Woods On Prager: A Little Treat
by Larry Perrault on June 22, 2011 at 4:02 PM
I want to talk about fading political instincts and joining forces that should be properly allied. And part of that interest was represented on Dennis Prager’s Monday radio program. Thomas Woods was a guest on the program. These are two men whose words I take great interest in. I have followed Woods for the past few years for his careful study and clear rendering of the events and ideas in the founding and history of The United States. His Ph.D. is in History from Columbia and he is senior faculty at the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Austrian economics. I recently wrote of how Woods was correct on the history in a dispute with talk show host Mark Levin, who is a genuine and passionate man and patriot and a student of The Constitution, though he had a more conventional understanding of it in a world where convention is not quite accurate, as he knows.
I’ve been familiar with and a fan of Prager for 20 years because I approach questions much like he does. Unlike Levin who animatedly corrects liberal thinking, Prager often has liberals on his program and expresses his differences, but leaves what he believes is wrong to stand as wrong without getting sidetracked into motives. He’s right about this. We can’t know motives and in fact they are usually genuine. I strongly identify with two of his big maxims: “I prefer clarity to agreement” and “I judge people by their actions, not their opinions.” I’ve probably said before that Wittgenstein said 100 years ago that the primary task of a philosopher is to clarify the terms of a question. I know from studying in many fields that debating parties often disagree because in truth they are answering different questions. And, I also know that flawed presumptions can quite logically lead to what seem the most outrageous conclusions. Like Prager, I’m disposed to clarify disagreement more than to unconstructively make accusations about motives or character. I can be certain that ideas are wrong, but I can’t be certain about intentions, and it doesn’t help anything to impugn them, anyway.
My sentiments are more toward Prager’s while my thinking agrees with Woods, who is a libertarian academic version of Ron Paul, who is himself no slouch of a thinking Washington politician. Reason must pull on sentiment and sentimental concerns should check and qualify some rational conclusions. Ron Paul has always been a puzzle to me; so uncommonly clear on some things compared to others in Washington, but embracing some conclusions that I find downright repulsive. I feared that it could get contentious when Woods and Prager got into foreign policy. Like Paul, Woods is at least dubious about military operations that are unprovoked by a direct assault on The United States. Prager is a moral and theistic Jew who believes the US should continue as it has been, a uniquely disposed and able counter to evil brutality and conquest in the world. I grew up with that feeling about the US. But as with other things, I’m not sure we have the collective constitution of character to maintain that any longer. Heck, I’m not sure we will even be able to maintain ourselves. But unlike some, I think we should emphasize the common elements and be as accommodating as possible, and solicitous of the very fervent and disproportionately young libertarian element of the conservative spectrum, rather than scorning and dismissing them. Some like to mock and call people like Ron Paul names. I can’t understand and embrace some of his conclusions, but he’s a good and serious man. And in practical terms, such scoffing is aggravating of potential voters and simply miserable missionary outreach to this activist young population.
When Prager asked him about foreign policy, Woods expressed his distrust of the intentions and appropriate modesty of the defense department and its administrators. And I agree that the defense establishment is just another government agency that inclines to expand and aggrandize itself. I also agree that we are overextended around the world and have encouraged other nations to rest under an American umbrella rather than doing what they need to to defend themselves. And it is a fact that we are simply incapable of correcting every injustice in the world. And our treasure and especially American blood are to be allocated only with the most sparing care and excruciating consideration. But I do believe that prudence and morality dictate that we weigh what is most urgent with respect to both human aid and American strategic and security considerations. I also fear that today a lack of vigilance beyond reaction can mean suffering a catastrophic first strike. These are not simple but arduous calculations. Welcome to the world.
Prager nurses a romantic ideal of American virtue of both his youth and mine. But, I wonder whether the hope that such an ideal can at this point be revived is unrealistic. Along with his misgivings about government agencies, I agree with Woods’ sense and historical substantiation of the idea that America should retrench to a proper assertion of state and local social sovereignty, as in his book explaining the history of the idea of state nullification: Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century.
The knee-jerk and scornful liberal response is to refer to the federal necessity of imposing justice such as with slavery and racial civil rights. But these were explicitly unconstitutional practices. Most of what the federal government does, imposes, not obstructs, unconstitutional measures. As Prager does emphasize, the more local the responsible human community, the more human character and virtue are challenged and developed. And the more authority and responsibility is usurped by the federal government, the more irresponsible and less virtuous individuals and communities will incline to be.