I remember a few years ago when a lot of neocons and “liberal hawks” suddenly started talking about Reinhold Niebuhr all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Niebuhr was awesome, as many of you insisted when I asked you about it, but that’s not the point. When pundits suddenly start talking about some intellectual figure, it’s usually because (a) they all heard about the figure at the same cocktail party or Aspen Ideas festival seminar and (b) there’s some radically simplified version of the figure’s ideas that lends support to the pundits’ positions. With Niebuhr, it was the idea that Iraq was a “just war” so it’s okay if our government tortures people etc. Here, Noam Chomsky, hate him or love him, was spot-on:
[W]hat it came down to is that, ‘Even if you try to do good, evil’s going to come out of it; that’s the paradox of grace’. And that’s wonderful for war criminals. ‘We try to do good but evil necessarily comes out of it.’ And it’s influential. So, I don’t think that people in decision-making positions are lying when they describe themselves as benevolent. Or people working on more advanced nuclear weapons. Ask them what they’re doing, they’ll say: ‘We’re trying to preserve the peace of the world.’ People who are devising military strategies that are massacring people, they’ll say, ‘Well, that’s the cost you have to pay for freedom and justice’, and so on.
That’s no knock on whatever Niebuhr actually wrote; his oeuvre isn’t relevant here, since no matter how nuanced his “just war” theory is, propagandists and self-rationalizers can easily run with the phrase “just war” and justify whatever they want with it.
Today, two of our most prominent pseudo-intellectual pundits — Charles Lane and Bobo — both started talking about someone named Mancur Olson. Bobo mentioned him in passing, while Charles Lane devoted his entire column to the man’s ideas. Lane uses Mancur Olson’s idea that “On balance…special-interest organizations and collusions reduce efficiency and aggregate income . . . and make political life more divisive” to argue that Obama is too wedded to big gubmint and that both sides do it when it comes to special interests (predictably, the Democratic side of the “both sides do it” equation is teachers’ unions). The logic here, I think, is that big gubmint, and thus Obama, is bad because it empowers special interests, whereas smaller groups of self-determinationist patriots would be free and pure.
Is Mancur Olson going to be a new thing with conservatives?
Update. Chunky Bobo started talking about Mancur Olson in September.