The news that Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, known the world over as “Joe the Plumber,” had died at age 49 brought me back to the bad old days of 2008.
It was in October 2008, during Barack Obama’s meteoric rise to the presidency, that the 30-something aspiring plumber asked about then-Sen. Obama’s tax plan.
The bottom line, naturally, was that he wanted to raise taxes.
“I think,” Mr. Obama said in one of his most famous observations, that “when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody.”
How much is in the eye of the observer.
Mr. Obama said it was “spreading the wealth around.”
Joe the Plumber said it was penalizing success and moving “one step closer to socialism.”
The exchange, which took place smack dab in the middle of the presidential race between Mr. Obama and John McCain, transformed Mr. Wurzelbacher into an overnight sensation.
The left-wing media was furious and went into attack mode.
The main result was to cement his reputation as a spokesman for economic freedom.
The episode seems almost quaint today, when we've taken many more steps down the road to full-fledged socialism and governmental control of, well, everything.
But just as it's often a good strategy when one has lost one's way to retrace one’s steps, so it's worth revisiting the exchange between Joe the Plumber and Mr. Obama.
Like many on the left, Mr. Obama said the chief issue in formulating tax policy wasn't raising revenue, but “fairness.”
That’s where the ambition to “spread the wealth around” comes in, never mind that the wealth in question isn't his to spread.
Mr. Obama’s use of the word “fairness” brings me to a subject that may at first blush seem only distantly related to my theme but that I'm convinced is absolutely central.
I mean rhetoric—what Aristotle, who devoted an entire book to the subject, described as the “art of persuasion.”
Today, we tend to regard rhetoric, to the extent that we think about it at all, as something superficial.
A “rhetorical question” is one that expects no answer, while to describe something as “merely rhetorical” is to say that it's concerned only with style or emotional effect, not substance.
Yet Aristotle was right, I believe, in thinking that rhetoric was par excellence the political art—the art, I mean, that helps us negotiate our shared lives as intermittently rational actors with competing visions of the good.
And here's a question of rhetoric that isn't a rhetorical question: Why do liberals enjoy a virtual monopoly on all the nice words, beginning with the word “liberal”?
A full answer to that question would detain us for quite some time and take us back at least to the smarmy meditations of that primordial faux-liberal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
But for now, I wish merely to observe the curious irony that there are few more illiberal ideologies abroad in polite society than the agglomeration of attitudes and assumptions that currently goes under the rubric “liberal.”
I forget the name of the wit who observed that today's liberal dreams of a society in which everything that isn't prohibited is mandatory, but he was clearly on to something deep.
It’s the same with other aspects of illiberal liberalism.
Its partisans command the heady rhetoric of virtue, but the results of their campaigns are reliably disappointing.
Your mother doubtless warned you about the unprofitable destination of the road that's paved with good intentions.
And the fatuousness of good intentions unanchored by the realities of human nature is part of the tragi-comedy that is modern liberalism.
But let's not overstate the purity motivating our liberal masters.
In pursuing their agenda of abstract benevolence, they make us all collaborators in an agenda of dependency.
Consider Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs.
It was deployed with all the rhetorical blandishments liberal sanctimony could summon.
But what was its issue? As the late, great James Q. Wilson put it, the war on poverty didn't abolish poverty, it institutionalized it.
This melancholy spectacle has repeated itself time and again in Western societies, and yet we hitherto have seemed incapable of profiting from the lesson.
I think of that old liquor ad one saw on the sides of buses: “In life,” it read, “experience is the great teacher. In Scotch, Teacher's is the great experience.”
Those who cherish the former, alas, have found themselves repeatedly disappointed.
“Fairness.” “Liberal.” “Compassion.” “Benevolence.”
They’re all such comforting words. But what do they really portend?
President Obama was a type of benevolent ruler. Not the most thoroughgoing type—the United States has thus far been spared that—but a recognizable specimen nonetheless.
It isn't that benevolence is a bad thing per se. It’s just that, like charity, it works best the more local are its aims.
Enlarged, it becomes like that “telescopic philanthropy” that Charles Dickens, in "Bleak House," attributes to Mrs. Jellyby, “a lady of very remarkable strength of character who devotes herself entirely to the public.”
Like other such benefactors, Mrs. Jellyby’s philanthropy is more ardent the more abstract and distant in its objects. Africa excites her munificence. When it comes to her own family, however, she's hopeless.
The sad truth is that theoretical benevolence is compatible with any amount of practical indifference or even cruelty.
You feel kindly toward others. That's what matters: your feelings.
The effects of your benevolent feelings in the real world are secondary.
Rousseau was a philosopher of benevolence. So was Karl Marx.
Yet everywhere that Marx’s ideas have been put into practice, the result has been near universal immiseration. (I say “near” universal, by the way, because the elites entrusted with managing state-sponsored benevolence always tend to escape its depredations.)
But the thing to note is that Marx’s intention was the benevolent one of forging a more equitable society by abolishing private property by, to employ President Obama’s famous phrase again, “spreading the wealth around.”
Every Marxist society has spread it wide and spread it thin.
I think in this context of Ronald Reagan’s observation that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
The great 19th-century English essayist Walter Bagehot underscored the point.
It's a melancholy occupation, observed Bagehot, to ask whether the benevolence of mankind actually does more good than ill.
It makes the purveyor of benevolence feel better—and by “better” I mean “more smug and self-righteous.”
But it's unclear whether the objects of benevolence are any better off.
Just so with the modern welfare state.
It doesn’t matter that the welfare state actually creates more of the poverty and dependence it was instituted to abolish; the intentions behind it are benevolent.
Which is one of the reasons it's so seductive.
It flatters the vanity of those who espouse it even as it nourishes the egalitarian ambitions that have always been at the center of Enlightened thought.
T.S. Eliot laid bare the psychological mechanism of process in his play "The Cocktail Party."
“Half the harm that is done in the world,” he wrote, “is due to people who want to feel important.
“They don’t mean to do harm—but the harm does not interest them./Or they do not see it, or they justify it/Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle/To think well of themselves.
“The endless struggle to think well of themselves.”
From time immemorial, it has been the motor for all manner of socialist schemes.
Joe the Plumber, ordinary working-class chap that he was, understood this far better than the fancy people who went on to ridicule him.
Let's take a moment to remember him with gratitude. R.I.P.