. On the other hand, I'm a bit worried about one party having such extensive control of two branches of government. We've tried that for a while, and it hasn't worked out well. To put it another way, I greatly enjoyed the image with this blog entry

All this brings me to the strangest part of this election: people get so histrionic over what is likely to be relatively little change, for the worse or for the better. Obama fans should, as the image above suggests, prepare themselves for disappointment, as he's not going to fix all--or many--of our problems. McCain fans are probably right Obama will make some worse--every president has made some problems worse--but the country isn't going to fall apart. Things are going to continue pretty much as they have for fifty years. A capitalist country can withstand a lot of crap and continue growing. The same would be true if McCain were to win.

Adam Smith, the first great economist and author of The Wealth of Nations, was once told by a worried friend that the success of the American revolutionaries at the battle of Saratoga would result in the ruin of England. "If we go on at this rate, the nation must be ruined' his friend wrote. Adam Smith's response was to write back "Be assured, my young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation".  By this he meant that every nation has in it a great deal of good and a great deal of bad, yet things keep moving along. It is very hard to screw things up very badly and irreparably. 

So Don't Panic. It's unlikely that anything terribly dramatic is going to happen. Don't get me wrong, there are all sorts of dramatic changes I'd love to see happen, and others I wouldn't like to see, but they're not likely. Even this economic downturn will end, the election will end, and things that seem important now will, in retrospect, be puzzlingly quaint. 


3 comments:

Michael Thomas said...

Keep in mind that the Epicuris quote that Caplan uses is reflected in TMS. It might be interesting to you to search an online version of TMS for references to the Greek and Roman Stoics.

Mike Hammock said...

Interesting. I wasn't aware of the Stoic influence on Smith. Thanks!

For those of you following along at home, TMS is Smith's other important book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smMS.html

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