A conversation with Christopher DeMuth

In the newly posted installment of Conversations with Bill Kristol, we meet up with the formidable public intellectual Christopher DeMuth (complete video below, broken into six chapters here, transcript here). As president of the American Enterprise Institute from 1986 to 2008, DeMuth built AEI into a powerhouse. He currently serves as a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute.

In this conversation, Kristol and DeMuth discuss political thinkers including Edward C. Banfield, James Q. Wilson, and Friedrich Hayek, and consider how ideas shape public policy. DeMuth also relates his story of a chance encounter with then-Senator Barack Obama in which they discussed Chicago politics. (Spoiler alert: the story doesn’t have a happy ending.)

Quotable quote: “The Obamacare implementation of the past seven or eight months is a sort of civics education course to the entire public about unintended consequences and how government says it’s doing this but it’s actually doing the opposite. Many things that were supposed to be getting better are getting worse.”

One more: “These [big government welfare] programs are not succeeding on the merits, they’re succeeding on power. And we’ve made a new discovery which is actually post- the work of these people that we’ve been discussing and that is that we can borrow money, not for emergencies or investment, which is what we used to do, but we can borrow money to finance transfer programs. In other words, current consumption. And once that gets going and the public gets used to the fact that the government is providing more benefits today than taxes to pay for those benefits, you’ve built a new engine.”

This is an incredibly rich conversation providing a short course in politics and public policy taught by someone who has thought deeply about them. DeMuth is, not coincidentally, the author of the best article I have read this year in politics/public policy —“Our democratic debt,” published this summer in National Review — and he persuades me that we must complete the required reading for his short course. Discussing these books (and one essay), DeMuth delights as he instructs:

Edward C. Banfield, Here the People Rule and The Unheavenly City (unfortunately, these books appear to have become collector’s items);

James Q. Wilson, Bureaucracy (see also the site devoted to Wilson); and

Friedrich Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society” (“this one article ended all pretensions of socialism”) and The Constitution of Liberty.