Arguing well

Ian Lindquist writes on BASIS Curriculum Schools:

Founded in 1998 in Tucson by Michael and Olga Block with the mandate of providing rigorous instruction to enable Arizona students to compete internationally with their peers, the BASIS Curriculum Schools network now includes 27 charter schools, 5 independent schools, and 5 international schools in China and the Czech Republic. The original BASIS Curriculum model emphasized rigorous education in math and science and a lot of high-level learning in subjects considered off the beaten path for younger students, like logic, economics, and Mandarin. As a result, the network’s charters have, in the past few years, gained a reputation for excellence and now compete with some of the best schools in the country in the annual rankings in U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Post. Indeed, the top five public high schools in the country, according to U.S. News, are all BASIS charter schools.

BASIS will now attempt to address the reluctance among young Americans to enter into genuine intellectual debate. In the fall of 2019, the network plans to launch a program for grades 8 through 10 at its independent school in McLean, Virginia, emphasizing liberal education. …

At the center of the program is the belief that students benefit by learning how to argue respectfully and that such an education will make them better citizens. …

Peter Bezanson, chief executive officer of BASIS, reports that each history class in the new program will have 2 teachers who will convene 20 students around a seminar table. The teachers, whom Bezanson says will have different viewpoints on the historical material, will have one shared ideal: a commitment to encouraging students to debate, disagree, and discuss, and to model reasonable debate and disagreement for them.

To argue well is something like the opposite of quarreling or fighting or any of the sort of public trivia that contemporary news presents to the public. I think that arguing well requires the sort of virtues that Lindquist outlines, and it also requires a shared vocabulary, a shared commitment to the possibility of objective truth and, ideally, agreement on the telos of human life:

To prepare teachers for a classroom hospitable to debate and discussion, Bezanson plans to send teachers from the BASIS Curriculum Schools network to study at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, each summer. St. John’s is the natural choice for BASIS teachers because its course of study is grounded in the twin pillars of the great books and Socratic seminars. Seminar participants sit around a table and discuss the work at hand for two hours at a time. As a former St. John’s undergraduate student, I can attest that in this environment debate and disagreement thrive. And as Frank Bruni recently wrote in the New York Times, this is not because the St. John’s classroom is full of animosity, but because students sharpen their minds as they spend so much time interrogating texts.

Emily Langston, associate dean for graduate programs at St. John’s, says that the St. John’s classroom is based on two suppositions: “The idea that the text has something to teach us” and the fact that “we don’t all think the same thing about the text.” Indeed, “the idea that we can disagree and be respectful and, in doing so, learn from each other, is part of what community means.” Disagreement and discussion are the fabric of community, not its antithesis. …

Discussion based on a text in a seminar-style format helps students achieve aptitude and high-level practice in the four grammatical skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. These are critical and essential to any further education. They’re also, in many cases, requisite for a meaningful life in literate society.

Most importantly, seminars inherently teach how to be a citizen in a liberal society by teaching participants how to weigh words, and, in doing so, practice a standard of truth and goodness. Students learn to recognize words that demonstrate the truth of a point rather than trusting the authority of the one who speaks them. This inculcates a taste for demonstrable truth and persuasive argument and a distaste for propaganda.

Seminars allow students to enter into a shared space with their peers even as they disagree. There is no sarcasm, no withholding of oneself or one’s efforts from the group, which means that two people can disagree on almost every point of interpretation about a text while still sharing something fundamental: common and equal investment in the discussion. …

Around the seminar table is where citizenship is best forged—face-to-face, peer-to-peer. It’s an encouraging sign that BASIS, already a leader in K-12 education, recognizes a need to train students in habits that will make them good friends, neighbors, and citizens.

Governing in our own century

Daniel McCarthy writes that “America’s fundamental political choice now is between mild nationalism, resurgent socialism, or suicide by liberalism, whether of the libertarian or palliative sort:”

That being the case, how would the nationalist alternative work?

It would begin by rejecting propaganda about the end of the export economy. World population is still growing, and growing wealthier, which means there are more people around the world increasingly capable of buying goods made in America. We sacrificed some of our competitive advantage after World War II for the sake of Cold War strategy, and we were right to do so. But now the time has come to compete to the utmost, at once politically and economically, with our rivals, above all China. That means driving bargains to open markets for our goods while permitting access to our markets—still the most desirable in the world—on terms favorable to our citizens in full, in their capacity as producers, not just as consumers. The argument that the loss of manufacturing jobs to technology excuses the extinction of manufacturing employment is not an argument at all. What follows is that we ought to minimize the loss of employment due to every factor not technologically inevitable, such as ill-conceived trade deals. Tariffs are not an end in themselves, of course: They are a defensive measure and a source of leverage.

President Trump’s instincts are correct about immigration as well: It is in need of reform that puts citizens first, with emphasis on supporting higher wages for workers. Less low-skill immigration puts upward pressure on wages. And what if there just aren’t enough American workers to fill all the jobs? That’s good, too, because, other things being equal, it encourages larger family size. When parents see opportunities for their children in a world in which more labor is needed, they have confidence to have more children. This is why populations everywhere boom at the onset of an industrial revolution, and it’s a reason why frontier settler populations so often have such high rates of family formation. Get employment growing again for Americans who are not already on the top of the heap, and their families can grow again, too. …

The idea that economic nationalism is not compatible with free-market economics is absurd. The history of America from the founding to the New Deal belies the idea that nationalist economics is bad for business or growth. Its virtue is that it is good for labor and political stability as well. From growth, a contented middle class, and moderate political culture flow a strong country and stronger families and citizens. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, when nations and supranational institutions are in turmoil, those benefits are of existential significance.

The ideal of Jefferson’s agrarian America (as distinct from its too often plantation-based reality) was a nation of virtuous yeomanry—small, independent farmers capable of providing for their families themselves. Abraham Lincoln’s vision was of a country in which working men, not only farmers, could improve their standards of life. In the twentieth century, the American dream became a thing to which every salaryman could aspire: a good job; enough money to buy a house, start a family, and retire; and the chance to watch one’s children rise to a higher station. In the twenty-first century, that dream has given way to delirium—feverish uncertainty about whether in midlife one will have to become an Amazon deliveryman or a Walmart greeter, and anxiety about whether one’s children will be tech-company winners or endlessly indebted gig workers.

We need to accept the responsibilities of leadership. That means governing in the century in which we actually live rather than the one shaped by our political heroes. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the world began to change, and our country with it. Those changes have accelerated and are now threatening to tear us apart. The way forward requires refocusing on the American citizen as the basic unit of the economy. This is the essence of a nationalist political economy, which we very much need if our country’s tradition of personal independence and limited government is to endure, a tradition in which government’s primary economic role is not to provide welfare but to safeguard the conditions that make productive work possible.

“Culture comes first,” McCarthy writes, “but like a final cause or end in Aristotle’s philosophy, it is first in priority, not necessarily first in time or action. We need to bring this truth forward, for we’ve forgotten it over the past few decades.” McCarthy’s piece is worthwhile for perspective on something that millions of Americans across the political spectrum feel: that fundamentals are at risk of breaking in our body politic.

What makes Dan McCarthy a consistently interesting writer is that he’s concerned with what so many political and cultural writers ignore: first principles.

Jack Bogle, RIP

Jack Bogle, founder of Vanguard, has died. Art Carey and Erin Arvedlund report:

John C. Bogle, 89, who revolutionized the way Americans save for the future, championed the interests of the small investor, and railed against corporate greed and the excesses of Wall Street, died of cancer Wednesday at his home in Bryn Mawr, his family confirmed.

Mr. Bogle, a chipper and unpretentious man who invited everyone to call him “Jack,” was founder and for many years chairman of the Vanguard Group, the Malvern-based mutual-fund company, where he pioneered low-cost, low-fee investing and mutual funds tied to stock-market indexes. These innovations, reviled and ridiculed at first, enabled millions of ordinary Americans to build wealth to buy a home, pay for college, and retire comfortably.

Along the way, Vanguard, which Mr. Bogle launched in 1974, became a titan in the financial-services industry, with 16,600 employees and over $5 trillion in assets by the end of 2018, and Mr. Bogle earned a reputation as not only an investing sage but a maverick whose integrity and old-fashioned values set an example that many admired and few could match.

“Jack could have been a multibillionaire on a par with Gates and Buffett,” said William Bernstein, an Oregon investment manager and author of 12 books on finance and economic history. Instead, he turned his company into one owned by its mutual funds, and in turn their investors, “that exists to provide its customers the lowest price. He basically chose to forgo an enormous fortune to do something right for millions of people. I don’t know any other story like it in American business history.” …

While Mr. Bogle was facile with numbers, he was much less interested in counting than in what counts, and his intellectual range was broad. He revered language, history, poetry, and classical wisdom, and frequently amazed and delighted people by reciting long passages of verse. …

Mr. Bogle had hoped that the Vanguard model — “structurally correct, mathematically correct, and ethically correct” — would goad other investment firms to give customers a fairer shake. While index funds have become widely popular, Vanguard’s competitors often have been less than keen about following the company’s penny-pinching lead. …

When he was not touting the advantages of the Vanguard mode of investing, Mr. Bogle, a self-proclaimed “battler by nature,” was lambasting his professional brethren for “rank speculation,” reckless assumption of debt, “obscene” multimillion-dollar paychecks, and golden parachutes, and saying they had abdicated their duty as stewards in favor of self-interested salesmanship. …

Along the way, Mr. Bogle attracted his share of critics. He was called a communist, a Marxist, a Bolshevik, a Calvinist scold and zealot, a holier-than-thou traitor and subversive who was undermining the pillars of capitalism with un-American rants. Mr. Bogle characterized his pugnacious relationship with the financial industry as “a lover’s quarrel.” His mission, he said, was simple: to return capitalism, finance, and fund management to their roots in stewardship. …

A man who believed in the value of introspection and who was always questioning his own motives and behavior, Mr. Bogle sought to define what it means to lead a good life. It was not about wealth, power, fame and other conventional notions of success, he concluded.

“It’s about being a good husband, a good father, a good colleague, a good member of the community. Everything else pales by comparison. The accumulation of material goods is a waste — you can’t take them with you, anyway — and the waste is typified by our financial system. The essential message is, stop focusing on self and start thinking about service to others.”

When I was in Philadelphia this past weekend I happened at one point to be speaking with a Vanguard person, and asked about Jack Bogle. “He still comes into the office, still eats in the cafeteria with everyone else. He’s the most down-to-earth man.”

Jack Bogle forged Vanguard’s incredible reputation, and through index funds provided generations of average Americans the means to save and invest. My grandmother was one of those Vanguard disciples, and her frugality and farsightedness helped make possible a comfortable retirement for my grandparents and helped provide for the family over the years.

Antonio García Martinez reflected in light of Bogle’s death: “One of the key emptinesses at the core of modern secular liberalism is a convincing answer to the question: what is a good life? The ability to attain a felt (or acknowledged) dignity, irrespective of high or low material attainments, is an essential component of a sane society. The Greeks of course had their best minds wrestle with the question. We don’t dare even ask it anymore.”

RIP.

Higher GDP, lower quality of life

J.D. Vance writes in response to Tucker Carlson’s critique of an excessively economic-focused conservatism:

Tucker Carlson’s monologue heard round the world is interesting on its own terms. In it, he argues against a conservatism that consistently prizes commercial interests above those of everyone else. I encourage you to watch or read it in full. Yet the response on the right is as interesting as Carlson’s monologue itself, for it reveals a discomfort among some conservatives for balancing the tensions that exist in our coalition and in our ideology. …

Our economy has not produced fewer dead children and more living parents in America, at least not in the section of the country where I live. The opioid epidemic, in particular, has ravaged whole communities — driving down life expectancy, depriving children of their parents, and parents of their children. The human cost of this crisis is simply incomprehensible. In states such as Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, countless children are growing up with parents in jail, incapacitated, or underground. Yes, they live in a country with a higher GDP than a generation ago, and they’re undoubtedly able to buy cheaper consumer goods, but to paraphrase Reagan: Are they better off than they were 20 years ago? Many would say, unequivocally, “no.”

Some economic libertarians might say that these problems are the consequence of bad individual choices, and I wouldn’t entirely disagree. I grew up in a family plagued by addiction, and I saw some bad choices. Yet bad choices simply aren’t enough to explain the crisis — people have always made bad choices, and the familial, neighborhood, and economic contexts in which they live can exacerbate or improve them. Others might admit that it’s not all bad choices, that bad policy plays a role, but oddly the bad policy they point to is almost always the negative incentives of the welfare state. Again, they have a point — our welfare state is far from perfect, especially when it comes to encouraging work and family formation — but there are many other policies at play here.

To keep the focus on the opioid epidemic, the Los Angeles Times’ reporting on the role of the pharmaceutical industry is both excellent and disturbing. It chronicles the ways in which some companies gamed our regulatory system to obtain approval and patent protection for highly addictive drugs. Those companies then knowingly lied about the safety of those drugs to doctors and patients. Some commentators have framed their problem with Tucker’s argument as promoting “government intervention” when that same intervention is the problem. But if you want to protect a community from drugs that can take hold of a person’s mind and destroy whole neighborhoods soon thereafter, you need some government intervention.

This raises a fundamental question with which so many of Tucker’s critics refuse to even engage: What happens when the companies that drive the market economy — and all of its benefits — don’t care about the American nation’s social fabric? What happens when, as in the case of a few massive narcotics sellers, they profit by destroying that fabric?

Surely our response can’t be: “Well, the market will take care of it.”

We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule.”

America’s political day traders

I skimmed Mitt Romney’s Washington Post op-ed on January 1st, and didn’t think much more about it. Tucker Carlson’s surprising response makes for worthwhile reading, where he writes that Romney’s piece is “a window into how the people in charge, in both parties, see our country:”

Romney’s main complaint in the piece is that Donald Trump is a mercurial and divisive leader. That’s true, of course. But beneath the personal slights, Romney has a policy critique of Trump. He seems genuinely angry that Trump might pull American troops out of the Syrian civil war. Romney doesn’t explain how staying in Syria would benefit America. He doesn’t appear to consider that a relevant question. More policing in the Middle East is always better. We know that. Virtually everyone in Washington agrees.

Corporate tax cuts are also popular in Washington, and Romney is strongly on board with those, too. His piece throws a rare compliment to Trump for cutting the corporate rate a year ago.

That’s not surprising. Romney spent the bulk of his business career at a firm called Bain Capital. Bain Capital all but invented what is now a familiar business strategy: Take over an existing company for a short period of time, cut costs by firing employees, run up the debt, extract the wealth, and move on, sometimes leaving retirees without their earned pensions. Romney became fantastically rich doing this.

Meanwhile, a remarkable number of the companies are now bankrupt or extinct. This is the private equity model. Our ruling class sees nothing wrong with it. It’s how they run the country. …

At some point, Donald Trump will be gone. The rest of us will be gone, too. The country will remain. What kind of country will be it be then? How do we want our grandchildren to live? These are the only questions that matter.

The answer used to be obvious. The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods. But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.

The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity. It’s happiness. There are a lot of ingredients in being happy: Dignity. Purpose. Self-control. Independence. Above all, deep relationships with other people. Those are the things that you want for your children. They’re what our leaders should want for us, and would want if they cared.

But our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.

Neil Postman’s critique of contemporary American culture as essentially a trivial culture, in the literal sense of a culture obsessed with “details, considerations, or pieces of information of little importance or value,” has stuck with me since reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” last year.

New Moon landings

Michael Martina reports on China’s probe landing on the Moon’s far side:

A Chinese space probe successfully touched down on the far side of the moon on Thursday, China’s space agency said, hailing the event as a historic first and a major achievement for the country’s space programme.

The Chang’e-4 lunar probe, launched in December, made the “soft landing” at 0226 GMT and transmitted the first-ever “close range” image of the far side of the moon, the China National Space Administration said.

The moon is tidally locked to Earth, rotating at the same rate as it orbits our planet, so most of the far side – or “dark side” – is never visible to us. Previous spacecraft have seen the far side, but none has landed on it.

The landing “lifted the mysterious veil” of the far side of the moon and “opened a new chapter in human lunar exploration”, the agency said in a statement on its website, which included a wide-angle colour picture of a crater from the moon’s surface. …

The United States is the only country to have landed humans on the moon, and Trump said in 2017 he wanted to return astronauts to the lunar surface to build a foundation for an eventual Mars mission. …

As soon as 2022, NASA expects to begin building a new space station laboratory to orbit the moon, as a pit stop for missions to distant parts of the solar system.

In 2003, China became the third country to put a man in space with its own rocket after the former Soviet Union and the United States, and in 2017 it said it was preparing to send a person to the moon.

In time, America’s return to the Moon in the next 15 years might be seen as consequential an achievement as Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface, because it will likely signal our first permanent human settlement beyond earth.

‘A principle of periodic reduction of bureaucracy’

I caught the 5:05pm Amtrak from Washington to Philadelphia this evening, and am heading to Bismarck early in the morning for a bioethics seminar at the University of Mary the rest of this week. The flags outside of Union Station were at half mast in honor of President George H.W. Bush.

As I walked through Old City later in the night I took this photo of Independence Hall. I think it pairs well with Camille Paglia’s commentary on the illiberal nature of bureaucracy:

As government programs have incrementally multiplied, so has their regulatory apparatus, with its intrusive byzantine minutiae. Recently tagged as a source of anti-Trump conspiracy among embedded Democrats, the deep state is probably equally populated by Republicans and apolitical functionaries of Bartleby the Scrivener blandness. Its spreading sclerotic mass is wasteful, redundant, and ultimately tyrannical.

I have been trying for decades to get my fellow Democrats to realize how unchecked bureaucracy, in government or academe, is inherently authoritarian and illiberal. A persistent characteristic of civilizations in decline throughout history has been their self-strangling by slow, swollen, and stupid bureaucracies. The current atrocity of crippling student debt in the US is a direct product of an unholy alliance between college administrations and federal bureaucrats — a scandal that ballooned over two decades with barely a word of protest from our putative academic leftists, lost in their post-structuralist fantasies. Political correctness was not created by administrators, but it is ever-expanding campus bureaucracies that have constructed and currently enforce the oppressively rule-ridden regime of college life.

In the modern world, so wondrously but perilously interconnected, a principle of periodic reduction of bureaucracy should be built into every social organism. Freedom cannot survive otherwise.

Most local news isn’t

I saw this report shared someplace recently, Assessing Local Journalism: News Deserts, Journalism Divides, and the Determinants of the Robustness of Local News. It’s as much about journalism as it is about the health of American communities. From its executive summary:

Drawing upon an analysis of over 16,000 news stories, gathered over seven days, across 100 randomly sampled U.S. communities, this study found that:

  • Eight communities contained no stories addressing critical information needs.
  • Twelve communities contained no original news stories.
  • Twenty communities contained no local news stories.

In addition, this study found that:

  • Only about 17 percent of the news stories provided to a community are truly local – that is actually about or having taken place within – the municipality.
  • Less than half (43 percent) of the news stories provided to a community by local media outlets are original (i.e., are produced by the local media outlet).
  • Just over half (56 percent) of the news stories provided to a community by local media outlets address a critical information need

“Only about 17 percent of the news stories provided to a community are truly local…”

It seems to me that the near death of our civic and social life, of even our ability to be aware of what’s happening in our communities, is both much worse than we realize and also a much bigger practical crisis than the drama of our national politics.

When most local news isn’t, that means that the conglomerates presenting easy-to-obtain and cheap-to-free national content through formerly local brands are simply running out the clock until those brands are completely dead. That means there’s opportunity in creating news and media brands that will contribute to the civic and social health of particular communities now, so that they’ll be firmly in place when the old brands finally die.

George H.W. Bush, RIP

George H.W. Bush, rest in peace. The 41st president died in Houston last night. Rod Dreher shared Joshua Treviño’s H.W. reflection, and I’m sharing that same reflection here because I think it’s one of the best:

Here is the one thing you need to know about him, among all the things of his crowded and extraordinary life: his most enduring legacy is the war that did not happen. It is a commonplace that his predecessor in the Presidency defeated the Soviet Union, and there is truth to it, but it is not the whole story. President George H.W. Bush was the man who managed, deftly and successfully, the Western portion of the implosion of the Soviet empire. It was a perilous passage — the abrupt collapse of an imperium and a pillar of world order — that would have almost certainly produced great-power war under nearly any other circumstance. It did not largely because of the men who were President at the moment: President, that is, of both the failing USSR and the ascending United States.

Think back to the revolutions of 1989, and the triumphant scenes of Europe liberated at last, of the Second World War reaching its final conclusion after six long decades. Think back to the realization that Soviet Communism, the specter haunting free men throughout most of the century, was in its death throes. Then think back to what you didn’t see: American triumphalism in Europe, the imposition of terms, the march of Western armies to the Oder and Vistula, the spiking of the ball.

President George H.W. Bush, unnoticed and uncredited by his nation, steered a victorious America — flush in the defeat of its sixth empire in just over seventy years, standing upon the precipice of global hyperpower — with restraint, prudence, and even modesty in its moment of triumph. It was an exemplary achievement not just for the virtues inherent in those qualities. It was an exemplary achievement because of the people who lived.

Under nearly anyone else, in nearly any other era, the generation of 1989 would have been sacrificed to wars of succession, wars of revision, and wars of revenge. Under George H.W. Bush, these men and women lived, and their children are with us today.

It is a curious thing to have as the most enduring achievement a thing that did not happen. The former President understood it. The American people did not. They still don’t.

I was a small child living with my mother in Bayreuth, West Germany in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall began to fall. She was on a Fulbright there, and I was along with her. We visited Berlin, and we brought back a piece of that wall when we came home. Here’s a photo of us in Bayreuth’s Hofgarten from that autumn:

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In reading Joshua Treviño’s reflection, I think about how easy it would have been for President Bush to have “spiked the ball” in some way that would have blown up in our faces. Even in Daniel McCarthy’s blunt epitaph for a man he believes essentially created our present geopolitical dilemmas, he points out the sort of restraint Bush demonstrated in presiding over the U.S.S.R.’s collapse:

Bush refused to encourage Ukrainian efforts to break free from the Soviet Union in summer of 1991 and warned of ‘suicidal nationalism’ on the part of Ukraine. Bush was right, not because the Ukrainians did not deserve their independence—which they soon peacefully obtained—but because US involvement would have been a goad to Russian nationalism and could only have complicated the necessary work of dismantling the Soviet Union, work that could only be carried out by Soviet subjects (including Russians) themselves.

I was in Kennebunkport, Maine over Memorial Day in 2010 with friends, and we had the chance to meet Bush briefly. He had a tradition of coming out for the Memorial Day parade there. It was one of his last years before age and disability made a wheelchair a necessity, and he was milling about and greeting everyone in a low key way. Shaking his hand and offering him a simple “thank you” for his service was a memorable moment, the sort that I hope continue to exist even despite the increasingly imperial nature of the U.S. presidency. I hope, through the countless number of Americans who have similar experiences with our presidents, that the best instincts of an older America are carried forward for generations to come.

Sources of national purpose

Earlier this month, just as the midterm elections were taking place, Kevin Williamson wrote something that’s been sitting in my browser since I first read it. “Against ‘Unity'” presents a provocative-seeming but actually rather conventional invitation to seek tolerance and pluralism, not a politically-achieved sense of moral-therapeutic feeling of social unity:

For what I guess are obvious reasons, the past couple of weeks have been heavy with discussions and columns on the theme of President Trump and “unity.” “Trump can’t unite us,” says the headline on a discussion between Ross Douthat and Frank Bruni in the New York Times. “Can anyone?”

One possible answer to that question is: “I don’t care.”

Nobody has ever explained why it is we need to be “united” to begin with, or made the case that we are somehow seriously disunited. There’s a great deal of histrionic howling and stupidity surrounding our politics, which is really only a proxy war for deeper underlying cultural differences. There’s some cause for concern there, but the cure for that division isn’t “unity” — it’s the opposite of unity: Live and let live. A great many of our problems come from the desire to forcibly recruit people whose lives and interests are unlike our own into the pursuit of our own narrow visions of the good life. The whole point of our national arrangement is that we can be pluribus and unum at the same time. That’s why the states didn’t cease to exist when we created a federal government. “Unity” means “oneness,” and trying to push people into oneness when they want different things will always cause tension. If there’s “unity,” then somebody wins and somebody loses. Plurality, on the other hand, means that we don’t all have to live the same way or hold the same things dear.

There are things to be concerned about, of course. But the country is trucking along just fine, our institutions are robust, our communities functional. …

And even if such “unity” were necessary or desirable, why should it come from the chief administrative official of the federal government? We have a president, not a prince. The president isn’t the country. He isn’t even the government. The purported need to bask in the glow of solidarity under his benevolent gaze is gross and unworthy of us as a people.

We aren’t here to be bent by the government to some national purpose. The government is here to be bent to our purposes. … Government is there to fix potholes and mind the borders and keep the peace. It isn’t there to give us a sense of purpose, or to make us feel good about our neighbors and fellow citizens. And if you can’t endure your neighbor because you’re so torqued up about whoever won the last election or whoever’s going to win this one, then you have problems that no mere politician can solve. …

We should try to get a government that functions better as a government rather than try to make it function as some kind of national moral totem.

If our sense of national purpose is fraying, political solutions to that problem seem unlikely to be the best remedy.