October 9 2008

Cliff Notes on Great Books

Donna Wiesner Keene

Issue 117 - October 9, 2008

Seventy percent of recent English degree graduates have not studied Shakespeare.

That is not so surprising to those of us who work with political science graduates, who know that what's taught in the ivory tower bears little relation to real-world politics.

Like many a twenty-something political staffer, I learned politics and policy at free Heritage and Cato lectures followed by cheese and sodas or free sandwiches. I actually attended for the lectures; I felt badly that I earned a living in politics and had never taken a political science course. After teaching, I know that a long afternoon reading at the fireplace heals many gaps. The denigration of higher education so obvious to employers can be remedied: hand your children or new hires Tom Tripp's book while they are young.

First Principles: Self-Governance in an Open Society is a Cliff Notes for those of us who enjoy considering great ideas from new perspectives, and to any citizen who wants to be a better citizen, voter, and yes, politician.

Studying the great books of Western civilization has been heralded as the way to an informed voter population, but too often Oliver Stone's films substitute for real history. The authors and books Tripp reviews are recognizable to those with a classical education -- John Locke, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Lord Acton and de Tocqueville -- yet this is not a dry recitation of the themes. Tripp summarizes, comments, and relates to modern day issues not as a philosopher but as a successful businessman from Ohio and Wyoming and long-time conservative activist. Walk for the first time or again through themes so wrong, so right, or so prevalent today. Update the classics with chapters based on the works of William F. Buckley, Jr., Daniel Pipes, George Gilder, Lee Edwards and other modern thinkers.

I for one look forward to more editions of his books, because my first copy has so many notes in the margins and corners turned down for references for later speeches that it is hardly readable.

In speaking of Ludwig von Mises, Tripp writes, "Today, understanding how socialism and equalitarianism became ascendant in governance during the middle of the twentieth century remains important, for the square wheel so often begs to be reinvented as people repeat old errors. ... The creation of some ‘entitlements' gives rise to many more so that the population eventually becomes attuned to being entitled to many things - and obligated for few."

Comments over the last several weeks make Mises very relevant-- with statements from even the staunchest pseudo-conservatives that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are too big to fail, while those taught by Mises question their very existence in an age where their functions are redundant at best. After all, adding to the cost of every working class mortgage so that the CEOs of two failed companies can receive $15 million dollar golden parachutes seems a stretch in the best of times, and hardly fathomable when those very mortgages were ill-advised and already worthless.

Likewise the former chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae, Franklin D. Raines, stepped down with $100 million in 2004 in a cloud of investigations, and has the wherewithal and gall to be a top economic advisor to Democratic nominee Senator Obama. Tripp reminds us that von Mises warned of the many ways socialist thinking hides its goals, as both parties seem to subscribe to the view that housing prices always go up and mortgage rates always seem cheap at any cost -- $700 billion into the taxpayer debt column notwithstanding.

Tripp also reminds us of Bertrand de Jouvenel's The Ethics of Redistribution, that the more security we seek, the less liberty we have. Today's assumption is that the government must nationalize anything in trouble, apparently the whole mortgage and financial systems, using the logic of the square wheel. In the words of that famous philosopher, Dr. Phil, "how's that working for ya?"

Donna Wiesner Keene is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum and served in the Reagan, Bush and Bush Administrations at the U.S. Department of Education. Tripp's book as available here.

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