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Irving Kristol on Behavior in a Democracy

3:30 PM, Feb 25, 2011 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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In his posthumous collection of essays, The Neoconservative Persuasion, Irving Kristol offers reflections into political and social issues that still hound us today. Take this passage, from his 1974 essay "Republican Virtue versus Servile Institutions," which, with a few changes in the specifics, could have been written last week:

Another illustration of what I have in mind is the extraordinary increase, in recent years, of strikes which, for quite trivial reasons, inflict enormous damage on the community. I am thinking especially of strikes by policemen, firemen, garbage collectors, and transport workers. These are quite common today, though they were yesterday very rare, and the day before yesterday were close to unthinkable. American trade unions used to be essentially defensive institutions, protecting human rights and economic position of their members, and their ethos was one of fraternity. They have become purely acquisitive combinations, exercising monopoly power in a spirit of the-public-be-damned. Now, I am not saying that, in some instances, these Americans who go on strike do not have legitimate grievances. On the contrary: I assume they do. But a legitimate grievance can become illegitimate, just as a just war can become unjust, if the means employed are incommensurate with the ends sought. And I must say that I am appalled that a group of American workers should cease performing essential services to their fellow Americans because they seek a 5 percent or 8 percent increase in pay over what they receive or over what was offered them. Something is definitely wrong when that can happen, as it now does with increasing frequency. How can that rather trivial goal possibly justify such aggressive and costly action?

I have used the phrase "that rather trivial goal" in order to put the matter as provactively as possible. (Sometimes we do have to be provoked to think clearly.) I know I will be told that these workers have a difficult time making ends meet and that a 5 percent or an 8 percent increase is not to be sneered at. That is true enough, but I would also insist it is really beside the point. Very few of our workers live on the margin of subsistence; they are not in the kind of extreme and desperate condition which might justify such extreme and desperate action. The extra money, after taxes have been deducted, will make their situation slightly more comfortable than it was. And for this they are prepared to convulse the community and threaten the livelihood of their fellow citizens, many of whom are surely less well off than they are. This can only be described as selfishness. And that description applies whether one regards their grievances as legitimate or not. Nevertheless, very few of us seem to be able to say this bluntly, without embarrassment. We are more likely to point out that these ordinary people are behaving no different from many greedy and unscrupulous businessmen. This argument has some truth in it, but what a strange truth it is! It implies, in effect, that the legitimate criteria of behavior in a democracy are to be found somewhere in the vicinity of the lowest common denominator. And, of course, under the pressure of this perverse moral egalitarianism, the lowest common denominator sinks ever lower.

On Monday, March 7, the American Enterprise Institute will be hosting a lecture by Bill Kristol on his father's book (details here). Also, be sure to read James Ceaser's review of The Neoconservative Persuasion.

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