The last thing that impressed me about Joe the Plumber is his implicit appeal to first principles. It isn't really fair to say that he is voting his wallet. He did not say who he was going to vote for, and seemed to take offense at the question itself. It was almost as if he still considered the vote to be something sacred, not to be paraded about for pollsters. What has happened to Joe since, is another matter. But for that moment, in that interview, he showed that he rejected the idea that he should vote for a fatter wallet, since even if he had been persuaded that Mr. Obama's policies would fatten his wallet (and he was not persuaded that they would), they would still amount to what he called "socialism". That's what he rejected, as unworthy of American love of liberty.
I think that Joe was right about that, but that's not my point here. I'm struck first of all that anybody can still talk about first principles. I'm convinced that if John McCain had breathed the words "liberty" and "constitution" and "tradition" once an hour, or bothered to recall some words -- almost any would do -- from Jefferson or Adams or Washington, he'd have the election in hand. Does anyone still believe even in the more lenient interpretations of the Constitution favored by Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln? All we hear is talk on who is going to "fix the economy," as if it were a leaky faucet in the bathroom; nothing about what all nations need to hear, namely what we are and what we believe and how we can breathe life again into our national virtues. Sure, some economic policies are wise and some are stupid. Raising taxes in a recessionary environment is stupid, and despite what Mr. Obama says, most of us are staring down a stiff tax hike in the near future -- when the Bush tax cuts expire, and with them various deductions; and then when sales of houses under $500,000 once more become subject to capital gains taxes; and when Mr. Obama and his party devise some way to pay for the trillion dollars in new entitlements they plan. But there are things that are more important even than a sound economy. Liberty, for instance -- and liberty has the added advantage of eventually, with modest regulation mainly to keep the market genuinely free, conducing to a sound economy.
There are some people who cannot logically appeal to first principles. Utilitarians can't; all they can do is whip out the happiness calculators, their political equivalent of a magic wand. Materialists can't; they cannot even recognize the real existence of principles, except as prejudices. Others cannot appeal to first principles, because it would be political suicide for them to do so. Mr. Obama's principles (and I do believe he has them; he is not a pragmatist; if he had been, the communities he organized might now be communities, with intact families) are of the James Cone, Saul Alinsky, William Ayres, academic race-studies sort. So I think he has to keep quiet about them.
But whence do you derive any principles at all? Aristotle would say that meditation upon human life is only possible if you have leisure. That's why, according to him, men who worked all day at laying bricks missed out on one of the greatest joys of human life. They had not the time for intellectual conversation, or for simple peace and solitude. Yet in our own day I have found matters to be curiously inverted. It may be that work with your hands -- in our day, I repeat -- gives you a half decent chance for thinking, and even for intellectual conversation. That is because it is not subject to a barrage of noise. I don't mean decibels. I mean the chatter of televisions at the airport, the meaningless e-mails, the office memos, the committee meetings, the cell phone calls about nothing, the general being-plunged into the whirlpool of the ephemeral. I see it in my profession, which really should be the last citadel for leisure. We used to believe that a liberal education was just that, a liberal education, liberating the mind from the morass of the current, giving it the free air of a hilltop from which to survey the present and the past, and to make considered judgments about what most matters in human life. We don't believe that anymore. So, for example, one of the professors at my school (and Providence College is a paragon of good health compared to most) tells his students that they are idiots for reading anything written before 1950, since none of that matters anymore. Another professor derides students for majoring in English, since there is no real knowledge you can gain from poetry. Another professor states in her short bio on our webpage that she aims to produce "student activists" -- not, I guess, students who wonder how they are supposed to act, when they are still ignorant of the World and of Mankind. Another professor tells students that human life is no more than food and sex.
These professors are all on the hard left; and they, like the left, are illiberal to the core. They can learn nothing, because their "principle," such as it is, is that there is nothing to learn about man, or nothing more to learn about man than about any mammal or any machine. A couple of weeks ago my son and I stopped after a 15 mile bike ride at a local doughnut shop. Outside the shop, at some tables and benches, were the archetypal Men at the City Gates. Most of them were old. It looked as if half of them were retired or out of work. Apparently they meet there quite a lot, where they talk politics, among other things. Their views were hearteningly unpredictable. Their ringleader, for example, calls Obama a socialist, and yet blames Ronald Reagan and the deregulation of the banking industry for the current mortgage mess. They talked history -- and not just recent history. Some of them were faithful Catholics; the ringleader was a defiant agnostic.
I'm not saying that they were an ideal portion of the electorate. Me, I'm still looking to be persuaded that there ought to be an electorate; I love liberty, and the franchise is a tool for securing liberty. But sometimes the tool turns in your hand. I'm not saying that Joe the Plumber was liberal in the sense of being free to survey the inanities of the day's fads. I'd have to talk with him for an hour to determine that. But by comparison with his interviewer, he stood forth like James Madison with a pipe wrench.