Blogs > Liberty and Power > Victor Davis Hanson v. Leonard Read

May 10, 2005 9:09 am

Victor Davis Hanson v. Leonard Read

Many libertarians and conservatives who I respect consider Victor Davis Hanson to be a top-flight scholar. I have never read his historical work so can not address this subject. I can say that Hanson's opinion pieces have never impressed me. His article yesterday for The Washington Times shows, as usual, a flair for lofty prose but, just as usual, lacks substance.

Witness the paragraph on the Churchill case:

We argue endlessly over the academic freedom of a Ward Churchill -- plagiarist and faker -- as he becomes famous for calling the 3,000 murdered on September 11, 2001,"little Eichmanns." Few in the debate pause, if just for a moment, to think of the thousands of now anonymous Americans blown apart over Berlin or on Okinawa to ensure we can freely embarrass ourselves over this charlatan.
This is trademark Hansonese: glittering on the surface but offering few specifics on hot button issues.

For example, Hanson never says, or hints, whether he supports or opposes Churchill's academic freedom, whether he supports the Academic Bill of Rights, whether he believes tenure should be preserved and how far its protections should extend, whether academic freedom, broadly interpreted, is essential to the health of a good education. Most historians, of course, are equally silent on these issues but as a scholar who has chosen to throw himself into the public arena so forcefully, Hanson owes his readers some answers.

Hanson’s essay becomes more specific when he addresses the failure of historians to teach more about the founders and the great political issues of the past. I agree.

But then he moves onto shakier ground. In trying to make a distinction between the" critical" and"trivial," he betrays his ultimate reverence for the history of the American state, as personified by politicians he admires, over the history of how ordinary individuals ultimately provided the basis for American prosperity:

The history of the pencil, girdle or cartoon offers us less wisdom about events, past and present, than does knowledge of U.S. Grant, the causes of the Great Depression or the miracle of Normandy Beach. A society that cannot distinguish between the critical and the trivial of history predictably will also believe a Scott Peterson merits as much attention as the simultaneous siege of Fallujah, or that a presidential press conference should be pre-empted for Paris Hilton or Donald Trump.

Hanson's disparagement of the"history of the pencil" betrays a worldview that is fundamentally at odds with the tradition of freedom represented by Thomas Jefferson (at his best), Rose Wilder Lane, Friedrich A. Hayek, and Ludwig Von Mises. Unfortunately it is worldview that is rubbing off on libertarians who embrace the Bushian dream of entrusting the American state to bring"liberty" to every corner of the planet.

The contrast with Leonard E. Read's famous essay, "I, Pencil," is especially telling. For Read, the"miracle" of spontaneous order that produced a single pencil was far more significant than a thousand"miracles" of statecraft:

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that's too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculous ness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Hat tip, Ralph Luker, who also has some perceptive comments on the Hanson piece.

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David Timothy Beito - 5/9/2005

I agree than Hanson did not intend to diss Read. He probably has never heard of Read and "I, Pencil." If he had, I doubt he would have used that particular example.

Hanson's popularity among many libertarians and free market conservatives is due to the fact that he generally takes great care not to alienate them with specifics. Hence, I suspect that his reference to the pencil is best viewed as a revealing rhetorical slip than as an intentional diss.

Still, the fact that he said it, and said it in the way he did, speaks volumes about his worldview and how it differs from ours.

Matt Barganier - 5/9/2005


Matt Barganier - 5/9/2005

I just Googled the following words and phrases on VDH's site ( Hayek, Mises, Milton Friedman, spontaneous order. No returns. I agree that VDH probably didn't mean to diss Leonard Read, because I doubt he knows who Read was. Of course, Hanson would reply that all of these people/topics are outside of his field, but does anyone doubt that Hanson's view of war and the state might be quite different (or at least more comprehensive) if he were better acquainted with them? Isn't his critique of cultural studies/social history programs that they turn out students with narrow worldviews and a dearth of analytical tools?

Aeon J. Skoble - 5/9/2005

Um, guys, I think I'm going to have to defend Hanson here. I don't think he was denigrating the miracle of spontaneous orders, or the use of the example of a pencil by Read to illustrate it. His point is that education is in some sense a zero-sum game -- college students only take x number of classes, and so for every course on the cultural history of lingerie or whatever, that's one less chance to study Thucydides. And that's true. Now maybe he's being overly curmudgeonly, and I think there's probably some value in some of the stuff he's trying to discredit -- but some of it, surely, _is_ trivia or fluff, and meanwhile they end up with _no_ courses on Thucydides. And it's true, isn't it, that our society as a whole _does_ tend to fixate more on the Scott Petersons than on the Fallujahs. And both hawks and doves can agree, I should think, that this isn't healthy. He's being a bit hyperbolic, IMO, but just a bit. His overall point about the state of higher ed is a sound one. And I can't imagine he meant to diss Leonard Read.

David Timothy Beito - 5/9/2005

Thanks! He gave me the knife (err pencil) and I went from there.

Mark Brady - 5/9/2005