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I, Dentity
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I, Dentity

Or why I don’t care about where ‘identity politics’ came from.

(via Getty Images)

Dear Reader (even those of you who know it’s never too late to try out a new hobby),

I’m on the road. Well, technically, I just got off the road. I’m now at the Greenbrier, a fancy resort hotel in West (by God) Virginia. I’ve been here a few times, and I’ve always liked it. But there’s always been something about it—and so many old glorious hotels—that reminds me of once vivacious aristocratic grande dame who now depends on flattering lighting to conceal the frayed threads of her old ball gown, and the lines around her eyes.

Sorry for the overwriting, but I’m in a wistful mood, sitting on the balcony, smoking a cigar and having a drink. It was a stressful day. I recorded three podcasts and drove four hours to get here. And now I need to at least get this “news”letter started because I have a talk in the morning and a (solo) Remnant to record (so two talks, I guess). And then I have to drive back home.  

So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to skip the punditry. I’ve done a lot of it this week, and I feel like the news gods seem to be in a vengeful mood, making punditry lose its shelf-life really quickly.  

Instead, I’d like to extract some of the stuff I can’t get out of my mind. 

One of the podcasts I recorded was with Yascha Mounk, who has a new book out, The Identity Trap. It’s good. He’s good. The conversation was good. But I didn’t quite get what I wanted to say out of my head intact, like only having tongs when the tool I needed was a melon baller. 

I think I need a little runway. But unlike normal runways, mine doesn’t need to be in a straight line. (This is another subtle way of me saying to readers who don’t like this sort of thing to tune in next week). 

Sharpen your pencil.

I love the Leonard Read essay “I, Pencil.” If I had a dime for every time I’ve written about it, I could probably buy enough Eberhard Fabers for a million monkeys to take the SAT a couple times. (What I don’t know about math could fill a book, specifically a math textbook. But I assume that at least one of those monkeys would get a perfect score.) 

I love “I, Pencil” for a bunch of reasons. It’s a beautiful essay and a brilliant way to illustrate the beauty of the market. For those who don’t know it, here’s a very brief synopsis: “I, Pencil” is written from the perspective of the pencil. The full title is “I, Pencil: My Family Tree as Told to Leonard Read.” It begins: “I am a lead pencil—the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write. Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; that’s all I do.”

This is not technically true. Pencils have also been used to imitate walruses and stab vampires. When I was a kid I had an awesome toy crossbow that could shoot pencils. But you get the point. 

The pencil goes on to explain how pencils get made. More importantly, the pencil explains that nobody knows how to make a pencil. “[N]ot a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Especially when it is realized that there are about one and one-half billion of my kind produced in the U.S.A. each year.”

What the pencil means is that pencil manufacturers only know how to manage the last few stages of the pencil-making process. They don’t know how to log wood, or make the saws that fell the trees that make the wood, or cut and trim those trees, or make the trucks that carry them, or the paint and tin used in the finished project. Not only do pencil makers not know how to do this stuff, they don’t even know most of the people who do it, or even speak the same languages—or practice the same religion—as them. 

The lessons of “I, Pencil” are as diverse as the inputs that go into a pencil. There is no mastermind, no central Pencil Authority that issues orders for X number of pencils or even Y quotas of graphite, wood, paint, or rubber. And yet all of the people, all across the globe, who do their part for the cause do so as if they were all working together for a cause larger—or smaller!—than themselves. And very, very, unlike the kind of pencil you’d get if there was a Pencil Czar somewhere in the federal bureaucracy, not only do we get abundant pencils—all you could ever need—we get them at a price literally anybody could afford. 

One important moral of this story is that all of the people who insist that we need what some used to call a more “cooperative” economy miss the point. Markets are better at cooperation than any alternative system. Indeed, they’re so good at it, they don’t feel that way. This is counter-intuitive, but it is also really common. For instance, really pure water is tasteless. That great tasting, super-clean water someone sold you tastes “pure” precisely because it isn’t. It’s got minerals or other stuff in it. A lot of the efforts to make economics more cooperative is like putting additives in pure water. They make it less cooperative, but you can actually feel the cooperation more because of it. 

Which brings us to another important lesson: The people who champion economic cooperation (or community, or solidarity, etc.) also tend to be the sorts of people who think someone—usually them—needs to be in charge of making sure we have enough pencils. Okay maybe not pencils qua pencils. But there are always people who think the market is a poor substitute for planners and experts, when in fact it’s a rich substitute for them. 

To be clear, I’m not a market absolutist. There’s a role for planners and experts. Sometimes the government needs to have things—F-16s, vaccines, roads—that require some planning and expertise, if only because you sometimes need government to work on providing public goods. But it’s worth noting that even for most of these things, the best planners and experts rely on the market to do most of the heavy lifting. The government doesn’t make F-16s; General Dynamics and hundreds of other companies make them. The government just buys them. 

There have always been people who hate contractors, too. There’s something about paying non-government workers to collect garbage, teach children, build playgrounds, etc. that bugs people who want the government to cut out the middleman. We should be doing that stuff “together,” because government is just another word for the things we do together, they say. The weird thing is that government isn’t even the thing we all pay for together. The market, on the other hand, is something that we all take part in together. But again, it doesn’t feel like it. 

Markets depend on the people who know—I mean know best—what they’re doing. They rely on what Friedrich Hayek called “dispersed knowledge.” Some planner with graduate degrees may know how to grow corn or make a ball bearing, but there’s no way they know more than a typical farmer or machinist. Nor do they know more about such things than the commodity brokers or the factory owners about how to bring such things to market in the most efficient way possible.

Governments have tried to cut out the middlemen and control all the “means of production.” Outside of a few prehistoric tribes, it always worked out poorly. Even the Bolsheviks gave up on “war communism” because the planners couldn’t figure out how to make trading turnips for turbines work without starving millions of people to death. 

The price of everything.

As much as I value these lessons, I appreciate the pencil’s understated but implicit lesson on prices even more (the word “price” doesn’t even appear in the original essay). 

Prices contain information. I love eggheady debates over how best to define or categorize the function of prices. (Are they signals, or packets of knowledge, or some other very meta concept?) But what everyone who understands the role of prices knows is that they are formed by more information than any bureaucrat can master over time. The price of a bushel of corn depends on the weather, the price of fuel, the cost of fertilizer, and countless other things. It also captures how much corn the farmer down the road, and the farmer 10,000 miles away, produced this year. It’s also affected by the price of wheat, and barley, and other crops all around the world that can be substituted for it for one purpose or another. If there’s too much corn on the market, some farmers switch to other crops. And so on. 

The thing is, though, even the people closest to the ground—the corn producing ground—don’t know about all that stuff either. Those things are factored into the price and the farmer just responds to the price. He doesn’t necessarily know that floods in Brazil or a war in Ukraine have caused the price to go up; he just sees that the price has gone up. 

Anyway, all of this came into my head, like an insistent student tapping on my shoulder, as I was talking to Mounk about identity. 

Mounk’s argument is that identity politics, or what he calls the “identity synthesis,” is bad. I agree with him. He also makes a good case—better than I was initially inclined to agree with—that the new push for identitarianism is, in fact, new. It comes from a collection of thinkers with novel, pernicious, and often interesting arguments about the nature of power and the primacy of racial or sexual identity. I’m pretty familiar with some of these thinkers. I’ve read a good deal of Michel Foucault and Derrick Bell, and too much of Ibram X. Kendi (though that’s a low bar—a little goes a long way in the wrong direction). But some of the intellectuals he interrogates were new to me.

I resisted his argument that these ideas are new because at one level of abstraction, these ideas are very old. Joseph de Maistre, the great counter-Enlightenment reactionary, was scoffing at the classical liberal ideas of universal human equality when such ideas were truly new. Responding to the “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” de Maistre said: “Now, there is no such thing as ‘man’ in this world. In my life I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on. I even know, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare I’ve never encountered him.” 

For de Maistre, humans were all different. And he was right, to some extent. But he took from this that they should all be treated differently. The classical liberal can agree or disagree with various claims about group differences: Some were blank slate types, others not so much. But what the classical liberal says is that all people are equal in the eyes of God, and therefore they should be treated equally by the government as well. 

To be clear, de Maistre’s opposition to the Enlightenment drew on what was the conventional wisdom for thousands of years before the Enlightenment. I’ve often said that aristocracy—the idea that some people with “noble blood” are better than others simply because they were born that way—was one of the earliest forms of identity politics. But even that overstates things. Aristocracy is a product of the Agricultural Revolution and the rise of city-states. Before that, identity politics simply was politics (much in the same way that it’s silly to talk about “conservative politics” before the Reformation—because all politics were basically conservative). Our tribe is good. The next tribe over that pisses in the river upstream of us is bad. And the tribe downriver of us deserves to drink and bathe in our piss. 

Anyway, Mounk makes a good case that today’s “woke” ideas are new, or new enough, to be treated as such. I want to keep noodling on that, but that’s not the thing I want to pry out of my head. 

The thing I didn’t pluck from my cabeza was this: I don’t care. Okay, I care. I like intellectual history and I like debating ideas. What I really mean is that I don’t think it should matter. 

You can spin a glorious intellectual tapestry about how intersectionality is new, good, and important. You can tell me how this racial group or that sexual identity is deserving of special consideration as a matter of law or culture or History (with a capital H) all you like. I still think I should judge you by your own actions and your own character. If someone with the same skin color as you did something terrible, that’s not on you. If your grandfather did something even worse, that’s not on you either. 

It’s a bit like my oft-repeated gripe about the term “The Greatest Generation.” If you stormed Normandy, I’d like to buy you a beer. If you dodged the draft and spent D-Day in a drunk tank, I feel no obligation to buy you a beer just because you’re the same age as someone who charged a German machine gun nest. There is no transitive property of righteousness, victimhood, nobility, or villainy. 

I’m not an absolutist on this. Members of certain groups have certain sensitivities. Jews, Catholics, blacks, women, old people, young people, gay people, transgender people, and every other flavor of group “identity” are likely to take some specific jokes or comments differently than members of other groups. But you know what? Most of that is covered by having good manners and a modicum of situational awareness. This is true in everyday life and it’s true of politicians. People who think saying crude or offensive things to or about certain people just to prove they’re not politically correct or “woke” or just to invite a backlash from such groups are usually jackasses. 

Again, I’m not an absolutist, so I can think of exceptions to this rule of thumb. But they are exactly that: exceptions. For instance, I’m not going to avoid castigating Russia for its evil deeds in Ukraine simply to avoid offending Russia apologists who use the language of ethnic grievance (Russophobia! Shudder) as a way to intimidate people out of telling the truth. Truth-telling isn’t always a full defense of every utterance (“Yes, that dress makes you look fat”), but it is always at least a partially defensible redoubt.  

No special treatment.

My point is that humans have an inexhaustible capacity to justify why they deserve special treatment. This is true in every human system, including liberal democratic capitalism. Albert Jay Nock coined the phrase (after a friend of his) “Epstean’s Law.” “Man tends always to satisfy his needs with the least possible exertion,” he wrote. In a good society—and America remains a good society despite what the radicals of left and right constantly claim—it will always be possible to play on the conscience of decent people for special allowances. Adam Smith recognized that even in a free market system, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Put all the car dealership owners in Ohio in a room, and they’ll try to figure out a way to rig the system for their benefit. The nobles of the Republic of Venice had the most merit-based system in the world for a while. You could get in the Golden Book simply by dint of hard work. But after a while, the folks in power closed the Golden Book to protect their interests. 

Liberalism says you have to keep the book open, so to speak. Everyone has to play by the same rules and be held accountable for their own actions. When you go to court, the merits of your individual case are what matters. When Lenin ordered the hanging of kulaks, he explicitly rejected the idea that the specific kulaks had to be guilty of anything (they usually weren’t). What he required was a message. 

So what does this have to do with “I, Pencil,” or prices, or any of that? If I sell widgets, the price is the price. I don’t—or shouldn’t—have one price for Jews and one price for blacks and another for gays. The price is the price. Of course, as a private citizen I have some flexibility on this, depending on the relevant laws. I can have a friends and family discount. I can give a special rate to veterans. On Ladies Night, they can drink for free—when shopping for widgets. Whatever. 

But the government is different. It’s not supposed to play favorites. Again, one needn’t be an absolutist. You can have a child tax credit on the grounds that having kids generates desirable benefits for society. But you can’t have a child tax credit for black people and not white people. One for Jews but not Catholics. I mean you can, but that’s not the way it’s supposed to work. 

And that’s what I mean about not caring whether woke-ism or whatever-ism is new. Liberalism emerged from bloody wars as a compromise between rival powers that thought this religion or that religion deserved special treatment and special rights. All over the world, different groups think they have more rights, different rights, better rights, than other people. Most of their arguments are very old. Sure, some are new. But I don’t care. The price of living in a decent and just society requires not caring as a matter of government policy. If you want scholarships or discount widgets for this group or that, maybe that’s fine. But that’s not the job of the government. 

In every generation, there’s a new crop of would-be Pencil Czars on the left or the right who, following Epstean’s law in pursuit of the power they crave, come up with arguments for why that should no longer be the case. They want to set the prices because they like the power that comes from favorable price-setting for their friends and price-gouging for their enemies. The prices they want to manipulate aren’t just—or even ever—for pencils or some other consumer good. They seek to rig the prices for justice and equality before the law. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: I’ve been taking the girls out pretty early this week, and that means a whole new layer of process for getting Pippa out of bed. Zoë is always—always—up for a patrol. We could come back from a two-hour walk, and if I invited her to recon the perimeter she’d be up for it. But Pippa is like a louche starlet that needs to be convinced to get out of bed before sunrise. Once out of bed, she has to be convinced there aren’t any mean dogs or surly monsters out there. So I come downstairs, start the coffee and then go put the dingo in the car. I then have to go back upstairs, give her a belly rub, coax her out of bed, tell her that her security detail is pre-positioned in the car, and then beg her to cross the lawn and get in the car. It’s exhausting. But she’s a good girl—eventually—and takes to her predawn work with aplomb. The Fair Jessica handled the treat video this morning and, yes, she’s more of an auteur than I am. I made up for the lack of current dog pics by offering some puppy content. Oh, people ask me why I never post Hand v. Spaniel videos the way I do Hand v. Dingo videos. It’s because spaniels are lovers, not fighters. 

ICYMI

And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.