Tall Tales from Garrison Keillor

Few raconteurs on radio are more entertaining than the multi-talented Garrison Keillor. His insights into human nature seem penetrating. His stories of country life in Minnesota are homely and gripping, his humor can be hilarious yet he can turn from comedy to pathos on a dime, then back again just as fast. And to top it all, he can very passably sing. An announcement that his Prairie Home Companion is about to start on PBS is a sufficient reason to turn up the volume on the hi-fi. But recently he vented in praise of the Democrat political party, and in doing so, he revealed the intellectual vacuum at the center not only of that, but of all mainstream political parties.

His full remarks can be read here, but their essence is that humanity demands that victims of gross misfortune should by long tradition be helped by their fellow-man, and that only the Democrats recognize this and have established a right to such help in American society; he says that this compassion lies at the heart of that Party. He exemplifies parents, devastated by the discovery that their newborn has the Down Syndrome or cerebral palsy or a hole in the heart, and continues: "This is Democratic bedrock: we don't let people lie in the ditch and drive past and pretend not to see them dying. Here on the frozen tundra of Minnesota, if your neighbor's car won't start, you put on your parka and get the jumper cables out and deliver the Sacred Spark that starts their car. Everybody knows this. The logical extension of this spirit is social welfare and the myriad government programs with long dry names all very uninteresting to you until you suddenly need one and then you turn into a Democrat. A liberal is a conservative who's been through treatment."  This venture by Keillor into political theory is riddled with fatal errors.

First, the lie that human benevolence morphs into government programs by a "logical extension" is by no means a monopoly of the Democrats, as he claims. Arguably that Party makes more of a fuss over it, but the Reps too spend just as much of our money on that kind of program as do their main rivals.

Second, such politicized compassion does not lie anywhere close to the Dems' "bedrock." Originally, that Party had the (hopeless) aim of keeping the government small and weak, the diametric opposite to what it is today. Then after 1865, the Dems enshrined all the vicious prejudice of White Southerners against their newly-liberated black neighbors, to keep them as far out of the job market, and from political influence, as they could. Only since 1930 have the Dems fastened on to the strategy of winning votes by promising assistance for the needy at their neighbors' expense; and while that has bought them power, it absolutely contradicts their original purpose.

Third, by arguing correctly that compassion (real compassion, exercised by people using their own resources, like the savior with the Parka and the jumper cable) is deeply ingrained in human nature, Keillor unwittingly confesses that forced or political "compassion" is entirely superfluous at best. His recollection of the "good Samaritan" story from 2,000 years ago proves that when most humans encounter misfortune in another, they will go out of their way to help; not because it's the moral thing to do, but because doing so enhances our self-esteem and leads to a more agreeable relationship with our neighbors.

Fourth, he advances not a shred of evidence to show that that compassionate instinct is less prevalent now than it was then--yet he explicitly supports its destruction, by removing (as tax) the means to show it. Few modern trends can have more savagely hurt the human spirit Keillor admires than the politicization of welfare; to assert that "logical extension" can turn a kindly act into an entitlement funded at gunpoint has prostituted its meaning.

Fifth, although it's quite true that a huge fraction of government spending at all levels consists of transfers from the productive to the parasitic sectors, only a tiny percentage of those transfers goes to the kind of disaster-struck recipients whom Keillor picks to exemplify this alleged compassion. Down's and defective hearts, etc. occur only once in several thousand births, so for every $1 transferred to those in true, unpredictable, devastating need, at least $99 are stolen and handed over to political favorites in good health. Thus, his argument is wickedly deceptive at best.

Sixth, Keillor completely and culpably ignores the free-market way in which crippling misfortune can well be handled--as if he had never even heard the word "insurance." That is precisely what insurance is for: to shield the prudent from unexpected, unforeseeable devastation. Ever since government (with Democrats at the helm) distorted the insurance market--first in the 1930s by undercutting genuine life, sickness and retirement insurance with its grotesquely misnamed "Social Security" scheme, and then in the 1960s by causing wholly predictable physician visits to come under "insurance" policies provided by employers, taxpayers or both, has that word taken on its modern, highly misleading overtones; originally, and properly, it was intended to spread among all who volunteered to participate a heavy, rare and unpredictable risk. As such, it is perfectly capable of handling all the catastrophes Keillor notes--without recourse to taxes, compulsion or the Pols who thrive on both.

Keillor is funny when he teases us with the weekly oxymoron that in his favorite town "all children are above average"; but his contradictions here are real and deadly. Keillor is smart, but of basic economics and even of the nature of the freedom and independence which Minnesotans' forbears came from Scandinavia to find, he has shown himself profoundly ignorant. And that's the news from Lake Woebegone.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched http://TinyURL.com/QuitGov , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?"