Canutian, not Sisyphean

National Review’s defense, which Mitch posted earlier, of Paul Ryan for daring to seek new ways to fight poverty, is excellent. This part particularly resounded:

This is a familiar situation for conservatives, whose Sisyphean task is to explain to the community at large the difference between the intended results of government programs and the actual results of government programs. Spending more money on Head Start and Medicaid sounds like a very good idea until one confronts the evidence that those programs provide few if any lasting and measurable benefits. A mature mind would understand that it is not only possible but likely that programs intended to benefit the poor will in fact harm them. The unhappy fact is that would-be reformers such as Paul Ryan are sitting opposite not mature-minded opponents but rather a collection of sentimentalists and opportunists; the former cannot understand the law of unintended consequences, while the latter are committed to exploiting the intellectual defects of the former for their own political benefit.

It is indeed familiar. Back in 2012 I passed along a column by John Goodman entitled “Do You Care More Than Paul Krugman Cares?” which opened this way:

At a conference at the Vatican I attended some years ago, Nobel laureate Gary Becker gave the opening speech. I found what he said quite remarkable:

The greatest beneficiaries of capitalism are those at the bottom of the income ladder. That’s why I favor capitalism. Were that not the case, I would not be in favor of capitalism. Milton Friedman feels the same way.

I was so struck by this comment that I wrote it down and have kept it all these years. In general, people who are right of center do not tend to talk all that much about their concern for the poor. Or is it that they just get drowned out by all the bleeding heart noise on the left? In any event, the evidence for Becker’s core observation is overwhelming.

As I wrote then in foursquare agreement:

This core conviction animates my work and the work of my colleagues at John Locke. My newsletter today, for example, discusses how an aspect of cronyism, rampant occupational licensing, prices the poor out of enterprise. In recent weeks I’ve written about anti-free-market energy policies and how they disproportionately impact the poor. My Carolina Cronyism series exposes governmental favoritism that harm entrepreneurs, employers, and consumers alike. I’ve warned against compassionate-sounding (and some not even superficially based in compassion) anti-free-market economic policies that, despite their intentions, cause greater harm against the poor. …

Becker, Goodman, Friedman et al. are right: the greatest beneficiaries of capitalism are those at the bottom of the income ladder. Understand how that seeming paradox is true and you will favor greater freedom, too.

Nevertheless, I take issue with National Review in this: I don’t see the task as Sisyphean. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is doomed by Hades to eternally rolling a boulder up a hill, always only to have it roll back down again. The task is involuntary, never-ending, pointless, ever failing regardless; in short, a punishment from Hell itself. A Sisyphean task is a futile pursuit doomed to failure.

Instead, I see the effort as Canutian, because it involves acknowledging the limits of government’s power. Who was Canute?

“Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings. For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey.”

So spoke King Canute the Great, the legend says, seated on his throne on the seashore, waves lapping round his feet. Canute had learned that his flattering courtiers claimed he was “So great, he could command the tides of the sea to go back”. Now Canute was not only a religious man, but also a clever politician. He knew his limitations – even if his courtiers did not – so he had his throne carried to the seashore and sat on it as the tide came in, commanding the waves to advance no further. When they didn’t, he had made his point that, though the deeds of kings might appear ‘great’ in the minds of men, they were as nothing in the face of God’s power.

The Canutian task is to make evident the limitations of government (whether of a king or president or intellectual elite). The hope is in so doing, it will lead to greater freedom, wherein the world’s ultimate resource — humanity with all its ingenuity — will seek and probe and experiment and test and ultimately find the solutions we need.

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