October 25, 2005


Blessed Paul Wellstone (Daniel E. Ritchie, October-December 2005, American Enterprise)

A few months after the Republicans regained power in the Senate, a Wellstone supporter took me out for coffee. How could an intelligent Christian who cares about the poor, she wanted to know, be a conservative? The Wellstone death had hit her harder than expected. She genuinely wanted to understand how a nice guy like me could be associated with, well, them.

The difference is simple, I told her. Liberals are smart and conservatives are stupid. Wellstone’s paean to his own achievements, The Conscience of a Liberal (2001), is a breathless account of one initiative after another, wrapped in cursory policy analyses of health care, welfare reform, education, the minimum wage, and other issues. He solves the problem of universal health care in three pages by limiting annual medical costs to 5 percent of income, promising “cost containment,” and eliminating “excessive profit” in the system. Wellstone admits to only one possible mistake in his first ten years as a senator: he voted to preserve heterosexual marriage.

Conservatives, I told her, don’t trust their own intelligence in the way that Wellstone trusted his. We doubt that any individuals, regardless of their compassion or intelligence, can amass the knowledge required to make wise choices for society regarding health care or the minimum wage, let alone marriage. The prices established by billions of choices made by millions of consumers, I said, reflect more knowledge than Senator Wellstone could possibly amass. Similarly, we think that traditions, with their subtle mix of flexibility and stability, established over centuries by billions of ordinary people, embody more knowledge about marriage than does the American Psychological Association.

Our ultimate disagreement, I told her, was over the nature of knowledge. Conservatives recognize its limits; liberals celebrate its power. Liberals trust extraordinary people like Paul Wellstone to solve social problems.

And the neocons think the Court requires people of extraordinary intellect.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 25, 2005 6:20 PM

Yes, because you need to be smart enough to know not to listen to Justice Breyer, and to know why not to listen to Justice Breyer.

The stupidity claimed by Mr. Richie isn't stupidity at all; it is well-thought-through intellectual humility sufficiently honed to recognize unwise intellectual arrogance when he sees it.

A merely dispositional conservative isn't good enough on the Supreme Court and Sandra Day O'Connor is Exhibit A.

Posted by: rds at October 25, 2005 6:34 PM



Posted by: oj at October 25, 2005 6:37 PM

Right, stupidity is listening to Stephen Breyer, when if you knew better you wouldn't.

Posted by: rds at October 25, 2005 6:40 PM

No, it requires real intellect to follow his rationalism.

Posted by: oj at October 25, 2005 6:47 PM

It requires greater intellect to see through his rationalism and articulate a critique of its flaws, as must be done in every opinion taking a position in opposition to it. The skills required of a Supreme Court justice are different from those required of a Presidential candidate, where the kind of stupidity you are talking about works just fine.

Posted by: rds at October 25, 2005 6:53 PM

Stop it this instant, OJ. I'm trying to drink.

Posted by: ghostcat at October 25, 2005 7:27 PM

As Don Rumsfeld might have said, there's intelligence, known stupidity, and unknown stupidity. Liberals believe they have intelligence, but it's usually unknown stupidity. Conservatives claim that true intelligence teaches you known stupidity.

Posted by: pj at October 25, 2005 7:39 PM


There's intelligence, known stupidity, and unknown stupidity; except that there isn't actually intelligence.

Posted by: Mike Earl at October 25, 2005 8:07 PM

Liberals are intellectuals. One phrase you will never hear from an intellectual, especially in their areas of expertise, is "I don't know". It's practically a genetic marker that can be used in differentiating intellectuals from the truly smart. The latter can recognize their limitations.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 25, 2005 8:33 PM



Intellectuals think you have to engage and refute the ideas intellectually. Conservatives know better than to try.

Posted by: oj at October 25, 2005 8:46 PM

"It may indeed prove to be far the most difficult and not the least important task for human reason rationally to comprehend its own limitations." F.A. Hayek

Posted by: Bret at October 25, 2005 8:47 PM

The great obstacle to discovery is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.

Daniel J. Boorstein

One of my favorite quotes.

Posted by: Jeff at October 25, 2005 8:50 PM

Too lazy to find exact reference, but Gordon Woods, in his great book, "The Radicalism of the American Revolution", spoke of the early 19th Century American belief that the totality of the citizens beliefs and opinions was far superior to the beliefs and opinions of the "elites".
Nothing would show this better than "uber-elite" Jefferson's belief in an agrarian only society, and all the individuals working to fill the needs of an acquisitive society. Guess who history decided the winner was?

Posted by: Mike Daley at October 25, 2005 8:58 PM

Mike - That's a very intelligent statement. But I know it's a stupid statement.

Posted by: pj at October 25, 2005 10:57 PM

Guess I'm too stupid to understand.
Was Woods stupid in his statements that early 19th Century Americans pretty well believed that their consensus on issues was better than the 'elites"?
Or, was Jefferson not the "uber-elite" of the late 18th, early 19th Centuries.
Or, did he not truly believe that an agrarian yeoman society was the only one which could support a Republican Democracy?
Or, was he correct in said belief?
Or, is their no relation to the 2nd Great Awakening denizens of early 19th Century America to today's non-intellectual denizens of 21st Century America.
The Wellstones's have always been with us, and, in spite of their belief that they have the answers, history has always proved them wrong.
Of course, the French intellectual enlightenment really worked out well for the French non-intellectuals, actually it didn't work out very well for the intellectuals either.

Posted by: Mike Daley at October 26, 2005 12:00 AM

Guess who history decided the winner was?


Posted by: Ali Choudhury at October 26, 2005 2:10 AM

Mike Daley - I was replying to Mike Earl. Sorry, didn't notice a second Mike.

Posted by: pj at October 26, 2005 6:57 AM

It was Socrates who, when he was hailed as the wisest of all mortals, was taken aback because he knew that he knew nothing.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 26, 2005 1:18 PM