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.