George F. Kennan (1905-2006) was considered one of our great wise men. A diplomat, he was a key architect of the cold war “containment policy” toward the Soviet Union. Because of his godlike repute, I picked up his 1993 book, Around the Cragged Hill, not a memoir but a volume of reflections. It was disappointing.
It’s written in an arch, portentous style, which perhaps he felt flattered his stature. It’s the style of “why use two words if four will do?”
And Kennan was the quintessential curmudgeon. I was reminded of one of my first blog posts, reviewing a book by Daniel Boorstin. Like Boorstin, Kennan seemed to hate virtually everything about modern life – round up the usual suspects – the television, the car, urbanization. He hated the car for promoting suburban sprawl, yet he also hated so many people living in cities, and actually advocated trying to move them back to farms – even if that reduced farm efficiency. (We can feed ourselves with less than 2% of the population in agriculture). Kennan romanticized the farm life, but was himself a citified intellectual who wouldn’t want to live it. (You know the type.)
The basic problem is a failure to see the larger picture. Yes, everything about modernity has drawbacks, but also compensations. Life is all about trade-offs. I keep pointing to a 30,000 annual U.S. highway death toll – which, bizarrely, Kennan’s anti-car diatribe failed to mention! Yet we as a society evidently consider this a price worth paying for cars’ huge benefits. That’s not completely crazy.
Similarly myopic was Kennan’s view of automation as a job killer plain and simple. He opposed boosting productivity by replacing human labor with robots, etc., because, after all, people gotta have jobs. Such Luddism is again blind to the bigger picture, imagining a world full of factories spewing out products without employing anyone, so everyone starves. The absurdity, of course, is who would buy the products? It never plays out this way. Just as improved agricultural productivity freed the masses from farm drudgery, so they could be employed producing other things, thereby enriching everybody, improved industrial productivity likewise frees people to fill other needs, again multiplying societal wealth. That’s why global living standards rose five-fold in the last century.
Kennan was also down on immigration. His argument: poverty among nations, like water, will find an equilibrium level, so absent restriction, poor countries will export poverty to richer ones until all have equal poverty. What’s wrong with that argument? Simply that there are reasons why Americans are richer than Haitians; America has a societal culture and infrastructure much more conducive to people being productive and thereby able to achieve higher living standards. Immigrants from Haiti don’t bring America down to Haitian levels; they raise themselves to American levels. More people being more productive in America, ceteris paribus, spreads wealth, not poverty.
The book ends with a run-down of America’s problems, proposing a “State Council” of distinguished Americans to make recommendations. As if that could actually solve anything. The proposal followed some lamentations that wise old-timers like him don’t get listened to enough. Which — judging from the content of this book — may be a good thing.
But there was at least one point in the book I agreed with. That will be a separate post, soon.