Jon Stewart on NPR

I happened to catch the last few minutes of an interview with Jon Stewart on NPR on last Friday’s afternoon drive home.

The interviewer asked Stewart to describe a time when he felt it all came together for him on his show.

Stewart described a time after 9/11 when he said Democrats let their political wills get in the way of a “no-brainer” decision.  They held up legislation to pay the medical costs of the heroes of 9/11.  Stewart said that looking at that frustrating situation through the lens of comedy was helpful.

As I listened, I was reminded of how I use to think about government long ago and just how from that I am now.

Stewart was frustrated with government and Democrats of the time.  He couldn’t fathom how they could let their own motivations stand in the way of doing something that seemed so right.  I use to think like that too. I was 20 years old then.  Everything seemed simple to me.  Government should do the right things and not do the wrong things.

And, of course, I was the perfect judge of what those things were!  And, of course, I had no qualms using government to force my fellow citizens to fund or participate in the right solutions.  Why wouldn’t they?  It’s their responsibility! And, of course, I could never be wrong.

Unlike Stewart, though, I learned over the past couple decades because I asked some simple questions and sought out the answers to those questions.  And, I often considered that I could be wrong (and still do).

I’d ask and look for answers to questions like:

Why didn’t that work the way I thought it should?

Why do we seem fairly well satisfied with goods and services made available to us through free markets while we bitch and moan nonstop about government? And if you don’t think we bitch and moan about government, tell me why there are three radio stations in my market dedicated to political discussions nearly 24/7 and none dedicated to discussing goods and services provided by the free market.  Or explain to me why Stewart’s show itself–which focuses heavily on political satire–is so successful.

Why is it when politicians win elections, they seem to behave differently than we thought they would?

Why is government unable to fix things that aren’t working well (e.g. public education)?

Instead of answering these questions, Stewart learned how to poke fun at news events in a way that sounds reasonable, funny and entertaining to people who share the viewpoints I held when I was 20. 

On the NPR program, Stewart described one key problem with politics (though I don’t think he realized it)–it’s an ineffective way to get what you want.  And, that’s exactly why it’s so juicy to talk about.

Economist Walter Williams explains why politics is so heated in his column, Bitter Partisan Politics.

I like the Lexus LS 460. I also like Dell computers. Many other people have a different set of preferences. Some might prefer a Cadillac and an HP computer while others prefer a Chrysler and IBM computer. With these strong preferences for particular cars and computers, we never see people arguing or fighting in an effort to impose their preferences for cars and computers on other people. There’s car and computer peace. Why?

You buy the car and computer that you want; I do likewise and we remain friends.

Suppose our car and computer choices were made in the political arena through representative democracy or through a plebiscite where majority ruled. We would decide collectively whether our cars would be Lexuses or Cadillacs or Chryslers. We also would decide collectively whether our computer would be a Dell or HP or IBM computer.

I guarantee you there would be nasty, bitter conflict between otherwise peaceful car and computer buyers. Each person would have reason to enter into conflict with those having different car and computer tastes because one person’s win would necessarily be another person’s loss.

Try a simple experiment the next time you go out to eat with a group of friends.  Tell everyone they must order the same drink and size and they will vote on what that drink is.  Majority wins.  Then keep doing it.  The first time, people may give in for the sake of the group.  But, if you keep doing it, eventually it will raise hostilities.  Those giving up their drink preference for the group’s decision will not tolerate it for long.

It never seems to occur to folks like Stewart that there are better ways to get the end result they want without relying on the government.  They continue to complain about politicians doing EXACTLY WHAT WE ALL DO (including Stewart)–and that is take care of our self-interests and satisfy our preferences.  We want to order the drink we like.

Thomas Sowell also explained well in his book, Applied Economics, why political decision-making is so contentious and ineffective, which I excerpted in this post last March.

Folks like Oprah mistake Stewart as a smart guy who should be listened to for political commentary rather than seeing him for what he really is, a talented entertainer.  I’d recommend Oprah invite folks like Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Don Boudreaux and Russ Roberts if she’s looking for smart people with good political commentary.  Better yet, I’d love to see any of these guys on the same show as Stewart to counter his points directly.

I see Stewart as guy who puts a dime in a vending machine where drinks cost a dollar and is perplexed that the vending machine won’t give him a Coke.  He proclaims that it should work.  He makes jokes about it and builds a TV show around those jokes.  He has a good act.  He’s developed such an aura of confidence and condescending that he can sell a bunch of people on his belief that when he puts a dime in the vending machine, it should workIt’s absurd that it doesn’t!  Putting a dime in the machine is a “no-brainer”.

It never seems to occur to Stewart that he may be wrong.  Perhaps we shouldn’t expect government to solve our problems.  Perhaps we should look closer at private, unforced solutions and less at public, forced dictates.

That way, instead of using government to impose his will on the rest of us and moaning when politicians don’t agree with him, Jon can easily help solve the problem.  He can contribute to the cause voluntarily and use his air time and celebrity to encourage his fans to donate as well.

Given the outpouring of voluntary giving following events like the Tsunami, Katrina and the Haiti earthquake, I think we should learn that such efforts can solve problems and we should encourage more of that.

6 thoughts on “Jon Stewart on NPR

  1. Great post.

    “He couldn’t fathom how they could let their own motivations stand in the way of doing something that seemed so right.”
    That’s pretty much modern Liberalism in a nutshell. I think the reason they can’t fathom it, is because they aren’t as smart as they think they are.

    • Thanks ZH.

      “they aren’t as smart as they think they are.”

      I agree. Thinking one is smart is an impediment to learning. It blocks the feedback that shows you are wrong. I know very smart people who aren’t very wise because they’ve blocked that feedback for a long time.

      I can imagine them lodging the same complaint against us (we’re not as smart as we think we are). I like to point out that I started learning a lot more after I realized that I can be wrong.

  2. “Perhaps we should look closer at private, unforced solutions and less at public, forced dictates.”

    I’m not sure what you mean here. Can you clarify?


    I contend that saying, “government should do the right things and not the wrong things,” is not all together bad. I think you make the point well, that the nature of how you define what is right, is the source of most problems.

    Part of the trouble with correctly defining what is right is to assume that there is only one right and the the government will be able to achieve that single solution. Partisan politics suffers from this delusion as a part of its daily ritual. Liberals will defend a single point and Conservatives will counter with the opposite. When you see groups come together, debate and form a third idea – or a fourth, fifth, sixth, etc., when the preceeding idea does not fit – then you will have a government which will be less the target of bickering and more the target of praise.

    Walter Williams gets it right when he states that one “person’s win would necessarily be another person’s loss.” His statement lays out the difference between the US government and the US free market system. On a large scale, I as an individual am able to purchase a Dell without forcing another computer buyer to have a Dell. Decisions made within government, however, are all part of a one-way street. Currently, we have two streets and each new decision will be placed on either street depending on a majority vote.


    As a separate issue: I would love to see television or radio programs that offer solutions to political problems, rather than just commentary. I’m talking about complete ideas which are debated and fleshed out over the course of several hour-long shows. At first, you may see ideas as completely reactionary to the day’s politics, much like almost all commentary shows. After a while though I think that the most popular shows would be able to include prominent political members as well as the public.

    • Hi bovis – If government passes legislation to pay the medical expenses of 9/11 heroes, it is forcing taxpayers to cover that cost.

      If Jon Stewart sets up a private charity to pay the medical expenses of 9/11 heroes and asks for donations, that is a private, unforced solution. It’s voluntary.

      Thanks for the comment.

    • To your last point, I would love to see discussion get past the explosive and fallacious sound bites and get more into the real substance of issues.

      I wouldn’t characterize critical thinking as a strong suit of our society.

      • ‘I wouldn’t characterize critical thinking as a strong suit of our society.’

        you think? =]

        this gets right down to the law vs. legislation example from a few posts ago.
        from my minority (athiest) perspective, we live in a theocracy that can’t get god off the currency or out of the schools.


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